Tag Archives: Black History Month

The First African American Assemblies of God Missionaries: Isaac and Martha Neeley

Isaac and Martha Neeley passport photos, 1919

By Darrin J. Rodgers

Isaac and Martha Neeley were the first African Americans to be appointed as Assemblies of God (AG) missionaries. Isaac S. Neeley was born on August 4, 1865 near Salisbury, North Carolina.[1] Martha A. Board was born on May 3, 1866 in Princeton, Indiana.[2] They married in their late thirties on April 25, 1905, in Chicago.[3] Martha had one child who died before the age of five.[4]

The Neeleys became very active at the Stone Church, an early Pentecostal revival center in Chicago, in about 1908. They were highly regarded at the church, which was mostly white. An article in the church’s monthly magazine, the Latter Rain Evangel, called them “an indispensable adjunct of the Stone Church.”[5]

Martha felt called to missions work at a young age. Her father was connected with a colonization society that encouraged free blacks in the United States to move to Liberia. As a child she heard stories about Liberia that “stirred her heart.” After Isaac felt a call to missions at a Stone Church missions convention in about 1910, the couple began preparing themselves to serve in Liberia.[6]

L. C. Hall, a Pentecostal minister who lived in Zion City, Illinois, ordained the Neeleys as missionaries on November 30, 1913. The ordination was 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).[7]

The Neeleys set sail for Liberia, where they lived from January 25, 1914[8] until June 1, 1919.[9] They served with the Liberia Interior Mission, which consisted of American and Canadian missionaries from various denominational backgrounds, all of whom had the Pentecostal experience. A history of the mission described the organization:

“We represent Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregational, Baptist, Dunkard, Mennonite, Quakers, Pentecostal-Holiness, Mission People and Gospel Workers. So you see we are a sort of mixture, but no dispute has ever arisen in our ranks. We make the Bible the chief book, and strive to live simple and Christian lives. We baptize by immersion. All believe in the Pentecostal Experience, as received on the day of Pentecost.”[10]

The Neeleys received financial support from the Stone Church, as well as from donations mailed to the Latter Rain Evangel. The Neeleys kept their supporters informed of their missions activities through published missionary letters in the Latter Rain Evangel.[11]

The organization that ordained the Neeleys in 1913, the Church of God in Christ, dissolved when most of its leaders helped to organize the AG in April 1914. The Neeleys, however, did not transfer their ordination to the AG during their tenure in Liberia. They may have been following the example of the Stone Church, which remained independent even while becoming closely associated with the AG. The Stone Church hosted two general council meetings (November 1914 and September 1919) but did not formally affiliated with the AG until 1940.[12]

The Neeleys returned from Liberia to Chicago in the summer of 1919. Soon after their return, the Neeleys attended the September 1919 general council, which was hosted by the Stone Church. The following year, in May 1920, the Neeleys received AG credentials as evangelists from the Illinois District, endorsed by Hardy Mitchell, pastor of the Stone Church.[13]

According to an article in the Latter Rain Evangel, the Neeleys became active in ministry at the “Colored Mission on Langley Avenue.”[14] This mission was probably the Pentecostal congregation started by Lucy Smith, an black Baptist woman who was baptized in the Holy Spirit in 1914 at the Stone Church. Smith began her ministry in 1916 out of her apartment and a small flock developed, which organized in the 1930s as All Nations Pentecostal Church.[15] According to Isaac Neeley’s ministerial file, he served as an associate pastor in 1923, presumably at Smith’s mission. When the Neeleys felt called to return to Liberia later in 1923, he directed correspondence to be sent to Lucy Smith.[16]

The Neeleys received AG missionary appointment to Liberia in 1923. Isaac suffered a stroke on December 7, 1923, and died on the following day, shortly before their planned departure.[17]

An article in the Latter Rain Evangel lauded the fallen missionary:

“His funeral was one of the most blessed we have ever attended. It seemed more like a celebration of his Coronation Day than a funeral. Ministerial brethren and others from all over the city gave fitting tributes to the noble life laid down in the service of God. One of the most striking tributes to his life was given by the barber in the neighborhood as he told of Brother Neeley’s life and its effect upon all with whom he came in contact. Brother Neeley lived the life of the Lord Jesus daily; whether on the platform or doing some menial task, his heart was always filled with praises.”[18]

