Born of a war over slavery, Lena Mason rises to evangelistic status
Cutline: This sketch of Mrs. Lena Mason was published in the Denver Post on Sept. 25, 1896. Reprinted with permission.
Thanks to Rhonda Brown Hall of Hannibal for her valuable research assistance on this story.
MARY LOU MONTGOMERY
Civil War battle: In May 1864, the opening battle of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s sustained offensive against the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was under way. Union generals James S. Wadsworth and Alexander Hays were killed during the three-day battle. Confederate generals John M. Jones, Micah Jenkins, and Leroy A. Stafford were killed. The battle was a tactical draw. Grant, however, did not retreat as had the other Union generals before him. On May 7, the Federals advanced by the left flank toward the crossroads of Spotsylvania Courthouse. - Civil War Trust
The birth of
Lena Doolin, one of Von Phul and Cerilda Doolin’s 11 children, arrived on May 6, 1864, while her mother was in the confines of soldiers’ barracks in Quincy, Ill., protected from the perils of slavery and racism that existed across the Mississippi River in Missouri. When the war ended, the family moved to Hannibal, according to published reports, where Lena attended the school established for students of her race, Douglass High School. Prof. Pelham was school principal.
The Doolins were members of an African Methodist Episcopal Church located on the north side of Church Street, between Eighth and Ninth in Hannibal, Rev. J. M. Wilkerson, pastor in 1874. Lena was raised with strong Christian values, which, when combined with her core education in Hannibal and additional training at Professor Knott’s school in Chicago, would ultimately shape the course of her life.
At the age of 19, in 1883, Lena married George Mason, son of Henry and Eliza Paylon Mason, of Perry, Mo. The young couple had six children, all but one died before adulthood.
In 1888, when her husband was working as a teamster for John J. Cruikshank Jr., Lena gave birth to their daughter, Bertha.
At the age of 23, also in 1888, Lena Mason - without formal theological training - did something that was virtually unheard of by women of any race during that era: She entered into an evangelical ministry.
A sense of her effectiveness at the pulpit comes from a descriptive story published in the Denver Post on Sept. 25, 1896, eight years into her ministry. She was in Denver for a 10-day revival at the time, and granted an interview to the press.
“She entered the ministry, without theological preparation other than slight study of scriptures and general observation of the methods used by those preachers whom she had heard expound doctrines of salvation. The work called into use natural oratorical powers, which she has improved to a wonderful degree, and which she has in the meantime developed into a style of delivery from the rostrum and pulpit apparently finished; from a rhetorical and elocutionary standpoint.”
Her personal style evolved during her early years in the ministry.
“Suiting her gestures to her words, Mrs. Mason is a striking figure as she delivers sermons and leads her congregations into the realms of biblical illustrations. She dresses in gowns made from late fashion plates, varying from evening to evening sufficiently to show that her wardrobe is not limited. In one of her gray tailor-made suits, including a close-fitting over-jacket, with large roll collar, displaying underneath a white shirt waist, collar and cravat containing a luminous, sparkling pin, she presents and effective, stylish appearance.”
Newspapers around the country praised Mrs. Mason’s style following revivals in their communities.
In its Sept. 25, 1896, edition, the Denver Post published a feature article on the evangelist from Hannibal, on the 10th day of revival services at a church located at Twenty-third and Welton streets:
“When conducting services, Mrs. Mason follows a prescribed line. She does not open her mouth before all attention is centered upon her words. The voice is resonant, penetrating even at an average pitch when talking, and a loud alto when singing. She lines out the hymns in true, old-fashioned style, and the congregations follow whatever long meter time she adapts for the words, while their leader marks time and expression according to her own ideas of the author’s meaning. Afterward a psalm, or portions of a psalm, is read, and each sentence explained. These explanations are sometimes graphic, and illustrated in words that cause merriment.”
In September 1897, the Kansas City Journal touted her talent: “Miss Mason, whose home is at Hannibal, Mo., created quite a sensation in this city about a year ago, when she participated in a camp meeting held at Kerr’s park. Thousands of white people attended the meetings to hear her. She is one of the ablest colored women evangelists in the United States.”
Returning to Kansas City two years later, a reporter from the Journal attended a revival service at the African M.E. church at Tenth and Charlotte streets.
“She had warmed up to her work by this time, and her eyes rolled and her arms waved as she exhorted the unbelievers,” the newspaper reported. Then they quoted Lena Mason, allowing her own words to spread her message to their readers:
“’I ain’t a talking to the well. I’m a talking to the sick. The well don’t need me, but the infidels and the scorners, and the laughers and the funmakers do.’ And she glared fiercely at a little colored boy on the end of the platform who was watching her with open eyes and mouth. This direct appeal was too much for him and he collapsed on the floor, a shivering, frightened little pickaninny.”
Mrs. Mason typical drew packed houses at her revivals.
At one revival she had a captive audience.
