CHICAGO — The Rev. Carlton Pearson is no stranger to controversy, and his arrival to Chicago brings a new storm.
Pearson, once regarded as one of the nation’s most influential Pentecostal preachers, was denounced as a heretic for his teaching that everyone goes to heaven: Muslims, Buddhists, gays, even the devil. He lost his followers, his friends and his Oklahoma church. After being shunned as an outcast, Pearson continued preaching his controversial “gospel of inclusion,” and built a new following that raised his profile again.
Now, Pearson faces a different battle as he assumes leadership of the 6,000-member Christ Universal Temple, one of the city’s largest congregations.
Several hundred members of the congregation are protesting Pearson’s appointment as senior minister, saying he lacks the theological training to lead a New Thought Movement church. The movement uses a metaphysical interpretation of the Bible and focuses on healing, meditation and thinking positive thoughts to improve one’s life.
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Those opposed to Pearson also criticized the selection process as unfair and charged that the church’s board of directors dismissed all other candidates to lure Pearson to Chicago. More than 1,000 church members signed a petition demanding a special meeting to discuss Pearson.
“Pearson is a fourth generation Pentecostal, and we are a New Thought Church,” said Rev. Fred Randall, a church minister for 40 years. “He could be a student in New Thought. Yes. But, a leader? No.”
Rev. Roderick Norton said: “It’s like bringing a Catholic priest into a Baptist church. It’s an insult to us.”
But, Pearson said his inclusion message goes hand-in hand with the church’s New Thought principles. He said he is not coming to dismantle their teachings. Instead, his goal is to expand New Thought and attract more members. He believes members opposed to him are fearful of change.
“I’m coming to enhance, to enlarge, to expand it. I love New Thought. That’s why I’m here,” Pearson said. “I think it’s the best kept secret on the planet. And I don’t know anybody who could expose more people to it ... under the kind of leadership that I plan to bring.”
Pearson, who was condemned by Pentecostal leaders, said he was surprised to find opposition in a New Thought church.
“New Thought is not an exclusive group that demeans other movements and expressions,” Pearson said. Christ Universal Temple was founded by Rev. Johnnie Colemon, a New Thought pioneer. After being diagnosed with an incurable disease, she enrolled at the Unity School of Christianity and learned disease stems from negative thinking.
Upon recovery in 1956, Colemon returned to Chicago as an ordained minister, and opened Christ Universal. In 1974, she withdrew from the Unity movement and formed her own denomination, the Universal Foundation for Better Living (UFBL). In 2006, after building a $10 million religious empire, Colemon retired.
In Tulsa, Okla., in 2000, Carlton Pearson underwent his own transformation and began preaching a doctrine that contradicted beliefs of his denomination, the Church of God in Christ. Pearson said he no longer believed in hell or that a person needs to accept Jesus in order to be saved. He adopted a universalist theology that Jesus loves everyone and all will go to heaven, even if they don’t believe.
His conversion led to the end of his church and his demise in the Pentecostal world. But, as word spread, Pearson became a popular preacher at progressive and liberal churches, drawing gays and also people of diverse faiths.
In 2008, when Pearson came to speak at Christ Universal, some church board members believed he might make an ideal minister. Although a church search committee selected New Thought candidates, Pearson was appointed last week as interim senior minister.
Hermene Hartman, a longtime church member and Pearson supporter, said the New Thought candidates lacked the leadership and management skills needed to run a mega-church.
“He is a dynamic religious voice,” Hartman said. “Johnnie Coleman’s vision was global, and I think he will fulfill it.”
Though well-versed in Scripture, Pearson admits he is still learning about New Thought. However, he studied Colemon’s teachings and received instruction from New Thought minister Michael Bernard Beckwith. Pearson also said he intends to take more courses in Chicago. Even so, he disagrees with those who state the only way to learn New Thought is through books.
“They’re obsessed with the institutional expression of New Thought and I’m for the spirituality of New Thought,” he said.
Opposing members argued that Pearson’s appointment violates church bylaws that state “only an ordained, licensed UFBL minister” can fill the position of interim senior minister.
Church member Judith Patterson Mims said: “We know this is not what Johnnie would want. We have to let them know they cannot take over our church.”