Copyright © 2006, 2019 Philadelphia Church of God
“… Mr. Armstrong persevered during the last year of his life to complete this, his last book. One of his last public appearances was to present it to the students of Ambassador College. But he also wanted to make it available to a much wider audience.”
— Joseph Tkach Sr.
Plain Truth, November-December 1986
Less than a year before he died, Mr. Armstrong summed up his prophetic message in a letter on February 25, 1985. “For more than 40 years now the Plain Truth has been proclaiming an outstanding series of Bible prophecies of something due soon to occur in Europe that will change the whole world and shake up the lives of every one of us.” He continued,
Daniel’s prophecy in chapter 2 pictures 10 nations in Europe in our time right now, as the 10 toes on the two feet of the great symbolic image. Five of those toes picture five nations in Western Europe and five in Eastern Europe. Then is pictured a great stone, representing Christ at His soon Second Coming, smiting those toes, and coming to rule in the Kingdom of God over all those and all other nations on Earth. This is further explained in the 17th chapter of Revelation, depicting those 10 nations of Europe uniting under the Roman Catholic Church. In the last decade certain leaders in Europe have been working feverishly to bring about such a reuniting of Europe.1
The prophesied rise of a European beast power—a teaching that embarrassed the Tkaches—was the beating heart of Mr. Armstrong’s prophetic teachings. He continued in that same letter, “For some reason God has been holding back the fulfillment of this prophecy—but it is certain to occur!” God had been holding back the final development of this Euroforce, according to Mr. Armstrong. He then wrote, “Meanwhile God’s work is growing now as never before. … I am now hard at work on a new book. It probably will be the largest and most important book I have ever written. The title is Mystery of the Ages.”2
While events were held back in Europe, they had accelerated in the church. Mr. Armstrong was hard at work on the most important book of his life.
In Mystery of the Ages, Mr. Armstrong set out to explain the biblical truth about seven great mysteries man has not been able to solve: the mystery of God, the truth about angels and evil spirits, the mystery of man, of civilization, Israel, the true church and, finally, the mystery of the kingdom of God.
“These are the seven great mysteries that concern the very lives of every human being on Earth,” Mr. Armstrong wrote in the preface of the book. “The plain truth of all these mysteries is revealed in the Bible, but none of the churches or theologians seem to have comprehended them.”
“Why?” he asked. Because “[t]he Bible is the basic mystery of all.”3
In April 1985, Joseph Tkach Sr. told the ministers he believed Mystery of the Ages would “prove to be another major step forward for God’s church and the spreading of the gospel around the world.”4
That same pgr also reported that Mr. Armstrong’s February 25 letter brought in the “highest response in several months.” According to Richard Rice, many recipients wrote Mr. Armstrong to tell him they were eagerly looking forward to reading Mystery of the Ages.5
Mr. Armstrong finished writing Mystery on May 14, 1985. A few weeks later, on June 7, Mr. Tkach told ministers that they needed to constantly review the doctrines that had been restored to the church through Mr. Armstrong. He then referred to Mystery of the Ages and said “this is a book that should be reread as soon as we finish it the first time, in order to really soak up what God is teaching us.”6
When Mr. Armstrong handed out new copies of Mystery of the Ages to the sophomore class at Ambassador College in September, he told them,
I want to say that you need to read every word, and you need to go over it more than once. You aren’t going to get the full meat of this book in one reading. This is a book that, after you’ve read it, you can read it a second time and then later a third time.7
In the book itself, Mr. Armstrong wrote, “As you read and reread this book, compare constantly with your own Bible.”8
So this was not something Mr. Armstrong wanted the brethren to take casually. He admonished the membership to thoroughly go through the book over and again. After it was printed, it automatically became the most important piece of literature in the church. It was used as a textbook at Ambassador College. And it was required reading for all people interested in becoming a member of the church.
