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The Will to Believe Keeps the Worldwide Church of God Afloat

by Vern Bullough

The following article is from a forthcoming issue of Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 22, Number 4.

Worldwide Church of GodOne of the more fascinating stories of the rise and decline of a church is that of the Worldwide Church of God, founded by Herbert W. Armstrong (1892-1986) in 1933 in Eugene, Oregon. Originally it was called the Church of God, of which there were many. Armstrong did not add the term Worldwide until 1968.

Armstrong’s teachings were essentially based upon what religious scholars call the "Sabbatarian Adventist" tradition; that is, Armstrong held Saturday to be holy and anticipated the almost immediate second coming of Jesus. Self-educated, he regarded himself as God’s chosen apostle-messenger for these last days. He assumed absolute authority within his church, ordaining and appointing all its ministers. Armstrong believed in pacifism and British-Israelism (the doctrine that Britain and the United States had been settled by the two lost tribes of Israel), and was opposed to medical intervention because only God could cure and divorce and remarriage. He subscribed to what can only be called a smorgasbord of other beliefs. Many of Armstrong’s biblical interpretations were mistranslations from the original Hebrew scriptures or misunderstanding of the English translations.

Armstrong's key to success was a radio program, The World Tomorrow, which he began in 1934. However, he did not learn to use the media effectively until he moved to Pasadena, California, at the end of World War II. It was also in Pasadena, in 1947, that he founded Ambassador College to train clergy to spread his beliefs. Armstrong's organization was now officially called the "Worldwide Church of God." From radio, he expanded into television and began publishing a magazine called Plain Truth, whose circulation for a time reached 500,000.

Money poured in. Armstrong used part of it to build an architecturally beautiful $50 million campus for his college in Pasadena, with Ambassador Auditorium as its capstone. To celebrate the opening of the auditorium, he imported the Vienna Symphony. The event was followed over the years by headline concerts and performances by individuals ranging from Arthur Rubenstein and Luciano Pavarotti to Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. Sometimes his plans were more ambitious than his knowledge base. The story is told that, when he invited the Vienna Symphony, he thought he was getting the Vienna Philharmonic. Still, the college proved successful, and by the 1980s it had moved from a missionary training center to an accredited academic institution that offered degrees.

The church grew rapidly. At its peak, in the early 1970s, it had approximately 120,000 members with congregations throughout the United States and annual earnings of $200 million. A television program hosted by Armstrong's son and apparent successor, Garner Ted Armstrong, was one of the nation's most popular religious programs and was syndicated all over the world.

Decline and Fall

But cracks in the church 's facade began to appear, and its troubles quickly mounted. The first scandal involved Garner, the church's most impressive media representative. In 1974, he was accused of adultery, and in 1978, he was abruptly dismissed from his television program and excommunicated by his father. Garner countered by establishing a rival religious organization, the Church of God International, and continued his television career out of Texas.

Factions within the church began to challenge Armstrong’s financial dealings. In 1978, several ex-members successfully brought a lawsuit to have the church placed in receivership pending a trial on charges of misuse of funds. The trial never occurred because the California legislature, lobbied by a variety of other churches, intervened to prohibit such actions against churches on the grounds of separation of church and state.

Dissent continued, but was less open until the death of the senior Armstrong in 1986. Without the infallible prophet, “Christ’s end-time apostle,” as he once referred to himself—and still without any sign of the Second Coming—controversies that had ranged silently broke out in the struggle for leadership. Many critics, some of whom had gone to professional religious seminaries as well as Ambassador College, discovered that Armstrong's idiosyncratic beliefs lacked the scriptural basis he had claimed. Rather, they said, his claims were unique and distorted interpretations of the Scriptures, and should be abandoned. Within a few years, all these church tenets had been abandoned as false. Also abandoned was Saturday worship, the celebration of traditional Jewish holidays such as the Feast of Tabernacles and the Day of Atonement, and even the British-Israelite belief.

The shedding of almost every doctrine the Worldwide Church of God once clung to is a story almost without parallel in American religious history. Although on a much smaller scale, institutionally it could be compared to the pope renouncing the Petrine succession because it was based on myth and misinterpretation (which religious scholars say it is), or the Mormons saying that Joseph Smith did not translate the Book of Mormon.

The death of its leader, the radical change in doctrine, and the financial mess that ensued disheartened believers, broke up families, and most importantly drastically curtailed church income (based on tithing). Ambassador College was closed , the campus was sold, and the surviving organization was moved to Texas. In the words of one of the current leaders, J. Michael Feazell, the church liberated itself and abandoned its legalistic observance of non- essential doctrines to concentrate on the importance of a Christian’s standing with God.

Whether a somewhat less drastic reformation/cleansing would have lessened the trauma to the church is uncertain. Still, even with the radical dismantling and discarding of most of the doctrine taught by Armstrong, the Worldwide Church of God survives in a much reduced form in a loose alliance of congregations. That a church could essentially abandon all of its basic doctrines after the death of its founder, publicly at least imply that its founder was a fraud, and still manage to retain even a modicum of its believers is indicative of just how strong is the will to believe for vast numbers of people. This phenomenon is something that secular humanists always find difficult to understand and accept.

Vern Bullough is a a Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism and Senior Editor of Free Inquiry. Currently he is Adjunct Professor at the University of Southern California and Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the State University of New York.

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