“We have more than 120,000 copies of Mystery …. Should we, as we are about to do with the Easter booklet, destroy all existing stock of these books and order new printings of them?”
— Dexter Faulkner
Memo to Joseph Tkach Sr., April 18, 1988
According to Joseph Tkach Jr., the reason the church put Mystery of the Ages “on hold” in the spring of 1988 was because “[t]here were enough historical errors,” “other kind of errors” and “misinterpretations of scripture” that it needed to be corrected before the book could be used again.1
Of course, even before the book was officially “on hold,” it had become unpopular within the circle of decision-makers in Pasadena. June 7, 1987, was the last time the book was ever offered on the church’s television program. (It was a summer rerun that brought in more than 37,000 calls requesting the book. The original program, which aired on January 25, 1987, generated 59,000 calls—the fourth-highest response ever. As an aside, the highest weekend response ever came as a result of the January 26, 1986, tribute to Mr. Armstrong—one in which Mystery of the Ages was the literature offered.)
The July 21, 1987, Pastor General’s Report updated the ministry on the library book program. Members had been working on the project since mid-1986 and had distributed nearly 5,000 copies of Mystery of the Ages to U.S. libraries. In December of that year, the church newspaper informed members that Mystery was now available in Norwegian and French.2 The Spanish and Italian versions became available in February 1988.3
This, from what we could find, is the last mention of Mystery of the Ages in any of the church’s official literature. For most of the church membership and field ministry, it completely disappeared from view for more than a year.
At headquarters, however, there was no hotter topic than Mystery of the Ages throughout 1988. It was discussed in numerous meetings, interoffice memos and internal reports.
120,000 Bad Copies
On April 18, 1988, Dexter Faulkner, Editorial Services manager, sent an interoffice memo to Mr. Tkach Sr., drawing attention to “incorrect” teaching about Christ’s sacrifice in The Wonderful World Tomorrow and Mystery of the Ages. He attached photocopied pages from the Mystery section, “Jesus Beaten for Our Healing.” Mr. Faulkner wrote,
We have more than 120,000 copies of Mystery that contain the statement [about Christ’s sacrifice]. Replacement cost would be around one dollar per copy. Shipping costs would be substantial because of the weight of the book.
Should we, as we are about to do with the Easter booklet, destroy all existing stock of these books and order new printings of them?4
We have no record of whether Mr. Tkach responded to Faulkner’s query by memo or verbally, if at all. But we can still piece together a pretty accurate record of what happened. Three weeks after the memo, in Bernie Schnippert’s “Literature Coordination Report”—sent to department heads, regional directors and those involved in producing and distributing literature—we find that Mystery of the Ages had been put “on hold” in all languages so that its content might be revised.5 The following week, employees were told that, because of its “on hold” status, Mystery “should not be distributed.”6
Then, on June 2, Mr. Schnippert lowered the boom on those 120,000 copies remaining in stock:
All softbound copies of Mystery of the Ages in English, German, Norwegian and Spanish should be discarded immediately because they contain passages that do not correctly reflect the church’s teaching about Christ’s sacrifice.
All hardbound copies of Mystery of the Ages should also be discarded.7
Roger Lippross, Plain Truth production director at the time, later indicated that this action was indeed taken. He said it was common, even under Mr. Armstrong’s leadership, to withdraw literature from circulation for one of two purposes: to either retire or revise the publication. “In either case,” he said, “the remaining inventory copies, but not archive, personal and research copies, would be disposed of ….”8
Mr. Tkach Jr.’s recollection of these events, however, is much less vivid. At his 1998 deposition, he said that, from what he remembers, distribution of the book continued “until we almost ran out.”9 Later, after reviewing some of the documents quoted above, he said, “I really wasn’t always aware of when they discarded it or when they didn’t.”10
Temporarily Out of Print
Though Mr. Tkach Sr. signed off on destroying the 120,000 “bad” copies, he initially gave the impression he wanted the book to be revised and printed again.11 Thus, in June 1988, Mail Processing designated the book’s status as tout—temporarily out of stock.12 Those who requested the book were given written notice saying it was currently out of print and being revised for redistribution sometime during the first half of 1989. In its place, they offered the booklet Your Awesome Future.
