By Kieren Underwood
Many stories of life in the PCG have been told before (on sites like this), but there is precious little information on what it is like to be a Herbert W. Armstrong College (HWAC) student. I’d like to remedy this.
Let me first preface this story by letting you know that I enjoyed most of my time at HWAC. (The actual classes stand out as the worst parts.) Perhaps this seems weird, given I now despise everything the PCG does. Yet ignorance is bliss. I still had friends, sports, trips, and all the good stuff. It just happened to be based on lies.1
A big picture before I embark on the details: I spent three and a half years at the college, meaning I left one semester before I would have graduated. Two and a half of those years I worked as a junior writer for the Philadelphia Trumpet magazine and website. I attended “editorial meetings” with the big dog writers and watched exactly how we produced our propaganda. After my second year, I went to the Edstone, England campus, living in the huge mansion along with Stephen Flurry’s and Brad Macdonald’s families. My also sister attended HWAC, starting two years before me. And my best friend, who can remain nameless, was eventually the Student Body President (of the 2017-18 class).
Freshman and Sophomore Year
What every Freshmen remembers of Orientation is the opening lecture from the Assistant Dean, Eric Burns. It’s the dos and don’ts lecture (but mainly it’s a don’ts lecture). The overwhelming message of this lecture is “if you have to ask if you can do something, the answer is probably no.” Actually, Eric Burns says this straight out. Add to this a long list of things you definitely can’t do. I wish I had a better memory, but a partial list of the weird rules at HWAC will have to suffice:
- No underclassmen are to own cars (upperclassmen only).
- No underclassmen are to borrow upperclassmen’s cars.
- No alcohol on campus (not to mention drugs).
- Maximum of two drinks when off campus.
- No stargazing
- No sitting on the same towel or blanket of someone of the opposite sex. (Something weird must have gone down in previous years….)
- No underclassmen are to take other underclassmen off campus to date.
- No walks with girls on campus after 10:00
- No interracial dating.
- No dating a girl twice before you have dated every other girl at the college.
- No dating college alumni (this was a recent rule update).
- No “pairing off” with anyone of the opposite or same sex. (This essentially means spending “too much” time with someone and not spreading your time equally with all.)
- No persons of the opposite sex can sit next to each other in the back of a car. (Apparently there was too much butt-brushing.)
- No going off campus on a group date if there is not an even number of people of the same race. This could give off the wrong impression (horror!) that one of the couples is actually interracial! (This actually stopped me going out many times in a group with one of my Black female friends.)
- No touching the opposite sex. (This became stricter as time went on. Hugs were not allowed. A touch on the shoulder was frowned upon.)
- No hoodies in class. (I was brought into the dean’s office because of this rule.)
- No watching movies on a laptop with anyone else. (I remember students circumventing this rule by watching the same movie on different laptops, while sitting next to each other.)
- No eating at the cafeteria without slacks and collared shirt.
- No “thinking about marriage” until final semester of senior year. (Yes, I’m not making this up.)
- No girls are to walk outside after dark.
- No two-piece swimsuits.
- No interracial dancing.
- No soda on campus.
Now, of course, many of these rules you cannot find in the HWAC handbook. Eric Burns and co. don’t want these to be official rules, just in case any of the strange ones get out into the public.
And on top of these, there are many other un-written-un-written rules determining what you should do and how you do it which are just a part of the culture.
- If your room is not tidy, expect the RA to report it to the Dean.
- If you’re not praying the recommended 30-60 minutes a day, the upperclassmen will be thinking bad thoughts behind your back.
- If you don’t have two dates a week (Friday and Saturday) you’ll be reported for not dating enough.
- If you go off campus too often for snacks, you’ll be reported.
- If you are hanging around a girl/boy too much, expect to be both gossiped about and reported to the RA’s and Dean.
- If you talk back to an RA, or think that they are being overly demanding, expect to get a reprimanding by “having a government problem.”
- If you do anything out of the ordinary, expect it to be reported to the Dean and Dean’s assistant at the weekly RA meeting.
I could tell literally dozens of stories about people being ratted out for things that would seem ridiculous to anyone outside the COG community, but your attention may run thin.
