Prayer Habits of a Pioneer



In the year 1913, A. J. Tomlinson penned the following benediction to the preface of his magnum opus, The Last Great Conflict. It was his plea to God to use the major literary work of his life. He wrote,

“May He who is able to make “weak things” “confound the mighty” and “things that are not” “bring to naught the things that are,” (sic) breathe by His Spirit, upon these chapters, and fan them into a flame of fire for His glory.[1]

By his own testimony, Ambrose Jessup Tomlinson was not very religious in his youth claiming that he knew very little about the Bible.[2] “A. J.”, as we shall refer to him throughout this short paper, was born near Westfield, Indiana, September 22, 1865, into a family whose religious tradition, for at least three generations, was a form of Irish Quakerism. His parents’ household, though not always in its entirety, were members of the Westfield Monthly Meeting or more specifically, the Chester Preparative Meeting of Friends, a satellite of the Westfield Meeting. A.J.’s grandparents had helped to organize this extension around 1854.[3] Tomlinson joined this chapter in 1889 the year he married Mary Jane Taylor of Dublin, Indiana. Mary Jane was herself a devoted Quaker having belonged to the Walnut Ridge Monthly Meeting, the scene of the “Great Walnut Ridge Revival” which occurred in 1867. By all accounts A. J. married a woman of prayer.

Developing Habits of Prayer

A.J.’s two pre-conversion encounters as related by him were, 1) at twelve years old when he heard his name distinctly called three times while working at the opposite end of a two-man “Hoosier” crosscut saw with his father, and, 2) at seventeen when he was deeply convicted due to a local revival in which many high-schoolers were converted. After being almost struck by a lightning bolt which entered his home (it was the year of his marriage) A. J. got Mary Jane’s Bible, read some Scriptures and they prayed. One of his biographers says, “He was not converted then but he did not give up until he had a real experience of salvation.”[4] This is the first sign of his persevering tendencies in prayer.

C.T. Davidson reports that, “A.J. Tomlinson studied at God’s Bible School, Mount of Blessings, Cincinnati, Ohio, where he was known for his fervent prevailing prayers; [s]o impressive was his praying that a sign was placed on his door and it read, ‘The Prevailer,’ leaving its mark upon the consciences of other students.”[5]

The farmer who confessed that he at first knew little of the Bible was developing one of the Bible’s greatest disciplines, the daily habit of personal prayer.

Praying Through to Sanctification

It was at this Bible school that he learned more fully of sanctification as a second definite work of grace in the Wesleyan tradition. Descriptions of his growing intensity in prayer continue with his sanctification experience. It was about the year 1893 and he worked daily on the farm. A. J. writes,

. . . I fell into a tremendous conflict with an “old man” who gave me a violent contest. I fought him and wrestled with him day and night for several months. How to conquer him I did not know. . . I had some serious thoughts of building a little booth out in the middle of a certain field where I could be alone with God and the Bible. . . I was making a corn crop and I suppose I prayed in nearly every row and nearly all over the field. Though I worked hard every day, I frequently ate but one meal a day. I remember it as if it were but yesterday. I would leave the house at night at times and stay out for hours. I searched my Bible and prayed many nights till midnight and two o’clock, and then out at work again next morning by sun up. It was a hard fight. But I was determined for that “old man” to die. He had already given me much trouble and I knew he would continue to do so if he was not slain. . .It was about twelve o’clock in the day. I cried out in the bitterness of my soul: “Now! Now! You’ve got to give it up now! Now.” I felt him begin to weaken and quiver. I kept the “Sword” right in him and never let go. That sharp two-edged “Sword” was doing its deadly work. I did not pity him. I showed him no quarters. There we were in that attitude when, all of a sudden came from above, like a thunderbolt from the skies, a sensational power that ended the conflict and there lay the “old man” dead at my feet, and I was free from his grasp. Thank God! I could get a good free breath once more.[6]

It is perhaps this experience that cemented this doctrine so firmly in his mind. John Wesley, who did not himself have such an instantaneous experience, said he could not deny its reality because he had witnessed the instant change in others during his revivals. It had become a fact revival history.[7]

