Beware of authoritative Bible teachers who proclaim Herbert Armstrong was given God’s “restored truth” and was used by God! While this article will show exactly how Worldwide Church of God was able to deceive and draw people into their organization, the methods are very similar to what many of the high demand splinter groups; i. e., Philadelphia Church of God (Gerald Flurry), Restored Church of God (David C. Pack), Living Church of God (Gerald E. Weston), etc., use.
“A deceived person does not know he is deceived.” ~Herbert W. Armstrong,
Mystery of the Ages, Chapter 5, p. 171, 1985.
I first heard Herbert Armstrong’s dynamic and charismatic voice on the radio. We were quite naïve at the time because we never suspected anyone sounding so sincere and seemingly so dedicated with his message could end up being so deceptive. In fact, we hadn’t ever heard anyone speak with as much authority and zeal toward the Bible and the issues of the day, as he seemed to do.
What first got my attention when listening to HWA’s “World Tomorrow” program was how he was speaking on the subject of, Does God Exist? In fact, that was the first booklet (actually a small pamphlet) I ordered, and the second one (which actually went along with the first) was, The Proof of the Bible. These booklets sounded like he really knew what he was talking about. One of our relatives came to visit during this period of time and saw the first one lying on an end stand and commented, “This is really good!” So that enforced in my mind all the more that Herbert Armstrong could PROVE one of the most important questions there ever was. (Little did I know that other Christian teachers had covered the same subject before.)
Another booklet I read early on was The United State and British Commonwealth in Prophecy. I thought this was such a wonderful discovery to find out my country was Israel. (I had no idea that British Israelism had already been proven to be false and was never a “special revelation” to HWA.)
Around this time, we had recently started attending a large non-denominational church on Sunday evenings that we liked. But since HWA sounded so much more knowledgeable and exciting than any other teacher we’d ever heard, we would find ourselves actually listening to his program on our car radio in the parking lot before we went inside this church! Listening to HWA was almost like a drug high. We simply had to hear more and more of this captivating man who was “giving us the answers to everything.”
Unknown to any of us at the time, Herbert Armstrong introduced his literature, including the Ambassador College Bible Correspondence Course1, one lesson–and one step–at a time, each building on the other. That’s why other Christians in mainstream churches can ask, “How could you ever have believed that?” Well, if we had looked at one of the “stronger meat” booklets right off, or the last Bible lesson, we might have rejected it.
But instead, we started out listening to the fascinating subjects he expounded on the radio and read his captivating “news magazine” (The Plain Truth). Each booklet, article, and lesson wanted us to send away for more to “further understand things.” It felt exciting to learn all these things, and we truly felt we were looking in the Bible (by means of his correspondence course) to PROVE it ourselves.2
Many of us who were pulled into the organization had little or no knowledge of orthodox Christian doctrines; barely understanding the basics of our faith.1 Furthermore, we didn’t hear much about apologetics or how to discern whether something was a religious cult back in those days, let alone understand the techniques of thought reform and coercion used by those who would exploit us.
Garner Ted Armstrong also spoke on the radio, alternating with HWA. One day he spoke on baptism and how it was only authentic if it was done by immersion. He didn’t say which church to have it done in, only that we were to send away for his free booklet on “Baptism” to learn more.
When we found out that the new mainstream church we had started attending had a baptismal pool, we believed it was an answer to prayer. We thought all we had to do was let this church baptize us and then we could continue on listening to HWA who knew “so much more than other ministers.” I have to look back with sadness when remembering this Christian minister briefly counseling us before services, as we sat together in the chairs in the auditorium. I very clearly remember him saying, “Now do you understand that you don’t have to keep the Ten Commandments in order to be saved?” Already in a fog from HWA’s mind-manipulation, we shook our heads “yes” (knowing we didn’t actually believe what this minister was saying).
Later, I jokingly mentioned how “deceived” this minister was in comparison to the “truth” we were learning from Herbert Armstrong. This minister, however, might have warned us about Herbert W. Armstrong and his son Garner Ted if we had asked him if he had ever heard of them and >The World Tomorrow broadcast. Instead we went ahead with our baptism the next week and afterwards felt we now were “authentically” baptized in God’s sight and had the Holy Spirit.
