Church of God Celebrates 125 Years

by | Aug 10, 2011 | Charisma Archive

R.G. Spurling and wife
R.G. and Barbara Spurling. Courtesy of Harvest Temple

The Church of God is celebrating its 125th anniversary in August. The following
article describes how the denomination was born.

One and a quarter centuries ago Richard Green Spurling, best known as
R. G. Spurling, issued a call to form what is now the Church of God.
From the eight who responded to his invitation, our movement now numbers
almost 7 million members in 181 nations and territories. Following
his challenging message on Aug. 19, 1886, Spurling concluded: “As many
Christians as are here present that are desirous to be free from all
men-made creeds and traditions, and are willing to take the New
Testament, or law of Christ, for your only rule of faith and practice;
giving each other equal rights and privilege to read and interpret for
yourselves as your conscience may dictate, and are willing to sit
together as the Church of God to transact business [as] the same, come
forward.”

With that invitation, the small band of believers meeting in Monroe
County, Tenn., formed a congregation that they called the Christian
Union. In this unexpected region of the country, people hungry for the
restoration of New Testament Christianity sought God and came together
to be God’s church. Out of their vision of Christian union, with the
later addition of the experiences of sanctification and Spirit baptism,
came the “Church of God” as we know our movement today.

The vision for Christian Union rose first in the heart of R. G.
Spurling (1857-1935) and his father Richard Spurling (1810-1891). The younger
Spurling had been a licensed minister in the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church. Along with his father, an ordained Baptist elder, he began to
seek God regarding abuses he saw in the churches around him. According
to the earliest chronicler of these events, Spurling became disturbed
about certain traditions and creeds that he considered a hardship for
God’s people. He saw a need for further reformation of the church beyond
the Great Reformation of the 16th century.

While Luther, Calvin
and other reformers had brought about important changes, their legacy
focused on assent to a particular doctrine rather than on a right
relationship with Christ and His people. Their legacy was that creeds
and human traditions became more important than the leading of the Holy
Spirit and one’s own Christian conscience.

Spurling and his father were particularly troubled with the Landmark
movement that dominated Baptist life in the South from the middle part
of the 19th century. The name “Landmark” came from an emphasis on
Proverbs 22:28, “Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have
set” (KJV). Landmark adherents taught that Baptists were putting aside a
significant boundary of the church when they worshipped and
fellowshipped with non-Baptists. Landmark Baptists taught a line of
Baptist succession from the time of Christ, the importance of believer’s
baptism by a Baptist minister, and the exclusivity of Baptist churches.

For R. G. Spurling, where believers practice Christ’s command to love
God and neighbor, a testimony of faith in Christ is sufficient for
unity with one another. Spurling further taught that the New Testament
is the only “infallible rule of faith and practice” and contains
everything “necessary for salvation and church government.” He saw
harshness and exclusivity in the teachings of the Landmark movement that
stifled the gospel and led to dividing the body of Christ rather than
to Christian unity.

His vision to restore the law of love and individual conscience to
Christianity bore fruit on Aug. 19, 1886. For the previous two years
he had prayed for reformation along with his father and John Plemons.
After being barred from his own Baptist church and seeing little hope of
any change in the existing churches, Spurling met with others of like
mind in a meeting house along Barney Creek and issued his invitation.

Because his father Richard was ordained, the elder Spurling moderated
the proceedings to formally establish the congregation. Once organized,
the church then selected R. G. Spurling as pastor and ordained him the
following month.

Little is known about the original Christian Union and the continuing
ministry of R. G. Spurling. A. J. Tomlinson, who knew Spurling well in
later years, wrote that he preached wherever he had an opportunity and
“in this way the minds of the people were continually agitated, and
gradually prepared for the work of the Spirit that was to follow.” A
biographical sketch by his son, G. P. Spurling, reveals that between
1889 and 1895, Spurling organized three other Christian Union
congregations. Although his ministry is less known than many who came
later, his vision of reformation laid the foundation upon which we
continue to build today.

Dr.
David G. Roebuck is director of the Dixon Pentecostal Research Center
and an assistant professor of the history of Christianity at Lee
University.

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