Six months after Mr. Armstrong died, Church Administration gave these instructions to the ministry about baptismal counseling:
Although the reading of Mystery of the Ages and certain booklets and correspondence course lessons regarding the subjects related to baptism should be required, the complete reading of all of Mr. Armstrong’s lengthier books is, in most cases, an unnecessary requirement for baptism candidates.9
Some ministers, apparently, were requiring prospective members to read all of Mr. Armstrong’s books prior to baptism. While that wasn’t necessary, one clear exception was Mr. Armstrong’s final book. Everyone had to read Mystery of the Ages!
Without missing a beat, the Philadelphia Church of God continued with this policy at its inception in 1989, even though the book had been out of print for over a year and a half. “Mr. Armstrong instructed the ministers to insist that every baptismal candidate read Mystery of the Ages,” my father wrote in late 1989.10
At a 1994 ministerial conference, pcg minister Dennis Leap called Mystery of the Ages the “primer text prior to baptism.” He then reminded our ministers about Mr. Armstrong’s instructions that it be “required reading.”11
My father reiterated this same policy two years later, telling pcg ministers, “Mr. Armstrong required that anyone who wanted to be baptized must read Mystery of the Ages.”12
At the end of his life, without question, Mr. Armstrong considered Mystery of the Ages the most important and significant work available within the Worldwide Church of God. Even Mr. Tkach said so for at least a year after Mr. Armstrong died. And since the establishment of the pcg in 1989, my father has upheld Mystery of the Ages as essential reading for prospective members.
But Mr. Armstrong never intended this book to be for members only. In it, there is a message for all of mankind. This is why he devoted so much of the church’s resources and money toward the printing and distribution of Mystery of the Ages.
“You could say that Mr. Armstrong was the art director as well as the author,” said Greg Smith, the book’s designer. “He met with several people from Editorial periodically to review the design, the paper stock, the typestyle and finally, the cover.”13 Mr. Armstrong considered these details extremely important because of his expansive plans for the book. For the cover jacket, he wanted something that looked regal, so he chose a deep shade of purple that had to be specially mixed at the printer. The title was printed with raised lettering, embossed in gold. The church printed 150,000 copies of the hardback version and hired a New York publishing house—Dodd, Mead & Co.—to coordinate the book’s distribution.
The hardback copies were distributed to wcg members as well as regular donors and co-workers who supported the church. The church also produced a paperback version and advertised it in the Plain Truth, which had a circulation of about 8 million. It offered free copies by letter to 480,000 Good News subscribers as well as to viewers of the World Tomorrow television program. A condensed version (and corrupt, we later discovered) of the book ran serially in the Plain Truth’s seven different language editions.
To reach an audience outside the church’s sphere of influence, Mr. Armstrong offered the hardback version in bookstores for $12.95. “This presents the book to an audience that possibly would not read or treat seriously literature received free of charge,” wrote Michael Snyder in the Worldwide News.14 The church then spent $400,000 to advertise the book—the largest advertising campaign ever for any church literature. It placed full-page ads in 27 major newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and the Saturday Evening Post. It also advertised in Newsweek and several other magazines and journals. The ad explained “why Mystery of the Ages could be one of the most important books of our day” and informed readers that the book was available in bookstores.15
In the church’s 1985 Behind the Work video, the narrator noted, “Every effort is being made to make Mystery of the Ages available to the widest possible audience.”16
This is what Mr. Armstrong wanted for a book this important. He wrote to church members and co-workers in September 1985, “We want to reach the largest audience possible with this book. I know you will feel the same way when you read it.”17 For a short while at least, it seemed like Mr. Tkach felt that way as well.
For at least 12 months after Mr. Armstrong’s death, Tkach Sr. heaped praise on the book. On January 16, 1986—the day Mr. Armstrong died—Mr. Tkach told members and co-workers, “Even in the last year of his life, with declining strength, he completed with God’s help, his most powerful and effective book, Mystery of the Ages.”18 Later that year, Mr. Tkach wrote in the Plain Truth,
Although in declining health, and for all practical purposes blind, Mr. Armstrong persevered during the last year of his life to complete this, his last book. One of his last public appearances was to present it to the students of Ambassador College.
