African American Leaders: James H. Costen | Presbyterian Historical Society

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African American Leaders: James H. Costen

February 1, 2023
Portrait of Rev. Dr. James Hutten Costen, undated. Pearl ID: islandora:294511

Each month, the Presbyterian Historical Society is bearing witness to the lives of African American leaders throughout the history of the denomination. Click here to learn how PHS is collecting records of the Black Presbyterian experience through the African American Leaders and Congregations Initiative.

Additionally, a free bulletin insert about each figure is available for download at the end of each blog.


Reverend Dr. James (nicknamed Jim/Jimmy) Hutten Costen was born on October 5, 1931, in Omaha, Nebraska. He was the son of William James and Mary Lou Costen. Raised as Roman Catholic and educated in parochial schools, Jim began worshiping at a Presbyterian church during high school. After graduating from Central High School in 1949, he attended Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU) in Charlotte, North Carolina, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1953. While attending JCSU, he met Melva Wilson, who also graduated in 1953. The two married at the JCSU campus chapel on May 24, 1953. Jim then entered Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, receiving a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1956. He later pursued a Master of Theology degree in religious education at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, graduating in 1964. Jim was either the earliest or one of the earliest African American students to attend the Seminary.

Jim was ordained by the Presbytery of Cape Fear (Synod of Catawba) on January 19, 1956. He served as pastor of Mount Pisgah Presbyterian Church in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. There in Rocky Mount, Jim and Melva successfully won a lawsuit to integrate an elementary school, allowing their children to attend. The family was threatened by the Ku Klux Klan for their civil rights work. Jim worked closely with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the civil rights movement, including organizing King's visit to Rocky Mount in 1962. In 1965, Jim received the call to serve as pastor of the Church of the Master Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia. He was integral in establishing the church, which was deliberately organized as the first interracial Presbyterian congregation in Atlanta. Additionally, Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr. attended and participated in Jim's installation service as pastor of the Church of the Master.

Photograph of Cape Fear Presbytery (UPCUSA) pastors. Left to right: Benjamin Baskerville, Wilmington N.C.; J. Oscar McCloud, Raleigh N.C.; James H. Costen, Rocky Mount, N.C.; Grover D. Nelson, Laurinburg N.C. (Yadkin Presbytery); James Allen, Wilson N.C., circa early 1960s. From the J. Oscar McCloud Papers [RG 523, Box 1, Folder 16]. Pearl ID: islandora:7276

Front cover of the program for the worship service and installation of Reverend James Hutten Costen as pastor at The Church of the Master (UPCUSA), Atlanta, Ga., February 27, 1966. From the James and Melva Costen Papers [RG 538, Box 6, Folder 3]. Pearl ID: islandora:300386

In 1969, Jim became dean of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, which had been newly relocated at the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC) in Atlanta. As stated on their website, "The Interdenominational Theological Center was chartered in 1958 through the mutual efforts of four seminaries that came together to form one school of theology, in cooperation as an ecumenical cluster...ITC is the world’s only graduate theology program with this unique model that is exclusively African American but inclusive to all people." Jim became the fifth president of ITC in 1983, serving in that role until his retirement in 1998. Commenting on ITC's goals in an April 1990 Ebony article, "ITC: On the Frontier of Black Ecumenism," Jim stated, "Our an institution that is committed to serving Black religious communities here and abroad, one that gives students a knowledge base and makes them understand that they need to be involved in the eradication and correction of problems, and, finally, one that infuses in them the need to stay abreast educationally the rest of their lives." Jim was later named President Emeritus.

Interview with James Costen regarding his retirement from ITC, circa 1998. From the James and Melva Costen Papers [RG 538, Box 5, Folder 16]. Pearl ID: islandora:300797

In 1974, Jim visited Kenya for the first time, where he built relationships with the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA). Because of this experience, Jim created and offered scholarships to PCEA students for them to attend ITC. After his retirement from ITC, Jim served the PCEA as volunteer director of development. In this role, he raised funds to build a library, student and faculty housing, and other facilities for what is now the Presbyterian University of East Africa.

Jim served as moderator of the 194th General Assembly (Hartford, Connecticut) of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (UPCUSA) in 1982, becoming the fourth African American to hold the role. Additionally, he served as moderator of the UPCUSA's 195th General Assembly (Atlanta, Georgia) in 1983, when the UPCUSA and the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (PCUS) reunited to form the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Front page of a pamphlet promoting Jim Costen for Moderator of the 194th General Assembly (UPCUSA), circa 1982. From the James and Melva Costen Papers [RG 538, Box 6, Folder 3]. Pearl ID: islandora:300321

Photograph of former General Assembly Moderators and their wives in the march to Atlanta's City Hall. From left to right: Rev. James H. Costen, Melva Wilson Costen, Rev. John F. Anderson, and Nancy Anderson, June 1983. Pearl ID: islandora:8174

Jim's other roles in the Presbyterian Church included being chairperson of numerous committees, including the General Assembly Permanent Nominations Committee, the Minority Taskforce on Reunion, and the General Assembly Council. Nationally, he served on the board of trustees of the Fund for Theological Education and was a member of the Black Theology Project and the Society for the Study of Black Religion. Jim passed away on April 11, 2003, leaving behind a legacy of work as an administrator of religious education and as a Presbyterian moderator, with a tireless focus of uplifting the opportunities and voices of African Americans and Africans across the theological spectrum.


Want to share this biography with your congregation? Click below to read and download a free bulletin insert about James H. Costen.

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