"Daughter Of Babylon,
The True History of
The Worldwide Church of God"
by Bruce Renehan
Chapter 15 I Will Build My Church
Herbert Armstrong was born in Des Moines, Iowa on July 31, 1892. He boasted that his family was of "solid Quaker stock." He spent the first half of his life struggling to be a successful advertising man (or traveling salesman). This career of his was brought to a crashing end early in the Depression of the 1920s.
What had also suffered a crushing blow was a tremendous ego and a burning ambition to be somebody, instilled in Herbert by an employer he had worked for at the age of sixteen. Herbert would later describe his business failure as a time of "hitting rock bottom." Undoubtedly the humiliation of poverty left him scarred for life.
At the age of seventeen, rather than pursue his education, Armstrong wanted to be the teacher himself. He secretly acquired a phony teaching certificate without informing his father of his grandiose scheme. Upon discovering Herbert's plans, his father met him with stern disapproval. This did not rest well with young Herbert and the following year he quit high school and turned to what he called the school of hard knocks.
His first job was in the classified section of the Des Moines Daily Capital. He sold advertising space. After a sum total of eleven shaky years of advertising experience, he fell into a nearly devastating personal collapse in 1922.
One thing that seems fairly clear about Herbert's childhood was that he had suffered from some sort of conflict with his father; his lifelong desire to prove his superiority over others seems to bear this out. Unlike the average man, Armstrong did not want to just earn a living and take care of his family. Armstrong wanted to be a great person. He craved power and influence over other people. But, his desire to be wildly successful was dashed when he and his family were reduced to poverty in 1922.
In 1924, his wife Loma suggested that Herbert move the family to Oregon. They arrived there on July 4. He had a short spurt of success with the Vancouver Columbian newspaper. Then he stepped into a laundry business scheme with a chemist in 1925.
Armstrong began to have delusions of becoming wealthy for the first time in his life. Then, in 1926, his business was suddenly and unexpectedly halted. Here is how Herbert described it: "Some 'bright' advertising man, in an advertising agency in Indianapolis, Indiana, put over on the Laundryowners National Association a $5,000,000 advertising campaign for the entire industry." This would mean another seven years of poverty for Armstrong's family, which now was reduced to a hand-to-mouth existence. This is when he felt that he had hit "rock bottom." It seemed as though he had exhausted his resources for wealth and success.
Then a series of events led up to Armstrong being forced to eat crow before his wife. She had challenged him to prove from the Bible that the observance of the Saturday Sabbath was not still in effect. Loma had been studying privately with some Sabbath-keepers and was herself convinced that Saturday was a commanded assembly for Christians.
After what he called an "intensive study," he conceded to his wife that she was more clever than himself. She had really stumped him. Saturday Sabbath-keeping appeared to be a commandment that Christians were unaware of. Herbert was humbled by the experience but may have perceived that God was about to show him one of the best advertising angles that could have ever fallen into his lap.
Armstrong would later claim that he "researched" the doctrines of the Church of God thoroughly--actually he surveyed the various pet theories of his contemporaries and their predecessors. Then he formulated his own set of doctrines. Each one having a distinct element of surprise: They could be made to appear as clever and simple commands, warnings, or proclamations from the pages of the Bible. Herbert then tried to convince others in the Church of God. This would have been acceptable to his brethren but Armstrong insisted that his views were the most accurate and that the entire church should yield to his arguments as he had yielded to Loma's. Armstrong sought every opportunity to place himself into the limelight and soon became a minister. His ministry was soon wracked with controversy.
Herbert Armstrong's Co-operative Ministry
The account given by one of Herbert Armstrong's closest associates in the Church of God, Seventh Day, John Kiesz, shows how Armstrong was observed in his early church membership:Our first knowledge of him was in late 1931 or early 1932 while I was office editor of the Bible Advocate, which was then published at Stanberry, Missouri. At that time he and Robert Taylor were publishing the Messenger of Truth, in Oregon, in which appeared articles written by both of these men. One of the articles which interested me very much was on the "secret rapture" fallacy, written by Herbert Armstrong, which I in turn reprinted in the Bible Advocate. I believe some of his writings had appeared in the Bible Advocate previously, and perhaps several later.
