The History of the GREATER REFUGE TEMPLE
Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith, Inc.
To speak of the Greater Refuge Temple as a church, is to speak of its illustrious apostle and dynamic founder, the late Bishop Robert Clarence Lawson, and our current pastor, Bishop William Lee Bonner.
We can safely say that God chose these dedicated men to work His divine inspired plan through this great church. For it was by the Herculean effort, prolific preaching and mastery of the inspired scriptures that Bishop Lawson, with tenacity and determination, hewed from the villages, cities, towns and hamlets the dynamic organization known as the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith, Inc.
It was in the year of 1914 when Mr. Lawson accepted the Word of God and was baptized in the name of Jesus Christ and received the gift of the Holy Ghost. A supernatural event took place in his life, namely, the miraculous healing of his body from tuberculosis. His healing was stamped indelibly upon him and played a major part in the shaping of his inspired faith healing ministry.
By his own testimony, we learned that Bishop Lawson was divinely called by the Lord through a whirlwind, hearing the voice of God saying: “Go Preach My Word! I mean you! I mean you! I mean you! Go Preach My Word.”
Starting a small work in St. Louis, Missouri, and a later endeavor in San Antonio, Texas, preaching everywhere the Apostolic doctrine, he was led to the Mid-West where he pastored a church in Columbus, Ohio. It was there that he married the late Miss Carrie Fields of Leavenworth, Kansas. The couple was subsequently blessed with four sons.
The inception of the Greater Refuge Temple Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ was in the year 1919. Bishop Lawson, then Elder Lawson, was invited to a prayer meeting in a basement in the 40th Street area of New York City. So energetic was his service to the Lord that his fame spread abroad and reached the ears of Mr. and Mrs. James Burleigh and Mr. and Mrs. Edward Anderson. These two blessed couples opened their homes to Elder Lawson. Even today, their homes are affectionately thought of as the “Cradle of Refuge.”
The congregation grew quickly. Within a short period of time, approximately 200 members had been added to the church. Thus, larger quarters had to be sought to accommodate the growing ministry. Bishop Lawson purchased the site at 52-54-56 West 133rd Street and relocated his thriving church which he called the Refuge Church. It was here that his vision was enlarged and the Lord laid upon his heart to conduct a tent revival service. Great numbers were added to the church through this outreach.
Under the thriving ministry of Apostle Lawson, many preaching, missionaries, ministers and teachers were sent into the field establishing numerous works. To the far flung isles of the sea, to the continent of Africa and to the Caribbean, these Christian heralds went carrying the Apostolic message.
In the year 1932, Bishop Lawson initiated a radio broadcast over station WGBS. He also broadcasted successfully over WHOM and WINS. As of this edition the broadcast continues over WMCA-AM.
As the work continued to grow, the quarters on 133rd Street became inadequate to house the rapidly increasing congregation. Bishop Lawson relocated the church to the present site of 124th Street and 7th Avenue (now: Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Boulevard) in August 1945. This edifice is known as the “Mother Church” (Headquarters) of the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ. In two short years, the indebtedness of the church was lifted, and on Christmas Day, 1947, the mortgage was burned. This church was known as Refuge Temple.
During 1948, Mother Carrie Lawson, known as the “Praying Mother of the Air,” departed this life. It was through Mother Lawson’s intercessory prayers that many souls were delivered from the powers of darkness. This was only one of the noteworthy characteristics of her life.
Every organization must suffer the pangs of growth; the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ was no exception. In 1957, there was a major schism within the ranks of the organization. This occasioned Bishop Lawson to call his now famous “Summit Meeting,” which was the rallying and turning point of the organization. In the closing session of this meeting, Bishop Lawson preached a soul stirring message recounting the work that he had done and hurled the challenge to all who would receive it: “ADD THOU TO IT.” The challenge was accepted to many. From that moment the organization began to grow to new greatness and spiritual heights.
The clarion call summoning our illustrious leader home came on Sunday, July 2, 1961. On that day, Bishop Lawson, a Prince of Preachers, the Bible Answer Man, God’s Shining Star, departed this life.
His death necessitated new leadership. It was at the convocation in August 1961 that Bishop William Lee Bonner introduced: “Twelve Recommendations for the Common Good.” The National Convocation accepted these recommendations and, consequently, a three-man Board of Apostles was formed.
Following the death of Bishop Spencer in the fall of 1973, Bishop Bonner was chosen to be the Presiding Apostle. In the 1974 Convocation, he was officially elected as Presiding Apostle.
In 1961, Bishop Bonner—accompanied by his beautiful wife, Mother Ethel Mae Bonner, and their two children—were sent to New York, where he became the pastor of the Mother Church. Upon arriving and seeing the need, he set about the remodeling of Refuge Temple. The Mother Church, headquarters of the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ, is now known as the Greater Refuge Temple. This ultra-modern edifice has changed the face of 7th Avenue and is undisputedly one of the most modern structures in Harlem. It has a total seating capacity of three thousand, with thirty-six conference and meeting rooms, fully furnished in modern décor. Bishop Lawson challenged us to: “ADD THOU TO IT,” and Bishop Bonner answered the challenge with a new forward thrust and vision for souls and expansion of the work.
An evangelist at heart, Bishop Bonner is one of a handful of men alive today who has the ability to move into a city and command a meeting of thousands at a day’s notice. As the spiritual overseer of more than 500 churches worldwide on three continents; and with an estimated membership in the thousands, Chief Apostle William Lee Bonner stands today as one of the greatest ministers of all times. The young elder, who dreamed of ministering to the world has become the “head”; abounding in great divine favor to the grace to “Add Thou To It.” On December 25, 1999, after over fifty years of marriage, Mother Ethel Mae Bonner went home to be with the Lord.
Through the anointing that God has placed on his life, Bishop Bonner rebuilt countless lives and winning to Christ hundreds-of-thousands of souls. For many years Bishop Bonner pastored five churches, with a total membership of over ten-thousand members. Due to the love and labor of Bishop Bonner and the Board of Apostles of COOLJC today, only major coliseums and convention centers are able to accommodate the large convocations of the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ. One of his greatest accomplishments is the W.L. Bonner College, where over 150 students have graduated and gone on to higher education.
On April 3, 2015 the Lord called from labor to reward his servant Bishop William Lee Bonner. His love and warm smile will forever be missed by the membership of this great Church. On February 20, 2016 Bishop Charles E. Wright, Sr. was installed as the third pastor of the Greater Refuge Temple. Bishop Wright has served as one of the assistant pastors for over forty years. Our church family is excited about what God is doing in the life of our new pastor.
We are continuing to go into new fields to bring souls in before our Lord Jesus Christ comes for His Church.