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.
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.