Church of God General Assembly was cancelled due to a Virus Pandemic. That is exactly what happened to with the Church of God in 1918-1920 during the Influenza.
In 1918, a Spanish flu pandemic infected an estimated 500 million people (about one-fifth of the world population) and killed an estimated 20 to 50 million world-wide. In the U.S., there were drastic emergency quarantines; schools, theaters, sports venues and churches were closed. Various reports have ranged from 120,000 to 575,000 who died. The U.S. population then was about 103 million. In those early years of the Church of God, General Overseer A.J. Tomlinson raised a large portion of funding for Headquarters and general church endeavors, through General Assembly offerings, book and Bible sales, food stands (for those attending the Assembly) and magazine subscriptions.
Since 1886, there had been scattered spiritual awakenings in the mountains of Eastern North Carolina. The incredible Shearer Schoolhouse revival of 1896, had begun as a “Sanctification” revival among Baptists and Methodists seeking a deeper walk with the Lord. Thank God for them. The Holy Spirit is still looking for folk like that.
After the “Shearer Outpouring,” there were numerous Bible studies and small localized fellowships that sprang up throughout the area. We can remember that in the mountains then, it was still horse and buggy days. People didn’t travel far from home. The roads were dirt and when it rained, quickly became “mud-rut roads” almost impossible to traverse.
However, it was not until 1903 when 10-12 people meeting in a ramshackle (to be kind) mountain shack, voted Quaker-background and Bible salesman A.J. Tomlinson, a Home Missionary from Elwood, Indiana to be their Pastor, that one of those small groups began referring to themselves as “Church of God.”
Tomlinson had shared that if they would be called “Church of God,” he would join them. His reference seems to have been from Scripture where Apostle Paul wrote to the “Church of God” (I Cor. 1-2). From the day Tomlinson joined the little unaffiliated group, the Church of God began to form and surge in growth.
FIRST CHURCH OF GOD LEAP OF FAITH
Sometime in 1904 or 1905, Tomlinson moved to Cleveland, TN. Others followed him those 60 backwoods, dirt-road miles from the poverty-stricken hills around Murphy, NC, to Cleveland, TN. Indeed, there are times when moving can open up greater opportunities.
Do we see the wisdom of Tomlinson in making that tactical move? Sometimes, to carry out the vision of accomplishment the Lord has placed in our heart, we must first lay the ground work for it. In order to be able to finance church growth, the people Tomlinson was pastoring, needed to find jobs.
The new church organization needed a financial base. Cleveland had large furniture factories where the mountain folks could find jobs. Plus, Cleveland, TN could open the small group’s contact with the “outside world.” It had the closest train station to Murphy, NC.
HELPING THEM UP, LIFTED THE CHURCH OF GOD UP TOO
We often talk about “Moving to the next level.” It seems that is exactly what Tomlinson did and brought others along with him. As they began to prosper, so did the newly founded Church of God. He organized the “Church of God Temple” from which the North Cleveland Church of God has come.
He became the Pastor and Sunday School Superintendent. He began the Church of God Evangel Publishing House and was Editor of the Magazine.
Without that bold and visionary move of faith from the mountains to Cleveland, it is possible the fledgling little group in the poverty-stricken mountains, would have dwindled away. Instead, his vision for the future set off events that have made it possible for thousands of COG Pastors to have a place to live, work, worship and reach people for Christ.
TRAINING UP A NEW ORGANIZATION
Tomlinson spent weeks and months at a time on those trains spreading the Gospel and sharing the good news about the “Church of God.” One of his first excursions was to Florida where there were no COG congregations. Today there are hundreds that have over the years grown from contacts and friends Tomlinson made while there.
The 1917 General Assembly began Thursday, November 1 – Tuesday November 6. From the first official service under the Church of God name in 1903, without electricity and indoor plumbing in many areas, without telephone, radio, TV, computers, Microsoft, Google, email, texting, Twitter, Netscape etc, by the 1917 Assembly, the Church of God had grown to a membership of 10,076.
It had missionaries in the Caribbean, 22 State Overseers, 309 churches. 474 ministers and 10,076 members. From the Assembly in 1916 to the one in 1917, there was a 2,384 one-year membership increase.
A CHURCH OF GOD CHAMPION
Say what you want about A.J. Tomlinson, smear his name, doubt his sincerity or trash what one considers to be his motives (as some have done), but that Brother was a champion for God and for the Church of God. If we hold any position or draw a salary from any area of the Church of God, possibly we should at times give a nod of respect to A.J.T.
For the entire year from Nov. 1916 – Nov. 1917, the total Home Missions Offering for the Church of God, was $295.42. The COG Minutes of 1917, notes that “Expenditure’s to ‘assist’ 22 ministers in eleven states ‘and some islands,’ was $277.33; leaving a Home Missions balance for the entire organization, of $18.41.
The last night of the 1917 Assembly, the offering (normally the largest) was $44.42. So, to make ends meet for the COG organization AND prayerfully have funding for outreach, one can see how Tomlinson desperately needed to find ways of raising extra funding through book and Bible sales, magazine subscriptions, and food stands at the Assembly.
THE 1918 GENERAL ASSEMBLY WAS CANCELLED BY GOVERNMENT
Boom! Then, because of the flu pandemic, there was no 1918 General Assembly. Rushing to try and make up for the loss, Tomlinson scheduled two Assemblies in 1919. However, many who were still recovering medically or in grief from Loved Ones who had died, did not come to either of them. When health fails or one’s heart is broken, we stay close to home. Plus, many were still wary of being part of a crowd. They did not have medicines as we do today, to fight off or recover from the flu. Every Overseer or Pastor who has faced a major “shortfall” financially in ministry, can empathize with what Tomlinson and other churches leaders at the time, were struggling. Any of us who have sold chicken dinners, had bake sales and car washes to help fund our church, can understand the feelings church leaders were struggling with back then.
VISIONARY ACCOMPLISHMENT CAME AT ONE OF HIS LOWEST TIMES
And yet, it could be remembered that in spite of struggling through a devastating time of financial struggles, Tomlinson did something that has trained many thousands for God’s work. What he did has led them to win many hundreds of thousands to Christ. In 1918[/b], while scraping the bottom financially and possibly emotionally too from the strain of it all, with 18 students, A.J. Tomlinson began what is today Lee University.
*Assembly statistics quoted from the 1917 Church of God General Assembly[ Minutes.