“The Preacher”

Guest Writer: Bishop Hartsel Clifton Shirley

When people use the phrase “bible belt,” they typically (and incorrectly) refer to the country’s Southern region. However, the Midwest can also adopt that term. The Midwest can also assert that Reverend Clarence Cobbs was instrumental in bringing innovation to the bible belt’s “church world.”

Clarence Cobbs was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on February 29, 1908. Attending Kortretcht High School, he had noted teachers, such as hymn writer Lucie Campbell, who wrote psalms such as “Something Within” and “Jesus Gave Me Water.” In 1916, Cobbs moved to Chicago and attended Pilgrim Baptist Church. And in the late 1920s, he met with Mother Della Hedgepath, a spiritualist church founder, who became an early influence in his entry into the gospel.

Upon Hedgepath’s passing, Cobbs founded his own church, First Church of Deliverance, which began its initial services in his mother’s home. In May 1929, the church moved to a storefront located at 4155 South State Street, one of the major streets in Chicago. The following year, the church moved to 4633 State Street; finally, in 1933, it moved to its final and current location of 4315 South Wabash Avenue 1933. At this location, Cobbs would become nationally recognized for his trailblazing efforts in the church world.

Rev. Clarence Cobbs

As his popularity grew, the public bestowed the nickname of “Preacher” upon  Cobbs; individuals also valued his fashionable attire. He gave notably stirring performances with his 200-member choir, which became noted for its appearances that drew large crowds in Comisky Park. In 1935, the church began broadcasting on the radio station WSBC, which ushered in the revolutionary format of broadcast evangelism.

The church also published music, fostering the careers of some well-known gospel artists and composers. Doris Akers attributed her song, “My Expectation,” to being inspired by one of Cobbs’ sermons, and Cobbs helped singer Billy Williams, known for his biggest hit, “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself A Letter.” The church building, designed by Walter T. Bailey (the first African American graduate with a bachelor of science degree in architectural engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), boasted a Hammond organ. Famed organist Kenneth Morris encouraged Cobbs to install the instrument, giving the choir a distinctive sound. By the 1940s, the church had over 9000 members. Pre-megachurch, indeed!

Cobbs was not only noted as a preacher not to be reckoned with, but he put his faith into action in other ways. A member of the executive committee of Chicago’s NAACP board, he invited civil rights leader Archibald Carey to speak on the church’s radio program against violence during racial tensions surrounding fair housing.

The minister never openly declared his sexuality, but in the Bronzeville area of Chicago, the progressive citizens made no issue of it, though there were rumors amongst church folks. Interestingly, the church became a welcomed place for same-gender loving patrons.

Cobbs took numerous annual vacations with his male secretary, R. Edward Bolden. The Chicago Defender even wrote that he was “facing the possibility of questioning by state’s attorney’s police concerning widespread rumors of a scandalous nature.”  The minister sued the paper for defamation of character, stating he was a “full man.”

Clarence Cobbs passed away June 28, 1979, in his home, having established a mold many future pastors and preachers follow to this day. Clarence Cobbs was undeniable proof that there is no vocation in which we can’t be innovative and gave evidence that…

I invite you to listen to a Rev Clarence Cobbs broadcast from 1975:


Bishop Hartsel Clifton Shirley is an author, writer, singer/songwriter, and bishop from Waterloo, Iowa. He received his master’s degree in business from the International Business Management Institute based in Berlin, Germany.

A multi-faceted talent, Hartsel is a writer, author, and singer/songwriter.  A bronze prize winner of the International Society of Poets, he has penned editorials for the Waterloo/Cedar Falls Courier. His best-selling novel is entitled Three Words, Four Letters, published by Ishai Books.  Additionally, Hartsel has charted at #1 several times on the ReverbNation pop music charts.  

Inspired by Langston Hughes, Bishop Shirley states, “I write what moves me.  There is nothing I can’t write. I just have to care about it so I can write truthfully.”

Inspired by Langston Hughes, Bishop Shirley states, “I write what moves me.  There is nothing I can’t write. I just have to care about it so I can write truthfully.”

According to Hartsel, his current book, The Night Eddie Sallis Died, is based on factual information he uncovered in 2002 about a 1966 jail cell “suicide” in Waterloo, Iowa (his place of birth).  This revealing and riveting book pulls back the curtain on racism and police brutality. The author emphasizes, “These truths make Iowa a state not to be taken lightly–nor forget.”