Dropouts See Hucksterism
Where They Once Saw God
There was a significant amount of material exposing Worldwide Church of God as a destructive Bible-based cult in years past. This info, which consisted of newspaper and magazine articles, booklets, books, etc., was freely made available to the public before WCG's doctrinal changes.1 The fact that almost all members were unaware of this material shows how effective the control of critical information had been.
The following newspaper article is no means an isolated testimony. Those who read it may notice carry-overs with certain totalistic WCG offshoots, such as Philadelphia Church of God, Restored Church of God, Living Church of God, etc. Today counter-cult organizations no longer offer this type of exposé material as Worldwide Church of God's "positive" PR campaign and history revision team have pruned out all that they deemed "unfavorable and derogatory" towards their "new" organization. However, info can be found in newspaper and magazine archives.
We hope the following will help others not only see the truth about the Worldwide Church of God, and the real history of the organization, but avoid getting caught up in any of the destructive WCG offshoots today which commonly refer to their group as the "true Church of God."
Also included: Worldwide Church of God Amasses Wealth Amid Rising Criticism (a "special report" which appeared in the same newspaper)
NOTICE: Worldwide Church of God changed their name to Grace Communion International in 2009.
All bolding is ours.
Post-Gazette, Thurs., Nov. 24, 1977
By Bohdan Hodiak, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
They think they have been members of a cult, shrewdly manipulated by a man called "our sole apostle, leader and pastor general." But now they think of him as one of the greatest salesmen who ever lived.
"We tried to be Old Testament Christian," one of them said as they were interviewed in the home of their pastor, John Pruner, former head of the Pittsburgh church.
Cult members are generally thought of as young, mostly in their 20's. But these were solid, family oriented people, several of them with grown children. Many of them were in middle age when they first heard about the Worldwide Church of God (WCG). They could be described as hardworking, dedicated, wanting a better world.
They didn't speak with bitterness about their years in the WCG. It provided a lesson they had to learn, they said, but it was a costly lesson, and some of their friends paid a higher price than they did.
Partly because of prophecies that the United States would be destroyed by a nuclear bomb, the WCG has not put up any church buildings. Although the Pittsburgh church has an estimated 650 members, one group meets in Fire Hall 6 in Monroeville and another in a union hall in Vanport, Beaver County. There are other churches in Johnstown, Cambria County, Uniontown, Fayette County, Wheeling, W. Va., and Youngstown, Ohio, part of about 500 groups in the world.
"If you read the philosophy of the Moonies (the followers of the self-ordained Korean, Sun Myung Moon) you have a very similar psychological approach. It's a battle for your mind. They sew up your mind and then they've got your pocketbook sewed up," said John Armstrong, 42, of Saxonburg, Butler County. No relation to the Pasadena Armstrongs, he is a safety engineer for an oil company. He and his wife, Gerri, left last spring after seven years in the WCG.
"In every group you have a leader who says I have been to the mountain and I have talked with God. You follow me and you can have a piece of the action. The Armstrong religion fits exactly," he said.
"It gave us a feeling of being exclusive. We only. It appeals to the ego. When Christ returned you would be part of that select group," he said.
The broadcasts, which draw most of the people in, generally follow a pattern. They state a problem, frequently based on newspaper headlines: overpopulation, threat of famine, nuclear weapons, natural disasters, inflation, lack of job. Then the listener is convinced that the problem is much more serious than he or she thought. But there is hope and there is a solution and they are invited to call a toll free number for free literature and a free monthly magazine.
For many this was an entry into a world where up to a third of their income went to the WCG and its activities, where they were not supposed to go to doctors, to vote, where the outside world was of the devil.
The implication was that they were of the lost tribes of Israel and as such were chosen people. They worship on Saturday, did not eat pork and above all obey the WCG.
Once they accepted the Armstrong teaching, they were amazed that the traditional churches have missed, they believed, the most important fact of modern times: the imminent return of Christ. But belonging to this select group had its price.
