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Remembering the Assemblies of God's Black Heritage

African American ministers played important roles in the early decades of the Assemblies of God as pastors, evangelists, and missionaries.

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center blog and has been adapted for AG News and republished with permission.

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. In 1906, 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.

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 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. Robertson 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.

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 (now Northpoint Bible College) 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. Today, ten percent of Assemblies of God USA members are black. As a whole, ethnic minorities account for 44% 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.

TOP IMAGE: Eddie and Ruth Washington

LOWER IMAGES: Slide #1 - William J. Seymour, Slide #2 - Isaac S. Neely, Slide #3 - Cornelia Jones Robertson, Slide #4 - Bob Harrison and Billy Graham

Darrin J. Rodgers

Darrin J. Rodgers has served as director of the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center (FPHC) since 2005. He earned a master's degree in theological studies from Assemblies of God Theological Seminary and a juris doctorate from the University of North Dakota School of Law. He previously served at the David du Plessis Archive and the McAlister Library at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of Northern Harvest , a history of Pentecostalism in North Dakota. His FPHC portfolio includes acquisitions, editing Assemblies of God Heritage magazine, and conducting oral history interviews. His wife, Desiree, is an ordained AG minister.