The first Church of God General Assembly met January 26-27, 1906, in the home of J.C. and Melissa Murphy in Camp Creek, North Carolina. (Their home is pictured here with W.F. Bryant and R.G. Spurling.) Every anniversary of this inaugural Assembly is an occasion to remember and honor our pioneer mothers and fathers who obeyed God and sacrificed their lives so that we might know Christ and be part of what God is doing in the world today.
No doubt getting to the Assembly from the various congregations in 1906 was a challenge. To the best of my knowledge, no one owed a motorized vehicle, and there were no paved roads leading to Camp Creek, North Carolina. Getting to Camp Creek for several involved combinations of walking, train travel, or horseback. Nettie Bryant only traveled about a mile from her nearby home but rode in an oxcart. And while they were convened, the weather outside was daunting. Later, writing about the event, A.J. Tomlinson reported that during that first Assembly, the 21 delegates inside the house “were so intensely interested in the cause for which we were assembled that we gave but little attention to the blinding snow that was falling and drifting on the outside.” He continued, “Brother Murphy kept his big fireplace filled up with wood and the room was made comfortable although the weather was disagreeable and cold.”
As a historian there is so much that I wished I knew about that meeting, but we have few surviving sources. Most of our sources are from A.J. Tomlinson who as local pastor moderated and recorded the Minutes of the meeting.
Tomlinson kept a diary in which he wrote a brief reflection about the Assembly on Tuesday, January 30, 1906. The Assembly had met the previous Friday and Saturday, and we learn from his journal entry that Tomlinson, and I imagine most of the delegates, stayed overnight in Camp Creek for Sunday services. And in that Sunday morning service they were faithful to the decision of the Assembly regarding the Lord’s Supper and foot washing. Pastor Tomlinson recorded:
“I arrived home about midnight last night from Camp Creek, N. C. We held a Church assembly there. I acted as ruling Elder and made the minutes of the proceedings. Preached two sermons, anointed five persons and traveled about 163 miles. The meeting on the whole was noticeable for the love to one another and the unity. Sunday, we observed the sacrament and washing of feet, and this meeting was freighted with the power and presence of the Holy Ghost. Everyone who engaged and most of those who were spectators were bathed in tears showing the sacredness of the occasion.”
Later as general overseer, Tomlinson sometimes reflected on the first Assembly during his annual addresses to the General Assembly. He began his address in 1912 with a look back on the first Assembly. He recalled that along with church growth the need for an Assembly began to emerge in 1905 among churches that had joined themselves together “to walk in the light” with a commitment to search the Scriptures and earnestly seek for additional light and knowledge. By the end of the year there was a demand for ministers to examine the Scriptures to determine if there was justification for such a meeting. Brother Tomlinson did not list the ministers, but we can be confident that such a list would closely resemble those ministers who attended the first Assembly:
• Pastor Tomlinson who was shepherd of congregations in Drygo and Union Grove, Tennessee, along the host church in Camp Creek, North Carolina.
• Elder R.G. Spurling, who had been the founding pastor of the Christian Union in 1886 and the Holiness Church at Camp Creek in 1902, and the Jones Church in Georgia in 1904.
• Elder Andrew Freeman, who in 1906 was pastor of a Christian Union congregation in Piney Grove, Tennessee, that R.G. Spurling had set in order in 1897.
• Elder W.F. Bryant, who had shepherded the souls swept into the Holiness movement during the 1896 revival at nearby Shearer Schoolhouse.
• Perhaps also M.S. Lemons, who would become the first Assistant general Overseer in 1913.
• Perhaps deacons such as J.C. Murphy in Camp Creek were also invited. I can imagine that it was in one of those pre-Assembly meetings of ministers that Brother Murphy volunteered to host the Assembly in his home.
General Overseer Tomlinson continued his report in 1912, “We were walking softly, carefully, and prayerfully before God, as we have been up to this very day, determined to track the Bible and not go beyond in any of our teachings and practices, and at the same time advance as light was given.” Apparently, the ministers met on more than one occasion to discuss having an Assembly. When examining the Scriptures, it seemed obvious to them that Israel’s annual meetings in the wilderness and the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 were clear biblical examples justifying such a meeting.
