“[W]E are acutely aware of the heavy legacy of our past. … So to all … who have been casualties of our past sins and mistakes of doctrine—I extend my sincerest heartfelt apologies.” —Joseph Tkach Jr, Plain Truth, March-April 1996
Tkachism has portrayed Herbert W. Armstrong’s legacy as that of an ignorant, wild-eyed religious fanatic who used his power to abuse people. The problem with that portrayal, besides being false, is that it represents a minority viewpoint, even among members and former members of the Worldwide Church of God. In Transformed by Truth, Joseph Tkach wrote, “While a large number of the letters we have received over the past few years can be characterized as angry and hostile, we always have gotten a few precious letters from members encouraging us to maintain our current course” (emphasis mine throughout). He doesn’t give exact figures, but admits that a “large number” of letters they receive are from members who are upset about what Tkachism has done.
Tkach said that church attendance peaked at 150,000 in 1988, two years after Mr. Armstrong died. By the time Tkach wrote his book in 1997, wcg attendance had dwindled to about 58,000—an attrition rate of over 60 percent. Yes, their “remarkable” transformation, as Michael Feazell wrote four years later in his own book, resulted “in the exodus of more than half of the church’s members and clergy ….” Today, that mass exodus must surely be nearer to 75 percent. That’s not to say that all those who left did so in order to uphold Mr. Armstrong’s teachings. But neither did they hang around to lend their support to Tkachism.
In 1996, Mr. Tkach Jr. wrote a “Personal” in the Plain Truth, where he offered a pathetic apology on behalf of Mr. Armstrong, who had been dead for 10 years. “We have much to repent of and apologize for,” he said, explaining that the church had been “judgmental and self-righteous.” He then rattled off a number of “flawed” doctrines Mr. Armstrong taught. “These teachings and practices are a source of supreme regret. We are painfully mindful of the heartache and suffering that has resulted from them,” he wrote, without elaborating on how, exactly, people suffered as a result of what Mr. Armstrong taught.
“We’ve been wrong,” he told subscribers, before concluding with this: “So to all members, former members, co-workers and others—all who have been casualties of our past sins and mistakes of doctrine—I extend my sincerest heartfelt apologies.”
By the time Tkach wrote this apology, almost all Plain Truth readers from Mr. Armstrong’s era had long since canceled their subscriptions. Judging by the circulation nosedive after 1985, it seems the real “casualties” were among Plain Truth readers who were uninspired by Tkachism.
Under Mr. Armstrong, the Plain Truth was a popular international magazine with an ever-increasing circulation. Mr. Armstrong’s whole work—his writings, his sermons, his institutions, his entire life—had a hugely positive impact on millions of human beings who wanted to be part of that work. Tkachism ruined all that, and then apologized for what Mr. Armstrong did?
Of course there were the occasional critics who disliked Mr. Armstrong’s theology. As the Pasadena Star-News wrote the day after Mr. Armstrong died, “[T]hose who choose—or who believe they are divinely chosen—to spread the message of monotheism in the world are bound to endure more than their share of mortal vicissitudes. Many of these men and women, however, leave a legacy that makes all their suffering worthwhile. Herbert W. Armstrong was such a man.” There were obstacles and hardships along the way—critics and skeptics—but his legacy made all the difficulties worthwhile. That’s how the news media in Mr. Armstrong’s own backyard (the news media of all things!) represented his legacy.
Yet, 10 years later, Joseph Tkach Jr.—the man sitting in the same office Mr. Armstrong established—felt it necessary to apologize for Mr. Armstrong’s “heavy legacy” of “heartache” and “suffering.” Tkachism, we’re to assume, has brought nothing but joy and peace into our lives.
Notice what Tkach wrote in the Christian Research Journal in 1996: “The leadership and faithful members of the Worldwide Church of God are deeply grateful for God’s mercy in leading us into the light. Yet our progress has not been without costs. Income has plummeted, costing us millions of dollars and requiring us to lay off hundreds of long-time employees. Membership has declined. Several splinter churches have broken off from us to return to one or the other of our previous doctrinal and cultural positions. As a result, families have separated and friendships have been abandoned, sometimes with angry, hurt feelings and accusations.”
