I've been cleaning out the garage, a major undertaking. Apart from the pain of decluttering, there has been the wistful rediscovery of things long forgotten. Among them an article I wrote in 1996 which, unless I'm much mistaken, was my first attempt at journalism on the subject of the Worldwide Church of God. It was intended as an overview of the situation as it then was, aimed at a general readership in New Zealand. Whether I'd yet begun on The Missing Dimension project (which later morphed into Ambassador Watch) I'm not sure. If so it would have been very early days indeed. It has never before appeared online or in print.
Here - after all those years - is that article.
Worldwide Church of God Plots New Path: An American sect enters the mainstream
Herbert W. Armstrong must be turning in his grave, perhaps even rotating like a rotisserie chicken. Armstrong, founder and leader ("pastor general and apostle") of the church that sponsors The Plain Truth magazine, could hardly have anticipated the massive changes that would be implemented in the Worldwide Church of God following his death in 1986.
Doctrine and Disaffection
Once preaching such unorthodox beliefs as strict Sabbath observance (Saturday and Annual Jewish Feasts), British Israelism (the belief that Anglo-Saxons are descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel), the conviction that theirs alone was the One True Church, and the literal rebirth of humans as gods at the resurrection, the Worldwide Church of God now stands firmly within the Evangelical Protestant camp after little more than a decade in transition. In the process a huge chunk of the membership, once numbering up to 100,000, have abandoned their former spiritual home to join splinter groups built around disaffected ministers.1
The church's repositioning, and a resulting crisis of confidence among the membership, has meant a dramatic decline in income. Members formerly gave up to 30% of their gross incomes to church related causes. The church has now, however, relegated its demanding tithing system to the dustbin, and those who remain within the fold are less inclined to such sacrificial giving. Whereas The Plain Truth could once be mailed free of charge to all who requested it, the magazine is now being sold by subscription (in the United States), or renewed only in exchange for an annual donation (in New Zealand). The once extensive World Tomorrow radio and television ministry has been completely axed, and church employees both at the Pasadena, California headquarters and in the field have had their numbers slashed in a major restructuring effort intended to balance the books.
Errant Heirs and Great Tribulations
Problems for Worldwide Church of God (WCG) members predated the death of their founder, an advertising salesman who was converted to a schismatic variety of Seventh-day Adventism in the 1930s.2 Armstrong had several false calls predicting the end of the world. In 1972 the "Great Tribulation" was predicted to commence, with faithful members expecting to flee to a "place of safety", rumoured to be the abandoned Jordanian rock city of Petra, in order to escape nuclear Armageddon. Earlier predictions included the victory of Germany and Italy over the Allies during World War II.
The church suffered further bad publicity during the 1970's when it was rumoured that the WCG's most prominent personality, Armstrong's son and anointed heir, Garner Ted Armstrong, was guilty of philandering on a major scale. The younger Armstrong, once heard widely in New Zealand on The World Tomorrow radio broadcast, finally left the WCG in 1978 following a lengthy internal power struggle.3 This was followed by a period during which the WCG receded further into a cultic shell, and thousands of members were disfellowshipped in purges designed to prepare the church "as a spotless bride" for Christ's imminent return.
To add to the angst, accusations of incest and alcoholism were to be levelled against the elderly apostle in the early 1980's, now an octogenarian in failing health.4 Credibility was further eroded when the church was placed in receivership by the State of California while its financial affairs were investigated.
All of this was in stark contrast to the carefully crafted PR image cultivated by Armstrong. The dapper, white-haired patriarch was regularly being flown around the world on the church's corporate jet to hobnob with leaders such as Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, ostensibly in his role as self appointed "ambassador of world peace". In return for the publicity such meetings offered, pet charities selected by the host would usually receive generous grants from the church's cultural and philanthropic arm, the Ambassador International Cultural Foundation.