It wasn’t long before we stopped attending this Christian church and I began to immerse myself more and more into Herbert Armstrong’s literature and what I thought was “God’s revealed truth.”
Once HWA got us to distrust other Christian ministers, he had us where he wanted us. We wouldn’t listen to those ministers anymore (Christianity was “blinded and of Satan”). We kept thinking we were “proving everything” from the Bible ourselves by looking up the verses HWA provided. If a reader was converted before they heard HWA’s teachings, they would begin to doubt all they grew up believing. In fact, The Ambassador College Bible Correspondence Course told us to “lay all preconceived ideas and religious bias on the shelf.”4
I remember one of the first articles I read by HWA was about how to recognize the “one true Church.” In this he proceeded to “prove”–by selected verses in the Bible–that the TRUE name of God’s church was named “Church of God.” All others weren’t true. Then he narrowed it down to “all churches who keep the 7th day Sabbath.” Soon it was narrowed down to “all churches who keep the annual Sabbaths (O.T. feast days).” Churches that didn’t have these “qualifications” were “Satan’s counterfeits.” Once you fall into this trap, your mind by-passes all critical thinking.
HWA’s recruiting techniques were very sophisticated and subtle. He encouraged the listener to keep ordering more and various “thought-provoking” free booklets and literature, which in effect built upon each other. He actually was asking leading questions and then taking Scriptures out of context in order to get us to believe what he said. But we didn’t realize this because he did it in such a cunning way, always adding just the right amount of fear; e.g., “Now you KNOW the truth, what are you going to do about it?” and “You are RESPONSIBLE for the truth you have received!” As a result, you became afraid to discount what you felt God was revealing to you–one of the select few–through His Apostle. (HWA made use of fear and once a person becomes fear phobic, they become submissive to the authority of the group.)
All this time you never knew there was a “church” (i. e., apocalyptic, Bible-based “cult“) behind the radio or TV program because they never mentioned it until one progressed further into the literature. It usually took years for a reader or listener to come to the place where they felt ready and willing to request a visit.
If anyone donated at least twice to the radio or TV program, they would then receive a Co-Worker letter. It was meant to make you feel pretty special to be a “Co-Worker of God’s end-time Work.” Soon you decided to enroll in their free Ambassador College Bible Correspondence Course, so you could learn even more about the Bible. Then they would follow up with another letter telling you what a good decision you had made.
When Lesson #1 arrived (“How to Study the Bible in the Space Age”), you may have felt it was a little different (and more fearful, especially in the way it talked about the “last days”) than you expected, but when you looked up all the Bible verses given, it answered all the questions the way HWA wanted them answered. He picked and chose the Scriptures to suit what he was trying to get you to believe. Easy self-tests were sent every few lessons and made you feel you were really making progress. The course was set up in such a way that the unsuspecting and unlearned felt they were actually learning God’s truths known only by His “one true Church” on earth, especially since HWA said he had been given (by God) the “7 keys to understanding the Bible.”5
During this Bible Correspondence Course, the student is told not to read outside literature. This is part of “milieu control” that cults employ. Notice the following from Lesson #4 of the 1965 Ambassador College Bible Correspondence Course, p. 11: [all emp. theirs]
“RELIGIOUS LITERATURE other than ours should not be studied UNTIL YOU ARE THOROUGHLY GROUNDED in this course and have the whole pattern of the Bible fixed in mind. This takes time. Our Correspondence Course is complete and it leads from one scripture to another and lets the Bible interpret itself as it goes along; NO LITERATURE CAN DO MORE! It would only confuse you to read other religious tracts at first. It is not recommended as a practice to beginning students here at Ambassador College.”
The Bible Course at that time consisted of at least five years of study and the student was to put in a minimum of at least one-half hour a day studying it. This was to be their “Bible study time.”
As I mentioned, HWA always added a strong element of fear in much of his literature and lessons. He made you feel that since you now knew the “Truth” (about the Sabbath, Holy Days, tithing, Ten Commandments, baptism, Christmas, Easter, birthdays, salvation, true Church, obedience to God, prophecy, etc.) you better not cast it aside, or you would be held eternally responsible, ending up in the Great Tribulation, martyred, and/or placed in a concentration camp–which he prophesied was to come “in your lifetime.” And if you didn’t repent at that time, you would be thrown into the Lake of Fire at the Great White Throne Judgment and annihilated. “The World Tomorrow” program never went into depth about these subjects because what they did talk about was only the enticing bait to grab the interest of the listener and lead him eventually into the organization where he would come to replace God in his mind with “the government of God.”
If you completed all the Bible correspondence lessons (which were 58), there’s a strong chance you would become a member. The further you got into the lessons, the more you were taught about how ONLY “God’s true ministers” (which were their ministers) could baptize you and only then could you receive the Holy Spirit, after they laid their hands on you. All other baptisms prior to that time were “not true conversions.” It mattered not if you were baptized as a child, or by another church as an adult, they told you it “wasn’t valid.”
I remember seeing a “happy picture” in one of the Bible lessons, showing “God’s true people” meeting together. It was at a Feast of Tabernacles site (although at that time you didn’t know you had to travel far away to observe it, or to save a second tithe for it). But they finally bring you up to the place where you know God’s people are meeting somewhere and you desire to be there.
So I wrote and asked for a visit from one of their “representatives.” After all, the course said we had to be in “God’s true Church” if we wanted to make it into God’s Kingdom and escape the Great Tribulation, which was coming “very soon.”6
The “minister” contacted us by letter, but didn’t actually come to our house for several weeks. This is deliberate in order to bring one to the place where they feel desperate to become a member. (Other controlling offshoots today may phone the prospective member right away, but still have “required literature” one must read before attending services.) When they did arrive, they seemed quite serious, but didn’t call themselves ministers. They said they were “representatives of Ambassador College.” We said we wanted to get baptized, and after some exchange of words, they asked us how many of the booklets we had read and then wanted to see all of them. Of course, I felt very proud that I had read so many. I felt I surely would be seen as one desiring to “follow God’s ways.” I now know that the more of the necessary literature you have read the more under the mind control (thought reform) you become and that’s what they want.
We still had to wait several weeks after that and ended up having to write them again, explaining our “need” for baptism. (In the meantime, I was aware of their literature that stated a person had to “bring forth fruits worthy of repentance” and I thought maybe they were waiting for this.) After letting them know that we really wanted to be baptized, the minister and his “assistant” came this time and visited with us some more. Then we were invited to services. Before that we didn’t even know where the church was because it was kept very secret. (The church was only a “front” for what actually was a sinister, multi-million dollar organization.) I learned later that they wanted to make sure no one walked in unannounced that hadn’t read enough of their literature in order to make a decision to want to become a member. Furthermore, no unscreened stranger could locate the address in the phone book, because it wasn’t there. All visitors came through a minister first.
The first service we attended was in the basement of a Masonic lodge with no windows and hard floors with metal folding chairs. (I found out years later that their services were usually held in unusual places: Masonic lodges, theaters, rotary clubs, roller skating rinks, school cafeterias, auditoriums, etc. They never seemed to have enough money to build churches for their members, their excuse being that the tithes and offerings were being used to “do the Work” which meant “proclaim the gospel of the Kingdom of God to all the world.”) There were only about a hundred people in attendance and we were late. (I must admit that I was a little surprised that there were so few people attending–less than 60.) But as we walked down the aisle, their voices were strong and loud as they sang, which made me think it was “so good to have found God’s true Church! Only people in His true Church could sing this enthusiastically.” One doesn’t know that all high demand groups are noted for their enthusiasm and seeming zeal for God (especially in their singing). An elder was located at the door to the meeting room (in our case it was the only door there that led to the stairs to get out of the building). When you went to leave right afterwards, he would tell you not to go, but to stick around and “fellowship.” This was to keep you with the group on the Sabbath and to cause you to bond with your new “family.” (Also read: My First Service in a Masonic Basement)
Our counseling for baptism took place that next week in the minister’s small, dark upstairs apartment. I remember only one window in the room. The “counseling” lasted for at least two hours while he asked questions and determined whether we were truly ready. One of the things I remember being asked was, “What are you supposed to repent of?” The only correct answer was “to repent of my carnal human nature.” And HWA taught that it was rotten to the core.
