The Gospel Spreading Church

The Gospel Spreading Church of God on Jefferson Ave. in the 1950's. (File photo / February 23, 2012)

When Lightfoot Solomon Michaux pitched his first revival tent at the corner of 19th and Jefferson in 1919, he'd already made his mark selling fish and groceries.
    Michaux was nearly 35 when he went from chasing profits to saving souls. And as he stood on the sidewalk preaching, singing and quoting Scripture, it was far from clear whether Providence would give him the 150 followers he'd asked for.
    By the time he struck his tent 3 months later, however, Michaux had not only recruited his first "saints" but also founded a church that would minister to believers by the thousands.
    Applying a blueprint perfected in Newport News, he combined food, jobs and housing with spiritual guidance to attract followers as far away as Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York. He transformed a local radio show into a nationally broadcast evangelical trumpet call - one that drew 25 million listeners each week and made Michaux the best-known black religious figure in America during the Depression and post-war years.
    "From the time, he pitched that tent and asked the Lord for 150 souls, Elder Michaux bonded with everybody in his congregation. He taught them how to save for themselves. He helped them get jobs. He helped them find places to live," says retired teacher Juanita Haltiwanger, a lifelong church member.
    "Newport News was the mother church - and all the things he did in other places started here first. But even he didn't know how far his ministry would go."
    Born in Newport News in 1884, Michaux was the son of a French, Indian, Jewish and black merchant sailor and his mixed-race wife.
    He attended the Baptist-run 22nd Street Negro school until 4th grade, then began pushing a cart full of oysters, clams, crabs and fish from his father's Jefferson Avenue seafood store as far afield as the rich white suburb in the North End.
    The enterprising lad also singled himself out in other ways, a sister recalled.
    "Even as a child, Lightfoot would raise his hands to pray when no one was watching," she told Jet magazine in 1969. "He seemed to have been born to preach."
    By 1904, Michaux had saved enough money to open his own seafood and poultry business as a well as a dancing school. There he met Mary Eliza Pauline, an orphaned older woman whom he married in 1906.
    Five years later, the prosperous entrepreneur built a 3-story home off Pinkett's Beach at the foot of Ivy Avenue, where the childless couple began raising two of Michaux's younger sisters. He also began embracing the influence of his wife's increasingly passionate religious convictions, including her missionary forays into the poorest, roughest parts of town to kneel and pray at the feet of drunks, prostitutes and other sinners.
    Not until a lucrative government contract drew him to Hopewell in 1917, however, did Michaux erect a small white-frame church for his wife, who named it "Everybody's Mission." Within a year he was ordained in the Church of Christ (Holiness).
    "He loved her - and she told him what she thought God wanted him to do," says historian Lillian Ashcraft-Eason, who grew up in the church before making it the subject of a book and a College of William Mary doctoral dissertation.
    "And like everything else Elder Michaux did, once he decided to do it he did it with a lot of passion."
    That zeal helps explain why - following the end of World War I and their return to Newport News - Michaux and his wife spent 3 months preaching on the street with no more shelter than a sheet of canvas.
    It also sheds light on how fast the church took shape, moving in 15 months from a rented storefront to a new 3-story structure housing not just a sanctuary but also offices, apartments, a grocery, a cafe and a savings bank aimed at members.
    Most of these people were "poor, propertyless and without formal schooling," Ashcraft-Eason says. And they came to Michaux as much for material help as his grasp of the Gospel.
    "He really believed he was delivering the true Gospel Message. And that message was as much about leading them to liberation as teaching them lessons about how to adhere to Scripture," she explains.