The Bait and the Hook
(or, How to Build a Slave Cabin)
Back in 1961, when I first started to attend WCG (then the Radio Church of God), it was pretty common for people to wait six months or more before being allowed to attend services. Congregations were never open to the public, and even new converts were required to wait until a minister decided they were "ready" to join the cult.
It was the same strategy used in church publications --
the Plain Truth magazine was the one the public saw, and its articles
were far different than those in the Good News, which was originally
for membership only. The Plain
Truth (and The World Tomorrow radio broadcast) never, ever talked
about tithing, for example. Nor
did they proclaim at any time that Franz Josef Strauss was
"probably" the beast of Revelation.
They did talk about the eminence of World War III and nuclear
holocaust, but they never (as far as I can remember) named
And, of course, they never, ever told the public that the tribulation would start in 1972.
There was a reason for that, of course.
How many of you remember sermons, or references in sermons, to "milk and strong meat"? We were repeatedly warned (even threatened) not to "cast our pearls before swine". We were not to ever tell the secrets of our religion to "unconverted" friends, coworkers, or family members. If we did, not only would they probably ridicule us, but we might also prejudice them against the church -- and what if God was planning to "call" that individual? We might prevent someone from being called to escape the horror that was coming.
To shore up this admonition, we were shown a scripture (don't ask me where, you can look it up) about not feeding strong meat to an infant. Infants needed milk, and only when they had grown to an appropriate age could they tolerate heavier foods. The analogy was that new converts were "babes in Christ", and until they had time to absorb the "truth", they might be blown away before the Holy Spirit had time to convert them.
(There was even an anecdote about this; a new
Ambassador College freshman arrived on campus having never attended church
before (I never understood how that came about -- who would be accepted into
AC if they weren't even churchies?), and one of the students began telling
her all about first tithe. The
new student had never heard of first tithe, and was really shocked when the
student began explaining second tithe.
Before all this could register, the student launched into a
description of third tithe! By
which time the new arrival, reeling, asked in a dazed voice, "And
what's the fourth tithe all about?"
I seriously doubt that story was true, but everyone laughed dutifully each time it was told.)
Instead, many new members (if not most), once they contacted the ministry for baptism, were not allowed to attend church until they had spent several months in study.
And it was probably a good thing. After all, church services were usually characterized by blazing sermons, roaring ministers, fists hammering the podium, and dire threats of consequences for disobedience. Ministers proudly described how they had disfellowshipped rebellious members, openly accused public figures of being QUEER, and railed at great length about MASTURBATION! It was hardly a typical church service of the type most new people were used to.
Now and then, even after a honeymoon period of intense correspondence course and booklet study (you couldn't "understand" the Bible without church publications to guide you), occasionally a new member, upon witnessing the decidedly un-church-like atmosphere of a RCG/WCG service, was so stunned or traumatized that they simply never came back.
But most of the time, the programming worked.
Today we call it programming, or brainwashing. Back then we called it conversion. So how did it work?
The initial hook, of course, was the radio (and later,
TV) program. Herbert Armstrong,
and later his son Ted, talked for 30 minutes about world news and how it
applied to prophesy. The program
was a fishing expedition, hanging out the bait as a lure for
religious-minded folks who were dissatisfied with their current church, or
for anyone concerned about the future of
All you had to do was write to
You didn't need to send any money.
Everything was free!
Well, that wasn't so hard, was it? Many people did write, requesting the Plain Truth, the Bible Correspondence Course, and various booklets.
The booklets themselves were fascinating to many people. The titles asked questions which were answered inside:
Why Were You Born?
of the Bible
Proofs God Exists
Do You Mean, Born Again?
The Key to
the Book of Revelation
Holidays or God's Holy Days -- Which?
Who Is the
Such titles were, for the religious-minded, impossible to ignore. Advertising at its finest. There were hundreds of such titles, enough to keep people reading for years. And, of course, back in those early days, the all-time greatest classic of all:
(But we never, ever set dates!)
It worked differently for different people, of course.
Some people ordered all the materials, studied them, and never
And Armstrong was a genius. Just as he promised, no one was ever charged for the publications they received. But once they began to study, the hook was shoved a little deeper.
"Prove all things, and hold fast that which is good" (1 Thes. ) was the basic principle behind your Bible study. "Don't believe me!" Armstrong shouted over the radio thousands of times, "believe what is written in the pages of your own Bible!"
