The Legacy of Herbert Armstrong
“What an impact Mr. Armstrong had on my life! As God’s servant, he brought the message of God’s law and way of life not only to me, but to all those whose minds God would open. 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.” Those were the words of Joseph Tkach, who succeeded Mr. Armstrong as pastor general of the Worldwide Church of God in January 1986 (Worldwide News, Feb. 10, 1986).
The impact of Mr. Armstrong’s lifelong service to God was not only felt by Mr. Tkach, it was felt by thousands of other members of the wcg. It was felt by millions of people who were introduced to Mr. Armstrong through the World Tomorrow television program or the Plain Truth magazine. The impact was felt by many world leaders, most of whom Mr. Armstrong was able to meet with privately.
U.S. President Ronald Reagan sent this note to the wcg shortly after Mr. Armstrong’s death (emphasis mine throughout): “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.”
Otto von Hapsburg, a 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 for him and hopes for successful continuation of his life’s work.”
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.”
Mr. Armstrong’s impact did not go unnoticed by the media either. Many major newspapers carried the news of his death. The Pasadena Star News wrote, “[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” (Jan. 17, 1986).
In the autumn of 1926, Mr. Armstrong was challenged by his wife, Loma, into an almost night-and-day, intensive study of the Bible. He wrote, “My research was totally different from that of students in a seminary. They absorb what they are taught in the doctrines of their denomination. … But I had been called specially by the living God. … I was taught by Christ what I did not want to believe but what He showed me was true!” (Mystery of the Ages). On the strength of his convictions Mr. Armstrong began to preach the Bible doctrines he had come to understand.
In January of 1934, the World Tomorrow radio program began airing. One month later, the Plain Truth began in humble form with just a few hundred copies.
In 1939, the Good News was established. This bulletin, established mainly for members and co-workers, soon became a full-color magazine and was received monthly by over one million subscribers before Mr. Armstrong’s death.
In the autumn of 1947, Ambassador College was founded in Pasadena, Calif. Later, colleges were started in Bricket Wood, England, and Big Sandy, Tex.
The 1950s proved to be a decade of tremendous advancements in God’s work. In 1953, The World Tomorrow began airing in Europe on Radio Luxembourg. Two years later, the program appeared on television.
The 1960s saw many advancements in the Plain Truth. The first full-color edition was published in 1965, 31 years after its inception. The magazine also appeared in German, French, Spanish and Dutch in the 1960s.
Mr. Armstrong spent much of the 1970s traveling worldwide, meeting kings, presidents and other heads of state, including Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu, Prime Minister Eisaku Sato of Japan, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam, and King Hussein of Jordan, to name just a few. Mr. Armstrong was fulfilling the commission prophesied in Matthew 24:14: “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.”
In 1972, Mr. Armstrong broke ground for the construction of Ambassador Auditorium, which would be finished over two years later—constructed with some of the finest materials on Earth. At its grand opening, the Vienna Symphony Orchestra performed.
In the 1970s, God’s Church also had its share of rebellion and controversy. Much of the dissension was occurring at Pasadena headquarters because of Mr. Armstrong’s absence. During this controversial time period, he was gone from headquarters close to 300 days a year due to overseas travel.
In 1974, the first major revolt in the wcg occurred. In a massive rebellion, at least 35 ministers rallied around two top men at headquarters, leading astray about 2,000 brethren.
Shortly thereafter, Mr. Armstrong’s son, Garner Ted, began his attempt to take over the Church. Garner Ted had much control of the work when Mr. Armstrong was overseas—changing many of the core doctrines and pursuing accreditation for Ambassador College, which, according to Mr. Armstrong, caused the watering down of Bible truth and escalating permissiveness on campus. “God Almighty and Jesus Christ were virtually thrown out of the college—and were rapidly being thrown out of the Church!” (Good News, Sept. 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 God’s 20th-century Church as a whole 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 God’s Church. Those familiar with Herbert Armstrong and the wcg at the time witnessed an unbelievable fight by Mr. Armstrong against not only former members of the Church, but against the entire state of California!
The main accusation made by Garner Ted was against 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, Ariz., which left him somewhat protected from the State of California.
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 began to demonstrate their unwavering support for Mr. Armstrong by gathering at the Church headquarters in Pasadena. The slow trickle of people soon became a flood that converged on the Hall of Administration. The members brought food and bedding to stay in the Church’s buildings in order to defend Mr. Armstrong. 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 were out to fight for God’s Church.
After the gathering of thousands of members, Church officials Dean Blackwell and Joseph Tkach began to organize an actual church service in the Hall of Administration where the receiver was supposed to come in and work! By this time, the news of the attempted overthrow was 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 law, but obey God rather than man!” He said, “If we have to begin to suffer the persecution of being thrown in prison, I will be the first to go. … God is fighting this battle for us, and God is stronger than man!” That evening, the headline for the late edition of the Los Angeles Times blared, “Ready for jail—Armstrong.”
Meanwhile, Herbert Armstrong was systematically getting the Church “back on track,” while diligently fighting against the state’s unconstitutional attack. In the process, the wcg received the support of dozens of churches that recognized the danger of such an attack—support from churches with different doctrines, but all clinging to one common belief: freedom of 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 with the wcg.
Stanley Rader said, about Mr. Armstrong during this time, “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” (ibid.).
The attack did nothing to weaken Herbert Armstrong or the wcg. The Church was cleaned up, and the members who stood by Mr. Armstrong through the battle against the state were strengthened by it. The fruits of cleaning up the Church became clearly evident over the next several years.
Greatest Growth in Church History
The wcg had its greatest spurt of growth during 1980 to 1986—right after a tremendous amount of turmoil both inside and outside the Church, at a time when many ex-members of the wcg were claiming Mr. Armstrong was incompetent and senile. The surge forward by the wcg in the last years of Herbert Armstrong’s life proves, without refutation, just how powerfully he was being used by God.
Contrast the Church in the late 1970s to the year Mr. Armstrong died: the annual income went from $75 million to $200 million; Plain Truth circulation went from 1 million to peak at over 8 million; the television stations carrying The World Tomorrow, numbering 50 in 1978, grew to nearly 400 worldwide at the end of Mr. Armstrong’s life.
In 1981, Mr. Armstrong established Youth magazine for young people. And in early 1985, Mr. Armstrong began working on what he called “the largest and most important book in [his] life,” Mystery of the Ages. After it was completed later that year, he said God had helped him “to do the best work of [his] 93 years of life.”
In August of 1985, Mr. Armstrong became ill. That same month he taped his last two World Tomorrow broadcasts. Soon after, he taped the opening night message for the Feast of Tabernacles that fall.
On Jan. 10, 1986, Mr. Armstrong appointed Joseph Tkach to be the pastor general of the wcg should God choose to remove him. Then on Jan. 16, 1986, early in the morning, Mr. Armstrong died in his home on the Church’s property in Pasadena.
Those Close to Mr. Armstrong
Mr. Armstrong left an indelible impression on many people. But none were as deeply affected by his life as those who worked alongside him for many years. Many of those men who were with him in the last years of his life wrote articles in the Worldwide News tribute issue of Feb. 10, 1986.
Larry Omasta worked closely with Mr. Armstrong on the television program. “Once he was satisfied,” wrote Mr. Omasta, “he became engrossed in his message, going through the entire half-hour message without a break. Many people never adjust to speaking to a camera, but Mr. Armstrong knew 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, former executive editor for the Plain Truth, said, “Mr. Armstrong was a seasoned communicator, widely recognized for his outstanding ability in writing and advertising. … He 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, then 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, 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 and other nearby countries, 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.”
Follow the Formula
Mr. Armstrong left a tremendous impact on many people. You would think the formula for success would be quite simple after his death: follow in the traditions Mr. Armstrong established and everything will be fine, right? Mr. Tkach said on the day Mr. Armstrong died, “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 said, “We readily admit and acknowledge that there is no man who can fill his shoes, but, Father, we aim to follow in his footsteps.”
There’s no doubt Mr. Armstrong had an impact on so many, especially while he was alive. The sad part about it is, today, if someone were to make similar statements about Mr. Armstrong, that individual would no doubt be labeled by many as one who worships a dead man. For the Church he founded certainly did not “follow in his footsteps.”
The wcg has undergone a complete transformation, and the many words of praise and support for Mr. Armstrong having turned into words of shame and embarrassment over much of what he did. Even for those not familiar with Mr. Armstrong or the wcg, it would be obvious that there was a massive betrayal against him in the church he was used to raise up.
The Message Lives On
Herbert Armstrong was a man whose drive and determination “set the standard for all of us.” He was a “human dynamo.” “Our lives were enriched spiritually and physically” because of him. “As with any other truly great man, there will never be another like him.”
Perhaps the true significance of Mr. Armstrong’s life wasn’t fully realized by some of us until after he died. Thankfully, the message he taught has been preserved through tapes and written material. Even though he is dead, the work God did through him can have a huge impact on us.
Mr. Armstrong was God’s 20th-century apostle. He was God’s man. And yet today, he is only “dust” in the earth, awaiting the resurrection of the saints. He hasn’t been deified by the Philadelphia Church of God. He wasn’t perfect, nor was he infallible. But the fact that he was used by God in this age to broadcast and prepare the way for the soon-coming return of Jesus Christ is undeniable. Mr. Armstrong is gone, but his legacy lives on.