They huddle around the radio, their attention fearfully divided as they listen both to the thundering voice on the radio and to every little sound outside their darkened hovel. They’re breaking the law, listening to illegal, anti-state programming, and in listening to Herbert Armstrong’s World Tomorrow broadcasts, they’re risking their lives for the truth of Biblical prophecy while those in the free world who have free access scoff.
“What was that!?” the mother whispers in a panic. “Quick, turn it down!” Her husband silences the radio as the teenage son peers into the darkness, straining to hear another sound. Could it be the secret police? If it were, they could be whisked away and put in prison camps in a matter of days.
The three of them remain motionless. No further sounds. Father decides it’s safe.
The braodcast at right is, appropriately enough, “Russia in Prophecy.”
He turns the volume back up and the three family members continue listening to Herbert Armstrong’s prophetic teachings: German is going to rise again in a Fourth Reich, the revived Holy Roman Empire, which with the Pope as the anti-Christ will crush America and put the survivors into slavery. It’s all prophesied in the Bible if you realize that America and the countries of Western Europe, except Germany, are the Lost Tribes of Israel, while Germany is modern day Assyria. Or something like that.
It’s all silly when you really think about it, and it’s even sillier to think that people still believe that despite the fact that DNA testing has shown conclusively that the only people with Semitic backgrounds are — surprise — Jews and Arabs. But this was the fifties: James Watson and Francis Crick had just discovered DNA’s double helix in 1953, and DNA testing was still a very long way in the future. In the meantime, the Cold War was in full swing, with Kruschev’s USSR just reaching the zenith of its optimism that a state-run economy could produce the paradise that seemed to elude — at least in Soviet propaganda — the capitalists.
But what of these listeners behind the Iron Curtain? The notion came from an illustration in 1956’s booklet 1975 in Prophecy, a digest-size title laying out a timetable for the end of the age. Jesus was to return in 1975, and so the time of trials so many Protestants see as preceding his return would be in 1972. The book purported to provide an “inside view” of the coming tribulation. Within the booklet were illustrations by Mad Magazine illustrator and Armstrong follower Basil Wolverton.
Basil Wolverton’s illustration in 1975 in Prophecy.
The purpose of such an illustration in 1975 in Prophecy is simple: make listeners in the free, Western world feel guilty for not taking Armstrong’s message seriously. After all, people in Eastern Europe are risking their very lives to listen to The World Tomorrow, Armstrong’s prophecy radio show. But it also worked to create the illusion that the entire world was listening to Herbert Armstrong, further legitimizing his claims of being God’s chosen. World leaders, Armstrong liked to suggest, read his magazine and listened to his radio show, and so literally the whole world must be tuning in. To support Armstrong’s work, then, would be to support a Global Enterprise, and everyone knows that investing in a Global Enterprise is a wise investment indeed. Especially when such an investment could also ultimately help save your own hide.
Just how many listeners were there in Eastern Europe? How many could there be? Given the fact that Armstrong only transmitted in English in the 1950s, linguistic barriers reduce the potential audience significantly. I recall hearing that in all of Poland, for example, in a country of forty million, there was one official church member. Clearly, this was meant for a local audience, then.
Yet that raises a troubling question: is this a lie? For it to be a lie, Armstrong and the administrators of his church would have to know it to be untrue, would have to realize that few people indeed listen to his show in Eastern Europe. But what if the nature of your self-delusion is such that you see yourself as God’s Apostle on the same level as the New Testament apostles? What if you see yourself as the leader of the one true church, with everyone else in the world deceived by Satan? What if you have surrounded yourself with people who support that delusion? In such a case, believing that people all around the world are listening to your little radio show is a self-delusion of almost insignificant proportions. Of course in the 1950’s, there would have been no metric for a radio audience listening in Eastern Europe, no way to prove or disprove the claim that people are tuning in at the peril of their own lives. And it creates a powerful layer of importance on top of all the other self-delusions: If I am the leader of the only true church (which in a sense would make me the most important person in the world), it only makes sense that people risk their lives to listen to me.
I’ve often wondered about stories I hear about this or that miraculous event, wondering if the individual is stretching the truth in the perceived service of God. Surely that’s unacceptable according to anyone’s moral compass. Yet Machiavellian thinking is dangerously seductive. Could something like that be going on here?
