Describing a Cult: The Worldwide Church of God Experience
Part 1: Why Did I Get Involved?
Mass Media Indoctrination
The World Tomorrow
In 1981, just before I started high school, the Worldwide Church of God (WCG) was still led by former advertiser and media master, Herbert W. Armstrong. Armstrong hosted the World Tomorrow television program on hundreds of TV stations in North America, including several stations we could receive in Barrie, Ontario.
The Plain Truth
Armstrong offered free subscriptions to the Plain Truth magazine. Wanting to read more about the end of the age and God’s plan of salvation, I eagerly mailed in my request.
In the 80’s, the Plain Truth magazine was everywhere. There were several foreign language translations including Norwegian. The Plain Truth was also available at newsstands (3). Even overseas in the United Kingdom where I finished high school, the school library had a copy of the Plain Truth.
Even before I knew about the World Tomorrow, when I was even younger, I remember coming across Armstrong’s literature in a doctor’s waiting room. I was fascinated by a picture-Bible and an issue of the Plain Truth that were both sitting on the same table.
I remember, for example, the article about heaven and hell in which drawings of railroad tracks illustrated Armstrong’s critical view of the mainstream doctrine that people are on the track to hell unless God flips the switch and sends them to heaven. Armstrong disagreed with orthodox doctrines about eternal hell, and argued that the Bible taught the mortality of the soul and conditional resurrection to eternal life or annihilation. I may or may not have understood it the first time, but the article was repeated later when I received my subscription.
The Public Message
The World Tomorrow and the Plain Truth represented the public side of the Church, and in my own view, there were at least three basic types of public message.
One type of public message was to promote Armstrong’s interpretation of Bible prophecy that implied we were living in the end times. This was to stir up fear about the current state of the world.
The second type of public message was an appeal to traditional morality and family values. This was important to me because I perceived the world as morally confused (which it is). I was also afraid for the future, because the world seemed so unstable, especially to a 14-year-old.
The third type of public message that worked for me also was to define clear distinctions between Armstrong’s set of doctrines and mainstream Christianity. A good example was his teaching about Easter and the Resurrection. Another example was the subject of being born again. In each case he would offer a booklet on that particular topic. These public teachings were heretical from a Christian perspective, but most teachings might seem reasonable to many not expert in Christian doctrine.
I believe these teachings were intended to prove that traditional Christianity was a false religion and that Herbert W. Armstrong had the true religion. This is how he defined his product.
Although arguments against Christmas were presented and seemed reasonable and meaningful to me at the time, the World Tomorrow and Plain Truth generally did not get into Church teachings that would have turned everybody off and made it seem like a cult. Things that were not discussed for example: second and third tithes, not keeping birthdays, not serving in the military, the details of Sabbath-keeping, and the absolutist nature of Church government over Church members.
Church services were not open to the public even if you were aware they existed. There was no direct encouragement to join the Church, except for occasional reminders in the Plain Truth that ministers were available for counselling. The WCG lured people with “truth” and let them stew in it until they were desperate for contact with a minister.
In the early to mid-1980’s the Plain Truth seemed secular (8), like a newsmagazine because of its focus on world events, and it was not always explicit in its hints about biblical prophecy. Armstrong’s reformist successor, Joseph Tkach Sr., moved the Plain Truth back towards a more explicitly religious-oriented direction with more biblical quotations and biblical topics.
Nowadays, after the death of Joseph Tkach Sr., the present-day Plain Truth (5) has joined the Protestant Evangelical mainstream with the the present-day WCG (6), being completely different from the old Plain Truth (7).
Both the World Tomorrow and Plain Truth offered many free booklets, which I promptly ordered. The first two booklets I ordered were The United States and Britain in Prophecy and The Book of Revelation Unveiled at Last.
In addition to booklets and brochures, there were also constant co-worker and member letters. I also completed some of the Ambassador College Bible Correspondence Course, which was a series of lessons explaining Church doctrines step by step. There was also Youth magazine.
When I lived in the U.K., I learned about the Good News magazine (7). The booklets and Correspondence Course and Good News magazine were more intensive and drew a person closer to the restrictive teachings of the Church. I remember the Good News magazine explaining how Church steeples and crosses were considered pagan, and presenting fascinating stories about what happened to the twelve apostles.
After joining the Church, members were kept up to date by the Headquarters church in Pasadena with the Worldwide News.