Martha proceeded alone in 1924 to Cape Palmas, Liberia, where she was in charge of Bethel Home, a rest home for missionaries founded in 1913. She took over the work from “Mr. and Mrs. Howard,” who had been granted furlough.[19] Her predecessors were probably Alexander and Margaret Howard, African American Pentecostals from Chicago who had been sent as missionaries to Liberia in 1920 by the United Pentecostal Council of the Assemblies of God, an African American Pentecostal group with roots in the AG. The Howards had also served at Bethel Home.[20]

The Latter Rain Evangel and the Pentecostal Evangel published a number of articles by or about Martha between 1924 and 1928. The final note in her ministerial file states she returned to America from Liberia on July 1, 1930.[21] She apparently did not renew her AG credentials. She returned to Liberia again at some point between 1930 and 1935, as passenger lists in November 1935 state that she sailed from Liberia to New York.[22] Martha A. Neeley seemingly disappeared from the historical record after 1935.

Missions has always been central to the identity of the AG. This focus on missions was probably why veteran missionaries Isaac and Martha Neeley became credentialed with the Fellowship in 1920. In 1923, when they became the first black AG missionaries, they were helping to fulfill the resolution adopted at the November 1914 general council at the Stone Church, committing the AG to achieve “the greatest evangelism the world has ever seen.”[23] People from all races and backgrounds were expected to participate in this commitment to world evangelization. May this same commitment continue to animate the Assemblies of God today!

Adapted from: Darrin J. Rodgers, “The Untold Stories of Three Black Assemblies of God Pioneers,” Assemblies of God Heritage 39/40 (2019-2020): 37-41.


[1] Isaac Neeley, U.S. Passport Application, May 15, 1919. Ancestry.com.

[2] Martha Neeley, U.S. Passport Application, March 31, 1924. Ancestry.com.

[3] Cook County, Illinois, Marriages Index. Ancestry.com.

[4] 1910 U.S. Federal Census. District 0233, Chicago Ward 03, Cook Co., Illinois, 13B.

[5] Latter Rain Evangel, November 1913, 3.

[6] Latter Rain Evangel, November 1913, 3; Martha’s father may have been influenced by Washington Graham, pastor of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Princeton, Indiana, and a prominent supporter of missions work in Liberia. Alesia Elaine McFadden, The Artistry and Activism of Shirley Graham Du Bois: A Twentieth Century African American Torchbearer. (Ph. D. Diss, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 2009), 96, 139.

[7] Isaac and Martha Neeley, ministerial files, FPHC.

[8] Isaac Neeley, U.S. Passport Application, May 15, 1919. Ancestry.com.

[9] Martha Neeley, U.S. Passport Application, March 31, 1924. Ancestry.com.

[10] Report of the Liberia Interior Mission, 1908-1916, 3. FPHC.

[11] “First Hardships as a Missionary,” Latter Rain Evangel, April 1914, 11-12; “Wonderful Outpouring of the Spirit in West Africa,” Latter Rain Evangel, April 1914, 22-24; Isaac and Martha Neeley, “Working with Christ in West Africa and the Results,” Latter Rain Evangel, March 1917, 21-22; Martha Neeley, “Blackest Night in the Dark Continent,” Latter Rain Evangel, March 1918, 22-24; Martha Neeley, “The Native African’s Ready Response to Divine Healing,” Latter Rain Evangel, August 1919, 8-10; Isaac Neeley, “Miraculous Deliverances from Demon Possession,” Latter Rain Evangel, August 1919, 10-11.

[12] Stone Church: 100 Years, 1906-2006 (Palos Heights, IL: Stone Church, 2006), 6.

[13] Isaac and Martha Neeley, ministerial files, FPHC.

[14] Latter Rain Evangel, February 1924, 14.

[15] Glenn Gohr, “Elder Lucy Smith of Chicago,” Assemblies of God Heritage 28 (2008): 63-64.

[16] Isaac Neeley, ministerial file, FPHC.

[17] Latter Rain Evangel, February 1924, 14.

[18] Latter Rain Evangel, February 1924, 14.

