Chapter 20: The First Sermon
This chapter of the Autobiography is being written in Rome. It dawns in my mind that there is intriguing significance in the fact that I should be here at the very time when this chapter must be written.
The Apostle Paul wrote some of the books of the Bible here in Rome. It was then the seat of the ancient pagan Roman Empire. It was world headquarters of the pagan religion.
Today it is world headquarters for the largest and most powerful professing Christian church.
We come now to the time, in recounting my life experiences, where I had been sadly disillusioned about organized traditional “Christianity.” As earlier chapters have explained, my wife, in early fall of 1926, had begun to observe the seventh-day Sabbath. To me that was the most disgraceful fanaticism she could have embraced. But six months’ intensive and determined night-and-day study of the Bible had failed to find the authority for Sunday observance I had felt confident it contained.
“All these churches can’t be wrong,” I had contended. I felt certain that all their teachings, whether Catholic or Protestant, had come directly from the Bible. I did not then realize that the Roman Catholic Church makes no such claim, but claims the church itself is the sole official and infallible authority. The various denominations, I supposed—just as millions still suppose—were just so many different parts of the one true Christian church.
I have already told you repeatedly how rudely I was disillusioned. I had seen, with my own eyes, that the plain teachings of Christ—of Paul—of the Bible—were not the teachings of the traditional “Christianity” of our time. Nothing had ever been more shocking to discover. Incredible as it seemed, the beliefs and practices of the churches today, I found, were far astray from the teachings and customs of the true Church as Christ organized it. In fact, in most essentials, the very antithesis!
This emphatically was not what I wanted to believe.
It had left my head swimming. I was stunned, perplexed!
I began to ask, “Where, then, is the real true Church which Christ founded?”
The True GOSPEL
My shocking, disappointing, eye-opening discovery, upon looking into the Bible for myself, had revealed in stark plainness that the teachings of traditional Christianity were, in most basic points, the very opposite of the teachings of Christ, of Paul, and of the original true Church!
Could the original and only true Church have disintegrated and disappeared? Could it have ceased to exist? No, for I read where Jesus said the gates of the grave would never prevail against it. Also He had said to His disciples who formed His Church, “Lo, I am with you alway.”
Then I saw that the very purpose of the Church was to preach Christ’s GOSPEL! It is His Body—His instrument by which He carries on God’s Work!
I looked carefully at that gospel as Christ Himself preached it and taught it to His first ministers. It is recorded in the four books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. At almost every point of teaching that Jesus enunciated, the teachings of traditional Christian bodies today are just the opposite.
They were not preaching the same gospel at all, but a totally opposite message! This was shocking—incredible—
unbelievable! Yet I was compelled to see it was true!
Jesus began the work of preaching the very gospel which God the Father had sent to mankind through Him. He commissioned His disciples—His Church—to carry this same gospel to all the world. And He had said He would never drop the Work He had begun! But where was it going on today?
Seeking an Obedient Church
I knew now that when I found the one and only true Church, I would find a Church obedient to God—keeping His commandments—having the testimony of Jesus Christ, which is the truth of the Scriptures.
I had been much impressed by a description of the true Church, as it is to be found in our time—just before the Second Coming of Christ. It is found in Revelation 12. It is the time when Satan is filled with wrath against God’s Church, “because he knoweth that he hath but a short time” (Revelation 12:12). Satan is making war with “the remnant of her seed.” The “remnant” means the very last generation in this age. The Church is definitely described. It is those “which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ” (verse 17).
My intensive study had revealed one thing plainly: “the commandments of God” mean “Sabbath-keeping” to most traditional denominations. They say, “The commandments are done away!” They reject “the commandments of God.”
That automatically ruled out all churches observing Sunday. So far as I could learn, it reduced the search to three small groups—the Seventh-Day Adventists, the Seventh-Day Baptists and a little, almost unheard-of church called the Church of God, which maintained a small publishing-house headquarters at Stanberry, Missouri.
So I examined Seventh-Day Adventist teachings—just as I did those of many other denominations. I obtained their magazines, their booklets and pamphlets, their large book of Bible readings, or Bible “home instructor.”
The true Church is the one which lives by every word of God—the words of the Bible!