As fate would have it, on Herbert Armstrong's death a virtual unknown, Joseph Tkach, was designated as heir to the leadership in a move that left many longtime Worldwide-watchers perplexed. Shortly after ascending to the church's highest office Tkach was to be converted to a "born again" form of Christianity. Until his death late in 1995, he pursued a relentless programme of reforms which are being continued by his own son and successor, Joe Tkach Jr. The WCG is now widely regarded as more mainstream than the Seventh-day Adventist Church, to which it is related. Indeed, many Adventist observers were deeply disturbed when the WCG officially abandoned Sabbath-keeping, retaining Saturday services only as, in effect, a cultural feature.5 The highly centralised and autocratic structures of the past are also being dismantled. Most observers believe the WCG has long passed the point of no return, making the sectarianism of the Armstrong years a fading memory.
The human cost has been significant. Weekly attendance is at a low ebb and "the brethren" that remain seem thoroughly shell-shocked at the pace of change. The number of ex-members is now believed to exceed those left in good standing. Ministers who formerly wielded their authority in an uncompromising and dictatorial manner ("like jack-booted fascists" according to one former Auckland member) have had to learn a pastoral style more appropriate to the changing times.6
The Christian world has lost a fiercely distinctive sect, and gained one more evangelical denomination, albeit one which retains some unusual features. Time alone will tell whether the patient will survive the treatment.
1. Principally the United Church of God, the largest and most stable grouping, and the Global Church of God, headed by former Armstrong lieutenant Roderick Meredith. Both groups are represented in NZ, along with the Philadelphia Church of God, an extremist offshoot.
2. Armstrong initially took up ministry in the Church of God (Seventh Day), an Adventist group (still extant) that parted company from Seventh-day Adventists in the 19th century over the doctrine of the millennium and the authority of SDA prophetess Ellen White.
3. GTA, as he was known to insiders, then founded his own Church of God, International, attempting to relaunch his career as a televangelist. However he continued to be dogged by scandal. Many of his supporters have since reaffiliated with other groupings.
4. Former senior minister David Robinson put the incest stories in the public arena in his book Herbert Armstrong's Tangled Web. Armstrong's drinking habits had been less of a secret.
5. One major critic is high profile Adventist scholar Samuele Bacchiocchi, who has publicaly sided with dissident ministers. The about face on Sabbatarianism was partly the result of church leaders grappling with the writings of Australian Robert Brinsmead, a former SDA who published an influential series of monographs on the subject in his journal, Verdict.
6. The chameleon like character of many long-term ministers has often been remarked on. Many happily adjusted to the relatively liberal "Indian Summer" of the mid-70s, only to then enthusiastically champion the cultic regressions and purges that lasted from 1978 till Armstrong's death. The same men are now implementing changes that are diametrically opposite to those pronouncements.
An excellent effort, worthy of preservation, in the same spirit as the Ambassador Report. In fact, it would be interesting to tack on Ambassador Watch to the Ambassador Report. There is an overlap, since the AR extended from June, 1976 to AR 72 in April 1999.ReplyDelete
Armstrongism is an important topic of study for those who want to understand the cult mind, since it is one of the most extensively studied phenomenons in religious history: Those seeking enlightenment need look no further than the rich tradition of insane beliefs thoroughly disproved, narcissism of sociopaths and psychopaths, pedophiles, Gestapo-like behavior of the leaders, the greed, coverups, misplaced marketing, hypocrisy, cruelty, abuse, neglect and money mismanagement. It provides endless opportunities for PhD theses in a variety of disciplines including psychology, sociology and abnormal psychology.
And maybe a ThD, but I don't think it would be wise to push it.