As for Herbert's origins in religious matters, as far as his associations with the Church of God (7th Day), who gave Loma a Bible study on the Sabbath question: Loma rejoiced in this newfound truth, and rushed to tell Herbert about it. To him that was the worst news he had ever heard. He became very much upset, and considered divorcing her, he told me in later years, but that seemed too drastic, so he decided to study and prove to his companion from the Bible that Sunday is the Christian Sabbath. After studying intensively for six months, he became convinced that the weekly seventh-day Sabbath, together with the annual Sabbaths, must be observed.
After his conversion, Armstrong naturally began seeking for the true church. He checked out the Seventh-day Adventists, the Seventh Day Baptists, and the Church of God (7th Day). Although the latter-mentioned church was the smallest group, it had more Bible truths than any other. So he began to fellowship with the scattered few members in Oregon. It was in 1927 that he was baptized, but I do not recall his ever telling me that he was baptized by a Baptist minister, instead of a minister of the Church of God (7th Day), until I read it in one of his writings. It appears that he decided to be baptized by a minister who would not make him join that denomination.
The Oregon Brethren urged him from time to time to preach to them, but becoming a preacher was the very last thing he ever wanted to be, he said. However, in 1928 he preached his first sermon, and many more sermons followed at the Church to the ministry, and in 1932 he received his Ministerial License Certificate from the Oregon Conference of the Church of God, signed by O. J. Runcorn as President, and Mrs. I. E. Curtis as Secretary.
The headquarters of the General Conference of the Church of God (7th Day) had been at Stanberry, Missouri, since the late 1880's. In the fall of 1933 there was a division in the Church of God organization, one retaining Stanberry, Missouri. This newly formed group instituted what was termed Apostolic form of organization, with the Twelve, the Seven, and the Seventy. My name appeared in the list of the Twelve, and Herbert's in the list of the Seventy.
As mentioned before, Herbert and I commenced corresponding with each other from late in 1931 or early in 1932, which we kept up until the fall of 1945. Much of our correspondence during 1934 was concerning his stand as to when to baptize new converts, and the other concerning his understanding about the law of the clean and unclean foods. He wanted us to know how he stood on these matters before accepting his position on the Seventy, since he was considering working with the Salem group. So, in the fall of 1934 he received his credentials from the Salem branch of the Church of God. As mentioned previously, I was then a member of the executive board of the church, which decided on who was eligible for those papers (Kiesz).
In stating how he managed to shift sides from the Stanberry, Missouri branch of the Church of God, Seventh Day (of which he claimed to have never been a member in the first place, on page 567 of his autobiography), Armstrong further wrote:
A short time later, I learned that they did consider me as one of "the Seventy."
Thus we of the Church of God meeting at the Jeans school-house, along with our brethren of the Oregon Conference, decided to go along with it in co-operation, but we of the new local church near Eugene did not "join" in the sense of becoming an integral part of it.
But both the Church of God in Stanberry, Missouri and in Salem, West Virginia concur that Armstrong did indeed defect from one to the other, receiving ministerial credentials and salary from both groups. Armstrong claimed that he was just being co-operative.
Armstrong had a couple of pet doctrines that he had been openly and defiantly preaching to his group in Oregon. During his "intensive research" he undoubtedly had been corresponding with Howard Rand's publishing house in Merrimac, Massachusetts: Destiny Publishers. Destiny Publishers provided many publications on the subject of British-Israelism. Among them was the book, Judah's Sceptre and Joseph's Birthright by J. H. Allen. The Worldwide Church of God admitted, after Armstrong's death, that Herbert had plagiarized this book in the writing of his United States and British Commonwealth in Prophecy .
Part of his "intensive research" included the writings of Charles Taze Russell, Ellen G. White and G. G. Rupert (whose Remnant of Israel was still actively being published during Herbert's early years in the Church of God). Armstrong's ego would not prevent him from imagining that he might be Rupert's prophesied Elijah.