Never an Adventist
It seems necessary to add here that I have never been a member of the Seventh-Day Adventist denomination. False statements have appeared in various church or religious magazines, pamphlets or tracts that I am a former Seventh-Day Adventist. I did obtain much of their literature to compare with the Bible. I did examine and study it with an open mind, and without prejudice. I was happy to find that, like most denominations, they do have certain points of truth. None is 100 percent in error.
But my familiarity with Adventist doctrines has come entirely through their published literature. I have never attended a regular Sabbath church service of that denomination!
Next, I looked into the teaching of the Seventh-Day Baptists. I found it to be virtually identical, except for observing a different day of the week, with other Protestant denominations—especially the Baptists.
But of these three churches to which the search had been narrowed, only one had the right name for the true Church. This was the small, little-heard-of Church of God whose headquarters was at Stanberry, Missouri.
The True NAME
Twelve times in the New Testament I found the name of the Church that Christ established plainly stated as “the Church of God.”
I looked into this word “church.” It is the English word translated from the Greek word ekklesia. It merely means a congregation, an assembly, or group or crowd of people. I found that the word, by itself, had no divine or spiritual connotation whatever. For example, the name “Lutheran Church” or, as it might be otherwise stated, “Church of Luther,” means simply, Luther’s congregation, or assembly of people. A name like “Wesleyan Church” means, simply, Wesley’s group or congregation, without any religious or spiritual or holy implication whatever.
In Acts 19:23-41 is an account of an angry and hostile uprising against the Apostle Paul instigated by Gentile pagans who profited in business from the sale of silver shrines to the goddess Diana. Three times in this passage the original inspired Greek language called this angry crowd of citizens an “ekklesia.” It is here translated into the English word “assembly.” In verse 39 it actually refers to a “legal assembly” (Moffatt translation) in a courtroom. It certainly was not a Christian church assembled for worship—nor was it holy.
The only thing that adds sacredness to the word “church” is the true name, “Church of God.” That is not any man’s church, but God’s congregation—those owned and governed by God whom they worship and follow.
In Ephesians 3:15, speaking of the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (verse 14), we read: “Of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named.”
Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church, but it is named after God the Father. Although Jesus is Head of the Church, “the head of Christ is God” (1 Corinthians 11:3).
In His last prayer for His Church, before being seized to be crucified, Jesus prayed, “I have manifested THY NAME unto the men which thou gavest me out of the world: thine they were, and thou gavest them me; and they have kept thy word. … Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are. While I was with them in the world, I kept them in THY NAME …” (John 17:6-12).
Those in the true Church are begotten children of God. They become the affianced Bride of Christ. Christ is the Son of God. It is a Family. The Family is, properly, named after its Father. The 12 passages, aside from these scriptures here quoted, which plainly call the true Church “the Church of God,” or, collectively as local congregations, “the Churches of God,” establish the true name.
Could GOD’S Church Be Fruitless?
The only church I had so far found which “kept the commandments of God, and the testimony of Jesus Christ,” and at the same time bore the name of the original true Church, was this almost unknown little Church of God with its small publishing house in Stanberry, Missouri.
But this left me quite confused. For this was a little church, especially compared to the Roman Catholic, the Methodist, the Baptist, the Presbyterian, the Lutheran or other large churches numbering millions of members. Then I saw where Jesus called His Church the “little flock.”
But still I was not completely satisfied. I was deeply concerned. I prayed a great deal over it. For here was a church, which, compared to the large-scale activities of the Catholic and big Protestant bodies, was ineffective. I could see that it was imperfect. It wielded no great power. Jesus had said: “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth” (Matthew 28:18). I read how Jesus Christ was to be IN His Church! He guides it! He directs it! He empowers it! He said His Church was to receive power (Acts 1:8).
No person is even a member of the true Church unless he has received, and is filled and led by, the Holy Spirit—and the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of power! This little church seemed to be powerless—comparatively impotent! I failed to see where it was bearing much, if any, fruit! Could a fruitless church be the one and only true Church of God on Earth?