Armstrong was the driving force behind all of this, and when he died in 1986 (9), his successor Joseph Tkach Sr. continued to churn out the free media material at the same frantic pace.
Personal Conclusion about Church Literature
My obsession with WCG literature increased my growing isolation at the least appropriate stage in my life. My beliefs kept me from some kinds of trouble by focusing me on religious study, but I think the overall effect was weakening.
Looking back on it now, I think it was a way of escaping from the adult world, which was full of ideas that disturbed and offended me. It was a way of avoiding having to think for myself – a shortcut to easy answers.
Now and then, I would read a great book or explore a difficult subject compulsively, but more and more I avoided anything that challenged my beliefs – except for television. So my reading became more and more narrow, and excessive television and cult literature did their best to shut down my brain. Much time was required to keep up with Church literature and this shut out other pursuits.
But I don’t regret reading the Bible itself because it was a book that I was constantly asking questions about. Years of trying to fit Biblical verses with Church teaching became very helpful later – when my eyes were opened – in coming to conclusions about WCG doctrine, Christian doctrine and flaws with the Bible.
World Leaders and Funding
Large sums of money (10) were needed to fund this extensive worldwide media organization, including the salaries of Church ministers. This money came from the faithful tithes and donations of Church members. All that “free” literature led them into an organization that was not free at all. The WCG required payment from its members.
The Plain Truth and the World Tomorrow often featured Armstrong meeting with world leaders. I was impressed to see him on TV meeting President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, and to see pictures of him with Anwar Sadat and the King of Jordan, and many others (11). Basically he would present these leaders with expensive gifts and large sums of money from Ambassador Foundation, the charitable arm of the Church. (9) (12) (13)
I believe these meetings were to inflate his own ego. They were also an expensive form of public relations to impress viewers and readers, to make him look like God’s man on earth, doing God’s end-time work of preaching the gospel to all nations.
But it was a very watered-down version of his teachings that he was presenting to these leaders. He told the Chinese Communist leaders that the only hope for the world was one government ruling all nations – which is only part of his version of the gospel of the Kingdom of God. The money from Church members was supposed to go towards preaching a message that would warn the world of God’s wrath, but it was used like this instead. (13)
Cult members live with contradictions that they fail to acknowledge or perceive. From the start the facts of these meetings with the Chinese and the Egyptians must have settled in my brain and sat there for years causing some “cognitive dissonance”.
The project Armstrong was funding in Egypt was supposed to be a combined church-mosque-synagogue to unite the three Abrahamic religions symbolically in peace. But this project was contrary to his message of not associating with the world’s “false” religions and contrary to his message that there was only one true church. Armstrong promised an enormous sum of money to fund a project that contradicted the beliefs of those who gave him the money – dedicated members of the Worldwide Church of God. (14)
15 August 1990, Decision CRTC 90-745 “….The CKO Radio Partnership has requested the revocation of its licences for the radio broadcasting transmitting undertakings serving St. John’s, Newfoundland (CKO-FM-11), Halifax, Nova Scotia (CKO-FM-9), … Toronto (CKO-FM-2), ….”
Copies of letters from Herbert W. Armstrong to WCG brethren, including one dated February 8, 1981. Quote: “In 1970 Prime Minister Sato of Japan told me he foresaw and feared a real trade war with the U.S., and hoped it would not happen.”
Ambassador Report Issue 30, December, 1984
Quote: “If you live in the United States, Canada, Australia, Britain, or Western Europe, you have probably seen, during the last few years, one magazine that has been turning up on newsstands, in shops, and in waiting rooms with ever increasing frequency.”
This is an account of Armstrong’s advertisements years earlier with the U.S. Reader’s Digest in the context of his failed 1972 prophecy:
How Herbert W. Armstrong Used 1972 to Finance His Building Projects
Quote: “Why did he need all those extra buildings? Why did the brethren have to sacrifice, and contribute to building funds in addition to their tithes and offerings? All this sacrifice was needed to run ads in Reader’s Digest!!!!”
Plain Truth Ministries
Quote from intro page as of Dec22, 2002: “The Plain Truth Online has columns by well known Christian leaders such as Steve Brown, Hank Hanegraaff, and Luis Palau.”
Endorsement by Hank Hanegraaff at http://www.ptm.org/uni/duo/plaintruth.htm: “I’m delighted with The Plain Truth magazine, which for many years focused on end-time prophetic speculations, but now is focused on the essentials ….”. In other words, it’s part of a completely different religion now with its own problems.
