With a current worldwide membership approaching three million, this denomination grew from humble beginnings in the mountains of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina. The doctrines of the church combine traditional Protestant tenets with others that are Pentecostal. Believers must be born again and sanctified and baptized in the Holy Spirit, and prophetic utterance, spiritual healing, and speaking in tongues are recognized as gifts of the Spirit.
The first congregation was established in 1886 as the Christian Union at Barney Creek Meeting House in Monroe County. The first pastor was Richard G. Spurling Sr., an ordained Missionary Baptist preacher. In 1896 this congregation moved to nearby Camp Creek in Cherokee County, North Carolina, joining with a like-minded group of worshippers there. The church experienced a Pentecostal revival marked by evangelistic preaching, fervent prayer, weeping, shouting, and speaking in tongues. The leaders preached a doctrine denouncing the worldliness of modern churches and promoting a conversion experience and holy lifestyle for each believer.
During the following decade the congregation grew, but its leaders battled against both fanaticism within the church and persecution from without. Enemies of the church destroyed a large section of the log structure at Camp Creek in a nighttime dynamite attack. Repairs were made, but a mob attacked the church on a Sunday afternoon, tore it down log by log, and burned the timbers as the church families watched. Persistent believers continued to meet in homes, though, and new churches were formed in Tennessee and northern Georgia.
In 1906 the leaders of the four churches then comprising the group assembled and selected the name Church of God. In 1907 Ambrose J. Tomlinson, pastor of the church in Cleveland, was appointed the denomination's general overseer. Tomlinson, a skilled preacher and administrator, was an Indiana native who had come to the area as a Bible salesman. He presided over the growing church for fifteen years, establishing a publishing house and orphanage and raising the membership from one thousand to twenty-one thousand. In 1922 church leaders charged Tomlinson with misappropriation of funds and other wrongdoing. A series of bitter hearings ensued, and Tomlinson eventually left. Several congregations followed Tomlinson and became known as the Church of God of Prophecy, also headquartered in Cleveland. The majority of members stayed, and since then the church has usually listed itself as Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee).
The Church of God Bible School opened in Cleveland in 1918. It moved to Sevierville in 1937, but in 1948 the church purchased buildings in Cleveland being vacated by Bob Jones College. The Bible School reopened in 1949 as Lee College, named for early church leader Flavius J. Lee. Today Lee University is an undergraduate school with about 2,500 students in fifty-six degree programs. On an adjoining property is the Church of God School of Theology, a graduate school opened in 1975, with a reported 1996 enrollment of 262 students. The following year the school's name changed to the Church of God Theological Seminary. The denomination presently claims over fifty thousand members in Tennessee.
Charles W. Conn, Like A Mighty Army Moves the Church of God (1955); Mickey Crews, The Church of God: A Social History (1990)