The only thing that could keep Bishop James Morton out of his pulpit on any Sunday was if he were sick enough to be hospitalized.
The nationally known pastor and musician from a prominent family of ministers preached and sang to his congregation at New Beginning Full Gospel Baptist Church in Decatur and led it in multiple ministries to the homeless and other needy people for 30 years.
Despite his success, Morton was a humble man, said Elder Shawn Bryant, an assistant minister.
He usually wore a white shirt and a plain black suit, “he bought off the rack, nothing tailored for him.” Morton gave out his home phone number to church members and encouraged them to call when they needed him. If Morton spotted someone asking for money while riding through the community, he would often stop and give everything in his pockets, said another church staff member.
Morton, 76, died Feb. 11.
No one is sure of the cause of death, but Bryant said Morton had a heart attack and heart valve replacement last August.
Daughter Kimberly Morton Powell said she and her mother went to see her father’s body after he had died, “and I knew whatever happened, he was at peace, he didn’t have a scowl or a frown on his face,” she said. “He looked like he was at peace.”
James Harold Morton was born May 8, 1946, to Bishop C.L. Morton, Sr., and Evangelist Matilda Morton in Windsor, Ontario, the fourth of nine children. Windsor is across the Detroit River from Detroit.
James was always singing, said his younger brother, Bishop Paul Morton, who founded large churches in New Orleans and Atlanta. When James was eight, his father heard him singing, “You Can’t Beat God Giving.” The next Sunday, James was leading his father’s congregation in the song, eventually becoming the church’s music director. With his father’s help, Morton honed his musical abilities on the piano and organ and later formed a vocal group that became well known across Michigan, singing in churches and at weddings, said Paul Morton. At one time James Morton was the music director for Reverend C.L. Franklin, father of Aretha Franklin.
“He loved singing and he loved music,” said Paul Morton. James looked out for Paul, who’s four years younger. He once cornered a boy who had bullied Paul, “and that was that. He was my best friend, and I’ll miss him.”
James Morton began preaching when he was 22 in Detroit’s Mount Zion Church of God in Christ, his family said. Two years later, he became the pastor for True Faith Baptist in Detroit, staying there for 14 years before he answered a call from Atlanta’s Thankful Baptist Church.
Morton felt God calling him to move in a different direction, said Bryant, so in August 1993 he parted ways with Thankful Baptist, taking with him 1,000 members, and started New Beginning Full Gospel Baptist Church in the gym of Decatur High School. The next year, the congregation moved to its current location on Valley Brook Road in Decatur. Two months later, Morton was consecrated to the office of Bishop within the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship International.
New Beginning has more than 40 ministries, said special assistant Paul McClary, who is the ministry liaison. From feeding the community on Thanksgiving and Christmas to serving the hearing impaired, various ministries touch on most every topic.
Morton wanted “to meet the needs of the people,” McClary said. “If someone said they didn’t have money to get to church, Bishop would say, ‘See me after church,’ and he’d hand them money.”
Family and friends remembered Morton as a funny man, who could have been a comedian if he wasn’t a minister.
“Nobody could sit next to him and not laugh,” said McClary.
Kimberly Morton Powell said his grandchildren “knew my father as the laughter granddad.”
McClary said before the coronavirus pandemic, the two Sunday services at New Beginning attracted 9,000 people. Afterward, when people began staying home, services continued, streaming on social media and on Channel 57 on TV. As other metro churches closed, “We burned our mortgage. We became debt-free during the Pandemic,” he said.
Even while he was leading a dynamic church, James Morton continued his singing. He collaborated on albums with Aretha Franklin, Bishop Carlton Pearson and the Azusa Mass Choir, Bishop Paul S. Morton, Bishop William Murphy III and the late Rev. James Cleveland. Sometimes during church services, his burst into spontaneous song with his powerful voice.
James Morton is survived by his brother Paul Morton and five other siblings; daughter Kimberly Morton Powell; son Jason Morton; numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews. There will be a public viewing of Bishop Morton’s body at New Beginning Full Gospel Baptist Church, 923 Valley Brook Road in Decatur, on Friday, Feb. 24, from 12 - 9 p.m. The service will be Saturday, Feb. 25, at 12 p.m. at the church.
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Credit: Channel 2 Action News