My world is like a river / As dark as it is deep / Night after night the church comes in / And gathers all my sleep / My world is just an endless stream / Of emptiness to me / To think of all the years I wasted in the COGs / Sad memories / Sad memories / There's nothing sweet about the COGs // Herb slipped into the silence / Of my dreams last night / Wandering from room to room / He gave me quite a fright / His preaching spills like water / From the river to the sea / I'm swept away by sadness / Clinging to a memory / Sad memories / Sad memories / There's nothing sweet about the COGs --- www.youtube.com/watch?v=_iXvIxPlqDYReplyDelete
Well written. But I have never been convinced that the incest charges are true. I would like to have read this write up thirty years earlier in 1966. My life might have been different.ReplyDelete
You may have been convinced if you had been on a certain Facebook forum a short while ago where HWA's own grandson testified that the incest was true. But, some people just don't want to believe the sky is blue either, I suppose.Delete
Gavin, you don't happen to have a 1950s vintage Holden Ute setting around in your garage that you'd be interested in selling, do you?ReplyDelete
Journeys such as this are always interesting. I started out fighting for the doctrines of Armstrongism. When I began investigating things more thoroughly, I came past the historic errors, and today I would consider myself semi-Buddhist. The main rule being to treat others respectfully - and without ANY preconceptopns based on either politics, religion, color of skin, sexual preferences or any other human category of right or wrong.ReplyDelete
The best word for it is tolerance - towards common good. Yet, still a very keen focus on helping those who want to get out of the rror of Armstrongism.
Good article, Gavin & thanks for your inspiration in many areas. :-)
Henrik says: >I started out fighting for the doctrines of Armstrongism.<Delete
You were fighting for teachings that never existed, you may be disappointed to learn!
>When I began investigating things more thoroughly, I came past the historic errors, and today I would consider myself semi-Buddhist.<
What is a "semi-Buddhist?" Is that similar to a woman who is semi-pregnant? Methinks that you have jumped out of the frying pan into the fire, literally!
Tom, methinks YOU are still in the frying pan!Delete
How arrogant of you to assert the doctrines of Armstrongism never existed. Although you may disagree with the perjorative name "Armstrongism", you know very well what doctrines are being referred to. They were the doctrines taught by Herbert W. Armstrong. They very much DID exist and still DO. They were a form of cult thinking which enthralled many and still has some in their grip, yourself included.
Finally, I suggest you look up the meaning of "literally". You are literally using it incorrectly.
A very good summary, and well written. But as you were once a member of the Church, your personal views and feelings are sadly missing from the article. How could you be so detatched from the beliefs you once held to be true?ReplyDelete
Gavin can answer for himself. I'll answer for my case. I came to realize "the beliefs I once held to be true" were not true. They were not even close to true. They were profoundly untrue. I had been duped by a master salesman.Delete
To grasp the concept, imagine that we are talking about Sabbath keeping Scientology instead.Delete
This is a forensic issue. Not a matter of hearsay. I have no inclination to defend HWA. I just know that this "idea" emerged in a highly emotionally charged context and I have never heard of any definitive evidence. My guess is that you may have heard something from Dickie Armstrong. I know who he is and I have my opinions about his integrity. I can see that the sky is blue. That says nothing about this type of accusation.ReplyDelete
Actually, we don't even need the incest. Obviously, some people expected it to be some sort of silver bullet, but the problem in that is that a horrible sin does not disprove or repudiate doctrines. Only correct facts and better understanding can do that.Delete
We become more credible in addressing the Armstrong problem by doing such things as publishing scanned copies of member letters about 1972-75 that were signed "In Jesus Name", demonstrating the failings and foibles of Hislop, using real science and real history to debunk extrabiblical theories, and so forth. Often, if you point out from scripture that Manasseh and Ephraim were half-Egyptian, people will listen. They may try to explain to you that the mother was somehow actually white, but they will at least listen. That is a door opener. But, the minute someone raises this incest issue, Armstrongites will slam the door and not find another thing that person might have to say to them credible. In their minds, it's as if the accuser were wearing some sort of satanic medallion.
