It is the 12th of January 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1960.
The decade would become known for, among other things, its advances in civil rights for African Americans. In 1960, the Supreme Court of the United States made its ruling in the landmark Boynton v. Virginia case. This would be the beginning of the end of "separate but equal."
In the same year, Ernest Evans had a hit covering a Hank Ballard song. That might not seem newsworthy until you know that Ernest Evans was black, would later go by the name "Chubby Checker," and the song was "the Twist." It became an instant hit and catalyst for other African Americans who would be signed by record labels citing Chubby's popularity. The dance itself was open to interpretation. Some praised it for allowing individuals to dance without partners but fears of "race-mixing" while dancing spoked more than a few. Chubby Evans would go on American Bandstand where Dick Clark's wife suggested the name "Chubby Checker" as a nod to "Fats Domino."
In 1960, a young African American from Kentucky became a household name by demolishing the competition at the 1960 Rome Olympics. The 18-year-old Cassius Clay would turn pro later in the year. Four years later, Clay would change his name to Muhammed Ali on account of his membership in the Nation of Islam. The Nation of Islam would become a popular community for some African Americans with its emphases placed less on historic Islam and more on the nature of modern oppression.
Throughout the 20th century, a parallel group found popularity amongst disenfranchised African Americans parallels to the Christian church, the United House of Prayer for All People. And it was the founder of this peculiar community, Bishop Sweet Daddy Grace, also known as Charles Emmanuel Grace, who died on this day, the 12th of January in 1960.
Charles Emmanuel Grace was born Marceline Manoel da Graca in the Verde Islands off West Africa. The family had connections to both the Catholic Church on the island and the newly founded Nazarene church. These two influences can be seen throughout much of the Bishop's ecclesiastical aesthetic.
Charles immigrated to New Bedford, Massachusetts, around the turn of the century and worked on Cape Cod as a short-order cook and sewing machine salesman. He built his first House of Prayer in 1920 in Massachusetts before taking a trip to Egypt to found a house of prayer there. Despite this, Charles would not find common ground with Marcus Garvey, the pan Africanist and supporter of repatriating the descendants of slaves back to their homeland. But Charles would neither go the direction of W.E.B. Dubois, who saw racial integration as an essential and necessary step. Charles Grace used the language of class, not race, and insisted that he was not black but identified with his Portuguese heritage instead.
Grace appointed himself bishop of his new church, which was based on the Holiness-Pentecostal model. But as you might guess, with someone who would appoint themself Bishop, the group began to resemble more of a cult of personality than a church. With his long hair and overgrown fingernails, the man they called "Sweet Daddy" seemed to have a penchant for the bizarre. They performed public baptisms, once famously with a firehose, and his theology was eventually disconnected from anything within the generally accepted pale of Christian orthodoxy. The popular spectacle of the baptism led to a doctrine of "multiple baptisms." He was also criticized for his theory of "one man" leadership, pointing to the example of Noah, Moses, and Jesus, who were also sole authorities.
Today, the United House of Prayer for All People has 10s of thousands of adherents, with each successive Bishop taking the title "Sweet Daddy." However, Charles did not want any one figure taking the spotlight at his funeral, and thus when he died. The eulogy was given by Charles himself via recording. He died on this, the 12th of January in 1960.
The reading for today comes from Frederick Buechner and his "Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale."
"It is a world of magic and mystery, of deep darkness and flickering starlight. It is a world where terrible things happen and wonderful things too. It is a world where goodness is pitted against evil, love against hate, order against chaos, in a great struggle where often it is hard to be sure who belongs to which side because appearances are endlessly deceptive. Yet for all its confusion and wildness, it is a world where the battle goes ultimately to the good, who live happily ever after, and where in the long run everybody, good and evil alike, becomes known by his true name….That is the fairy tale of the Gospel with, of course, one crucial difference from all other fairy tales, which is that the claim made for it is that it is true, that it not only happened once upon a time but has kept on happening ever since and is happening still."
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 12th of January 2020 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by a man who was almost kicked out of seminary for insisting that his profs call him "Sweet Daddy," Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day, and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.