Cleage's father was a pioneering black physician, and their social class gave them access to Detroit's black aristocracy. But even as a boy, Cleage was affected by Detroit's labor and civil rights struggles and gravitated toward issues of social justice.
Cleage was ordained in the Congregational Church in 1943, and became interim pastor at the newly-organized, integrated San Francisco Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples. One of the founders of the Fellowship Church was black theologian Howard Thurman. Cleage was originally committed to interracial fellowship, but when he saw the social inequality among the congregation, especially the Japanese-American members who had been forcibly removed from their homes and placed in interment camps, he grew critical. He called the church a "contrived, artificial affair" that did not address racial inequalities of power and property.
In 1951, Cleage returned to Detroit to serve at St. Mark's United Presbyterian mission, whose founders included his father and uncle. Despite initially feeling at home at St. Marks, Cleage quickly came into conflict with the rigid Presbyterian hierarchy. He resented that white leaders in the suburbs could tell him how to run his black inner-city congregation, and in 1953 he led "a group of dissidents out of the church." In this respect, Cleage was a decade ahead of black Presbyterians and Congregationalists who would later demand freedom to make changes to suit the needs of their congregations.
Stokely Carmichael called for black power in the summer of 1966, the same year Cleage held the First Annual Black Arts Conference at Central Congregational, the church Cleage founded after leaving St. Mark's. The conference was his answer to the Nation of Islam's call for blacks to "find beauty in their own identity and culture."
On Easter of 1967, Cleage unveiled an 18-foot painting of a Black Madonna, and renamed Central Congregational as the Shrine of the Black Madonna.
At the same time, he launched a Black Christian National Movement, which called for black churches to reinterpret Jesus' teachings. Believing that Christianity previously had been used to keep black people down, Cleage challenged black churches to embrace Jesus as "a revolutionary black leader, a Zealot, seeking to lead a Black Nation to freedom." Central to this belief was resurrecting the "historical black Messiah." Cleage wanted to "dehonkify" Jesus for black Christians.
In 1968, Cleage published The Black Messiah, which included several sermons and articles published in his weekly column, "Message to the Black Nation," in the Michigan Chronicle. He also spread his views through participation in the Inter-Religious Foundation for Community Organization and the National Black Economic Development Conference.
The Pan African Orthodox Christian ChurchIn 1972, Cleage inaugurated the Black Christian Nationalist Movement as a separate denomination. The name was later changed to the Pan African Orthodox Christian Church (PAOCC). In 1975, a Southern Region of the PAOCC was established in Atlanta, GA, followed by the Southwest Region in Houston, TX, in 1977. The PAOCC's mission, which still continues after Cleage's death, is to uplift, empower, and liberate the Pan African world community and to "bring the Black Church back to its historic roots-The African origins of Christianity and the original teachings of Jesus, the Black Messiah."