The National Association of the Church of God
In the early 1900s, segregation worked to make daily life difficult for black people by creating both explicit and implicit color lines that separated different races.. The problem of this color line was evident in many Church of God congregations, creating both positive and negative repercussions. On the positive side, the Church of God movement was growing and spreading among different racial groups. On the negative side, there was little contact between churches with different racial makeups. This lack of interaction, ironically, went against the Church of God’s emphasis on unity.¹
Because there was such an obvious divide, African American churches were networked together. Activities were organized by the African Americans in the Church of God, currently referred to as the National Association of the Church of God, which was—and is—headquartered in West Middlesex, Pennsylvania.
The idea of the National Association of the Church of God was born in 1901. Ernest Wimbish was a baptist who had a vision of “a large gathering of Christians meeting for worship and fellowship at a hillside camp setting.”² After moving to Pennsylvania, Ernest and his wife, Priscilla, started the work necessary to bring the dream to fruition. Eventually, they connected with the Church of God in 1913.
In 1917, after facing difficulties related to advertising and finding a location, the African Americans of the Church of God held their first camp meeting in West Middlesex, Pennsylvania. There were approximately 3,000 people in attendance at the first meeting. Attendance at successive camp meetings increased as Black leaders began feeling disengaged and alienated from the main body of the Church of God.
The worship at these camp meetings blended three music types: traditional Black spirituals, Church of God hymns, and rhythmic gospel style. The unique blend of music helped Black worshipers from all backgrounds express their faith and experience. The preaching style at this camp meeting was similar to the preaching styles of Black churches. Massey describes the style of preaching in predominantly Black churches as “both a communicative and community act.”³ The preaching at West Middlesex was exactly that.
Because the founders of the National Association were determined to spread the Gospel to African American communities around the country, they implemented leadership teams in the same fashion that the Church of God organized its national agencies. Very early on, a Ministers’ Assembly was established. In 1921, a Board of Christian Education and a National Youth Fellowship were formed. Shortly after that, a Foreign Missions board was started. Not only did these organizations help spread the word of God—and the National Association—they also created a sense of belonging for African Americans within the Church of God community.
The growing influence of the National Association caused mixed responses from different groups within the Church of God movement. Some Black leaders feared the growth of the National Association was a threat to previously established Black traditions. Other Black congregants felt the establishment of the National Association created a space of belonging in the faith community. On the other side of the racial line, some white leaders viewed the Association as a threat to the movement’s pre-established order.
In his book, African Americans and the Church of God, James Earl Massey provides context as to why white leaders feared the National Association as a threat:
“Black leaders in the Movement never made or even advised an organized defection from the Movement, as had happened in other denominations. They viewed the development at West Middlesex as but another organizational arm of the Church. But lacking at that time a framework for the developing structure within the Church, White leaders could only view the Association as a problem at best.”⁴
In summary, the National Association created a sense of belonging for Black worshipers in the Church of God—away from the hotbed of Klan action that had taken root in Central Indiana. The West Middlesex camp meeting provided a place for African Americans to gather and worship in a space and way that was comfortable for them. Conversely, the creation of the National Association changed the definition of unity, an idea paramount to the Church of God’s theology. As the Church of God started splitting along racial lines, the longstanding teaching of unity in the Church of God was challenged.
1. James Earl Massey, African Americans and the Church of God: Aspects of a Social History (Anderson: Anderson University Press, 2005), 71.
2. Massey, African Americans and the Church of God, 72.
3. Massey, African Americans and the Church of God, 82.
4. Massey, African Americans and the Church of God, 87.