Bishop Robert Clarence Lawson was born in 1883 near New Iberia, Louisiana, United States of America. He came from a long line of preachers, and though he had no intention of becoming one himself, he became one of the foremost clergymen of his day.
Around the age of thirty, Robert Lawson, a traveling tavern singer, contracted tuberculosis. He was in a hospital in Indianapolis, Indiana, sharing a room with a prize fighter whose aged mother witnessed to him of the need to be saved and to receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. Lawson, after he learned that he had little chance of recovery, prayed and sought the Lord. God did heal him, and Lawson soon became a minister of the gospel and a student of Bishop Garfield T. Haywood, pastor of Christ Temple, an Apostolic Pentecostal church.
Shortly thereafter, Lawson began to evangelize the mid-west. Three churches were founded by him while he was a part of the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, the organization to which Bishop Haywood belonged. In 1919, however, he was directed of the Lord to leave the P.A. of W., after disagreements concerning the remarriage of divorcés and concerning women's roles in ministry had surfaced. A presbyter in his former organization, Lawson became the bishop and founder of his new organization, the Church of Christ of the Apostolic Faith, later to be called the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith.
Bishop Lawson preached his way from Columbus, Ohio, where he had founded his most recent church, to Harlem, New York City, New York. The Holy Ghost prompted him to board the subway and to follow the first man he saw. This man, Elder Edward Anderson, was on his way to a prayer meeting being held in the basement of one Brother Glover. The Lord used Bishop Lawson mightily in that prayer service, and Brother Glover turned the prayer meetings over to him. From this humble start did Bishop Lawson, who arrived in New York with five cents in his pocket, begin building one of Harlem's great churches, Refuge Church of Christ of the Apostolic Faith.
When Lawson's meetings outgrew the basement, the Anderson and Burleigh families availed him their shared townhouse for church meetings. Eventually, a building was purchased: three townhouses which had to be remodeled for church use. During the remodeling process, the saints, led by Bishop Lawson, carried on a great tent revival. Though met with initial disdain and criticism, the meetings, marked by healings, anointed preaching, demonstrations of the Spirit, and a lively hymnody, began to draw very large crowds. Lawson almost lost his life at this time due to blood poisoning from an unattended injury to his thumb, but the saints prayed and fasted, and the Lord restored him completely.
Bishop Lawson continued to start churches throughout the Northeast and down the eastern seaboard. He trained, catechized, and installed ministers to tend to the churches that he preached up. Many ministers that were so assigned by him became themselves great and influential ministers, such as Bishop Smallwood E. Williams (founder of Bible Way Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ, World-Wide, 1957), Bishop Sherrod C. Johnson (founder of Church of the Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith, ca. 1930), and Bishop William L. Bonner. Lawson went on to arrange the churches in episcopal jurisdictions, appointing state and regional bishops or overseers.
In addition, Bishop Lawson made several foreign trips and was recognized abroad as a minister of note. At his demise, dignitaries from 12 foreign countries came to pay respects. In life, he received the Star of Ethiopia from Emperor Haile Selassie, who became a personal friend of Lawson, who donated much to the cause of education and children's welfare in that country. Lawson gave lectures in India and Japan, and was respected at home as well. He earned several degrees, was often in the newspapers, and had the respect of U.S. presidents and other religious leaders.
Bishop Lawson departed this life in 1961, his work having been fragmented by a recent schism. Nevertheless, his legacy is very great, with a whole family of Apostolic Pentecostal churches tracing their roots to him, as evidenced by the names of some of these ecclesiastical groups: Bible Way Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ; Church of the Lord Jesus Christ; Church in the Lord Jesus Christ; and Progressive Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ, to name a few. It would be impossible to count those who came to the Lord because of the work of Bishop Lawson; churches of varying denominational backgrounds are sprinkled with those who have received the precious gift of the Holy Ghost in small, Jesus-name Pentecostal churches that carry the Lawsonite mantle, where prayer, fasting, and the wholly sanctified life are still the norm and standard.