This Week in AG History -- July 25, 1936
One hundred years ago, the Assemblies of God ordained its first African American minister, Ellsworth S. Thomas of Binghamton, New York. Ellsworth was largely absent from the pages of the Pentecostal Evangel, other than a brief mention of his death, published 79 years ago this week.
Recently uncovered information about Ellsworth sheds new light on this African American pioneer in the Assemblies of God. Ellsworth was part of a flourishing but small community of free blacks that existed in Binghamton in the nineteenth century. Historian Debra Adleman, who wrote about the black community in Binghamton, noted that many had escaped slavery, moved north, and formed a close-knit community. They overcame racism and societal restrictions, developed strong families, and carved out their own religious, economic, and social niche in the region.
Ellsworth S. Thomas was born in 1866 in New York. His father, Samuel, was born in Maryland in 1830 and worked as a laborer. Samuel was also a Civil War veteran, serving for three years as a private in the Massachusetts 54th Infantry. Ellsworth was born about nine months after his father returned home from the war. Ellsworth's mother, Mahala, was born in 1842 in Pennsylvania and worked as a laundress. Ellsworth was the eldest of two children born to the couple. After Samuel passed away in the early 1890s, Ellsworth lived with his mother and cared for her. Census records show that they owned a modest house and that most of their neighbors were white. He did not attend school, but he could read and write.
Binghamton city directories from the 1890s reveal that Ellsworth was a laundryman. By 1900, though, they listed his occupation as a traveling evangelist. His name first appeared in the Assemblies of God ministers' directory in October 1915, which stated that he was a "colored" pastor in Binghamton. He remained an active Assemblies of God minister for the remainder of his life.
In 1917, the Assemblies of God 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 R. E. Erdman, pastor of a large congregation in Buffalo, New York. Correspondence in his ministerial file from reveals that Ellsworth also pastored a congregation in Beaver Meadows, New York.
The Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center holds a 1936 letter from Paul Westendorf that 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." Ellsworth S. Thomas' passing was briefly noted on page 13 of the July 25, 1936, issue of the Pentecostal Evangel.
No photograph of Ellsworth S. Thomas has yet been located. Persons with additional information about the life and ministry of Ellsworth S. Thomas are encouraged to contact the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center at [email protected].
As the Assemblies of God continues to become more ethnically diverse, it is increasingly important that its history books include stories from the varied backgrounds of believers.
Other articles featured in the July 25, 1936, issue:
• "Reckless for God," by Beatrice V. Pannabecker
• "Victors and Victims of Faith," by J. O. Savell
• "How God is working in the Gold Coast," by Brother and Sister H. B. Garlock
And many more!
Pentecostal Evangel archived editions courtesy of the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center.