A.J. Tomlinson

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A(mbrose) J(essup) Tomlinson (1865-1943), Pentecostal evangelist, founder of the Church of God Cleveland, TN and the Church of God of Prophecy, was born into a Quaker family near Westfield, Indiana. A farm laborer and salesman, he served as a Sunday School superintendent for a Quaker congregation and worked as a colporteur for the American Bible Society. Exposed to Holiness literature on divine sanctification and healing, he was so smitten with these doctrines that in 1903 Tomlinson uprooted his family to the mountains of Cherokee County, North Carolina to pastor a like-minded church.

Within a few years Tomlinson was supervising a small group of churches in North Carolina and Tennessee and editing a paper called The Way. By 1907 the group formally adopted the name the Church of God. In early 1908 Tomlinson came into contact with Pentecostal preacher G. B. Cashwell, experienced the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, and spoke in tongues. Within a short time Tomlinson’s group moved into the Pentecostal movement. In 1909 he was elected the leader of the denomination and during the next several years travelled extensively-mostly in the Upper South–as a revivalist and tireless organizer of new churches. By 1914 his influence was such that he was authorized to appoint pastors and was elected general overseer for life. In the years that followed Tomlinson oversaw the establishment of a monthly periodical (The Church of God Evangel), an orphanage, a missionary board, and a bible school (now Lee College, 1918).

In 1922 a controversy erupted within the Church of God over Tomlinson’s lax bookkeeping and informal shifting of funds to help out struggling pastors and congregations. Although no evidence seems to point to any self-enrichment on his part, many sought a more rigid accountability. In 1923 the problems came to a head and Tomlinson was removed as head of the Church of God. With about 2,000 supporters in tow, he started a new Church of God which by his death in 1943 would number over 30,000 members; it was officially renamed the Church of God in Prophecy in 1952. Today the Church of God-Cleveland is the third largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States and with more than four million members is, after the Assemblies of God, the second largest Pentecostal denomination in the world.

For further reading, see Charles W. Conn, Like a Mighty Army: A History of the Church of God, 1886-1995, (Path Press, 1996). 

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