AFRICAN-AMERICANS IN UNITY
African-American Contribution to Unity
African Americans in Unity
Here are seven profiles (six with pictures) of African Americans who contributed to the growth of Unity in the early years: Ruth Cox, James Elliot, Henrietta Gorden, Courtnay Johnson, Helen Mouton, Corine Smith, Frieda Ann Whitfeld.
The contributions of these seven people are modest compared to the better-known contributions of Johnnie Colemon, Ruth Mosley and Barbara King. But I believe that the story of these seven unknown African Americans is more important than those of their better-known counterparts and I also believe that the story of African Americans in Unity really hasn't yet been told. Let me explain what I mean.
The Prosperity Gospel and African Americans
A little background about African Americans and American religion. Kate Bowler, a well-respected scholar of the Prosperity gospel, has written that, starting in the 1920s and 1930s, a small but significant number of African Americans drew from New Thought and spread the metaphysical gospel in the urban North, primarily Chicago and Detroit.1,2 Bowler writes that "Metaphysical gospels spread in the urban North, as leaders like Sweet Daddy Grace, Prophet James Jones, Father Divine, and, later, Reverend Ike promised to smooth the rough edges of capitalism and industrialism with theologies that countered poverty, disease, and despair."
However these "metaphysical gospels" were not just an African-American adaptations of New Thought ideas. According to Bowler, they were a "cross-pollination" of New Thought, pentecostalism and "African-derived traditions" that "asserted the importance of materiality, prosperity and religious access to the good life." Prosperity theology in African-American religion was prominent by the 1970s and by the 1990s had led to "an emerging generation of black prosperity preachers; reflected the optimism of arising black middle class, who thirsted for a gospel that made sense of their newfound economic gains."
African Americans and Unity
This adaptation and transformation of theology is characterized by Sir John Templeton, who wrote
“Wherever we find ourselves in life, whatever the circumstances, whatever habits may be influencing our decisions, we can transform each situation into a learning and growing experience. We can determine how to be the masters of our habits so that our habits can be useful servants to us.”
The John Templeton Foundation characterizes this as "universal truths of character development" which are "qualities of character" that emphasize "awe, creativity, curiosity, diligence, entrepreneurialism, forgiveness, future-mindedness, generosity, gratitude, honesty, humility, joy, love, purpose, reliability, and thrift."3
The story that has been written until now about African-Americans in Unity is how white leadership in Unity treated African Americans. But we don't have the story of why African Americans were attracted to the Unity message in the first place. The story we have about Johnnie Colemon, Ruth Mosley and Barbara King is about Unity leadership; it isn't about the success of these women nor about the the affinity that African Americans had to the Unity message which led to the success of Colemon, Mosley and King. That is what the article by Kate Bowler and the quotation from Sir John Templeton alludes to and that is the story which remains to be written.
Why Documenting African-American Contribution to Unity in Important
These seven modest stories of African American contributions to Unity are important because they give us a foundation to answer important questions. Why is it that New Thought ideas resonated so deeply in African-American culture? And why is it that the growth of those ideas occurred mainly outside of Unity? Why is it that the most successful Unity congregational minister left Unity to found the UFBL? Finally, what should we in Unity be doing to open our doors to those African Americans who are seeking a gospel of health and prosperity and how would that bless Unity?
I believe the first step in answering these questions is accumulating accounts and testimonies from more early African-American pioneers in Unity. From that base of primary research material, historians, sociologists and religious studies scholars will have the source material necessary for writing about the contribution of African Americans to Unity — documenting their hopes and dreams, their struggle with racism and poverty and their development of "universal truths of character" — and then we will begin to have our answers.
The Book of Ruth by Vertell Allison-Talifero
A recent and important contribution is Vertell Allison-Talifero's The Book of Ruth, a moving account of Ruth Mosley and her founding of the Unity Urban Ministerial School. We need more material like that.
What I can do at TruthUnity is to collect primary source material and make it available for those who are qualified to write.
I am inviting those who have stories and photographs of early African-American Unity teachers and ministers to send them to me so that those stories are available here.
Kate Bowler, “Blessed Bodies: Healing within the African-American Faith Movement,” in Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Healing (Oxford University Press, 2011).
Bowler, Catherine. "Blessed: A History Of The American Prosperity Gospel". Graduate Program in Religion Duke University. Graduate School of Duke University, 2010.
John Templeton Foundation. "Character Virtue Development" Web. 15 May 2016. < https://www.templeton.org/what-we-fund/core-funding-areas/character-virt...
Unity Honors Pioneering African-American Minister
Aug. 25, 2016
UNITY VILLAGE, Mo.—More than 200 people gathered as Unity Village Mayor David Vest proclaimed Aug. 24, 2016, as Johnnie Colemon Day. Guests from Chicago, Baltimore, other U.S. cities, and Kingston, Jamaica, honored the influential Chicago minister at an afternoon service in the Silent Unity Chapel, followed by plaque and paver dedications in the Rose Garden and Prayer Garden.