I was deeply perplexed. Here was a little church, with scattered members probably numbering less than 2,000—mostly in rural areas. Apparently, as nearly as I could learn, it had only a very limited number of local churches, none as large as 100 members. As I began to come in contact with some of its leaders, they seemed to be men of little education—no college degrees—its ministry could hardly be described as an educated ministry. Their preaching had a certain fire, yet seemed totally to lack the power that attracts sizable audiences, that moves people, stirs hearts and changes lives. I could see no visible results.
Could this be God’s one and only true Church on Earth? The very question seemed preposterous!
… But, Where Else?
Yes, and yet, small, powerless, resultless, impotent though it appeared to be, here was a church with the right name, “keeping the commandments of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ,” and closer, in its doctrines and teachings, to what God had been opening my eyes to see plainly in His Word than any other church of which I knew! Small and impotent though it appeared, it had more Bible TRUTH than any other church I could find!
At this time, God was opening my understanding to some biblical truths which this church did not accept; and also to some errors, even though minor, which it did embrace. Plainly, it was not perfect. It merely appeared to be more nearly so, and less imperfect, in its beliefs and practice, than any other.
Could such a church—imperfect, fruitless, feeble, lacking in any sizable accomplishment—be the true Church of God? Could this be Christ’s instrument through whom He worked, in carrying on God’s Work on Earth? Jesus said, “By their fruits ye shall know them.” Its fruits were not evil—it simply did not seem to produce fruit!
I was bewildered. I was unable to come to the answer then—or until many years later. The real answer to this perplexing question will come out in this Autobiography later, at the account of the time when I myself found the true answer. I will state here, however, that I did learn later that it was merely the remnant of a church that had been more alive many years before.
Meanwhile, what was I to do? I was not at all convinced this was the one and only true Church. Yet, if it was not, which one was? This one came closer to the Bible qualifications than any I knew.
Therefore, I began to fellowship with their scattered and few members in Oregon, while at the same time refraining from acknowledging membership.
We were living in Portland, Oregon, at the time. I knew of no members of this church in Portland, but there was a sprinkling of them through the Willamette Valley between Salem and Eugene, in Oregon—mostly farmers or truck gardeners. They welcomed the fellowship of myself and Mrs. Armstrong.
We found them to be simple, plain and humble people, hardworking and industrious, and loving the Bible truth—as much as they had—willing to suffer persecution for it.
And so it was, in this detached fellowship, that Mrs. Armstrong and I continued the first 3½ years of my ceaseless night-and-day study of the Bible—of history, especially as connected with biblical history and prophecy—and of pertinent allied subjects. These, too, were years of much and earnest prayer. Much of the Bible study done at home was done on my knees, combining study with prayer. Much time was spent during these years, as it had been that first six months, at the public library. I delved into intensive research in the commentaries, Bible encyclopedias, Bible dictionaries, comparing various translations of the Bible, examining Greek and Hebrew texts of doubtful or questionable passages, checking with lexicons and Robertsons’s A Grammar of the Greek New Testament. I made an intensive study of ancient history in connection with biblical history and prophecy.
But, as mentioned before, all this study and research had to be approached a single doctrine at a time. I was to be some years in getting to the very trunk of the tree of the very purpose for which mankind was placed on Earth, and getting clearly straightened out with a right understanding of God’s plan.
Nevertheless, as I’ve mentioned, having been a trained magazine and advertising copywriter, the results of these studies were written up, purely for my own benefit, in article form. My wife began showing these articles to some women members of this Church of God who lived in Salem. Soon they began to urge me to preach before them. But becoming a preacher was the very last thing I had ever wanted to do. I felt an instinctive aversion to the idea.
Meanwhile, on their urging, a few of these articles had been mailed in to the Bible Advocate in Stanberry, Missouri. These articles began appearing on the front page.
The Dual Test
Early in this 3½-year period, between 1927 and 1930, I decided to try a dual test to help settle the question of whether this was, in actual fact, the true Church of God.
The Church is merely the sum total of its members. By the one Spirit of God we are each baptized, or put into, the true Church (1 Corinthians 12:13). Jesus promised that when we receive the Holy Spirit, His Spirit shall guide us into all truth—not merely part of it (John 16:13).
