By Bobby Witherington
Any history of the Worldwide Church of God (so-called) must, of necessity, include biographical information regarding Herbert W. Armstrong. Mr. Armstrong is to the Worldwide Church of God what Joseph Smith is to the Mormons, Ellen G. White to the Adventists, Mary Baker Eddy to the Christian Scientists, and what “Pastor” Russell is to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Armstrong is its “founder,” “prophet,” “chosen apostle,” “ambassador,” and “head.”
Herbert W. Armstrong was born in Des Moines, Iowa, on July 31, 1892. His parents were members of the Quaker Church, and in that religion he “grew up.” At age 16 he first felt the urge to “become somebody important.”(1) Prior to that time Armstrong had been `only an average student, but after his awakening he started spending extra hours at the public library, forming a lifelong habit of study.”(2)
However, at age 18 he decided to forego formal education for a career in advertising. “During the next 16 years he enjoyed several periods of success in business. He traveled, became a successful copywriter and rubbed elbows with some of the elite of the literary and business worlds. But at the end of those 16 years, he found himself in Portland, Oregon, with his third business failure behind him, unemployed and on the brink of poverty. In such circumstances he soon lost the last vestiges of his `cocky and self-confident’ attitude. Years later he decided that he was being `softened’ for an unconditional surrender to God: `It seemed, indeed, as if some invisible and mysterious hand were causing the earth to simply swallow up whatever business I started. And, indeed, that is precisely what was happening! God was knocking me down! But I was not yet out!”(3)
Of course, diligent Bible students, who compare Armstrong’s teaching with the Bible, as well as his overall manner of life, would question his implied “unconditional surrender to God.” And those who have heard him preach over the years and/or have read his writings are prone to doubt his having “lost the last vestiges of his `cocky and self-confident’ attitude.”
Prior to his “third business failure,” while visiting his parents in Salem, Oregon, his wife (Loma) became acquainted with an elderly lady who seemed to be an avid student of the Bible. In Mrs. Armstrong’s studies with this elderly lady she supposedly made a great discovery: “obedience to God’s spiritual laws summed up in the Ten Commandments is necessary for salvation.”(4) The lady who influenced Mrs. Armstrong was “Mrs. Ora Runcorn, a member of the Church of God (Seventh-day).”(5)
Mrs. Armstrong was delighted with the results of their study, but Herbert W. was very displeased. He angrily determined to prove his wife wrong on the Sabbath question. In his words: “I studied the Commentaries. I studied the Lexicons and Robertson’s Grammar of the Greek New Testament. Then I studied history. I delved into encyclopedias – the Britannica, the Americana, and several religious encyclopedias. I searched the Jewish Encyclopedia, and the Catholic Encyclopedia. I read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, especially his chapter 15 dealing with the religious history of the first four hundred years after Christ …. I left no stone unturned.”(6) Of course, Armstrong knew nothing about rightly dividing “the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15), and still doesn’t – as evidenced by his insistence on observing the rites of the Mosaic law which Jesus fulfilled (Matt. 5:17, 18), and which was nailed to the cross (Col. 2:14). Moreover, it seems that he was really studying everything else but the Bible. Hence, it is not surprising that some six months later he emerged from his studies concluding that “his wife had found the truth after all.”(7)
Anyway, however false his conclusions, his studies paved the way for a great change in the future course of his life. After further study `he was ordained, by and under the authority of, the Oregon Conference of the Church of God.”(8) “Following his ordination in 1931,” Herbert Armstrong began writing and doing evangelistic work in Oregon. He soon began to encounter difficulties with “the Church of God, with headquarters in Stanberry, Missouri (now Denver, Colorado), the original parent body of the Oregon Conference of the Church of God.”(9) The difficulties were partially triggered by his wild, wide-eyed British Israelism heresy, and his disillusionment with the tactics employed by fellow preachers in these “evangelistic campaigns.” So “in August 1933 he severed all direct connection with the Church of God and entered the independent evangelistic field. A few weeks later, on October 21, 1933, a new independent Church of God was organized by approximately 20 of his friends, who named him pastor.”(10)
On the first Sunday of 1934 Armstrong launched “The World Tomorrow radio program which provided him with the springboard for his remarkable success.”(11) How did his radio program begin? “On this, Armstrong relates that during the summer of 1933, while living in Oregon, he planned `a series of lectures’ in and around Eugene, Oregon, and walked out over the country side inviting neighbors to attend. `A little later,’ he adds, `an invitation came to lecture over radio.’ Afterwards, the owner of `an 100-watt station called him in and suggested a regular half-hour program, at a cost of only three dollars per hour. `That,’ he writes, `was the start of The World Tomorrow program. It could not have started smaller.'”(12)
Thus Armstrong claims to believe the first week of 1934 was one. of the most important dates in all of history. Please observe what this humble preacher, who had “lost the last vestiges of his `cocky and self-confident’ attitude,” says: “On the first Sunday in 1934 God’s time had come. God opened a door! Jesus Christ Himself had foretold this event! Millions have read his prophecy . . . . What really occurred that Sunday morning precisely at 10 o’clock, was a momentous event. It was the fulfillment of a definite cornerstone prophecy of Jesus. More than that, it was the initial start-off event of the fulfilling of some 90% of all the prophecies in the Bible! And approximately a third of the whole Bible is prophecy!”(13) According to Armstrong this date was the first time since 69 A.D. “that the true gospel of Christ” had been heard! Hence, for obvious reasons, Armstrong named his church the Radio Church of God. It was later re-named the Worldwide Church of God.