The Esterville Daily News, Esterville, Iowa, carried the story of the encounter in its Sept. 21, 1893 edition:
“Sedalia, Mo. The most remarkable religious services ever conducted behind prison bars in central Missouri was held in the Pettis County jail by Mrs. Lena Mason of Hannibal, better known as the “Black Sam Jones of Missouri.” Mrs. Mason entered the jail in company with Revs. Douglas and Tyler, and after prayers by the two gentlemen she began a ten minutes’ discourse that caused every prisoner to plead for forgiveness. The woman uses the best of English, and her earnestness is something remarkable. She kept her eyes closed during the entire service, and before she had talked three minutes Dick Robinson, the convicted murderer, and other notorious prisoners were upon their knees in prayer. Two colored females, serving out fines for vagrancy, scoffed at the service when it began, but before it was concluded they grabbed Mrs. Mason’s hand and begged her to pray for them, at the same time calling upon the Lord to wash away their sins. Mrs. Mason preached in the evening to nearly 2,500 people, acres of ground being covered with vehicles containing white people, who had been attracted by singular and successful exhortation.”
Mrs. Mason was licensed in the AME church by Rev. Dr. Schaffer, M.D., who in 1899 was one of the presiding elders of the Kansas conference. She was converted at 10 years of age under Rev. John Turner, the pastor of the AME Church at Hannibal, Mo.
The 1900 census listed George and Lena, and their daughter, Bertha, living on Spruce Street in Hannibal. George was employed as a day laborer at a lumber yard, and Lena was a preacher.
Mrs. Mason’s popularity continued to grow during the next decade.
In June 1900, Mrs. Mason was commissioned to speak in the city hall Alton, Ill. Her topic was, according to the Alton Telegraph, “The Masonic Charm.”
During the spring of 1902, Mrs. Mason was referred to as Rev. Lena Mason, and she conducted a successful tour of the South. At the end of June, she was scheduled to speak in Minneapolis, under the auspices of the Lena Mason society, dedicated to the serving the needs of the poor.
Two years later, Rev. Mason was asked to speak for the Republican National Committee, promoting Theodore Roosevelt in his re-election bid.
She was asked to deliver political speeches in Colorado, Utah, Idaho and Montana, beginning the first week in October, 1904. En route to Denver she was scheduled to speak at Kansas City and Topeka.
Upon learning of her invitation to speak, she told a reporter for the St. Louis Republic: “I have always been a Republican, and have made many speeches during campaigns,” she said. “I’m the only negro woman in the United States who will make speeches under the direction of the National Committee. In the four States in which I am to speak women are permitted to vote for President. They are more willing to listen to women speakers than to men. After the election I shall resume my evangelistic work.”
In April 1909, H.T. Kealing, author for the African Methodist Episcopal Church review, spoke highly of Rev. Mason, who had moved to Louisville, Ky, where she was named regular pastor of Trinity A.M.E. Church:
“Of all the evangelists who have visited Philadelphia during my coming and going the Rev. Mrs. Lena Mason appeared to have the largest amount of personal magnetism. Not only were men and women attracted by Mrs. Mason’s sermons, but even children crowded around her, giving close attention to themes which their elders thought would not interest them.”
The 1910 census found George Mason living in Hannibal, and his wife and their daughter in Philadelphia.
In August 1911, Rev. Mason was featured in an edition of the Arizona Republican, which wrote: Mrs. Mason is attracting crowds of people far beyond the capacity of the church building. Extra seats have been added and two new electric fans with the old ones to make the auditorium very pleasant.”
Rev. Mason was a featured speaker in 1913, at the Mt. Pisgah Church, 40th and Locust, Philadelphia, Woman’s Evangelistic Conference.
In 1914: Dec. 10, New York Age: “Corey Avenue AME Church got quite an uplift from two weeks’ meetings held in the church recently by Mrs. Lena Mason, the evangelist of Philadelphia. Hundreds of people both colored and white packed the church each evening. Thirty-two persons were converted and reclaimed. The collection amounted to $307.51.”
In 1917, Rev. Mason’s home address was listed as Baltimore, Md., when she was advertised as a speaker at Allen’s Temple, Marion, Ind.
The news of the death of Rev. Mason’s sister, Fannie L. Flanigan, age 49, of Hannibal, brought the evangelist back home. But even in mourning, Rev. Mason couldn’t pass up the opportunity to save souls in Hannibal.
Returns to Hannibal
At the request of Dr. Brooks, she conducted a series of meetings in Hannibal. The editor of the Kansas City Sun sat in at one of her messages, and wrote about the experience for the Nov. 23, 1918 edition. “She possessed the same wonderful Biblical knowledge; same power of oratory and the same matchless singing that puts her at the head of the Evangelists of the Race.” The editor described her as “The world’s greatest female evangelist.”
Back in Pennsylvania in 1920, she made her home with daughter Bertha Reed, a widow, and Mason Reed, age 13. The next year, she made a trip to speak at the AME Church in Leavenworth, Kan.
While her husband was still living and working in Hannibal, the news came out of the Norfolk Journal and Guide in 1924 that Mrs. Lena Mason, celebrated woman preacher, was dead, at the age of 60.
George Mason followed his wife to the grave on Oct. 18, 1929, dying at his home at 2009 Spruce Street in Hannibal, with his daughter Bertha at his side.
His surviving relatives included three sisters, Mrs. Ben Hawker, Mrs. Charlotte Henderson of Hannibal, and Mrs. Dorcas Riley of Kansas City, Kan. His death notice reports was buried at Robinson’s Cemetery.
Rev. Mason’s place of death and burial site have not yet been identified.
Thus a public life of soul saving ended. In addition to her ministry, Mrs. Mason’s exception talents included artistic endeavors and poetry. Only a few examples of her heralded work exist today.
Note: Digital newspapers articles, accessed via genealogybank.com, chroniclingamerica.com and newspapers.com provided much of the information for this story.