When John Pruner began his ministry in Pittsburgh in 1971 he made the following recommendations on contributions:
The first part covering 10 items was titled "What Does God Require From My Income?" There were three tithes, the third one collected every third year. Since a tithe is 10 per cent that alone was 23.3 per cent of a member's weekly income. Then there was an emergency fund, Holy Day offerings, regular offerings, money to be sent to headquarters on the birth of a firstborn male or firstborn child.
The tithes came first, before food, before rent or mortgage payments. Last February Garner Ted Armstrong sent a letter to WCG members stating:
"Some have even begun to STEAL directly from God! ... They have forgotten that they are not 'giving' God his tithe, since it is not theirs to 'give'! ... It is INIQUITY, which means SIN, to steal God's tithe!"
Under the second heading Pruner listed nine items under voluntary contributions. There was a building fund, a tithe of tithes, loans to the work, gifts, special emergency gifts, library, recreation and social funds.
Most members of WCG are working people; very few have high incomes. [John] Armstrong remembered a special emergency collection:
"There was this little old guy in his mid-70's, just struggling to stay alive. He wore $1.98 plastic shoes. He had $3 in his wallet and he gave it. He probably didn't eat for the rest of the week. It tore my guts out to see an old man so devoted. The church should have been supporting him," Armstrong said.
One woman, who didn't want her name used, said her family's contribution to the WCG so depleted their finances that "Many times we didn't have any food in the house."
"Returning from church we'd stop off at relatives or friends hoping they'd give us something to eat. I was often so hungry that my mother called me 'the locust,' " she said.
The woman's husband was earning $80 a week when they joined in the mid 1960's. Because there was no WCG church in their vicinity in Cambria County they drove 75 miles to the Pittsburgh church.
"Our whole life revolved around the church," she said.
Pruner believes now that the pressure for money was artificially created. The Armstrongs would increase the budget about 30 per cent every year, Pruner said, and then claim a financial crisis. Many times, Pruner said, Armstrong sent urgent appeals to members to take out bank loans and send them in.
Pruner, 46, is a resident of Adamsburg, Westmoreland County, and is now self-employed. He was in his 20's when he first heard about the WCG.
"I didn't have a religious background so I was very easily taken in. Everything seemed logical to me. Their motto was 'Recapture True Values,'" he said.
Pruner graduated from the WCG's Ambassador College in 1965 and was assigned as a minister to Pittsburgh in 1971. A few years ago, seeing many respected WCG officials leaving, Pruner began to wonder and question.
"For about a year, every night, many hours till midnight or later, I began to study it all out. I proved to my own satisfaction that Mr. Armstrong's doctrines were in error by and large, almost in toto," he said.
With a new understanding Pruner began to preach differently at the Saturday two-hour services. His sermons often dealt with Christian living, that Christians helped their neighbors, that they didn't isolate themselves into an exclusive, reclusive group.
The sermons were reported to headquarters by several deacons, there was a meeting, and by mutual agreement, Pruner resigned last January.
"The people in the church are wonderful. They are the finest people you ever want to meet. We love all of them. The trouble is at the top," he said.
Although the Armstrongs have made many changes in recent years, unfortunately, they were forced by their fear of losing more members and money, Pruner said.
Then there was the church attitude on medicine.
Charles Calahan, 49, is a resident of Butler, Butler County, and works as a tractor-trailer driver. He and his wife, Gilda, spent 12 years in the WCG, before leaving last May. Their son is a WCG minister in Indiana and both their daughters have remained members.
Calahan was a WCG elder.
In 1967 Calahan broke his leg in an industrial accident, suffering compound fractures. "They took me to Butler Hospital. I refused shots to kill the pain and for tetanus because I had been taught that doctors were obscene. This was Beelzeebub [sic] (of the devil)," he said.
He just wanted the leg set but the doctors refused saying Calahan had to give them permission first to remove splinters and pieces of bone from his leg.
