J. Delano Ellis II, an African American Pentecostal leader who sought to renew the church through new forms of unity and order adapted from Methodists and Catholics, died Saturday at the age of 75.
Ellis worked to reclaim the idea of bishops for black Pentecostals. He was a leading authority on proper clerical garb and rites of ordination and consecration. He co-founded the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops and wrote a handbook on “creating episcopacy” to train leaders for the office of overseer and promote the importance of an unbroken line of apostolic succession going back to Jesus’s first disciples.
“Traditionally … the Pentecostal church maintained its ardor but was never really known for its order,” Ellis said. “What we’re discovering is that order is not blasphemous. Order best represents God.”
According to Ellis’s autobiography, his first memory was of his mother calling on the name of Jesus while he was still in the womb. Lucy Ellis was only 13 or 14 at the time, married to a violent man who was 10 years older than her. Her husband was Jesse Delano Ellis Sr., who rejected Christianity for Moorish Science and then Moorish Science for the Nation of Islam. He was abusive and unfaithful, fathering 28 children in South Philadelphia after his namesake, Jesse Delano Ellis II, was born in December 1944.
Ellis’s mother suffered from epilepsy and was committed to a mental institution while Ellis was still young. He went across the street to live with his grandmother and great aunt. Both women were ordained Christian ministers, one in a Disciples of Christ church and the other in a small Holiness denomination.
As a teenager, Ellis tried to establish a relationship with this father by attending a Nation of Islam mosque, but he also regularly attended a black Pentecostal church to listen to the choir. At the mosque, he learned that God cannot have a son. His father told him that Jesus was the white man’s god and Christianity was a trick designed to enslave black people. At the Church of God in Christ, however, Ellis heard the gospel and it resonated in his heart.
One Sunday he heard a sermon on Romans 10:9. The preacher quoted the text from the King James Version, saying “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.” Ellis jumped up out of his seat and said “I believe it!”