Only in the upside-down world of Tkachism can Mr. Armstrong be blamed for all that. Mr. Armstrong wasn’t the one who caused the income to plummet. He wasn’t responsible for reducing the headquarters staff from 1,000 employees down to 50. He wasn’t the one who drove out 75 percent of the membership. Mr. Armstrong didn’t abolish all of the church’s teachings, prompting splinter groups to break away, thus destroying families and friendships.
Mr. Armstrong caused none of that. Tkachism is responsible for that.
“A Giant of a Man”
Judging by the large outpouring of response to news of Mr. Armstrong’s death, evidently dozens and dozens of prominent leaders from around the world had nothing but deep respect for Mr. Armstrong as a man and high praise for his work.
The king of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadej, said that Mr. Armstrong, “through his understanding, wisdom and humanitarianism, has sought to give encouragement and assistance to people all over the world, particularly to Thailand where he has devoted much of his time and resources thereby becoming a close and valuable friend of our country.”
Otto von Habsburg, then member of the European Parliament, sent this message: “Deeply shocked by news of the death of unforgettable Mr. Armstrong. Am with you all in prayers and hopes for successful continuation of his life’s work.”
Prince Raad of Jordan, along with his wife, called Mr. Armstrong a “great humanitarian and philanthropist, a loss the world can ill afford at times such as these”—to repeat, a loss the world can ill afford!
Teddy Kollek, mayor of Jerusalem at the time, wrote, “One could only be deeply impressed by his vast efforts to promote understanding and peace among peoples. His good deeds were felt in many corners of the world”—except, apparently, within the Tkach household. According to Tkach Jr., Mr. Armstrong’s church was “judgmental,” “legalistic” and “self-righteous”—fostering attitudes of “superiority.”
Jerusalem’s mayor disagreed. So did California’s attorney general, who, at the time, said Mr. Armstrong’s “long and productive life leaves a lasting benefit for many.” Pasadena’s mayor—the man living right there in the same city, with an up-close view of the Worldwide Church of God, called Mr. Armstrong a “giant of a man who provided leadership of good will and principle.” City officials in Pasadena absolutely loved Mr. Armstrong and his work. Myron Stolp of the Rotary International in Pasadena said just after Mr. Armstrong died, “I can scarcely name an activity in which Ambassador has not in some way been involved!” Cy Graph, president of the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce at the time, said, “In his own quiet way Mr. Armstrong has done more to promote positive relations between countries than has the [U.S.] State Department.”
Even the leader of the free world at that time weighed in on the positive impact Mr. Armstrong had on his church and all Americans. U.S. President Ronald Reagan sent this note to the wcg upon hearing that Mr. Armstrong had died: “To the congregation of the Worldwide Church of God: Nancy and I join all those mourning the loss of Herbert W. Armstrong. As founder and leader of the Worldwide Church of God, Mr. Armstrong contributed to sharing the word of the Lord with his community and with people throughout the nation. You can take pride in his legacy. Our prayers are with you. God bless you.”
Yet, just 10 years later, the pastor general of the Worldwide Church of God—the very church Herbert Armstrong raised up—apologized to Plain Truth readers for all the “heartache” and “suffering” Mr. Armstrong had caused.
Why should we believe him? Well, because he says so—that’s why!
President Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, said we should take pride in Herbert Armstrong’s legacy.
I’m going with President Reagan’s endorsement.
As God opened Mr. Armstrong’s mind to the truths of the Bible, He also opened doors so Mr. Armstrong could teach those truths to a large audience.
What many remember as one of the top religious programs on television in the 1980s, The World Tomorrow, actually began as a small radio program in Oregon back in January of 1934. The Plain Truth began one month later, with Mr. Armstrong rolling a few hundred copies off an archaic mimeograph machine. By the time of his death, that monthly magazine was sent free to more than 8 million subscribers worldwide.
In 1939, Mr. Armstrong started the Good News—a bulletin, established mainly for members and co-workers of the church. Like the Plain Truth, it eventually developed into a full-color magazine and peaked with a circulation of over 1 million about a year-and-a-half after Mr. Armstrong died.
In the spring of 1946, only 12 years after his work started, Mr. Armstrong saw that if the work was ever to span the globe, he needed more help. To train that help, he needed to raise up a college. As he prayed about it and collected his thoughts, he began looking for a place to build around Pasadena, California. On November 27 of that year, Mr. Armstrong located what seemed to be a suitable building, though it was somewhat run down. Upon signing the dotted line on the place, Mr. Armstrong produced a special edition of the Plain Truth magazine announcing the exciting news: “This year, September 22, our own new school, Ambassador College, will swing open its doors to students!”