Several hours went by and finally the doctor agreed to set the bone. "I found out later that all the bones that were scattered were in line," Calahan said. He believes it was a divine healing.
But for some, the results were less happy. A WCG member in Trafford, Westmoreland County, got gangrene. She refused any medical help and stayed home praying. "You couldn't stand the smell in her house," Calahan said. After weeks of agony she died.
The good that came from their years in the WCG was a better understanding of Christianity, the former members said.
"What it amounts to is we have lived Old Testament lives and what we found is what Christ meant by love fullfilling the law," [John] Armstrong said. Armstrongism is essentially a religion of law, not of the grace of the new covenant, he said.
"They absolutely don't preach the blood of Christ and the simplicity of Christ. That's one thing that bugged me. They preach the pharisaical law. They deny Christ sacrificed," Armstrong said.
Ken Torosi, 34, an electrician from Connoquenessing, Butler County, said: "When I was in the church I asked a group 'What have you done to prove you're a Christian? We're to love each other as we do ourselves. What have you done?' "
"And the answer was 'I keep the Sabbath. I keep the Holy Days.' "
"When you give that much money to the church," said Morris Hahn, 67, of Murrysville, Westmoreland County, "you don't have any money to help anyone anyway." Hahn spent 15 years in the WCG and said he had originally been a "staid Lutheran elder."
The former members, Torosi said, believe they know now what their duties and obligations are to mankind. "In the past we didn't go to these guys because they were a bunch of lowdown Christmas guys. It didn't matter if the husband was off work and their kids were walking around with the toes worn off," he said, "The WCG believes Christ, Easter and birthdays must not be observed, that they are pagan holidays."
"When we say love fulfills the law they tell us we want a license to sin. They don't understand what it means," Armstrong said.
Group members said they felt many more WCG members would leave but believe they have no place to go. "You can't leave with honor. You're cut off. You won't see the friends again you spent years and years making," Pruner said.
"They feel they'll be standing alone," Torosi said. "They'll lose their identity. They'll be nobody. It's a terrible thing."
"A person who's left the church is considered taken over by Satan and has lost his salvation," Mrs. Armstrong said.
"We can't talk to our children about the church. They just won't listen to us," Calahan said.
Because the WCG makes dire predictions about anyone who leaves the church, 65 former church members decided to hold a picnic last summer near Butler to compare notes. They found out they were happier and better off financially and in other ways than when they were in the WCG.
But none have joined another church. They said they were now wary about religious institutions.2
"The people who are in the church are fine, beautiful people. The only thing is they are clinging to all they know," Armstrong said. "If there is anything we can do to fill this vacuum, to carry them over from following a man to following God . . . that is our main concern."
"We've been turned off following human leaders. We have been brainwashed, thoroughly and by experts." Armstrong thought a moment and then added, "The hardest part was to admit you have been on a bad ego trip. Your little fragile ego has been stepped on and crushed."
The following "special report" appeared in the same newspaper as the above. All bolding is ours.
Post-Gazette, Thurs., Nov. 24, 1977
By Bohdan Hodiak, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
"I've done all right, haven't I, Cliff?" Herbert W. Armstrong asked a friend four years ago while showing him the campus of his Ambassador College in Pasadena, Calif.
That was an understatement.
Armstrong, 85 and his silver-tongued son, Garner Ted, 47, have built a religious empire in the past 30 years that in media and financial power is bigger than the Billy Graham and Oral Roberts organizations combined.
First known as the Radio Church of God and then as the Worldwide Church of God (WCG), the organization collected $66.5 million, tax free, in 1975. The same year a staff of 177 persons mailed out 61.4 million pieces of literature from its computerized headquarters. The Ambassador College campus has been described as one of the most beautiful in the country.
Garner Ted Armstrong, who now holds most of the top jobs in the organization, is on more than 400 radio and television stations in the United States and Canada; locally he's on WPIT AM at 11 a.m. Sundays.
His "The World Tomorrow" broadcast is heard weekly by an estimated 50 million persons. He is indeed the Electronic Evangelist.
Listeners are encouraged to phone toll free for free literature and a free monthly magazine The Plain Truth which has a circulation of 1,800,000. Some 40,000 listeners call every month.
HWA and GTA, as they are often referred to in WCG publications, each has his own private jet airplane, the largest commercially available, to take them wherever they want to go. HWA has five luxurious homes filled with art treasures. He spends most of the year jetting around the world.
Garner Ted Armstrong's home in Pasadena is estimated to be worth nearly $400,000. He has a Canadian hunting lodge and a fleet of cars at his disposal.
For a man who didn't finish high school, Herbert Armstrong has undeniably done all right.
So what do they teach to make all this opulence possible? That this is a world of tears and sorrow where the four horsemen of the Apocalypse will soon begin to ride.
They have told WCG members not to celebrate Christmas, Easter, birthdays or worship on Sunday. They've told them not to vote in elections. They have said the Bible has been misunderstood for the past 19 centuries and that one of its teachings is that there is no immortal soul.
In the mid-1950's HWA wrote a pamphlet that sent shivers up the spines of his followers. Underlined, italicized, capitalized and filled with triple exclamation points, it was titled "1975 in Prophecy."
It predicted that Germany would rise again creating a United States of Europe which would then attack this country with nuclear bombs in January 1972. Meanwhile, the WCG would "flee or be taken to a place of safety" to Petra in the Middle East. After this worldwide destruction Jesus Christ would return in 1975.
"I say to you on authority of God Almighty that it is absolutely sure," HWA thundered in the pamphlet.
While the world didn't end, the WCG had its own trials and tribulations in the 1970s. A score of ministers and thousands of members left complaining of autocratic rule, financial irregularities, doctrinal rigidity and sexual transgressions by GTA.
For more than two decades there have been whispers in the inner circle of the WCG that Garner Ted was a frequent adulterer, that he couldn't keep his hands off women. Some referred to it as "Ted's problem."
In a church that until a few years ago did not permit divorce, makeup for women or weaning dresses above the knees, this was not taken lightly.
In 1972 HWA expelled Garner Ted from the church and its ministry saying his son was "in the bonds of Satan."
All of this and more is recounted in the "Ambassador Report,"3 P.O. Box 4068, Pasadena, Calif. 91106. It was recently published by six former, relatively young WCG members. They spent from four to 15 years each in the church and all but one graduated from Ambassador College. All have left the WCG and have no official connection with the college. Their 92-page report represents two years of work.
One of the editors and publishers is Leonard W. Zola, 26, a native of New Kensington, Westmoreland County, who first heard about the WCG as a young musician in the Pittsburgh area. He graduated from Ambassador College in 1974.
"We were sitting around grumbling what a religious sham this was when we realized how much information we had. We had all worked in different departments of the organization. We could document our information," Zola said.
Each of the six contributed money to raise the $10,000 needed to publish 5,000 copies of the report. One member even took out a second mortgage on his home to help start the project.
(Don Lawson, minister of the WCG, Pittsburgh church was asked if he had any comment on the report. Lawson said he had not read it and didn't plan to read it. Asked if he had any objections to his congregation reading it he said, "It's up to them.")
One feature of the report is a series of interviews with Bobby Fischer,4 the chess grandmaster. He spent 15 years in Armstrongism, first as a radio listener, then as a heavy contributor. In 1972, when he won the world chess championship, Fischer gave the WCG $61,200, nearly a third of his income that year.
He first heard of the Armstrongs through the radio program and sent away for the free literature. "I felt guilty after awhile about getting so much," he said.
Fischer sent $5 and then $20 and this qualified him for a co-worker letter designed to convert occasional contributors to monthly contributors.5 Soon he was tithing, giving 10 per cent of his gross income, and became an enthusiastic follower.
As 1972 went, by Fischer noticed Herbert Armstrong did not apologize for his prophecy of nuclear destruction. "Now he's half-denying he ever said it when I remember him saying it a hundred times ... Either God is a masochist and likes to be made a fool, of else Herbert Armstrong is a false prophet," Fischer said.
