By Darrin J. Rodgers
It is well-known that the interracial Azusa Street Revival (1906-1909), a focal point of the emerging Pentecostal movement, was led by an African-American pastor, William J. Seymour. However, the African-American heritage of the Assemblies of God has often been overlooked.
Most of the approximately 300 ministers who organized the Assemblies of God in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in April 1914 were white. (At least two were Native American.) However, African-Americans played important roles in the early decades of the Assemblies of God – at the first few general council meetings and as pastors, evangelists, and missionaries. They overcame racism (including from fellow believers), they led consecrated lives, and they helped to lay the foundation for the Fellowship. Their stories are our stories. The following vignettes offer a glimpse into the lives and ministries of these sometimes unsung heroes.
- William J. Seymour (1870-1922)
William J. Seymour, a mild-mannered African-American Holiness preacher, is remembered as one of the most important figures in twentieth century American religious history. Just 111 years ago, he founded the Apostolic Faith Mission on Azusa Street in Los Angeles, which became home to the famed Azusa Street Revival. Hundreds of millions of Pentecostals around the world, including those in the Assemblies of God, view Seymour as a spiritual father. He would probably be surprised by the attention, as during his lifetime he was often marginalized, even within Pentecostal circles. But his persistent encouragements toward holiness, humility, racial reconciliation, and evangelism continue to shine as founding ideals of the Pentecostal movement.
- Charles H. Mason (1864-1961)
Few early Pentecostals were as widely respected and admired as Charles H. Mason, founder of the Church of God in Christ. While the Church of God in Christ was a largely African-American Pentecostal denomination, Mason also credentialed numerous white ministers, some of whom ended up joining the Assemblies of God. Mason spoke at and blessed the founding general council of the Assemblies of God, and he also brought his black gospel choir from Lexington, Mississippi. E. N. Bell, the founding chairman of the Assemblies of God, called Mason “a real prophet of God.”
- Garfield T. Haywood (1880-1931)
G.T. Haywood was the African-American pastor of the largest Pentecostal congregation in Indianapolis in the early decades of the twentieth century. He was also a noted theologian, author, songwriter, cartoonist, and inventor. His influence stretched far, and his congregation was racially mixed. The first issue of the Christian Evangel (later Pentecostal Evangel) included three articles by or about Haywood. He was invited to speak on the 1915 general council floor to represent the Oneness position, even though he never held Assemblies of God credentials. Haywood went on to serve as presiding bishop of the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, a racially mixed Oneness Pentecostal denomination.
- Ellsworth S. Thomas (1866-1936)
Ellsworth S. Thomas holds the distinction of being the first African-American to hold Assemblies of God ministerial credentials. His name was just a footnote in the history books until recently, when new information came to light. His parents, a Civil War veteran and a laundress, were part of a free black community in Binghamton, New York, that pre-existed the Civil War. By 1900, Ellsworth had become an itinerant evangelist, he was ordained in 1913 by a Pentecostal church in Buffalo, New York, and he transferred his ordination to the Assemblies of God in 1915. He remained a faithful Assemblies of God minister until his death at age 70.
- Isaac S. Neeley (1865-1923) and Martha (Mattie) A. Board Neeley (1866-1940s?)
Isaac and Martha Neeley were married late in life (in 1905) and became the first African-Americans to serve as Assemblies of God missionaries. They went to Liberia in 1913 under the auspices of Howard A. Goss’s largely-white Pentecostal fellowship, the Church of God in Christ (which was distinct from Charles H. Mason’s group by the same name). They transferred their credentials to the Assemblies of God in 1920 when they were home on furlough and received missionary appointment to Liberia in 1923. Isaac died just before they were set to leave, and Martha proceeded alone to Cape Palmas, where she was in charge of Bethel Home.
- Cornelia Jones Robertson (1891-1967)
Cornelia Jones Robertson, an African American participant at the Azusa Street Revival, was ordained in 1909 and became a popular evangelist and preached at churches across the nation. She transferred her credentials to the Assemblies of God in 1923 and settled in San Francisco, where she became a church planter and evangelist. She ran the Barbary Coast Mission for 14 years and is credited for helping 100,000 people in need. She was one of few African Americans listed in the predecessor to the San Francisco Social Register.
- Thoro Harris (1874-1955)
Early Pentecostals loved gospel music, and Thoro Harris was one of their favorite song writers. He published countless songbooks and composed over 500 songs, including “Jesus Loves the Little Children” (1921), “All That Thrills My Soul is Jesus” (1931), and “He’s Coming Soon” (1944). Harris, an African-American, moved seamlessly in both white and black circles, as well as in both Holiness and Pentecostal churches. He made a substantial impact on Assemblies of God hymnody in its early decades.
- Lillian Kraeger (1884-1964)
Lillian Kraeger, a young single white woman, felt called to Africa as a missionary. She never made it to Africa, but instead became an unlikely Assemblies of God missionary to African-Americans in Harlem. Lillian was heartbroken when her Assemblies of God church in New York City rejected the membership applications of two young African American girls on account of their skin color. She did not want the girls to fall away from the Lord, so in 1916 she began traveling to Harlem to hold Bible studies. The studied blossomed and grew into Bethel Gospel Assembly, which is now the largest congregation in the United Pentecostal Council of the Assemblies of God, the African-American denomination which formed a cooperative alliance with the Assemblies of God in 2014.
- Eddie Washington (1916-2008)
Eddie Washington and his twin brother, Billie, were raised in a cruel orphanage in Rhode Island. They hoped for a reprieve when they went to a foster home at age 14. But when they accepted Christ at a Pentecostal church, their occultist foster mother beat them until their heads bled and forbade them to attend church again. They disobeyed, went back to church, and were filled with the Holy Spirit. Their foster mother, now afraid of them because she could tell that they had spiritual power, left them alone. The twins prepared for the ministry at Zion Bible Institute and entered the evangelistic ministry. Eddie and his wife, Ruth, joined the Assemblies of God and became well known African-American evangelists and missionaries.
- Bob Harrison (1928-2012)
When Bob Harrison felt a call to the ministry, he naturally turned to the Assemblies of God. His godmother, Cornelia Jones Robertson, was a pioneer African-American Assemblies of God minister. He graduated from an Assemblies of God Bible college in 1951, but he was denied credentials on account of his race, ironically, by the same district that ordained his godmother. Harrison quickly rose in prominence in evangelical circles. He joined the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in 1960 and traveled the world as an evangelist. In 1962, he became the catalyst for overturning a policy, instituted in 1939, that forbade the ordination of African-Americans at the national level. Harrison, in his new role as an ordained Assemblies of God minister, became a visible proponent of working across the racial divides.
These and countless other African-American Pentecostals have made a significant impact on the Assemblies of God. In 2015, almost ten percent of Assemblies of God USA members – 308,520 people – were black. As a whole, ethnic minorities accounted for 43 percent of Assemblies of God adherents in the United States. The Assemblies of God, an heir of the Azusa Street Revival, consists of people from varied racial backgrounds who have come together in the power of the Holy Spirit to glorify Christ and to further His Kingdom.
Do you have Pentecostal historical materials that should be preserved? Please consider depositing these materials at the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center (FPHC). The FPHC, located in the Assemblies of God national offices, is the largest Pentecostal archive in the world. We would like to preserve and make your treasures accessible to those who write the history books.
Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center
1445 North Boonville Avenue
Springfield, Missouri 65802 USA
Phone: 417.862.1447 ext. 4400
Toll Free: 877.840.5200