In 1915, Elder William Roberts came to Chicago to investigate the city where many said it was impossible for a Church of God to be planted. Roberts had the courage to do just that. Mother Lillian Brooks Coffee was also instrumental in convincing Bishop C.H. Mason, Founder of the Church of God In Christ, to send Elder Roberts, then Assistant Pastor of Bishop Mason’s church in Memphis, to pastor a congregation of 13 people in Chicago. Roberts soon brought his family to Chicago to join him in 1917. During the early years of Roberts’ work in Illinois, Bishop Mason appointed him State Overseer of Illinois and Indiana. Roberts’ title was later elevated to Bishop. (1)
The church has seen many days of prosperity and adversity. In 1916, it was located at 3233 State Street; in 1918, it moved to 31st and LaSalle; in 1920, it moved to 37th and Federal; and in 1923, the church moved to its present site, 4021 South State Street. The building was designed by South Side architect Edward G. McClellan and was initially only one story. By 1927, the building was greatly expanded to include a large second floor sanctuary. The expanded building had a red brick front façade with tall, narrow windows lighting the sanctuary, which were ornamented with lightly raised pointed-arch brickwork. The full expansion was completed in August 1928, and the church was remodeled in 1943. It was renamed in October 1953 to Roberts Temple Church of God In Christ. In 1992, the building was refronted with tan brick, covering the earlier dark brick. The sanctuary was also remodeled. (2)
Bishop William Roberts lived to see much of the church’s growth until May 10, 1954, when the Lord called him from labor to reward. His son, Bishop Isaiah Leon Roberts, became Pastor of Roberts Temple Church of God In Christ in 1955. In September of that same year, Bishop I.L. Roberts presided over the open-casket wake and funeral of Emmett Till, an event that catapulted Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ into the annals of the Civil Rights Movement.
The Church of God In Christ denomination has played an important role in the Civil Rights Movement. The funeral of Malcolm X was held in Faith Temple Church of God In Christ in Harlem, and Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his final “I've Been to the Mountaintop” speech from the pulpit of Mason Temple Church of God In Christ (the denomination’s national headquarters) in Memphis, Tennessee. Roberts Temple was the first church in the denomination to achieve national and international fame, as a result of hosting Till’s funeral service.
Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley (then Mamie Till Bradley), made the courageous decision to insist on an open-casket wake for the mutilated body of her son, in order to “let the world see what I’ve seen.” On Friday, September 2, 1955, the one-day visitation for Emmett Till at A.A. Rayner & Sons Funeral Home brought over 5,000 mourners. (3) The visitation was then moved to Roberts Temple for the Saturday memorial service. According to papers at the time, the church filled to its capacity of 1,700 people for the service, with nearly 10,000 people standing outside to listen to the service over loudspeakers. (4) Due to the enormous number of people who attempted to view Emmett’s body on the day of the funeral, Mamie decided to delay the burial to allow more time for mourners to view her son’s body and pay their respects. It has been estimated that more than 25,000 people viewed Emmett’s body on that Saturday, and that more than 100,000 people filed past his casket in the three days before his burial on Tuesday, September 6, 1955 in Burr Oak Cemetery in suburban Alsip, Illinois. (5)
On March 26, 2006, Roberts Temple Church of God In Christ was declared a City of Chicago Landmark, recognizing the impact of Emmett Till’s funeral on American history. (6) In their Landmark Designation Report, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks writes that Roberts Temple "is the surviving Chicago building that best exemplifies the national importance of Emmett Till and the tragic event of his death to the history of the civil rights movement in the United States."
Today, Roberts Temple Church of God In Christ remains in use by the same denomination, now led by Elder Cleven Wardlow.
Elder Clyde Young, From the Beginning: Early Pioneers of the Church of God In Christ (Memphis, TN: Church of God In Christ, 1991).
Mack C. Mason, Saints in the Land of Lincoln (Hazel Crest Il: Faithday Press, 2004), 33, 43.
Mamie Till-Mobley and Christopher Benson, Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime that Changed America (New York: Ballantine Books, 2003), 140.
“Thousands Attend Funeral of Negro Boy Slain in South,” Jacksonville Daily Journal (Jacksonville, IL), Sept. 4, 1955.
“Bury Slain Boy,” Chicago Tribune, Sept. 7, 1955.
“Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ Building,” City of Chicago, https://webapps1.chicago.gov/landmarksweb/web/landmarkdetails.htm?lanId=11384.
Bishop William Roberts, founder of the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ in Chicago, IL.
Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ was the location of Emmett Till's open casket funeral in 1955, drawing over 100,000 mourners.