Herbert Armstrong died 30 years ago today. For several thousand in the world, it was an earth-shattering, previously-unthinkable event. For the majority of the world’s population, it was a non-event, just like the majority of other deaths. “Herbert Who?” my classmates and even teachers would have asked. Yet he was a significant-enough player that major news outlets wrote obituaries. The New York Times wrote the following:
LOS ANGELES, Jan. 16— Herbert W. Armstrong, the broadcasting evangelist who was founder and pastor general of the Worldwide Church of God, died today at his home in Pasadena, Calif. He was 93 years old. Church officials said no official cause of death had been established, but they added that Mr. Armstrong’s health had been declining about four months because of a heart ailment.
Mr. Armstrong presided as the ”Chosen Apostle” of God over the wealthy fundamentalist Christian church, as well as over the Ambassador College and the Ambassador International College Foundation, both in Pasadena. The Ambassador Auditorium on the campus is a lavish concert hall where famous musicians and artists have performed.
The church publishes Plain Truth magazine and broadcasts television programs on 374 stations around the world, David Hulme, a church spokesman, said.
Officials of the 80,000-member church announced last Tuesday that Mr. Armstrong had named Joseph Tkach, 59, as his successor. Ralph K. Helge, the church’s general counsel, said in a statement that Mr. Armstrong had felt it was time to ”pass the baton” and establish a new spiritual leader to avert dissent when he died. Advertising Career, Then Radio
Herbert Armstrong was born July 31, 1892, to Horace and Eva Armstrong in Des Moines. In 1934 the young Mr. Armstrong abandoned a career in advertising to found the Radio Church of God in 1934 with the first broadcast of his program, ”The World Tomorrow.”
He incorporated his California ministry in in 1947 as the Worldwide Church of God and began spreading his conservative beliefs with alternately fiery and folksy sermons. The religion is a blend of fundamental Christianity, non-belief in the trinity and some tenets of Judaism and Seventh-Day Sabbath doctrine.
Members pay the church at least 10 percent and as much as 20 to 30 percent of their income, and celebrate Passover and Yom Kippur as holy days rather than Easter and Christmas. Mr. Armstrong espoused creationism and enjoying material wealth as a sign of divine favor; he held that he was preparing his followers for a Utopia to be ruled by Jesus.
Controversy and Feud With Son
The church has been embroiled in controversy, ranging from the estrangement of Mr. Armstrong and his son, Garner Ted Armstrong, to lawsuits by former church members and an investigation by the state Attorney General of reports of mismanagement of church funds.
As membership swelled in the mid-1970’s, trouble arose between Mr. Armstrong and Garner Ted Armstrong, his youngest child and heir apparent. The son appeared weekly on 165 television stations across the country as the voice of ”The World Tomorrow” and was executive vice president of the church.
The church had a strict policy against remarriage for divorced people that required new church members to dissolve second marriages and remarry their original spouses. Garner Ted Armstrong vehemently opposed rescinding that order and his father’s subsequent marriage in 1977 to a second wife, Ramona, 44 years old and divorced. His first wife, Loma, died in 1967. He divorced the second in 1984.
Mr. Armstrong and his son also argued over control of the college, the auditorium, and other holdings. Herbert Armstrong excommunicated his son in 1978.
Case Led to Curb in Law
Garner Ted Armstrong, supported by some former church members, subsequently charged that his father and other officials had spent millions of the church’s estimated $60 million annual income on personal expenses. In 1979 the Attorney General’s office got a court order to place the church in receivership, saying the officials had ”looted” $1 million a year from tithed funds.
The case was dropped in 1980 after a new state law, prompted by the Armstrong case, prohibited the Attorney General from investigating the finances of religious groups for fraud and mismanagement.
The father-son rift was never healed. ”I tried repeatedly to contact my father up until two weeks ago, but it was all to no avail,” Garner Ted Armstrong said in an interview from the headquarters of his Church of God International at Tyler, Tex. ”He had a heart condition, and I knew his health was failing quite rapidly. My sister said he died quietly while sitting in a chair.”
Herbert Armstrong also leaves his daughters Beverly Gott and Dorothy Mattson, eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Arrangements for private funeral services are pending. (Source)
Thirty years later, and it’s such a different world for everyone mentioned in the article. Armstrong’s successor, Joseph Tkach, is dead, and his successor, his son, is still running the original church, though it reformed twenty years ago and even changed its name.
There are still those who follow the man’s teachings, though. A few thousand scattered among a few dozen off-shoots. The leaders of several of those churches are now in their seventies or eighties, and the pattern will repeat itself.