But no person can receive all truth instantaneously. The human mind receives knowledge gradually. The child of God must grow in the knowledge of our Lord (2 Peter 3:18). Also he must have the spirit of repentance, always ready and willing to acknowledge error and to turn from it. The Scriptures are profitable for reproof and correction, as well as instruction in knowledge new to us. And God corrects every son He loves (Hebrews 12:6).
Now it was a simple truism that if each individual member of the Church must be growing in the knowledge of God, constantly overcoming, being corrected and eliminating error, then all the members together, which form the Church, must also be constantly willing to confess error and eliminate it, and to accept that which is “new light” from God’s Word to the Church.
I knew of no church or sect or denomination that had ever publicly confessed error or embraced new truth. Yet, plainly, this would be a test of the true Church.
So, as the first step in this test, I wrote up an exposition of some 16 typewritten pages proving clearly, plainly, and beyond contradiction that a certain minor point of doctrine proclaimed by this church, based on an erroneous interpretation of a certain verse of Scripture, was in error. This was mailed to the Stanberry, Missouri, headquarters to see whether their leaders would confess error and change.
The answer came back from their head man, editor of their paper and president of their “General Conference.” He was forced to admit, in plain words, that their teaching on this point was false and in error. But, he explained, he feared that if any attempt was made to correct this false doctrine and publicly confess the truth, many of their members, especially those of older standing and heavy tithe payers, would be unable to accept it. He feared they would lose confidence in the church if they found it had been in error on any point. He said he feared many would withdraw their financial support, and it might divide the church. And therefore he felt the church could do nothing but continue to teach and preach this doctrine which he admitted in writing to be false.
Naturally, this shook my confidence considerably. This church leader, if not the church itself, was looking to people as the source of belief, instead of to God! Yet here was the only church holding to the one greatest basic truth of the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus, kept in the name of God, and in spite of this and a few other erroneous teachings, nevertheless being closer to the whole truth than any church I had found.
If this was not the true Church of God, then where was it?
The Second Test
A little later I tried the second test. After exhaustive study and research, I had found it proved that the so-called “lost 10 tribes” of Israel had migrated to Western Europe, the British Isles, and later the United States—that the British were the descendants of Ephraim, younger son of Joseph, and the United States modern-day Manasseh, elder son of Joseph—and that we possessed the national wealth and resources of the birthright which God had promised to Abraham through Isaac, Jacob and Joseph.
This truth was written in a lengthy manuscript of close to 300 typed pages, and mailed to this editor and leader of this church. I explained that although this new truth seemed to be proved beyond doubt, yet I was still comparatively new in Christ and scriptural knowledge, and wished the judgment of one more mature and experienced in things biblical.
I think it was some six months before the reply came. It was written on a train late at night. This church leader stated in his letter (which I still have) that I was most certainly right—that this was a wonderful new truth revealed by God, and that God surely had a special reason for revealing this new truth to me. However, he stated he did not know what use, if any, he could make of it at that time, but was sure I would hear more of it later.
Did this church accept and proclaim this vital new truth—the key that unlocks the doors to all prophecy
Yet here was the church which appeared to have more truth, and less error, than any other. It did “profess” the commandments of God and have “the testimony of Jesus Christ.” It did have the true name of the Church Christ built. Its members did love what truth they had and sacrificed for it! In spite of the fact this church did not appear to be dynamically alive spiritually—in spite of its little or no accomplishment—still it came closer to the biblical characteristics of Christ’s true Church than any I knew!
Truly, this was bewildering!
My earnest and prayerful study continued. After some time, I made a discovery in the 31st chapter of Exodus. At least I had found nothing in the published literature of this Church of God or of the Seventh-Day Adventists about it. It became very plain that in Exodus 31:12-18 was the account of a completely different and distinctive covenant God made with His people on Earth. This covenant established God’s Sabbath as binding forever! It was entirely separate and apart from the “Old Covenant” made with Israel at Mount Sinai.
My First ‘Sermon’
This was “new light” which I felt impelled to present before these church brethren we had come to know and love down in the Willamette Valley. Repeatedly they had urged me to preach for them. But preaching was the last thing I felt I wanted to do. I had continually refused.
Now, however, I was overcome with an urge to get this new knowledge before them. I was unable to refuse any longer to speak. It was arranged for me to speak, I believe, on the following Sabbath.
