The Painful Truth About The Worldwide Church of God
This article is from the New Times LA newspaper, published 2/4/1997
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Honey, I Shrunk the Church  Page 3

Feature Photo

Feature Photo

Herbert Armstrong and his first wife, Loma, looking over an early issue of the church's magazine; top, the publication's new slimmed down, more mainstream version.


But there was more.

As it turns out, the foundation had routinely taped the Ambassador performances, compiling a treasure trove of commercial-quality audio- and videotapes of nearly every concert ever held there. Many are considered priceless -- performances by Ray Charles, Benny Goodman, Sarah Vaughn, and countless others. There were rare tapes of the Kirov Ballet's 1986 appearance, its first in the United States in more than 20 years, and the Julliard String Quartet's traversal of the complete Beethoven quartets.

"It's an astounding collection," says Richard Koprowski, assistant archivist at the Stanford Archive of Recorded Sound, which offered to store the recordings free of charge on the church's behalf. The archive, home to more than 200,000 recordings, is one of the few facilities in the nation equipped to handle such a collection. (Officials at the Huntington Library in San Marino had considered offering to help, but decided that they had neither the space nor the expertise.)

After first indicating they would accept Stanford's offer, however, church officials changed their minds, leaving the highly sensitive and presumably deteriorating recordings in limbo. Until recently, at least, former insiders say, the tapes were stacked floor-to-ceiling in about 1,000 boxes inside two small rooms on the Pasadena campus. Koprowski and others say that the delicate and aging recordings are probably in need of special restorative treatment to prevent them from becoming worthless, something that the archive offered to do at its own expense. "Our thinking was and is that it would be an unforgivable thing for a resource such as this to perish," Koprowski says.

The Stanford archive does possess 20 of the estimated 2,000 recordings made at Ambassador, but only because they were outside the church's control. Koprowski says that while making room for more storage space in 1994, an employee at KUSC-FM came across the tapes, part of a series that the station had produced in the 1970s for National Public Radio (with opera star Beverly Sills as host) called "Live from Ambassador." The station donated them to Stanford.

The foundation's last acting director, ex-church member B. Douglas Russell, says that before he departed last December, church leaders had discussed destroying the tapes. "They talked about it, and I had the clear impression they would have, except that there were legal considerations that may have made it quite costly," he says. At the time the church was considering letting Stanford store them, Russell says, the materials were "scattered over the campus, some of them in a tin building, others in vacant student housing. Some of it I know was already water-damaged. Very little of it had been kept under what I'd call acceptable environmental conditions."

He sees the church leaders' apparent lack of interest in the tapes as another rejection of Armstrongism. "Within the culture of the church, these men had discussed Ambassador as an embarrassment and a huge waste of money," he says. "Am I surprised that they seem content to let these recordings wither away? No."

A small, portly man with a baritone voice and beaming smile, Herbert Armstrong exuded personal magnetism. The son of Quaker parents, he had bounced from one failed business venture to another in his youth. He reportedly became interested in the scriptures after his wife, Loma, experienced a "miraculous" healing. After announcing in 1933 that God had chosen him as his personal messenger, he scraped up enough money to buy airtime in Eugene, Oregon, and the Radio Church of God was born.

Over the next five decades, the salesman-turned-prophet became known to millions of Americans with his The World Tomorrow broadcasts on radio, and later TV.

His ministry didn't take off, however, until he cracked the L.A. airwaves during World War II. Soon he was able to buy what became the centerpiece of his empire -- the Pasadena estate that had once belonged to the brother-in-law of Cyrus Hall McCormick, inventor of the reaper. As the membership grew, money came pouring in from triple tithes: Members were required to contribute 10 percent of their incomes, spend 10 percent on celebrating the biblical Feast of Tabernacles each fall, and -- two of every seven years -- donate another 10 percent to the church for "charitable works."

Then, in the '70s, the church was wracked by upheaval that, similar to today, threatened its existence.

The sand in the prophet's hourglass was empty. He had long taught that three years in advance of the global destruction he had predicted would occur in 1975, church members would begin to be transported to the Middle Eastern desert city of Petra (in present-day Jordan) for their own protection. But the time to depart passed uneventfully, and the faithful, including some with bags packed, were disappointed. ("Some of us...had speculated that Mr. Armstrong and the church leaders would stay in the big hotel on the outskirts of town and that the rest of us would wait things out in the caves nearby," scoffs a former church member.)