The service began with a procession led by officials from Unity World Headquarters, Unity Worldwide Ministries, Christ Universal Temple, and the Universal Foundation for Better Living (UFBL). Speakers included Rev. Dr. Sheila McKeithen, UFBL president, and Rev. Dr. Derrick Wells, senior minister, Christ Universal Temple. In addition, guests watched a video tribute from entertainer Ben Vereen.
The Rev. Dr. Colemon was the first African-American to live at Unity Village, and one of the first African-Americans to be ordained a Unity minister. She was also the first African-American elected president of the Association of Unity Churches (now Unity Worldwide Ministries).
Colemon is best known as the pioneering founder of one of Chicago’s largest and most influential churches, Christ Universal Temple, established in 1956. In 1974, she founded the Universal Foundation for Better Living, an international association of New Thought Christian churches and study groups. The Johnnie Colemon Theological Seminary is named in her honor. She passed away in 2014, at age 94.
Memories of Martin Luther King Jr.
One Sunday evening in 1967, a bright-eyed 17-year-old student at Spelman College walked inside Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and looked squarely into the eyes of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he extended the right hand of fellowship—a traditional gesture of Baptist church membership.
With this gesture, Martin Luther King Jr. and his father—a man everyone affectionately called “Daddy” King—officially became pastors of Rev. Jacquelyn Hawkins. Hawkins recalled how that long-ago moment changed her life.
“I remember that night very vividly. My classmates and I at Spelman were standing there and Dr. King stood next to me and offered his hand. I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness!’ and I was immediately struck by two things,” Hawkins said. “One was that he was so short in stature that I could eyeball him. The second was that he was such a humble man. He was not unapproachable, and I could actually feel the warmth and genuine compassion coming from him.
“Here was this international figure who led the march on Washington and won the Nobel Peace Prize, yet he was so humble that he looked me right in the eyes with genuine warmth. When I first saw his face, I knew he was a man of deep spiritual conviction and love,” Hawkins added.
From then on, Hawkins realized she had a personal obligation to do her best because Martin Luther King Jr. exemplified such greatness.
Hawkins herself was no stranger to the Civil Rights Movement.
Her father, Rev. E. C. Hawkins, was a leader in the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Longview, Texas. Hawkins witnessed her father’s many sit-ins at area lunch counters and countless marches.
“I knew it was dangerous to be in the movement,” said Hawkins. “I was afraid for my father and my older brother who marched alongside of him. We knew that people had been killed because they broke the unwritten rule of “stay in your place” or dared to go into segregated places. I saw how the white establishment treated him and his fellow clergymen. But, my father, like Dr. King, showed me the importance of loving your enemies. Above all, they preached the word of love.”
Hawkins would personally hear close to 15 of Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermons at Ebenezer.
“Every cell in my body would come alive when he spoke. Dynamic doesn’t even describe him. He was such a powerful orator and his command of the material was unquestionable. He wrote all of his sermons, and when he delivered them he gave his all,” Hawkins said. “Coaches often tell their football players to leave nothing on the field. Well, that was how Dr. King was. There was nothing left unsaid because he gave his all in the pulpit. He poured out his heart every single time. By the middle of his sermon, people were always up on their feet and by the end they were shouting and hand-clapping. He raised that type of excitement each and every time, and by the time he finished, both he and the members were exhausted and exhilarated.”
At Ebenezer, Daddy King and Dr. King rarely spoke directly about civil rights in the Sunday morning service, but there was an unspoken understanding that the movement was heavy on their hearts, and equality for blacks and other disenfranchised people should be on the minds of the congregation as well.
“Dr. King and his family wanted people to know that the Civil Rights Movement was really all about love—people loving their fellow man. He would say that this was a spiritual movement, not just a Civil Rights movement,” said Hawkins.
On April 4, 1968, Hawkins was in her dorm room at Spelman when the news broke that Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed in Memphis. “I didn’t believe it at first. It wasn’t until our housemother called us all downstairs that I knew it was true. There was a lot of crying, hugging, and hysteria,” Hawkins said. “We were immediately put on lockdown because of the possibility of violence. Atlanta was his home, so there was this fear.”
The last time Hawkins saw Martin Luther King Jr. was in a coffin as his body was brought home to Sisters Chapel at Spelman. Hawkins recalls a “sea” of people at the funeral, including celebrities and dignitaries from all over the world.
Although Martin Luther King Jr. has been laid to rest, his vision continues for Hawkins and others.
“One of the refrains from a song Dr. King loved was that my living will not be in vain. He lived that. So my desire is that, as I move forward in this ministry that my living will not be in vain, meaning that I will live a life of faith and contribute to uplifting people and their consciousness with the understanding that we are all here to love and help one another,” Hawkins said. “By doing this, I not only honor Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy, I honor my father; I honor myself.”
Rev. Jacquelyn Hawkins is a minister at Unity of the Heartland in Olathe, Kan. Previously, she was a deputy comptroller for human resources and administration at the Office of the New York State Comptroller.
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