Church of God
Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) logo
Church of God (Cleveland, TN)
Classification Protestant
Orientation Holiness Pentecostal
Geographical area North America
Founder Elder Richard Spurling and several others
Origin August 1886
Monroe County, Tennessee
Cherokee County, North Carolina
Separations Church of God of Prophecy,
Church of God with Signs Following,
The (Original) Church of God
Members 6,000,000+ members [1]

The Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) is a Holiness Pentecostal Christian denomination, with headquarters in Cleveland, Tennessee. It has grown to become one of the largest Pentecostal denominations in the world, with worldwide membership over 6 million in over 150 countries, according to the denomination's official website. [1] Currently it is the second largest Pentecostal denomination in the world, with the Assemblies of God being the largest. [2] The movement's origins can be traced back to 1886 with a small meeting of Christians at the Barney Creek Meeting House on the Tennessee/North Carolina border, making it the oldest Pentecostal denomination in the United States.[3] The Church of God's publishing house is Pathway Press.


The precise legal name of this body is Church of God. In 1953, the Supreme Court of Tennessee determined that it alone was entitled to use the simple name Church of God, after a protracted court case involving donations that were intended for its orphanages that were being received by other groups using the same name.[4] The group however uses Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) in order to distinguish it from other bodies who use the words Church of God in their titles.


Early History

R. G. Spurling (1857-1935), a Missionary Baptist minister, and his father Richard Spurling (1810-1891), an ordained elder, rejected some of the views of the Baptists in his area as not being in accord with New Testament Christianity. R. G. Spurling disagreed with Landmarkism, an ecclesiology which held that only Baptists were true Christians and that they should not associate with Christians of other traditions. Spurling felt that Christians should be united together by love and not by creeds which he believed divided. As long as something was not contrary to the New Testament, believers should be able to practice their faith in the form they chose. Although not intending to form a new church or denomination, their rejection of Landmarkist values placed them in conflict with traditional churches in that area. Within a short period of time it became clear that they would not be allowed to remain as members of their churches. On August 19, 1886, after being barred from his local Baptist church, he and eight others organized the Christian Union. They agreed to free themselves from man-made creeds and unite upon the principles of the New Testament. Between 1889 and 1895, Spurling organized three other congregations, all with the name Christian Union and functioning independently under Baptist polity.[5]

In 1902, Richard Green Spurling (Richard Spurling's son) and W. F. Bryant founded the Holiness Church at Camp Creek in North Carolina. Because of Spurling's and Bryant's resistance to the creation of creeds and church polity, this young fellowship of Christians remained ungoverned by any clear, specific doctrinal standards until the arrival of A. J. Tomlinson in 1903. Tomlinson provided a degree of organization, discipline, and vision that were important in establishing the church's staying power.

Ambrose Jessup Tomlinson, a former Quaker, united with the church at Camp Creek in 1903, after climbing what is now known as Prayer Mountain (in the Fields of the Woods park owned by the Church of God of Prophecy in Murphy, NC) and reportedly being divinely assured that this fledgling church was indeed God's reestablishment of the New Testament church. Tomlinson was selected to pastor the congregation, and his drive and vision brought about efforts that resulted in other churches being organized in Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. The first General Assembly was held in 1906, and though the intention was still to avoid the creation of a creed and denomination, the members' consensus on certain endeavors and standards laid the groundwork for the future denomination, and perhaps soon demonstrated to the adherents the benefit of some degree of standardization of doctrine, etc.

The name Church of God was adopted in 1907. In 1909, Tomlinson was elected General Overseer. The Church of God was known as a Holiness church more than a Pentecostal one during these early years, though some had experienced the "Pentecostal Blessing" of being "baptized in the Holy Ghost" as early as 1896. In fact, Tomlinson himself did not believe he received the baptism of the Holy Spirit until some time after being elected General Overseer, when the church had moved to Cleveland when a special meeting was held by the church. At that revival the guest speaker was an individual who visited the Azusa Street Revival, and during those services Tomlinson finally experienced this signature blessing. Thereafter, the Church of God began to place additional emphasis on the Pentecostal aspect of the church.


In 1923, Tomlinson was impeached, causing a division which led to the creation, by followers of Tomlinson, of what would become known as the Church of God of Prophecy. The impeachment was the result of lax financial bookkeeping on Tomlinson's part. One explanation often cited for financial discrepancies was that Tomlinson may have used church funds to support struggling pastors and churches and had, on many occasions, reappropriated money from otherwise-designated funds, causing shortfalls. Although there was no indication that Tomlinson used church funds for himself, there were many within the organization who felt that this type of imprudence was an indicator of serious flaws within the organizational structure of the church.

