God's Church
Prophecy in Motion
by C. Elden McNabb

The Thomlinson Phenomenon

Perhaps one of the most significant events of 1903 was the first successful heavier-than-air flight, on a sandy beach at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.  It is especially important, because flight, including space flight, was to repeatedly signal prophetic events as the work of God’s Elect progressed.

Isaiah prophesied of man’s mastery of aviation, saying, “Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. – Who are these that fly as a cloud, and as the doves to their windows?”  These verses show us that God’s Church would rise up, this side of the dark ages, together with the development of airplanes (Isaiah 60:1, 8).

It came to pass, on June 13, 1903, in the mountains of North Carolina, that a great Apostle of God, Ambrose Jessup Tomlinson, rose up and declared a small group of believers to be the Church of God.  That day, by the word of the Prophet, God’s Church arose to shine.  Then, on December the 17, 1903, man began to fly, although it would be some time before they would do so “as the doves to their windows.”  It is amazing that both of these prophecies are in the same passage of the Holy Scriptures, and the fulfillment of them occurred in the same State, in the same year.

Almost every student of modern religious development in America has heard of A. J. Tomlinson.  For some years, at the turn of the century, he did missionary work as a sales­man for the American Tract Society and the American Bible Society.  In his labors in that missionary effort, he went to western North Carolina, and there he ­became acquainted with the fledgling Pentecostal movement.

In 1903, he declared that, because the Holiness Church at Camp Creek confessed that they took “the whole Bible rightly divided, that makes it the Church of God,” and he took a covenant with them.  During the next forty years, he directed the establish­ment and growth of two prominent, international, Pentecostal organizations.

The Great Revival

In different places, and at various times over the centu­ries, some people have received the baptism with the Holy Spirit.  However, the true beginning of the modern Pente­costal movement in America occurred at the Shearer School House in Cherokee County, North Carolina in 1896.  From there, it quickly spread into eastern Tennessee, and northern Georgia.

A great Sanctification [2] revival had been burning in that region for several years.  Consequently, a wonderfully receptive spiritual atmosphere existed, into which God could, and did, send a great outpouring of His Spirit.

Three zealous evangelists: William Martin, Joe M. Tipton, and Milton McNabb, [3]  (no relation that I know of) went from Monroe County, Tennessee to conduct that revival.  The Holy Spirit moved mightily through the surrounding communities, and many were born again and sanctified.

Though many were blessed, others saw it only as a threat to their religious world, and those enemies of Christ raised a great persecution against them.  Mainstream church leaders joined with civic offi­cials to stamp it out.  They forced the worshipers out the old school house, but they could not stop the revival.

As the meetings continued in an old log church nearby, the Spirit moved mightily, and several were baptized with the Holy Ghost and began to speak with other tongues as the spirit gave them utterance.  It was not long until about one hundred and thirty people had been baptized with the Holy Spirit.

      The phenomenon spread across the country, sometimes in remarkable fashion.  Yet, it was to be a full ten years before the notable revival would burst upon Brother Seymour and the other saints on Azusa St. in Los Angeles, California.  Thus, the fire was kindled that would transform the religious community worldwide.

It was this vibrant spiritual arena, into which Ambrose Jessup Tomlinson stepped, on July 14, 1899, to begin his missionary work among the poor mountain folk of western North Carolina.

The Star Is Born

As those revival fires blazed in the hills of North Carolina, A. J. Tomlinson was born again and sanctified by the Spirit of God, on his farm in Indiana.  In 1889, after an awesome and frightening experience, he decided it was time to begin to seek God.  That evening after supper he said to his wife, “It’s time for us to pray.”

As he went about his labors on the farm, he prayed and sought God until he pressed forth into the wonderful realm of spirituality.  His account of those days of prayer and perseverance, during which he killed “the old man,” is truly inspiring.  You will find it in his book, “Answering the Call of God.” [4]

Soon, like many of us who were not raised in a particular church, Brother Tomlinson began to wrestle with the problem of which church to join.  He described his struggle this way.


“Then came the real conflict: What church should I join?  If there had been but one, as was the case in the time of the Apostles, I would have been saved that trouble.  I searched and prayed and sought for information from people, books and papers.  I was perplexed. I felt I was at a crisis.  I did not know what to do.  They were all different, and none of them really satisfied me, but I felt I must be a member of some church.  I finally decided to join the one nearest my home, merely for convenience, as I thought I could do more good in one near by, as I could attend more regularly.”


