Updated August 1 2001
Once, there was a small town ad salesman named Herbert Armstrong who discovered religion. Raised a nominal Quaker, he converted to a small Adventist sect known as the Church of God (Seventh Day). A man who liked to do things his own way, he wasted little time in striking out alone, founding his own ministry, and raking in the tithes. It was called the Radio Church of God.
Former Plain Truth staff member Monte Wolverton, writing of his father, artist Basil Wolverton, gives an unvarnished summary of the early years.
(My father's) beliefs derived largely from the bizarre and eclectic teachings of Herbert Armstrong, a Chicago advertising and marketing man who had experienced an economic downturn in the early 1920's. Armstrong had moved his family to Oregon, in search of greener pastures. There, among a group of seventh-day sabbatarians, he became convinced that the Anglo-Saxon people were part of the descendants of the "Lost Ten Tribes of the House of Israel." A high-school dropout with no formal theological education, Armstrong thought he had discovered the heretofore lost key to all biblical prophecy, and that the Tribulation spoken of in the book of Revelation would shortly fall on the United States and the nations of the British Commonwealth.
Not unlike many evangelical preachers of the early 1930's, Armstrong adopted a dispensationalist paradigm, with a pre-millennialist, literal interpretation of the apocalyptic sections of scripture -- albeit with his own particular spin. The Bible, he taught, predicted imminent worldwide calamities, followed by the return of Christ and a happy Millennium, followed by the destruction of the wicked, followed by the advent of new heavens and earth.
As he began his ministry in Eugene, Oregon, Armstrong was convinced God had chosen him to bring a warning message to the world. In fact, he gradually became deluded into thinking he was the only true messenger of God in this age... As Armstrong's following grew, so did the threat of a second world war. He believed this was it -- the Beast, the Antichrist, and the whole end-time enchilada. (Monte Wolverton, Wolverton's Worldview)
While a lot of people suffered under his imperious doctrines, the church grew anyway. Armstrong's authoritarian style, however, caused some to think twice. Among the casualties was his first "headquarters church".
Our failure to have realized this [need to purge members who continued to associate with ex-members] in the mother Church at Eugene, Oregon years ago, did split that Church. It resulted, finally, in half the former members, embittered, soured, in a wrong spirit instead of that of God's Holy Spirit, being disfellowshipped - no longer members of GOD'S CHURCH, no longer participants in HIS WORK, no longer knowing the JOY of His salvation, but only the dregs of bitterness, jealousy and hate. (Armstrong writing in The Good News, July 1955)
Like a bad soap opera, this scenario was to be played out time and time again. Herbert Armstrong had zero tolerance for dissent.
Following World War II, Armstrong cut the losses from his operation in Oregon and relocated to Pasadena, California, establishing Ambassador College to train suitably compliant ministers. In 1968 the church was renamed the Worldwide Church of God. Its magazine, The Plain Truth, and broadcast, The World Tomorrow, aggressively promoted the church around the world.
Herbert W. Armstrong's troubled personal life was well hidden, and for good reason. Incest and alcoholism are two of the charges that have been leveled at the man who proclaimed himself "God's Apostle". The double standard which the Apostle practiced in areas such as medical treatment and divorce demonstrated his ongoing contempt for those who financed his religious empire, people he referred to as "the dumb sheep".
A Dallas Morning News story by Scott Parks (April 2, 2000) included the following comments:
Herbert Armstrong, a failed salesman, founded the church in 1933 as a radio ministry in Oregon. He eventually moved to Pasadena, Calif., and built a sumptuous 48-acre world headquarters.
Mr. Armstrong created church laws mandating worship on Saturday, dietary restrictions and prohibitions against seeking medical treatment. Church members eventually found out he broke most of those rules while traveling all over the world on a private jet. Mr. Armstrong also was forced to admit an incestuous relationship with his daughter. Despite these things, he was still revered by most church members when he died in 1986 at age 92.
"We neither deify nor vilify him," said Dr. Bernie Schnippert, the church's chief financial officer. "We respect that we are descended from his efforts." In the 1990s, church leaders began moving away from Mr. Armstrong's legalistic teachings and began espousing a more orthodox theology centered around salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. The change in theology created a schism in the church. Membership dropped from a high of 90,000 registered members in the United States to a current enrollment of 30,000, Dr. Schnippert said.
Herbert Armstrong's son, Garner Ted Armstrong, was at first earmarked to follow him as head of the family firm. But he made the mistake of standing up to his father at the same time his own moral indiscretions became a liability.
When Herbert Armstrong died in 1986, his church began a process of dramatic change. Arguably for the better. Joseph Tkach Sr., HWA's hand picked successor, led the sect along unexpected pathways. Long held beliefs and practices were abandoned. But there were many members who "longed for the fleshpots of Egypt", and the security that comes with a cultic mindset. While Herbert Armstrong has been toppled from his pedestal in the Worldwide Church of God (which no longer publishes his material), he is still regarded with idolatrous awe among some of the schisms that formed after his death.
Today Herbert's spiritual inheritors include not only the Worldwide Church of God, now led by Joe Tkach Junior, but the United Church of God (one of the more balanced breakaways), the Living Church of God (led by long-standing Armstrong lieutenant Rod Meredith), the bizarre Philadelphia Church of God, and the Garner Ted Armstrong Evangelistic Association. The full list is much longer than this. In addition, many former members have completely disassociated themselves from the church and its myriad splinters.