After the death in 1966 of our founder, Bishop J. D. Williams, Sr., the Progressive Church was blessed with another great leader. Bishop Joel G. Washington led the church forward into its second generation and continued to build upon the foundation which had been laid by Bishop Williams. Bishop Joel Gilbert Washington, Sr. was born on May 29, 1907 in Hopkins, SC to Mr. and Mrs. Joel and Selena Washington. He was one of five children. After graduating from high school, he moved to Columbia, SC. In 1935, he was united in holy matrimony to Helen L. Smith and to this union ten children were born. However, of those ten children, only one child survived, Joel Gilbert Washington, Jr.
Bishop Washington and his wife, Sister Helen Washington, provided their home to Bishop Williams for the first service of the Progressive Church held in Columbia, SC. Although he did not immediately submit to water baptism in the name of Jesus Christ, he supported the church and supported Bishop Williams in his early endeavors to establish the Progressive Church. After several months, on March 28, 1945, he was baptized in the name of Jesus Christ and received the gift of the Holy Ghost. He often told the story that after he first received the Holy Ghost and returned to work, it seemed to him that the machines at work were making noises that sounded as if they were saying, “Jesus-Jesus-Jesus.”
Brother Washington served in many capacities in the young church. During the mid 1940’s, when the church was located in the Taylors Community of Columbia, he was the only adult male in the church. Despite the absence of men in the church, Brother Washington worked diligently to support Bishop Williams. He was the first brother to be ordained as a deacon, and he maintained the finance records of the church. He was the first superintendent of the Sunday School Department, the first brother to be licensed as a minister, and the first minister to be ordained as an elder in the Progressive Church.
In 1952, Bishop Williams began a second mission in Columbia, SC at 2217 Waverly Street. He assigned Elder Washington to regularly minister at this location until the entire church was moved from the Taylors Community in Columbia to Waverly Street. During this interim period, Elder Washington provided spiritual instruction for the saints who worshiped at Waverly Street.
In 1948, Bishop Williams went to the Columbia Hospital to pray for a sister who was ill. While at the hospital, he prayed for another young lady, Ms. Mary Anderson, who shared a room with the sister he originally went to visit. After praying for Ms. Anderson, God healed her and delivered her from the hospital. She later came to the Progressive Church to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Sister Anderson lived in Killian, SC and through her desire, a Progressive Church was established in Killian, SC. In 1953, Bishop Williams appointed Elder Washington to serve as pastor of the assembly in Killian. Under his leadership, many things were accomplished in Killian. The first block church was built shortly after he became pastor. Also, under his leadership in Killian, several men were ordained as deacons and licensed as ministers.
Although Elder Washington worked in Charleston, SC for US Steel Company, he made the sacrifice to travel back and forth to provide spiritual instruction and teaching for the growing congregation in Killian, SC. As one of the senior elders of the church, Bishop Williams often relied on Elder Washington to support the work of the church and to provide guidance for the younger ministers in the gospel.
Elder Washington was also very dedicated to supporting his wife, Sister Helen Washington, throughout her many illnesses. At times, when she was unable to handle the affairs of the home, he would often cook and take care of the daily chores. He loved and provided for Sister Washington faithfully until her death on August 27, 1964. Although he certainly was saddened by her death, he remained faithful to God and to the Progressive Church. As a dedicated son-in-law, after his wife’s death, Bishop Washington faithfully ensured that the needs of his mother-in-law, Sister Carrie Brown, were always met.
Just prior to his death in January 1966, Bishop Williams appointed Elder Washington to serve as a member of the Board of Elders to provide leadership and guidance for the national church. After the death of Bishop Williams, the Board of Elders collectively governed the Progressive Churches. Shortly after the board’s establishment, Elder Washington was elected to serve as chairman of the Board of Elders. Members of the Board of Elders were assigned to oversee districts of churches to maintain the unity of the organization. Elder Washington served as the District Elder for a number of churches including: Columbia, SC; Killian, SC; Lugoff, SC; Hopkins, SC; and Winnsboro, SC.
From 1968—1973, Elder Washington served as a co-pastor for the headquarters church in Columbia, SC, along with other members of the Board of Elders. In addition to serving as pastor of the church in Killian, SC, he would preach in Columbia one Sunday out of each month and also teach Bible Class in Columbia one Friday night out of each month. During the week, when many of the other members of the Board of Elders were unable to be in Columbia, SC for the local worship services, he would often attend mid-week services to provide counseling and leadership for the membership.
