Thursday, 24 May 2012

Defragging the WCG

The Worldwide Church of God "experience" has garnered little attention from sociologists up till now, despite offering a rich and diverting history.  In fact for years the WCG, founded by high school dropout and ad man Herbert W. Armstrong, provided unintentional 'soap opera'-style entertainment quite unparalleled in any other similar-sized sect.  Amusing to those on the outside, deeply distressing to those on the inside, and life-altering to those painfully working their way from the centre to the margins and beyond.

Those who have written in any depth on the WCG have largely been caught up in apologetics of one sort or another, pleading for the defence, or throwing stones from inside other glass houses. Ex-members have had a tendency to (ahem, small clearing of throat) gloat over the ongoing pratfalls that have seen a once dynamic, thrusting religious movement reduced to a bare shadow of its former presence.

Where would you find a serious study of the WCG, its leaders and its leadership dilemmas?  Dilemas that have spawned an uncountable number of sub-sects, each aping the original movement in different ways?  Sadly, nowhere.

But that's about to change with the impending release of The Fragmentation of a Sect: Schism in the Worldwide Church of God.  Authored by David V. Barrett, a meticulous and fair-minded observer who has been 'on the case' for many years, this 350 page study is due for release from Oxford University Press in December.

The author has either met or corresponded with many of the big names in the movement, whether in the Tkach-led rump remnant or some of the flakier one-man breakaways.  He wrote The New Believers back in 2001, which focused in its final chapter on WCG as a case study.  That was clearly just the appetiser.  Here's the publisher's description of the new volume.
In the mid-1930s an unsuccessful American advertising executive, Herbert W. Armstrong, founded a millenialist, Sabbatarian Christian sect with a heterodox theology. Over the next half century, despite a number of setbacks, scandals, criticisms, and attacks from former members and anti-cultists, Armstrong's organization, the Worldwide Church of God, grew to around 100,000 baptized members with a world circulation of over six million for its flagship monthly magazine Plain Truth. In January 1986, Armstrong died. His successor changed most of the Church's distinctive doctrines, leading it towards an increasing convergence with mainstream Evangelical Christianity. This revision created a massive cognitive dissonance in ministers and members: should they accept or reject the authority of the Church leadership which had abandoned the authority of the founder's teachings? Groups of ministers left the religion to form new churches, taking tens of thousands of members with them. These schismatic churches in turn faced continuing schism, resulting in over 400 offshoot churches within little more than a decade.

In this major study David V. Barrett examines the processes involved in schism and the varying forms of legitimation of authority within both the original church and its range of offshoots, from hardline to comparatively liberal. His book extends the concepts of rational choice theory when applied to complex religious choices. More important, he offers a new typological model for categorizing how movements can change after their founders' death, including schism, and explores the usefulness of this model by applying it not only to the Worldwide Church of God, but also to a wide variety of other religions.

  • The first sociological study of Worldwide Church of God offshoots
  • Proposes a new typological model for categorizing various outcomes to new churches on the death of their founder
Now I don't know about you, but I'm excited by this project, which began as a PhD dissertation (in Sociology of Religion at the London School of Economics.)  It's a chance for some of us to take a disciplined look, adding insight to hindsight, at where we've come from, and perhaps learn some new things about ourselves - as well as "our former association" - at the same time.

If you've been crazy enough to follow my blog posts since Ambassador Watch days, or have kept up to date through The Journal, you'll know that David's book has been years in the making.  This is one publication every thinking member and ex-member will want - I'm tempted to say need - to have.

More information to follow as it becomes available.


  1. It does sound like an interesting perspective may be brought through this book, and I'll definitely read the book too. Thanks for sharing. :-)

  2. There have been any number of books published on Armstrongism, some of which have provided additional insights which deepened my own understanding and increased my comfort level with God, Christianity, self, family, and humanity in general. This book actually comes along just as I was beginning to believe that my appetite for such things had been sated, and my rehab from Armstrongism at last completed. Still, it appears to cover some new ground, or at least to present some fresh perspectives, so I'll probably end up reading it.


  3. What I want to know is when Armstrongism is going to finally die.

  4. Might as well ask when the adventist movement is going to finally die because it's all connected. Armstrong just put a British Israelism twist on it, that's all. It's still all about Jesus coming back and killing everybody except the faithful who happen to be in the "true church" at the time.

    1. There's an excellent line at the end of John Michael Greer's new book Apocalypse: A History of the End of Time (Quercus 2012): we need "to recognise that longing for the annihilation of most of humanity has no place in an authentic spirituality".

  5. But Armstrongism today is under attack as never before and lays exposed, whereas, the SDAs aren't as vulnerable.

    While it may not seem likely, maybe one dead limb can be chainsawed off the tree.