The meeting was held in a country store building, but we drove first, for lunch, to the farm home of one of the members south of Salem, near Jefferson. We were taken down by the Runcorns of Salem, who we now had begun to look upon as sort of “second parents.” It was Mrs. Runcorn who had opened my wife’s eyes to the truth of the Sabbath. I remember they drove a large Studebaker “President.”
In the car, en route from Salem to the place of meeting, consternation suddenly seized me. We were to arrive by noon, and all were to have lunch outdoors under a large tree. The preaching service was to be held in the afternoon. Suddenly the terrifying realization dawned in my mind that I might be called upon to give thanks over the food at the luncheon. I realized it would be customary to call on a visiting guest. I had never prayed aloud before others. The thought of doing so frightened me!
But by this time I had gone far enough in my Christian experience and study of the Bible to know what to do. I began praying silently, as we rode along, that, if called upon, God would put the words into my mouth and give me the help that I needed. The fear loosened its grip. I had been learning the lesson of faith. I knew that Christ would be with me and not forsake me, and all embarrassment over the anticipation left.
Sure enough, I was called on to ask the blessing over the food. I did have the help I needed. I don’t believe that any there, except Mrs. Armstrong, knew that this was my first audible prayer in the presence of others—until I told some of them afterward.
The meeting was held in a vacant country store building nearby. It was known as the old Dever Store. This meeting, I believe, was in the summer of 1928.
If that talk I gave, explaining this Sabbath covenant, could be called a sermon, it was my first. Mrs. Armstrong assured me it was far from being a powerful sermon. Yet it was enthusiastically received. I did have a message, and a sincere, earnest urge to present it.
I remember that one towering member, 6 feet, 4 inches tall, who had moved to this Oregon valley from Texas, and was somewhat of a leader among the members, rose to his feet after I concluded and said, “Brethren, I just want to say that I have heard nearly all of the leading ministers in the Church of God, but I have heard this afternoon the best sermon I ever heard in my life.” This didn’t quite coincide with my wife’s evaluation, who said that the delivery was extremely amateurish and inexperienced—but, I suppose, the fact that the message was new to them, and that I was enthusiastic and in earnest about this new “discovery” of truth, caused it to be so well received.
I was asked to speak before them again.
It has been related in previous chapters how my wife had been miraculously and astonishingly healed in the summer of 1927. Following this, I had plunged into a thorough study of the subject of healing in the Bible.
Consequently when, about a month later, I spoke again at a meeting of these people, at this same vacant Dever Store, my message was about God’s power and promises to heal.
Apparently the ministers of this church had heard of my previous speaking to these people, and of their request for this second appearance before them. So this time one of the older ministers of the church in Idaho had been sent to Oregon to be on hand to counteract any influence I might have.
I had spoken first. When he followed, he devoted a good portion of his sermon to an effort to refute everything I had said. He warned the brethren that if they relied on God for healing, Christ would say to them, “Depart from me, ye workers of iniquity—I never knew you.”
That was the beginning of years of continuous opposition from ministers. This also brings me to a stage in this history of events and experiences in my life which I have long dreaded to write.
It is simply the fact that from this point on—from the very second “sermon”—if those early talks could be called that—opposition from other ministers, both within this church and without, was met at every turn continually.
I Shall Not Hide the FACTS!
So I say candidly that I shall relate these events. I shall try to record truthfully what happened, without feeling of rancor—and I certainly harbor no resentment or bitterness against these ministers, whatever their intentions. I believe that, as these incidents and happenings are related in the coming several chapters, they will truly open the eyes of many who never knew the full truth about my contacts with, and efforts to work with and cooperate with, the ministers of that church.
For some little time, now, my articles had been appearing on the front page of the Bible Advocate, published by this Church of God in Stanberry, Missouri.
Up until this time, now 1928, there had been no minister of this church in Oregon, except for occasional visits by the minister from Idaho, and the one from Texas of whom I had inquired about water baptism during his visit to Oregon in 1927. But there were at that time perhaps 50 or 60 members of the church in Oregon, from Salem to Eugene.