One month after beginning his The World Tomorrow radio program Armstrong began publishing Plain Truth. He and his wife, Loma, were the complete staff. The first edition “totaled about 250 copies. It was an eight-page, mimeographed issue.”(14) Today The Plain Truth, a 46 page publication, boasts “a monthly circulation of more than five million copies worldwide in six languages,” going “into 202 nations and associated states around the world.”(15)
Suffice it to say, notwithstanding the falsity of his doctrines, Armstrong has been very successful in getting them before the people. His ability as an editor and as a radio speaker, by anyone’s standards, has to be unquestioned. And even today, notwithstanding his highly publicized inconsistences, troubles, and defections within his empire, his money collections, radio and TV coverage, and his Plain Truth circulation seeems to be at an all-time high. “Income has soared from $90.3 million in 1980 to $108.4 million in 1981.”(16) His messages are aired on hundreds of radio and TV stations in the United States, Canada, Australia, the Philippines, and other international areas.
What is his magic formula for attracting followers? “A blood-and-doom message supposedly prophesied in the scriptures, delivered with an urbane professionalism that moves all but the well-informed and the very sophisticated to the edge of despair. This is followed with the promise of a `wonderful world of tomorrow,’ a bright and shining utopia without poverty, war or disease, which lies only, a few short years ahead, so near that they will live to see this promised land.”(17) Then, too, this long time broadcast of daily alarms – such as droughts, tornadoes, floods, world-wide changes in weather patterns, wars and rumors of wars, overpopulation, ecological disasters, famines, earthquakes, spiritual degeneration and moral decay when delivered by such articulate, positive-sounding voices, with almost perfect timing, naturally attracts and retains the interest of listeners.
In addition to his magazine, radio broadcasts and telecasts, Armstrongism is disseminated by way of his colleges. In 1947 he founded Ambassador College. According to his deceived follower, Roderick C. Meredith, “Ambassador College, located on campuses at Pasadena, CA, and Big Sandy, Texas, is the only educational institution on earth where the real answers to life’s biggest problems are clearly disseminated.”(18)
But all is not well within the Armstrong empire. Time wounds all heels! “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Gal. 6:7). “On January 3, 1979, at 9 o’clock in the morning, the Government of God went into receivership. In yet another conflict between Christ and California, state agents seized fiscal control of the Worldwide Church of God and its affiliate institutions, Ambassador College and the Ambassador International Cultural Foundation, charging the church’s eighty-seven-year-old founder, pastor, and `Only Apostle for Our Time,` Herbert W. Armstrong, and his beloved disciple, Stanley R. Rader, with misappropriating church funds. The state alleged that Armstrong and Rader, with help from trusted acolytes, had bled the body of Christ for millions of dollars, which they had spent on astronomical salaries, luxury houses and cars, year-round first-class travel, and extravagant gifts to foreign dignitaries.”(19) Rader had been Armstrong’s legal counsel. Finally, in 1975 Rader was baptized in a bathtub in Hong Kong’s Mandrin Hotel, after which Herbert W. began to speak of him as “my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”(20) Others, however, believed Rader was a convert to mammon, not to God. Space forbids discussing the apparent power struggle, the conniving manipulations of Rader, and the shake-up within the Armstrong empire. Rader was eventually relieved of his responsibilities. Also the charges of then Attorney General Deukmejian were eventually dropped. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Armstrong, now nearly 91, can not long continue at the top. His son, Garner Ted, is on the outs with his father, or vice versa, and no one else seems to have the charisma to take his place. That, coupled with the realization that time has proven his prophecies false, surely must be a source of inner agony to Herbert W. – unless per chance he has totally seared his conscience.
His Connection With Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses
“. . . Mr. Armstrong is an off-shoot of an off-shoot of the Seventh-day Adventist church.” “. . . The neighbor lady who revealed the great discovery to Mrs. Armstrong was a former member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church . . . .” “Mr. Armstrong’s theology in many areas paralleled Seventh-day Adventism, such as his insistence upon obvservance of the Seventh-day Sabbath, abstinence from certain articles of food as unclean, a general Adventist system of prophetic interpretation (albeit with his own peculiar modifications), his extreme legalism and the observance of feasts, and new moons, and his denunciation of the doctrines of hell and eternal punishment for which he has substituted the Adventist doctrine of the annihilation of the wicked. Mr. Armstrong owes a considerable debt to Seventh-day Adventism as he does to Jehovah’s Witnesses (with whom he agrees in his denial of the doctrine of the Trinity and the bodily resurrection of Christ) and the Mormon Church, whose teaching that man may become as God, was appropriated by Armstrong without even the slightest acknowledgment to Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.”(21)
Herbert W. Versus Garner Ted
In 1955 Garner Ted Armstrong, the youngest of the four Armstrong children, began broadcasting on the “The World Tomorrow” program in a voice that sounded so much like his father’s that many could not tell them apart. This continued until April of 1972 when Garner Ted was suddenly taken off the air. Herbert W. soon sent a letter to his ministers to read before their congregations saying his boy was “in the bonds of Satan.” Adultery headed the list of the circulated rumors regarding the things of which Garner Ted was guilty. According to Barry Chase, a minister who defected from the WCG, the church was told that “Garner Ted’s birth was foretold in the scriptures and that his adultery was prophesied in Malachi 2:14.”(22)
However, after a few months Garner Ted was back on the air and in 1973 was designated by Mr. Armstrong as his “divinely appointed ‘successor, ” with the senior Armstrong rationalizing that “Ted is divinely called” and “above the scripture.” But Garner Ted’s ascendancy was brief. In the spring of 1978 Stanley Rader announced that Ted’s television program would be canceled, and that he would also be removed from his position as head and board member of the college and the church. To his shame, Garner Ted turned around and formed his awrr church, The Church of God International (CGI) with headquarters in Tyler, Texas. Within weeks he was back on the air, preaching on a network that grew to twenty stations within six months. “Like father, like son!”
One suspects that Garner Ted’s fall was not so much over his adultery as his differences with his father over other matters – especially his father’s globe-trotting visits with foreign dignitaries, upon whom he lavished expensive gifts. Of this aspect of his father’s labors Garner Ted says, “never in the history of human endeavor… has so much money been spent by so few for so little. Those trips are just glorified autograph-hunting tours–window dressing, like AICF and QUEST. My father has gone on and on about the great good these trips were doing, but it might come down to a thousand dollars a word for some lecture on the `Seven Laws of Success’ to the Civitan Club of New Deli or the Rotarians of Nairobi. Dad has boasted about how he does not mention the name of Jesus Christ on these visits. If this is the case, why bother?”(23)
Unfortunately, the complete history of Armstrongism cannot be written, for, like sin and error in general, this “ism” is still around. Because many people “will believe anything if it is not in the Bible,” multitudes will continue swallowing this amalgam of religious error. As long as Armstrong is alive many will doubtlessly regard him as “God’s Only Apostle for Our Time.” No one can fully foresee the devastating trauma his empire will experience when he dies as, indeed, he must. How tragic that in his quest to become “somebody important” he became one of Satan’s most effective preachers!
21.Newsweek, Oct. 20, 1980.
24.Note: Endnote notation not found in original document. “Atlantic Magazine, Article, `Father, Son, and Mammon,” p. 60.
25. Note: Endnote notation not found in original document. Ibid., p. 61.
Guardian of Truth XXVII: 11, pp. 321, 341-342
June 2, 1983