On the eve of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, the 39-year-old Baptist preacher stood in the pulpit named in honor of a Baptist-turned-Pentecostal reformer. It was from this sacred place that King rhetorically connected his public ministry to that of Moses. Like the great Old Testament deliverer, God allowed King to see the Promised Land he would not enter. This dramatic close to his message resonated with the audience on April 3, 1968, and it still resonates with the succeeding generations who hear King’s words as a prophecy to his death a day later.
I am fascinated with what many call “The Mountaintop” speech. I am also dazzled by the less noticeable features at work in that glorious moment fifty years ago. Charles Harrison Mason Temple Church of God in Christ, known simply as Mason Temple, the church in which King delivered his last public message, is a monument to the reformer who kindled a spiritual movement back in the 1890s.
Finding black Baptist churches in need of revitalization, Mason, along with Charles Price Jones and other pastors, traveled throughout Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee preaching the gospel of holiness: that those who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit, may in this life become fully Christlike. In 1907, Mason attended the Azusa Street Revival meetings and returned to Mississippi with the “Pentecostal blessing,” or speaking in other tongues as the Spirit gave the utterance. This controversial experience would split him from other black Holiness Preachers and lead Mason to establish what is now the largest African-American Pentecostal denomination: Church of God in Christ.
Holiness and tongues were not the only issues that distanced Mason from his fellow Baptists, however. In a time in which there was growing embarrassment about the worship practices of enslaved Africans, many educated Baptists sought to rid their churches of all emotionalism and supernaturalism that reminded them of antebellum life. Talk of dreams and visions, and shouting and clapping in ecstasy were renounced and forbidden. White missionaries from the North told the “new Negroes” that if they were to be pleasing to God and acceptable to society, they had to grow up into respectable and enlightened religious sensibilities.
Old-Time Religion or High Brow Religion?
Against these admonitions, Mason found beauty and power in the “old-time religion” of his enslaved ancestors and revitalized it in the context of the Church of God in Christ. Loud cries, holy dancing, and the employment of just about any musical instrument for congregational worship led learned students of the black church to call COGIC, at best, a sect, and, at worst, a cult. B Mason saw the movement as a Spirit-driven affirmation of black bodies created in the image of God.
That King, then, a lettered clergyman, was standing in the house of praise constructed and consecrated by mostly unlettered folk was itself a miracle when one understands what Raphael Warnock calls the “divided mind” of the black church.
Mason’s protest against “high brow religion,” as Zora Neale Hurston called it, was itself a kind of interior liberation that would impact the way few in the Holiness Pentecostal movement engaged in the freedom struggle. COGIC’s resistance to conforming to white middle-class expectations for blacks in their worship was an act of self-determination, a statement of one’s creatureliness before the Triune God, who alone judges the living and the dead. That Mason did not accept the impositions of the white gaze makes COGIC an experiment in post-colonial freedom. How can one be truly free if she or he is not free to worship in spirit and in truth? Throwing off the mental shackles of “respectable” religion, Mason’s movement is something that should be taken seriously by any freedom fighter today.
I traveled to Memphis for #MLK50 and my first stop was Mason Temple. As I sat in the sanctuary, listening to various labor and civil rights activists speak about the need for freedom movements today, it did not escape me that the I AM 2018 Mountaintop Conference was co-sponsored by Mason’s denomination. Bishop Charles Blake and several COGIC leaders came to Memphis to pay respects to King in the building where King delivered his last message. They also recommitted themselves to the movement many of them were immersed in during the 1950s and ‘60s.
As someone shaped by both Baptist and Pentecostal contexts, I know both traditions have more in common than they would like to believe. They both have something to offer each other for the sake of freedom movements today. If we are going to have a strong church-based movement now, it must be one that organizes around a pneumatology of freedom, that is, a doctrine of the Holy Spirit that takes seriously the ways in which the Spirit liberates us from sin, shame, and social oppression.
The Spirit poured out on all flesh is the same Spirit who anointed Jesus to preach the gospel to the poor (Luke 4:18-19) and who enables men and women to prophesy (Acts 2:17). The Spirit who illumines the Scripture also enables us to bear credible witness to the whole counsel of God. The Spirit sovereignly distributes gifts to the entire Body of Christ and frees us to worship the Triune God with our bodies.
This nation fears nothing more than a church on fire with the Holy Spirit, a church that brings all the poor in spirit and poor in resources together in common fellowship for kingdom business. I am all for a Pentecostal outpouring that will help us, especially black believers, to be fully alive, fully woke, and fully daring. With sanctified imaginations, we too can see new promises in this land, fifty years after the Spirit uttered prophetic words through the mouth of a Baptist preacher communicating in a Pentecostal pulpit.