In July, the future plans for the book were explained further: “Last week, we decided to move the production of the core version of this book [Mystery] up to the No. 7 spot on the core production schedule. This will allow us to get this book back in print in all languages by early summer of next year.”13 The “literature core” was an initiative Mr. Tkach kicked off in 1987 to make the church’s most important literature, about 50 titles, available in eight different languages. Their goal was to produce seven titles per year. Now that it was in position number 7, Mystery of the Ages was on the fast track, so to speak, to being revised.
In the rush to stay on schedule with the revision, on July 8, Lowell Wagner, in Editorial Services, distributed a questionnaire attached to a photocopy of Mystery of the Ages to a number of people who worked with the church’s literature and in the letter-answering department.14 He encouraged recipients to thoroughly review the book and to answer a number of questions like: Does this literature contain any misstatement of doctrine or fact? Does it leave any false impressions, create any misunderstandings, or generate questions it doesn’t answer? Does it contain any statements likely to cause unnecessary offense? Does this literature contain any unnecessary or irrelevant material you feel should be deleted before reprinting? Is the literary style interesting and pleasing overall?
How incredibly revealing this questionnaire should have been to those editors who read it. Herbert W. Armstrong founded their church! Mystery of the Ages was his life’s greatest work. Yet 2½ years after he died, Tkachism circulated this audacious questionnaire asking ministers if they thought the material in Mystery was “interesting” or “pleasing.”
Years later, when asked why the questionnaire was distributed to the ministry, Tkach Jr. replied, “Rather than just have a few people give input on the errors they find, it was helpful to have a larger group of people comment on the errors they found.”15
It wasn’t sent with the intention of salvaging Mystery of the Ages at all. It just provided a way for Tkachism to get more headquarters personnel involved in ridiculing Mr. Armstrong’s teachings.
Meanwhile, changes in fundamental doctrines discussed in Mystery of the Ages kept barreling out of headquarters. In the summer of 1988, Mr. Tkach Sr. set off this bombshell:
[W]e must also be willing to face the fact that the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence indicates that there do exist bones, bones like those of humans, that date to a time before the creation of Adam. These bones apparently belonged to creatures that had an appearance like man’s. … We should realize that it is not outside the realm of possibility that God created animals shaped like man in the times before the great destruction that preceded the re-creation. Nor is it impossible that these same creatures had certain skills for building.16
At the time, Dr. Herman Hoeh had been giving lectures before wcg ministers about “pre-Adamic” times. Another minister, Richard Burky, also advocated this idea of man-like builders who lived before Adam, in his paper that later circulated under the title “Creative Development.”
Mr. Armstrong called these kinds of arguments by another name: “fence-straddlingtheistic evolution.”17God is Creator, but He’s operating on a trial-and-error basis—using evolution, you might say, to sort of refine His product.
It goes without saying that these theories markedly contradict huge sections in Mystery of the Ages.18
Mr. Tkach followed up his theistic evolution theory with another whopper two weeks later. In Chapter 6, we noted how shifting the focus of the commission to “feeding the flock” turned the church inward. Predictably, it wasn’t long before Tkachism rejected the gospel commission entirely.
“Just what is the ‘great commission’ of the church of God?” Tkach Sr. asked in August 1988. He continued,
Has God given His church a great commission to preach the gospel to the world, and another, secondary or lesser commission to feed the flock? Is there in reality a “first” commission and a less-important “second” commission?19
Later, he wrote, “It may surprise some to realize that the phrase great commission is nowhere found in the Scriptures. Nor are the phrases first commission or second commission found in Scripture.”20
But they are found, and scripturally explained, in Chapter 6 of Mystery of the Ages. The first, and great, commission of the church is to preach the gospel of the kingdom of God; secondarily, it is to “feed the sheep”—to spiritually nourish the body of Christ.21 Mr. Armstrong believed that while both aspects of the dual commission worked together hand in hand, first priority had to be given to preaching the gospel. He often told members that their individual spiritual development depended upon how much their hearts were in the work—the first commission—of the church.