He continued, “Ambassador is to be a general liberal arts institution—not a Bible school, ministers’ college, or theological seminary. It will fit students for all walks of life, offering a general and practical basic education, with unusual advantages for special technical courses, as well as a thorough, sound, complete Bible course. … There is no other college like Ambassador.” The vision for this educational institution was clear in his mind even before it opened. And it resulted in not one, but three Ambassador College schools. The headquarters campus in Pasadena opened its doors in 1947; sister campuses opened in Bricket Wood, England, in 1960, and Big Sandy, Texas, in 1964.
As the college developed and grew, so did the work of the church. In 1953, the radio program began airing in Europe on Radio Luxembourg. Two years later, in 1955, The World Tomorrow appeared on television for the first time, although it lasted for only a brief span of time.
The Plain Truth went full-color in 1965, 31 years after its inception. The church also began publishing the magazine in German, French, Spanish and Dutch during the 1960s. By 1967, The World Tomorrow was now poised and ready for another venture into the world of television—only this time, it would enjoy rapid growth.
Mr. Armstrong spent much of the 1970s traveling the world to spread the gospel message to kings, presidents and other heads of state, while at the same time writing vigorously for the many church publications. Through his travels, Mr. Armstrong met with royalty including the late Japanese Emperor Hirohito, the late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, and the late King Hussein of Jordan. He had an endearing relationship with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, before his assassination in 1981. He later gained an audience with Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak. Mr. Armstrong discussed the cause of world evils with former Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Sato and met with six successive Japanese prime ministers as well. Mr. Armstrong was on very friendly terms with then-President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and was awarded the Presidential Merit Medal in 1983. Other heads of state Mr. Armstrong visited include Israeli prime ministers Menachem Begin and Golda Meir, Thai Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
In 1972, Mr. Armstrong broke ground for the construction of Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena. He dedicated this beautiful building, constructed with some of the finest materials on Earth, to the great God. In its grand opening, in 1974, the Vienna Symphony Orchestra performed under the direction of Carlo Maria Giulini.
Over the next 20 years, multiple hundreds of performers, including famed opera stars like Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills, delighted audiences from all over Southern California and beyond inside Ambassador Auditorium. In what some have referred to as the “Carnegie Hall of the West,” renowned performers such as legendary pianists Artur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz, and celebrated cellists like Yo-Yo Ma and Mstislav Rostropovich left audiences spellbound. Jazz icons Frank Sinatra, Benny Goodman, Bing Crosby and Sammy Davis Jr. also showcased their talent in “Pasadena’s crown jewel.” Other famous performers who graced Ambassador’s stage include Andrés Segovia, James Galway, Marcel Marceau and Bob Hope. Pianist Alexis Weissenberg said, “I cannot adequately explain Ambassador to other artists who haven’t performed there. It goes beyond the beauty of the place, the fantastic acoustics. It’s also the people one deals with there. It’s unique in the music world.”
Yet another legacy that was neither heavy nor burdensome.
After 2,500 concerts and recitals, it was the Tkaches who shut down the famous performing arts series in 1995, saying they could not afford to subsidize the program and that it “had nothing to do with the mission of the church” anyway (Deposition of Joseph Tkach, September 8, 1998). “News of Ambassador’s closure,” the Los Angeles Times reported, “rumbled through Pasadena’s business and political circles like an earthquake.” The community was terribly disappointed. In fact, one reason it took so long for the wcg to sell the Pasadena property is the resistance that city officials put up over proposals to turn the campus into a residential community.
“Our mission in the building is over; we aren’t going to keep it,” Bernie Schnippert, the church’s director of finance and planning, told the Los Angeles Times in 2002. “If it is not bought by the city or bought by a benefactor, the church will tear it down.” Quite a legacy! They actually gave the city an ultimatum: Either buy Ambassador Auditorium for the appraised value of $22 million, or else we’ll demolish it! In the end, city officials held firm and prevented the auditorium from being sold to a developer. This forced the wcg to divvy up the property and sell off the parcels piece by piece. Harvest Rock Church bought the auditorium in 2004 for a little more than a third of the appraised value.
