Pentecostal Pioneers: Benjamin Harrison Pemberton
By Roger Bailey
On March 24, 1891, Kelles Jasper and Julia Ann Pemberton were at their home in Edgewood, Illinois, awaiting the family doctor. Just a quarter of a mile away, the old country doctor was driving his horse and buggy up the small dirt road. “Get along now, Dolly, we must hurry a bit. Things like this can’t wait on time or tide. Reckon this is about the sixth time I have visited the K. J. Pembertons with a youngster. Must be getting pretty crowded up there in that little house by now.”
When he reached the tiny log cabin, K. J. was waiting outside. “Go on in, Doc. I’ll take care of your horse,” said K. J.
Wasting no time, the doctor rushed into the room where Mrs. Pemberton was and delivered the smallest “squirming bit of humanity” he had ever seen, a boy weighing just two and a half pounds. Kelles Jasper and Julia Ann, both Republicans and politically minded, named the newborn after the president, Benjamin Harrison.
Six years later, three more children had been added to the family. Benjamin, like most children, was energetic and could often be found playing or wrestling with his siblings and friends.
Although his family lived in Edgewood, they socialized and shopped in the town of Iola. It was located up the road and was central to most of the surrounding area.
At the age of seven, while Benjamin was walking in the woods, the Lord spoke to him with words of promise. He told Benjamin that he would reach many people with the gospel, and this thrilled Benjamin’s soul for a long period of time. However, several events eventually caused Benjamin to forget the promise he had received.
When Benjamin was in the fifth grade, one of his brothers died, and his father became ill. Benjamin quit school and helped the family with farming. This transition in life caused Benjamin to seek manhood and forget about his childhood play. He started hanging around rough kids and drinking almost every night. Things continued this way until Benjamin’s brother Granvil gave news of work in Arkansas. They both spent a couple of years working there until Benjamin felt the need to return home.
Benjamin’s family had attended a trinitarian Pentecostal church since his youth. It was located in Byers’ Grove and was the first church established there by the Byers family. After Benjamin’s return, however, he continued drinking and carousing as he had before.
In 1909, evangelists Fred and Harry Blunt came to Iola from Arkansas. Benjamin was impressed with the large crowds that gathered to hear these brothers and decided to go find out what was so interesting about them. He was later baptized, along with several of his family members, by Harry Blunt, and he received the Holy Ghost. By 1913, Benjamin had regained his childhood desire to reach souls with the gospel of Christ and preached his first sermon at the church in Byers’ Grove. During his message, the Lord told Benjamin to go to St. Louis, where he would find guidance in yielding to Him.
Kelles Jasper was upset with his son’s decision because he felt there were enough “jack-legged” preachers going around. This was the common term used for insincere men who tried to claim the call of God to preach.
Without his father’s blessing, Benjamin left for St. Louis with his Gospel of St. John in hand. Before he left town, however, a neighbor lady approached him and told of how the Lord instructed her to give him the address of one of her friends, Mother Moise.
Maria Christina Gill Moise conducted a training home for Christian workers during the last twenty years of her life. Prior to this, she ran a rescue home for wayward girls on North Eleventh Street. The St. Louis Police Department held high regard for Mother Moise and often sent runaways to her. In fact, she was given first prize at the 1904 World’s Fair for her devoted help in the community.
However, in 1913, Mother Moise became ill and sought the Lord for someone to take over her responsibilities. She expected someone with wealth and culture, as she had been, to be converted and sent. But God’s ways are not our ways and Mother Moise was soon to find this out.
Upon his arrival at St. Louis, Benjamin went to 2829 Washington Avenue. Mrs. Hunger, the housekeeper, answered the door. “Is this Mother Moise’s home?” asked Benjamin. “I was sent here by Mrs. Woolridge.” Mrs. Hunger stated that Mother was ill but invited Benjamin to stay for lunch.
