Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Patten Ministry, Patten University, and the Christian Evangelical Churches of America

Bebe Patten, founder of Patten University and the Christian Evangelical Churches of America

Sex may have been Aimee Semple McPherson’s downfall, but greed was the sin that spurred, and later crippled the ministry of one of her disciples and students: Bebe Patten, pastor of what would later be called the Christian Evangelical Churches of America.

The Oakland of 1944, where Sister Aimee’s California crusade ended and Bebe’s began, bore little resemblance to the genteel East Bay suburb it had been a few decades earlier. Established as a bedroom community for ferry-commuting businessmen who wanted to raise their families away from Barbary Coast-era San Francisco’s vice and violence, Oakland had grown over fivefold since the turn of the 20th century into a major port and industrial city with more than 350,000 residents.

Much of Oakland’s rapid urbanization happened during World War II, as thousands of people streamed into the East Bay to work in its burgeoning defense plants and shipyards. Many of these migrants were Southerners and Midwesterners, who brought with them the Evangelical fervor and Pentecostal passion of Bible-Belt Christianity, and naturally gravitated towards churches and revivals that fed their emotive worship style, as well as their need for a sense of community and purpose in California. Too, their defense-plant jobs paid well, and these Dust-Bowl and Depression survivors were flush with cash for the first time in their lives. Oakland was ripe for exploitation by any evangelist with the right style and pitch.

Teenage evangelist Bebe Patten, circa 1931

 That evangelist was Bebe Harrison Patten. Like her mentor Aimee McPherson, Bebe had heard the call to the Pentecostal ministry while still in her teens, and abandoned her dream of being an Olympic swimming champion to preach the Gospel. She then moved to Los Angeles, where she graduated from Aimee’s LIFE Bible College, and then set off on the evangelical trail.

Although she had been raised in Detroit, Bebe was originally from Hickman County, Tennessee. On a trip back to her birthplace she met Carl Thomas Patten, a bootlegger’s son and ne’er-do-well who’d just received a two-year suspended sentence for transporting stolen autos across state lines. Patten fell hard for the lady evangelist, saying she was “the only woman I ever saw that I couldn’t get fresh with,” and Bebe eventually agreed to marry him, but only if he joined her as a co-minister on the revival trail. Although he lacked formal education (reportedly, he’d been kicked out of high school for operating a still in the building’s basement), he somehow got ordained by the Fundamental Ministerial Association, and became Bebe’s evangelical partner.

Bebe and Carl Thomas Patten, early in their ministry

 After nearly ten years on the Southern and Midwestern revival circuits, the Pattens arrived in Oakland in 1944. There, they borrowed money from local pastors, rented the old Elim Tabernacle church, and staged an extended revival for the Bay Area’s heathens and backsliders. It was understood initially that the Pattens were merely in town to save a few hundred souls and then let local churches pick up the converts; Bebe herself preached a sermon on this theme, “A Tree Planted in Oakland”, where she likened the revival to a tree planted and pruned by the Pattens, whose fruit would be harvested by the established congregations.

Taking a cue from Aimee McPherson, they copied the Foursquare Evangelist’s San Diego media-blitz strategy to publicize the revival. Carl, who was now calling himself “C. Thomas Patten,” bought full-page newspaper ads, rented huge billboards, and sent sound trucks all over the East Bay, blasting a top-volume Gospel message and promising spiritual spectacles at the Tabernacle: “Green Palms! Choir Girls in White! Music! Miracles! Blessings! Healings!” Patten later estimated that he spent up to six thousand dollars a week on ad campaigns, and singlehandedly “broke this town spiritually” on behalf of the Patten crusade.

The hype paid off. Crowds flocked to the Patten revivals, which got so big that they had to relocate to the 1,000-seat Oakland Women’s City Club auditorium. On weekends, they even filled the 8,000-seat Oakland Arena. The revival lasted nineteen weeks, and when it ended, instead of moving on to new missionary fields as they had promised, the Pattens took a lease on the City Club, and settled down in Oakland.

C.Thomas and Bebe onstage.

Although she eschewed Sister Aimee’s epic stage spectacles, Bebe’s services still copied her mentor’s style. She wore white silk gowns onstage, led congregations in traditional hymns, and preached an emotionally-charged Pentecostal Gospel that left audiences drained.

While Bebe ran services and delivered sermons, hubby C. Thomas handled business affairs, taught classes, and most importantly, managed fundraisings – a duty for which he soon showed a distinct talent.

