The Preacher Who Wanted to Be President
In every election from 1952 to 1968, though few Americans know it, a Pentecostal preacher ran for president of the United States. This clergyman, as Theocratic Party candidate for the nation’s highest office, promised to unite church and state, base the nation’s laws on the King James Bible, appoint leading churchmen to all Cabinet offices, and create two new Cabinet posts: secretary of righteousness and secretary of the Holy Bible. He never captured the White House, but he took his defeat with a smile. Why would he complain, when as “King of the World” he outranked any mere president?
The man’s name was Homer A. Tomlinson, and his biography adds a surrealistic touch with a comic-opera flavor to the history of church-state relations in America.
In 1892 Homer’s father, Ambrose Jessup Tomlinson, started an independent church in Cherokee County, in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. He borrowed the name “Church of God” from the church of that name in Anderson, Indiana. The new sect, starting with a handful of members, proposed to unite all churches, work miracles as Jesus and the apostles had done, and do “even greater things.” They set out to speak with new tongues, heal the sick, cast out devils, take up serpents, and drink poison without being hurt by it.
A. J. Tomlinson’s early neighbors suffered from a lack of enthusiasm for the new religion. They called the innovator a fanatic and a zealot. They shot at him and his family, burned down his log-cabin church, and brought a series of lawsuits against him. Once they hauled him into court for allegedly “casting the devil out of a woman and throwing the devil over the fence into Mr. McFadden’s garden adjoining the tent grounds.” Local papers described the church services as “orgies.”
Still the sect grew, making its headquarters in Cleveland, Tennessee, where the irrepressible Tomlinsons and their followers danced in the spirit, with shakings and tremblings.
If we may believe Homer’s autobiography, The Shout of a King, he was a phenomenon from birth. The day he was born, October 25, 1892, he says [that] Elwood Haynes drove his first gasoline-driven automobile out of the garage in Kokomo, Indiana.* Tomlinson later saw prophetic meaning in this. Tomlinson also “just happened to be there” in the home of the Wright brothers, at Dayton, Ohio, when they invented the airplane. He assisted them, he says, in loading the equipment for their Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, experiments.
Homer’s school achievements, he modestly admits, were many. His graduation record in high school was “the only one in their records as 100 percent.” One of his professors called him a walking encyclopedia and said he regretted he could not give Homer 110 per cent in all his subjects. Later, at the university, Homer “spruced up” on his “Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and Sanskrit, and learned to preach impromptu in seventeen languages,” including Hindustani, Arabic, Cantonese, Urdu, and Russian.
“Brother Homer,” as he was called, brought into the Church of God “banjos, fiddles, both called devil’s instruments,” and “guitars, and every instrument in the Sears and Roebuck catalog” and played them. Tomlinson claimed to have assembled one thousand instruments of music, and to have been the first to bring “sacred songs of our mountains, known as “hillbilly singing” to the Southern hills. He traced the beginnings of Southern folk music and today’s thriving music industry at Nashville to his Church of God songs. Elvis Presley, he said, grew up in one of their churches in Memphis, and rock-and-roll dancing is merely a “vulgar adaptation of our dancing and rejoicing in the spirit of God.”
Tomlinson, if his memory didn’t play tricks on him, also was a close associate of such men as F. N. Doubleday, Charles Scribner, Theodore Roosevelt, Leonard Wood, Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, Bruce Barton, and other notables. “My work brought me in closest contact with Eisenhower,” he said. Eisenhower was “my personal friend and colaborer,” and General Patton was “my World War l buddy.”
When A. J. Tomlinson, the father, died in 1943, his two sons, Homer and Milton, slugged it out for the job of general overseer of the church. Milton got the upper hand, and Homer was expelled from the church. But the irrepressible preacher moved to New York City and began his church all over again. After many a battle to counteract the evils and schisms among the sheep of his fold, Homer recollected, “I modestly said betimes in those days, we would hit with the power of forty thousand herds of elephants.”
In March 1950 Brother Homer astounded his denomination, “shook and rocked my own people,” by announcing he would run for the presidency of the United States in the 1952 contest. Previously most of his members had refused even to vote, thinking politics too rotten for Christians to dabble in. But Homer convinced them that good men not only may run but must run. He quoted Proverbs 29:2: “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice.” Some of his followers got the idea and ran for public office in cities and counties. To celebrate their new venture into politics the Church of God held a celebration, with “dancing and unrestrained singing and shouting in the spirit.”
