Sunday, 18 November 2012

Fragmentation of a Sect

The Fragmentation of a Sect: Schism in the Worldwide Church of God

It's been years in the making, and finally it's on schedule for release.  The Fragmentation of a Sect by David V. Barrett began as a PhD dissertation; its subject, a minor Adventist sect then known as the Worldwide Church of God.

Barrett has been a relentless researcher, as I can personally attest, meeting not only many leaders of the movement - both those who stayed and those who left - but contacting others like myself who watched (and continue to watch) from a safe distance the rolling disaster play out in slow motion.  This is a work of scholarship, not polemic, the only sociological study of WCG offshoots to appear, so you can expect all concerned to get fair, impartial, but critical treatment.  Here's the description from Oxford University Press.
In the mid-1930s Herbert W. Armstrong, an unsuccessful American advertising executive, founded a millennialist 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 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 tells the story of the Worldwide Church of God. He 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. He also offers a new typological model for categorizing how movements can change after their founder's death, 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.
It's an expensive book, but for those with an interest - personal or academic - in this unique movement, its rise and then dramatic collapse, this will be a milestone in coming to terms with - and perhaps understanding more fully - what has always seemed more soap opera than sober ecclesiastical history. 
Table of Contents

Author's Note
Lists of photographs, tables and figures
List of abbreviations

1. The Fragmentation of a Sect: an Introduction

2. Doctrines of the Worldwide Church of God

3 Origins and History of the Worldwide Church of God

4. Schism and scandals in the Seventies

5. Revolution and Schism

6. Continuing Schism in the offshoots

7. Authority in the Churches of God

8. After the Founder Dies - How movements change

9. Who went Where and Why

10. Fragmentation in a Sect - a Conclusion

1 Sect, cult, new religious movement
2 Theoretical basis and methodology
3 Literature and other sources
4 Church affiliation of respondents
5 Demographics of respondents
6 The future state of schism


Look for a review to appear here early in the new year.


  1. Oxford: "Advertising Executive"
    - more like Advertising Hack.

  2. Gavin, perhaps Minimalist is suggesting HWA never was an "executive" in an ad agency -- as in a top-level boss.

    But the phrase "account executive" is common in the sales business, referring to salespeople.

  3. No matter how far away from it a particular denomination may be in its origins, professional clergy and academics always gravitate towards a rabid Paulinism. I guess because they see themselves in his sense of self-importance and his overinflated ego.

  4. My blurb, read a pre-publication copy from start to finish. VERY detailed but amazing in that David, not being a former WCGer, dug so deep, so long, and so hard. Impressive!

    "Millions around the world listened by radio or watched on television 'The World Tomorrow' program with Herbert W. Armstong or his son Garner Ted Armstrong, or subscribed to The Plain Truth magazine in the 1960s through the 1990s. Both were sponsored by Ambassador College and the Worldwide Church of God...David Barrett, a sociologist of religion with no connection to the Church, has provided us with the most thorough and objective history to date. From its inception in the 1930s to its schisms and transformations, Barrett weaves the fascinating story of faith, corruption, disappointment, and hope. His careful research and skillful analysis has not only advanced our understanding of the Worldwide Church of God and its history, but clarified the dynamics of such modern apocalyptic groups more generally."-James D. Tabor, Chair, Dept. of Religious Studies, UNC Charlotte