WORLDWIDE CHURCH OF GOD
WORLDWIDE CHURCH OF GOD TIMELINE
1844 (October 22) William Miller’s followers had expected Christ’s return. The day became known as “The Great Disappointment.”
1860 Ellen G. White’s movement took the name Seventh-day Adventist at a conference at Battle Creek, Michigan. A group of dissenting congregations separated themselves from SDA.
1884 The separatist group took the name Church of God (Seventh Day).
1892 (July 31) Herbert Armstrong was born in Des Moines, Iowa.
1917 (July) Armstrong married third cousin Loma Dillon.
1926 Armstrong accepted seventh-day sabbath doctrine and began challenging other mainstream Christian beliefs.
1926-1927 Armstrong joined the Church of God congregation in Eugene, Oregon.
1928 Armstrong began preaching.
1930 Armstrong’s fourth child, Garner Ted, was born.
1931 Armstrong was ordained by the Oregon Conference of the Church of God (Seventh Day).
1934 Armstrong launched the Radio Church of God program on a local radio station (January) and the eight-page mimeographed Plain Truth magazine (February). These are counted as the beginning of his independent ministry.
1937 The Church of God (Seventh Day) revoked Armstrong’s ministerial license. Although it was not incorporated for some years, this was effectively the beginning of his own church.
1942 The Radio Church of God program went nationwide, renamed The World Tomorrow .
1947 Ambassador College founded in Pasadena, California with four students. Later campuses were established at Bricket Wood, Herts, U.K. (1960) and Big Sandy, Texas (1964).
1951 The first two Ambassador College students graduated.
1952 (December) Armstrong ordained the first five evangelists.
1968 Radio Church of God changed its name to Worldwide Church of God (hereafter, Worldwide).
1970s Several ministers left to found splinter churches.
1978 Herbert W. Armstrong disfellowshipped his son Garner Ted Armstrong, who then founded the Church of God, International.
1986 (January 16) Herbert W. Armstrong died. He was succeeded as pastor-general by Joseph W. Tkatch.
1986-1994 Tkatch withdrew church literature and changed doctrines.
1989 Gerald Flurry left Worldwide to found the Philadelphia Church of God.
1992-93 Roderick C Meredith left Worldwide to found Global Church of God.
1994 (June) Ambassador College was accredited and became Ambassador University.
1994 (December 24) Tkatch preached the “Christmas Eve sermon” announcing that Worldwide was now an Evangelical church.
1995 Many ministers left Worldwide to found the United Church of God.
1995 (September) Joseph W. Tkatch died and was succeeded as pastor-general by his son Joseph Tkatch, Jr.
1995-1997 With falling membership and plummeting income, Worldwide had to dismiss employees and sell buildings.
1997 Ambassador University closed.
2009 Worldwide Church of God changed its name to Grace Communion International.
For most of its life the Worldwide Church of God was a millennialist, Sabbatarian Christian sect with very heterodox beliefs, including British-Israelism. Although predominantly North American, it had a significant presence in Britain and Australasia, the Caribbean and, to a lesser extent, throughout the rest of the world. After the death of its founder Herbert W. Armstrong in 1986 it gradually changed its doctrines to standard Evangelical Christianity, causing hundreds of ministers and tens of thousands of members to leave for offshoot churches following the original beliefs. The parent church, Worldwide Church of God, changed its name to Grace Communion International in 2009.
Born to a Quaker family in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1892, Herbert Armstrong (he had no middle name; the “W” was added later) had normal schooling but no further formal education. He later displayed a dismissive approach to higher education (Armstrong 1986:25-26). At 18, he began selling ads for the local newspaper, and he was to remain in advertising for most of his pre-ministerial career over the next 20 years. He twice set up his own business, but each time it collapsed.
By his own account, he had little time for religion until in 1926 a sabbatarian neighbor told his wife Loma, an active Methodist, that she was worshipping on the wrong day. Despite having a young family to support with no income, Armstrong spent the next six months attempting to prove the neighbor, and his newly-convinced wife, wrong. Along the way, he came to a number of other beliefs different from mainstream Christianity (see Doctrines/Beliefs below). In order to prove his brother-in-law’s wife wrong (she “had been indoctrinated with the theory of evolution in college”) he also refuted evolution (Armstrong 1986:293).
