Monday, 22 December 2014

British Israelism, Racism and the WCG

[Not to be reposted or published in print form without prior consent]

For those readers who, like myself, have a history in the late, unlamented Worldwide Church of God, I have a question.

What was the one key teaching - doctrine if you will - that you would identify as foundational during your sojourn in that body?

There's certainly a wide choice to ponder. The church offered a smorgasbord of distinctive beliefs. Sabbath, Holy Days, tithing, dietary requirements, conscientious objection to military service, the God Family (or alternately a form of binitarianism), 'begotten' rather than 'born again', the millennium on earth, three resurrections, the apostleship of Herbert Armstrong.

A follow-up question for extra credit. Which one of the WCG's teachings - if any - do you feel still "stacks up" in the wake of the break-up of this once monolithic organisation?

My suspicion is that the answer to both would in many, many cases be "none of the above". The real draw-card for countless brethren was clearly "Bible prophecy".

Prophecy was hardly the sole prerogative of Armstrong. Dallas dispensationalists, Seventh-day Adventists and others were going hard at it too (remember The Late Great Planet Earth?)  But in the WCG the unique key to prophecy was British Israelism, the arcane idea that the white Anglo nations are descendants of the patriarch Joseph. Britain and the white Commonwealth were identified as Ephraim while the United States was Manasseh.

I'm not aware, even today, of any major splinter group that doesn't affirm "BI" very much as Armstrong taught it.

I confess that my own views on BI were always sceptical from the get-go. On most of the other doctrines I was easily convinced (c'est la vie), but I remember reading the Armstrong opus on that subject as a teenager and wondering if there was something wrong with my intelligence given the fact that the logic of it seemed so obviously shonky. At age 21 I came across Judah's Sceptre and Joseph's Birthright by J.H. Allen and it was apparent, without anyone needing to point it out, that Armstrong had plagiarised the earlier work.

But for most members, Armstrong's teachings on BI and prophecy were revelatory and quickly embraced. Why?

Perhaps it's no coincidence that a reactionary doctrine like BI took on a new lease of life at the time of the Civil Rights movement. Did we even have the word "racism" in our everyday vocabulary back then?

BI, for many folk, and especially for white folk, was an affirmation of their specialness. It reinforced their prejudice, provided an apologetic and justification for a conveniently rose coloured view of history. Just when Blacks in South Africa and the US, Maori in New Zealand and indigenous groups in many other countries were challenging the status quo. And if you think that's all ancient history now, check out what some of the dimmer candles in the ruins of the WCG still spout on the subject. For these people - people of real sincerity and conviction no doubt - it still might as well be 1964.

Why am I rambling on about this? In case you missed it there have been some perceptive comments to the previous post. Among them 'Neo' has contributed the following thoughts on the subject. I think he hits the nail on the head.
Armstrongism could fairly well be described as a system for classifying people as to worth. In an Armstrongite congregation everyone knows who is important and who is not. To properly situate everyone at the correct place in the social hierarchy, some assessment of human worth is necessary. I knew back in those days that the wealthy business owner who always talked to the minister on Saturday was worth more than me and he would likely be first a deacon and then a local church elder. Most people in Armstrongite congregations are unimportant to the leadership except for tithe support. The unimportant derive their esteem not from their participation in the congregation but from being a British-Israelite, one of the chosen. Once you are classified, this has finality. I was on the lowest rung in the hierarchy at Big Sandy. Years later, I would meet people from AC who treated me as if that were still my estate. 
How is this system to respond to a Black President? By deriding what he is. Via the media, putting him in his God-ordained place of subservience. Ex-Armstrongites recognize this principle at work. People inside Armstrongism would never notice anything being out of place or unusual about [the cartoon in The Journal]. My guess is that [the editor] received no protests concerning the cartoon from within the loyal Armstrongite ranks. 
That rings true to my experience too, even though it was half a world away. The WCG was - let's not mince words - not only a hotbed of petty congregational game playing (Yertle the Turtle stuff, mirroring the toxic situation in Pasadena and with the ministry as a whole), but racist in its teachings to the core. Groups like Rod Meredith's Living Church of God still are. You only have to read the content in the retreaded "prophecy" articles they endlessly pump out for Tomorrow's World. You can't affirm BI without embracing a racist world view. It goes with the territory. Their God is indeed, despite the standard obligatory denials, "a respecter of persons".

And perhaps, as Neo suggests, that goes more than half way to explain the overwhelming loathing of the Obama presidency in the remaining ghettoes of Armstrongism today.