After Benjamin prayed over the meal, the Spirit fell on everyone at the table. Mother Moise could hear the commotion from her upstairs room and inquired who in the world was making so much noise.
The workers took Benjamin to Mother’s room, where he prayed for her. She was healed instantly. The Lord spoke to Mother Moise, “This boy is another David. He needs much training, but I will tear down everything in him.” Mother’s prayer was finally answered.
Mother’s curriculum for Benjamin was washing, ironing, scrubbing, helping with general repairs, and of course, studying the Bible and praying. The menial tasks were not what Benjamin thought acceptable for an ambitious young minister who was called of God, but he swallowed his pride and agreed to cooperate.
Mother, Benjamin, and about six others met every night at the mission halls for services. Their offerings seldom accumulated over fifteen cents. Benjamin brought a new experience to Pentecost that Mother was not accustomed to, though, for he kept order within the services by throwing out anyone who disturbed them. His preaching was also impressive for such a young person, and sinners were coming from all over to hear this anointed man.
The St. Louis Post Dispatch did a big write-up and nicknamed Benjamin “Brother Ben.” Of course, this term was intended sarcastically, but it furnished Benjamin with an easy way for all members and newcomers to remember him by.
As a young man at the home, Brother Ben conducted many evangelistic meetings with large crowds and had great success in getting people to turn to God. After some time, he gained confidence in his own ability and even thought about leaving the home. While preaching at an Illinois meeting, the Lord asked him if he desired to be an Esau a worldly and prosperous following, or did he prefer to be a Jacob who had the spiritual birthright and was blessed in the Spirit. Brother Ben decided to choose the way of Jacob, and that meant returning to Mother Moise in St. Louis and being instructed in the way of the Spirit.
This particular Illinois meeting was in a new field for the Pentecostal message. Local hoodlums would throw stones during the services, and Satan tried to prevent any success on the last night of this meeting. However, victory came when twenty people were gloriously filled with the Holy Ghost.
In 1914, the doctrine of Oneness and Jesus Name baptism began to grow rapidly on the West Coast. Mother Moise and Brother Ben, being trinitarians, prayed that it would not spread to the Midwest. At this time, the Assemblies of God had their headquarters in St. Louis on 2800 Easton Avenue, and some of the officials from this organization were living in Mother Moise’s home. Also during this time, Mother Moise, Brother Ben, and others held services at a hall on 3032 Olive Street.
Mother Moise began receiving tracts on Jesus Name baptism and the Godhead as well as a religious magazine published by Elder Frank J. Ewart of Los Angeles. Brother E wart and Glenn Cook were among the first to be baptized in the name of Jesus and to acknowledge Jesus Christ as the one God in the flesh.
Midwestern trinitarians became even more discouraged, so they prayed fervently against the successful move of the Oneness message. There were even times when Mother Moise, Dr. E. N. Bell (chairman of the Assemblies of God), and Brother Ben would devise a plan of attack against the “Jesus Only” crusaders.
A few weeks later, Glenn Cook visited Mother Moise’s home on a Friday evening. He was on his way to Indiana, but he stopped in St. Louis, for he knew Brother Ben. A young girl answered the door, and when she heard him say, “I am Glenn Cook of Los Angeles, from Elder Frank J. Ewart’s church,” she ran upstairs to Mother Moise’s room and broke the news to her. That day, Mother Moise and Brother Ben spoke with Brother Cook concerning the Oneness doctrine. Brother Cook stayed at the home until Sunday afternoon, because Mother Moise had asked him to preach for their Sunday morning service.
Sunday services were always held at the home, starting at 10:30 AM, and at this particular service were E. N. Bell and Roswell Flower, secretary of the Assemblies of God. Brother Cook chose Acts 2:38 as his text and preached water baptism in Jesus’ name, using other verses of Scriptures as well. Brother Ben watched Brother Bell and noticed the upset look on his face and how he squirmed uncomfortably in his chair.
