The Middle of the Movie
By John B
Many of those now living in the Worldwide Church of God or its splinter cults may never have heard Herbert Armstrong speak, even on the radio. He died almost 17 years ago, and many new converts were attracted to his organization after his death. For such people, it may be of little value to point out that Armstrong was a megalomaniac, a pervert, a liar, a thief, or that he committed both rape and incest – they never knew him, so this information has no meaning.
But in spite of all his faults, his sins, and his hypocrisy, Armstrong was often right. When he pointed out the hypocrisies and inconsistencies of mainstream Christianity, he was dead right. When he said “Don’t believe me, believe your Bible!” he was dead right (assuming that the Bible is the word of God). When he said “Prove all things” – he was absolutely right.
He also said something else that was right. He said it often, and I still remember it. He said something to the effect that (to paraphrase): “Most of us view history from the moment we were born. We only know what we see around us, and we don’t appreciate what happened before. It’s like coming into a movie in the middle of the story – if you didn’t see the whole thing, you don’t really understand what is happening.”
How right he was!
The Historical Record
When he talked about the “middle of the movie”, Armstrong’s point was that, in order to understand world events today, we need to look at the entire picture, at the sequence of events leading up to what is currently going on. That’s a very good point. No one who hasn’t reviewed the historical record can properly appreciate what is happening in the Middle East, particularly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The same is true in Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia, and other global hotspots.
More importantly, that same yardstick can be used against Herbert Armstrong himself, and his organization. Those of us who came into “the church” in the “middle of the movie” (i.e., ALL of us) only viewed the church in the context of what was happening at the time we became part of it. None of us had access to the historical record of Herbert Armstrong and his [adjective] Church of God. Even if we had, few of us would have studied it, or come to the right conclusions.
From time to time, Worldwide Church of God ministers would reference the “early years” of the church, usually to shore up whatever was the point of that day’s sermon. But these references were often inaccurate or just plain wrong. Even Armstrong’s Autobiography misrepresented that early history.
I picked up a faint scent in 1968 while working at Ambassador College (Pasadena campus). One of my coworkers was a man who, like me, had grown up in the church. However, he had grown up in the 1940s, twenty years ahead of me. He was still a true believer, but he told me that, during WWII, Armstrong believed that the Tribulation was about to begin (or had already started). Members in those days believed that the end was already upon them.
Many years later, when I discovered Ambassador Report and other “dissident” materials, I learned the truth of what that gentleman told me. Armstrong did indeed seem to believe that WWII was the beginning of the end times, that the Great Tribulation was poised to begin. His co-worker letters are filled with dire predictions of Nazi victories, of the collapse of the United States and Great Britain, and of the rise of the Beast Power in the person of Benito Mussolini. It makes terrifying reading, and in the dark days of 1942-44, I’m sure it terrified open a lot of wallets to “support the Work”.
My mother joined Worldwide Church of God in 1961. Most of you who read this joined even later. None of us ever saw that part of the movie. But it’s important to know about that scene if you want to understand who Herbert Armstrong was, and what his organization stood for (and its splinters still stand for).
Prior to WWII, Herbert Armstrong was “ordained” by the Church of God 7th Day (COG7). He talks about that in some detail in his Autobiography, but his recollection differs from that of others who were there at the time. Armstrong relates how he “discovered new truth” about holy days and other doctrines that the COG7 people simply refused to accept. In his view, they were not truly converted, had “dead works”, and were resistant to the word of God. Ergo, he was forced to separate from them, strike out on his own, and establish the “Philadelphia era” of the church.
But other accounts tell of an egotistical young upstart who breezed into the organization and tried to wrest control from the established leadership. They tell of congregations led astray, of co-opted tithes and offerings that Armstrong kept for himself. They remember Armstrong as “headstrong”, as a rebel, as unwilling to submit to the very leaders who had ordained him.
So whose memory is more accurate? Hard to say, because none of us were there at the time. Again, we didn’t see that part of the movie.
But even a casual reading of Armstrong’s Autobiography reveals a man who was very prideful. He even brags about it, how he pioneered certain in-your-face advertising tactics, how he blustered his way into jobs by confronting the heads of companies and demanding the chance to prove himself. By his own account, he did things his own way, and according to him, his way was almost always right (he attributes his failures to God bringing him down for a “higher calling”).
Based on that, I think the COG7 observers probably remember the Armstrong years more accurately than Armstrong reported them in his Autobiography.
The Complete Movie
The movie is long and complex, but let’s just take a quick look at the trailer:
Herbert Armstrong was a successful advertising man in the 1910s and 1920s. On several occasions he lost his fortune, either to a flash depression or other outside forces (never anything under his control). After the 1929 crash, he was destitute, with a family to feed. At this point God begins calling him to the ministry. He joins the COG7, becomes ordained, starts preaching on the radio, has a falling out, continues on his own for a few years, but is finally “called” to move to Pasadena (something to do with being near Hollywood, which was even then the communications center of America).
In the 1940s he begins buying property on “Millionaires Row” (Orange Grove Blvd.) and in 1947 is “called” to establish a college to train the ministry (apparently by now he is aware that the end is not coming quite yet). In 1953, the radio program expands to Europe, the church begins to grow worldwide, and in the 1960s two more college campii are established (in Texas and England).
Through the 1960s, the church begins teaching that the Great Tribulation will begin on January 7, 1972 (38 years to the day after Herbert Armstrong first went on the radio in Medford, OR, and 19 years to the day since he went on the air in Europe over Radio Luxembourg). Garner Ted Armstrong begins taking over more and more broadcasting duties (and other activities involving “broads”).
