come this far by faith: Pentecostalism and political and social upward mobility
By Marlon Millner
1999 Phillips Foundation Fellow
March 1, 2000, WASHINGTON, D.C. -- If it were not for the
suspenders, the Reverend Joseph Clemmons might not be known as a Pentecostal
preacher. Hanging on the walls of Clemmons' modest, frame house in Connecticut
are theological degrees from Yale University and Colgate-Rochester Divinity
School, the same institution that trained Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His desk
is littered with various scholarly tomes, as well as legislative information,
since he serves as a Democratic representative in the state legislature. Such
training and experience have put him in a small class of African-American
preachers who are appreciated for using the truths of the Bible to fight for
social equality and empowerment of the downtrodden, less fortunate and
But at his core, Clemmons is a sanctified preacher. You
have got to be, when even your black suspenders say in big, bright, bold white
vertical letters C-O-G-I-C.
COGIC (pronounced COE-jik) is an acronym for Church of God
in Christ, the largest Pentecostal, and second-largest African-American church
denomination in the United States. But more than being an abbreviation, COGIC
has become a word of embodiment. Akin to NAACP or GOP, COGIC conjures up images
of the expressive and emotionally intense, hand clapping, foot stomping, tongues
speaking, bible toting, joyous singing, body healing, Jesus professing, God
fearing, Spirit indwelling experience of a group of black religious folk,
collectively known as the sanctified church.
Joseph's older preaching brother, the late Bishop Ithiel
Clemmons, was equally difficult to peg. Ithiel Clemmons was perhaps the first
black Pentecostal to graduate from a major academic divinity school, finishing
New York's Union Theological Seminary in 1956. Clemmons rose to the pinnacle of
leadership within the denomination, being elected to the church's general board
of 12 bishops in 1991. He was as likely to quote the Bible, as he was to quote a
theologian like Jurgen Moltmann, Howard Thurman or Henri Nouwen, obscure names
to the average churchgoer. Clemmons published a history of COGIC in 1996, which
had been part of his studies, though never completed, to earn a PhD in American
Church history. He ultimately earned a doctorate of ministry like his younger
brother. Young preachers he mentored say he read more than they did right up
until his death from cancer in January 1999.
The images of holy rollers jumping and shouting, rolling
and rollicking, belies the serene and serious minded Clemmons brothers, with
their wing-tipped shoes and three-piece suits. The sounds of guttural groans and
growls, of hooping and hollering seem dissonant to these thoughtful and
intellectually articulate preachers, scholars and activists, whose historical
contemporaries included W.E.B DuBois and James Baldwin, a former
teenage-Pentecostal preacher himself.
But it is this very uncontrollable fire, kindled in the
furnace of slavery and segregation, and set ablaze by the challenges of the
Civil Rights movement that make the Clemmons brothers the atypical Pentecostals
that they are. At a time when Pentecostal spirituality (if not doctrine) is
being embraced broadly throughout Christianity, its progenitor finds itself
slipping down the slope of political infighting that smeared and tarred the
character and credibility of the National Baptist Convention. The Clemmons
brothers, though, offer COGIC, and the whole church, a compelling (though
flawed) model of spirituality and social action.
"I think more of our clergy ought to be as trained as
they can possibly be," says Joseph Clemmons. He laughs at the suggestion
that he and his brother may be "anomalies" within their denomination,
yet Clemmons admits, "Both men and women ought to get as much training as
they can get, ought to be as involved as they can be, in terms of issues of
justice and systemic injustice, social change. But above all, they ought to live
in the presence of God."
The black church generally, and the black sanctified church
in particular, have been considered religious institutions that are more
concerned with some abstract otherworldly view of life, and some interior,
private salvation of the individual.
"There has been an emphasis on salvation of souls that
is very key in the Pentecostal tradition. That is the strongest emphasis that I
have been aware of," says Dr. James Forbes. The son of a Pentecostal bishop
himself, Forbes has been senior minister at the historic Riverside Church in
Manhattan, since 1989. He went to Union just after Ithiel Clemmons had gone
there, and later would do a doctoral program in black church studies with Joseph
Clemmons at Colgate-Rochester.
Forbes says the thinking of the sanctified church has been
"If you got individual souls saved, it would lead to transformation of the
larger society." He adds that for "People who have a broader social
vision," such as himself, "the individualistic salvation model would
prove to be too narrow."
Certainly, growing up, Joseph, Ithiel and their three other
siblings didn't have social activism or political exploits on their minds, but
rather, personal salvation.
"The expectation was that when there was church, as
there was Tuesday night, Friday night, Sunday morning, Sunday School, Young
People Willing Workers in the afternoon, that we would be there. We got dressed
and we went." Clemmons recalls that they did get an occasional reprieve on
Tuesday night, because it was a school night, but on Friday night when there was
no school on Saturday, the children were in tow. "They had all night
prayer, we were at church. Of course, they would make us put chairs together and
put pillows on the chairs and we'd go to sleep. And how many times did I fall
off those chairs on to the floor? But that is what was expected."