Eventually, right in the midst of Brother Cook’s sermon, Brother Bell stood up and shouted, “Brother, you are in error! Read Matthew 28:19 where it says, ‘Go ye into all the world, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.’ ”
Following his outburst, a debate broke out that lasted for three hours. Brother Bell was much disturbed afterwards and immediately left for Tennessee. Brother Ben, being convinced of the sermon, asked Brother Cook to baptize him. So they went to the Mississippi River, where Brother Ben became the first to be baptized in Jesus’ name in the Midwest. Mother Moise and others were not rebaptized until later, when evangelist L. C. Hall of Zion City came.
After his victory in St. Louis, Brother Cook traveled to Indianapolis, Indiana, where he baptized Elder G. T. Haywood and Elder L. V. Roberts. E. N. Bell later saw the light and asked L. V. Roberts to come to Tennessee to baptize him, but he did not stay with this message.
Mother Moise and Brother Ben remained forever grateful to Brother Cook. Brother Ben experienced his personal revelation of Jesus Christ as the mighty God through reading about the Israelites in I Corinthians 10:4: “For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ.”
After the summer months, Brother Ben returned to the mission halls and storefronts. Continually moving the chairs, benches, and instruments was a tiresome task, but Brother Ben was willing to do anything for the cause of Christ.
Several of Brother Ben’s mission halls were in buildings where lodge gatherings occurred, such as the Old Moose Hall on Grand and West Pine. This particular hall was rented out to the Ku Klux Klan at the same time Brother Ben was there. Brother Ben never dealt with such private organizations, but when his services began, the other accompanying lodge halls would be emptied, and the people would all go hear the fiery young preacher. A doctor whose office was behind Brother Ben’s hall never actually attended the meetings, but he made a hole in the wall and sat with his ear next to it. He was later converted to the cause of Christ.
During a tent meeting in 1922, the St. Louis police had to come out and direct traffic. This big tent was located on Vandeventer and Evans Avenue, and a thousand people showed up one night. At one service, Brother Ben aroused much excitement and fear in everyone present. He reached such a state of exaltation that he climbed the center tent pole, and while hanging upside down on the crossbar, he shouted “Glory, Glory!” He also performed another common stunt by jumping over the pulpit rail, dashing down the middle aisle to the street, doing a couple of handsprings, and jumping right back in the pulpit. He also raised four hundred dollars that night for his church building fund.
However, Brother Ben lost part of his congregation that year to someone who came through and preached that believers could avoid death and have eternal life on earth. Unfortunately, Mother Moise accepted this doctrine, and at this time, Brother Ben felt the need to take his flock and go elsewhere.
Brother Ben had given his all to Mother Moise’s school and left with only a dime in his pocket. However, by the end of 1922, the Lord had blessed him with two hundred followers and a desire to start his own church. From Mother’s home, Brother Ben moved into the Sir Walter Raleigh Apartments on Washington Avenue, where he remained for many years.
The last mission hall that Brother Ben and his congregation occupied before going into their first church was at 1414 North Grand. Brother Ben was a great businessman and saved almost every penny for God’s work. He wore cheap clothing and sacrificed the mere comforts of life. He remained close friends with Mother Moise and even considered his own ministry as a continuation of hers. Truly, the years spent with her were not in vain, for now he knew how to seek God and trust in Him.
In 1924, Brother Ben purchased a lot at 4017 Easton Avenue. A large brick building was immediately constructed that seated eight hundred people. Once again, stories and pictures were printed by the Old Times and St. Louis Post Dispatch about Brother Ben’s new home.
Services were held every night with standing room only during the weekends. Not even the Depression seemed to weaken the church. In 1929, the church’s bank closed, and only part of the church’s money was refunded to Brother Ben, but a peculiar blessing occurred for his congregation. None of them lost their jobs or had to apply for relief. In fact, the church created a poor fund for those in need.