Meanwhile, defectors from the inner-circle began to leak information about Armstrong's lavish lifestyle, his profligate spending on travel and entertainment. They also complained about feather-bedding by Armstrong relatives and other hangers-on, some of whom had received lucrative personal services contracts for doing little or nothing. (In 1979, California placed the church under receivership over charges of financial irregularities. But the state investigation was dropped after the church persuaded the Legislature to prohibit the attorney general from investigating religious organizations in such cases.)

Besides a fashionable home in Pasadena, Armstrong had a country estate in Texas and a Victorian house on the outskirts of London, near the church's Brickett Wood college campus. He and Garner Ted Armstrong each had church-provided jets and traveled frequently. In fact, Herbert's globe-trotting became the stuff of legend. Gone for up to nine months a year, he glad-handed an incredible array of world leaders, from Japanese prime ministers and the leaders of China, Europe, and the Middle East, to heads of state in Africa and Latin America.

Doling out expensive crystal-figurine mementos as if they were chocolate bars, Armstrong proclaimed the courting of dignitaries part of his mission that was ordained by God. Others saw it as the world's most expensive autograph hunt. Although many of his followers were of modest means, he used their tithe money to lavish gifts on the rich and powerful. He once bought an introduction to Prince Charles with a charitable contribution to the Royal Opera House in London. Another time, he gave a huge sum to USC in exchange for the university's establishing -- of all things -- the Herbert W. Armstrong Professorship of Constitutional Law.

Relatives were said to be routinely using the church's corporate credit cards for personal expenses. Armstrong had the habit of carrying at least $10,000 in cash each time out, which he often passed out as "fun money" to those around him. On a whim, he once spent $30,000 to rent a yacht in Monte Carlo. Another time, according to a former insider, he flew to London for the sole purpose of buying a specially made prosthetic sex toy, which he reportedly carried in a Hermes pouch. Over lunch at the Pastor General's home in England, Alfred Carrozo, a former high-ranking church minister, recalls Armstrong once picking up some salt and pepper shakers and casually remarking that he had paid $12,000 for them.

The thing that drove Carrozo and others to leave, however, was the leader's double standard regarding his own edicts. In accord with Armstrong teaching, church members could visit doctors to obtain a diagnosis, but not (except in a few special cases) receive treatment. "As a pastor in the field, I had seen people die [for lack of medical attention]," Carrozo recalls. "And yet, as I came to find out, whenever he became ill, he would slip away to a doctor for treatment."

But such matters paled compared to another secret.

According to former church officials, and the founder's own grandson, Richard David Armstrong II, Herbert's younger daughter, Dorothy, began to tell family and friends during the '70s that, years earlier, her father had molested her. John Tuit, an ex-church member living in North Carolina, recalls Garner Ted Armstrong telling him of his sister's startling revelation and that Herbert had not denied it when his son confronted him.

The allegation surfaced publicly in a book written by David Robinson, a former Worldwide minister in Oklahoma. The church tried unsuccessfully to suppress it. Robinson recounted a bizarre late-night conversation with the then-widowed Herbert during a church festival in the Poconos. Armstrong, who had been drinking, was alleged to have confessed to Robinson that he had molested his daughter between 1933 and 1943. Then, to the astonishment of the younger minister, Armstrong was said to have produced a small black book in which he had carefully documented the many times he had masturbated, a practice he had frequently railed against from the pulpit. "It was a shattering experience for my dad," says Mark Robinson, a Dallas-area businessman, whose father died in 1995. "Until then, he had no reason to doubt Mr. Armstrong's spirituality."

The issue arose again in 1984, during divorce proceedings between Armstrong and his second wife, Ramona Martin, a former switchboard operator 46 years his junior. The breakup, after seven years of marriage, was nasty. Armstrong, playing hardball, had accused her of stealing church property and was pressing criminal charges while refusing to bend to Ramona's demands for a large settlement, including a large amount of cash and the couple's sprawling ranch-style home in Tucson, Arizona. Until, that is, shortly before a court hearing at which her lawyers had threatened to introduce a purported "understanding" between Herbert and his wife regarding the alleged incest. The divorce was quickly settled to Ramona's satisfaction, and the criminal charges were dropped.