The Pattens’ initial collection efforts soon paid off handsomely. In the fall of 1944, they bought the City Club outright for $265,000, nearly all of it raised from donations. The edifice at 1418 Alice Street in Oakland boasted five stories, a 1,000-seat auditorium, and a basement swimming pool, as well as a commercial bar and dance hall on its second floor. When the Pattens’ flock voiced concern about sharing their sacred grounds with an establishment that featured liquor, smoking and dancing, C. Thomas told them that the den of iniquity held a long-term lease on the space, and there was nothing they could do about it. (Actually, the bar/nightclub had a month-to-month rental arrangement; when they bought the building, the Pattens secretly cut a permanent-lease deal with the proprietors, and collected more than $12,000 in rental income from them.)

Mr. Patten also promised that the building “will always belong to the people. It will be here until Jesus comes, until the hinges are rusted off the door….You will have it as a church long after my wife and I have left Oakland and have gone back to working in the field.”

With the acquisition of the building, the Pattens started to style themselves not only as evangelists, but as educators. Both husband and wife obtained PhDs from Temple Hall College and Seminary, an infamous “diploma mill” run by a twice-convicted swindler who eventually sold the couple his charter and mailing-lists for a mere $2,500. Calling their umbrella organization the Oakland Bible Institute, and their ministry the Christian Evangelical Churches of America, the Pattens established Patten College and Seminary, the Academy of Christian Education, and a music school for choristers. All were housed in the City Club offices.

Students at Patten College were mostly drawn from the congregation, came from all races and ages, and even included veterans on G.I. Bill scholarships. The College’s 300-odd students wore navy-blue letterman’s sweaters with huge, yellow “P”s on the front, took an eclectic variety of courses ranging from “Homiletics” to “Hawaiian Guitar,” and staged noisy Friday afternoon evangelical pep rallies in the Institute’s halls where they’d parody Stanford University’s famous “Ax Cheer”, changing the words from “Give ‘em the ax, the ax, the ax” to “Give ‘em the Word, the Word, the Word!”

Bebe Patten with Patten University students.

Still, the Pattens’ worship services remained not only the spiritual, but the economic mainstays of their ministry. Held every evening, and three times on Sundays, the services always began with Bebe leading the congregation in high-powered Pentecostal hymns, prayers and praises, whipping up enthusiasm and excitement. Then, she’d yield the stage to her husband for the real point of the service – the collections.

A big, florid-faced man with a roaring voice, who inevitably clad himself in gaudy suits, loud sport shirts and cowboy boots, C. Thomas Patten would mercilessly hector the congregation for handouts. Often, he’d occupy the stage for twice as long as his wife would, and he’d refuse to yield the floor for her sermon until he thought the assembled crowd had coughed up enough cash. On the average, C. Thomas collected between one and four thousand dollars a service, unless he was conducting an “urgent appeal.” Then, he could net as much as $30,000 – a considerable sum indeed from a crowd of 1,000-odd blue-collar folks back in the 1940s.

No American revivalist before Patten – and few since – worked the faithful for lucre as successfully, or as brazenly, as did he. The Western-garbed preacher gloried in his own greed, often telling people that his first initial stood for “Cash,” and that “God gave me the power to take money from people.” C. Thomas Patten may not have been the first Christian pastor to threaten penny-pinching laity with divine retribution, but his crude avarice and blatant bullying of his followers was virtually unprecedented in American religious history.

At one collection service, when donations were slow in coming, Patten ranted, “The Lord’s not fooling around now. He’s sick and tired of fooling around. He’s going to hit somebody hard in a minute. He’s just going to knock somebody flat.” Frightened, his followers quickly passed along several fistfuls of bills to the preacher.

At another one, when only $1,250 was raised of a $3,514.60 that Patten insisted was absolutely necessary for the ministry, he bellowed at the congregation, “God is going to slap you cockeyed in about two minutes!” Then he narrowed his aim, knowing that someone in the audience would soon crack under the pressure: “This is where the fireworks start. God has been talking to one man for five minutes. I don’t know whether he is going to knock him off his seat or not. God is going to…” Finally, when someone came through with a big offering, Patten shouted, “Bless you Jesus!” and the audience, perhaps relieved that they’d been spared more verbal bullying, echoed with “Amen!”

Bebe and C. Thomas at the height of their evangelical career

Patten often singled out members of the congregation for condemnation as cheapskates. He once called Freda Borchardt, the Pattens’ own cleaning woman, “the meanest woman in Oakland” when she withheld funds; scared and humiliated, Mrs. Borchardt and her husband soon afterwards kicked in $2,800 to the ministry. Another Pattenite, caterer George Lewis, would bring his entire $125 weekly pay to every Sunday meeting, and leave with only a few bucks to live on for the next seven days.

One follower later commented on how the high-pressure collection tactics, coupled with the threat of damnation, so easily opened the congregations’ pocketbooks: “All of a sudden, you had to make a choice – on the one hand, there was this thousand dollars you could give, and on the other hand there was Hell.” To faithful Pentecostal Christians, the choice was clear, and they gladly forked over cash to save themselves from the wrath of God, not to mention that of C. Thomas Patten.

