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Pentecostalism in Nevada


The term “Pentecostal” comes from a Greek word describing the Jewish Feast of Weeks, an event narrated in the Acts of the Apostles (2: 2-4) where it is stated that the followers of Jesus were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues. In the United States, this phenomenon first appeared in 1901 within the Topeka, Kansas Bible Institute of Holiness preacher Charles Parham. Its most notable appearance was in a spontaneous revival lasting three years that began in a livery stable on Azusa Street in Los Angeles in 1906. Leading the revival was the African American, partially blind, informally educated minister, William J. Seymour.

Enthusiastic worship, speaking in tongues, reports of healing, and an expectation of the imminent return of Jesus Christ to earth characterized the Azusa Street services. This experiential religion became institutionalized in the Church of God in Christ, the Assemblies of God, the Church of the Foursquare Gospel, the Apostolic (formerly Ethiopian) Overcoming Holy Church of God, among others. A large number of Pentecostal churches were local and independent of the national organizations. The experience of receiving the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues was also found in mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches, where it was usually described as the charismatic movement. From its onset, Pentecostalism was often racially integrated, populated by lower middle-class working people, and heavily influenced by women, who usually comprised the majority of participants.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life study in 2006 noted that Pentecostalism and related charismatic movements were arguably the fastest growing elements of Christianity, claiming 600 million adherents worldwide. All of the congregations that incorporated an experiential Pentecostal style of worship and theology of the Holy Spirit found a home in the state of Nevada.

Churches in Northern Nevada

The first official Pentecostal church in Nevada was the Glad Tidings Assemblies of God Church of Reno, organized in 1921. Its humble beginnings were common to many early Pentecostal churches. The congregants first met in a home, then in a tent, moved to a second-floor rental at Fourth and Virginia streets, from there to a rented facility at 541 N. Sierra, and finally settled at Bell Street near Fifth. The congregation chose Rev. J. D. Wells, who served as pastor until 1924. He subsequently devoted himself to evangelization of Native Americans and through his writings contributed to the Assemblies of God mission in Battle Mountain. Rural Pentecostal Nevadans were active elsewhere in establishing churches on Shoshone and Paiute Indian reservations. The Native American congregations remained numerically small (never numbering more than 5 percent of the reservation population), but their churches were active in addressing problems of alcoholism and unemployment.

By the early 1930s Pentecostal churches appeared in Nevada’s isolated Great Basin communities. Itinerant ministers held tent meetings and, if interest persisted, organized a church that, often as not, first met in a saloon or storefront. Rev. C. E. Persing organized Calvary Pentecostal Tabernacle at 190 South East Street in Fallon, where he served from 1931 to 1935. In modern times the Pentecostal presence in Fallon included two Church of God in Christ congregations and another independent gathering. Shortly after its humble beginnings, Anchor Tabernacle in Elko received the pastoral services of Clyde V. Hammond and his wife. She had three times the ministerial experience of her husband and consequently conducted most of the preaching. It was officially organized in 1936 and settled the following year at 633 Railroad Street. In 2009, there were three Pentecostal churches in Elko, all with different organizational affiliations.

Pentecostal pastors almost always had two jobs because the fledgling congregations were too small to provide a full-time income. Church members in rural Nevada were typically working class people. They might be miners, ranchers, farmhands, grocery store clerks, homemakers, schoolteachers, or gas station attendants. Loneliness and isolation were common complaints because the churches were so small and remote. Consequently, outlying communities gathered annually in places like Lamoille Canyon outside Elko for week-long camp meetings.

While it was not uncommon for husband-and-wife teams to serve as co-pastors in rural churches, occasionally a woman pastored a local congregation unassisted. One single female pastor was Gladys Rushing, who epitomized several Pentecostal women in ministry in Nevada. For over thirty-five years, up to 2007, Reverend Rushing led churches in rural towns like Silver Springs and Battle Mountain, and she also ministered among Native Americans and served as an Associate Pastor in the Assemblies of God Church in Reno. While Rushing was active in ministry, her husband was employed as a heavy equipment operator. She acknowledged being shunned at times by other community ministers because she was a woman. Once, at a high school graduation ceremony in Battle Mountain, some male ministers from the region refused to sit on the platform with her. She took her place there nevertheless!

Northern Nevada churches organized since the 1950s comprised numerous independent groups such as the Potter’s House, Airport Christian Fellowship, Word of Faith Rhema Church, and the non-Trinitarian “Jesus Name” (sometimes referenced as “Jesus Only”) Pentecostals, as well as those affiliated with the nationally organized Assemblies of God, Church of God, Apostolic, Church of God, Cleveland, Tennessee, Church of the Foursquare Gospel, and the historically African-American Church of God in Christ.

One of Reno’s most enduring Pentecostal churches was Holy Temple Church of God in Christ, co-founded by Las Vegas Bishop Clyde Cox. The original church was established in 1949 and located at 765 North Street (now Kuenzli). “Sister” Kid Komen owned the property and maintained her residence at the rear of the building that served as a sanctuary. Among the several pastors who served Holy Temple congregation, Reverend Luther Dupree had the longest tenure, beginning in 1979. Under his direction, in 1988, the church’s name changed to Rehobeth Holy Temple Church of God in Christ and moved to Reno’s Smithridge area. There are presently two other Church of God congregations in Reno, with additional northern Nevada congregations in Hawthorne and Fallon. On April 15, 2009, after years of being part of a single Nevada jurisdiction, the Churches of God in Christ north of Tonopah became a separate jurisdiction within the national organization with Reverend Luther Dupree serving as the northern Nevada bishop.

African American Pentecostal congregations in the north were generally smaller than in more populous southern Nevada. All of the northern pastors worked at day jobs during the week in addition to fulfilling pastoral responsibilities. While most adherents were African American, one could find a sprinkling of different ethnicities in the congregations. Occupationally, most were economically from the working middle-class.

Pentecostals were among the state’s pioneers in recognizing women in pastoral ministry, but their specific roles depended upon the Pentecostal denomination to which they belonged. For instance, in the Church of God in Christ, women did not serve as senior pastors but they provided leadership as “church mothers.” These women often led prayer ministries, taught and mentored new converts, and tended to the many practical matters of running a church. Among Latino Pentecostals, women were eligible to serve as senior pastors. The Assemblies of God also historically ordained women and appointed more of them as pastors than any other Pentecostal group in Nevada. The Church of the Foursquare Gospel was founded by Aimee Semple McPherson and, from its start, women were eligible to serve in all areas of ministry in that denomination. The 2009 pastor of Boulder City Foursquare Church was Marjorie Kitchell. She not only held the title of pastor but also that of District Superintendent.

Churches in Southern Nevada

The earliest Pentecostal church in southern Nevada with longevity was an independent congregation calling itself the Westside Evangelistic Mission. It was organized in 1927 and located at the corner of C Street and Washington Avenue in Las Vegas. A Latino pastor, Francisco Moreno, led the small inter-racial congregation of about 25 members. The development of Las Vegas’ Westside Church illustrated a common progression in Nevada’s Pentecostal congregations. Women were notably present and active in the congregation. They were the majority and shouldered a heavy load of the church’s ancillary ministries. One such woman was Emma Jacobsen, who proudly carried the credential participant in the historic 1906 Azusa Street Revival. In 1931, after years of residence in Los Angeles, her family moved to Las Vegas, where her husband became one of Hoover Dam’s construction workers. Though her husband was not a church attendee, Emma searched for a religious home and found it in the Westside Church. She was drawn there by the preaching of Brother Moreno and the community of like-minded Pentecostal believers.

Brother Moreno delivered a straightforward message. One needed to have a “born again” conversion experience, be “baptized with the Holy Spirit” as evidenced by speaking in other tongues (glossolalia), and abstain from “worldly” behavior such as smoking, drinking, and gambling. This strict spiritual regimen did not inhibit church growth. Over the years the congregation continued to increase. In 1936 the Westside congregation affiliated with the Assemblies of God, and in 1939 it erected a church building on 10th Street. It changed its name in 1946 to Trinity Assembly of God, then again in 1955 to Trinity Temple. In 1969, Trinity relocated once more to its present location at 1000 East St. Louis Avenue. The profile of the congregation changed as the church expanded and moved to a more affluent part of the city. Despite the church’s rigorous behavioral injunctions, entertainers, bartenders, card dealers, and professional dancers affiliated with Trinity. The church attracted new converts by embracing a pragmatic strategy of distinguishing between personal morality and the places in which its members made a living.

Under the leadership of Pastor Melvin Steward (1974-1984), Trinity Temple swelled to over three thousand adherents and launched a statewide church-planting effort that birthed numerous Pentecostal congregations throughout Nevada. The engine that powered this effort was a radio program that broadcast into isolated desert communities. Trinity mothered churches in Logandale, Alamo, Battle Mountain, Tonopah, Pahrump, Ely, and Lovelock. Trinity was also instrumental in establishing a Korean Assemblies of God church in Las Vegas, which, by the year 2000, claimed a constituency of over a thousand people. It became the largest Korean organization in Nevada. Besides planting new congregations, Trinity also appointed a number of women as senior pastors in at least three of its satellite churches.