Once a family without food or money came to the church. Brother Ben immediately gave to them. He decided to visit the family later that day and arrived just as they sat down to supper. They had bought large steaks and fresh strawberries. From that time on, the church’s policy changed: the church itself bought the food.
In 1917, Brother Ben became a member of the General Assembly of the Apostolic Assemblies, a Oneness ministerial organization that existed for only one year. By 1925, Brother Ben, along with W. H.
Whittington, led a group of ministers in St. Louis under the title of Apostolic Churches of Jesus Christ. Two years later at a joint convention held in Guthrie, Oklahoma, the Apostolic Churches of Jesus
Christ merged with Emmanuel’s Church in Jesus Christ. The elected officials were Ben Pemberton, chairman; W. H. Lyon, vice chairman; W. H. Whittington, secretary and foreign missions secretary; and J. O. White, treasurer. The following year, Oliver F. Fauss became chairman and Brother Ben was elected assistant chairman. The new organization was formed under the name Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ. Brother Ben later resigned from his office for reasons unknown.
On February 1, 1932, Brother Ben obtained credentials with the Pentecostal Assemblies of Jesus Christ, an organization formed by a merger between the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World and the Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ. Its first annual conference was held at Brother Ben’s church on Easton Avenue from August 30 to September 4. Brother Ben remained with this organization until 1937, when he resigned, never to join a religious body again.
By 1940, the neighborhood around 4017 Easton Avenue had gotten too rough for Brother Ben’s congregation, so they began seeking the Lord for a new location. During a Wednesday afternoon prayer meeting, the Lord told Brother Ben, “Get up, for you have your new place.” He immediately announced the good news, and everyone stood to give God the glory. However, the Lord did not specify where this “new place” was.
Brother Ben set out to find his new church home and noticed the Fountain Park Christian Church for sale, but his attempt to buy it was unsuccessful. Waiting on the Lord’s direction, Brother Ben and his congregation grew in their desire for a new location, until one morning the Lord told Brother Ben to offer fifteen thousand dollars cash for a place on Delmar Street. It had been a nightclub named the Capri Inn but was now a car garage and in bad condition. Brother Ben also knew that it had been taken over by the government and had a large loan on it. Unexpectedly, his small offer was accepted, even in the face of greater ones.
Much time was spent on rehabilitating the new church, especially on trying to get the grease spots off the concrete floors. An apartment was built and furnished for Brother Ben on the second floor. The church was considered a credit to the neighborhood, and all the area newspapers came out for a write-up. Dickson Terry, the Post-Dispatch’s feature writer said, “Brother Ben’s church looks like a modern painting in a cold water flat.” The building seated 1,400 people. It had carpeted prayer rooms and a small auditorium for weeknight services.
After the move was completed, several members formed a committee to start a monthly publication. These papers usually included a sermon by Brother Ben, testimonials, a children’s page, and general announcements.
On March 24, 1950, the church had a special service for Brother Ben’s birthday and presented him with a check for a new car. Many of his friends from all over the country attended this event.
Shortly before May of 1951, Brother Ben started a radio ministry and preached each Sunday on WTMV. During that month, however, he was moved to a new station, KSTL, because of his good ratings. Many people found the Lord through Brother Ben’s radio ministry. Brother Ben often prophesied on the radio, and the station owner consistently threatened that if any of the prophecies did not come to pass, then Brother Ben would be “out the door.” Apparently, the owner did not realize that Brother Ben’s prophecies were actually from God.
In 1953, Brother Ben felt the Lord’s impression to move his congregation to a more central area of the city. He later bought an old Methodist church located at 3610 Grandel Square. The church family pitched in to clean, paint, and prepare the new building for Pentecostal worship.
The new church had three auditoriums: a large sanctuary with a balcony, a smaller one on the third floor, and the smallest auditorium just off the foyer. An addition was built, made with matching limestone, that served as Brother Ben’s apartment. Janitorial and evangelist quarters were also furnished along with Sunday school rooms and a secretary’s office located under the belfry.
