Some Pasadena Historical Footnotes
By Joe AC
During my years at AmbASSador College in the 1980's I sat through a lot of sermons, forums, assemblies, etc., that went over and over about the history of the Ambassador College campus. They liked to contrast the size and prosperity of the church and college in the 1980's with the late 1940's and early 1950's, when people were saying, "when this place will shut down". I don't deny the magnitude of sacrifices that were made by dedicated Worldwide Church of God members at the time. I just got sick of the Worldwide Church of God constantly reminding us of what heroes their leaders were. Twenty years later, with the Worldwide Church of God split into several disintegrating pieces, the place may indeed finally shut down for good. Has the campus sold yet?
In the 1980's, as a true believer in good standing at the time, I had questions about the validity of many claims by Herbert W. Armstrong and company. Most of them were about historical statements on the early years of the Worldwide Church of God that contradicted each other, or why there were so many arguments between Herbert W. Armstrong and leaders of the Church of God, Seventh Day. I sat down and reread Herbert W. Armstrong's autobiography, only to be filled with still more questions. One of the questions was why Herbert W. Armstrong chose Pasadena to build his college campus and church headquarters. His logic didn't make much sense to me at the time. His very small collection of followers were far away in Oregon and Washington. Like most members of the Worldwide Church of God, I was not around when any of those events happened. While he described the need for a location that would be near the large recording facilities in Los Angeles or New York City, other parts of the Autobiography recall the Worldwide Church of God using studios on campus that could have been built anywhere. I recall later reading the old Ambassador Reports asking the same question and describing how it was found that the recording equipment used over the years was readily available via mail order.
I have heard of a few historical works floating around on those early years of Herbert W. Armstrong and the Worldwide Church of God. I have read a few of them, and I would encourage other visitors of this web site to search and do likewise. In this article, I want to speculate and possibly get inside the mind of Herbert W. Armstrong in the mid 1940's to see why he chose what he chose as the headquarters of his new church. Although Herbert W. Armstrong first had his hopes on some castle in Switzerland, he very quickly changed his sights on Pasadena. In order to do this, I will try to relate some history of the city of Pasadena. Not of the A.C. campus, but of the city. The city has some colorful history, and it is funny how none of the Worldwide Church of God ministers ever talked much about it.
It was some years before the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad when homesteaders from Indiana searched Southern California for what they hoped would be the best land they could find. They chose and settled in a sheltered northwestern corner of the San Gabriel Valley for its climate and reliable water supply, calling the place the "Indiana Colony". While a lot of homesteaders in United States history were down and out and in search of a better life, many of the Indiana immigrants who came to California to escape the cold winters were already wealthy.
In a few decades the region became a major agricultural center. Who knows how many tons of citrus were sent through Los Angeles and on down to the harbor that would eventually become the ports of San Pedro and Long Beach. By 1889 the very first "Rose Parade" was hosted in Pasadena when a few horse drawn wagons were covered with fresh flowers and dragged around town in the middle of winter. It was almost as if southern Californians were thumbing their noses at all those who were buried in snow back east.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, with its health spas and luxury hotels nestled amongst the orange groves, Pasadena had become a number one tourist destination in the United States. Hollywood at the time was barely a suburb. Beverly Hills was a chicken ranch. Los Angeles wasn't much of a city either. Walt Disney was a child. It wouldn't be until the 1920's when Florida would start to attract tourists, and only sailors ever saw Hawaii or the Caribbean. Pasadena was where people wanted to go. Americans of the day felt that warm dry air had medicinal qualities. It must have been a thrill for a wealthy family from Chicago to stand in front of an orange tree on a sunny day in January. One could also have ridden the famous Mt. Lowe Railway to another large resort in the mountains above the city. For the first time within the Industrial Revolution, Americans of slightly above average means could afford the train ride to vacation in a place that seemed like a far away paradise. It must have been a status symbol among the very wealthy Midwestern agri-industrialists to own a second home or mansion in Pasadena.
Now let us imagine a young impressionable Herbert W. Armstrong in the 1910's, struggling to impress these same captains of industry in and around Chicago. Although there may be no known record of young Herb ever seeing Pasadena, he very likely heard a lot about it and the symbol of wealth and prestige the place represented. It would be no surprise that those same images of Pasadena were just as strong to an older Herbert W. Armstrong as he started to search for a place to put his name at the close of World War II. One can only speculate a sense of desperation for such a move at that time. Herbert W. Armstrong had been defrocked from the COG7 in the late 1930's, and he may have been looking for a faraway fresh start as most of his gloomy predictions for an Allied loss of WWII failed to materialize. Let us also remember that land was cheap at the time.
For many companies, it is customary to have a "signature building". This is especially true for businesses that are highly visible to the public, such as in media production. The first example that comes to mind is that tower in Hollywood that looked like a big stack of records. The signature building that houses a company's home office is a powerful symbolic piece of advertising in itself. The Worldwide Church of God headquarters/A.C. campus in Pasadena was no exception to this principle. From the gold printed picture of the Ambassador Auditorium on our hymn books at church services to the idiotic festival films, the reminders of Worldwide Church of God HQ were everywhere.
If the Pasadena buildings and grounds served the purpose of installing a sense of awe in the hearts and minds of Worldwide Church of God members, everything about attending A.C. was about who was leadership material and who wasn't. It would be impossible to count the many times we heard the phrase "...but few are chosen". I can personally testify that a manpower committee mentality was very much alive and well at A.C. in the 1980's. What Ambassador Report may have forgot to tell us was how many of the student leaders and ministerial hopefuls were chosen based on family connections to prominent ministers or major financial donors to the the Worldwide Church of God, and not based on their outstanding ability or sterling personal character.
While the Worldwide Church of God ministry constantly droned on about how wonderful Ambassador College was with its beautiful grounds, the late John Trechak rightfully reminded us of its poor academic standards and a library almost devoid of books. If any of us dared to ask why so many starving A.C. graduates found themselves needing to go back to another four years at the local university to get an accredited degree, it certainly was not any fault of "God's College".
By the middle 1970's, the Worldwide Church of God had at best come to a point where it was growing very slowly in members and dollars. By the time I arrived at A.C., you would be lucky to see about five out of a class of a hundred or more hired into the full time ministry. Another twenty or so would be hired for some other full time job for the Worldwide Church of God, usually barely above minimum wage. Unless you had some good connections to a family business back home, most of the rest of us had a few rough years getting on our feet vocationally. Most of us found ourselves going back to school.
Today, the Worldwide Church of God and its splinters still exist. At the time of this writing, the Pasadena campus still exists, somewhat kept up though eerily empty. The lawns are not overgrown, but the leaves are seldom raked up like they used to be. The days of the thriving Worldwide Church of God and Ambassador College as we once knew them are gone for good. Similar stories have been written of some of the formerly Worldwide Church of God owned festival sites sitting in utter disrepair to remind us of this fact. (For an example, compare Mount Pocono, 1987 and today on Ambassador Watch). In contrast, the city of Pasadena continues to thrive and evolve as a crowded metropolitan center. The very expensive homes to the west and south of the campus remain as always, while the trendy Old Town commercial district continues to thrive and expand. The homeless population continues to congregate further south on Raymond Avenue, and the Rose Parade continues every year along Orange Grove Avenue and Colorado Boulevard.
Who knows what kind of signature building the new leadership is going to occupy once the Pasadena campus finally sells? Probably a rented garage in an industrial park that screams some other message to the world, proclaiming the personal greatness of Hank Hanegraaff and various other proclaimed protestant heroes of the new Worldwide Church of God. One can only speculate.
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