More than twelve other Pentecostal congregations in southern Nevada developed constituencies numbering between one and four thousand. The Assemblies of God, Foursquare Gospel, the Church of God in Christ, Calvary Chapel, and independent Pentecostals all had large congregations. Besides the Korean, there were also Tongan, Samoan, Russian, Ethiopian, Arab, and Persian Pentecostal churches. The International Church of Las Vegas had several ethnic groups included among its members.

Until the 1960s, Las Vegas was strictly segregated with African American citizens restricted to living in West Las Vegas. Job opportunities drew them from other parts of the country, particularly the South, but lower-end service jobs were the only ones open to Americans of African descent. It was an era when even marquee entertainers like Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis Jr. had to be quartered in the Black section of the town. Into this environment stepped Rev. Clyde Cox and his wife, Thelma. Cox was a rarity among his African American contemporaries because he had earned a doctorate. He and his wife arrived on November 11, 1941, and assumed the pastorate of the unaffiliated Zion Rest Mission congregation, which had never included more than a few dozen African Americans and had only six members when Cox arrived. The lot on F Street upon which the church was built was donated by an African American couple, Robert and Josie Russell, after whom Russell Road was named. Locals sometimes referred to Zion Rest as the “cardboard church” because of the cardboard material, from refrigerator and large appliance boxes, used to construct its walls.

Cox changed the name of the church to The Upper Room and affiliated it with the Church of God in Christ. The church grew and, by the mid-1960s, claimed to have over a thousand members. Cox also became a prolific church planter. In all, he helped organize eighteen Church of God in Christ congregations throughout Nevada. The national office of the Church of God in Christ appointed him bishop of the churches in Nevada. The impact of Clyde Cox extended beyond the pulpit. In addition to his pastoral responsibilities he emerged as a community leader among Las Vegas’ Westside inhabitants. For years many Westside residents did not have the benefit of running water, so Cox regularly delivered water to the homes of those in need. Later, when running water became an option, Cox helped to dig trenches for the water lines. Cox was also a leader in the Civil Rights Movement in southern Nevada. He served as a member of the Las Vegas City Planning Commission, the Juvenile Justice Commission, and the Clark County School District Committee of One Hundred on Integration. Cox died in 1969, and twenty years after his death, in 1988, the Clyde C. Cox Elementary School was erected in his name.

Hispanic Churches: North and South

The ethnic profile of Pentecostalism throughout Nevada changed dramatically beginning in the 1980s with a dramatic influx of Latinos—most of whom were from Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador. It was the pursuit of the American dream of economic improvement that brought them north of the border. Most labored in menial service jobs associated with the hotel, entertainment, and agricultural industries. Thousands have found employment in the construction industry. The growth of the Latino community has led to a rise in the number of separate Hispanic churches in Nevada.

There are dozens of Latino churches in Las Vegas and approximately fifteen organized Latino Pentecostal churches in Reno. Most are small—some with no more than twenty members—but a few churches claim up to three hundred adherents. A number of Hispanic congregations meeting in private homes are not formally organized. Almost all the Latino Pentecostals came to the region as Catholics and converted to Pentecostalism upon their arrival.

When Juan and Silvia Perez moved to Reno in the early 1970s, there were no Spanish-speaking Pentecostal congregations in the area. In 1992, the Perezes founded and co-pastored a church they named El Cordero Dios. El Cordero Dios began with only a handful of members but grew until, by 2009, it claimed a congregation of approximately two hundred eighty members. The church served as a religious center as well as a Hispanic community center. The worship at El Cordero Dios was enthusiastic, punctuated by protracted singing, episodes of glossolalia, and lengthy, energetic sermons. The members typically dressed up for church with women wearing dresses and men wearing shirts and ties. The church was the one place where, based on one pastor’s statement, the individual Hispanic felt important and believed he or she could carry oneself with pride and dignity. As a community center, the church helped constituents find jobs, provided food and other basic necessities, and regularly conducted English classes. Increasingly, its worship services were conducted in English as part of the effort to facilitate the Americanization process. A distinctive ministry of Latino churches was often to provide sanctuary for undocumented Hispanics who moved to the area. A recently interviewed Latino pastor justified this practice, stating that humanitarian interests trumped the law on this issue.

Pentecostalism in Nevada was consistent with a signature pattern of growth and diverse formations of faith characteristic of Pentecostals throughout the nation and the world. It was an enthusiastic, rapidly growing expression of Christian faith defined by experiential worship, ethnic diversity, and evangelistic zeal. Pentecostals proved to be very flexible in shaping their message to attract new members, and they were at the forefront of the trend to open new expressions of ministry to women. No official tabulation of Pentecostal and charismatic believers in Nevada exists, but a conservative estimate from 2009 placed their numbers between 25,000 and 30,000 adherents.

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