Gilbert Earl Patterson preached his first sermon on a Tuesday evening in his father’s church 50 years ago. He was 17.
“I wasn’t nervous about preaching,” Patterson told me 10 years ago at his own church in Memphis. “I was afraid no one would come.”
People came. They kept coming for half a century — at first by the hundreds to hear the pastor’s son, then by the thousands to hear G.E. Patterson himself, the young man who went on to become the most influential and popular figure in America’s leading black Pentecostal denomination, the five-million-member Church of God in Christ.
Patterson, elected presiding bishop of the Church of God in Christ in 2000, died Tuesday in Memphis after a two-year battle with prostate cancer. He was 67.
“Bishop Patterson was a stabilizing figure, a bridge figure between older and younger members of the denomination,” said Dr. Robert Franklin, a professor at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and a member of the Church of God in Christ.
“He helped bring the church forward out of its insularity and into interaction in the public square. He moved the entire denomination forward with the force of his own piety and his dynamic personality and preaching.”
Patterson, who was born in a small West Tennessee town, the nephew of legendary J.O. Patterson Sr., COGIC’s presiding bishop from 1961-1989, didn’t see himself as merely a preacher.
“I’m a spokesman for the Holy Ghost,” he often told me.
In Patterson’s view, he was called to transmit the plain truth, the raw gospel, the inspired, infallible word of God.
He preached without notes, usually for 30-45 minutes, his deep, resonant voice starting slow and low then picking up steam, moving from a whisper to a shout, from talking to singing, from solemn to sanctified.
He never stood behind a podium and he never stood still for long. He used the altar as a stage, jumping and shaking from one side to the other, wiping perspiration from his brow with one hand, orchestrating the movements of the congregation with the other.
He was the only COGIC preacher with an international TV audience. BET and TBN broadcast his weekly sermons around the world. His Bountiful Blessings ministries employed more than 100 people and included a preschool, Bible college, radio station and bookstore in Memphis. Tapes of his sermons sold in the tens of thousands.
Patterson’s defining moment as the denomination’s spiritual leader came in 1996, when he challenged then-presiding bishop Chandler David Owens. It was the first time in COGIC’s 90 years that a presiding bishop had been challenged for re-election.
Owens was the last of the old-guard bishops who preferred to keep COGIC as isolated as possible from scrutiny within and outside the denomination. Patterson, by then the denomination’s most popular preacher, also had become its leading advocate for crossing ecumenical, interfaith, interracial and even secular boundaries.
Owen was re-elected by a single vote, 1,429-1,428. Patterson’s supporters, including a number of bishops, immediately called for a recount. Patterson waved them off.
“Thank you for your support,” he told the denomination’s 89th General Assembly in Memphis, “but I never want to see the Church of God in Christ split over whether I should have been elected presiding bishop.”
Patterson’s broader view made him more popular than ever. Four years later, the pastor’s son was elected presiding bishop by a wide margin. He spent the past seven years trying to lead COGIC into this world.
“I’m not worried about dying, but I’m not happy about leaving,” Patterson told me a few months ago. “There’s a lot of work to do. The Holy Ghost keeps me busy.”
David Waters, On Faith producer, covered the Church of God in Christ for years as a reporter and columnist for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis.