Tag Archives: herbert armstrong

Looking Back, Looking Forward

Herbert W. ArmstrongTwenty-five years ago today there was a death that only a few thousand true believers and former true believers even remember, let alone know anything about. There are of course a few specialists — historians of religion and theologians — that would remember this man or know anything about it.

Herbert Armstrong died on January 19, 1986. He was the founder and leader of the church I grew up in, and his death came both as a shock and an expected consequence of age: he was 93 years old.

I remember his death; I remember his life; I find myself compelled to mention it. In that regard, I am hardly alone: there are dozens of bloggers writing about the same thing today. They’re rehearsing for the millionth time how he made false predictions (Armageddon was scheduled to begin during World War II, in 1972, and by 2005), how he lived in a palatial mansion and wore hand-tailored while his followers gave ridiculous amounts of their income (minimum of 10% of one’s gross salary plus offerings) to his church, how he was accused of some fairly awful things (which are certainly unprovable but highly suspect given the amount of circumstantial evidence).

Yet what strikes me about today — yet again — is how quickly time has passed since then, how insignificantly short twenty-five years can be.

This is most noticeable when thinking about music. I think of the music I grew up on, the music that was freshly released while I was in junior high and high school:

  • Boston’s Third Stage
  • U2’s Joshua Tree
  • REM’s Green
  • Pink Floyd’s Momentary Lapse of Reason

This is music that today’s teens consider “old music.” I think of how little time seems to have passed between the release of those albums and the present moment. It doesn’t feel like two and a half decades; the music doesn’t sound that old. And yet.

During high school, I was much more interested in “old” music myself:

  • Genesis’s albums when Peter Gabriel was still fronting the band.
  • The Grateful Dead
  • Pink Floyd
  • The Beatles

Now I stand in the same relationship to the music I grew up with as my teachers stood to Pink Floyd and the Beatles: twenty-plus years in the past (“It was twenty years ago today…”) yet feeling like yesterday (fill in the Beatles allusion for yourself).

And so I look back at the death of Herbert Armstrong realizing that it was an insignificant blink of time ago. Less than the flit of an eyelash in the grand scale of time. And not such a big chunk of time as twenty-five years seemed when I was thirteen and Armstrong died.

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Behind the Scenes: The Wisconsin Shooting Tragedy

This is not the first time that someone associated with the ideology behind the Living Church of God committed such a vile act.

The Living Church of God (LCG) split from the Worldwide Church of God (WCG) in the mid-90’s over doctrinal differences. The founder of the WCG, Herbert Armstrong, died in 1986, and his successor, Joseph Tkach, began dismantling the doctrinal distinctives of the WCG. Those who wanted to remain faithful to Armstrong’s teachings left in droves in 1995, and one of the organizations formed was the Global Church of God (GCG), which eventually transmuted into the LCG, both led by Roderick Meredith.

Before Tkach made the drastic doctrinal changes, the WCG was a cult, pure and simple. Distinctive theological elements included

  • Rejection of the Trinity.
  • Observance of Jewish, Old Testament holy days.
  • Rejection of “worldly holidays,” including Christmas and Easter.
  • The teaching that the WCG alone was the true and undeceived church of God, and that all other Christians were merely “professing” Christians, deceived by (and ultimately worshiping) the devil.
  • The belief that the United States and England are peopled by the descendants of the original Ten Tribes of Israel.
  • The belief that Germany will rise again and defeat America in a nuclear World War Three.

The Living Church of God still holds to all these doctrines.

Precedent

Herbert Armstrong wrote his heretical theology up in many books and smaller booklets.

One of them was 1975 in Prophecy written in the 1950’s and predicting Jesus’ return in 1975.

The book had the a violent affect on one Michael Dennis Rohan.

In an effort hasten the building of the temple and resumption of Jewish cultic sacrifices in Jerusalem, Rohan set fire to the Al Aksa mosque in 1969. No one was killed, but there was significant material damage. The ripples of the attack continued through the years: fourteen years later, Hamas began a series of terrorist attacks scheduled to coincide with the Al Aksa attack.

Trying desperately to distance himself from the bad publicity the act generated, Herbert Armstrong responded by denying any connection between Rohan and his church:

Every effort, it seems, is being made to link us with it in a way to discredit the Work of God. The man, Rohan being held as the arsonist, the dispatches say, claims to be identified with us. This claim is TOTALLY FALSE. The first any of us at Pasadena ever heard of this man was when the press dispatches began coming over the Teletypes in our News Bureau. Checkups revealed that this man had sent in for and received a number of our Correspondence Course lessons. Last December he had sent in a subscription to The PLAIN TRUTH. But any claim to any further connection or association with us is an absolute lie.