Mr. Armstrong wrote Mystery of the Ages with the “gospel message to the world” in mind. As the wcg continued its turn inward, such works became expendable.
Ambassador College Crossroads
When Mr. Armstrong decided to close the Ambassador campus in Big Sandy, Texas, he said it was because he wasn’t about to pursue accreditation. He also said more resources were needed for the first commission of preaching the gospel to the world.22
Since Mr. Tkach began his pastor generalship with an entirely different focus—one that did not put top priority on the first commission—you can see why he so quickly reversed Mr. Armstrong’s decision to close Big Sandy. The first commission needs were not as important to him as they were to Mr. Armstrong.
It didn’t take long for Mr. Tkach’s radically different views on accreditation to be exposed either.
While Mr. Armstrong did not discuss accreditation specifically in Mystery of the Ages, he certainly addressed the subject of education in this world compared to Ambassador College. Right at the start of his book, on page 1, he wrote that “higher education in the Western world has sought to erase the mystery by giving its virtually unanimous acceptance to the theory of evolution.”23 Because of this false premise, he explained in the Preface, higher learning has not been able to solve the greatest of all mysteries: who and what is God.
Disproving evolution was a critical point on which Mr. Armstrong’s personal conversion hinged. It was one of two disturbing challenges he confronted early in life, during an intensive six-month study. That study culminated in the beginning of the worldwide work God would raise up through him. “And let me add here,” he wrote in Mystery of the Ages,
that my study of God’s revelation of truth has never ceased. Later Christ used me in founding three liberal arts colleges—including one in England. Through constant study, teaching and collaboration with spirit-minded faculty members in theological courses, my mind has remained open. And knowledge of God’s revealed truth has increased.24
This was the model on which Mr. Armstrong established Ambassador College. It was a character-building institution, with the Word of God as its foundation.25
These are some of the reasons Mr. Armstrong was dead-set against accreditation. He did not want the approval of men if it meant lowering God’s standard at the college. He would much rather be unaccredited before men than to compromise with God’s Word. Indeed, as we have seen, he was prepared to close Big Sandy entirely should Texas law require certified schools to become accredited!
Beginning in the fall of 1988, Mr. Tkach, Dr. Ward and company set out to strip away everything that made Ambassador College unique, despite their persistent claims to the contrary. This one decision led to a whirlwind of activity and change in the church—all revolving around Big Sandy. In 1988, they decided to pursue accreditation for Big Sandy. In 1989, they decided to consolidate both campuses in Big Sandy. In 1990, they closed the Pasadena campus. In 1994, after wholesale changes in the school—altering the curriculum, increasing student enrollment, building dozens of new structures, introducing intercollegiate sports—the college finally obtained accreditation.
But getting back to 1988, deemphasizing the importance of preaching the gospel to the world as a warning while focusing energy and resources inward to expand the college activities did not bode well for the survival of Mr. Armstrong’s most important book.
‘Christian Duty’ to Turn Yourself In
As you might well imagine, by this point there were a number of dissenting voices within the church’s ranks—although not nearly as many as there should have been. Some ministers were beginning to question the church’s direction—even refusing, in some instances, to preach the “new truth” coming out of Pasadena.
To these ministers, Mr. Tkach’s message was clear: Get behind me or get out. In 1988, he wrote to the ministry:
[I]f you have any doctrinal area that you do not understand properly, you have an obligation to contact Church Administration and discuss the matter. It would be dishonest and divisive for a minister to refuse to address with his congregation a doctrinal point of significant import to the church because of his personal disagreement, and to fail to notify his superiors of that disagreement.26
This is one reason so many ministers buckled under the weight of these many changes—they knew if they didn’t declare their support for the changes from behind the pulpit, it could well cost them their jobs. Tkach continued,
If a matter is unclear to you or deeper understanding is needed, it is your Christian duty … to call Church Administration for guidance. It is spiritually inexcusable for you to permit your lack of understanding or disagreement to become a source of division among the membership in your local congregation.27
If they didn’t agree with the church’s direction, they had a Christian duty to turn themselves in. Tkachism, we would find out years later, had a great fondness for the term Christian duty.