J. Delano Ellis II, an African-American Pentecostal leader who sought to renew the Church through new forms of unity and order adapted from Methodists and Catholics, died Saturday at the age of 75.
Ellis worked to reclaim the idea of bishops for black Pentecostals. He was a leading authority on proper office attire and rites of ordination and consecration. He co-founded the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops and wrote a manual on “Creating the Episcopate” to train leaders for overseership and promote the importance of an unbroken line of apostolic succession dating back to the first disciples of Jesus.
“Traditionally … the Pentecostal church has maintained its ardor but has never really been known for its order,” Ellis said. “What we find is that the order is not blasphemous. Order best represents God.
According to Ellis’ autobiography, his earliest memory was of his mother calling the name Jesus while he was still in the womb. Lucy Ellis was only 13 or 14 at the time, married to an abusive man who was 10 years older than her. Her husband was Jesse Delano Ellis Sr., who rejected Christianity for Moorish Science, then Moorish Science for the Nation of Islam. He was violent and unfaithful, fathering 28 children in South Philadelphia after his namesake, Jesse Delano Ellis II, was born in December 1944.
Ellis’ mother suffered from epilepsy and was committed to a mental institution when Ellis was still young. He crossed the street to live with his grandmother and his great-aunt. Both women were ordained Christian ministers, one in a Disciples of Christ church and the other in a small Holiness denomination.
As a teenager, Ellis attempted to establish a relationship with this father by attending a Nation of Islam mosque, but he also regularly attended a black Pentecostal church to listen to the choir. At the mosque, he learned that God cannot have sons. His father told him that Jesus was the white man’s god and that Christianity was a ruse designed to enslave black people. At Church of God in Christ, however, Ellis heard the gospel and it resonated in his heart.
One Sunday he heard a sermon on Romans 10:9. The preacher quoted the King James Version text, saying, “If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” Ellis jumped out of his seat and said “I believe it!”
He walked up and confessed his faith and came back to the second service to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and speak in tongues.
His father beat him that night until he bled. “Who is Jesus? cried Ellis the Elder. “Isn’t he the white man’s god?” Why do you choose to be a slave? The next morning, Ellis was bruised and limping. “But I had a peace and joy,” he later wrote, “that I could not explain.”
Ellis joined the Air Force, then went to school at Trevecca Nazarene College in Nashville, Tennessee. He worked in the Church of the Nazarene until the racial segregation of the Holiness denomination began to bother him. He spent about a year in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (CME) and developed a deep appreciation for its high church liturgy and ecclesiology, but eventually felt more at home in the Church of God. in Christ (COGIC), the largest black Pentecostal denomination in the United States. He was ordained a bishop in the church at age 26.
Liturgical reforms in COGIC
One of Ellis’ first assignments as denominational leader was to reform office dress, taking what he had learned from CME and adapting it for use in COGIC. He was also charged with revising the consecration service of bishops. Some COGIC leaders resisted his changes, but Ellis later recalled that key leaders accepted the reforms fairly quickly. They “captured the beauty of the sacred,” he wrote, and wanted to transform “every ceremony into a life-changing experience for the faithful.”
Ellis rose in management, becoming national director of public relations and eventually assistant general secretary. However, he found many of his tasks less interesting than liturgical reform. He became frustrated that he had to spend so much of his time negotiating hotel rates for the annual conference. He also didn’t seem to appreciate the ongoing work of reiterating the denomination’s stance against women in ministry.
In 1970 he made a brief statement that the Bible does not allow women to be ministers. In 1985, he spoke about the church’s complicated history on the subject: “Officially, we don’t have women in the clergy, but we have women pastors,” Ellis said. “These are women who organized churches and stayed on as pastors and no one said anything.”
In 1989, he received a call from an independent Pentecostal church in Cleveland asking if he would leave COGIC and become their pastor. Ellis was surprised because the church was Oneness Pentecostal, but he came to believe that the church’s beliefs were not that different from the Trinitarian Pentecostal beliefs. God has a “trinitarian nature,” the church teaches, but modern Christians place too much emphasis on distinctions between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is “no scriptural support for the doctrine that defines the Godhead as three distinct persons,” according to the statement of faith.
When Ellis prayed about it, he heard God telling him to preach the name of Jesus, raise the ecclesial standards of the church, and “liberate women” in ministry. He accepted the call. A few years later, the church became a new denomination, the United Pentecostal Churches of Christ. When he retired, he claimed 17 bishops, 300 churches and about 500,000 members.
Emphasis on apostolic succession
As head of a new Pentecostal denomination, Ellis began to emphasize the importance of the legitimacy of apostolic succession. He traced his own Episcopal heritage through COGIC to Methodists, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, the Church of Antioch, and ultimately to first-century believers in Jerusalem. He was further consecrated by a bishop of the Syro-Chaldean Church of North America, establishing an eastern line of succession.
Ellis joined bishops from two other small denominations to form the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops in 1993. Christianity todayreported that the college was the vanguard of a small but growing movement, where “the setting is high church, but the spirit is unmistakably Pentecostal”. An Instagram video from a recent church service shows Ellis and his congregation dancing ecstatically, even as several men wear clerical collars, one woman wears a black cassock dress, and Ellis himself wears Episcopal purple.
In addition to promoting high church ecclesiology among Pentecostals, the college has served as an ecumenical meeting place for different spirit-filled African Americans to come together despite differences over the Trinity, women in ministry or d other doctrinal divisions.
Ellis stepped down from management in 2004 when he was diagnosed with leukemia. His wife Sabrina became pastor of the Cleveland church and Larry Trotter, a mentee and the pastor of Sweet Holy Spirit Church of Chicago took over the denomination.
The next Billy Graham
Ellis said when he looked at recent church history, he thought the greatest revival movement came from Billy Graham. The next movement, however, would come from African-American Pentecostals who valued apostolic succession.
“There is a new path and a new movement,” he said. “I believe it will be the black bishop, the black preacher, the black clergy, who will set the Christian church in order.”
The city of Cleveland honored the church leader by renaming two blocks of Chester Avenue J-Delano Ellis II Way on September 6. “I just have one thing to say,” Ellis said, in what would be his last public appearance. “To God be the glory.” The bishop died a week later.
He is survived by his wife Sabrina, five children, an adopted child and numerous grandchildren.