Principles of Living – Stephen Flurry and Eric Burns
This is the class on how to live—Herbert W. Armstrong’s way. The most amusing part of this class was that the first semester textbook, The Closing of the American Mind, was written by a homosexual atheist, Allan Bloom. If Flurry realized this, he would have to take it off the curriculum, given these are almost the cardinal sins of the PCG. Not that Bloom’s atheistic viewpoint really affected any of the students, because they barely did the assigned reading anyway. (One student argued with me that Bloom was “too intellectual, and just trying to show off how smart he was.” It was more likely that he just didn’t understand the book.) Among the other assigned readings were sections of Augustine’s City of God, Gibbon’s 15th chapter of The Decline and Fall, and Plato’s Apology. I don’t think even a handful got through the Gibbon handout and I’m pretty sure I was the only one who read the Augustine. I always wondered why these were even a part of the curriculum, considering the authors. Augustine is the chief of Catholics, Plato’s Apology is literally the work of anti-dogmatism, and Gibbon’s Decline and Fall originally scandalized the public with its rationalistic view of Christianity’s origins. I think Stephen Flurry is just too stupid to understand what’s actually in the readings, and just blindly follows whatever Ambassador College did.
Now, the real fun started when we arrived at the so-called “German rationalism” and “biblical criticism” of the 18th century. By this time, Eric Burns had taken over the lectures. Before Burns became a lecturer at HWAC, he was a Parks and Recreations manager, so he was almost overqualified for the position. At this point, Burns would just throw out names like “Immanuel Kant,” “Fredrick Nietzsche,” “Max Webber,” and “Martin Heidegger” along with adjectives like “very bad,” “ungodly,” “rational,” “relativism,” or “do-I-even-need-to-explain-why-these-guys-are-wrong?” I am certain that no one in the class besides myself—including Burns and Flurry—had read a single word of these German philosophers. They certainly showed no awareness of the most basic of concepts they put forward. They were simply wrong because Allan Bloom mentioned them in his book, and Herbert W. Armstrong had probably refuted them all anyway. On the other hand, sitting on the shelves in my study were copies of the Basic Writings of Nietzsche and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. I had the strange feeling that no one in the room knew what they were talking about; that they all just expected someone else had done the thinking so they wouldn’t have to. This was to be a feeling that became more familiar as time went on. Someone smarter than me, someone higher-ranked than me, had done the thinking and had proved all this stuff. Until I was sitting in editorial meetings with the senior writers and I realized they hadn’t proved it either.
Fundamentals of Theology – Andrew LocherI must preface this one by recognizing Andrew Locher as one of the better teachers, and one of the nicer ministers within the PCG. Unlike many of the others, Locher never patronized those who didn’t maintain our beliefs. He was just earnest. And that’s to his credit.
We took some big topics on in this class, like the PCG vs. WCG court case, and the charges of Herbert W. Armstrong plagiarizing The United States and Britain in Prophecy from J. H. Allen’s Judah’s Sceptre and Josephs Birthright2
The plagiarism charges really hit me at the time, and I had some serious doubts about whether Herbert W. Armstrong’s “lost master key” for prophecy was really given to him by God. Then, by some strange coincidence, I walked into a friend’s study and found a paper he had written on the topic. His conclusion (obviously) was that there was no plagiarism involved. (Imagine submitting a paper with the opposite conclusion!) This shored me up for a time. Little did I know at the time that the British-Israelism theory had originated in 1794, been through numerous interpretations, and had been given a thorough demolishing by David Baron in 1915—decades before Armstrong even went into religion! If only they had mentioned that in class.
For the second semester term paper, we were to research a topic related to The Mystery of the Ages. I chose to study the Paulicians, the Armenian Christian group Armstrong mentioned in the chapter on church history. I researched hard, reading the entire Key of Truth manuscript, which was essentially a catechism for 8th century Armenian Paulicians. Armstrong had mentioned it in a sermon or two. (Perhaps he never did read the entire thing, or if he had, he decided not to take it at its word.) I even asked for Ryan Malone’s research on the subject, because I heard he was the actual researcher for Gerald Flurry’s book The True History of the True Church.