Most importantly, he realized the importance of obeying God in everything, especially the fourth commandment (the Sabbath). He then searched for a church that fulfilled the necessary criteria. He ruled out the Seventh-day Baptists for being indistinguishable from any other Protestants apart from their day of worship. He grudgingly accepted that the Seventh-day Adventists had “certain points of truth,” but he settled on a small denomination called the Church of God (Seventh Day) (hereafter, COG7), with its headquarters in Stanberry, Missouri. Around 1927, he and his wife began to fellowship with the “sprinkling” of their members near Eugene, Oregon.
Over the next three years, according to Armstrong, he tested his new church on various doctrinal matters, and found them wanting. One of these was on the truth of British-Israelism, which Armstrong had embraced whole-heartedly but COG7 refused to accept. He began preaching although, he says, he was not a member of the church and received no payment from it. Meeting with increased antagonism from COG7, which refused to accept the truths he had discovered and was preaching, he set out on his own, establishing his own ministry.
There is considerable reason to doubt the reliability of Armstrong’s account; his Autobiography was written in serial form many years later when Worldwide Church of God was well-established and needed a strong foundation myth to set it apart from other churches (Barrett 2013:56). In fact, Armstrong was ordained a minister of COG7 in 1931, and according to an historian of the seventh-day movement a pre-requisite of that was membership (Nickels 1996a:226). Not only that, but when the Church of God went through a major reorganisation in 1933, it appointed “twelve spiritual leaders” and “seventy to go forth two by two, all Church of God elders”; the list of the seventy includes “Herbert Armstrong, Oregon” (Nickels 1999:210). Ledger books from the time show that he received a salary through to 1937, at the end of which year the church revoked his annual ministerial credentials “for continuing to preach contrary to Church doctrine” (cited in Ogwyn 1995:65). And he remained in cooperative contact with Church of God elders for several years to come. In other words, although he might by the late 1930s have been operating independently rather than as a minister within a denomination, at the time he clearly saw himself as a part of the wider Sabbatarian Church of God movement, rather than as the founder of a new church.
Similarly, Armstrong, claimed by Worldwide to be God’s Apostle for the twentieth century, was later at pains to assert that the true doctrines of Christianity found in his church had been lost for nineteen centuries until he rediscovered them through his study and/or God revealing them to him. In fact, many of them were doctrines of the Church of God (Seventh Day), and whether Armstrong joined that church because he had first discovered their doctrines for himself, or whether he acquired them through his association with COG7, is an arguable point (see Doctrines/Beliefs).
In 1934, Armstrong began two of the three activities which characterized his church for the next half century: in January the Radio
Church of God program (renamed The World Tomorrow in 1942) on a small, 100-watt local radio station, and in February the Plain Truth magazine (around 250 copies) of eight mimeographed sheets. Although he had not yet set up the organization, this is usually seen as the beginning of what would become the Worldwide Church of God.
Moving to Pasadena, near Los Angeles, California, Armstrong incorporated the Radio Church of God in 1946, and in October, 1947 established the third major arm of his ministry, Ambassador College, which began with eight faculty members and four students. Later, campuses were established at Bricket Wood, Hertfordshire, U.K. (1960) and Big Sandy, Texas (1964). At its peak in 1974, Ambassador College had a total of 1,400 students, many of whom became ministers (and ministers’ wives) in the church.
The church was at its most prominent in the 1960s and 1970s. Its flagship magazine Plain Truth had a worldwide circulation of over
six million, and it broadcast its message of Christ’s imminent return on radio and TV stations around the world. In 1968, the name of the church was changed to the Worldwide Church of God to reflect its global outreach. As Herbert W. Armstrong grew older, much of the broadcasting was done by his son Garner Ted Armstrong, who was also president of Ambassador College and effectively ran the church. His father became a “cultural ambassador,” flying around the world in his private jet to meet and be photographed with princes and presidents. But the 1970s were also a decade of massive problems in the church (see Issues/Challenges below), culminating in the disfellowshipping and “ouster” of Garner Ted Armstrong from the church.
Herbert W. Armstrong died on January 16, 1986 when he was ninety-four. He was succeeded as pastor-general by Joseph W. Tkatch, whom he had named as his successor only a few days earlier. Tkatch was not known as much of a preacher or theologian, but was reckoned to be a good administrator, a safe pair of hands to handle the transition from charismatic to ration-legal authority (see Barrett 2013:191-93 for discussion of the importance of the second leader
of a movement). Initially, he praised Armstrong’s work, publishing a list of the “18 restored truths” of true Christianity that he had brought to Worldwide. At the end of the article was the comment: “Where would we be without these truths? Without them – without Herbert W. Armstrong’s legacy of these 18 restored truths – there isn’t much left.” There is the most remarkable irony in this statement, as the church was about to start dropping these “truths,” one by one.
Strongly influenced by his son, Joe, Jr., and a couple of his friends who had attended courses at Azusa Pacific University, an Evangelical Christian university near Los Angeles, Joseph Tkatch began to withdraw c hurch literature and to change doctrines. Over the next few years the Church dropped its flagship teaching of British-Israelism, its emphasis on sabbatarianism, its opposition to Trinitarianism and more. When Tkatch withdrew Armstrong’s final book, Mystery of the Ages , of which Armstrong had said “ I feel I myself did not write it. Rather, I believe God used me in writing it. I candidly feel it may be the most important book since the Bible,” his son told one minister, Gerald Flurry, that the book “was riddled with error,” later changing this to “it had too many errors” (Flurry 1996:85). Flurry left Worldwide in 1989 to found the Philadelphia Church of God, upholding Armstrong, his books and his teachings in their entirety. Other ministers joined him, taking their congregations with them.
In December, 1992, Wordwide’s longest serving evangelist, Roderick C. Meredith, left the church after, in his words, “ One young smart aleck… one of their leaders, he said, ‘Mr. Armstrong gave the whole Church a bucket of lies!’…When I realized that was their attitude, that those changes were heading in a total opposite direction from everything we had proved was the truth, then I knew it was time to leave” (cited in Barrett 2013:121). Early in 1993, Meredith founded Global Church of God. Following a leadership conflict in 1998, Meredith left his own church, taking about eighty percent of the membership with him into a new Church, the Living Church of God.
On December 24, 1994, Joseph Tkatch preached the three-hour “Christmas Eve sermon” in which he went through all the doctrinal changes of the last few years, culminating in the announcement that Worldwide was now an Evangelical Church. For many ministers who had reluctantly gone along with the previous doctrinal changes imposed from above, this was too much; in the coming months hundreds of them left Worldwide to found United Church of God.
Worldwide had always been a highly hierarchical church. In each case, with Philadelphia, Global and United Churches of God, when a minister left Worldwide, most members of his congregation followed him into the new offshoot churches. Around thirty thousand members left Worldwide, leading to an article in a Los Angeles newspaper headlined “Honey, I shrunk the church.” Over the coming years, these three offshoot churches were themselves to experience many schisms, leading to an estimated 400 offshoots by fifteen years after the Christmas Eve sermon.
In September, 1995, Joseph W. Tkatch died and was succeeded as pastor-general by his son Joseph Tkatch, Jr.. In the next few years, with falling membership and plummeting income (in the Christmas Eve sermon Tkatch Snr had said that tithing was no longer compulsory, and many members had simply stopped tithing), Worldwide had to lose employees and sell buildings to make ends meet. In 1997, Ambassador University, which had been renamed Ambassador College after it had gained accreditation just three years earlier, closed.
In April, 2009, a much smaller Worldwide Church of God changed its name to Grace Communion International, drawing a line under its heterodox past.
During Herbert W. Armstrong’s lifetime, probably the most important aspect of Worldwide’s beliefs was obedience: obedience to God first and foremost; to his church on Earth (the Worldwide Church of God); to its founder and pastor-general, Herbert W. Armstrong, who was God’s prophet and apostle for the End Times; and, below him, to the evangelists and ministers of the church.
When God told his people to do something, He meant them to continue doing it. This applied to the fourth commandment, to worship on the Sabbath (Saturday); but Worldwide’s sabbatarianism went much further than that. It also included the seven annual festivals or feasts of the Hebrew people: Passover, Unleavened Bread, First Fruits, Pentecost, Trumpets, Atonement and Tabernacles. It was essential to observe these on the correct days, and so a great deal of attention was paid to following the correct calendar. However, mainstream Christian festivals, such as Christmas and Easter, contained many elements from pagan religion, and so they were not observed. Worldwide produced booklets explaining its teaching on these and many other topics.
Worldwide taught that Jesus was crucified on a Wednesday and rose (in accordance with scripture) three days and three nights later, on the Sabbath, Saturday, thus removing mainstream Christianity’s justification for changing the day of worship to Sunday. Along with Jehovah’s Witnesses, they taught that Jesus was crucified on a stake, not on a cross, which was a pagan symbol.
The flagship teaching of Worldwide, British-Israelism, was found in various editions of the booklet or book most requested from
the church over the decades, The United States and Britain in Prophecy (or similar titles). Briefly, this asserted that the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel, taken into captivity by the Assyrians around 720 BCE, ended up in Britain, and that the British people today, and by extension the Americans, are not only the spiritual but the physical descendants of the ancient Israelites. Armstrong taught that a third of the Bible is prophecy, and that every prophecy about Israel referred to Britain and America today, in the End Times – specifically any mentions of the two sub-tribes of the sons of Joseph, Ephraim (Britain) and Manasseh (America).
None of this was original; British-Israelite (B-I) beliefs can be traced back to the late sixteenth century, and surfaced in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but they took off in the mid-nineteenth century with the publication of John Wilson’s Lectures on our Israelitish Origins (1840). Various groups coalesced in 1922 into the British Israel World Federation (BIWF), which found great support in the 1920s and 1930s. Armstrong’s slant on B-I came mainly from J.H. Allen’s book, Judah’s Sceptre and Joseph’s Birthright (originally1902, 1917 edition), including such unscholarly philological claims as the people (Hebrew ish ) of the covenant (berith) becoming the British (berith-ish) people, and “Isaac’s sons” dropping the I and becoming the Saxons (Allen 1917:274-75, 293-94; Armstrong 1980:95-96; Barrett 2013:34). Armstrong always implied that he had arrived at these ideas through his own studies, and certainly never gave credit to Allen’s book. However, two letters exist from Armstrong to Allen’s publisher in 1928, saying that he would like to write a book that “would follow, in great measure, the line of thought and proof offered by Allen… in boiled-down form, condensed where possible… written, moreover, in an entirely different style” (cited in Barrett 2013:36).
In brief, some of Worldwide’s other heterodox doctrines included:
- God is a family, currently consisting of the Father and his Son, Jesus. This is binitarianism rather than trinitarianism. Our ultimate destiny is to become part of (the family of) God ourselves.
- The Trinity is a false doctrine, devised in the second-fourth centuries, which has been the mark of false Christianity through the ages. The Holy Spirit is the action of God, not a person.
- The only correct name of God’s church was “the Church of God.”
- Church eras: the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 1-3 are seen as types of the history of the Christian church through the ages. The sixth era, the Philadelphia Church, was the Armstrong era. (This was why Gerald Flurry named his offshoot the Philadelphia Church of God.)
- We are in the End Times; many current events are specifically foretold in biblical prophecies ( Plain Truth magazine contained much analysis of world events), and the return of Jesus is rapidly approaching. True believers (i.e. Worldwide members) will be rulers on Earth, under Christ the King, during the Millennium, the literal thousand-year reign of Christ.
- The Gospel is the good news of the forthcoming Kingdom of God, rather than a Gospel of present salvation and being “born again.”
- The government of the present Church of God should be hierarchical, not democratic. After death there is unconsciousness (“soul sleep”) until the Resurrection at the Second Coming. The unsaved will be destroyed, rather than suffering in Hell.
- The Bible is literally true, including the Genesis account of Creation, and evolution is a false doctrine.
- Although salvation is by grace, our reward is according to our works, obedience to God’s Law.
- Tithing: a tenth of gross income must be given to God (i.e., God’s Church, Worldwide). There were also second and third tithes for attendance at the annual Feast of Tabernacles and to support widows and orphans.
- Observation of God’s Law in the Old Testament included not eating “unclean meats” such as pork and shellfish.
Several of these beliefs were common to nineteenth century Christian sects, including “soul sleep” (Seventh-day Adventists), the destruction rather than punishment of the unsaved (Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christadelphians), the Holy Spirit as God-in-action rather than a Person (Jehovah’s Witnesses and others), and the emphasis on the imminent return of Christ (Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christadelphians, Brethren, etc). In many ways, Worldwide Church of God was a 19th-century Christian sect despite its origin in the 1930s. It developed out of the nineteenth- century Church of God (Seventh Day), and, a s mentioned above, many of its supposedly unique teachings could be found in COG7.
It is worth recalling here that COG7 shared common roots with the Seventh-day Adventist Church (SDA), and that although the latter’s doctrines came increasingly closer to those of mainstream Christianity over the decades, originally they too were substantially heterodox. One historian of both Worldwide and the SDA wrote that a prominent SDA minister, Greenbury G. Rupert (1847-1922), who knew Ellen G. White for forty years, “observed the Holy Days, eschewed unclean meats, held to the name ‘Church of God’… rejected Christmas, Easter and other pagan holidays, believed in tithing and church eras, emphasized Bible prophecy in his preaching and taught that the United States was part of Israel” (Nickels 1996b).
Armstrong “borrowed” more than doctrines from COG7. In 1965 an attorney representing Ambassador College wrote to COG7 asking them to stop publishing the booklet Has Time Been Lost, since Ambassador College had a copyrighted booklet of the same name and subject written by Armstrong in 1952. COG7 “dug into their files and found that they had a copy of the booklet dating back into the early 1930s,” and the title was included in their 1925 literature list. “It was clearly written before Herbert Armstrong ever began his ministry,” wrote one historian of Worldwide. Not only that, but in about half of their content “[t]he two booklets are word-for-word identical” (Edwards 1999:9).
All these beliefs were to change under Joseph Tkatch, after Armstrong’s death. Even the formerly strict observation of Saturday worship became no more than a “tradition and practice” of the church, and congregations were encouraged, if they wished, to switch to Sunday worship.
With ministers and members having taught and believed doctrines so widely divergent from mainstream Christian teachings, setting their church apart uniquely as having the truth and all other Christianity being false, it is hardly surprising that when Joseph Tkatch began changing these distinctive doctrines, eventually discarding all of them and announcing that Worldwide was now a straightforward Evangelical church, many were confused and troubled by this. They were in a quandary of cognitive dissonance: with obedience deeply imbued into them, there was a deep conflict in following the teachings of the pastor-general of their church who was overturning the foundational beliefs of the founder of their church, God’s apostle, Herbert W. Armstrong, when both claimed their authority from God. In a strictly hierarchical church, in which obedience to authority was enshrined in doctrine, rebellion was unthinkable. Gerald Flurry, founder of Philadelphia Church of God, solved the dilemma: “We are not rebelling – we are taking a stand against those who are!” (cited in Barrett 2013:218). He and many others, holding fast to their beliefs, left Worldwide to join splinter churches.
Today’s Worldwide Church of God/Grace Communion international is now an Evangelical church, welcomed with open arms by
the Christian cult-watchers who had formerly condemned it. In the U.S., it was accepted as a member of the National Association of Evangelicals in May, 1997. In the U.K., it joined the Evangelical Alliance in July, 2000. Both organizations have strict doctrinal requirements, including Trinitarianism; their acceptance of Worldwide demonstrates clearly the massive shift in its beliefs since the death of Herbert W. Armstrong.
The description of “rituals” here applies to the historic Worldwide Church of God, i.e. before it became a straightforward Evangelical church. It also applies to all the offshoot churches today. The Worldwide Church of God now (now the Grace Communion International) is virtually indistinguishable from any other Evangelical Church in its ritual observation, with the exception that some congregations still meet for worship on Saturday rather than Sunday.
The social construction of reality of religious believers, the meaningful framework of their lives, is often seen most clearly not in their beliefs as such but in the day-to-day expression of those beliefs, especially those which set them apart from wider society. Members of the pre-Tkatch Worldwide would not have taken jobs where they might have to work on Saturdays though, unlike strictly observant Jews, they might have driven dozens of miles to a Sabbath service. Because they followed Old Testament laws on “unclean foods,” they would never eat a bacon sandwich or a prawn cocktail, and they had a detailed list of which animals, fish and birds were acceptable to eat and which were not. They held morally conservative views, and many (following the lead of their Church) were politically conservative, though the church did not allow them to vote, because man’s democratic form of government was corrupt, and was not God’s form of government. M embers of Worldwide would also not take part in jury service or join the armed forces. All of these restrictions have now been lifted in the post-Armstrong Worldwide.
Most congregations met in a rented room in a school, hotel, community center or similar building, rather than a dedicated church
building. They might have had a lectern for the speaker, and perhaps a vase of flowers, but there were no religious symbols in the room (no statues, no pictures, no cross). Ministers wore suits, and members of the congregation were expected to dress smartly: jackets and ties for men, while women were to “dress modestly,” though they were not required to cover their hair. Services, usually ninety minutes to two hours long, consisted of several hymns from the church’s own hymn book (many based on words from the Scottish Psalter set to music by Dwight L. Armstrong, Herbert W. Armstrong’s youngest brother), often sung to recorded piano music, prayers, a sermonette, and an hour-long sermon. The congregation stood for the hymns and prayers and sat for the remainder of the service. The service would usually be followed by buffet snacks and coffee.
The main difference in religious practice or ritual from mainstream Christianity was their observance of the Old Testament festivals or feasts instead of the common Christian ones. Not only did they not celebrate Christmas and Easter (or Halloween, or birthdays), they did not take Communion (the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist) regularly, as most Christians do. Instead, they would break bread and take wine in their observation of the annual Passover meal.
The spiritual and social highlight of the year was the eight-day Feast of Tabernacles in September/October, seen as a foretaste of the coming Kingdom of God on Earth. Members would travel to feast sites (several dozen across North America and around the world), each typically catering for a few hundred people, often at an outdoor resort. Depending on the venue they might stay in hotels, motel rooms, cabins or tents, the modern equivalent of the “booths” of Leviticus 23:41-3. As well as services and Bible studies each day, the feast sites provided activities that included sight-seeing, hiking, sailing, sports, and restaurants for all the family. The Feast of Tabernacles was an opportunity for members, especially from small or isolated congregations, to meet each other, which was particularly important for young and single members. It was also an opportunity for them to hear top evangelists in the church, including Herbert W. Armstrong and (until his ouster in 1978) Garner Ted Armstrong. Because this was such an important part of the church’s year, members had to save a second tithe throughout the year to pay for their travel to and accommodation and expenses at the feast. A “tithe of the tithe” was usually given to the church for its own feast expenses, and any excess was given to those unable to fully finance themselves. Non-members of the church were able to attend feast sites and activities, both spiritual and social. The Feast of Tabernacles is still the major annual event in the offshoot churches, though for the more hardline churches attendance is restricted to members.
At its height, around 1988-1990, the Worldwide Church of God had around 100,000 baptised members. It was predominantly a North American movement though it had significant membership in other English-speaking countries, particularly in the U.K., Australasia, and the Caribbean. But there were (often small) congregations and scattered members throughout the world.
The Worldwide Church of God and Ambassador College overlapped in their organisation, with many senior ministers having roles in both. The church’s literature (the magazines, a few books and dozens of booklets) was produced by Ambassador College, which was also responsible for its radio and TV programs. All the literature was free, with the latest booklets and the Plain Truth magazine being advertised in the radio and TV programs. A large correspondence department dealt with the many letters received by the Church (over three million a year in 1974), inserting stock paragraphs on individual topics into the replies. Worldwide was ahead of most religious movements in its use of computers, having an IBM 370 in its Data Processing Center at Pasadena in the early 1970s.
The Pasadena campus of Ambassador College was also the Church headquarters, and also hosted the Ambassador International Cultural Foundation. This had a number of roles. It sponsored archaeological digs, and provided students to dig, at sites such as Temple Mount in Jerusalem; it funded educational projects in third-world countries; it put on heavily subsidised top quality concerts at the Ambassador Auditorium; and it became the vehicle for the public face of Herbert W. Armstrong (see next section).
Like many Christian movements Worldwide developed a complex system of ministry ranging from deacons and deaconesses to local elders and preaching elders, to pastors (including assistant pastors, associate pastors and retired pastors), to evangelists and, in his lifetime, to the apostle, Herbert W. Armstrong. Early on in his ministry Armstrong held the belief that each individual congregation should be autonomous, and in 1939 wrote an article on this: “All authority and power to rule is limited solely to each local congregation. But there is no Bible authority for any super-government, or organization with authority over the local congregations!” (Nickels 1996a:32-41, 205-09). He changed this stance completely, so that when he died the first of the “18 Revealed Truths” ascribed to him was: “ The government of God. When Christ comes, He will restore God’s government to the whole earth. So you can be sure the one to come in the spirit and power of Elijah would restore God’s government in his church… Today, the government of God has been restored to His Church” (cited in Barrett 2013:152). “The one to come in the spirit and power of Elijah” was Armstrong; “the government of God” was strictly hierarchical, with God at the top, his apostle Herbert W. Armstrong next, then the evangelists, then the other ministers in order. Members, who had no voice in church governance at all, sometimes said they were expected to “pay, pray, stay and obey” (Barrett 2013:166).
With such an emphasis on authority it is easy for a Church to slide into authoritarianism. It was not uncommon for e vangelists and senior ministers to make unannounced house calls on ministers and members, looking in kitchen cupboards for white sugar and white flour (disapproved of by the Church), and looking for “dissident literature.” Depending on who was in the ascendant at any point, ministers at any level could find themselves suddenly out of favor, demoted and moved to new congregations, sometimes on different continents (Barrett 2013:38). At the most senior level this included Garner Ted Armstrong. He was suspended in 1971 and 1972 for his sexual affairs, but he was subsequently allowed back when his absence from radio broadcasts caused the Church’s income to fall. It also included senior evangelist Roderick C. Meredith, who was “exiled” to Hawaii for six months in 1979-1980. Some of the senior ministers of the 1960s and 1970s became leaders of offshoot Churches, and the harsh treatment some of them once meted out to other ministers and members when in Worldwide has affected how they are perceived today by members choosing which offshoot Churches, led by them, to join (Barrett 2013:219-29).
As Chancellor of the Ambassador Colleges and head of the Ambassador International Cultural Foundation, Armstrong would travel
the world in his private jet as an “ambassador,” meeting world leaders and promoting AICF as a major aspect of the work of Worldwide. Photographs of him shaking hands with princes and presidents regularly appeared in Plain Truth , emphasizing how important he was on the world stage. Armstrong was criticised for the high expenditure on this (his aides would give out expensive gifts, effectively “buying” some of these meetings); his son Garner Ted Armstrong called it “the world’s most expensive autograph hunt” (Armstrong 1992:40). (Similar criticisms have been made of the leaders of other new religions, including the Reverend Moon of the Unification Church and Daisaku Ikeda of Soka Gakkai International (Barrett 2001:206, 306).) Armstrong also faced criticism for his conspicuous expenditure on things such as architecture, clothes, watches, tableware, paintings, sculptures, crystal candelabra, and a Steinway grand piano. He believed that only the best is good enough for God. (Cf. the criticism of Elizabeth Clare Prophet, leader of Church Universal and Triumphant, for her clothes and jewellery (Barrett 2001:379).)
The 1970s were a particularly difficult decade for the Church, though most members, readers of the Plain Truth and listeners to The World Tomorrow, would not have known of many of the problems. Encouraged by Armstrong’s 1956 booklet 1975 in Prophecy , many members had expected Christ’s return in the mid-1970s; disillusioned, some left the Church. Two doctrinal changes, on the date of Pentecost and on divorce and remarriage, caused some conservative ministers to leave and set up offshoot Churches, while a number of more liberal ministers left over the authoritarianism of the Church leadership. In 1977, ten years after the death of his first wife, Armstrong married Ramona Martin, a divorced woman of thirty nine; he was eighty five. Coming just a year after the sudden relaxation of the Church’s previously strict rules forbidding remarriage after divorce, this created disquiet amongst ministers, including Garner Ted Armstrong, who was eight years older than his father’s new wife. The marriage did not last. Armstrong divorced his second wife in 1984 after a long and acrimonious court battle that included (among other matters) discussion of Armstrong’s senility. It allegedly cost the Church somewhere between one million and five million dollars.
Herbert W. Armstrong and Garner Ted Armstrong came into increasing conflict during this decade. Ted Armstrong was more doctrinally liberal than his father. Although the son was largely running the Church and Ambassador College while the father was flying around the world, Armstrong would sometimes overturn his son’s decisions. If they disagreed, Armstrong accused his son of resentment against his father; he also accused Ted of a conspiracy to unseat him. On top of that, Garner Ted Armstrong continued his sexual improprieties. In 1978, Armstrong disfellowshipped his son (the equivalent of excommunication); Ted went off to found the Church of God, International.
Criticisms of Armstrong and his church continued throughout the decade, from both outsiders and former members. From 1976 a
group of Ambassador College alumni produced a semi-regular newsletter, Ambassador Report, which published articles critical of the Church and its leadership. Amongst other stories it covered internal tensions in the Church, senior ministers leaving, the escalating conflict between Herbert W. and Garner Ted Armstrong, Ted’s sexual escapades, and his father’s remarriage and divorce. It also published a report in one of the most hard-hitting of books by a senior ex-member, David Robinson, that Herbert W. Armstrong had committed incest with one of his daughters when she was a teenager.
As he grew older and more physically frail, Armstrong came under the influence of some of his advisers, particularly his attorney, Stanley Rader, who (although at least initially a non-believer) had huge influence in the church, was greatly disliked by most ministers, and briefed Armstrong against his son. In 1979, the state of California put the church into receivership after allegations of financial impropriety. The allegations came from members who, from their own perspectives, were loyal to the Church and trying to protect Armstrong from Rader and other senior advisers. Two books about this episode (one by Rader, who fought the case on behalf of the Church, the other by John Tuit, who initiated the lawsuit against the Church which caused the receivership) might almost be describing different events.
This illustrates one of the difficulties in researching Worldwide: the very strong personal bias of almost all internal sources. Books by former members tend to be highly critical of Armstrong and much of what went on in Worldwide, while books by the more hardline offshoots tend to be almost hagiographic about God’s End-Time apostle. In their own writings Herbert W. Armstrong and Garner Ted Armstrong understandably viewed the latter’s 1978 “ouster” from Worldwide in very different ways. Similarly books about the dramatic changes in Worldwide after Armstrong’s death take diametrically opposed stances depending on who they were written by, the architects of the changes (e.g. Tkatch 1997, Feazell 2003) or the schismatic founders of offshoot Churches (e.g. Flurry 2006, Pack 2008). Some of the books in the References and most of those in the Additional Resources show bias in one way or another. Benware (1977) and Hopkins (1974) are external scholarly works.
Allen, J.H. 1917. Judah’s Sceptre and Joseph’s Birthright . 18th edn. Boston: A.A. Beauchamp.
Armstrong, Herbert W. 1986, Autobiography of Herbert W Armstrong . Pasadena CA: Worldwide Church of God.
Armstrong, Herbert W. 1980. The United States and Britain in Prophecy . Pasadena, CA: Worldwide Church of God.
Armstrong, Garner Ted. 1992. The Origin and History of the Church of God, International . Tyler, TX: Church of God, International.
Barrett, David V. 2013. The Fragmentation of a Sect . New York: Oxford University Press.
Barrett, David V. 2001. The New Believers . London: Cassell.
Edwards, Norman, ed. 1999. “Church of God 7th Day Old Documents About Herbert Armstrong.” Servants’ News , April.
Nickels, Richard C. 1999. History of the Seventh Day Church of God . Neck City, MO: Giving and Sharing.
Nickels, Richard C. 1996a. Early Writings of Herbert W Armstrong . Neck City, Mo: Giving and Sharing.
Nickels, Richard C. 1996b. Church of God – Adventist! Servants News . February. Accessed from h ttp://www.servantsnews.com/sn9602/cogadventist.htm on 30 June 2013.
Ogwyn, John H. 1995. God’s Church Through the Ages . San Diego, California: Global Church of God.
Benware, Paul N. 1977. Ambassadors of Armstrongism: An Analysis of the History and Teachings of the Worldwide Church of God . Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co.
Feazell, J. Michael. 2003. The Liberation of the Worldwide Church of God: The Remarkable Story of a Cult’s Journey from Deception to Truth . Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.
Flurry, Stephen. 2006. Raising the Ruins: The fight to revive the legacy of Herbert W. Armstrong . Edmond, OK: Philadelphia Church of God.
Hopkins, Joseph. 1974. The Armstrong Empire: A Look at the Worldwide Church of God . Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans.
The Journal: News of the Churches of God . Big Sandy, Texas. (Monthly newspaper; 1997-continuing.)
Nichols, Larry, and George Mather. 1998. Discovering the Plain Truth: How the Worldwide Church of God Encountered the Gospel of Grace . Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Pack, David C. 2008. There Came a Falling Away . Wadsworth, OH: Restored Church of God.
Rader, Stanley R. 1980. Against the Gates of Hell: The Threat to Religious Freedom in America . New York: Everest House.
Robinson, David. 1980. Herbert Armstrong’s Tangled Web . Tulsa, OK: John Hadden.
This is Ambassador College . 1974. Pasadena, CA: Ambassador College Press.
This is the Worldwide Church of God . 1972. Pasadena, CA: Ambassador College Press.
Tkach, J. 1997. Transformed By Truth . Sisters, OR: Multnomah Books.
Tuit, John. 1981. The Truth Shall Make You Free: Herbert Armstrong’s Empire Exposed . Freehold NJ: The Truth Foundation.
David V. Barrett
22 June 2013