Praying Through to the Baptism of the Holy Ghost

In January of 1907 A. J. tells us that he became more fully awakened to the subject of receiving the Holy Ghost as He was poured out on the Day of Pentecost. This continued throughout the year as he preached that the privilege of the baptism was ours. “I did not have the experience,” he wrote, “so I was almost always among the seekers at the altar. He was so hungry for this experience by the close of the year that, as he said, “I scarcely cared for food, friendship or anything else.”[8] Accordingly, as he planned for the third Assembly 1908, he prepared the program with anticipatory language like “Service on Pentecostal lines” and “Preaching or Pentecostal Service.” Accordingly, he wrote to and invited G. B. Cashwell of Dunn, North Carolina to preach at the assembly. In anticipation, A. J. wrote on the program, “We expect Brother G. B. Cashwell of Dunn, NC.”[9] It is our understanding that Brother Cashwell arrived late and did not get to preach until Sunday January 12. It was at this service that A. J.’s year-long prayerful quest for the baptism was fulfilled. His account of his experience where he slid off his chair at Cashwell’s feet, records a vision that took him to some ten countries and regions of the world.[10] It is perhaps significant that today both major branches and indeed nearly all groups resulting from the Holiness/Pentecostal Movement led by our forefathers have churches in most of the ten countries and regions mentioned in A. J.’s vision.

Praying for God to Supply the Daily Needs of Family and Work

Following in the footsteps of the Prussian-born English evangelist, George Müller (1805-1898) with whose story A. J. was familiar, he began his early missionary and orphanage work in the foothills of the Appalachians and at Culberson, NC depending on God for guidance, direction for the work, and for the daily supply of funds needed for his ministry and family. His diary entry for Sunday March 10, 1901 includes this sentences: “My fast day. . .I am reading “Life of George Muller” and seeking the kingdom. I am waiting to see what the Lord will do”.[11]

Here are some other samplings from his diary:

March 11. While praying and meditating upon the purchase of land for our industrial work, etc., these words kept ringing in my ears, “Will not the God of the whole earth do right?”

March 25. The day and week begun with a special burden and prayer on my heart for $5,000. . .At night we had special prayer and after prayer I read the words of Jesus that we received the petitions we desired because we kept his commandments. I then turned, guided by the spirit (sic) and read where Jesus washed the disciples’ feet and said, “ye ought to wash one another’s feet.” I had never obeyed this commandment. I at once laid aside my coat, poured water into a basin and washed the feet of the brethren present. Praise God. Other members of our household became more zealous to keep the commandments.

April 2. Have spent three whole days in absolute fasting and in prayer. The cry of my heart is for the $5,000 which means the purchase of the farm.

April 10. . .I only have 72ȼ left for postage, food and for the day and other incidentals. No human being knows the pressure I am under and I can seek help of none but God. If He don’t come to my rescue I am totally ruined. 25 mouths to feed, Samson’s Foxes to mail which are now several days tardy. But God being my helper I will pray and trust and if I fail I will go down trusting God. God’s Word is true and I am determined to trust Him by His grace.

May 9. This is our day of prayer. I confess as the war looms up before me, lack of means to meet the demands and push the work I am almost in despair, but in Jesus’ name I refuse to despair. Just after prayer service which lasted two hours, I feel much encouraged and built up in faith. I was led in my prayer to thank and praise God for the sack of flour He was going to give us today. I have no money to buy it so I await results. Time now near noon. Time night: Father sent us the sack of flour. Praise His dear name. . .[12]

These entries could go on and on as they record fervent prayers, great faith in dependence upon God, disappointments, the miraculous supply of needs, persecutions, privations, etc., all borne sometimes patiently, sometimes with frustration as is true to the Christian life from Bible times. Always though, A. J. recorded his intention to trust God regardless of what, sometimes interpreting God’s apparent silences as tests or as trials of faith for his own growth or development. And there were great victories and advancements for God’s work.

In 1904 he forsook Culberson and moved to Cleveland, Tennessee with his family then comprising his wife, Mary Jane, and children Halcy, Homer, and Iris. Milton, who would succeed him as General Overseer after his death in 1943, was not yet born. Nine years later in 1913, A. J. published “The last Great Conflict” in which he included a chapter on “Prevailing Prayer.” Here is a couple of quotes from this chapter:

Prevailing prayer implies and embodies all works as the seed embodies the trunk, root, branches, flowers and fruitage of the tree. The history of piety is the history of prayer. All piety and successful Christian work begins, continues and ends with prayer.” And again,

Prevailing prayer leads us into a holy and intimate nearness to God. It is the only way to God, the only medium of communion with Him. Prevailing with God is the secret of prevailing with men and must precede it. On what we transact with God at a throne of grace depends what we may accomplish with men. We may pray, sing and preach until we drop in our graves, but until we prevail all will go for nothing. It is one thing to pray and another thing to prevail in prayer.[13]

Here A. J. hints at what has become, in my opinion, one of the greatest deficiencies of church-life today, “pray-less praying.” E. M. Bounds raised this same issue in his chapter on “Difficulties to a Life of Prayer” in his classic on prayer “Purpose in Prayer” first published by Moody Press, Chicago in 1980. His findings and admonitions are instructive and very helpful. I believe this volume is still in print. But I stray from my subject.

