Saturday, January 15, 2011

25 years ago: Herbert W. Armstrong, founder of the Worldwide Church of God, goes to the "wonderful World Tomorrow"

On January 16, 1986, Herbert W. Armstrong, founder and Pastor General of the Worldwide Church of God (and "Ambassador for World Peace"), died at the age of 93 after several years of declining health. Mr. Armstrong, who began preaching in 1927, founded the WCG--originally known as the Radio Church of God--in 1933 and began broadcasting on January 7, 1934. Mr. Armstrong proclaimed a number of false doctrines, such as the idea that God is a family and that believers can become part of the "God family." Traditional Armstrongism taught a false, legalistic "gospel" that emphasized the importance of tithing (as much as 30% of one’s income) and keeping the seventh-day Sabbath and observing Old Testament holy days. I can understand how someone can be deceived by the doctrines of Armstrongism. In the late 1970s I was a young Christian, but I hadn’t yet begun reading the Bible with any seriousness. I began listening to Mr. Armstrong’s broadcasts, and what he said seemed to make sense. However, I followed his advice to "blow the dust off your Bible," and began reading it for myself, and exposing myself to better teachers, and I soon concluded that Mr. Armstrong was not teaching the "plain truth."

Mr. Armstrong was also a proponent of British Israelism--the idea that the British and American people are the descendants of the lost tribes of Israel. Mr. Armstrong wrote the book The United States and Great Britain in Prophecy, which was first published in 1967 and underwent several revisions over the years after Mr. Armstrong’s predictions failed to come true.

The Worldwide Church of God was known for its school, Ambassador College, which at one time had campuses in Pasadena, California, Big Sandy, Texas, and Bricket Wood, England. The WCG published The Plain Truth magazine, which at its peak was said to reach as many as 8.4 million readers.

Mr. Armstrong had originally intended his oldest son, Dick, to eventually take over "the Work" from him, but Dick was killed in a car accident in 1958. Mr. Armstrong’s second son, Garner Ted, eventually took over the radio and television broadcasts, titled The World Tomorrow. Garner Ted was more telegenic and charismatic than his father, and GTA became a well-known personality. Garner Ted was also known for frequent fornication, and it was this, along with differences of opinion over the direction of the WCG that led to Herbert W. giving his son the boot in the summer of 1978. The elder Armstrong regained his role as the public face and voice of the WCG, but the broadcasts declined in popularity with the expulsion of Garner Ted.

After his forced exit from the WCG, Garner Ted Armstrong founded the Church of God, International, based in Tyler, Texas, but was forced to leave in January 1998 after numerous verified instances of being caught with his pants down. He remained in Tyler and founded the Intercontinental Church of God (also based in Tyler), which he was leading at the time of his death on September 15, 2003 at the age of 73.

It's not known if Herbert W. Armstrong's last words were "And so, this is Herbert W. Armstrong saying, 'Goodbye, friends'," but apparently the WCG wasn't expecting him to ever die. His successor, Joseph Tkach, began his "Personal From" column in the issue of The Plain Truth immediately following HWA's death by saying, "Herbert W. Armstrong's last illness ended in the manner least expected by any of us. He died peacefully at his home..."

Within a few years of Mr. Tkach's assumption of leadership, the church began repudiating the doctrines of Armstrongism, to the point that by the mid-1990s the Worldwide Church of God became largely accepted as part of mainstream evangelicalism. In April 2009 the WCG changed its name to Grace Communion International in the United States.

William C. Martin, a professor at Rice University, wrote an article titled Father, Son, and Mammon (Atlantic Monthly, March 1980, pp. 58-65), which he concluded by saying:

Those who continue to regard Mr. Armstrong as God’s Only Apostle for Our Time will accept his claim and follow him to the end. But when the end comes, as it must, the WCG is certain to experience devastating trauma.

Professor Martin’s prediction came true, although it took a few years for it to become apparent just how devastating the trauma would be. As might be expected, not everyone was willing to go along with the changes instituted by Mr. Tkach, and a number of groups split from the WCG. Partial lists of groups that have split from the WCG (including those that subsequently split from splinter groups) may be found here and here. Among the dizzying array of WCG splinter groups (and splinters of splinters) are the following, with the year of founding (where known) in parentheses:

Christian Biblical Church of God (1983)
Church of God (based in Chickamauga, Georgia)
Church of God, an International Community (1998)
Church of God Faithful Flock (2002)
Church of God Fellowship (1992)
Church of God of the Firstfruits (1991)
Church of God Philadelphia Era (1991)
Church of God, The Eternal (1975)
Church of God--21st Century (2004)
Church of God’s Faithful (2006)
Church of the Great God (1992)
Global Church of God (1992)
Church of God--A Christian Fellowship (with Global Church of God)
Church of the Eternal God (with Global Church of God)
Independent Church of God 7th Day (1999)
Living Church of God (1998)
Philadelphia Church of God (1989)
Restored Church of God (1998)
Sabbath Church of God (2006)
Twentieth Century Church of God (1990)
United Church of God (1995)

It should be mentioned that the Church of God denomination based in Anderson, Indiana was founded in 1881 and has nothing to do with Armstrongism.

The Painful Truth is a site expressing an anti-Armstrong, anti-WCG point of view. The site isn’t run by a Christian, but contains much useful information.
I particularly recommend the complete archive of Ambassador Report, the exposé by WCG alumni that was published from 1976-1999.

Additional information on the Armstrongs and WCG can be found at The Ross Institute. Use "Armstrong" as your search term, and you’ll find enough information to occupy you for a while. A short entry on Mr. Armstrong is at Battered Sheep.

Stephen Flurry of the Philadelphia Church of God has written a book titled Raising the Ruins: The Fight to Revive the Legacy of Herbert W. Armstrong (2006), written from a pro-Armstrong point of view and scathingly critical of the direction of the WCG under the leadership of Joseph Tkach, Sr. and Jr.

Pro-Armstrong blogs can be found at Worldwide Church of God and Herbert W. Armstrong. The World Tomorrow radio broadcasts by Mr. Armstrong are available here and here. Television broadcasts may be found here.

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