Later in his book, The Last Great Conflict, Tomlinson described events leading up to the first Assembly this way: “Near the close of 1905, the work had so prospered that there began to be a demand for a general gathering together of members from all the churches to consider questions of importance and to search the Bible for additional light and knowledge. Accordingly, arrangements were made and the meeting called” (A. J. Tomlinson, The Last Great Conflict, 1913, reprint 2011, 142).
I am not aware of any documentation of what the questions of importance were exactly, it is certain that they related to the topics discussed at the first Assembly, and thus, I conclude that their decisions as recorded in the minutes were born out of their questions. I lean toward believing the primary speakers were selected in advance and asked to prepare in advance to discuss one or more of the questions of importance. Perhaps questions such as:
• What will be the purpose of the Assembly?
• Should we keep records of the decisions of our meeting?
• Should local churches keep records?
• Should local churches practice the washing of the saints feet? And if so, how often?
• Should members of the Holiness Churches use tobacco in any form?
• And so on….
The minutes record their decisions and use language like “the Assembly accepted the following motto,” “duly discussed, passed upon, and recommended,” “it is the sense of this Assembly,” and “it is therefore the sense of this assembly that we recommend, advise, and urge,” and finally reflecting the language of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, “It seemeth good to the Holy and us, being assembled together with one accord, with the Spirit of Christ in the midst….”
It might be tempting for us to idealize that meeting and assume that there was complete uniformity of ideas among the delegates and by extension the churches they represented. Yet, their language only reveals their conclusions. Oh, how I wish we had a record of the conversation!
If we take seriously Tomlinson’s statement that there was “a demand for a general gathering together of members from all the churches to consider questions of importance,” then there must have been some differences among the churches as to doctrine and practice. Although we don’t have enough information to know how serious these differences were or what any alternative teachings and practices might have been, they were important enough that the minsters felt the differences must be resolved. And the minutes reveal that not all of the resolutions came easily. They testified “it seemeth good to the Holy Ghost and us” only “after much prayer, discussion, searching the Scriptures and counsel….” Even then, they acknowledged that they were only recommending that local churches ratify and observe their decisions. They were initiating a process rather than declaring an edict.
We may read their concluding statement, look back on our history, and express thanksgiving for what they accomplished and what the various Church of God movements have accomplished since 1906. However, they had less of a sense of certainty and permanence about their decisions. Later in January 1913, while expressing thankfulness for the strength of the General Assembly, General Overseer Tomlinson reflected on the challenges of that First Assembly. He stated regarding the institution of the Assembly as a governing body, “At the time of its birth it was not known whether it would live or die; but time and evidences prove that it was destined to live and make its mark in the world. Its weak voice was unheard at the start, but it is now assuming such vast proportions that its voice is echoing around the world.”
Although Tomlinson may have overstated the global influence of the First Assembly at that time, his declaration proved to be prophetically true. And I appreciate his admonition that followed: “Knowing the far-reaching influence of this, the Eighth Annual Assembly of the Church of God, should make us all the more careful about our thoughts, actions, and words. Knowing that we are making history should surely be the incentive to us to do our best. Every subject should be carefully, prayerfully, and wisely dealt with. Every decision must be strictly made by the Bible or in harmony with it.”
Tomlinson did not assume that every decision would be perfect nor that there would be uniform agreement in the churches. He went on to say in January 1913 that two decisions made at the previous two Assemblies had been questioned by some who were not present at those Assemblies. Consequently, he stated “those actions should be reconsidered and emphasized [--] or proven a mistake and abandoned.” This reconsideration of earlier decisions was being faithful to the commitment to walk in the light. He concluded, “If our pathway has been illumined with a more brilliant light since that time, the survey can be followed better, and the cornerstones and witness trees can be pointed out and rectified.”
Today, we can say with certainty that the First Assembly has proven to have global influence. There are many aspects of that Assembly that can continue to teach us today.
• Rather than bury or ignore differences we can agree to discuss them together. We can do our best to invite voices from all the churches to be part of the process.
• We can affirm a commitment to study the Scriptures and walk in the light given to us when determining our doctrines and practices.
• We can covenant together to reach a world harvest that still needs Jesus.
• Perhaps spiritualizing just a little; when storms are buffeting the church, and no doubt they are in our world today, we can receive the life-giving strength and warmth of unity and fellowship when we intentionally create occasions to meet together.
And may the Lord continue to provide faithful servants, like Deacon J.C. Murphy, who will put logs on the fire when they are needed.
—David G. Roebuck