Martin Luther King's famous last speech, the prescient "I have been to the mountain top" oration given the night before he was assassinated, was delivered at the Mason Temple in Memphis. I had long wondered why a Baptist minister would be speaking in a Masonic temple. But, as I discovered when I started teaching about American religion, the Mason Temple is not connected with the Masons, the sometimes anti-Christian secret society. Rather, it is the central edifice of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), founded by Rev. C.H. Mason.
COGIC is the largest black Pentecostal denomination in the United States. It might be the largest black denomination of any kind in this country. Sometimes they claim a membership of 5.5 million, which would make it a top-ten American denomination of any kind. However, that number is probably a highly optimistic estimate. Still, it is pretty big. There are more black Baptists in this country, but they are divided into several principal denominations, including King's own, the Progressive National Baptists.
In 1968, when King spoke at the Mason Temple, what was most important about the venue that night was not that it was Pentecostal, but that it was black controlled. Ministers of many denominations worked together for the larger cause of civil rights. Since the 1960s, though, Pentecostalism has boomed. My rough estimate (and it is rough, given the available numbers) is that there were probably more people in either of the two largest black Baptist denominations (both called National Baptist) at that time than there were COGIC members. Since then, though, Pentecostal growth rates worldwide have outstripped even the respectable growth rates of all kinds of theologically conservative Baptists. Pentecostal denominations, including COGIC, are only now starting to get the recognition that their numbers have long suggested.
In yet another, less expected way, King was prescient that night in Memphis. When he was speaking to the future of race relations in America, he was also, indirectly, speaking in a vital house of the future of black Protestantism.