I found the Paulicians weren’t really what the COG’s described them as. Most scholars see them as solid Trinitarians (oops!), although some say they believed in the ancient heresy of adoptionism (the belief that Christ was originally a man who adopted the characteristics of the Son of God). They practised a triple baptism, which scholars point to as a sure sign of Trinitarianism. Apart from avoiding physical idols, infant baptism, and hating Catholics, they had little else that would link them to the COGs. No ham-hating, no keeping of the Jewish festivals (besides Passover), no “holy-spirit-is-the-power-of-god.” They looked pretty much like an early form of Protestantism. In fact, some Baptists claim them as part of their own unbroken lineage. This didn’t stop me, though, from going along with the farce, and deciding to leave out all the contrary evidence from my term paper. What I submitted looked exactly like the party line. In fact, I had managed to convince myself that there was probably something wrong with the Key of Truth manuscript rather than with my analysis.
I think a brief interlude between sophomore and junior year is in order. Because it was during my sophomore year that I had my first spell of serious doubt. At the time, I believe Armstrong Auditorium was running an exhibit on Jeremiah, and our “tour guides” were ending by telling the story of how Jeremiah took the Ark of the Covenant and the heir of Judah, “Tea-Tephi,” to Ireland.3 One student told me a story of a man who balked at this crazy idea, asking where we got this nonsense idea from. “Oh the poor man, hopefully one day God will open his eyes,” was the typical response from other students. In any case, I took to researching the subject since I had never proved it for myself. I read Mystery of the Ages and found nothing to support the claim. I read The United States and Britain in Prophecy and found about a sentence of two on something about “Irish historical documents.” I read the Jeremiah booklet and found nothing. I read PCG articles on the subject and found similar hand-waving. Where was the evidence we supposedly had by the bucketload?
I took to the internet to find some proof, but found precious little apart from what looked like sketchy conspiracy theory sites. On the other hand, there were sites that were telling me the whole thing was a farce and there weren’t any historical documents. Whenever I would read such sites, my heart would start racing and I would become jittery. I’ve never had a panic attack, but I imagine the beginning is what I felt during those times.
One night, after a little too much searching (and without even coming across any anti-Armstrong sites, mind you), I had this sickening feeling that it could all just be a big scam. I had a vision of how my whole ideological edifice was built upon a few core beliefs (Israel being England and America, Assyria being Germany). The rest of my beliefs were piled up, one after the other, and for fear of a crushing existential crisis, I hadn’t brought myself to question whether the bricks at the bottom existed. To examine the foundation meant questioning whether all I had believed for my entire life were ridiculous absurdities. It would mean my whole life consisted of lies built upon lies. My entire day consisted of listening to these lies and then writing about them for a magazine. I got on my knees and prayed like I’ve never prayed before. And then I got into my bed and cried myself to sleep.
Perhaps the main thing I prayed about in the following months was Father, show me some proof that this is real. This, put in a multitude of different ways and phrasing, was the only thing I wanted from prayer at that time. Forget health, work, and relationships. I wanted Truth of the capital T type. And I received nothing either way.
A few months went by, and I managed to stop thinking about the hard questions. Students at HWAC talk of how busy the schedule is: 20 hours of classes, 20 hours of work, an hour of prayer each day, an hour of study each day, compulsory sports, compulsory dating, compulsory extracurriculars, choir, music lessons, homework, speeches, and (if you do it) compulsory reading. The Assistant Dean, Eric Burns, used to give assemblies where he calculated the hours in the week and compared it to the hours of things we were required to do. There were always more hours of activities than were possible to squeeze into the week. The point was to make you “rely on God to get everything done.” I had another theory: it was to make sure you never had enough time to stop and think. I like to subscribe to Hanlon’s Razor, which tells me to “never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by ignorance.” This leads me to believe there probably was no conscious effort to waste all our time. But it sure did mean a lot of students never had the time to think about what they were doing.
In order to counteract this severe lack of time, I would stay up into the early hours of the morning, reading philosophy and studying a lot of (biblical) history. It meant passing through much of my Old Testament Survey and Fundamentals of Theology classes with glazed eyes, but it was worth the perpetual tiredness. At least I learned something at the end of it.
Junior and Senior Year
Epistles of Paul – Stephen Flurry
For a man who has taught a class on St. Paul for 11 years, Stephen Flurry knows abysmally little about him. Flurry teaches from Conybeare’s and Howson’s The Life and Epistles of Saint Paul, which despite its brilliant style of prose, was written in 1865 and lacks much of the needed historical skepticism. Not, again, that students did the assigned reading.
