After 55 years as pastor of Bible Way Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ in Washington, Bishop Smallwood E. Williams, the politically influential and outspoken Pentecostal minister, has been affirmed as an apostle.
Inside the mammoth sanctuary of his temple at 1100 New Jersey Ave. NW recently, before more than 5,000 rapt witnesses, Williams, 74, was declared an apostle--a missionary, in the tradition of Christ's 12 apostles, sent directly by God to teach the Gospel.
His executive board of 12 bishops unanimously voted to grant him the title in recognition of his lifelong achievement: bringing Apostolic Pentecostalism to Washington, starting his own denomination and establishing 350 Bible Way churches worldwide, with 250,000 members.
"If you're going to appreciate God, you've got to honor a man," said Bishop Winfield A. Showell, the church's presiding vice bishop from Baltimore, in a passionate sermon.
"Some Pentecostal churches regard their founder as apostle," said James S. Tinney, a journalism professor at Howard University who is considered one of the nation's foremost historians of black Pentecostalism. "In that sense, it is a special category of honor and recognition."
Although Williams is not the first to be named apostle in modern times, he is one of a handful of living Pentecostal ministers who are called by that title, Tinney said.
But the religious ceremony that preceded Williams' official declaration as apostle was unprecedented in Pentecostal history, Tinney said.
The room was filled with Bible Way members of all ages, the children in their Sunday-best clothes, the men in three-piece suits, and the women in corsages and an array of elaborate bonnets.
Williams sat in a high-backed chair at the foot of the altar, resplendent in robes of white and red, white hat with a red pompon on his head and a scepter with a cross in his right hand. Thoughout the 2 1/2-hour service he remained silent, a smile playing on his lips. "Yes, Lord," congregants said during prayers. "Praise Him."
One by one, the bishops affirmed Williams as constant in the doctrine, a man of outstanding moral character, "a soul winner for the church and a great radio preacher." Finally, Williams took Communion. Showell announced to the congregation, "I am honored to present to you, for the first time in the 20th century, the apostle Smallwood E. Williams." The choir launched into Handel's "Messiah," and 5,000 persons rose to their feet, clapping like thunder.
Outside, an 800-pound bronze plaque that bears Williams' life-size image was unveiled. According to Bishop Huie L. Rogers of Brooklyn, it cost $20,000, "raised in 20 minutes" by donations from congregants. Those who gave $500 or more were asked to come forward for a blessing and a front-row view. Others stood shoulder-to-shoulder, spilling out onto New Jersey and New York avenues, waiting expectantly.
At last, the opaque plastic sheet was pulled off. Sighs and laughter. "Glory," one spectator said. Many hugged each other and clapped. Cameras clicked. The plaque will be permanently displayed on the church's bell tower, whose modern, concrete forms spell "G-O-D."
Williams' affirmation as apostle culminated a week-long Silver Jubilee convention here July 4-11. Hundreds of Williams' followers from across the country and from Europe, the Caribbean and Africa celebrated his founding of a worldwide Bible Way organization, a new denomination within the Apostolic branch of Pentecostalism, 25 years ago.
On the Saturday before his apostolic affirmation, Williams defied nature's rain and heat and led a "Victory March" from his church to the Hyatt Regency and back. The parade commemorated the 1963 re-routing of a highway that was supposed to cut through Bible Way headquarters. Church members call the road, which now runs through Third and K streets, Bible Way Bend, and compare its redirection to the parting of the Red Sea.
"I believe I was born to do this," Williams said as he walked. "At 12 years old, I became a member of the church. At 14, I began preaching. At 16, I became licensed to preach, and at 18, I was ordained a minister."
He came to Washington from Columbus, Ohio, in 1927 when he was 20. At Seventh and O streets NW, he began Bible Way Church, using a now-legendary fireplug as his pulpit. (The temple has table lamps whose bases resemble fireplugs, as well as colored photographs of Williams on walls and desks.)
Since then, he has established an international network of churches, schools and missions with an enormous following. He has gained recognition as an advocate of the city's poor and as an early civil rights activist. Politicians know Williams can influence a large portion of the black vote in the District and have openly courted his favor.
In 1953, he organized an antisegregation sit-in at Wheatley Elementary School, when his son had been denied admission. Later, in 1965 and 1973, Bible Way Church built the Golden Rule Apartments Inc., a housing complex for low- and moderate-income residents at 901 New Jersey Ave. NW, and the Golden Rule Warehouse, a low-profit grocery store at First and K streets. Last September, a $3 million temple was added to the original church.
Williams' followers' devotion to him and his church seems to be unmovable.
"I know the man as a real man of God," said Juanita Hall Smith, 57, a member of Bible Way since 1946. "He's firm, yet he's gentle. . . . He knows when to say, 'Daughter, you're wrong.' He's walked with kings, but he hasn't lost the common touch."