[19] “Receiving Home in Liberia,” Pentecostal Evangel, December 6, 1924, 11; Christ’s Ambassadors Monthly, October 1929, 12.

[20] Ironically, in 1917 Alexander Howard had reportedly been denied AG missionary appointment on account of his race, which led the Howards to instead affiliate with the UPCAG. Alexander R. Howard, The U.P.C. Mission Work in Liberia, West Africa and Striking Incidents in Mission Work Among Heathen Tribes (New York, NY: the author, [1932?]), 4; Herman L. Greene, UPCAG – The First 90 Years: Volume 1: 1919-1945 (Sussex, NJ: GEDA, 2005), 7-11; Ogbu Kalu, African Pentecostalism: An Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 51-53; Scott Harrup, “A Larger Family,” Pentecostal Evangel, January 16, 2011, 8.

[21] Martha Neeley, ministerial file, FPHC.

[22] Immigration and Emigration Records. Ancestry.com.

[23] General Council Minutes, November 1914, 12.

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
Email: archives@ag.org
Website: www.iFPHC.org

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The First African American Assemblies of God Minister: Ellsworth S. Thomas

From the Ellsworth S. Thomas ministerial file, FPHC

by Darrin J. Rodgers

Ellsworth S. Thomas (1866-1936) holds the distinction of being the first African American to hold Assemblies of God (AG) ministerial credentials. His name was just a footnote in the history books until recently, when new information came to light.

Ellsworth S. Thomas was born in March 1866 in New York. His parents, Samuel and Mahala, were part of a free black community in Binghamton, New York, that pre-existed the Civil War. They overcame racism and societal restrictions, developed strong families, and carved out their own religious, economic, and social niche in the region.[1]

Samuel was born in Maryland in 1830 and worked as a laborer. He was also a Civil War veteran, serving for three years (1863-1865) as a private in the Massachusetts 54th Infantry. Ellsworth was born about nine months after his father returned home from the war.[2] Mahala was born in 1842 in Pennsylvania and worked as a laundress.[3] According to the 1880 census, Ellsworth was partially blind.[4] He attended common school,[5] which probably consisted of local blacks who joined together and made private arrangements to hire a teacher.[6] After Samuel passed away in the early 1890s, Ellsworth lived with his mother and cared for her. She died on April 24, 1913.[7] Census records show that Ellsworth owned a modest house (valued at $2,000 in 1930) and that most of his neighbors were white.[8] He never married.[9]

Binghamton city directories from 1888-1892 reveal that Ellsworth was a laundryman and a laborer. Beginning in 1899, though, they listed his occupation as a traveling evangelist.[10] His name first appeared in the AG ministers’ directory in October 1915, which stated that he was a “colored” pastor in Binghamton.[11]

In 1917, AG leaders asked existing ministers to re-submit applications for credentials, apparently because paperwork had not been kept during the earliest years of the Fellowship. Robert Brown, influential pastor of Glad Tidings Tabernacle in New York City, endorsed Ellsworth’s 1917 application. On the application, Ellsworth stated that he was originally ordained on December 7, 1913, by Robert E. Erdman, a Pentecostal pastor from Buffalo, New York.[12]

Records at the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center show that Thomas pastored a congregation in Beaver Meadows, New York, from about 1917 until about 1922. He remained an AG evangelist for the remainder of his life. He held evangelistic meetings in the area around Binghamton, he held regular services in his home, and he pastored again briefly in about 1926.[13] He also was a regular speaker in the 1930s at two other black churches in Binghamton—Shiloh Baptist Church and Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.[14]

A 1936 letter from Paul Westendorf informed the Pentecostal Evangel of Ellsworth’s death on June 12, 1936. He was 70 years old and passed away in Binghamton after a serious illness. Westendorf wrote,

He has been in the Council Fellowship for many years and so will be remembered throughout the Eastern District. Brother Thomas was faithful and true to the Lord in all kinds of circumstances, serving Him with gladness, therefore we feel that he had an abundant entrance in the presence of the Lord.[15]

Thomas’s funeral was held in Christ Episcopal Church in Binghamton, the oldest Episcopal congregation in the city, with the church’s pastor, Theodore J. Dewees, officiating. Thomas was buried in the Christ Episcopal Church plot in Spring Forest Cemetery.[16]