And that's a shame because it is the core of the qualifications of a minister: We expect ministers too also sin, but to commit one of the most heinous sins in the sight of even hardened criminals in prison, certainly disqualifies a man from the ministry permanently and also suggests that if he is doing it after baptism the first ten years of his ministry, that he cannot be described as 'converted' by any measure -- I mean, ten years? That's a very long time not to realize you have done something wrong and NOT repent.Delete
But then, being a false prophet is a big disqualifier from the ministry... in fact, in terms of Old Testament Scripture, that earns death and from Revelation, the lies will prevent a man from being in the Kingdom of God. There never seemed to be any indication of any sort of repentance from being a false prophet either.
And of course, pretty much by definition, there is no such thing as a Christian narcissist -- me, me, me, me, me, me, me, just doesn't seem to fit into the description of outgoing love for others when you only really think of yourself and your great swelling ego.
British Israelism is just icing on an already major fail.
Don't believe in the incest, eh?ReplyDelete
Then A Preponderance of Evidence over at Silenced.
Your kidding. David Robinson, Ambassador Reports, undocumented statements supposedly made by GTA, statements in a lawsuit made by a woman with a financial interest and other such biased hearsay?! It is odd that people who find faith in God to be so ludicrous can yet place great faith in such drivel. The uncertain authorship of Hebrews is a show-stopper but the many unattributed statements in Ambassador Reports are canonical for HWA detractors. I think as a heretic HWA was far afield from Christianity and taught this to others. That is bad enough. The accusation of incest without incontrovertible evidence is just malicious gossip.Delete
Yep...and Tedd Armstrong. Whatever, some folks live in denial.Delete
Well, at least we have GTA exposed on international television, so if you find proof of incest lacking, then maybe evidence that Herbert Armstrong let his philandering son be second in command at Pasadena would be enough.Delete
What's next? Exposing horrible treatment of Conscience Objectors at Big Sandy is just malicious gossip?
I note no mention of the interviews with the grandchildren and there's that letter from Jack Kessler.
It should have been "You're kidding". It's supposed to be a contraction of 'you' and 'are'.
I knew David Robinson well. Wouldn't believe anything he said! So, the mere fact that he is the one proclaiming it, suggests that it is total bull.ReplyDelete
It would be nice if there were incontrovertible evidence that God exists and that the Bible is absolutely accurately God's Inspired Word.ReplyDelete
These days, it turns out that we all thought that we had incontrovertible evidence that Herbert Armstrong was a false prophet. Not so! From the depths of "Fragmentation of a Sect", there are those who make the claim that Herbert Armstrong was NOT a false prophet. It isn't clear what sort of evidence could be produced to render the facts incontrovertible.
The truth seems to be that the Worldwide Church of God was quite the Great Litigator. In fact, they threatened to bring suit against the Church of God Seventh Day over a booklet, which, in the end, the CoG7D had published decades before and Herbert Armstrong had plagiarized.
One would think, given the record of Herbert Armstrong and the WCG that David Robinson and the Ambassador Report would have been sued royally. Herbert Armstrong and the Worldwide Church of God were not the sort who would just let anyone get away with making quite damaging statements without making them pay. I know, I know -- they wanted to just ignore it so as not to bring attention to it... but that's not the record of how they operated. They sued. Especially with Stanley Rader in the mix, they sued vigorously. And when it came to legal action, they generally won out, as witnessed by the State of California bringing suit: It was the David against Goliath and everybody in the religious community was rooting for the underdog because they knew what could happen next: All religions could be held accountable for misappropriation of funds (It was a bad move and the State of California should have let the Internal Revenue Service and the United States Justice Department do the heavy lifting as they did with the PKG and Ronald Weinland).
Not precisely incontrovertible proof, but certainly it fits into the framework of 'preponderance of evidence' which was the point all along.
Logically, a lack of lawsuits is quite damaging, given the nature of the beast.
And you know, being a false prophet really is much worse if you consider that God exists and the Bible is God's Word.
But you know, we don't have incontrovertible proof of that, so it's all just a theoretical discussion for the sake of entertainment.