Praying in an Institutional Crisis

Ambrose Jessup Tomlinson faced the greatest ministerial crisis of his life between 1920 and 1923. In his re-start efforts he led his followers in a prayer which reflected his dependence upon the Holy Spirit and the Word of God. This prayer became the continuing basis for his work and has been the undergirding for what became the Church of God of Prophecy. It is a prayer that all of us today can pray, a plea to the Holy Ghost to lead and guide us, and never to abandon us. It expresses a desire to please the Holy Spirit and to never grieve Him. And He has not abandoned us for in 1984 He lovingly called the Church to repentance, away from self-centeredness and to the restoration of a vital relationship with Him. He also highlighted our loss of compassion for a lost world which resulted in our Church’s “Turning to the Harvest” in a more organized way from 1994. We know that A. J. kept us his prayer life and ministry for his diary’s second volume 1925-1943 still records daily prayers at home and in his office. For example, his entry for December 4th 1930 includes these statements: “I pray in the office every morning before commencing the day’s work. Lillie and myself have been keeping this up for years. We both pray when both are here and one prays when only one is here.”

Conclusion: A Quaker’s Dozen

I conclude where I began with a reference to the Quakers. Here is a list of twelve daily rules for life which is attributed to them:


These 12 rules for a way of life, written long ago in a family Bible, still fit today’s problems:

  1. Begin each day with a prayer
  2. Work hard
  3. Love your family
  4. Make light of your troubles
  5. Follow the Golden Rule
  6. Read from the Bible
  7. Show Kindness
  8. Read worthwhile books
  9. Be pure and clean
  10. Have charity in your heart
  11. Be obedient and respectful
  12. End the day in prayer[14]

The prayer legacy of A. J. is instructive and challenging. In studying his history and that of our churches we find comfort in the successes and failures, the triumphs and defeats, the attempts at great things and the risks of the little foxes that spoil the vine. In short, we both see and sense the need for better praying because the humanness and weaknesses of life are ours as well. We owe where we are and who we are today to these foundations of our praying pioneers―all of them, women and men alike, although we have only treated one life here. Let’s follow their prayer patterns, their unshakable faith in God the great Provider, their unselfishness, their zeal, passion and enthusiasm for His work, and for our Lord’s sacrificial service to humankind, the divine “Missio Dei.”

Presented by Bishop Adrian L. Varlack Sr., Church Historian, Church of God of Prophecy at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the Historical Society of Church of God Movements, May 25, 2017


[1] A. J. Tomlinson, Last Great Conflict (Cleveland, TN: Press of Walter E. Rogers 1913; Reprint 1984, White Wing Publishing House and Press) 9

[2] Lillie Duggar, A. J. Tomlinson (Cleveland TN: White Wing Publishing House and Press, 1964) 18

[3] R. G. Robins, A. J. Tomlinson, Plainfolk Modernist (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004) 70

[4] Duggar, op cit. 20

[5] C. T. Davidson, Upon This Rock Volume I (Cleveland TN: White Wing Publishing House and Press, 1973) 303; See also, Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements, Stanley M. Burgess and Gary B. McGee, Editors, Patrick H. Alexander, Associate Editor (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1988) 846/7.

[6] The Last Great Conflict, op cit., 225, 226.

[7] Thomas C. Oden, John Wesley’s Scriptural Christianity: A Plain Exposition of His Teaching on Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994) 248, quoting Letters of John Wesley 2:280; 7:267.

[8] Ibid, 232

[9] Servants of the Spirit: Portraits of Pentecostal/Charismatic Pioneers, Andrea Johnson, Editor (Des Moines: OBC Publishing, 2010) 85

[10] The Last Great Conflict, op cit., 233-235

[11] Diary of A. J. Tomlinson 1901-1924 (Cleveland TN: White Wing Publishing House, 2012) 11

[12] Diary, op cit. (select entries and portions) pages 11-17

[13] The Last Great Conflict, op cit., 173, 176

[14] Special Note: A small clipping bearing the above 12 rules and note was distributed to International Office Appointees almost 30 years ago by the late Bishop M. A. Tomlinson who succeeded his father as General Overseer. He asked us to read it and display it where we could see it each day as a reminder. I have kept mine pinned to my bookshelf in my home office where it has been visible these many years. M. A. Tomlinson’s father, A. J. Tomlinson, was raised in a Quaker home.