Churches of God

A name designating about 200 various religious bodies in the USA. Adherents feel the term avoids a doctrinal connotation while stressing a scriptural church designation. Historically the name was first adopted by a revival group within the German Reformed Church (American) in 1825. Later they used the title “Churches of God in North America.” At present the name serves also to identify several bodies produced by post-Civil War revivals.

Church of God movements divide into five groups, the first being those of Pentecostal persuasion. Emphasis is placed upon the gifts of prophecy, divine healing, and speaking in tongues as evidence of entire sanctification. Two early leaders were R.G. Spurling and A.J. Tomlinson.* The (Original) Church of God, Inc., with headquarters in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was organized in 1856 from a split in Spurling's followers. In 1970 it reported fifty churches and 6,000 members. The first Spurling group (1886), now known as the Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.), listed 272,276 members in 4,024 churches in 1972. Tomlinson withdrew from this body in 1923, forming what is now the Church of God of Prophecy. His death in 1943 divided the church into two bodies, one following each of his two sons. The Tennessee organization retained the 1923 name, while the other group, moving to New York, chose “Church of God” for a title. In 1971 it listed a membership of 75,290 in 1,933 churches. The Tennessee faction claimed 48,708 in 1,531 churches. A small splinter group left the Church of God of Prophecy under G.R. Kent in 1957, forming the Church of God of All Nations. In 1923 the Church of God by Faith, Inc., was chartered in Florida. Its headquarters in Jacksonville reported 5,300 members in 105 churches in 1970. C.H. Mason and C.P. Jones of Arkansas founded the Church of God in Christ in 1895. Mason and Jones were rejected by Baptist bodies due to Pentecostalism. In 1970 the church listed 419,466 members in 4,150 churches. The Church of God and Saints in Christ came into being in 1896 under W.S. Crowdy, a Negro deacon. Sometimes called “Black Jews,” the movement stresses Jewish ritual.

A second group, in the Wesleyan pattern, is essentially “holiness” in its teaching and emphasizes a conversion experience, followed by Holy Spirit baptism which brings entire sanctification. The principal churches in this category are the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) and the Church of God (Apostolic).

A third division arose from the Second Advent Movement. The Church of God (Seventh Day), which keeps the Sabbath, is headquartered in Denver and listed 5,000 members in seventy-six churches in 1970. A sister body in Salem, West Virginia, claimed seven churches and 2,000 members. The Church of God General Conference (Abrahamic Faith) was organized in Oregon, Illinois, in 1888 and listed 124 churches with 6,700 members in 1971. Like their Seventh-day Adventist counterparts, these churches hold a strong premillennial eschatology.

A fourth division cannot be catalogued, since there are literally thousands of small “storefront” churches which use the title “Church of God” but belong to no specific denomination.

Finally, the organization founded by H.W. Armstrong in 1947 has used the title “Worldwide Church of God.” This American version of British Israelitism* has major defects in several doctrines and is classed by most scholars as a cult rather than church or sect.

See Pentecostal Churches.

F.E. Mayer, The Religious Bodies of America (1956); F.S. Mead, Handbook of Denominations in the United States (5th ed., 1970); C.H. Jacquet, Jr. (ed.), Yearbook of American Churches (39th issue, 1971).