Historical Introduction to the Churches of God, General Conference

The Churches of God, General Conference began in 1825 as a result of the labors, revivals, and ideas of John Winebrenner, a German Reformed pastor who ministered in and around Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

During the late 1820s, Winebrenner came to new theological conclusions about the nature and government of the Church, the importance of the regenerating experience of the new birth and the ordinances (Believer’s Baptism by immersion, Lord’s Supper and Feet Washing). He reaffirmed the belief that the Bible was the “only authoritative rule of faith and practice.”

In 1830 he joined five other “teaching elders,” or ministers, in central Pennsylvania in forming an “eldership” for the purpose of adopting a system of cooperation.

As Churches of God settlers moved west, they established new churches and elderships in western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa and Michigan. By 1900 the denomination had spread to Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. Separate elderships had also been formed for churches in Maryland and West Virginia. The California Eldership began in 1948. Congregations from the Church of God chartered in Mississippi became the Mid-South Conference in 1983.

Churches of God once existing in Maine, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and other states have ceased to function.

A General Eldership was formed in 1845 to provide for cooperation between local elderships. Since the 1960s, the trend has been to call judicatories “conferences” rather than “elderships” in recognition that representation is no longer limited to “elders.”

Churches of God periodicals, The Gospel Publisher (1835-1845) and The Church Advocate (1846-present), have played a key role in distributing information about and for the Churches of God and have provided a forum for the discussion of important issues. Two other publications have had a long and distinguished history, The Gem, a Sunday school paper, began in 1867. The Workman was first published as a monthly lesson booklet in 1879 and became a quarterly in 1890. The denomination maintained its own printing establishment, Central Publishing House, in Harrisburg from 1901 to 1979.

Foreign mission work was established at Uluberia, India, in 1898 and at Bogra (now Bangladesh) in 1905. Members of Slovak descent started mission churches in Eastern Europe in 1922, but communist governments have thwarted this effort. Project HELP was begun in Haiti in 1967 and a ministry to Navajos began in New Mexico in 1976.

Findlay College was incorporated in 1882 and opened for classes as a Churches of God college in 1886. Winebrenner Seminary began as a graduate department of theology in 1942 and was chartered as a separate institution in 1960. Barkeyville Academy (1881-1906) in Pennsylvania and Fort Scott Collegiate Institute (1902-1917) in Kansas are other educational institutions once supported by the denomination.

Church camping had its start in 1931 with the first of three annual General Eldership camps. Within a few years, several local elderships began to hold their own summer camping programs. Today most local elderships or conferences have camping programs. Many of them own and operate their own facilities, some on a year-round basis.

Three lay organizations have played an important part in the recent history of the denomination. The Churches of God Youth Advance (CGYA) was formed in 1947, the Women’s Christian Service Council (WCSC) in 1953 and the Churches of God Winebrenner Brotherhood (CGWB) in 1967.

The name of the denomination has changed several times. It was first known as the Church of God, in keeping with Winebrenner’s view that “there is but one true Church, namely: the Church of God.” The phrase In North America was added by the first General Eldership in1845. In 1896 the name was made plural and became Churches of God in North America. In 1974 two changes were made. The phrase “In North America” was eliminated in recognition of the Churches of God members in India, Bangladesh, and Haiti. “General Eldership” was changed to “General Conference” in recognition that delegates were no longer limited to “elders.” Thus, the correct name of the denomination today is Churches of God, General Conference.

The Churches of God, General Conference is a Pennsylvania corporation organized and existing under the act of April 18, 1867, P.L. 1295 and subsequent charter amendments.

The Administrative Office and operational headquarters of the Churches of God, General Conference is located at 700 East Melrose Avenue in Findlay, Ohio, in the Wilkin Center for Christian Ministries, constructed by the Churches of God in 1981.