The baptism took place the following week in the dreary basement of a music building, owned by one of the members. We had a lot of trouble locating it at first (becoming afraid we were going to “miss out on receiving God’s Spirit”). When we finally found it and walked down the stairs, the elders had a horse tank set up for the baptism, with cold water. Perhaps this was intentional also. I had to be placed under the water “twice” because my feet came up the first time. After we went into our cubicle and dried off, changing our clothes, we gathered in a circle (there were two ministers there–everything had to be done in twos) and they laid hands on us, praying their specific prayer. No one could receive the Holy Spirit “unless” hands were first laid on by “God’s true ministers.”
As the last words of the minister’s prayer was being said, it was like reality changed for me and I gradually slipped into a pleasant dream-like state that lasted the rest of the evening and even the next day. I thought the Holy Spirit had been given. In all likelihood it was merely a self-hypnotic state which I also experienced in those early years during the Feast of Tabernacles from the minute the sun went down on the first day and until it went down at the end of the Last Day.
After becoming a member, you soon understand through sermons and their insider magazine that you are not to talk about your beliefs to outsiders, unless they showed an interest. And then you weren’t to try and “convert” them. If visiting relatives told you they wanted to accompany you to services, you had to tell them that they had to listen to the broadcast and send away for the literature first and then talk to the minister. HWA warned us about “throwing our pearls before swine.” Besides, we were told that it was “God that did the calling” and everyone in there had been “called of God.” All of these techniques are used more or less to the same degree in other high demand, controlling splinter groups of WCG today which teach and believe that Herbert Armstrong was called by God to “restore the true gospel” and that we are at the “close of the age.”
When you first become a member, you remain determined to never leave God’s “true church” and that everything they tell you, you will do. You fail to notice the burdens and system of bondage you are under. When you do have problems or suffer pain, you tell yourself, “God will take care of it.”
Getting caught up in Herbert W. Armstrong’s “one true Church” eventually leads to tremendous loss, misery and destruction. You very likely will end up in an abusive marriage, if not a destroyed marriage; your children will become alienated or damaged from all the control, fears and lies; you will have many financial problems; job problems; ill health or death due to refusing to go to a doctor. There will be broken relationships with loved ones; no friends outside the group; no pension or retirement in your old age (you thought you were going to the “place of safety” instead); turmoil; stress; heavy burdens; spiritual strongholds; loss of those you thought were “family,” and after leaving you feel as if your mind has been raped.
If you have already found yourself down this road, certain losses will probably never be able to be regained. But you don’t have to become a prisoner to your past or be overcome by it. You can start from where you are now and make a new and free life for yourself. When you come to understand what and how it all happened and that you aren’t alone, and when you are able to break the chains, and be able to trust the true Lord Jesus Christ, you will find that He will heal you, shepherd you and guide you, and never forsake you. His message is simple and burden free.
By D. M. Williams
Exit & Support Network™
“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. … For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
~Matthew 11:28, 30
1 The Ambassador College Bible Correspondence Course was formerly instituted in 1954 by Herbert Armstrong by appointing C. Paul Meredith (uncle of Roderick C. Meredith) as its director. (Good News, October 1963, “Make the Most of the Ambassador College Bible Correspondence Course” by Richard H. Sedliacik.) In 1970 the course was reduced to 24 lessons; in 1973 to 12 lessons. (The Armstrong Empire, p. 163, Joseph Hopkins)
3 For more detail, see the first part of chapter one in “Mystery of the Ages (a critical review)” by Kelly Marshall. (this critical review is available as PDF download)
6 HWA continually emphasized that the end was coming “very soon.” For several examples of his many false prophecies, read: Did Herbert Armstrong Set Dates?