Brother Ben’s career as a minister was nothing less than successful. His congregation was composed of men, women, and children who all knew how to worship and pray to their God.
Services were still held every night except for Monday. Friday night was youth service with all the young people dancing and singing, and Brother Ben danced right along, beating his tambourine. Prayer service was held before each service, but the “cry rooms” were open at all times for anyone who needed them.
Lyman Price, a St. Louis police sergeant, was a true friend to his pastor. He comforted and nursed Brother Ben during his sicknesses.
Grace Mueller was Brother Ben’s personal secretary for approximately twenty-five years. She and her family first encountered Brother Ben when she was nine years old and they attended his church on Easton Avenue. Sister Grace undertook many church responsibilities, such as taking charge of providing special meals for Brother Benduring his last fifteen years of life. He had become a diabetic and refused to take any insulin, but he gave God and the women of his church the credit for keeping him alive.
Ethyl Dickey served as another right hand of Brother Ben’s. She had overheard one of Brother Ben’s tent meetings on Grand Avenue in 1921. Impressed with the lively and joyous music, she decided to attend and later became the church choir director, writer of the “Time Clock” in the church paper (concerning biblical prophecy), and director of the youth service.
Brother Ben never married. He related the story of the time he was praying at a church family’s home while the children were playing and tripping over his legs. The Lord then said, “You cannot give your all to Me and have children too.” So Brother Ben, like Paul, remained unmarried and faithful to the cause of Christ. He considered his church as his family and always spent special occasions with someone from his congregation.
A couple of the many great ministers who came out of Brother Ben’s church were Walter S. Guinn and Benjamin H. Hite. These men adopted Brother Ben’s burden for St. Louis and established their own works there.
In 1963, a large celebration was held in honor of Brother Ben’s fiftieth year in the ministry. Judge Scott was the main speaker and highly acclaimed the man of God who obeyed the call to preach in St. Louis. It was a great experience for Brother Ben to see many of his lifelong friends and converts who had moved away.
That same year, however, Brother Ben’s congregation became concerned by a frequent statement that Brother Ben made. He prophesied that blood would soon be on the street and that the nation would be in total anguish as a result. He also told several individuals that he too would be with his Maker before this tragedy would occur. His prophecy was fulfilled in the death of President John F. Kennedy on November 22.
Around 1,800 people attended Brother Ben’s funeral. Much could be said about the wonderful things that his good friends and church family had to share, but an interesting story was related by Nathaniel Urshan, general superintendent of the United Pentecostal Church International and personal friend of Brother Ben’s.
Brother Urshan had arrived at Union Station and was taking a cab to Brother Ben’s church. When he told the cab driver the address, the driver said, “Oh, that’s good old Brother Ben’s church.” He went on to tell of the time when he did not have a job and Brother Ben got him on with the cab company. Brother Ben hardly knew the man, but he sensed the feelings of despair and did all he could to help him.
“Are you visiting his church?” the cab driver asked Brother Urshan. “No, I’m preaching his funeral,” stated Brother Urshan. “Do you think I could come to pay my respects also?” asked the driver. “Sure you can,” said Brother Urshan. So he parked his cab and stayed for the service.
Benjamin Harrison Pemberton was an overcomer. He told many before his death that he had finally conquered his old flesh and was under total submission to his Savior. In fact, one of Brother Ben’s common statements was, “Overcome everything that confronts you, whether it be large or small, for there is no promise in the Bible but to an overcomer.”
THE ABOVE MATERIAL WAS COMPILED BY MARY H. WALLACE, AND PUBLISHED BY WORD AFLAME PRESS, 1992, PAGES 181-194. THIS MATERIAL IS COPYRIGHTED AND MAY BE USED FOR STUDY & RESEARCH PURPOSES ONLY.