It should be pointed out that gossip is not allowed as testimony in court....ReplyDelete
It is odd to me that people who do not believe in God and have no foundation for right and wrong can get so incensed over HWA's alleged behavior.ReplyDelete
"people who do not believe in God and have no foundation for right and wrong" = non sequiturDelete
People who do not believe in God simply make up what is right and what is wrong arbitrarily. After all, that is the fundamental purpose for being and atheist. So to solve everyone's issue with HWA, just decide that incest is right. Suddenly, no problem. I wouldn't do that but that is the atheistic prerogative.Delete
It does not logically follow (non sequitur) that *no god = no morality* because god-sourced morality is an unproven assumption.Delete
My statement was that atheists have no "foundation for right and wrong". So to be more precise "no belief in god = no founded morality". That equation may be critiqued by saying that atheists do have a foundation for determining right from wrong and it is themselves. I am excluding the tautologous case. In fact, I am saying the tautologous case is the degenerate case where most atheists find residence. Whatever value judgement they make is true because in the atheistic view, there is no other sentient moralizer in the universe that exceeds the authority of the atheist. So to solve the HWA problem, just decide now that he was good in all his actions. Why not? The self-moralizer can even look to nature and evolution to find some justification for this. HWA was ensuring the survival of the species by being quite encompassing in his approach.Delete
The fact is there is no credible evidence that HWA committed this heinous act and there never will be. So you will have to take it, how troubling, on faith.
"People who do not believe in God simply make up what is right and what is wrong arbitrarily." This is untrue and ignorant.Delete
"After all, that is the fundamental purpose for being and atheist. " Actually, no. Most atheists are atheistic because they see no truth in your fairy-tale god stories. We see right through your myths.
So, you think you're so moral because you believe in a mythical being? Do you do the right thing to try to gain god's rewards? Or to try to avoid god's punishment? Does that make you moral? It seems to me a much higher level of morality is the person who envisions no rewards and no punishments, but lives a moral life anyway. Because it's the right thing to do.
I don't think it is ignorant. I think it is both perceptive and correct. How is it that you decide what is moral? Is your morality founded on something we have never heard of?Delete
I try to do what is right because I agree with God about what is right. Like not stealing and killing people.
And in your example why would you value a "moral life" at all without any reason to believe there is right and wrong? It would seem like morality would be meaningless to you - just an odd and inexplicable human behavior.
I will grant that it may be the case that many atheists simply do not believe in God but have no further intention of finding some other reason for morality. They simply proceed to live in a moral vacuum. It is just that most atheists I have ever met do seem to follow a moral code that curiously seems rooted in traditional Western values that are, in turn, rooted in the Bible.
Having been on both sides of the philosophical fence, my own observation would be that Christians have a moral imperative for certain standards of behavior in their lives. They believe that it is God's way. However, atheists believe that thousands of years of human experience have given birth to a certain logic as to what is inherently good, and what is inherently evil. There are certain activities that virtually every society has considered to be wrong, or bad, throughout history. Many atheists actively work to promote good, and are commended for their behavior; some are even said to practice "Christian" ethics.Delete
Actually, they kind of inform one another, both being present in multi-cultural societies. Armstrongism distorted perception of both groups, as sincere mainstream Christians were seen as being "Christians falsely so-called" because they didn't subscribe to specific picked and chosen elements of the Old Covenant, and therefore just as "bad" as atheists.
Bob - that was a fair answer.Delete
Neo - I can tell you don't mean any harm, but the underlying assumptions behind your statements just astound me. Here's something that is true of all of us: we don't know what we don't know. I'm guessing you've never gotten to know any atheists.
I would think that Dorothy would have denied it...to the family, if to no one else, but she didn't.ReplyDelete
And wasn't she paid off with a HQ "job"-$$$,$$$.¢¢ that included lots of travel?Delete
What about Dorothy would not honor such drivel with a response. One speculation is a good as another.Delete