And, with the beginning of my speaking before these people in Oregon—and with my articles being featured in their church paper—no time was lost in sending a minister to Oregon to take charge. He was a young man—I believe about 28 or younger—who, I believe, had come from Arkansas or Missouri. He came to see me in Portland. His attitude appeared cordial and friendly. But very soon after his arrival publication of my articles in the Bible Advocate was stopped.
Soon I learned the reason. Probably the most influential member in the state at the time was elderly G. A. Hobbs, of Oregon City. He was past 80 years of age, but very alert, aggressive and active. He had received a letter from the editor in Stanberry, Missouri, explaining that my articles were being discontinued at the request of the young minister newly arrived in Oregon. The grounds were that I was not a member of the church and it was dangerous to give me this much standing and prestige before the brethren there. I might gain influence and become their leader and lead them astray.
This had aroused the fiery indignation of Mr. Hobbs. Immediately he sent a scorching letter back to Stanberry, a copy of which he let me read. It resulted in reinstating my articles for publication.
First Regular Preaching
As soon as I had heard of this Mr. Hobbs, and the little group at Oregon City, I had visited him a few days after my first “sermon.” I found a very small group of brethren who met together in a little church building at the top of the hill, on the Molalla road, in Oregon City.
There were only around eight to 12 of them, but they habitually met on Sabbath afternoons to study the “Sabbath-school lesson,” using the “quarterlies” from the Stanberry publishing house.
On discovering this little group, I began going to Oregon City to meet with them regularly. Almost immediately they asked me to be their leader in the study of the lesson. And soon I was delivering them a “sermon” every Sabbath.
These were days of extreme financial hardship in our home. We often went hungry. Several times there was not enough carfare for my wife and family to accompany me to Oregon City—in fact it was seldom that they were able to go. At least three times, during the next couple of years or so, I had barely enough for carfare to Oregon City on the electric line—with no carfare to return home. I even lacked bus fare from downtown Oregon City out to the little church house at the top of the hill on the outskirts of town. It was probably two or three miles up a steep hill all the way, but I walked it, carrying my briefcase with Bibles, concordance, etc.
But in every instance when I had come without carfare to return home, someone would “happen” to hand me a dollar or two of tithe money. And, strangely, no one ever handed me any money on those Sabbaths when I had enough to get back to Portland. And, of course, I never made the need known. But God always had a way of supplying every need!
My First Son!
I believe I have recounted in earlier chapters that, following the birth of our second daughter, three doctors—one an eminent obstetrician of international reputation—had warned Mrs. Armstrong and me that she could never bear another child. They had said a pregnancy would mean the certain death of both mother and unborn child.
It is natural for every man to desire a son. Before the birth of our first child, neither Mrs. Armstrong nor I had cared whether it was a boy or a girl. Our second child was another daughter. When I was told we could never have another, I was terribly disappointed!
And now seven years had gone by—by 1927—without expectations of ever having a son.
But when, in the summer of 1927, Mrs. Armstrong had been miraculously healed of several things at once—and when we remembered that the man who had anointed and prayed for her had asked God to heal her completely of everything from the top of her head to the bottom of her feet, we had faith that whatever had made another childbirth impossible had also been healed. We planned, consequently, to have a son. And I had faith that God would at last give me a son.
And God DID!!
Our first son, named Richard David, was born October 13, 1928. That day, I said then and for years afterward, was the happiest day of my life. I was simply filled to overflowing with gratitude to a merciful, loving God who so richly lavishes on us His grace and blessings completely beyond all we can anticipate or hope for—if we yield our lives to Him and do those things that are pleasing in His sight—if we seek first God’s Kingdom and His righteousness!
We dedicated that son to God for His service.
During his college career, here at Ambassador College in Pasadena, California, which God was later to use me in founding in 1947, our son Dick, as we called him, was converted—his life changed—and he, himself, gave his life to God.
From that time it was used in God’s service, with continually growing usefulness and accomplishment, until his sudden death in an auto accident in 1958. Dick worked hard on his own self, overcoming faults and weaknesses and habits which he freely confessed, repented of and strove to overcome. He reached the high point of his spiritual growth and development, of overcoming and usefulness—having established the branch office of God’s Work in London and becoming director of all overseas operations.
God later gave us still another son, Garner Ted, only a year and four months younger than his brother Dick.