In 1973, Elder Washington was consecrated to the office of Bishop, along with the other members of the Board of Elders. After the establishment of the Board of Bishops, the members of the board had an important decision to make regarding the leadership of the organization and determining who, among them, would serve as the new presiding bishop. After prayerful and thoughtful consideration, Bishop Washington was elected to serve as Presiding Bishop of the Progressive Churches. He was chosen because of his years of wisdom and experience in the ministry. At this time that he was also appointed to be the sole pastor of the headquarters church in Columbia. After being appointed pastor in Columbia, he relinquished his pastorate in Killian, SC after 20 years of service. Minister J. D. Williams, Jr. was appointed to replace him in Killian, SC as pastor.
During his tenure as Presiding Bishop of the organization, the Progressive Churches experienced unprecedented growth, with ten new churches added to the organization. It was under the administration of Bishop Washington that many of the present pastors were sent out, as young men, to pastor the newly established Progressive Churches. Bishop Washington would proudly send young pastors to new cities telling them, “I want you to baptize everybody in the city in the name of Jesus Christ.” It was because of the faith that he placed in these young men, that many of them are in leadership roles today. In 1983, Bishop Washington appointed Bishop Edward Smith to assist him in providing leadership for the organization, serving as Assistant Presiding Bishop.
Bishop Washington was a man who believed in giving opportunities to younger men in the ministry. Not a man who was lifted up in pride or boastful of his position, Bishop Washington always displayed a meek and humble demeanor. Bishop Washington had a great love for the youth of the church. He often provided them with opportunities to conduct the services, participate on the programs, and allowed the young brothers to give exhortations and sermonnettes during the worship services.
Bishop Washington was a man who believed in and taught the importance of faithfulness in church attendance. During his tenure as pastor of the headquarters church, worship services were held four nights out of each week in addition to services on Sunday. While this may have been too busy a schedule for many pastors, rarely would Bishop Washington miss any of the week-night services. He would also make every effort to attend the regular noon prayer hour at the church, and pray with the saints who were in need. As a man who believed in order, he was a stickler for making sure services began on time. He would always instruct those conducting the worship services to make sure the services began on time. Rarely would he hold meetings or counseling sessions during worship service time because he believed that he needed to be in the worship service along with the saints.
A man known for his “witty” saying, he would often proclaim to the church when preaching, “If there are one thousand gods, only one died for you.” Another one of his favorite sayings was to use the analogy of the game of football to remind the saints how God will “look out” for his people. He would often say that, “the Lord will run interference for you.” Many of the saints who were saved at the headquarters church in Columbia under Bishop Washington’s leadership will never forget his love for them and for the church of God. Many saints still recall the words of wisdom and the godly advice given to them by the late Bishop Washington.
In the 1980's, the Lord enabled the Columbia Church to purchase some of the land adjacent to the sanctuary at 2222 Barhamville Road. Bishop Washington had plans to build a new sanctuary for the growing congregation. However, he did not live to see this plan come to fruition. From 1986 to 1987, Bishop Washington’s health began to significantly decline. Although he was unable to preach as regularly as he would have liked, he regularly attended the worship services and relied on his assistant pastor, Elder Theodore Jenkins, to provide spiritual instruction for the saints. During the latter months of his life, he was placed on dialysis due to the failure of his kidneys. While many would have allowed this to stop them, Bishop Washington continued to remain faithful in the service of the Lord. When he was too weak to enter the pulpit, he would simply sit on the side pews by the door because of his desire to be in the house of the Lord. When he was so weak that he should have stayed at home to rest, he still continued to come to the house of the Lord.
On April 14, 1987, after a short stay in the hospital, Bishop Joel Gilbert Washington, Sr. passed away. His death occurred just shy of his 80th birthday. A special memorial service was held for Bishop Washington on Friday, April 17, 1987. Many of the saints gave special remarks, reflecting upon his life and legacy. One of his favorite jubilee songs was, “Lord, I Thank You All the Days of My Life.” He would often say that no one could sing that song like his late wife, Sister Helen Washington, and Sister Laura Ashe. In tribute to Bishop Washington, the Memorial Service ended with Sister Ashe leading the congregation in singing, “Lord, I Thank You All the Days of My Life.”
The Funeral service for Bishop Washington was held on Saturday, April 18, 1987 at the headquarters church in Columbia, SC. Hundreds of saints came from all over the southeast to pay tribute to this great man of God. He was eulogized by Bishop Edward Smith, the Assistant Presiding Bishop, and was recognized as being one of the patriarchs of the Progressive Church. The Lord blessed Bishop Washington to have a long and successful ministry that resulted in many souls being won for the kingdom of God. He was buried beside his wife, Sister Helen Washington, at the Palmetto Cemetery in Columbia, SC.
Bishop Washington’s patient spirit, words of wisdom, and his quiet and humble leadership style will always be remembered and cherished by those who knew him well. He will always hold a special place in the hearts of the saints who were saved under his pastorate in Killian, SC and in Columbia, SC. We will always remember the contributions of this great man of God.