After the sale, like a good politician, Schnippert’s tune changed. “The Ambassador Auditorium has always been an important part of the Worldwide Church of God’s ministry,” Schnippert told the Worldwide News. “We are pleased that this religious and cultural jewel will continue to be used for the glory of God.” He said this just two years after threatening to demolish the structure.
It makes you wonder what Pasadena city officials think about the legacy of Tkachism.
During the 1970s, internally the church withstood its share of controversy and dissension. Much of it happened in Mr. Armstrong’s absence. During this controversial decade, he was away from headquarters traveling about 300 days a year.
In 1974, 35 ministers revolted and took a few thousand members with them. Soon after, Mr. Armstrong’s son, Garner Ted, attempted to wrest control of the church from his father. In Mr. Armstrong’s absence, the younger Armstrong began changing many of the core doctrines of the church and pursuing accreditation for Ambassador College. This, Mr. Armstrong would write later, led to church teachings being watered down and permissive behavior on campus at Ambassador. “God Almighty and Jesus Christ were virtually thrown out of the college—and were rapidly being thrown out of the church!” (Good News, September 1979).
Shortly thereafter, Garner Ted was disfellowshiped from the church. Unfortunately for the work, the troubles did not stop there. During the autumn of 1978, six disfellowshiped wcg members began to plot a conspiracy against the church in the form of a class action lawsuit. Mr. Armstrong wrote in the June 24, 1985, Worldwide News, “This resulted in an ex parte order by a judge. Secretly without prior notice, deputies on order of the Attorney General’s office swooped down on the church on the morning of January 3, 1979.” This launched what became the single greatest attack against the Worldwide Church of God to that point.
A Fight for God’s Church
Perhaps at no time is the true character of a leader unveiled more than at a time of crisis. The year 1979 was such a time in the wcg. Those familiar with the wcg at the time witnessed firsthand Mr. Armstrong’s fighting spirit. The main accusation Garner Ted brought against the church was his father’s “lavish spending.” The charges (which were later thoroughly disproven) prompted the state attorney general to appoint retired Judge Steven Weisman as the receiver of the church. On the morning of January 3, Judge Weisman entered the wcg headquarters in Pasadena and summarily “fired” Herbert Armstrong, or so he thought. At the time, Mr. Armstrong was residing in Tucson, Arizona, which somewhat shielded him from the State of California’s assault.
Describing Mr. Armstrong’s reaction to these events, Stanley Rader wrote in his book Against the Gates of Hell, “Problems have never upset Mr. Armstrong, and he reacted even to this serious threat with serenity, courage and confidence.”
Two and a half weeks later, church members demonstrated their unwavering support for Mr. Armstrong by gathering at the headquarters campus in Pasadena. The slow trickle of people soon turned into a flood that converged upon the Hall of Administration. Members brought food and bedding to lodge in the church’s offices in order to prevent the receiver from taking control of wcg property. Mr. Armstrong did not organize the event. None of the church leaders anticipated it. It was a spontaneous reaction of faith and courage by those members who set out to defend the wcg.
After the gathering of thousands of members, church officials Dean Blackwell and Joseph Tkach organized a church service in the Hall of Administration where the receiver was supposed to come in and work. By this time, news of the attempted overthrow had gone national. It was being covered by many major newspapers.
Mr. Armstrong responded in a live telephone hook-up to Pasadena from Tucson: “The people of God have always been willing to suffer whatever they have to do for the living God! And I tell you, this has drawn us together.” He advised the members to “be subject to the powers that be,” but that “we are to obey God rather than man.” He said, “[I]f we have to begin to suffer the persecution of being thrown in prison, I will be the first to be ready to go. The living God is fighting this battle for us ….” That evening, the headline for the late edition of the Los Angeles Times blared, “Ready for jail—Armstrong.”
Herbert Armstrong fought diligently against the state’s unconstitutional attack. In the process, the wcg received enthusiastic support from dozens of churches that recognized the danger of such an attack. This support came from different churches with different teachings, but which all held to the same constitutional right to freely practice their religion.
On October 14, 1980, the state dropped the case against the wcg when the legislature passed a law barring the attorney general from investigating religious organizations the way they had the wcg.
Commenting on Mr. Armstrong during this trial, Stanley Rader wrote, “Over the years of my close association with this remarkable man, I have noted abundant evidence that he is the embodiment of his own message of hope and trust that the living God will provide man with the wisdom to prevail over obstacles” (Against the Gates of Hell).