British-Israelism, combined with Adventism dictates that if America and Britain were the modern descendants of the ancient tribes of Israel, then the reason God would bring the "great tribulation" would be for the same reason that tribulation came upon Old Testament Israelites--disobedience to the Old Covenant laws of Sabbaths, holydays, tithing, and so on.
In formulating his dogma and by convincing others that God was opening up his understanding to biblical truths, Armstrong may have felt compelled to play out the role of an Old Testament prophet. When Armstrong became self-convinced of some matter he always took it as a personal challenge to convince others that he was right. When others would not submit to his line of reasoning, he rejected them immediately. Armstrong rarely conceded to the authority of others; when he did it wounded him.
Herbert Armstrong may have been surprised when his fellow ministers were not impressed with his claim to inspiration. John Kiesz, who had preceded Armstrong on the private observance of the Hebrew holydays (or annual Feast days), continues the story:It was in the fall of 1937 when Elder Armstrong's credentials were revoked by the Salem Church of God organization. The reason given by the Board of Twelve for this action was because he taught and kept the annual Feast days. But the real reason seems to have been because of his uncooperative attitude. One writer, in his published book, says that Armstrong was asked to surrender his credentials to A. N. Dugger, and that Dugger at that time was president of the Salem Church of God. That is not true. Dugger never was president of the Salem branch. I was on the Board of Twelve when Armstrong was issued ministerial credentials in 1934, and also when his credentials were revoked in 1937. May I state that I personally did not participate in the revoking procedures.
Following this incident of revoking Armstrong's credentials, he and I remained close friends, although not in full agreement on several points of doctrine, yet we had many things in common and worked together. Without going into details why, at this time, I will state that about eight or nine months later I submitted my ministerial credentials to the Salem Church of God organization, 1938. Sister Kiesz and I assisted in the Feast of Tabernacles at Eugene, Oregon, in 1941, and again in 1944, and the last one I attended by myself at Belknap Springs, sixty miles east of Eugene, 1945. We lived in Canon City, Colorado, most of the time from 1940 to 1950. It was during part of January and part of February, 1945, that Herbert held a fairly successful evangelistic campaign in Canon City.
Armstrong's lack of team spirit is adequately brought out in his own autobiography. He appears to be hostile, defensive and always mindful of persecution. Kiesz continues:It is true that Herbert was not always able to work harmoniously with other ministers. Perhaps it was not his fault alone. He had a feeling, evidently, that some folks were always undermining him, and trying to destroy his work....
Another area in which folks have concerned themselves with is his Autobiography. I have been asked: "Do you believe everything written in the biography is true?" Since he reported in his Autobiography, in the August, 1962 issue of the Plain Truth, the three and a half weeks meetings he held for us in Canon City, Colorado, during part of January and February, 1945, and since about half of his report was either distorted or false, I have to question his other reports too. For instance, he wrote in his Autobiography about his trying in the early 1930's to work with men like Taylor, Oberg, Ray, and Daily, and how all of them worked against him. I did not get personally acquainted with Taylor, but I did with the rest of them. I did not find them as bad as he pictured them. I'd say that not everything published in the Autobiography is reliable.
I used to consider Herbert a humble man, but when he began to write that for 1800 or 1900 years the true gospel was not being preached until he (Armstrong) began his work, I had to change my mind about his modesty. To me, such an attitude is too presumptuous. Our heavenly Father has always had a true and faithful people in every age, or else he would not have fed and nourished them in the wilderness for 1260 years (Rev. 12:6,14).
He has also indicated from time to time that what he has been preaching and publishing has been revealed to him directly by Jesus Christ, whereas the fact is that what truths he has been preaching he originally learned from the Church of God (7th Day). We must admit, however, that he has been teaching additional concepts which are not scriptural truths.
I remember the time when Herbert wrote and taught strongly against church organization as it was generally carried on, but later became so strongly organized that he became to his followers what the Pope of Rome is to the Catholic Church. Many of his followers have come to believe that he is God's prophet, and these actually fear him. We have heard some of his people say, after they were shown some of the discrepancies, "Well, if Mr. Armstrong says it, then it is so."
When one claims that he has been ordained of God, baptized by Jesus Christ, and has consistently, for many years, been preaching the one true gospel of the Kingdom of God, and dared to tell in specific, point-by-point, and in detailed order, the events that are to occur, the real meaning of the mysterious books of prophecy, and that his work is the only genuine work which is carrying out Jesus' very commission--he ought not have preached and published contradictory messages, nor should he have made predictions which never came to pass, nor ever will.
Kiesz touched upon a number of perplexing issues about Armstrong. One of the most disturbing was that Armstrong was able to hold sway over his congregation, convincing them that he was the spokesman for Christ on earth, in spite of glaring inconsistencies in his teachings. By that we might conclude that he held sway over his people by force of his personality alone. He was adept in his ability to sell his point of view to simple people.
By 1937 Herbert Armstrong was not perpetuating the doctrines of the church that his wife challenged him to accept in 1926 nor was he cooperating with their leaders or government. When they were not convinced by his viewpoint, he sarcastically rejected them as dead and fruitless. He accused that they personified the spirit of the "Sardis" church in Revelation 3:1.
Herbert was a proud, cocky man, as he himself admitted, who was determined to make a financial success of his life. His background was in advertising. He lost almost everything in the great Depression. He had learned through many of his professional contacts something he later called "the Seven Laws of Success." This gave him the tenacity to build his own Radio Church of God against all odds.
The one thing he was able to prove in his life is that perseverance really can bring success. This was true of William Miller's followers; this was also true of those Herbert had rubbed shoulders with in the business world. Herbert attempted to impress upon his followers that the pursuit of success was not contradictory to the Christian way of life.
John Kiesz also had an uncanny perception of what the future would be for Herbert Armstrong's Radio Church of God when he observed this in the early 70's:In time, I observed that he possessed (and probably still does) a "persecution complex." Not long before he decided to drop me, he told me at his Eugene, Oregon office, that he will start a college and train his own men for the ministry, so they will all speak the same thing, and his problems in that area will be over. I did not say it then, but felt sure that his proposed course would work nicely for a while--until some of these men would think for themselves, and then trouble would start in his own organization. I did not think then, however, that it would take so many years until his movement would be fractured...
Another question often asked is: "Brother Kiesz, what do you think will be the outcome of the Worldwide Church of God?" This has been questioned especially since the recent fractures in what some have termed the "Armstrong Empire." I have no answer for this, except that I know that quite a number of splinter groups have been formed (perhaps about thirty), while some have joined the Church of God (7th Day)....
I knew him as a humble man. But things have changed over the years. He grew too big for his own or anyone else's good, as adherents have been thoroughly brain-washed, and there is nothing anyone can do for them anymore, as far as directing them into the right channels is concerned. His claiming that the Church of God (7th Day) is "the dead Sardis church," has affected many thousands, so that their prejudices keep them from investigating what the disclaimed church is really like. So, with all the apparent good that has been accomplished, much harm has also been done. The final judgment remains with the Creator.
In Armstrong's early ministry in Oregon, he seemed to grope somewhat with various doctrinal issues. At first he would not embrace the teaching of abstaining from "unclean meats." He resolved it later in a rather peculiar way. He would not accept it as a biblical command but as a health issue. Later he was challenged by his own ministers who cited that it was only a ceremonial ritual in the Old Testament and was never once called a health issue.
Armstrong also accepted altar calls and "speaking in tongues" at first but later began to reverse those beliefs.
After making the break from the Salem organization, Armstrong set up his own Church of God in Oregon. John Kiesz was still a loyal friend of his and assisted him periodically. I asked Kiesz if he had any special insight into Armstrong's claim to divine inspiration.
Kiesz tells a story of walking into Armstrong's office in Eugene one day, where Herbert was busy composing a story for his Plain Truth magazine. Kiesz was startled because he had just read that same story in the Bible Advocate. When Kiesz inquired about Armstrong's source Armstrong replied that it was by divine inspiration. Then Kiesz pointed out to him that he had just read that article, word for word, in the Bible Advocate. "So did I," replied Armstrong. "When I read this article, I understood it to be true. Therefore God has led me to understand this by divine revelation."