Patten proved capable of mulcting monies not only from his unlettered, unsophisticated followers, but also from Oakland’s most respected financial institutions. When he first put $8,000 down on the City Club property, Patten immediately used the deed as security on another bank loan for $10,000 – a bit of creative financing that stretched the definition of “collateral” to a breaking point. Going one better, in 1947 he convinced both the Bank of America and the Bank of Commerce to cut him $95,000 in totally unsecured loans. Yet another bank wrote him $448,000 worth of loans in just one year. Patten wasn’t always reliable about honoring his obligations, however; for several months, he successfully avoided payments on a $179,000 bank loan, and ran up nearly $3,000 of check overdrafts at the same institution.

To both his bankers and his followers, Patten always explained that he needed the monies for ambitious Church projects. There was his plan for the City Club building to be replaced with a super-Temple: a ten-story edifice topped with a hundred-foot torch that would cast a Godly light onto the sinful Bay Area’s darkest corners. Although he talked constantly of erecting this surreal synagogue, and purchased a prime piece of Oakland real estate for it, the property remained undeveloped.

Another pet Patten project was the “orphanage.” C. Thomas and Bebe bought 420 acres of land north of Oakland for $32,000, and told their congregation that it would become a ranch and home for orphans. Of course, they needed capital to develop the raw land, and generous followers donated enough money for them to buy a hardware store for building materials, and add livestock, riding horses, and even peacocks to the grounds. But the only “orphan” that ever graced the property was its middle-aged caretaker, whose parents were long dead. The land was mostly used as a recreational retreat for the Pattens, and they quietly sold it two years after its purchase, pocketing the proceeds.

Those monies, as with much of the other wealth raised from followers and financiers alike, supported the Patten’s lavish private lifestyle. Bebe and C. Thomas lived in a big house in Oakland’s most exclusive district, and owned a fleet of nine luxury cars, along with a cabin cruiser. While Bebe clad herself in designer silk robes and silver fox wraps, her husband amassed a wardrobe of 75 suits (his favorite colors were pistachio and raspberry), and over 200 pairs of his sole form of footwear: cowboy boots, some of which had cost $200 a pair in 1940s dollars. Patten also dropped countless thousands of dollars at Reno gaming tables, and once stiffed a casino for $4,200 in gambling debts – a move that would have earned a lesser operator a severe beating, if not an early grave.

For the most part, the Pattens’ followers excused and rationalized their indulgences. After all, the couple was leading them to Heaven, and could be allowed to live well during their time on earth.

One author, writing about the Pattens years later, believed that they could have continued fleecing their flock indefinitely had they not made one fatal mistake in July 1947. That month, C. Thomas saw an opportunity to score a fast $200,000 profit, and sold the City Club building to the Moose Lodge for $450,000.

When the sale became news, Pattenites and outsiders alike howled in protest. Patten, who three years earlier had promised the building “will always belong to the people…until the hinges are rusted off the door,” shot back, “It’s nobody’s business what my wife and I do with our property.” When people in his congregation declaimed his broken promise, as well as his misuse of Church funds, Patten held a special service where he threw huge wads of greenbacks onto the altar, and challenged his critics to come up and reclaim their cash. Immediately after this stunt, he staged a high-pressure collection session, and most of the “returned” monies ended up right back in his pockets.

The Pattens were in trouble from other quarters as well. Following Sister Aimee’s example, they tried to set up a radio ministry, and applied to the FCC for a license. Although C. Thomas rallied his gulled bankers to testify on his behalf at the Oakland hearings, the Feds were unimpressed. Their investigations revealed that Patten had systematically lied to them about his background, his criminal record, his activities, his assets, his relationship to his congregation, and practically everything else he’d ever told them. Not surprisingly, he was turned down for the license.

The Pattens had also long since worn out their welcome from their fellow religionists. At the FCC hearings, the Oakland Council of Churches went on record against the Pentecostal upstarts, saying, “The Patten church meetings are highly emotional and hysterical. They are a racket dealing in hysteria, and a money-making device.” C. Thomas brushed this off as mere jealousy: “All the other churches are mad because we cleaned them out. None of them get crowds like we do. We have stolen their sheep.”

A hymnal authored by Dr. Bebe Patten

But by 1948, many of those “sheep” were finally wising up to the Pattens. The underhanded sales of the City Club and the “orphanage” property had become public knowledge around the Bay Area, and disillusioned faithful were leaving the Patten flock, and complaining to the D.A. about C. Thomas’ dirty dealings. Even though they’d sold the City Club to the Moose Lodge, the Pattens’ organizations refused to vacate the premises for weeks afterwards; when they were finally evicted, they slinked off to shabbier quarters across town.