But he also wanted to make it available to a much wider audience. He decided Mystery of the Ages should be published by installments in the Plain Truth—a parting gift to the millions he had served through radio, television and the printed word during his long life.19
Mr. Tkach acknowledged that Mr. Armstrong wanted the book distributed far beyond church boundaries—that he viewed the book as a parting gift for “millions.” So Mr. Armstrong approved the serialization project and also the bookstore distribution, the advertising campaign, the press release and the direct mail and World Tomorrow offers. Tkach continued,
Shortly before he died, he said he had understood more in the last 10 years of his long life than in all the previous decades.
Mystery of the Ages is the product of that understanding. Mr. Armstrong did not underestimate the importance of this last work, for it contained vital keys to understanding the plan of God as revealed in the Bible. Mystery of the Ages in a very real sense was a last will and testament, to be passed on to those who would value it. As we come to the last installment of this remarkable book, we gratefully acknowledge our indebtedness to Herbert W. Armstrong, and his dogged search for the truth. He freely shared his understanding with us, and we have been privileged to make it available to you. He loved and respected his readers and, in a figurative sense, he remembered you in his will.20
A year and a half later, Mr. Tkach retired the book from circulation permanently and trashed 120,000 copies left in storage. If not for the Philadelphia Church of God, today Mr. Armstrong’s last will and testament would be all but obsolete.
When Mr. Armstrong handed out new copies of his book to the sophomore class on September 9, 1985, he nearly shed a tear as he asked, “Will you forgive me if I get a little bit of a thrill that this book is done—that this book is out now? Today is a pretty big day in my life, when I can hand copies of this book out to each of you.”21
Our “big day” came 11 years later, on December 20, 1996, when we received our first copy of Mystery of the Ages—reprinted for the first time by the Philadelphia Church of God. For about a year, my father had seriously considered the move. He had discussed the subject with a few of us ministers at pcg headquarters in Edmond.
He advised me to contact a Washington, d.c., copyright attorney who had been referred to us by the husband of our television time-buying agent. I contacted him by phone in November 1996 and explained our situation as thoroughly and succinctly as possible. I told him that we would most likely move forward on the project, but wanted to get some legal advice before proceeding further. While he didn’t offer his opinion on the legalities of printing a discontinued work we didn’t technically own, he did tell us that if we chose to move forward, we should prepare for the possibility of litigation.
I asked him how we should handle the copyright notice at the front of the book, which read “© Worldwide Church of God.” For obvious reasons, we didn’t want to print it that way. The attorney said that the copyright notice itself was of no special significance. The only issue, he told us, would be that of false attribution. In other words, by putting the wcg on the copyright notice, they could argue in court that they were falsely attributed to the reprinting project. We were happy with that since we didn’t want their name attached to the project anyway. But neither did we want to give the impression that we owned the copyright (although we certainly believed we were the rightful owners of the material spiritually), which is why we didn’t want to include the pcg’s name on the notice. So we opted for “© Herbert W. Armstrong.”
A few weeks after that phone call, my father and I met with Mark Carroll, the prepress production manager for the church’s publications at that time. He worked for a printer in Arkansas, and my dad wanted to know if he would be interested in accepting the project. Mr. Carroll, a pcg member, was thrilled by the prospect of resurrecting Mr. Armstrong’s body of literature. He gladly accepted and, by the end of that meeting, we ordered 20,000 copies of the book. We told Mr. Carroll to be discreet about the project, as we wanted to catch the wcg by surprise and make as big of a splash as possible at the start.
We didn’t have the money to produce a hardback version, but we modeled our softbound after Mr. Armstrong’s hardback in size and in number of pages. And, of course, we used the text from the hardback version as well, since the Tkaches had corrupted the softbound and serial versions.
The day we received our first copy from Mr. Carroll, we happened to be finalizing edits for the January 1997 Trumpet. We didn’t count on the Mystery print run finishing as soon as it did, so we didn’t have anything prepared for that January issue officially announcing this tremendous step forward for our work. We decided at the last minute, however, to at least produce a back cover ad offering our readers, for the first time ever, a free copy of Mystery of the Ages. It was headlined “Solve the Mystery!”22
Mr. Carroll told us the Trumpet would not arrive in mailboxes until mid-January. So we had a couple more weeks until we absolutely had to say something. Our own church members, let alone the Worldwide Church of God, had no idea all this was going on.
At church services on January 4, 1997, my father held up a large book and excitedly told our brethren, “This is the Mystery of the Ages—our version of it.” As he proceeded to tell the members about the ad to appear on the back page of the next Trumpet, gasps of amazement rippled through the meeting hall. He said, “Today we have decided to print that book and give it away free, and just simply take the consequences—if there are any. And that will be, of course, entirely up to God.” Later, he told members he was more concerned about the consequences for not printing the book than he was for printing it. This is a theme that would surface time and again over the next six years: taking the battle to the wcg with offensive strikes. “We will do what has to be done,” my father said, “and then the ball is in [the wcg’s] court, as they say.”23
The other theme that would play out during that same period was faith. My father said in the sermon, “I feel that Jesus Christ is not going to tolerate that book not being printed any longer. I believe that. And I’m willing to base a lot on that.” Later, he exclaimed enthusiastically, “That book belongs to us! God says so. And God will back and support us. He’s promised to do that.”24 From the beginning, my father charged ahead with the full assurance that God was on our side. Added to that, we firmly believed that by suppressing the work of Mr. Armstrong, the wcg’s actions violated the Constitution. But however this might unfold in a court of law, it was secondary to the premise underlying our action from the beginning—that God wanted Mr. Armstrong’s teaching disseminated.
The Trumpet at that time had a modest circulation of nearly 60,000. Once subscribers started receiving their issue in mid-January, the requests for Mystery started pouring in. In the first week after the ad hit, we received 2,000 requests for the book.
Soon after the Mystery ad first appeared on the back cover of the Trumpet, we prepared something much more substantial for our seven-year anniversary issue in February. We put a picture of the book on the cover, over the headline, “Where We Are Going!” My father titled his Personal “The Largest Audience Possible.” In it, he described a “new phase” for our work, where the focus of our message would now be aimed primarily at the world, as opposed to members and former members of the Worldwide Church of God. He wrote (emphasis his),
Mystery of the Ages was like the magnificent summary of all Mr. Armstrong’s work—the accumulated knowledge of his entire ministry. This book, more than any other piece of literature, was what Mr. Armstrong and God’s work were about. … Mr. Armstrong wanted it to reach “the largest audience possible.” … I believe “the largest audience possible” should become our battle cry today! … This is our most critical hour. We must pick up the dropped baton and finish the gun lap! We must stretch and strain to win the greatest race we will ever run!25
This became our battle cry in 1997: the largest audience possible. It was what Mr. Armstrong wanted all along. To think about what might have been, had the Tkaches just followed in Mr. Armstrong’s footsteps, as the elder Tkach said he would do at Mr. Armstrong’s funeral. It agonizes us to think about what the wcg could have done—with Mr. Armstrong’s well-established, decades-long track record and all the personnel, resources, tools and income the church had at its disposal when Mr. Armstrong died. As it was, Tkachism quickly turned all the advantages of that multimillion-dollar media empire against its founder’s message—even to the point of destroying Mystery of the Ages within 32 months.
Delivering that message to the largest audience possible was now left to a faithful few who sought refuge inside the Philadelphia Church of God from Tkachism. Our work in 1997—even after seven years of steady, upward growth—was a microcosmic version of the work Mr. Armstrong gifted to Mr. Tkach in 1986. Reaching the whole world using only a fraction of the resources and power the church once had in Mr. Armstrong’s day would not be easy. And making matters more difficult, every step of our progress would be met with angry, hostile resistance by those bent on destroying Mr. Armstrong’s legacy and betraying his ideals.
We were at war! But we knew what we were fighting for. And we had a battle cry.
“Are you ready? Am I ready?” my father asked in his Trumpet Personal. “We have an unparalleled opportunity. In terms of numbers of people, we can be the fewest people to do the greatest work ever on this Earth!”26Continue Reading: Chapter 17: Battle Lines Drawn