Although damaging, the fallout from such disclosures didn't debilitate Worldwide for as long as Herbert was alive. The amicable and grandfatherly Armstrong continued to enjoy the adoration of rank-and-file members. Among those who heard about his shortcomings, many chose not to believe. "You blocked those kinds of things from your mind," recalls Joyce Renehan, who grew up in the church. (She and her husband, Bruce, left in the early '90s). "You might see a newspaper headline, but you were told not to read that stuff or Satan would get you and you'd be out of the church, and then where would you be?"

The reported high jinks of the younger Armstrong, however, became more difficult to dismiss.

Handsome and charismatic, Ted (as he is known to friends) had, by the early '70s, eclipsed Herbert as the voice of The World Tomorrow, and, in the absence of his jet-setting father, was essentially running the organization. The younger of the Armstrong boys (his brother Richard had died in a car crash), Ted had rebelled against church beliefs as a young man. In the Navy he had gained a reputation as a ladies' man and had returned from the Korean War with tattoos of naked women on his arms and legs. Some recall that he yearned to be an actor.

Instead, he married the daughter of a well-to-do church member, began raising a family, and settled on a career in his father's footsteps. It was widely assumed that someday the church would be his. If there were any who doubted it, they were confined to a few in the hierarchy who became aware of his alleged extramarital affairs. The word had leaked out during the 1960s, the result of a minister having been caught having sex with an Ambassador College coed. It was a big scandal on a campus where Herbert had forbidden girls to wear makeup and where holding hands was a punishable offense. Before being excommunicated, the fallen minister let it slip that Ted had also slept around.

His comments prompted Carrozo, then dean of students, to conduct his own investigation, which convinced him that it was true. Among Ted's avowed conquests were dozens of wide-eyed college women, including some who became ministers' wives, Carrozo says -- adding that he shared his knowledge with a superior who told him that Ted had been fooling around for years and that Herbert had given up trying to do anything about it. Much later, the former dean says, he confronted Ted after listening incredulously to a distraught young married woman confess to committing a carnal sin. After much hesitation, she declared that the younger Armstrong had seduced her. "He admitted it," says Carrozo. "Then, I'll never forget, he said: 'Put me behind bars, slip my food to me, keep me in solitary confinement, but just don't take my microphone away because I must preach the message God has given me.'"

When Ted later began to flaunt an affair with a stewardess assigned to his jet, however, the elder Armstrong could no longer afford to look the other way and temporarily removed him from the TV and radio broadcasts.

Hoping that Ted could repair his marriage away from the media glare, former insiders say, Herbert packed him off to Hawaii with his wife and a bodyguard, whose job was to keep the errant younger Armstrong out of trouble. But a soap opera then ensued. Word got back to church headquarters that Ted had turned up in a massage parlor. Worse, the masseuse who was supposed to attend him had been reduced to tears. Seems the woman had been trying to turn her life around and, incredibly, had recognized her client as the man whose TV sermons had inspired her.

After being expelled by his father in 1978 following an alleged plot by some in the elderly Herbert's inner-circle to discredit him, Ted moved to Texas and founded his own religious group, the Church of God, International. But little appears to have changed. Nearly half of International's 5,000 members have quit since 1995, when a hidden video camera caught a naked and masturbating Armstrong soliciting sex from a Tyler, Texas, masseuse. She contends he had previously sexually assaulted her. Her lawsuit against him is pending.

Never in their wildest dreams did some of Joe Tkach Jr.'s childhood friends imagine that he would someday claim the office occupied by the legendary Herbert Armstrong. But there's no lack of understanding about how it happened.

His father gave it to him.

"There was really never any doubt about that," says Clarke Hockwald, who grew up with the Pastor General and remains a friend, even though he and his wife, Elaine, left the church years ago.

It was already well understood that Joe Jr. would be the church's new leader when, three weeks before his 68-year-old father died of cancer in September, 1995, the elder Tkach called a dozen of the church's most influential ministers to his home to announce that his son would succeed him.

