hen Letha Dally’s train arrived in Cleveland, Tennessee, in the fall of 1920, the orphanage where she hoped to live was not yet open. Undoubtedly, she was comforted when General Overseer A. J. Tomlinson welcomed her into his home for the two months the house on the southwest corner of what is now 11th Street and Montgomery Avenue was being remodeled.
Both of Letha’s parents were deceased, and she had been a resident of the “county house” in Sevier County, Tennessee. According to Pastor J. S. Walker, Letha inquired about the proposed Cleveland orphanage one hot Sunday afternoon as the two walked from the local Church of God where he served to the house where she lived.
He later recalled Letha asking, “Brother Walker, could you get me in the orphanage home where I can have good clothes and plenty to eat and enjoy a place of real religious devotion?” Walker agreed to do his best, and the Sevierville congregation raised the train fare for her short journey to Cleveland.
The planned home in Cleveland was not the first Church of God effort to establish an orphanage. Tomlinson had purchased property, established a school, and began to care for orphans not long after he arrived in Culberson, North Carolina, in 1899. However, that ministry closed with his relocation to Cleveland in 1904.
In Durant, Florida, Church of God members initiated an orphanage around 1909. Two years later, J. B. Mitchell established The Faith Orphanage and Children’s Home Association in Cleveland under the oversight of the state overseer, W. F. Bryant.
Although these early ministries could not be sustained, their lack of success did not dampen the church’s determination to care for children. In 1912, the General Assembly agreed to search for other opportunities, including potential partnership with an orphanage in South Carolina. Church of God members also supported Lillian Trasher’s orphanage in Asyut, Egypt.
When delegates to the fourteenth General Assembly gathered in October 1919, they heard General Overseer Tomlinson present a bold vision.
Near the conclusion of his address, Tomlinson highlighted the need for an orphanage. Recalling the recent request of a dying mother, the general overseer challenged the Assembly, “The need of such an institution is staring us in the face. . . . We ought to be able to care for our own, and . . . we should be able to reach out a hand of tender love and mercy, and take in others and train them for God and His beautiful church.”
As Tomlinson lamented the need to care for orphans, weeping began to spread throughout the congregation. Spontaneously, a woman stood and said, “I will give $100,” and a man followed, “I know of a man who will give $1,000.” Contributions and pledges continued that day and throughout the Assembly.
Decision making and activity filled the months following the Assembly. After considering several options, church leaders arranged to make use of the house across the street from the newly constructed Assembly Auditorium. Previous plans to use that house as a nursery during the 1920 Assembly hindered the remodeling, however. By the time Letha moved into the Church of God Orphanage on December 17, three other children had also arrived to join her.
Sadly, poor health leading to an early death shortened Letha’s time at the orphanage. Although she only benefited from its care for a brief time, the Church of God Orphanage continues today as the Smoky Mountain Children’s Home in Sevierville. Thousands of children have experienced love and mercy there and in other Church of God orphanages around the world.
David G. Roebuck, Ph.D., is the Church of God historian and director of the Dixon Pentecostal Research Center on the Lee University campus.