But the sanctified church -- an offspring of slave religion
-- perhaps unwittingly prepared its parishioners for the hard fought advances,
which came from the black freedom movement of the 1950s and 1960s. With an
emphasis on holiness and living a righteous life, Clemmons' COGIC church was an
organization that reached out and lifted up rural blacks seeking an escape from
the Jim Crow South and migrant blacks who came North seeking a better way a
life, but beaten back by the harsh realities of urban existence.
The fanatical insistence on an ascetic lifestyle: of
abstinence from alcohol, or cigarettes, sex outside of marriage, dance music and
other forms of worldly "pleasure"; along with an emphasis on work
ethic, discipline, particularly living a life focused on the felt, active,
relational and personal presence of God, actually prepared many black
Pentecostal believers for higher education, politics, corporate America and
middle-class lifestyles. At the very least, it was salvation for many
African-Americans who were seeking ways to buffer themselves against the
oppressive and destructive pathologies of urban life, so aptly described in Paul
Laurence Dunbar's 1903 novel, Sport of the Gods. In that book,
Dunbar aptly captures the struggle of a family one-generation removed from
slavery moving North for better opportunities. However, the evils of violence,
the temptation of sexual promiscuity and the overall harshness of urban reality
force the mother and father to return South, choosing to deal with the evil of
share-cropping in the Jim Crow backwoods, and evil with which they are familiar.
Clemmons, and his deceased brother, were among a small
group of Pentecostals that managed to set the stage for the coming of age of the
sanctified church as a spiritual body and as a potential agent for social
Joseph and Ithiel broke free of the shackles of black
poverty and religious fundamentalism to form a vision of empowerment and
possibility within America. Early trailblazers within the sanctified church,
which dared to envision Pentecostal spirituality in a holistic way, greatly
influenced the thinking of these brothers.
What is now considered
the modern-day Pentecostal/Charismatic movement within Christianity, normally
traces its roots back to a religious revival led by African-American minister
the Reverend William Joseph Seymour at a former livery stable on Azusa Street in
Los Angeles from 1906 to 1909.
Seymour had embraced a doctrine that had been taught since
1901 by white minister Charles Fox Parham that speaking in a language not
learned by the speaker (or
glossolalia) was the proof that a person had been baptized in the Holy Spirit.
This teaching was based primarily on the story of the day of Pentecost, as
recorded in the Biblical book of Acts, which recounts how Jesus' disciples were
"filled with the Holy Ghost," and preached the gospel that day in
languages that they had not learned. But Seymour had emphasized the coming
together of both male and female, different ethnic groups and social classes in
the first sanctified "storefront" church as a sure sign of the
Spirit's presence. The day of Pentecost narrative does speak to devout persons,
from the entire known world, being gathered in Jerusalem on the day of
Pentecost. Indeed, one early witness of Azusa, journalist Frank Bartleman
recorded that the "color line has been washed away in the blood [of
Seymour invited Parham to the revival. But when he arrived,
Parham -- a Ku Klux Klan sympathizer -- criticized blacks and whites worshipping
together as a "darkie camp meeting". This was the same preacher that
had made Seymour sit outside the classroom where he taught his new doctrine.
Despite these racial hostilities, Azusa continued as an interracial revival, at
Charles Harrison Mason, who had co-founded the Church of
God in Christ ten years earlier in 1897, also made his way to Azusa. Mason, an
eclectic and mystical person himself, a southern shaman, would eventually split
with his co-founder, Charles Price Jones, on the issue of speaking in other
tongues. One of the major influences on Seymour and Mason, an influence that
would greatly affect the thinking and social activism of the Clemmons' brothers
was the practical doctrinal emphasis on holiness.
While some former Pentecostals have described holiness as
legalism -- a set of repressive rules and obligations that almost defy human
nature -- Dr. Cheryl Sanders, a Howard University professor and minister from
within the holiness tradition, speaks positively of the doctrine in her work, Saints
in Exile; the Holiness-Pentecostal Experience in African-American Religion and
Culture. She writes, "The Sanctified church is an African-American
Christian reform movement that seeks to bring its standards of worship, personal
morality, and social concern into conformity with a biblical hermeneutic of
holiness and spiritual empowerment."
Such a definition does not emphasize speaking in tongues,
or any spiritual gift that might separate black Pentecostals from the wider
church world. The definition, she argues, does require a disciplined,
self-sacrificing lifestyle, one that challenges the dominant culture by creating
an alternative community of being "in the world, but not of it."
In his later years, Bishop Clemmons would argue, "I am
concerned that white Pentecostals in America are often locked into doctrinal,
propositional notions, dictated more by Evangelical fundamentalism than by
Pentecostal vision." For the Clemmons brothers that vision is one that
includes racial unity.