Wars with the Church of God, Seventh Day were now closing in on Armstrong. The brethren in Oregon who supported him financially were not pleased with his track record of false prophecies made throughout World War II. The tribulation had not materialized and the undaunted Armstrong was now making up even more stories about secret Catholic plots to resurrect Hitler and cause the whole world to stand in wonder and worship Hitler as "the Beast." The members began to chide with Armstrong, who had two choices: admit that he was wrong or get out of town. He chose the latter.
Shortly after World War II Herbert took the mailing list of the Plain Truth magazine and the Radio program he entitled, "The World Tomorrow" and headed for California. His income must have been fairly good because upon moving to Pasadena the Armstrong family purchased a mansion on "Millionaire's Row" just off the route of the Rose Parade on Orange Grove Boulevard. This is where Armstrong would begin a new phase of his great commission--to build a college to train ministers and expand his ministry worldwide. His three story home was large enough to become what he dubbed Ambassador College.
In the early years, Armstrong relied on prophecy and scare tactics to build his church. Claiming to hold the mysterious keys to the book of Revelation, as well as claiming that the observance of Old Testament Sabbaths would bring God's blessings on crops, raised the eyebrows of many mid-western farmers and common folk who well remembered the dust bowl days.
Not only did he capitalize upon the national phobia created by a devastating worldwide Depression, he also jumped onto the bandwagon of playing upon national fears of Nazism during World War II. He got extremely carried away with his predictions, claiming that World War II was the "great tribulation" of Revelation, that Nazis had secretly invented powerful death ray guns, that Mussolini and Hitler would fight against Christ at his return and so on. Even in the fifties Armstrong was still clinging to secret Nazi plot theories that involved the faked resurrection of Adolf Hitler who Armstrong felt was alive and well and living in Argentina or Antarctica.
His phobic claim that Nazism would rise again remained as a church teaching even after his death in 1986. This was one of many "keys to prophecy" that he claimed God had revealed to him alone.
Another source that Armstrong used to develop his prophetic dogma, centered around his visit to San Francisco to report on the first meeting of the United Nations in 1945. It was there that he heard many discussions from statesmen about their desire to build a United States of Europe under the Marshall plan. Armstrong leaped to faulty conclusions. He wrote about it later in the December 1948 issue of his Plain Truth magazine. In this article Armstrong went on to tell his readers that the true power behind the United Nations was the Catholic Church whose agenda was to resurrect the Holy Roman Empire and bring about World War III.This was the Roman Catholic bid to resurrect the so-called "HOLY ROMAN EMPIRE!"...
Thru [sic] this political movement, he [the pope] will UNIFY ten nations in Europe. It will be a "The UNITED STATES OF EUROPE," but that probably will never become its official name....
Once Europe is economically revived, and powerfully armed, a new Hitler will appear upon the scene--and it could be Hitler himself, claiming to have been resurrected from the dead!...
Thus, once this EMPIRE is revived in Europe--AND BY UNITED STATES HELP AT THAT--so gullible are we and dull of UNDERSTANDING!--the new-born Fascist-Nazi military power will without warning DESTROY AMERICAN AND BRITISH CITIES OVERNIGHT WITH ATOMIC BOMBS, conquering our peoples, taking our survivors to Europe as THEIR SLAVES! [Emphasis Armstrong's]
And so Armstrong was now ready to build his church. His knowledge of sales and advertising would help. His experience with Dugger and Dodd and the Church of God, Seventh Day taught him what to be on guard for among his own ministers. His research into Millerism gave him a unique and controversial angle.
The most important factor was that Armstrong really did appear to believe that God was using him to accomplish a "great work." His strong self-confidence led many thousands of people to sacrifice greatly to him, follow loyally behind him, and try to prepare the way for the return of Jesus Christ.
Go to the "Painful Truth" page.