"He continually tries to frighten and panic you in his co-worker letters about the supposed imminent end of the world so that you will empty your bank account before him ..."
"This idea of Herbert's that you can't trust your own thoughts--that's the key doctrine that I think has to be blasted out. I would say if there's one thing that is the whole essence of Armstrongism, that's it. That's how he screws up your mind. That's how he hangs on to people."
(After he gave the series of interviews to Ambassador Report, Fischer changed his mind, recanted what he said and tried to get the editors not to publish his comments, Zola said.)
Herbert Armstrong was born in 1892 in Des Moines, Iowa to Quaker parents. For some 20 years in his young manhood he worked as an advertising salesman. He moved his family to Oregon in 1924 and for years eked out a precarious existence doing odd jobs.
He became interested in religion through his wife, began to study the Bible and in 1933 was elected minister of a small group known as the Church of God, Oregon Conference.6 The same year he made his first radio broadcast and the following year started The Plain Truth.
In 1947 Armstrong moved to Pasadena to take advantage of its broadcasting facilities. Marion J. McNair, a former WCG Evangelist, a rank only below the Armstrongs in the church, said Armstrong left because he made 21 erroneous prophecies and had lost his credibility. McNair published a book this year titled "Armstrongism: Religion or Rip Off?"
Armstrong also started Ambassador College because he needed trained ministers for his congregations. There now are more than 500 around the world.
Despite the huge amounts of money that began to come in during the 1950s, the college is still unaccredited, meaning students cannot transfer their credits to most other colleges or do not have their degree recognized.
The college does have a 1,262-seat auditorium that cost $11 million, not counting the financing. "It is the most beautiful building that has ever been built in the United States; per square foot it is one of the most expensive, said a high WCG official.
Outside of a handful of people no one knows exactly how all the money is being spent. WCG ministers, when they attended annual financial meetings, were told not to take notes and were not permitted to tape record discussions.
After years of research the best that McNair could come up with in his book was that in 1973 administrative salaries were $2.1 million. Since about 28 jobs apparently qualified as administrative, he estimated the average salaries as $75,000.
Critics say money was the reason Garner Ted Armstrong was brought back from exile in 1972 from his vacation home in Colorado. WCG reportedly lost millions of dollars in contributions after he was taken off the broadcasts. No one else had his appeal.
But the reinstatement dumbfounded many WCG ministers. How was it justified? they asked. Albert Portune, an evangelist and one of HWA's right men, gave them the answer. HWA told him, Portune said, "Ted is above scripture. Those were his words." Portune also left the WCG.
Ambassador Report also contains many letters of former WCG members describing the damage the Armstrong teaching has done to their lives.
Until the mid-1970's going to a doctor for treatment was discouraged and might mean a "marking" for the WCG member, a form of ostracism. Many people died in agony that medical treatment could have prevented.
Most WCG members--there are 66,000 baptized members7--were working people for whom every dollar was hard earned. Yet the church had three tithes and countless other demands for money. Many members gave up to a third of their gross salaries to the church and its activities.
They did not dare not contribute. After all, wasn't the WCG the "only true church" and wasn't the apocalypse just around the corner?
Many didn't think about savings or pensions or otherwise providing for their old age. They even took out loans to be able to send money to headquarters. There always seemed to be a financial crisis at headquarters.
Divorce was not permitted, parents were told to be very strict with their children. There was a secrecy about the churches, actually rented halls or theaters. The local WCG was not listed in telephone books nor were their ministers.
Strangers couldn't walk off the street and attend services. Men who knew the membership were stationed at the door to keep strangers out.
Every attempt was made to get members to discount outside criticism because this was "a snare of Satan."
In the last few years there have been great changes in the WCG. The WCG was trying to be more responsive to its members and there was talk that Garner Ted had some heated exchanges with his father trying to make him more liberal.