Dr. Russell Spittler, provost at Fuller Theological
Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., admits that white Pentecostals have a much more
narrow definition of the experience than their black counterparts.
"White Pentecostals are by their doctrines very
otherworldly," says Spittler, an ordained minister within the predominantly
white Assemblies of God. "North American white Pentecostals are far more
influenced by fundamentalism than blacks are. And blacks are far more influenced
by factors and forces in social change."
Both Joseph and Ithiel were exposed to pioneers like Bishop
Mason through their father, the late Bishop Frank Clemmons, who started the
"first" Church of God in Christ in Brooklyn, N.Y. in the early 1920s.
Joseph Clemmons doesn't recall any explicit racial
hostility in Washington, N.C., where his father was from; but the elder
Clemmons, like many blacks of that time, thought opportunity awaited him in the
"He had grown restless and weary in his spirit about
the South and sensing a lack of the possibility of realizing his potential
there," says Clemmons. When
friend and fellow sanctified preacher Peter J.F. Bridges suggested that Frank
Clemmons come to New York, it was not a hard decision, Clemmons says. "He
developed a love for Brooklyn and didn't care very much about going back down
South. And he definitely did not want to be buried down there. On holidays and
what have you, [Dad] would say 'No, I don't want to go to North Carolina, I
don't want to go to Washington, I don't want to go down South.'"
Ithiel, the oldest surviving child of seven of Frank and
his wife Polly, had been born in Washington in December of 1921, but Joseph, the
baby, was born in Brooklyn during the early days of the Great Depression, in
June of 1929.
Joseph and Ithiel pressed through those early days of
poverty and even public assistance and focused on church life. In Brooklyn, they
both found the opportunity to influence and be influenced by various black and
white church traditions. Unlike the stereotype of sanctified church folks living
in isolation and damning all others to hell, Frank Clemmons interacted with some
of the prominent black church leaders in Brooklyn at that time, including the
late Rev. Sandy Ray of Cornerstone Baptist Church, and later Rev. Gardner Taylor
of Concord Baptist and Rev. William Augustus Jones of Bethany Baptist Church.
"My father always had the greatest admiration and
respect for men like Sandy Ray, [and] the pastors of Mt. Sinai and Berean
Baptist Church. And those folks had a great deal of respect for us because they
came to our church on Sunday nights. My father was praying for the sick and the
sick we're being healed, lame folks being made to walk," says Joseph
Not only were these "high church" blacks coming
down to the sanctified church for some of that "old time religion",
but Clemmons and others within COGIC were embracing the idea of using the church
to promote upward mobility, even in the 1930s and 40s.
Church historian and COGIC minister, Dr. David Daniels of
Chicago's McCormick Theological Seminary, says that a handful of COGIC
preachers, including Philadelphia's Bishop O.T. Jones Sr., Newport News, Va.'s
Bishop D.L. Williams (an uncle of the Clemmons brothers), and Brooklyn's Bishop
F.D. Washington deliberately began to de-emphasize the storefront character of
the sanctified church.
Ithiel and Joseph Clemmons both have described Bishop
Williams, considered trained from Bible college, as a scholarly and pastoral
mentor. Williams was very active in the nationally recognized black Ministers'
Conference held annually at Hampton University and was in fact the first
Pentecostal preacher to head the group. His nephew Joseph would become only the
second Pentecostal to lead the group in the 1980s.
"Many of these clergy preached from a manuscript and
intentionally went beyond the so-called storefront model, with its emphasis on
ecstatic worship through testimony service, preaching as hooping, tarrying
service," says Daniels. These congregations also began to emphasize the
working class mix of their congregations, the fact that government workers or
schoolteachers were members.
This approach would be similar to the movement of the black
bourgeoisie to embrace and emulate white middle-class culture as a means of
being accommodated within American society and culture. Much of the black
church's rejection of its sanctified roots had to do with the politically
expedient desire to embrace white liturgical Protestant worship for upward
mobility and acceptance. However, such an embrace did mean an actual rejection
of the content and meaning of blacks' slave religion experience.
And while Ithiel did not abandon the sanctified church, he
was developing quite a fascination with evangelical liberalism. Unlike the
so-called "liberalism" of today, that is defined in narrow political
terms, evangelical liberalism was for Ithiel Clemmons an opportunity to develop
and interpret his sanctified spirituality in a much broader context than how it
was being defined by primarily white Pentecostals seeking acceptance from
In particular, Bishop Clemmons was drinking from the well
of the Riverside Church and its then famous pastor, Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick.
