S. Mcdowell Shelton, Apostolic Faith Bishop And Leader For 30 Years

Posted: October 17, 1991

Bishop S. McDowell Shelton, 62, who presided over the worldwide Church of the Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith, yet was a deeply secretive man virtually unknown in his home city, died Sunday at his home in Philadelphia.

The denomination that he led as pastor and general overseer was reported by church officials to include about a million members in 150 churches in cities across the United States and in many foreign countries.

A dynamic and charismatic speaker, Bishop Shelton was known as a capable administrator and self-taught Bible scholar at his church at 22d and Bainbridge Streets.

In 1971, the bishop and his followers dedicated a 32-unit apartment complex for senior citizens that had been built in less than a year, mostly by members of the church, and without their borrowing a cent to do it.

Bishop Shelton was also known as a man who preached austerity to his followers but lived in luxury himself.

He lived in a lavish apartment, first on the church complex and later at the Philadelphian Apartments near the Art Museum. He was reported to drive a Rolls-Royce and other expensive cars, and to enjoy fine wines and expensive clothes.

He also loved travel, going abroad every year to spread good will and propagate the faith, he told a reporter in 1971. On a 20,000-mile trip to eight countries in 1970, he met with the Pope, King Hussein of Jordan, Princess Grace of Monaco and Haile Selassie, former emperor of Ethiopia.

Born in Philadelphia, he attended Lincoln University and received a degree in business from Rutgers University. He once worked for the city's Department of Public Welfare.

He never studied at a theological school, but his knowledge of the Bible was said in newpaper accounts to be prodigious. "Theology courses are taught by the poorest misfits, people who can't make it anywhere else," he once said.

He also spoke six languages - English, German, Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese - and he broadcast a program, "The Whole Truth," in them. The program is broadcast in the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia and Africa over 62 radio stations.

The church of the Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith was founded in 1922 by the late Sherrod C. Johnson, who also built the current sanctuary and the denominational headquarters at 22d and Bainbridge Streets.

The doctrine of the church is rigid fundamentalism. Its members do not smoke, drink or wear jewelry. They also refrain from voting. The church does not approve of debts, including mortgages. When Bishop Johnson's original church burned down in 1958, the congregation replaced it with a 3,500-seat sanctuary - in 14 months and without benefit of mortgage.

Bishop Shelton, then a choir director, took over in 1961 after Bishop Johnson's death.

Members of his congregation have described the bishop to reporters as a well-read man and dynamic speaker with a charisma that was close to hypnotic.

Outside the church, Bishop Shelton was virtually unknown. He rarely sought to publicize activities of the church, and he granted few interviews. Secretaries and other church personnel formed a protective wall around him.

Even after his apartment in the Philadelphian was broken into in 1977 and $40,000 in cash as well as gold and jewelry had been stolen from his two safes, the bishop made no public comment. His response, given through a spokesman, was "The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away."

There were no immediate survivors.

A prayer vigil will be held today at 10 a.m. at the headquarters church at 22d and Bainbridge. There will be a memorial service on Nov. 17 at the church after a 30-day period of mourning.

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