The news elicited none of the astonishment that had swept through the church nine years earlier, when, before Armstrong's death, the founder had announced that the elder Tkach would be his successor. A former aircraft factory foreman from Chicago, Tkach Sr., while widely respected, possessed none of Armstrong's charisma and was not even considered a top lieutenant. But he was known as a loyalist, and many believe the dying founder wanted to leave the church in the hands of someone who wouldn't tinker with it.

But Tkach Sr. did just that.

Prodded by his son and others, he lifted the requirement that members tithe and observe the Sabbath, and began to emphasize salvation through the grace of God as opposed to Armstrong's emphasis on good deeds. Schnippert and Feazell, among the church's current inner-circle, quietly began attending classes at the independent evangelical Azusa Pacific University and, former insiders say, became enamored of ideas that were anathema to Armstrong's teachings, many of which challenged mainstream religious beliefs.

Armstrong had taught, for instance, that England and the United States constituted two of the 10 Lost Tribes of Israel, that a revitalized Germany would rise up and threaten the world with nuclear destruction, and that Old Testament dietary rules forbidding the eating of unclean meats should still be in force. According to him, Christ would return and give members of the church instant and exclusive immortality so that they could help rule the universe.

Not only did the new conformity with traditional evangelical doctrines roil many in the church but so did the manner in which the changes were introduced. Tkach Sr. and those around him repeatedly denied rumors of impending doctrinal shifts, even accusing detractors of spreading lies, only to later institute the changes that had prompted the denials. A doctrinal committee ostensibly under the Pastor General's leadership was riven with so much dissension that it ceased to meet.

Hulme, the United Church of God co-founder, says he had a conversation with the elder Tkach three years before he died and that the former leader told him that significant further changes were in store, but that he intended to keep them under wraps for at least five years, lest they set off a fire-storm within the organization. "It became apparent to me over time that they were going in a direction that was different than what many within the church were being led to believe," Hulme says.

Several prominent Worldwide ministers had already rebelled. In 1989, Oklahoma minister Gerald Flurry established the Philadelphia Church of God, with about 5,000 members. And in 1992, Rod Meredith, once one of Armstrong's top aides, whom many had assumed would succeed him, formed the Global Church of God, headquartered in San Diego, siphoning off another 12,000 of Armstrong's followers. But the formation of United in 1995 proved to be a major blow to the church's efforts to stem the flow of members and money. Among United's directors were six of the 14 Worldwide regional pastors who had jurisdiction over nearly half of its local congregations in the United States.

While basking in the glow of acceptance from evangelicals and others, Tkach Jr., officially at least, has remained optimistic about his church, even as membership has continued to dwindle and revenues have largely dried up.

"My secret desire is that, as time continues, God is going to open the minds and hearts of all these people who were formerly with us in these splinter groups to see the truth," he told the Associated Press in June.

Associates who have left the church and have spurned Tkach's efforts to get them to return say the Pastor General has complained privately that not a week passes that he doesn't get angry calls or letters, and that he and his wife, Tammy, have been threatened with injury several times. "Joe is by far the most benign of the leaders Worldwide has had, and I still consider him a friend," says one former member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, "but sometimes life requires more than not being as bad as your predecessors."

Tom Carrozo, the son of Alfred Carrozo, who grew up with Tkach, insists that the church's current leaders face an insurmountable problem if they're sincere in wanting to put Worldwide back together. "Religions deal with foundational principles that are supposedly immutable," he says. "Once they become mutable, and you've cut out the foundation of the belief system, as Joe Jr. and the others have done, what do you have left?"

Indeed, Tkach in recent months has appeared close to reversing field once again with respect to at least one major doctrinal change. In a pastoral letter in January, he chastened members who "in the area of tithes...have decided to forsake their responsibility to God and to the church."

Other moves, meanwhile, have flopped.

Compared to the nine million copies of the Plain Truth published monthly in several languages during the Armstrong era, the revamped magazine has been slow to take hold. Sources say it has fewer than 100,000 subscribers. In a bid to ramp up circulation, sources say, the church has resorted to giving it away to members who are unable, or unwilling, to pay for it.

"The transition was so poorly thought out," says one ex-member, "that if this had been a Fortune 500 company, Joe Jr. and his friends would have been fired a long time ago."

Bob Ellsworth, who left Worldwide in the '70s and still claims friends there, puts it another way: "Herbert Armstrong knew that his people liked Rocky Road. These guys stumbled out there and brought home vanilla." 

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