As he labored and sought God, in much prayer and supplication, Bro. Tomlinson’s desire to meet the spiritual needs of mankind grew, and opportunities to minister began to open to him.  Being stirred with a great mission­ary zeal, he volunteered his services to assist in the labors of a noted missionary named J. B. Mitchell.  It was Bro. Tomlinson’s association with Bro. Mitchell which ultimately brought him to North Carolina.

From time to time during those years, Bro. Tomlinson sought out religious groups that he had heard about, which sounded as if they might be worthy of his consideration.  No doubt he found good qualities in different groups that he encountered, and held each in due respect.  One brief record of such an excursion is found noted in his diary, September 22, 1901.

“After a few days of haste and special providences of God, my birthday finds me on the Atlantic Ocean aboard the ‘Howard’ speeding away toward Boston, bound for Shiloh, Maine.  God has heard my cry and given me the desire of my heart, and his providence is very favorable so far.  Praise Him forever.”

Bro. Sanford’s dynamic ministry, which was based in Shiloh, apparently provoked some particular interest in Bro. Tomlinson.  Several years later he made the statement that he felt Shiloh behind him, pushing him.  Perhaps it was Bro. Sanford’s doctrine, about God having an anointed prophet to lead his people, which caught his spiritual ear.  However, I have found nothing to indicate that Brother Tomlinson had any association with Bro. Sanford after that visit.

But God was working something, there in the hills of North Carolina, that was beyond the mere expression of reli­gious thought and theological opinions.  It could be compared to a big theatrical production.  The main players, at the moment, were the evangelists and others mentioned above, as well as men like T. N. Elrod and W. F. Bryant.  So far, A. J. Tomlinson had been more in the role of a spectator in that grand amphitheater, watching the grand play as he ardently pursued his own missionary work.

Revival flames burned, blessings flowed, and persecu­tions beset those zealous worshipers.  Of course, the enemy also tried to discredit the work from within, by expressions of fanaticism and religious excesses.  R. G. Spurling, Sr., who was a frequent attendant at those meetings, tried for some time to effect some organization among the various groups.  He believed the Bible taught that the Church of God must have government.  He also thought that such government would help curtail the excesses in which some were engaging.

On August 19, 1886, he called a special meeting at the Barney Creek Meeting House in Monroe County, Tennessee, and presented his proposition to those in attendance.  A few sincere saints united with him under the auspices of the Christian Union, but the effort never did attract much interest.  It was not long until the elder Spurling died and his son Richard, Jr. volunteered to undertake the responsibilities of the work.

By the spring of 1902, a small group, including W. F. Bryant and a few others, had also begun to feel the need for government.  So, on May 15, 1902, Bro. Bryant and those concerned saints gathered at Bro. Bryant’s home, near Murphy, N. C.  There, with the guidance of Bro. Spurling, they organized under the name “The Holiness Church at Camp Creek.”  Bro. Spurling became the pastor and W. F. Bryant was ordained a minister. [5]


On June 13, 1903, A. J. Tomlinson went up onto a mountain, near where the Holiness Church at Camp Creek had their meetings, to a place alone to pray.  He later testified to a small group, in the home of W. F. Bryant, that the Lord had inspired him, during his prayer, that they had espoused a faith and attitude toward the word of God that, if they would accept it, they were the Church of God.  Of course, they did accept it.

Brother Spurling immediately submitted the leadership to A.J. Tomlinson, and the work began to grow.  In two and a half years, it had grown to such an extent, that they thought it was necessary to call a general conference.

They did not officially adopt the name “Church of God” until 1907, but their beginning can neither be dated from the time of organization in 1902, nor from the time of the official name change.  They became the Church of God when the bold declaration was made by the man to whom God had given the revelation of it.  The blessings given by patriarchs in the Old Testament are a good example of this phenomenon.

In the years which have passed, several groups, large and small, have developed from that small beginning.  In 1951, it was claimed that 44 different groups had grown out of that work. [6]

I will not attempt to address all of these groups, because, in the light of the prophetic advancement of God’s Church, they are of small significance.  I only hope to point out clearly, that the formation and development of the Church of God was the work of an Apostle of God, whom God has confirmed beyond doubt with many signs.

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[2] The second work of grace, Rom. 5:1,2.

[3] "Upon This Rock" by C. T. Davidson, Vol. 1, Pg. 294

[4] White Wing Publishing house, Cleveland, TN.

[5] Upon This Rock” by C. T. Davidson, Vol. 1, Pg. 300.

[6] Handbook of Denominations in the United States, by Frank S. Mead.  Abingdon Press.