Genius! Who could question a man with an attitude like that? Why would anyone make such a claim if it were not true, when all one had to do was open the Bible and prove them wrong?
From the very start, the new Bible student was predisposed toward belief, and everything (s)he studied after that only tended to confirm that belief.
The Plain Truth and the booklets offered a solid
orientation for what was to follow. But
the real textbook was the Bible Correspondence Course.
The Bible Correspondence Course was, originally, open-ended. Authored by Dr. C. Paul Meredith (an uncle, I believe, of Roderick), it was a masterpiece of brainwashing. It was later reduced in size to about 25 lessons, but the original ran well past 40, and was much more detailed. The entire course was structured in such a way as to condition the thinking of the student. I no longer have a copy, nor do I remember all the lessons, but I do remember the very first lesson was entitled "Why Study the Bible?"
The foundation was laid: why study the Bible in the 20th Century? By the end of the lesson, the Bible was established as the supreme authority for all men, the "manufacturer's handbook" for humanity. If the Bible condemned something, it was condemned for everyone. If the Bible extolled something, it was to be practiced by everyone. There was no in-between, no exception, no possibility for error.
Succeeding lessons tore down the concept of orthodox Christianity ("churchianity", as it was popularly known in the cult), and convinced the reader that the real "truth" had not been published or taught for 1900 years (from about 33AD, when Jesus was crucified, until about 1934, when Herbert Armstrong began to preach). This was consistent with 100 "19-year time cycles" (19-year time cycles were very important to Armstrong's theology).
As the lessons continued, one learned that one was, first, to prove that the Bible was the word of god, then to prove which church was the "true" church, then to totally submit to that authority. Once a person had reached that stage, the hook was completely embedded in the brain. Because the lessons also clearly taught that one's only hope of salvation (and more importantly, escaping the coming tribulation) was through the very church that provided the very correspondence course one was studying.
And it made sense. It was totally logical. After all, what other church anywhere could offer that protection, when none of them were even aware of the dangers that lay ahead? If you are in a burning house and a fireman comes in to save you, are you going to turn to someone else for your salvation? Hell no! The fireman is the only one there! You will take his hand and let him lead you out of the flames!
Lessons came once a month, and after every third lesson
(as best I can remember) there was a test.
You filled out a card with the answers to multiple-choice questions
(always phrased in a leading manner) and sent it off to
After a while, many people were convinced they had no choice but to become members of "God's true church", and wrote for a ministerial visit, or for directions to the nearest congregation (you never, ever found one in the Yellow Pages! God was nothing if not elitist.)
When the ministers showed up, they were likely to grill you about your personal life. Did you smoke? Masturbate? Work on Saturday? Been divorced and remarried? Eat pork? All those things were important, and you either had to stop or start, depending on the question. If you hadn't studied long enough, you were usually required to do so before you could attend church. You were tantalized, led to believe you were seeking membership in an elite club, a very desirable club, and not just anyone could get in. You had to qualify!
So now the desire began to grow. This group must really be something! Man, alive! What do I have to do? Tell me to eat worms, I'll eat them!
But if you balked at any point in the interrogation, you were "carnal", "wordly", "rebellious" (equivalent to witchcraft!), or maybe, worst of all... "demon-possessed"!
And your hopes for eternal salvation were over, unless you became willing to submit, and were willing to demonstrate that to the ministry.
Finally, in most cases, individuals were permitted to attend services. What a day! What a grand, glorious day! At last, God's people! These were surely the finest, most converted, most wonderful people on the face of the globe! Nothing to fear here, certainly! No one would laugh at you here, no one would mistreat you here! The children would be obedient, Christ-like, the old ladies would be glowing with the Holy Spirit, and no one would ever gossip about anyone, ever!
And the ministers would all be like Moses, or Peter, or Paul. Wonderful men, toiling selflessly for your benefit!
Not really. But it might be years before you figured that out, and many to this day have never figured it out. But even if you did, even if something smelled foul, even if you began to wonder whether any of these people were converted, began to wonder why some of them were so vile...
What could you do about it? It was God's church, after all. Wasn't it? I mean, who else was teaching this kind of truth? Who else offered the hope of protection from the tribulation, from the fires of Gehenna?
If you left God's church, Where Else Could You Go?!?
You had entered the slave cabin, and the door was closed. The cabin existed only in your mind, but if the hook was buried deep enough, it was very real.
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