  1. While I agree with Neo's statement that "Armstrongism could fairly well be described as a system for classifying people as to worth," I don't think that the average Joe in the congregation derived their esteem from being an Israelite. I think that the most important element in this regard was the notion that he/she was in on the secret - that they were part of a select group of people who had THE TRUTH. Certainly, the understanding that he/she was an Israelite was a very important component of that; but it wasn't the only one (Gavin mentioned the Sabbath, Holy Days, dietary restrictions, God Family, Gospel of the Kingdom, resurrection of the dead, etc.). It was the collective understanding of all of these "truths" that made one special (superior to everyone else).
    Nevertheless, I think that the belief in B.I. had the same impact on most of its adherents that being an actual Israelite had on many of those folks in ages past - that sense of being racially or ethnically superior to others. Most of the Israelites of the Bible never seemed to grasp the fact that YHWH had chosen them to be "His" people to introduce "Him" and "His" will to the rest of humanity. Scripture usually portrays these folks as believing themselves to be better than the nations around them, that YHWH was only concerned with them and their welfare, and that they were entitled to this special consideration because of their physical ancestry. As citizens of an English speaking country, many WCOG members fell into the same trap.
    However, while this helps to explain some of the feelings within our own culture about President Obama, it does not account for the existence of a similar phenomenon in a majority of the White conservative culture within the United States. These folks believe that their culture (ethnically, religiously and politically) defines what it is to be an American, and anything that deviates from that norm is foreign or anti-American in nature. It's not just that Obama is Black (although that's enough for many of these folks). It's also things like the fact that his father was Kenyan, that he spent part of his childhood outside of the U.S., that he was exposed to the Muslim religion and that he is clearly a liberal. In short, the President simply does not conform to their overall image of what it means to be an American. Hence, they have sought to portray him as not being one of us - as somehow illegitimate. Yes, things like the cartoon have a racist underpinning; but it is the product of a complex ethos that goes to the core of how most of these folks would describe their own identity. The President represents an idea of America that is foreign to them, and most of them are very afraid of that "new" America.
    The fact that he also doesn't understand THE TRUTH about the identity of the U.S. and other English speaking countries and about what's going to happen in the years ahead is just icing on the cake for many of the folks in our former culture.

  2. We should probably make note of the fact that British Israelism was also processed through regional influences, depending upon where one happened to live and attend a WCG congregation. These regional influences or differences also affected the thinking of members of the ministry who had often retained the prevailing attitudes from their particular area of the world. HWA's experiences with and attitudes towards members of the black race are well chronicled in the earlier versions of his autobiography, and they are somewhat shocking today.

    At Ambassador College, we were literally taught that Gentile people (as WCG defined them) had the minds of wild animals. Hispanics and Italians were included in this profile, and were cited in sermons on the topic. Further, French people were branded as being sissified, Hispanics as being dumb, and Native Americans as being mentally unstable. Students from these backgrounds often became angered by the blatant stereotyping, and unsuccessfully challenged members of the faculty and ministry. Some of them were my friends, and I felt very badly for them. Also, HWA frequently remarked (before Stan Rader came into prominence) that he had never met a converted Jew. The problem with racism is that once it becomes initiated, it is subject to further defining and spreading. It is, as Neo pointed out, a false (and disgusting) hierarchy of human value. In certain peoples' minds, this line of thinking constantly reinforces itself, and affects working and personal relationships. In that respect, it resembles a disease.


  3. By some accounts, President Obama lied, broke his promises, exercised executive privilege far too often and beyond that, for those who are even moderate Christians, his position on gay marriage and abortion would earn him the distinction of being disliked. In the current administration, the 'racist' card has been played to create the impression that those who are against the President are against him because of race.

    A few years ago, there was an episode on The Bob Newhart show where Bob as the psychologist had a black man for a patient and that patient kept railing on and on that people didn't like him because of his race. His temper flared over and over and along the way, Bob Newhart pointed out that people didn't like him -- it wasn't because he was black -- it was because he was nasty.

    Of course British Israelism is racist. It certainly helped Herbert Armstrong's swelling ego to believe that he was descended from King David. His experience working at the mill in the 1920s where he observed the black people and their behavior very likely shaped his attitude about who and what he thought black people were long before he happened upon British Israelism which he used as a tool to claim that the Church of God Seventh Day was against him.

    Roy Mars told CoG7D ministers at a conference that it wasn't British Israelism that caused the split where Herbert went off in a huff, it was the fact that he thought he should be in charge and the CoG7D didn't -- he used 'doctrines' of the devising of G. G. Rupert as an EXCUSE to build what was to become later his empire.

    It was mentioned in a forum that in the 1950s, people could not become members of the Radio Church of God until they accepted British Israelism, so it is clear that British Israelism does form the core of Armstrongism. We all remember, don't we, what happened to David Hulme when he tried to back away from it? It caused a split from his little cult. You can't have a sect of the Cult of Herbert Armstrong Mafia without British Israelism because it defines them.