Of course Brother Homer strongly favored peace among nations, and dramatized his peace candidacy by setting up a forge in a churchyard in Childersburg, Alabama, where he actually beat a sword into a plowshare of sorts, and a spear into a pruning hook. He attached the plowshare to a farm tractor, climbed up to the wheel, and began to cultivate cotton beside the churchyard. Then he took the pruning hook in hand and pruned trees and shrubs.
Tomlinson distributed buttons and flyers and stumped the country, predicting victory for his Theocratic ticket. However, he ran only as a write-in candidate. When the election was over Eisenhower had received 33,938,285 votes and Stevenson 27,312,217. Eight also-rans, including Henry Krajewski, Poor Man’s Party; Stuart Hamblen, Prohibition Party; Herbert Holdridge, Vegetarian Party; and Brother Homer, shared 308,996 votes among them. Homer’s share of these scattered write-ins was so infinitesimal that the exact number seems to be nowhere recorded.
Tomlinson’s grin was never erased by the defeat. Far bigger things were in the offing. Two summers later Homer’s church held its general assembly in a huge tobacco barn at Greeneville, Tennessee. At that time Brother Homer began to feel that the Lord had anointed him to be King of the World. Tomlinson would reign as a “King in Righteousness” and “King of All the Nations of Men.” He borrowed an outsized chair from a Masonic lodge, and a robe from a theatrical costumer in New York City. He found a tinsmith who fashioned him a crown and covered it with gold leaf. He commissioned a local Betsy Ross to sew him a special flag. Of red, white, blue, and purple, the banner depicted a scepter of righteousness, a star of hope, and a crown of victory.
Previously he had visited Korea and talked his way onto a United Nations Far East Air Force plane flying over Korea at midnight, December 24, 1952. That, he reported, was the last night of real hostilities in Korea, and “since that time wars between nations just haven’t been able to jell.” He allowed that Arabs and Israelis have committed unfriendly acts since then, especially in 1967, but insisted that the war was over so soon that it really shouldn’t count as a war.
The only real exception to world peace, he said, was the affair in Vietnam. This he attributed to the fact that of all the nations of earth, he, Brother Homer, had been personally insulted only in Vietnam and in the United States. Vietnam once refused him admittance to that country, and police once hustled him off the Capitol steps in Washington, D.C., after he had been given a permit to occupy the steps. Both nations, he said, “rejected my coming as their king.” So the Vietnam conflict continued!
In succeeding years Tomlinson as “King of the World” made numerous goodwill trips around the globe to proclaim peace and prosperity. If wars or revolutions had just begun, they suddenly ceased as he swept down out of the skies bringing peace. If a nation suffered from drought, no sooner did Brother Homer appear than the heavens unloaded the rain they had saved up for months. He flew to Moscow, parked himself in Red Square, opened his Bible, and began to “preach the gospel of Jesus in Russian, French, and in English.” Six hundred curious onlookers forsook Lenin’s tomb and circled around him. Finishing his sermon in 45 minutes, he offered prayer and walked away unmolested. The Soviet press reported that an American actor had visited Moscow.
Once when Tomlinson happened to be traveling in Finland, proclaiming himself king of that land, he read a newspaper report that World War III was about to begin in Berlin. “I must hasten to Berlin to prevent that war,” Brother Homer announced. He grabbed a plane to the troubled city, and donning his robe and crown and waving his flag, he hurried to the Brandenburg Gate, where he proclaimed there would be no war. As a result, he reported, “in that moment the awful threat of a new war was scuttled.”
Subsequently Brother Homer quelled revolutions in Venezuela, Guatemala, and Costa Rica. On a visit to strife-torn Haiti, said Brother Homer, “As I set my feet down on the tarmac, the revolution ended.”
Brother Homer’s rainmaking ability was phenomenal. In November 1955 he undertook to walk a thousand miles from Iran to Bethlehem, following the traditional route of the Magi. Then, you guessed it: “Mighty driving rains struck me the second day I was out there.” The clouds began to pour out rain, “a very deluge.” Boys slogged around in the mud. Buses, headed for Baghdad, along with oil-company trucks and other vehicles, bogged down and had to be extricated by yellow “cats.” When he arrived in Jerusalem, rain was falling there, too. They asked him, “Bishop, don’t you think we’ve had enough rain?”
The downpour followed him all the way to Damascus and on to Beirut, where he took a ship for Alexandria, Egypt. Somebody there wanted to know, “Don’t you have any rain for Egypt?” Brother Homer promised water, and “in those self-same hours” Americans drilling for oil struck fresh water, which reportedly gushed up, shooting high in the air.
In 1959 Tomlinson visited Accra, Ghana. The country had been gripped by a terrible drought for more than a year. He asked a thousand people to gather while he prayed for rain, and before they left, “while I was yet standing there, clouds began to gather, the shadows began to gather.” Next morning Brother Homer boarded a small plane, and just as this aircraft began to ascend into the sky, tiny raindrops spattered on its windows. Minutes later showers poured down upon the thirsty country. “I had prayed for rain plenty of times, but I really never did go up into the sky to meet it before,” commented Brother Homer.
Tomlinson took a special interest in the Holy Land, and actually transferred his church headquarters from Queens Village, New York, to Jerusalem. In 1959, when the war was about to break out again between Jordan and Israel, Homer sent a message to both countries through their press and radio, urging them not to have a war. He promised to come soon, lift up his banner, and heal the 4,000-year-old enmity between Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau.
He himself recognized the incongruity of proclaiming peace to the world when he could not completely pacify his own faction-ridden Church of God. But these bothersome details never seemed to deter him for long in his global mission.
In the elections of 1956, 1960, and 1964 Brother Homer continued to run for president of the United States, with a platform that proposed to unite church and state; guarantee freedom of worship; abolish taxes and substitute 10 percent tithing; promote free enterprise; end wars, crime, and delinquency; abolish the jury system and try the accused before “godly judges”; stop all divorce, gambling, and use of liquor, narcotics, and tobacco; promote racial equality; achieve painless childbirth; and establish Bible reading and prayer in all schools.
When it came to head counts, Tomlinson’s computer seemed to give him trouble. For example, in the 1960 election, he claimed to have received 3 million votes, whereas the World Almanac gives all scattered and write-in candidates together only 785.
In 1966 Brother Homer graciously stepped aside to allow his former running mate, Bishop Bill Rogers, of Fulton, Missouri, to be candidate for president on the Theocratic ticket in the 1968 elections. Early in 1968 Rogers withdrew, and Homer announced that “President Johnson has led America halfway to the kingdom,” and nominated Lyndon Johnson as Theocratic candidate for president. When Johnson announced he would not seek re-election, Brother Homer quickly threw his own hat back into the ring, again giving his country a chance to choose a righteous candidate on November 5.
This campaign was his last. Brother Homer died a month later, on December 4, at the age of 77, and Bishop Voy M. Bullen succeeded him as general overseer of the Church of God. Thus America lost its peripatetic King of the World, its perennial candidate for president, and its most outspoken advocate of a united church and state.
Brother Homer never saw a contradiction between the first plank in his platform, the church-state tie, and the second plank, guaranteeing personal freedom for all. But, though he hoped to join church and government in a theocracy, he was no inquisitor, no bigot. The soul of affability, he had a heart as big as his grin and his girth. From every pore he oozed goodwill toward all men, even forgiving those who had tossed him out of his own church. Though he grew up in the rural South, he preached and practiced racial equality. A Christian, he regarded all Hebrews as his brothers, inviting prominent New York Jews to attend an Easter sunrise service. (They politely refused.) A Pentecostal, he selected prominent Catholics, Protestants from various denominations, and Jews as his cabinet officers should he become president.
The good bishop, for all his eccentricities and theatrics, apparently was genuinely concerned for the world’s poor, hungry, and naked. He was a living refutation of the charge that those who preach a coming millennium lack social concern.
His call for national righteousness was praiseworthy, even if his methods of achieving it seem impractical and naive. To his followers Brother Homer was a prophet, leader, and hero—Moses, Luther, and Joan of Arc rolled into one. How fortunate that he lived in a country without a church-state monolith, a country with room enough and tolerance enough for men the likes of Homer A. Tomlinson, King of the World.
*However, the correct date for the Haynes automobile run is July 4, 1894. See Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. XIII, art. “Kokomo.”
This article is from the November-December 1972 issue of Liberty magazine. It is included here, in advance of the 2020 election, as a reminder of the quirky and egregious ways that the separation of church and state has been challenged in the past. Times and personalities may change, but even today we battle variants of the same theocratic overreach. Editor.