Over a 50-year period, Thomas F. Zimmerman (1912-1991) served the Assemblies of God as pastor, district official, department leader, assistant general superintendent, and general superintendent. His leadership greatly increased the influence of the Pentecostal movement in the evangelical world, as well as in the broader American religious landscape.
Born in 1912 to devout Methodist parents, Zimmerman’s family was exposed to Pentecostalism the way many were in the early days of that movement: through a miraculous healing. When Zimmerman was 5 years old, his mother was given no more than six weeks to live after a diagnosis of terminal tuberculosis. The diagnosis led the family to seek prayer at the Apostolic Faith Mission in their hometown of Indianapolis. The pastor and several members of the congregation came to the Zimmerman home and prayed for her healing. The next morning she felt well enough to get out of bed and a few weeks later, the doctor declared her completely well. The family began attending the Sunday afternoon meetings at the Pentecostal church after their morning service at the Methodist church. Eventually, their pastor suggested they leave his congregation, and they affiliated with the independent Pentecostal group.
Zimmerman was heavily influenced by the new pastor of the Apostolic Faith Mission, John Price. Price’s own pastoral training was “on the job” and he believed in doing the same for his congregants. After showing capable ministry as the church youth leader and while still in high school, Zimmerman was asked to become Price’s associate pastor. In this capacity he was exposed to the wide ranging needs of a congregation and given much preaching experience. When Mrs. Price lay dying, she asked young Zimmerman to promise two things: to continue to help her husband and to marry their oldest daughter, Elizabeth. Thomas and Elizabeth were already interested in each other and Pastor Price performed the ceremony for his associate pastor and his daughter in 1933.
Due to Zimmerman’s position at the church being voluntary, he worked full-time at the Bemis Brothers Bag Company. His natural leadership ability was recognized, and he made the enviable salary of $30 a week during the depression. However, after the death of their 9-month-old son in 1935, both Thomas and Elizabeth felt that they should devote their full time to the ministry. He was ordained by the Assemblies of God on May 7, 1936. They took a small congregation in Harrodsburg, Indiana, where the average offering was $2.68 a week. The congregation grew to 250 during their two years there, and Zimmerman’s leadership ability came to the attention of other leaders within the growing denomination.
In 1942, while pastoring in Granite City, Illinois, Assemblies of God leaders invited Zimmerman to attend the organizational meeting of the National Association of Evangelicals in nearby St. Louis with them. Zimmerman had made it a practice of working with non-Pentecostals in every city in which he ministered. His passion was evangelism and he found common interest among other evangelical leaders. Through this involvement, Zimmerman was able to provide leadership to the founding of the National Religious Broadcasters in 1944.
That same year, Central Assembly in Springfield, Missouri, called Zimmerman as its pastor. This placed him among denominational leadership, and in 1945 Zimmerman also became head of the Assemblies of God radio department. He then served as secretary-treasurer of the Southern Missouri district from 1949-1951, followed by a brief pastorate in Cleveland, Ohio, when he was elected as an assistant general superintendent at the 1953 General Council, moving him back to Springfield. He served closely alongside General Superintendent Ralph Riggs and managed much of the day-to-day operations of the national office.
In 1959, the General Council, held in San Antonio, Texas, elected Thomas F. Zimmerman as its ninth general superintendent. The Oct. 4, 1959, Pentecostal Evangel made this announcement to the larger constituency in a one-page article, “The General Council at a Glance.”
Zimmerman served as general superintendent for 26 years, the longest tenure of anyone in that office. He was regarded as a “Pentecostal statesman,” bringing the Pentecostal movement in general, and the Assemblies of God in particular, more visibility and influence in the religious world. His involvement in extra-denominational associations and civic organizations brought him and the Movement recognition in other areas. He was invited to the White House during each administration from Kennedy to Reagan and received civic awards ranging from “Springfieldian of the Year” to the Silver Beaver award from the national Boy Scouts.
During his tenure, the national offices of the Assemblies of God created several new divisions, the assistant general superintendents were reduced from four to one, a full-scale retirement complex for ministers and missionaries was opened, federal land was received for the new liberal arts college, and the Assemblies of God opened a seminary for the further academic education of its ministers. He also recognized the importance of the oral and written accounts of the place of Pentecostalism in American and world history and so was instrumental in establishing the Assemblies of God archives (now the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center, the largest repository of Pentecostal archival materials in the world).
When Zimmerman left office in 1985, he left an indelible mark on the Assemblies of God. His willingness to grow and adapt to change and his leadership in the broader evangelical movement helped to prepare the Assemblies of God to be one of the fastest growing denominations during his tenure.
Read more about the report from the 1959 General Council on page 4 of the Oct. 4, 1959, issue of the Pentecostal Evangel.
Also featured in this issue:
• “Enlist Now” by Raymond Brock
• “Our Missionary Advance,” by Noel Perkin
• “The Greeks Had A Word For It,” Raymond Cox
And many more!
Pentecostal Evangel archived editions courtesy of the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center.