    But to connect the dots and claim that people don't like President Obama because of his race, and more preposterously because they believe in British Israelism is complete crap and highly irresponsible.

  4. "And perhaps, as Neo suggests, that goes more than half way to explain the overwhelming loathing of the Obama presidency in the remaining ghettoes of Armstrongism today".

    Not just Armstrongism, Gavin, but the whole American "Bible Belt" and all who think in similar veins.

  5. "What was the one key teaching - doctrine if you will - that you would identify as foundational during your sojourn in that body?"

    I would say "God is reproducing himself/God is a family" was foundational. All the rest was supportive details.

  6. I have no doubt that British-Israelism has served as a basis for racist stereotypical views, but I think you have to be careful not to swing the other way and brand all BI-believing COG members as racist and/or stupid for accepting the idea. When I was in the WCG, I had a classic case of that cognitive dissonance that Joe Tkach, Jr. likes to talk about: I was always somewhat skeptical of BI, but I accepted it for a couple of reasons. First, I agreed theologically with Armstrong, and my reasoning was that if he was right about theological issues then he was probably right about BI. In other words, the whole system became a package deal. Secondly, BI does provide one explanation for the incredible historical fact that people from a small island in the northwest corner of the Eurasian landmass obtained an enormous empire which included various strategic locations such as Gibraltar and Suez as well as vast land masses such as India and Australia and New Zealand and Canada and --- before the American revolution --- a good portion of North America below Canada. British acquisition of all that land is indeed rather weird, and BI tells us why it worked out that way. But even for weird stuff not every explanation is created equal. Something going bump in the night does not mean that a ghost caused it. Schiaparelli's Martian channels which became canals in translation and morphed into "proof" of Martian civilization turned out to be illusions. The "face on Mars" supposedly left by Martians or visiting aliens from outside our solar system turned out to a trick of light and shadow. Various wild conspiracy theories do not factually explain why an African-American has twice been elected president of the United States. The fact that a man was named Armstrong does not necessarily mean that he was a "strong arm" sent by God to restore truth. As Carl Sagan famously said, extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof. So it is with BI: there's a part of me that still wants to believe it, but rationally I know the proof is just not there; in fact, genetic evidence argues against the theory. Maybe BI is indeed true, but if so then God did a mighty good job of sifting the Israelites through the nations, as the Biblical phrase goes. Such a good job, in fact, that they are scientifically unrecognizable at this point. That means we have to rely on obscure Biblical references --- from which one can "prove" most anything, it seems --- and various ancient myths and stories in order to cobble together a BI theory which must be accepted with misplaced faith. Such an approach should register on the BSometer in the mind of any rational individual. If I find someday that BI is in fact true, then fine, and if I find someday that it is false then that's fine too. For me personally it's not that big of a deal one way or the other, although I realize that not everyone feels that way. But in any event, I don't use BI as proof that white people are better than other ethnic groups. That's just ignorance. Keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.

  7. Mikey, if you were right, there would never have have been any members of the WCG from other races or nationalities. Fortunately, you are not only exaggerating, you are wrong.

  8. Certainly, over the years, there have been select people who are drawn to certain charismatic traits of races other than their own. I've known, as an example, people who are deeply immersed in African-American musical genres, and who would prefer to have been born black. I've known others whose spiritual curiosities have led them into Native American religions, people whose admiration for the ways in which Jewish people are adept in financial matters has them attending synagogue, and even people who affect the personality and appearance of mafiosos.

    The point is this. HWA's teaching made the most desirable heritage to be Anglo-Saxon. Could it be that at least some minority people were attracted to this because they actually aspired to be WASAs (White Anglo Saxon Armstrongites) in the Kingdom, and were therefore so willing to tolerate all of the horrible racism? Paul taught that Christians are the new Jews or Israelites. Is there even going to be such a thing as race in the Kingdom?

    Normally, implying that members of one group aspired to be another is interpreted as racism, and I don't mean this post to be. However, we've watched Armstrongism act as a powerful modifier and warper of souls in so many different unnatural ways, that this is actually a legitimate question.


  9. I see any "white Israelism" as the logical continuation of the "replacement Theology" -Christians are the god people -the real Jews.Some imagination(in combination with the "nordic"supremacism") makes this god people excludingly Germanic. The Jew-hatred are necessary in this replacement! Have you seen any successor,who does not hate the alive owner? Of course, the "double replacement" creates the double hatred.The example shows the transformation of "Christian" Jew hatred to "racial" one.