My employer gave me a couple of days off for vacation as a “reward” for completing a very large and stressful rush job on time, when a long time friend, who still attends the Worldwide Church of God, started talking to me about the Feast of Tabernacles. I had almost forgotten the whole holy day thing. Then I started to get curious.
Herbert Armstrong was a boozing alcoholic. That may be one reason he wanted to spring from the Church of God Seventh Day: He wanted to continue to wallow in his alcoholic solution to problems. Garner Ted Armstrong was an alcoholic. David Jon Hill was an alcoholic. Regional pastors in the hinterland were alcoholics. The whole WCG was top heavy with alcoholics and that defined the character of the church (or lack of it). Alcohol permeated the entire structure.
It was a beautiful summer Sabbath morning. The air was fresh and clear, not a hint of smog. The temperature outside was already in the mid 70’s. There was a slight dew on the lawns which made it glisten in the early morning sunlight like highly polished crystal. A warm breeze filled the air with the aromatic sent of the blooming jasmine. It was a perfect morning for
Herbert and Loma to take a stroll through the campus before breakfast. Since he had the sermon that afternoon, this would give him some time to reflect and ponder on what he was going to graciously share with the congregation. But no matter, he was known for his long and spontaneous sermons, which were at times very disconnected and rambling. I personally can remember him speaking from 1:00 PM to after 5:00 PM, non stop, Gerald Waterhouse had a good teacher!
It was probably early June and after graduation, because Grove Terrace, one of the old men’s dorms, was about to be torn down to make way for a new building that would house a larger number of men in the finest of style, which was the Ambassador way.
The building itself was now just an empty shell that had seen better days. It had been abandoned since graduation, the month before. All the furnishings and anything of value had been removed, because come Monday morning it would be leveled to the ground and hauled away. Then the new construction would begin.
Herbert and Loma were taking a peaceful and quiet stroll down Grove Street when there was a break in their conversation, he suddenly stopped in front of the old dorm. He stood there for the longest time in silence just staring at the building. Loma quizzically looked at him as he stood there staring wondering what was this man up to.
Finally he began to look around, then he found what he was looking for, a small pile of golf ball size rocks. He picked up several, one at time, until he found just the right one. Looking around to see if anyone was watching, no one in sight, he then gave it a powerful throw right through a large plate glass window in the abandoned structure. It made a horrible noise that echoed down the street and part way across the campus. Loma was shocked at what she had just seen her husband do. But then she smiled, picked up a rock and threw it through another window. They both smiled at each other as if they just had fulfilled some strange secret ritual. As they began to walk on she said to Herb, “I always wanted to do that!”
As early morning gave way to early afternoon, the campus became alive with activity. Students were shuffling back and forth to the student center from Sabbath day brunch. Across the way at the gym, final preparation was being made for church fservices. Since HWA was going to speak, everything had to be just right, or heads would roll.
The morning passed quickly. It was now afternoon and time for church services to begin. Nearly everyone was seated, and the last minute stragglers began to shuffle in and find their place among the small sea of bodies and faces.
Services started with the usual predictable fanfare, songs followed by the sermonette. To the relief of everyone the sermonette finally concluded with the usual summary of three meaningless and mindless points. The audience sighed a silent sigh….one down, one to go. Keeping the Sabbath was tough and took a considerable amount of concentration to avoid being distracted, or worse, falling asleep.
Next to speak was Mr. HWA, but he was not to be found anywhere in the gym. But not to worry, the ministers knew exactly where he was….church services were piped into all the executive homes of the top brass. So it was not necessary for Herbert and Loma to attend the first part of the service, he was above having to sit and listen to those dry and mundane sermonettes, if only we could have been so spiritually mature!
But just to be sure, one of the ministers called their house to let them know that the sermonette had ended. This was the cue for the two of them to walk from their campus home to the gym.
As he entered the gym, the audience hushed and for a brief moment, there was not a sound. Then the crowd broke into a standing ovation as he walked up on to the speakers platform. He stood straight and tall, even though he was a small runt of a man, he seemed as though he were 10 feet tall.. With his shoulders held back, and his head high he projected the appearance of pompous arrogance that we often mistook for dignity and righteousness…he soaked in the adoration like a dry sponge. It seemed to energize and charge him with a dominate power over the crowd. He appeared to be a magnificent and awesome example of righteousness and character, almost a god! If only we hand known then what we know now…sigh, if only!
The ovations of applause were almost to the point of being a religious frenzy. Excitement and anticipation filled the air. He would raise his arms to quiet everyone down. As they began to take their seats, their whole attention and purpose for being was focussed on the man, after a few moments of silence he would pan the audience with his beady eyes, then with a forceful and dynamic voice ask, “Why are you here?”……It was a familiar beginning to what was to eventually become a verbal ritual. It was a ritual that by the time he was finished with his sermon, we were left doubting and fearful of our relationship with God.
As he looked at the audience, seeing their eager anticipation, leaning slightly forward and gripping the lectern, his stare became intense, it pierced right into our souls and gave us a chill as we thought he could see right into our lives… He raised his hand as if to gesture, he than began to wag his finger, and with a booming voice resonating with power and emotion he almost shouted, “You will rule the nations, along with Jesus Christ, with a rod of iron……….” He would go on to explain a distorted view of our responsibility and duty, as commanded by his god. He made it all too clear to us; our first step toward spiritual greatness hinged on our support of this man’s great and awesome work. He needed our prayers, our unquestioning loyalty, but most of all he needed our money to accomplish his great end time work
To fail now, at a time when victory was so very near, would mean his god would force us to live through the Great Tribulations in some horrible and hideous concentration camp. Being beaten, tortured, and mercilessly oppressed until we died a horrible and anguished filled death. Or worse, if we failed in our obedience, even under oppression and torture, the lake of fire and eternal death and separation from our God awaited those who failed.
To make his point even clearer, and to instill even more fear to disobey into our childlike hearts, he would bellow out like some wounded animal, “….and 50% of you people are not going to make it into the kingdom!!” …..at which point our hearts and love for the kingdom melted like wax on a hot summer day. We would become still and quiet, you could almost hear a pin drop as we nervously contemplated what had just been said, allowing it to sink deep into the inner most parts of our minds.
We were like those windows that had been smashed by the hurling stones, our hopes and dreams were in an instant shattered and broken into thousands of disconnected pieces..
In the quietness of the moment we began to contemplate …..50%, …..HWA, GTA, all the evangelists, all the pastors, all the preaching elders, all the local elders, all the Spokesman Club officers, ….there just was not much, if any, room left for the typical member. Because we each knew that we were not in the 50% which were going to make it…. Got to pray more, got to study more, and most importantly got to give more of our income to the work of HWA. Maybe, just maybe, his god would be pleased enough to allow us a place in his kingdom; or at least spare us from the coming tribulation. It was a frightening and horrible treadmill, the harder we worked, the faster we went, the further behind we became.
But just when we were in complete despair, the tone of his voice and sermon would change. Our emotions were about to be manipulated again. It’s almost as if he knew our feelings of despair and that we needed a positive spiritual boost.
He began talking about the wonderful world tomorrow, it was exciting to hear the prophetic words concerning the future, we regained some of our hope regarding our salvation. The awesome power we would command by the words of our lips. We would be able to crush, maim and destroy our emmies with just a mere thought. It would be a time of our revenge, it would be sweet to get even for all the torment we had been put through….and don’t tell me you never thought about it in those terms. (But like everything HWA taught, it was a perversion of the real truth of how Jesus Christ will rule.)We were conditioned to think that way. It was called righteous rule. It was not what Jesus taught, but that did not seem to matter to the man who had direct contact with his god.
It became apparent he was stoned, drunk not on liquor but on the power and authority he wielded. One moment he would raise our spirits to new heights and then the next dash us to pieces. He seemed to get a distorted and twisted thrill using the power at his disposal. He was addicted to his own self worth and importance, on the office of power, authority and self importance. No one could stand in his presence and survive unless he willed it. He was responsible to no one, not even his god. He changed the teaching of his god to fit his every whim and desire. Condemning divorce and anyone who disagreed with him on this issue, then when it suited his need, a miraculous revelation from his god now declaring it to be OK to divorce. Which, just as a matter of coincidence, was about the time when Herbert needed, desperately needed, to divorce his wife. Now he could do it with all the righteousness and authority of his god behind him….and we never saw or understood how we were being manipulated. Some few did and paid with their lives being destroyed by the would be apostle.
With just a wave of a finger he could make a nobody a powerful minister, with the same wave of a finger he could completely destroy and shatter any individual he took a dislike to or whom he felt threatened his empire and it’s wealth.
Looking back I am not sure after he finished his sermon if we knew why we were there…except to perhaps be beaten up spiritually. The answer seemed to be as elusive as the question was frightening. Why did we come back week after week, year after year and subject ourselves to such unreasonable and irrational spiritual, and even sometimes physical abuse? I guess the answer is about the same as to why the moth is drawn to the flame.