Challenging “Unalterable Conditions”

Thomas J. Richardson
Thomas J. Richardson became overseer of black churches in 1922.

HEN GENERAL OVERSEER A. J. Tomlinson delivered his annual address to the 17th Church of God General Assembly, the racial divide in the United States loomed insurmountable. By 1922, there were black Church of God congregations in at least Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania.

Yet, Jim Crow laws restricted the freedoms of black Americans. Not only did they force segregated seating at the General Assembly and other public gatherings, Southern society restricted access to places providing food, lodging, and public restrooms.

Tomlinson lamented these circumstances regarding “colored” members in his address: “There is a problem confronting us that is yet to be solved. South of the Mason and Dixon line it is difficult to show them all the courtesy that we would like to. It is our purpose to make them feel at home with us and they do in a sense, but on account of conditions that seem to be unalterable a number of them are going away from us each year.”

Likely referring to the Church of God in Christ, the general overseer reported that many black members were “joining with an organization of colored people.” Tomlinson reported that although black members desired to be part of the Church of God, “under the circumstances they feel better to be in a church to themselves where they can be perfectly free in every respect.” This situation demanded Assembly consideration. If the Church of God were God’s church, then it must be inclusive of all people despite the oppressive social conditions.

At least as early as 1915, people of African descent had attended the General Assembly, and from 1919 each Assembly included a worship service led by black members. In 1915, Tomlinson had appointed Edmond Barr as overseer of black churches in Florida. For several reasons, Barr’s leadership had not continued; and, by 1922, the Church of God needed a national resolution or risked further loss of black constituents. Tomlinson’s address called for church leaders to counsel with black members to determine solutions that might allow for appropriate black leadership and progress within the Church of God.

As is still the custom, committee appointments was one of the first actions of the Assembly. Among those appointments was the Committee on Better Government. Their report to the Assembly included, “We recommend that a colored overseer by appointed over all the colored churches with the same authority as state overseers; however, his territory of labor is not to be limited.”

When the Executive Committee appointed state overseers for the following year, they also appointed Thomas J. Richardson to oversee all black churches. Richardson was an ordained African-American bishop from Miami who was ministering with his wife, Mamie, in North Carolina at the time. Although Richardson only served one year due to the division with Tomlinson in 1923, black national overseers continued to serve until 1958.

Following Richardson, black national overseers included David LaFleur (1923–1928), J. H. Curry (1928–1939), N. S. Marcelle (1939–1946), W. L. Ford (1946–1950 and 1954– 1958), and George A. Wallace (1950–1954). Although their appointments did not solve all of the racial challenges in the church, they were a significant declaration that people of all races belong in the Church of God.

David G. Roebuck, Ph.D., is Church of God historian and director of the Dixon Pentecostal Research Center.

January 2017