Riverside was the early twentieth-century religious vision of business baron
John D. Rockefeller. The church was built in Harlem in 1927 from Rockefeller's
generosity. Adjacent to Columbia University, Riverside was designed to be a
bastion of institutional faith in action. Clemmons recounts the influence of
Fosdick and Riverside in a sermon he delivered at convocation at Riverside in
1997, entitled, "When Prayer Means Power -- Harry Emerson Fosdick and the
Art of Praying." Recalling his original reluctance to accept an invitation
to speak, Clemmons says, "I was not sure that there was any real interest
in Dr. Fosdick's meditations and musings on Prayer; that segment of his
prophetic ministry that did the most for my own personal life and vocation over
the course of my ministry. There is usually an inner tension that causes some
suspicion between those whose major emphasis is on the Church's activism in
society and those whose major emphasis is on the Church's spiritual
Ithiel's uncle Bishop Williams introduced him to Riverside,
and the preaching of Fosdick, Clemmons says. Fosdick was also seminal to several
key friends, from the churches of Jones and Williams, which were actively
seeking to move away from the limitations of traditional storefront religion.
But as Clemmons suggests, not from that "inner life."
Spittler says it is critical to know when Bishop Clemmons
and his brother were influenced by theological education, to know what kind of
impact and impression it made on their social conscience and on their
formulation of faith and action.
"When did that education occur? If he were at Union in
his twenties, then it would be more formative, then he would have more exposure
to persons and forces and [an] intellectual climate that would support and
extend and apply the emergence of a social conscience," says Spittler, who
admits, "in those years, I was in an [Assemblies of God] bible institute,
then went to an Evangelical Christian institution. I did not have that exposure
until later on [during] my doctoral work."
Although Bishop Clemmons was 30 years old when he entered
Union, he had been exposed to the ministry of the Riverside Church, right next
to the seminary, several years prior, at a point when he was in undergraduate
and graduate school.
"I was exposed to Dr. Fosdick's ministry as a very
young adult in 1948-49," Clemmons preached that day in 1997. "As a
Holiness-Pentecostal young person just beginning college, brought up in a
morally rigorous environment of home and church; a church with a dialectical
vision of being 'in but not of the world;' with a circle of friends who placed
great emphasis on the 'life of the mind,' we were embarked upon a project of
'faith seeking understanding.'"
Clemmons acknowledges, "Dr. Fosdick among others,
became an important resource and fount of Christian thought. His signature
sermon, Will the Fundamentalist Win, was not that significant for us,
because the Black Church was not a part of the fundamentalist-modernist debate.
We were more interested in his, Manhood of the Master, On Being a Real
Person, his Understanding the Bible, and his trilogy: The Meaning
of Prayer, The Meaning of Faith and The Meaning of Service,
that was pivotal for me."
While it may seem odd that a liberal protestant was a
model, Alonzo Johnson -- a professor of religion at the University of South
Carolina at Columbia and protégé of Clemmons -- says the world of Union
Seminary and Riverside provided both a spiritual and an institutional model for
"The whole Union lifestyle became very important,
because he was trying to find different ways to model spirituality. And
Riverside was always a model for him, a frustrating model," says Johnson,
who worshipped at First Church while pursuing his doctorate at Union in the late
eighties. "I remember him telling me on several occasions that that set a
model of ministry for him. For what liberal Protestantism offered through
Riverside, I think he thought that there could be a counterpart to that, within
the COGIC tradition, [a] counterpart in terms of building institutional
ministry. A church that could meet needs on every level: culturally,
economically, socially, theologically and otherwise. It was frustrating, because
I don't think he ever realized that."
For those like Daniels and Johnson who were mentored by
Bishop Clemmons, this period is indeed seminal, and determines the direction of
his uniquely Pentecostal theology, ministry and involvement in a social justice
Daniels says Bishop Clemmons was "challenged at the
core, especially with the conflicting doctrine of Scripture and the liberal
exegetical method, which influenced how [he] interprets texts in preaching and
teaching." But Daniels thinks there was a more profound impact, one that
would echo in the ministries of those who followed in Clemmons' footsteps to
Union, like Forbes.
"The Pentecostal emphasis on the miraculous,
supernatural, as well as Heaven and the holiness emphasis on 'living free and
separated from sin' was also challenged by seminary," says Daniels. He says
Clemmons and others, like contemporary and close friend Bishop O.T. Jones, Jr.,
"Broaden the Christian life to go beyond being mere preparation for Heaven;
there were significant things God was concerned about in this life and
conversion prepared one for living today as well as in Heaven. They dealt with
the critique that sanctified churches spent much [time] discussing 'What is one
saved from?' but inadequate attention was paid in discussing 'What one is saved
for,' besides soul winning. They grappled with the pastoral issue of the
spiritual struggle people had 'living saved all day and all night', and stress
the role of God's grace and love, meaning loving even when we fall or what their
peers called backsliding."
Clemmons did not only broaden his view of the sanctified
church, but the church period, says Forbes. "I always thought that Ithiel,
while deeply immersed in the Church of God in Christ, felt called to ecumenical
Clemmons was COGIC to the core, but indeed had various
ecumenical commitments, including being a founding member of the Congress of
National Black Churches, the North American Renewal Service Committee (an
organization of participants within Pentecostalism and the Charismatic renewal)
and the New York Council of Churches.
In between these associations, Clemmons pastored in
Clairton, Pa., for 12 years, married and had three daughters. His first wife,
Alyce Wilmer Thompson died in 1968, two years after he came home to Brooklyn to
help his father. He re-married in 1969 to the former Clara Cantrell, and in 1975
he took a pastorate in Greensboro, N.C.
While Ithiel became a sort of ambassador for the sanctified
church, Joseph grounded himself much more thoroughly in a social activist
ministry. Although eight years younger, Joseph had actually entered the ministry
about the same time as his brother. Ithiel accepted a call to preach at age 21,
and Joseph started preaching at age 14. He also followed his older brother in
earning an undergraduate degree at Long Island University.
But unlike his brother, who earned two master's degrees
before going into fulltime ministry, Joseph Clemmons, who studied foreign
languages, started teaching Spanish in Baltimore and planted a church in 1953
called Zion Tabernacle Church of God in Christ.
Seven years later, at the call of the Bishop of
Connecticut, Charles H. Brewer Sr., the younger Clemmons was appointed to pastor
Holy Temple Church of God in Christ in Norwalk. It was during that time that
Joseph Clemmons decided that he, like his brother, needed seminary training. So
from 1965 to 1969 he attended Yale Divinity School. Like his brother, he grabbed
hold of the evangelical liberal vision, but not through a massive, historic
church like Riverside, but rather through a Congregational Church, which was a
part of the ecumenical United Church of Christ.
Joseph Clemmons saw "models and mentors" in
preachers like Rev. Henry Yordon of the First Congregational Church on the Green
in Norwalk. Yordon and Clemmons worked together on several projects, including
Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now and the Norwalk Area Ministry, which focused on
"Those who were in the mainline churches, I knew that
they had a different emphasis than I had. But it never occurred to me that they
were not saved, that they were not Godly. I had the greatest amount of respect
and I saw that they were doing some things that I needed to be doing in terms of
getting involved in the community and reaching to the hurts and pains of the
community. So I learned much of that … by watching models and mentors in
The Clemmons were not the only model of this upsurge in
black Pentecostal consciousness during the sixties. In the nation's capital,
Pentecostal Bishop Smallwood E. Williams, of the Bibleway Church Worldwide,
articulates the struggle to be Pentecostal and to be ecumenical.
In his 1981 autobiography, This is My Story; a
Significant Life Struggle, he writes, "I made a lot of
Pentecostals uncomfortable. I never purposely set out to be unpleasant, but my
emphasis on pragmatic preaching was leading me to get involved in areas where
few in my church had ventured. Under my leadership in the late fifties and
sixties … members of Bibleway were getting involved in places that didn't make
us particularly popular with some Pentecostals -- Christian unity and
cooperation … I had the ability … to see beyond denominational differences
and religious prejudices to apply Pentecostal theology to practical areas of
living. That gift of mine wasn't particularly appreciated. No doubt many
Pentecostals, like many Christians in many other denominations, were threatened
when they took a step outside their own door. This is true to this day, despite
all the talk of the ecumenical movement."
It was not so much the outside threat as the fear from
within that snared the Clemmons brothers in their efforts to make the broadest
Ithiel, who had come back to help his father, never
imagined that Frank Clemmons would live another 24 years. The son had the vision
to move the church in 1968 from a refurbished garage, adjacent to a garbage
dump, to a Jewish temple he had seen years before with his mother. In that move,
Daniels and Johnson note, Ithiel Clemmons also tried to institute a more orderly
and liturgical form of worship. Clemmons tried to utilize the entire
infrastructure of this large temple that had served as the center of life for
another group during another age. But he was struggling to create a Pentecostal
Riverside, but without the Rockefeller millions, and with a congregation of
working class holy rollers, and not affluent white middle class parishioners.
And though both brothers don't admit to any ministerial conflicts with their
dad, observers point out that First Church was Frank Clemmons' church and no one
else's, no matter what Ithiel did.
"It's clear that certain things weren't happening with
First Church. He still had the dream, he still wanted it to happen," but no
Riverside was emerging in Brooklyn, says Johnson. "By then he's fixed on
the idea of being a bishop within the Church of God in Christ; which means that
if you're going to become a bishop, you have to have a product, most of the
time. And First Church was always going to be his daddy's product."
So, in 1975, perhaps knowing he had to build up his own
congregation to attain higher status within the denomination, Ithiel Clemmons
agreed to pastor Wells Memorial Church of God in Christ in Greensboro, N.C.
At the same time that Ithiel was attempting to carve out a
pastoral identity for himself down south, his brother Joseph was literally being
forced out of his pulpit. Joseph Clemmons had finished Yale and proceeded to be
a part of the historic Martin Luther King, Jr. Fellows doctorate of ministry
program at Colgate-Rochester, from 1972 to 1975. The preachers, hand picked by
one of the pioneers of black theological studies, Henry Mitchell, included some
of the black church's most popular names, even today: H. Beecher Hicks, Jr. of
Washington's Metropolitan Baptist Church; then Baltimore-based Bishop John
Bryant of the African Methodist Episcopal Church; Harold Carter of Baltimore's
New Shiloh Baptist Church; Wyatt T. Walker of Harlem's Canaan Baptist Church;
and of course Forbes, who was then still affiliated with the Original United
Holy Church of America.
These ministers traced their religious roots back to
Africa, through South America and the Caribbean on to the American South.
Forbes, infatuated with the black power movement and the emergence of liberation
theology wrote about "A Pentecostal approach to black liberation."
Clemmons wrote about "Ecstasy and wholeness in the black church; with a
focus on the Church of God in Christ."
Back home, things were not whole, however. It was during
this time Bishop Brewer, who had called Clemmons, was ill and wanted his son to
succeed him in the bishopric, not an uncommon practice in the sanctified church;
modern-day Levites, if you will. But obviously, a progressive, seminary-trained,
community-impacting pastor with deep roots to church leadership might pose a
Joseph Clemmons says Brewer trumped up some accusations
while he was out of the country to force him out of Holy Temple. In the end, the
two parties wound up in court, and reached and out-of-court settlement that
enabled Clemmons to start Miracle Temple COGIC. It was also at this point that
he closely aligned himself with the UCC, of which several local Congregational
churches opened their doors to give Miracle Temple a place to worship.
Miracle Temple moved on to worship at an Episcopal church
in 1973, which was gutted a year later by fire. The UCC helped finance the
mortgage that helped Miracle Temple buy the shell and rebuild the church. The
deal cemented the church becoming dually affiliated in 1976.
"They wanted me to be a part of that
denomination," says Clemmons. In the radical sixties, he says, the UCC
became a haven for several black preachers running for cover from their previous
denominations. "They saw what had been happening to me, what Brewer wanted
to do and all of that sort of stuff. And they knew there wasn't nothing to it.
'Yeah man, you can get funding for your church, you can get a pension for
yourself.' It's been the best marriage I've ever had. And I've found in many
senses more true camaraderie and Godliness amongst a number of them, than I have
in my own denomination."
With such radical fallout, Joseph's influence fell within
COGIC and he was permanently sidetracked from the Bishopric. Ithiel managed to
stay on course, helping to craft an autobiography of Bishop Otha M. Kelly,
presiding prelate of the Eastern New York first jurisdiction and first assistant
presiding bishop of COGIC worldwide.
Kelly had mentored both Clemmons brothers, and Johnson says
it was Kelly's desire that Ithiel Clemmons eventually succeed him as presider of
the jurisdiction. Just one problem, though, Bishop Frederick D. Washington
succeeded Kelly in both of his roles, and Clemmons was not his first choice,
Johnson claims. Washington, in his own right was a pioneer COGIC preacher. He
had carved out one of the largest churches of any denomination in Brooklyn.
Washington was also very politically active, and it was his ministry that
mentored and nurtured Rev. Al Sharpton during his childhood.
While the rationale for not being Washington's favorite son
is unclear, Ithiel Clemmons did have Washington preach the dedication service of
the new building he built for Wells Memorial, named COGIC Cathedral, in 1985.
Johnson said building a church, which cost $1.2 million, was absolutely critical
to Ithiel's goal of being elected to the general board of the denomination.
Well, Washington died in 1988 and Clemmons did succeed him,
but this jurisdiction, which spread from Long Island to New York City and right
up the Hudson Valley to Albany, was cut three-fold, as preachers rose up to
challenge Clemmons appointment.
Despite the schism of the jurisdiction, Clemmons managed to
be elected to the general board in 1991.
As his older brother adroitly negotiated the increasingly
political nature of upward mobility and influence within the denomination,
Joseph had to harness all of the resources of seminary, of social action, of
ecumenism to build his ministry.
Although his church was able to purchase the former
Episcopal church it had shared, which was gutted by fire; it would be 13 years
-- 1991 -- before the renovation and reconstruction was complete.
Is a white man washing a black man's feet a simple act of
kindness or a move of God?
Perhaps what brought Ithiel Clemmons the most attention on
his theology of racial reconciliation and social justice was the so-called
"Miracle of Memphis," a conference of Pentecostals and charismatics
held in November 1994. It was at this conference that the almost all white
Pentecostal Fellowship of North America disbanded, and the new, racially mixed
Pentecostal Charismatic Churches of North America was formed. A white pastor
washing Clemmons' feet prefaced the dissolution and reformation of the group.
"I was absolutely taken aback," Clemmons told the
Greensboro News & Record at that time. "I'd never seen him
before, never knew him. I just said 'sure' and cried while he washed my feet. It
was a poignant moment for the whole group."
But the emotion of that moment was the culmination of years
of planning and diligence on the part of Clemmons and several other Pentecostal
leaders, black and white. Clemmons also worked with four scholar/preachers:
Leonard Lovett (COGIC), Cecil Robeck (Assemblies of God) and Harold Hunter
(International Pentecostal Holiness Church) to construct the "Racial
Reconciliation Manifesto". That document, in part, says, "I pledge in
concert with my brothers and sisters of many hues to oppose racism prophetically
in all its various manifestations within and without the Body of Christ and to
be vigilant in the struggle with all my God-given might… with complete bold
and courageous honesty, we mutually confess that racism is sin and as a blight
in the Fellowship must be condemned for having hindered the maturation of
spiritual development and mutual sharing among Pentecostal-Charismatic believers
White Pentecostal and Charismatic scholars and church
leaders did not arrive at such a dramatic declaration over night.
At that time, Pentecostal historian Vinson Synan noted a
more than 20-year period of working in ecumenical circles led Clemmons to this
moment. "He's worked hard, is well-known and trusted," Synan said of
the Memphis Miracle. "No other man could do this job."
Clemmons would be elected the reorganized group's first
As early as 1977, Bishop Clemmons had begun his theological
process of bridging the ecumenical intentions of the spirit with an agenda of
justice and equality. Clemmons was one of the few black Pentecostals to address
the North American Conference on the Holy Spirit that year, in Kansas City,
Kan., something akin to a charismatic United Nations. Clemmons would note 20
years later that he had introduced his then Presiding Bishop J.O. Patterson to
"spirit-filled" Catholic Cardinal Joseph Suenens of the Netherlands at
an event at Arrowhead Stadium, years before the massive Promise Keepers rallies.
Then in 1981, in his presidential address to the Society of
Pentecostal Studies, Clemmons says, "My church follows its founder, the
late Bishop Charles Harrison Mason, in working with groups like SPS. Our
approach is one of love and cautious optimism. It is not always clear to us what
such groups mean by brotherhood or unity, yet we are open to find out."
But after those conciliatory remarks, he goes on to say
that black leaders, like Mason and Azusa Street revival preacher William Seymour
have to be restored to the center of the historical accounts of the beginnings
of American Pentecostalism, for the movement's real meaning to become clear.
"Seymour championed one doctrine above all others:
There must be no color line or any other division of the Church of Jesus Christ
because God is no respecter of persons," says Clemmons. "This
inclusive fellowship is not a human construct but a divine glossalalic community
of human equality. Spiritual power sprang more from interracial equality than
Spittler perhaps squirmed a little back then, upon hearing
those words, maybe thinking back to how he found Clemmons in 1973 after attempts
to locate black scholars to be a part of SPS, which was founded in 1970.
"I think he bore witness to the social relevance of
Pentecostalism [to] those of us who come from the more separatist
traditions [that] keep safe distance from social shifts and changes," says
Spittler. "He would say, you can't be Pentecostal without recognizing the
social implications of the spirit."
Just a few months before his death, Clemmons wrote,
"In April 1960, the Holy Spirit surprisingly broke through the structures
and theologies of the historic Protestant traditions with a charismatic
outpouring… African-Americans in that period of the 60s were focusing on the
Civil Rights movement. The connection should have been, but never has been made.
The connection between the quest for righteousness and justice and the
surprising charismatic irruptions is yet to be followed to its providential
The conclusion -- in both theology and church life -- will
have to be arrived at by others.
"I think Ithiel would urge the church try to enter
into the discernment mode," says Forbes. "Listen to the Lord because
the Lord may be invested in what we do. What is the responsibility of the
exercise of our voice? I think he would say, 'Come on let's impact legislation,
let's get grants, let's give scholarships. Let us make sure that politicians in
our city know the Church of God in Christ is here, and because we have a Holy
Spirit vision, you should take us seriously.'"
Joseph Clemmons relaxes in the den of his Norwalk home. His
flawlessly shined wingtips and a gray sports jacket are now off, but he is still
adorned in the pressed white shirt, cufflinks, suspenders and slacks of a
minister of the Christian gospel. Clemmons has just finished delivering a sermon
at his Miracle Temple Church of God in Christ, in South Norwalk.
Clemmons relaxes and talks a little about the upcoming
legislative session and the vacation he hopes to take with his wife Fran (he
remarried after his first wife Geraldine died in 1985).