Rohan claims he’d been in contact with a WCG minister, and that, combined with the fact that Rohan not only had subscription to the Plain Truth but also had received church literature, makes Rohan a “P.M.” — prospective member.

According to a Wikipedia article, Armstrong stopped claiming that a physical temple would have to be built

because at the time he was trying to establish a relationship with the government of Israel. He had previously developed a relationship with King Hussein of Jordan prior to the Six Day War and had actually signed a contract to go on the AM and shortwave [sic] Jordanian transmitters located in the West Bank with his daily radio program called The World Tomorrow. When Israel gained control of the West Bank it also voided Armstrong’s contract and as a result he then courted the favors of the government of Israel by becoming involved with such projects as the archeological digs in the area of the Temple Mount.

Practicalities won out over “God’s truth!”

Armstrong had a choice, it would seem, and in this case, continuing to preach “God’s truth!” as it had been “cried aloud” before would have been tantamount to Armstrong shooting himself in the theological/fiscal foot.

Unfortunately, Armstrong was not an idiot. He chose to tone it down.

Funny how “God’s truth” can be so self-defeating in some contexts.

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The End of [Herbert Armstrong’s] World

The end of the world came for Herbert Armstrong nineteen years ago today.

He’d been predicting the end of the world for some time, starting back in the thirties. World War Two, he declared, would end with “the Second Coming of Christ!” It ended with the Iron Curtain, but never mind.

He then updated his prediction: 1975. He even wrote a “book,” for lack of a better term, called 1975 in Prophecy. Once again, Jesus was late for his own party.

Armstrong, founder of the now-evangelical, then-cultic Worldwide Church of God, had a fondness for the number nineteen. It was somehow of some Biblical significance. “Nineteen-year time cycles” and such. So here it is, nineteen years after the end of his world, and we’re still bumbling along.

The fact that Armstrong never got it right, and in fact failed in two predictions of Jesus’ return (not to mention a host of other failed predictions), hasn’t killed the hydra of Armstrongism. There are still true believers out there, waiting eagerly for the end of the world that’s supposed to come any day now. Men like Roderick Meredith, Gerald Flurry, and David Pack make the most of them, convincing their followers (“sheep,” as they like to call them) to donate thousands of dollars to their sects in return for a guarantee of personal safety when “the Tribulation” begins in “five to fifteen years.”

The Philadelphia Church of God published a year ago its own thoughts about the legacy of Herbert Armstrong.

It’s been “five to fifteen years” for forty years. Armstrong’s been dead an entire “19-year time cycle.” But cultic thinking and the need for security create a seeming perpetual motion machine out of Herbert Armstrong’s teachings. The world is a better place without Armstrong, but his ignorance continue to haunt.

The question of just who Armstrong was used to haunt me a great deal. The question of identity was the question of sincerity. In other words, did he really believe his own heresy? In still other words, was he consciously fleecing his believers? This simple question — was he a True Believer — affects all other aspects of how we view him. It’s makes it a question of either being an uneducated but sincere man who got caught up in his own growing power and wealth, or being callously manipulative and evil.

Everyone who’s ever been affected by Armstrong and come to reject his heresy has to answer that question. I’m not sure I’ve worked out my own answer. I probably never will. Unfortunately, I’ll probably never stop trying to work it out — the obsession factor.

The legacy, if it can even be called that, of Armstrong is dying outside the circles of people who were directly affected by his heresy. Before he died, Armstrong managed to visit with all sorts of kings and dignitaries. Supporters say it’s because he was such a great, noble man; critics charge that he bought these audiences.

At his death, letters of condolence from leaders around the world:

Teddy Kollek, mayor of Jerusalem at the time, wrote, “One could only be deeply impressed by his vast efforts to promote understanding and peace among peoples. His good deeds were felt in many corners of the world.” The mayor of Pasadena called him “a giant of a man.” The Israeli ambassador to the U.S. called him “an inspiring religious and public and educational personality.” The king of Thailand considered him a “close and valuable friend.” The king of Nepal said he was “dedicated to the cause of serving humanity.” (Philadelphia Trumpet)

“He was a great man,” everyone in his church thought when he died, “And the whole world shares in our grief.” The letters from leaders (even Reagan sent a letter) were proof of Armstrong’s worldwide impact. They knew him; they met with him; they sought his advice — the world reeled from the loss.

And now? How many know of him? If I were to stand at a street corner and take a poll in downtown Manhattan, who would know whom I’m talking about?

Virtually none, I would imagine.

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