Finally, on November 4, 1949, C. Thomas Patten was called before a Grand Jury, to answer various questions regarding his financial affairs. When he was asked if he believed in God, he took the Fifth Amendment – as he did for most of the next 100-odd questions about his doings. Shortly thereafter, he was indicted on ten counts of grand theft, fraud and embezzlement.

When C. Thomas came to trial on February 21, 1950, Bebe rallied the remaining Patten faithful, and scores of letter-sweater-clad Pattenites picketed the courthouse, and filled the courtroom seats. C. Thomas himself barely took the proceedings seriously – through the whole trial he cracked jokes, told outrageous lies, and boasted that he’d actually taken several times the $691,000 he’d been charged with stealing. When the subject of his fundraising tactics came up, Patten offered to demonstrate them before the entire court, saying that he could help pay his legal bills with the monies he was sure he could raise from the jury and spectators!

During the trial, Assistant D.A. Cecil Mossbacher accused Bebe Patten of conspiring with her husband in all of his gambits, saying, “It was she who made the emotional appeal, she who set the stage upon which he operated…They conspired together to defraud and deceive this community.” Although she was never charged with any crime, during the trial Bebe revealed her uglier, vindictive side when she held a mock “sermon” over a pink rose taken from a disloyal ex-follower’s funeral casket, saying, “This is just one of the many flowers that will come from the graves of those opposing us…Now [the dead woman] has no power to change God’s word; she is praying in Hell tonight.” Such language was not at all atypical of the lady evangelist, who also once publically prayed, “I’m looking for some people to drop dead. My prayer is: Lord, smite just one, to encourage us – just anyone to show us You are on our side.”

In the middle of the trial, C. Thomas suffered a heart attack, and had to be wheeled in on a gurney for the duration. According to one journalist, the silk pajama-clad Patten “listened to closing arguments from a stretcher, picking his nose moodily and getting an occasional shot of morphine from a hovering nurse.”

The bedridden evangelist was found guilty of five counts of grand theft, and sentenced to seven years in prison. Much of the money he mulcted from his followers was never accounted for, and although Patten hinted about “a trunkful of greenbacks” he’d cached at some secret location, most of the missing funds were written off as gambling and investment losses.

After three years in the State pen, C. Thomas earned an early release because of his heart condition. However, his parole terms forbade him to ever perform another fundraising. The man who had deposited over $1.3 million into his personal bank accounts during the Oakland years, and who had bragged, “I am the only man in the world who ever made a million dollars three times over from religion,” retreated into the shadows of wife Bebe’s ministry. He died in 1958, largely forgotten by the world outside the Patten Ministry.

After C. Thomas' imprisonment, Bebe Patten led her ministry back to respectability

Bebe herself would follow her predecessor Sister Aimee in one more critical way. With C. Thomas no longer on the scene, she began a long journey back to respectability, and status as a legitimate Pentecostal minister and revivalist. In 1960 she resettled her ministry, as well as the education institute now called Patten University, on a five-acre site in Oakland’s Fruitvale district, and spent the next forty-three years turning the school into a legitimate and respected Christian college.

Along the way Bebe cultivated many influential political connections. A lifelong advocate of racial equality who had long enjoyed a cordial relationship with Oakland’s large African-American community, she attended the funeral service of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968. Ten years later, California Governor Jerry Brown spoke at the University on an Arbor Day commemoration, in support of a city-beautification project sponsored by the school. Bebe and the University also received three separate resolutions from the California State Senate, as well as one from Oakland’s powerful mayor, Elihu Harris.

Like many Evangelical leaders, Bebe was also an ardent Zionist, and conducted 25 different student tours to the Holy Land, where she met with such legendary Israeli leaders as David Ben-Gurion.

Patten University today.

Sadly, Bebe never lived to see what might have been her greatest coup. On February 1, 2008, Senator Ted Kennedy spoke before a crowd of 1,500 people at Patten University, in support of then-Senator Barack Obama’s presidential bid. That neither the Democratic Party organizers, nor the assembled media there, seemed to be aware of the institution’s checkered past, was mute testimony to Bebe’s half-century of reform work, as well as to the healing powers of time and forgetfulness.

But the Grande Dame of California Pentecostalism had since joined her husband C. Thomas in the Hereafter. On January 25, 2004, the 90-year-old evangelist succumbed to a long illness, leaving behind a legacy of ministerial and education work where the taint of scandal and greed had long since faded to near-invisibility. Only the Lord she served, in her own mixed manner, can ultimately decide whether her good works ultimately outweighed the damage she and her husband did to the flocks of faithful Oaklanders who trusted them.

Patten University
Kunkel, Glenn. Winning the Race: Dr. Bebe Patten: Her Life and Ministry. Cleveland, TN: Pathway Press, 2000.
McWilliams, Carey. "God Will Slap You Cockeyed." The Nation, August 19, 1950. 
Taper, Bernard. "Somebody is Going to Get Hit." The New Yorker, January 17, 1959.


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