Many of the restrictions on divorce, doctors and other subjects were relaxed. Tithing was changed to that on net salary instead of gross. Celebrating birthdays became acceptable and outsiders were permitted to attend services.8
Herbert Armstrong married a 39-year-old woman last April9 who had a teen-age son by a previous marriage.
Meanwhile, Garner Ted Armstrong has written his first book The Real Jesus to be published next week. He has had the WCG purchase 65,000 copies of the book from his publisher to send free to church members.
Beware "Ambassadors" Bearing Gifts! (A tragic story of what happened to one member after he responded to Herbert Armstrong's pleas for more money.)
Footnotes by ESN:
1 While only few hardback books were written about Herbert Armstrong before the 1960's (see our Booklist), there were a number of articles written; i.e., Joseph Hopkins, author of The Armstrong Empire made mention of several: "Herbert W. Armstrong: Does He Really Have the 'Plain Truth'?" by Leslie K. Tarr, (Moody Monthly, Sept. 1972); Herbert Armstrong: Mr. Confusion by Roger F. Campbell, 1971; The Armstrong Error, by Charles F. DeLoach, 1971; The Marson Report by Richard A. Marson, 1970; "The Armstrong Movement: A Former Member Speaks Out" by Richard A. Marson (Unpublished manuscript, 1971); The Plain Truth About Armstrongism by Roger R. Chambers, 1972; "The Plain Truth About the Armstrongs and the World Tomorrow," by William C. Martin, (Harper's, July 1973). Quotes from these authors and others are in Chapter XII of The Armstrong Empire. Other such articles written about HWA and the WCG were: "What Does Herbert Armstrong Preach?" by Herbert V. Caneday (The King's Business, September 1959, pp. 26, 27); "Pertinent Answers to Armstrongism," Roger Campbell (The King's Business, September 1963, pp. 14, 15); The Armstrong Heresy by Paul Wilson.
2 Spiritual betrayal destroys a person's ability to trust those who are in a position of spiritual authority.
3 The Ambassador Report helped many to leave the Worldwide Church of God through its exposé of the organization. Many issues (including the letters) have valuable info which exposes the WCG, HWA and Joseph Tkach, Sr. In the beginning Trechak and the team that he worked with appeared to have a very noble goal. But after awhile, the message in his AR became mixed, causing people to become bitter instead of being on the road to healing. His later reports were referring readers off to agnostic, aberrant, cultic, New Age, meta-physical, anti-Bible and humanistic sources through comments, letters, addresses and book titles. John Trechak died September 2, 1999. (Note: Please be aware that the AR is now posted on an atheist website.)
5 See chapters 2 and 3 in the book, Armstrongism: Religion or Rip-Off? (An Exposé of the Armstrong Modus Operandi) by Marion J. McNair for examples from HWA's co-worker letters which reveal the propaganda methods he used in order to solicit donors and then con them out of thousands of dollars.
6 For more on this period of time read: John Kiesz Furnishes Information on Herbert W. Armstrong.
7 It can be documented that the WCG's highest number was about 53,000 in 1973. This can be discerned by listening to: "Armstrongism: An Insider's View" by Mike Hollman, available from Watchman Fellowship. (Hollman was director of data processing in WCG from 1972 to 1973.) Likewise, Myth 1 and 2 - the greatest of them all in OIU Newsletter #6, tells about the myth of WCG's membership numbers. (Also see this part in OIU 2, Pt. 2, about "discrepancies with the growth picture starting around 1978.")
8 Many of these changes at this time lasted only a short while. HWA ousted GTA in 1978 along with other "liberals" to "put the Work back on track." He said his son tried to turn the church into a "secular and worldly organization" while he was ill.
9 In April 1976, Herbert Armstrong married Ramona Martin, a woman 46 years his junior and a divorcee whose husband was still alive. In April 1982 he divorced her. For more info on this and how he changed the D&R ruling, see footnote #2 in Did Herbert W. Armstrong Abuse His Flock?