This is one of the more humble churches to be listed as a City of Detroit Designated Historic District.
With regard to religion, there has been a great deal of innovation in the American colonies throughout the history of the United States. To be sure, this is a nation in which almost all believed in God and publically displayed their religious beliefs, typically by membership in a local congregation. But the denominational line up has changed, along with substantial shifts in religious practice.
Many individuals have established new denomination or had the entrepreneurial skills to create their own large churches now called megachurches. Think of John Wesley’s development of Methodism in Georgia in his prolonged efforts to reinvigorate the Church of England. Or, Joseph Smith and his popularization of the innovative Mormon faith starting in upstate New York in the early Nineteenth Century. Think of Detroit’s Father Charles Coughlin, the first preacher to realize that the airwaves might be used to reach a tremendous audience, a practice the evolved into the televangelical movement some sixty years later. We often celebrate the tremendous technological developments that make the United States very different in 2012 from what it was when the Declaration of Independence was signed. Less frequently do we comment upon the tremendous innovations that have changed the nation’s religious landscape and altered the way that religious leaders popularize their beliefs.
One period of change occurred in the late Nineteenth Century in the American South and then spread throughout the Midwest as southern residents moved to the Midwest for employment. Revivals became popular as the nation’s rail system allowed people to travel short distances to attend meetings—lasting a couple of days or a week—where a charismatic and dynamic preacher would draw a large audience with his—or in the case of Amiee Sample McPherson—her preaching. The nation has a long list of evangelists who were briefly very popular using techniques from tent revivals to television to draw believers and contributors. Perhaps the most popular and famous revivalist was the former Chicago Cubs player—Billy Sunday—who toured the nation from about 1907 to the early 1930s. Sunday patrolled right field for the Cubs when they played the Detroit National League team at Recreation Park in the late 1880s. Many of the most successful revivalists founded their own churches. McPherson founded her Foursquare Gospel church but Billy Sunday did not establish his own denomination.
The Church of God in Christ was founded in 1897 by Charles Harrison Mason, the son of a slave, and by Charles Price Jones. They were trained as Baptist ministers and were strongly influenced by Amanda Berry Smith, an African Methodist evangelist who was widely accepted as the leader of the Black holiness movement of the 1890s. The Holiness Movement developed in the late Nineteenth Century and emphasized that an individual’s good works alone would not free him or her from sin or assure salvation. However, Christian baptism and an infusion of the Holy Spirit could protect a person from sin and guarantee eventual salvation. This is a very truncated summary of the Holiness movement.
There were many new churches emerging in the South at this time as the revivalist movement spread. The preachers who established them often used the name God or Christ in their title. In the 1890s, Charles Mason developed an extensive following by preaching at Baptist churches and leading revivals in Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee. While walking down a street in Little Rock in 1897, Charles Mason got the inspiration to call his group—then still affiliated with the Baptists—the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), a name that continues today. In 1899, the National Baptist Convention expelled Charles Mason and his followers for holding dissident theological views. You wonder, however, if the great success of their revivals made them less than welcome to many pastors of established Baptists churches in the upper South.
The early Church of God in Christ was full of conflict and those who disagreed with Charles Mason split off from his group and sued about the use of the name. By 1907, however, Mason established himself and his church in Memphis as a holiness- Pentecostal religion. In the Christian tradition, on the feast of Pentecost—fifty days after Easter—the Holy Ghost represented Himself in tongues of fire and descended upon the apostles filling them with the grace and spirit that allowed them to establish the Christian church. This anointing by the Holy Spirit played a key role in the spiritual structure of the Pentecostal churches.
Charles Mason remained a leading but controversial figure in the COGIC until his death in 1961. I infer that he was a rather strong and dominating leader during the decades when his church became a large denomination. In 2012, the COGIC ranks among the ten largest Protestant groups. Interestingly, this church in its early decades sought to save the souls of both whites and blacks. In the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth century, there were very few racially integrated Protestant denominations but the COGIC, although led by African Americans, sought to include whites. After the Supreme Court’s 1896 decision approving state laws calling for Jim Crow segregation, southern states adopted many laws mandating racial separation and the practice spread to the North where it was widely endorsed. The Supreme Court, in 1908, even approved a Kentucky Jim Crow law mandating racial segregation in private schools including Bible colleges. This put quite a damper on the integrationist efforts of COGIC and, by the 1930s, it was a primarily black denomination.
As blacks moved from the South to the North, they brought their religious traditions with them. This congregation on Mack Avenue in Detroit was founded by Isaiah Winans who had been born in Mississippi in 1875. In 1912, he was converted to the COGIC faith and, three years later, he was ordained a minister. In 1918, he and his family, along with many other southerners, migrated to Detroit. He became affiliated with the two established COGIC congregations in Detroit but, in 1919, Isaiah Winans and his followers established their own Clinton Street COGIC in Detroit with a meeting place on that thoroughfare.
Very many congregations built churches or synagogues in Detroit in the 1920s since their members often held challenging but high paying jobs in the vehicle industry. The Clinton Street congregation purchased land at the corner of Mack and Chene in the 1920s and, in 1929, took out a building permit to construct the church you see. The total cost of construction was to be about $72,000.
I noted that this was not the most attractive house of worship in Detroit. Mortgage lenders were skeptical about the ability of this African-American congregation to pay for the church so they insisted that it be designed so that the building could be converted into a factory or apartment building. Hence, the very utilitarian composition of this church. Indeed, the mortgage holder insisted that windows suitable for a factory be installed. Despite the Depression, the congregation was able to pay off their mortgage.
In 1944, Pastor Isaiah Winans and this congregation had a major disagreement with Charles Mason and the national COGIC headquarters in Memphis. This congregation split with the Memphis organization and established a new denomination: The Congregation Church of God in Christ. In 1968, shortly after the death of founder Isiah Winans, the name of this church was changed to its current identification; Zion Congregation Church of God in Christ.
This is a utilitarian, two-story building faced in brick. The name Church of God in Christ is engraved in stone on the front. The central bay is flanked by brick piers that include second floor windows. There is a minimum amount of Arts and Crafts decorative trim to suggest that this is really a church.
Date of construction: 1929
Architect: Unknown to me
Architectural Style: A few Arts and Crafts elements
Use in 2012: Church
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Listed
State of Michigan Register of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Register of Historic Places: Not listed
Photograph: Ren Farley; November 17, 2012
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