It’s sad really, because if students had read through it, they might have picked up on the idea that there are Christians outside of the PCG who dedicate their life to the study of Christian history and actually care about truth as well! Imagine that! Reading books like The Life and Epistles of Saint Paul, Wordsworth’s A Church History (Until Nicea), Lord Lyttelton’s Observations on the Conversion and Apostleship of St. Paul, O.T. Allis’s Two Views of Prophecy, C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, and G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy and Heretics are some of the books that got me thinking there might be other people who know about this Christ thing apart from the PCG. Alas, to the student at HWAC, this is merely wasting your time on “worldly scholarship.”
When I finally left the PCG, I tackled Peter Watson’s mammoth tome titled Ideas: A History. I learned from Watson in the dozen or so pages where he discussed Paul than from the whole year we studied him in class.
(On a personal note, Stephen Flurry and his family displayed many of those traits some would call “Christian.” On several occasions, they took me into their house and helped me when I was sick.
Minor Prophets, Marriage and Family, Church History, Comparative Religion – Brian Davis
I’m sure there are people who fume at the mere mention of Brian Davis. This is not without reason.
Brian Davis is the most arrogant man I have ever met. It’s bad, obviously, because he happens to be wrong. But it’s worse because he spends a great amount of the time in his classes telling students about how amazing he is as a man, father, husband, masculine handyman, scholar, king of logic, etc., along with amazing stories of bravery and southern wisdom that he forgets he told us earlier in the year. You might think I’m bitter and prone to exaggeration. Not at all. At the end of the semester, he found himself having to provide summaries of the remaining lectures because he spent too much time telling us how he could solve all the world’s political problems with his back-of-the-envelope, common-sense legislation. He wanted to expand the Minor Prophets course from a 2-credit-hours a week to 3, all because he couldn’t stop talking about President Trump during the lectures.
In his defense, there is perhaps no one who could get away with teaching the Minor Prophets course without seeming like an idiot. According to Gerald Flurry, every minor prophet had nothing else in mind but the Philadelphia Church of God, and all the prophecies mentioning Israel, Judah, Zion, priests, or specific people are actually code-words for the PCG, WCG, Herbert W. Armstrong, or himself.
Marriage and Family is an incoherent mess of misogynistic rantings and stories about PCG or ex-PCG members who could have solved all their problems if they had “just listened to my advice.” In regards to his misogynism, I was told there were certain lectures where the girls left feeling anxious and depressed because of how bad they were at “fulfilling their roles” or just how much worse women were compared to men in general. How do I know this? Brian Davis’s own daughter, taking the class, told me. She told me other things as well, such as the fact that he was struggling at the same time with terrible marriage problems with his own wife. As his daughter recalled it, in previous years Brian “Just Follow My Lead” Davis would come in, after constant arguments with his wife, to tell the class just how easy it is to fix up your family if you just “applied God’s clear rules on marriage and family.” His daughter, because of his brilliant and godly parenting, hated it so much that she moved out of home to live with her grandparents for the last half decade before she was accepted to college.
But Church History was the class where I realized Brian Davis must really know more about his church than he puts on. It seems obvious enough that Davis reads some of the anti-Armstrong blogs on the internet, considering he would tell stories in class about those that mentioned him. I’m yet to figure out whether he realizes it is all a farce and just continues to go with it anyway, or whether he truly hasn’t figured it out yet.
Speech and Homiletics – Roger Brandon, Joel Hilliker, Wik Heerma
Fundamentals of Speech is no doubt the most useful class HWAC has. The only reason for this is that the skills are transferable. If you are taking Advanced Homiletics and attending Spokesmen’s Club, you could find yourself giving a speech every week. You might be speaking claptrap for 10 minutes at a time, but you’ll find after four years, you get better at delivering it.
What is truly sad is watching your friends turn into walking mouthpieces for Herbert W. Armstrong and Gerald Flurry. In Freshmen year, they barely know the doctrines. By Senior year, they are preaching them like attack dogs, mocking “worldly scholarship,” and ridiculing other Christians for not understanding “the truth.”