The newsletter of the Eastern District (which included Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York, and New Jersey) noted Thomas’s passing:

Brother Ellsworth S. Thomas has been taken home to glory, but very little has been learned about the details. His funeral was conducted by the rector of Christ Church, Episcopal, in Binghamton…Many will remember Brother Ellsworth as a Bible teacher and some of the ministers will remember the fellowship we had with Brother Thomas one morning before meetings opened up, at the council in Rochester years ago, when we all sang “He’s Coming in Power” and Brother Thomas got to dancing in the Spirit, while he held onto a near-by [sic] door because of his almost being blind. He is one more of our number who is on the other side![17]

Ellsworth S. Thomas’s passing was also briefly noted on page 13 of the July 25, 1936, issue of the Pentecostal Evangel.[18] A photograph of Thomas has not been located.

When Ellsworth S. Thomas transferred his ordination to the AG in 1915, the Fellowship was only a year old. He probably did not know that he was the AG’s first credentialed black minister. Thomas became known throughout the Eastern District for his Bible teaching and for his good cheer despite the obstacles he faced, including partial blindness. He never pastored a large congregation, but he was faithful where God placed him. Over the years, memories of this pioneer dimmed. However, Ellsworth S. Thomas remains an example, not just for black ministers, but for all who desire to follow Christ wholeheartedly.

Adapted from: Darrin J. Rodgers, “The Untold Stories of Three Black Assemblies of God Pioneers,” Assemblies of God Heritage 39/40 (2019-2020): 37-41.


[1] Keisha N. Benjamin, “Free Blacks in Nineteenth Century Binghamton,” Binghamton Journal of History 6 (2006).

[2] U.S., Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles, 1861-1865. Ancestry.com

[3] 1870 U.S. Federal Census. Binghamton Ward 2, Broome Co., New York, 27.

[4] 1880 U.S. Federal Census. District 38, Binghamton, Broome Co., New York, 22B.

[5] Ellsworth S. Thomas, ministerial file, FPHC.

[6] Benjamin, “Free Blacks in Nineteenth Century Binghamton.”

[7] New York Death Index. Ancestry.com.

[8] 1900 U.S. Federal Census. District 0013, Binghamton Ward 05, Broome Co., New York, 12A-B; 1930 U.S. Federal Census. District 0023, Binghamton Ward 05, Broome Co., New York, 10A.

[9] Ellsworth S. Thomas, ministerial file, FPHC.

[10] Binghamton City Directories, Ancestry.com.

[11] Assemblies of God ministerial directory, 1915, 16.

[12] Ellsworth S. Thomas, ministerial file, FPHC.

[13] Ellsworth S. Thomas, ministerial file, FPHC.

[14] Press and Sun Bulletin (Binghamton, NY), June 17, 1933, 16; Press and Sun Bulletin (Binghamton, NY), September 16, 1933, 9; Press and Sun Bulletin (Binghamton, NY), December 23, 1933, 9.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Eastern District Bulletin, October 1936, 21; Obituary, “Ellsworth H. [sic] Thomas,” Press and Sun Bulletin (Binghamton, NY), June 15, 1936, 5.

[17] Eastern District Bulletin, October 1936, 21.

[18] Pentecostal Evangel, July 25, 1936, 13.

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
Email: archives@ag.org
Website: www.iFPHC.org

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Remembering the Assemblies of God’s Black Heritage

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.

  1. William J. Seymour (1870-1922)

seymour-p5606William 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.

  1. Charles H. Mason (1864-1961)

chmason1

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.”

  1. Garfield T. Haywood (1880-1931)

Christian OutlookG.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.

  1. 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.

  1. Isaac S. Neeley (1865-1923) and Martha (Mattie) A. Board Neeley (1866-1940s?)

neeleyp5664Isaac 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.

  1. Cornelia Jones Robertson (1891-1967)

robertsonp19200

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.

  1. 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.

  1. Lillian Kraeger (1884-1964)

kraegerLillian 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.

  1. 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.

  1. Bob Harrison (1928-2012)

TWOct22_728When 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
Email: archives@ag.org
Website: www.iFPHC.org

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