Loma Armstrong dies in 1967 and Herbert begins traveling around the globe, “spreading the gospel to world leaders”. With Garner Ted essentially in charge, the church is repeatedly rocked by scandal throughout the 1970s, including a “great falling away” of ministers in 1974. Armstrong fires and exiles Ted in 1978, but his troubles aren’t over – the state of California moves against Worldwide Church of God in 1979, but ultimately gives up the battle when it becomes clear that “church-and-state” issues are involved.
Armstrong dies in 1986, with no clear successor to his throne. (Now comes the intermission, and when the film resumes, we see Joseph Tkach making a successful power grab and stealing the organization for himself and his heir. What follows next is ugly indeed, but since most of you have seen that part of the movie, I will not recap it.)
What Does It Mean?
The above recap is just that – a recap. It does not tell the whole story, not even close. And that’s the whole point of this article – the details of what happened in those early years are necessary to understand Armstrong, what he wanted, what he was after, and how it affected the scores of thousands of individuals like you and me who were once members of his “church”. If you haven’t seen the whole movie, you have been deceived.
I haven’t the space to give you those details, but you need to know them. You can find most of them in the Ambassador Report (the link is on this website), and you need to read that information. The short version is that Herbert Armstrong was...
ALL ABOUT MONEY.
Imagine a man who, according to his own Autobiography, was driven by ambition to be financially successful. Imagine a man who worked hard, who probably did pioneer some of those advertising concepts, and who made a great deal of money. Then imagine that same man brought crashing down to poverty level by an economy that has gone south. His ambition remains, but his means of achieving it are gone. He must now try something else, so he tries selling mud (some kind of facial treatment), and that also fails.
Imagine that man with a wife and two children (one of whom he will one day use as a concubine), with no income, unable to find employment, humiliated by being forced to work at the most menial tasks (by his own admission); something has got to give. He is not going to lie down and take this! He has a destiny! He will be wealthy again! He will be respected! He will rule over an empire!
And imagine his wife, sitting there with two hungry kids, telling him, “Damn it, Herbert! You better find something soon! Or else!”
And somewhere along the line (exactly how or when is not clear), he realizes there is money in religion. Fortunes can be made by preaching the “gospel”. So he spends six months in hard study, learning the Bible, memorizing large portions of it, studying the works of many different churches, and formulating a theology that blends doctrines from many of them.
Then he hooks up with COG7, a small sect with an offbeat theology, mostly “simple country folk” who Herbert sees as a collection of unsophisticated hayseeds whom he (a big-city boy) can easily dominate. But his domination is not completely successful. He sways some of the members, but the leadership digs in for a fight, and finally Herbert is forced to turn away, taking as many tithe-payers with him as possible.
So far, he has been able to make a living at this, put food on the table, but that’s about it. His destiny is far greater than being a country preacher, so he heads off to the Big Time, Los Angeles. And settles in Pasadena, noted for its millionaires.
Where he belongs.
And he begins to preach.
The Main Plot
But what does he preach? Does he go on the radio and talk about giving your heart to Jesus? Does he read John 3:16 and tell his listeners how much God loves them? Does he try to get people “saved”?
Hell no! There’s no money in that! Everyone else is preaching that, and Herbert is nothing if not unique – he is above all the others, and he Will Show the World How It’s Done!
No, the standard gospel is pretty boring and unappealing. If you want to make some serious cash, the topic is FEAR! You can’t compete talking about Jesus, but if you are the only voice on the airwaves selling terror, then you are the only one who can cash in on it.
So Herbert preached the end of the world, the Great Tribulation, Hitler is going to win, Mussolini is the Beast...
And the money started rolling in.
But none of those predictions turned out to be true, so Herbert moved up one level. Now Hitler is Still Alive, the Nazis all Escaped to Antarctica, Germany Will Rise Again, and the pictures from WWII concentration camps made perfect illustrations for the Plain Truth magazine articles.
It worked. Hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands began sending in their money. They took the Plain Truth, worked the Correspondence Course, read all those booklets (we now had a new date for the end of the world – 1975), and joined the church. Once in the church, they were faced with THREE tithes! And failure to ante up meant dying in those horrible events that had scared you into the church in the first place.
The radio voice was shrill with terrible warnings of terrible events predicted by the Bible to happen in “the next few years”, or at least “in your lifetime”. Once you were in the church, not a week went by without some kind of doomsday warning in a sermon or sermonette. The church magazines were filled with it, and every few weeks a new co-worker letter came out demanding more cash to “cover” the latest “emergency in the work” (which usually meant that overall donations were down and there was a danger that people might get tired of giving).
Now Herbert was living quite well indeed. By the 1970s the Ambassador College campus was really something to see, and Herbert lived in a luxury mansion just a block away. Now he not only lived on Millionaire’s Row, HE WAS ONE!
He belonged there, and he had made it at last.
But even that was not enough. His destiny went further than that. Herbert wanted to consort with KINGS!!!
And he did. After the death of his wife in 1967, he began trotting the globe (in his own $9 million airplane!) and meeting with the heads of state in dozens of countries. He gave expensive gifts to these leaders, and his film crews were right there to record the events so all those at home (who were financing it) could see the proof that Armstrong was, at long last, a Very Important Person.
And that is the point of the whole movie.
It was all about money.
It was never about God.
It was never about salvation.
It was never even about religion.
And I suspect, with most of these splinter-cult leaders, it still is.
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