If anything, the California attack revitalized the aging apostle and strengthened the church. The period between 1979 and 1986 was truly the church’s finest hour—the era of its greatest-ever growth.
Perhaps none was as deeply impacted by Mr. Armstrong’s legacy as those who worked right alongside him. After Mr. Armstrong died, many of these faithful supporters recorded their thoughts for the Worldwide News tribute issue of February 10, 1986.
Larry Omasta worked closely with Mr. Armstrong on the television program. “… Mr. Armstrong knew,” Omasta wrote, “that the camera lens represented a world that needed the message he had to deliver. That, I think, is what made him such a compelling speaker. He did not speak at his audience—he spoke to them.”
A wcg evangelist, Norman Smith, had worked with Mr. Armstrong on the radio broadcast back in the 1950s: “Mr. Armstrong was a towering influence in our lives. The personal memories we each have of his powerful broadcasts will be an inspiration to continue and complete the work we are given to do.”
Dexter Faulkner, executive editor for the Plain Truth, said, “Mr. Armstrong was a seasoned professional communicator, widely recognized for his outstanding ability in writing and advertising. … [H]e was interested in what God wanted in the church’s publications. And he insisted that every headline, every article, every advertisement bring this world a little closer to God’s Kingdom.”
Ellis La Ravia, vice president of the Ambassador Foundation, said, “His example of drive, enthusiasm and determination in God’s service set the standard for all of us. He always gave God credit for everything. He left high standards. He will be missed.”
Roderick Meredith, a professor at Ambassador College at the time, referred to Mr. Armstrong as a “second father” for many of the college students. According to Dr. Meredith, Mr. Armstrong “was a human dynamo, working, driving and building a dedicated organization through which Christ could work to impart His message to this generation. … As with any other truly great man, there will never be another like him.”
Leroy Neff, former treasurer for the wcg, said, “No one I have known has had such singleness of thought and purpose. Most of his thoughts and conversation related to God’s work and God’s Word. … I found him to be the most generous person I have ever known.”
Frank Brown, regional director in Britain, Scandinavia, East and West Africa and the Middle East, said he felt Mr. Armstrong’s greatest attribute, “apart from his desire to do God’s work, was his clarity of vision. He had the rare ability to think far in the future and envision not only what God was leading him to do, but its ultimate outcome. Mr. Armstrong was a visionary. … Those of us in the church today are all incomparably richer for having a part in Mr. Armstrong’s vision and reality of the future. He was loved. He will be missed.”
No one in that tribute issue mentioned anything about Mr. Armstrong’s “heavy legacy” of heartache and suffering or his self-righteous judgmentalism.
Course Already Charted
Ironically, that same “heavy legacy” Tkach Jr. loves to pin on Mr. Armstrong was responsible for appointing his father to the office of pastor general. And at the time of his appointment, Tkach Sr. seemed proud of Mr. Armstrong’s legacy. “What an impact Mr. Armstrong had on my life!” he wrote. “Because of his yieldedness, God was able to use him in a profound way to proclaim the most important message the world will ever hear.”
The day Mr. Armstrong died, Mr. Tkach told the headquarters staff, “The admonishment is now for those of us still living who now have a task that is set before them, a course that has already been charted by God’s apostle. We need to maintain that course and not deviate from it one iota.” At Mr. Armstrong’s funeral, Mr. Tkach prayed, “We readily admit and acknowledge that there is no man who can fill his shoes, but, Father, we aim to follow in his footsteps.”
Of course, that never happened. As we will see, Tkachism deviated off course even before Mr. Armstrong died. Today, the church is completely transformed. Its mission has changed, its doctrines are different, its traditions are gone—its very identity is transformed. And all these changes, Tkachism admits, have brought about “catastrophic results” (www.wcg.org/lit/aboutus/history.htm).
How then is it possible to pin the blame for this destruction on Mr. Armstrong? It’s the legacy of Tkachism—not Mr. Armstrong—that ruined the church. If we judge by fruits, we become acutely aware of Tkachism’s heavy legacy. It’s Tkachism’s self-righteous judgmentalism that brought so much heartache and suffering into the lives of thousands of members, former members and co-workers who loved Mr. Armstrong and faithfully supported his work.