The Society for Pentecostal Studies (SPS) was founded in 1970 by three Pentecostal scholars: William Menzies of the Assemblies of God, Vinson Synan of the Pentecostal Holiness Church and Horace Ward of the Church of God. They wanted to create an academic forum for debate and dialogue.
Today, the society is an ethnically and religiously diverse body that offers graduate students, academic scholars and congregants an ecumenically centered academic environment which “serves the church world by providing a scholarly forum to interpret the Pentecostal movement.”
This past weekend, the Society for Pentecostal Studies held its 40th Annual SPS Conference in Memphis, honoring Memphis for being at an epicenter of Pentecostal history. Not only is the city the headquarters of the Church of God in Christ, but it is in the state of Tennessee, home of the Church of God, Cleveland, and sits on the border of Arkansas where the Assemblies of God were founded and Mississippi where COGIC first emerged.
The two-day conference included plenary lectures on the 2011 theme: “Receiving the Future: An Anointed Heritage.” Guests attended public interest group sessions, daily devotional and nightly worship services at historic COGIC churches, toured COGIC Holy Sites, and purchased the latest religious books from academic vendors.
On Wednesday and Thursday, Mother Mary P. Patterson (widow of Bishop James Oglethorpe Patterson Sr., who was elected as the first Presiding Bishop of the COGIC in 1968 and presided until his death in 1989) and Assemblies of God archivist Dr. Darrin Rodgers led a tour of COGIC holy sites in Lexington, Mississippi and Memphis accompanied by COGIC historian and Le Moyne-Owen College history professor Dr. Elton H. Weaver III and Boston University Sociology of Religion professor Dr. Anjulet Tucker, who offered the group commentary at each site.
Lexington’s mayor, Robyn M. McCrory, welcomed the tour group to the city, and Reverend Percy Washington Pastor of Sweet Canaan COGIC took the group to historic St. Paul COGIC, established in 1897 by Charles Harrison Mason (1866-1961) and fifty chartered members as the first COGIC church. The group also viewed the Lexington jail cell where Bishop Mason was jailed for allegedly violating the Espionage and Seditious Acts during World War I. Mason was accused of accepting German money and preaching pacifism. By the end of the war “sketchy evidence” caused the Bureau of Investigation (BI) to drop all charges against him.
While in Lexington, the group also visited COGIC’s Saints Industrial and Literary school, which was established in 1918 to train Black children in literary and industrial arts. That tour included Faith Hall, which was built by money donated from Reverend Adam Clayton Powell and the Abyssinian Baptist church and other black churches in the United States.
Dr. Arenia C. Mallory (1905-1983), a member of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and one of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune’s mentees, became the school’s principal in 1926. Under her leadership, Saints Industrial instituted a rigorous curriculum and top-notch industrial training program, becoming the first black high school in Holmes County, Miss. In the 1930s Mallory integrated the schools’ faculty. She later transformed the school (renamed Saints Academy) into a two-year junior college.
In Memphis, Mother Patterson and Dr. Rodgers led a tour of Mason Temple which was completed in 1945 and is where theologian and human rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., delivered his last speech. Mason Temple cost more than $250,000 to build, sat thousands of people, and was the largest black auditorium in the South. The original Temple included conference rooms, a post office, baggage room, beauty and barber shops, a cafeteria, an industrial kitchen, a clinic, prayer rooms, and offices.
Thursday morning Dr. Raynard Smith chaired the COGIC Scholars Fellowship History Symposium entitled “You Can’t Tell It, Let Me Tell It: Excavating the Work and the Witness of Pioneering COGIC Saints.” During that session Dr. Elton H. Weaver III, Mrs. Glenda Goodson, Mr. Calvin McBride, Dr. Ladrian Brown, and Mother Juanita Faulkner presented 100 years of COGIC history to the Society.
Thursday night COGIC theologian Dr. David Daniels spoke about “Forging an Ecumenical Future, Framing the Afro-Pentecostal Past” at Mason Temple, where COGIC’s founder, Bishop Charles Harrison Mason is entombed in its lobby. Bishop Mason intended to organize an interracial Pentecostal conference, but died before the plan came to fruition. By holding its 40th annual SPS Conference in Memphis, the Society for Pentecostal Studies fulfills the late Bishop Mason’s desire to hold an interracial and interdenominational conference in the city.
Dr. Elton Weaver is COGIC historian and Assistant Professor of History at LeMoyne-Owen College.