Official Worldwide Church of God website
Completely different beliefs compared to the 1980’s WCG.
For research – or complete brainwashing – this website offers all the issues of the Plain Truth on CD from 1934 to 1960, as well as the Good News magazine and collections of other WCG literature on CD and online.
Home Page for “Herbert W. Armstrong Library and Archives” is http://www.absin.com/hwa/index.html.
Home page has an image of the motto: “The Word of God is the Foundation of Knowledge”.
Ambassador Report, June 30, 1982
In John Trechak’s words: “For almost five decades The Plain Truth (PT) magazine has been under Herbert Armstrong’s direction. During that time, the magazine has switched from a preachy, flee-from-the-wrath-soon-to-come format to a quasi-secular, right-wing fundamentalist news commentary format with articles having heavy moralizing overtones.”
(Note: nothing to do with the doctrinal changes that occurred after Armstrong’s death.)
 Born: 1892 Died: 1986
http://reluctant-messenger.com/HWA/ has a brief biased bio on Armstrong that paints him as a humanitarian hero. “He was awarded medals of peace and special commendations for his many charitable and humanitarian activities.” That’s one way of looking at it, but the money he used to paint himself a hero came from poor Church members.
Main page of this very interesting website where the author tries to reconcile 9 religions: http://reluctant-messenger.com/main.htm
Ambassador Report November 19, 1979. For example, figure quoted for Net Income in 1978 is 63,467,000
A Cult in Transition? I don’t know if there’s anything to the writer’s political theory, but this article has an interesting summary of the WCG history.
Quote: “…the WCG cult was able to travel freely throughout communist countries and hold many meetings with leaders such as President Marcos, Leopold 3rd; Nagendra Singh, and Manfred Lachs of the World Court; Prime Minister Golda Meir; Indira Gandhi; President Suharto of Indonesia; Former Presidents Thieu of South Vietnam and Suleiman Franjieh of Lebanon; Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia; the Emperor of Japan; Jemo Kenyatta and President Moi of Kenya; Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the late Anwar Sadat; Prime Minister Begin; King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand; King Hussein of Jordan and King Juan Carlos of Spain….”
Exit and Support Network Recovery Page: http://home.datawest.net/esn-recovery/default.htm
“Aiding those spiritually and emotionally abused by Worldwide Church of God and its offshoots”
Ambassador Report, June 30, 1982
Quote: “Herbert told Mubarak that this $100,000 check was to be followed by another $100,000 each year for a total of 10 years! That this would add up to $1,000,000!”
Ambassador Report 11 March 24, 1980
During early December of 1979 Herbert Armstrong, … visited Communist China. But unlike other tourists, he unloaded gifts worth a reported $500,000 and gave three short speeches.
In one speech to top Chinese officials he said: “I’m tremendously impressed with what I have seen [in China]. Here I’ve seen, in what parts I have seen already, three-fourths [sic] or one-fourth of the whole world’s population as far as I can see living now at peace. But the other three-fourths of the world is living in a state of turbulence,. and of fear, and of trouble, and full of evils. ”
He then went on to say: “…the only hope of the world will be in a single one-world government with one military force and one government over all the nations on earth.” The speech contained no reference to Jesus Christ, repentance, or the Bible.
Ambassador Report AR14 Dec. 1, 1980
… During the discussions with Sadat, Herbert Armstrong pledged to contribute $1 million of church funds to the nation of Egypt. The Pasadena Star-News wrote on Nov. 14:
“Herbert W. Armstrong, pastor general of the Worldwide Church of God in Pasadena, and his chief deputy Stanley R. Rader Tuesday pledged $1 million to President Anwar Sadat of Egypt and presented the president with an initial $100,000 contribution.
… “During the discussion, Armstrong was invited by Sadat to join with him in the Mt. Sinai World Peace Project. Armstrong and Rader held an audience with Prime Minister Begin of Israel the preceding day.”
The Los Angeles Times reported (Nov. 22, 1980) that the $1 million would go toward the construction of a $60 million “tri-faith religious complex” consisting of a church, mosque, and synagogue.
… the vast majority of WCG members are apparently genuinely pleased with this church announcement, even though using church funds to build a religious complex seems contrary to long-standing church policy and practice of not supporting or dealing with other religious groups, which have been branded as “false churches” and “of the devil.”