When his handling of finances was called into question, it appears that Tomlinson took offense at the implications against his integrity, and perhaps to having his long-term and substantial authority questioned. Some, mostly in later splinter groups, have suggested that the financial issues were used as an attempt to move the church to a more democratic footing, with the office of General Overseer becoming an elective and termed office, instead of, as then existed, an office where Tomlinson served by general acclaim of the church-at-large. These splinter groups continue to maintain that this change moved the church away from being a theocracy, however, under both systems, the office of General Overseer was selected by the approval of the church. Even during Tomlinson's tenure there was no rule or tenet that prevented an Overseer from being removed.

Both sides of the controversy now tend to admit missteps by either side: by Tomlinson in taking too much umbrage at the questioning; and by those who questioned him for perhaps having more in mind than simple financial probity, and thus not addressing the matter in a way that would have been more conducive to reconciliation. In recent years the Church of God (Cleveland) and the Church of God of Prophecy have moved beyond these issues and have developed a close interdenominational fellowship. The two groups are now working together in many areas of church ministry, meetings, and evangelistic outreach.

The practice of snake handling briefly became a controversy in the denomination in the 1920s after it was endorsed by George Went Hensley, a Church of God minister. The practice was quickly repudiated by the Church of God leadership and Hensley and the small number of congregations which practiced it left to become independent congregations generally using the name Church of God with Signs Following. Ironically, Hensley died in 1955 after being bitten by a snake during a church service.

Related bodies

Recent history

During the latter half of the twentieth century, the Church of God gradually relaxed what they call their Practical Commitments; separate from their Declaration of Faith, which are the biblical beliefs of the church. These practical commitments are the social practices of the church, and originally included "That members dress according to the teachings of the New Testament", "That our members conform to the Scripture relative to outward adornment and to the use of cosmetics, etc. that create an unnatural appearance", as well as other admonitions concerning hair, ornamental jewelry, "mixed swimming", television/movies, dances, and "ungodly amusements". Many of these practical commitments were modified as the church adapted to ministry outside of its southeastern U.S. roots, however the Declaration of Faith has not been modified since its inception.


The theological teachings of the church have not changed significantly since its foundation, and have been regularly affirmed at the General Assembly of the Church of God, the biennial convention of the denomination. The Church of God is historically Wesleyan Arminian in its theology. That is, it is "committed to the Wesleyan/Pentecostal interpretation of Scripture", according to the Church of God Theological Seminary. Conditional security of believers is taught (as opposed to eternal security), Holiness, and Full Gospel Pentecostalism - the belief that the baptism and gifts of the Holy Spirit, as recorded in the New Testament, continue to operate and are available to all believers today. Though generally committed to Wesleyan Arminianism, there are some Calvinist ministers in the denomination; however, their numbers are few and have not affected the doctrinal direction of the church in any meaningful way.

The Church of God believes in the verbal inspiration of the Bible and hold Communion and foot washing as ordinances.

Higher education

The Church of God (Cleveland) operates two universities, the oldest of which is Lee University in Cleveland, established in 1918. The Church of God also has another University in Oakland, California called Patten University, established in 1944, that serves its West Coast members and students interested in an urban experience . The denomination operates Bible colleges in several countries, including International Bible Colleges in Canada and Seminario Bíblico Mexicano, founded in 1979, in Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico, as well as Mt. Zion Bible College and three others in India. In response to the need for a seminary, the Church of God Graduate School of Christian Ministries (now the Pentecostal Theological Seminary) opened in 1975.


In the early 1900s, the church was sometimes called "The Singing Church" due to the exuberance of the singing, and the strong reliance upon music as part of the worship service. While the churches within the denomination today utilize many different musical styles, music, in general, continues to play a very important role in the local churches. The official Church of God Music Ministries Department is known as Spirit Sound Music Group. This department produces studio recordings and conducts music conferences during the year.


  1. 1.0 1.1 "A Brief History of the Church of God". Retrieved 2007-11-26. 
  2. History of the Assemblies of God
  4. Conn, Charles "Like a Mighty Army"
  5. Roebuck, David G. (February 1999). "Restorationism and a Vision for World Harvest: A Brief History of the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee)". Cyberjournal for Pentecostal-Charismatic Research. Pentecostal-Charismatic Theological Inquiry International. Retrieved 2009-05-02. 

Further reading

  • Conn, Charles W. Like a Mighty Army.
  • Conn, Charles W. Where the Saints Have Trod: A History of Church of God Missions. Cleveland: Pathway Press, 1957.
  • Crew, Michael. The Church of God: A Social History. University of Tennessee Press, 1990.
  • Robins, R.G. Tomlinson. Plainfolk Modernist. Oxford: University Press, 2004.

External links

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