God blessed today, he says, but he cannot dwell too long in
the place where the Spirit was, for on next Sunday he must journey down to the
concrete jungle of New York City, the borough of Brooklyn to be exact, to teach,
preach and pray at the Historic First Church of God in Christ. His father,
Bishop Frank Clemmons, founded First Church, as it is affectionately called, in
the early 1920s.
Rev. Clemmons' older brother -- Ithiel -- helped his father
for over 20 years before assuming the full pastorate when "the old
man" died at the age of 96 years old in 1990. The younger bishop passed
away last January, at age 77, ushering in Rev. Clemmons' tenure.
Surrounded by awards and accolades from some 55 years of
public preaching ministry, the casual observer would think Clemmons would be
ready for retirement. But hardly. Clemmons, himself a spry 70, is hard at work
attempting to breathe new life into his family's legacy. First Church arose from
a house prayer meeting, to a storefront adjacent to a garbage dump. It finally
entered into its promise land of a former Jewish temple in the racially and
religiously diverse Crown Heights section of Brooklyn in the late 1960s.
But after a period where
his brother Ithiel tried to not only take the saints (Pentecostals nomenclature
for each other) out of the storefront, but also take the storefront out of the
saints -- the congregation now finds itself challenged by the very forces that
made it grow: migration, but not from South to North as it was two generations
ago. The church has been depleted by departures of older church members yearning
to return to the new South, which has attempted to expel many of the vestiges of
Jim Crow segregation and racism that drove their foreparents away. Moreover,
though considered anti-intellectual, the work ethic and passion for discipline
instilled in the children of COGIC produced those who are comfortable within the
boardrooms of major corporations and halls of legislation around this country.
At the same time, those who have benefited from such a spirituality in action,
have come to question what seems to be the otherworldly reality of their
religious heritage, opting for so-called mainstream Christian churches, who
embrace an enthusiastic and emotionally uplifting form of worship, but
culturally and intellectually engaging form of ministry.
Johnson sees the issue as
timing and tension between interest of Ithiel and the congregation.
"You've got years worth of frustration that were
present there. The tension that you felt in that church between Ithiel and some
of the others that thought he kind of neglected it, didn't give it enough time
and him feeling like it never really satisfied his ego and the vision, relate to
the fact that he was more private than public, more intellectual, more
comfortable one-on-one, in small groups in conversation and interaction, than in
big groups. Preaching is one thing, but pastoring is people; I don't think that
was his best suit."
But beyond pastoral weaknesses, Ithiel often spoke of a
"post-denominational" age, a period when folks would choose churches
based on meeting their needs, not what creed is listed in the liturgy. In this
type of culture, the old-school, social club, political pushing and shoving of
other black organizations, that has crept into the Church of God in Christ, has
made many disillusioned, and asking if the "sanctified church" is
still wholly holy?
As the denomination, like our nation, prepares for an
election in November, the group, finds itself at a pivotal crossroad. It can
keep the status quo in Presiding Bishop Chandler Owens, who was a right hand man
to prior leaders and has worked hard to squash resistance to his reign, going so
far as to take some popular COGIC ministers to court. Or will the group's
pastors and bishops who vote not go with the incumbent, but rather choose from a
new cadre of leadership, say Bishops Gilbert Patterson, or Charles Blake?
In the case of Patterson, things aren't so new. He is in
Memphis and comes from the family of the late Presiding Bishop Patterson, who
was married to a daughter of founder C.H. Mason.
Patterson, known as an evangelist, has been precursor to
many widely popular black Pentecostal preachers, like Bishop T. D. Jakes, Bishop
Noel Jones and Bishop Carlton Pearson.
Blake's roots run deep as well, but he is best known for
building perhaps the largest COGIC congregation in the US, the West Angeles
Church of God in Christ. Blake often tells the story of how he came to the Los
Angeles church in 1969, on the heels of leading Civil Rights protests as a
seminary student in Atlanta, only to almost be forced out by a small group of
He managed to quell the protests, and now boasts a
congregation, which has a great diversity of people, including R&B singer
Stevie Wonder and actor Denzel Washington, whose father was a COGIC preacher.
While both offer lively and modern alternatives to Owens,
preachers like Clemmons must determine if social change and the emergence of a
COGIC middle-class actually compromises the tenets of holiness and impairs the
nature of ministry that the sanctified church does in its own particular way.
And Clemmons, like his brother, must confront the issue that the saying,
"You're never so close to home as when you're at First Church," was a
phrase coined by his dad, a lover of people in a way that he may yet still be
trying to discover, despite his training.
"My father always expected Ithiel and myself to exceed
him in ministry. I’m not so sure if we succeeded at that. We've each been
building on the foundation that he laid. In terms of us exceeding him, which is
what he would want, to do more than he was able to do because he helped to equip
us and to see that we were trained in order to do a better job than he was able
to do," says Clemmons with humility, adding "We still [hold] on to the
teachings that he and mom laid out for us."
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