An example. My best friend (and also the Student Body President) was giving a sermonette in Advanced Homiletics and managed to slip in some obligatory slander: “Other Christians don’t even read the Bible!” I was lucky enough to be called on to deliver an evaluation. The room we were in happened to function as a makeshift library, which made it easy to turn around and point to the 63 Volume set of Lange’s Commentary that was sitting on one of the shelves. “Now you may be able to make the case that they don’t understand the Bible,” I said, “but please don’t tell me they haven’t read it. Do you believe Lange wrote that commentary without even perusing the Book?” The sad thing is, I was the only person who would ever call speakers out for making ridiculous statements like the one above. Everyone else would nod their heads and deliver banal evaluations: I think you could use some more eye contact… Perhaps you could repeat your main points at the end for emphasis…
I could go on, but Christ could return at any moment and I need to get this published.
On Worshiping Gerald Flurry’s Words
On leaving the PCG you might wonder how you can get your money back—all those tithes and offerings! You might wonder how you can get your time back—all those wasted years! You might wonder, if you abandoned them in the process of joining the PCG, how you can get all your friends back. I, for one, wonder about how Gerald Flurry can refund me all the hours I spent reading his ridiculously boring books. I used to admire the statistics you can find on the back on all PCG literature: “Gerald Flurry has written over 50 books and booklets….” Wow, this dude is productive! I have since realized his “productive” capabilities are so high because of the paltry effort he puts into writing. It’s easy when you don’t bother if your facts are true and you can pull your reasoning out of your ass. Flurry’s books on the Minor Prophets are brain-numbingly boring. One is tempted to use Clive James’ classic review: “Here is a book so dull that a whirling dervish could read himself to sleep with it. If you were to recite even a single page in the open air, birds would fall out of the sky and dogs would drop dead.” God’s Family Government is just incoherent ranting. The True History of God’s True Church (there are perhaps two more Trues than necessary) is simply plagiarized from Andrew Dugger’s A History of the True Church, and besides that, Flurry didn’t do the research—Ryan Malone did. Much of his writing assumes you already have familiar with all the COG doctrines, so I can only imagine what some poor fool feels when he requests Daniel Unlocks Revelation, expecting biblical exegesis and instead receiving a rant about how Worldwide Church of God ministers didn’t have the “Father focus” and didn’t see just how important Herbert W. Armstrong was to the flow of world history.
You’ll often hear COG members talk of “following the teachings of Herbert W. Armstrong.” You wonder why they don’t say “teachings of Jesus Christ.” During one college-wide assembly, Wayne Turgeon told us that the best way to “stay faithful” (codeword: “stay in the PCG”) was to “keep your nose in the books and booklets.” No, not keep your nose in the Bible. Keep your nose in the booklets. When asked to give Bible study tips during a Homiletics class, I gave the seemingly banal advice of reading through entire books of the Bible to get the context. My teacher asked my classmates if they would follow through on the advice. Jack Wood, who now writes for the Trumpet website, replied by saying he “didn’t have enough time” to do that, and that he would give priority to studying all of Gerald Flurry’s books and booklets.
I have been discussing an institution whose most educated lecturers claim “going to Ambassador College” (Wayne Turgeon), “writing instruction manuals” (Dennis Leap), and “being a Green Beret” (Mark Nash) as their academic credentials. With this incredible arsenal, they have decided to wage war against the accumulation of 2000 years of Christian scholarship and a few hundred years of scientific research. All this is then occurring in an obscure campus located in Edmond, Oklahoma, with 80 other students who’ve never had the chance to demonstrate a shred of independent academic thought. It’s plays like a Shakespearian tragic-comedy, although I’m hoping it doesn’t all end as usual, with everyone dying in the last scene. In the meantime, HWAC can have its “Truth” with a capital T. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be busy, living in the real world.
By Kieren Underwood
July 25, 2018
NOTE FROM ESN: In spite of the sarcasm in this article, there is an underlying sense of despair. The studies at HWAC and the mishmash of all the books Kieren read with different viewpoints would lead to mass confusion, which is part of mind control. PCG’s goal is to make one either a submissive member (or minister) or else get rid of the one who is beginning to question.
Footnotes by ESN: