Chapter 9: Incidental Points
“The fundamental truths of God’s Word are contained in Mystery of the Ages. But we must realize that some of the peripheral or incidental points it contains give occasion to critics to fault the whole book, as well as inadvertently misleading readers on a few points.”
— Joseph Tkach Sr.
Pastor General’s Report, February 14, 1989
Not surprisingly, Mr. Tkach decided against revising Mystery of the Ages. Bernie Schnippert had the honor of making the first official announcement on December 2, 1988—albeit only to church employees involved in producing and distributing literature. He wrote, “Mr. Tkach decided last June to stop distributing Mystery of the Ages [actually, he placed the book on hold May 13, then discarded the inventory on June 2] because of sections that no longer properly reflected the church’s teaching on certain subjects.”1 In actuality, the only specific reason offered in those earlier reports was that it needed to be revised “to better reflect the church’s teaching about healing.”2 Now the reasons had broadened to “certain subjects.”
“For now,” Schnippert wrote, “Mr. Tkach has decided not to reprint the book.”3 And with that, the wcg had finally made it official. The book’s lifespan within the church had lasted from September 1985 to May 1988—a run of only 32 months. Years later, they would spend more than twice that amount of time fighting us in court to keep the book out of print!
Mr. Schnippert offered this explanation in his December 1988 report: “When Mr. Armstrong compiled Mystery, he drew material from other booklets, booklets that are still in print. In that way, Mystery will not actually go out of print since parts of it are already contained in other booklets.”4 This is one of the first instances where they used the “while we’ve made a change, it’s not really a change” excuse. This tactic would be repeated again and again for three years, in an effort to hide their massive doctrinal transformation from the church membership. Schnippert gave this example as support for the fact that Mystery would “not actually go out of print”:
The same sort of situation exists with The Incredible Human Potential. As early as 1982, Mr. Armstrong had sections of the book produced as booklets. Your Awesome Future, What Science Can’t Discover About the Human Mind, Human Nature—Did God Create It? and World Peace—How Will It Come? were all originally part of The Incredible Human Potential. Mr. Armstrong used these booklets frequently on the telecast. And although The Incredible Human Potential is no longer in print as a book, much of it is still being used in booklet form.5
Tkachism latched on to this excuse early on and milked everything it could out of it. But the same message is available in other literature, they often said.
Mr. Armstrong did extract some material from The Incredible Human Potential to produce smaller booklets for the television program. But to say that, because of these booklets, “much” of the book was still being published was terribly misleading. To then use the same excuse for retiring Mystery was even more ridiculous in light of the long list of changes that had been made.
After Schnippert’s December 1988 announcement, Mail Processing updated its staff on procedures regarding the book. “Both versions of the Mystery of the Ages book [softbound and hardbound] have been out of stock for a few months”6—discarded or destroyed, actually. Those requesting the book would now be sent a postcard saying, “This publication is no longer available and there are now no plans to reprint it.”7
Preparing the Church
Almost seven months elapsed from when Mystery was put “on hold” to when they said there were “no plans to reprint.” Then, after that, it took Church Administration another 60 days to inform the field ministry about the decision and an additional 20 days to tell the membership.8 By stark contrast, Joseph Tkach Jr. fired my dad on December 7, 1989, a year after they killed Mystery, and news of the disfellowshipment hit the Pastor General’s Report just 12 days later.9
But upon deciding not to reprint Mr. Armstrong’s best and most popular work—even long after destroying all remaining inventory copies of the book—church leaders waited nearly three months before telling the membership. The reason they took so long is because they wanted to prepare the church for an announcement this earthshaking.
At the outset of 1989, Mr. Tkach Sr. wrote to the ministry, “One area that I want to stress is that of putting undue emphasis upon Mr. Herbert Armstrong or upon me. In the church of God, human leaders are never to become objects of reverence or devotion bordering on worship.”10 Previously, we have noted Mr. Tkach’s attempt to demote Mr. Armstrong postmortem—even rejecting his prophesied role as the end-time “Elijah.” At the same time, Mr. Tkach wasted little time in assuming the spiritual rank of apostle, just 10 months into his pastor-generalship. What’s interesting about the above statement is that Mr. Tkach presents himself as coequal with Mr. Armstrong. Don’t put “undue emphasis upon Mr. Herbert Armstrong or upon me,” he said. From what I remember, he was the only one putting undue emphasis on himself. Mr. Tkach continued,
It is not appropriate, for example, to assign various scriptures to Mr. Armstrong or me personally as though our leadership were specifically prophesied in the Bible. Besides being erroneous and spiritually presumptuous, this kind of thinking only serves to falsely brand God’s church as a cultish sect that worships its human leaders.11
I remember Dean Blackwell once delivering a sermon in which he went through Joshua 1, likening Mr. Tkach to Joshua, who succeeded Moses anciently. Outside of general references like that, I certainly don’t remember any minister ever assigning specific scriptures to Mr. Tkach and his leadership. That Mr. Tkach would now consider this a problem was simply an attempt to deemphasize Mr. Armstrong’s importance while elevating his own, and in a manner that seemed both humble and wise.
On the other hand, Mr. Armstrong, Mr. Tkach and just about every minister in the wcg had, for many years, assigned various scriptures to Mr. Armstrong and his leadership. That Mr. Tkach would now equate this with worshiping a human being is absurd. Jesus is the one who said that Elijah (not the “church”) “shall first come, and restore all things.”12 Was it erroneous and spiritually presumptuous for Jesus to say this? Or for the disciples to believe it? They knew that John the Baptist was the first-century fulfillment of this prophecy.13 In fact, Mr. Tkach even said John the Baptist was the prophesied messenger to prepare the way before Christ’s first coming. Was it erroneous and spiritually presumptuous for him to assign various scriptures to John the Baptist—a mere human? Was Mr. Tkach worshiping John the Baptist?
Mystery of the Ages has more to say about various scriptures assigned to Mr. Armstrong than any other book or booklet he ever wrote. Mr. Tkach now deemed these sections of the book erroneous and spiritually presumptuous. What members did not know at the time was that Mr. Tkach now believed the whole book had so many errors that a revised copy couldn’t even be printed.
Mystery of the Ages Revised
Two weeks after his comments about assigning scriptures to names, Mr. Tkach began the pgr by writing, “I am thrilled to announce that our new booklet Who Was Jesus?, written by Paul Kroll, is now printed and ready for mailing!”14 The publicity the church gave this booklet is not unlike that which Mr. Armstrong heaped upon Mystery of the Ages when it was first released. All members and co-workers automatically received a copy. The church offered the booklet on television. Mr. Tkach also offered it to all Plain Truth subscribers in his semiannual letter. He went on to write, “I believe this will be one of our most vital and important pieces of literature as we continue to do the job of preaching and teaching the full gospel of Jesus Christ—the unparalleled good news about the salvation of mankind through Jesus, and His prophesied Second Coming to establish the kingdom of God.”15
The problem with Who Was Jesus? wasn’t so much the content (although it does contain some unbiblical teachings), it was the new direction or focus of the message. It was moving away from the message Jesus actually preached to focusing primarily on the messenger.
In Mystery of the Ages, Mr. Armstrong wrote about a “violent controversy” that erupted in the early years of the first-century church. The dispute centered on whether the church should proclaim the gospel of Christ or merely a gospel about Christ. The gospel about Christ won out—leaving only a faithful few to proclaim the true gospel of Jesus Christ.16 Mr. Armstrong wrote about this false gospel, in some detail, on pages 278-279 of Mystery of the Ages.
Our purpose in this volume is not to help you prove which gospel is true. But suffice it to say, had Mr. Armstrong lived long enough to compare Who Was Jesus? with Mystery of the Ages, he would have made this conclusion in the strongest possible terms: Who Was Jesus? is about Christ, whereas Mystery of the Ages contains Christ’s message—the gospel Jesus Christ preached.
It is not coincidental that Mr. Tkach delayed the Mystery of the Ages announcement until after Who Was Jesus? was printed. He needed a replacement for Mystery of the Ages. He just couldn’t, in good conscience, make all the editorial changes necessary to keep Mystery of the Ages afloat. And aside from that, the whole focus and intent of the church’s work had changed. Nothing reflects this better than comparing Who Was Jesus? with Mystery of the Ages. So, on the eve of announcing that Mystery of the Ages was now dead and buried, Mr. Tkach said he was thrilled to announce that “one of our most vital and important pieces of literature” was now ready for distribution. In that way, Who Was Jesus? served as the revised edition of Mystery of the Ages.
Passing the Buck
As would become customary with major changes in the church, Mr. Tkach had someone else break the news about Mystery being discontinued. Though Mr. Tkach had personally opened the January 17 pgr with his “thrilling” announcement about Who Was Jesus?, in the next issue, he delegated the job of telling the field ministry about Mystery of the Ages to Larry Salyer, who wrote,
Mystery of the Ages is among the most expensive pieces of literature we have recently published. We have offered this book to the public many times through the telecast, the Plain Truth, co-worker letters and semiannual letters. While it is not completely accurate to say that we have saturated our audience with these offers, we have made more offers for this book and have distributed it more than any other in the past four years.17
Actually, the book had been distributed less than three years.
Mr. Salyer then factored in another reason for its removal: “Because Mystery of the Ages covers so many doctrinal subjects and is so costly to publish, obviously we want it to be completely accurate theologically. This is important, also, because our literature faces an ever increasing critical review from outsiders.” To his credit, he at least slips in part of the real reason, indicating it wasn’t “completely accurate.” But later, Salyer wrote, “Please do not tell prospective members to request copies of Mystery of the Ages, because we do not have any in stock. We do not plan to print more until editorial and budget questions have been resolved.”18 Actually, they had destroyed all remaining stock and told employees there were no plans to reprint.
Breaking down Salyer’s comments, he identified three reasons for Mystery’s removal: 1) too expensive, 2) distribution had reached near-saturation point, and 3) not completely accurate theologically.
Let’s look at these three reasons more closely.
In his 1998 deposition, Mr. Tkach Jr. backed up Larry Salyer’s assessment that the book was too expensive. “It’s much easier to give away 10 booklets that cost a dime each to produce than it is to give a book that costs 10 bucks to produce. It’s just that simple.”19 But it’s not as simple as he made it sound because Mystery of the Ages never cost that much to produce. When Dexter Faulkner asked Tkach Sr. about what to do with the 120,000 unusable copies in 1988, he said the replacement cost for the book would be “around one dollar per copy.”20 With that in mind, using Joe Jr.’s hypothetical, sending Mystery of the Ages may have been more cost-effective than 10 booklets.
Nevertheless, when we asked if printing and distributing the book was a “financial drain” for the church, Mr. Tkach Jr. said, “Absolutely.”21 Why, then, had it not been a huge financial drain for the church before 1988? “Because the income was sufficient to—to go ahead and do that,” said Tkach. Later, even after realizing that the income in 1988 was actually one of the “peak years” for the church, Tkach stood by the “too expensive” excuse: “… expense was absolutely an equivalent reason to the errors that we first were aware of in ’88,” he said.22
Of course, Tkach had to say this or else admit that Larry Salyer misled the ministry in 1989. Yet a quick look at the figures removes the smoke screen. The cost for printing and distributing Mystery was not exorbitant—not when compared to a 10-booklet equivalent—and certainly not for a multimillion-dollar organization at the peak of its income.
Writing in the Pastor General’s Report nine months before Mr. Armstrong died, Joseph Tkach Sr. referred to a sermon Mr. Armstrong had recently given in which he had mentioned Mystery of the Ages. “I know this book,” Mr. Tkach wrote, “will prove to be another major step forward for God’s church and the spreading of the gospel around the world.”23
Mr. Armstrong’s vision for this book’s impact was also worldwide. “I candidly feel it may be the most important book since the Bible! … We want to reach the largest audience possible with this book.”24
It is true that the church used nearly every means possible to promote the book once it was completed in September 1985—television, the church’s literature, direct mail, newspaper advertisements, bookstores, etc. Never had the church distributed so many copies of a single book so quickly.
But did it reach the “largest audience possible” in its short life span of about 2½ years? Is it fair to say that the church’s audience had been nearly saturated with offers for the book? Did it prove to be the major step forward in preaching the gospel around the world like Mr. Tkach said it would be in April 1985?
The main reason Mr. Tkach developed his “literature core” plan in April 1987 was because there were fewer than a dozen booklets available in all eight languages in which the church printed—English, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Norwegian, Spanish and Portuguese. And while English obviously had the most literature available, Mr. Tkach could not see the work really making a “coordinated worldwide” push unless all the church’s major literature was available in all eight languages. This is why he set the goal for 50 pieces of literature to be printed in all eight languages.25
By the time Mystery of the Ages had been put on hold in mid-1988, the book had been translated and printed in at least six of those eight languages. The first translated version of Mystery, from what we found in the church’s newspaper, was the French version.26 They distributed it to French-speaking brethren at the Feast of Tabernacles in 1987—two years after Mr. Armstrong first handed out the English translation of the book. The French version was later mailed to 1,900 people who had requested it. Their names had been put on a waiting list until a translated copy was available.
The Norwegian version of the book rolled off the presses sometime after that 1987 Feast, in the fall. The initial printing was for 21,000. Advertising for the book began in the March 1988 Norwegian Plain Truth.27
The Italian and Spanish versions of the book were released on February 26, 1988. There is no mention in the Worldwide News of when the Dutch and German versions were printed. But judging by the length of time it took for the other four, mentioned above, to be completed, it was probably late 1987 or early 1988 before they were finished.
Which brings us to the point. Only a few months after these translated copies were finished and printed, Mr. Tkach put Mystery of the Ages “on hold” in all languages! They had just completed six of these translated versions, and then the whole project was swept aside because, according to Larry Salyer, they had reached near saturation point with their audience? That couldn’t possibly have been true for the foreign-language areas.
Two months before Salyer’s comments, when Bernie Schnippert told headquarters employees about the removal, he admitted,
We are all aware that this decision will have its greatest impact in the non-English areas which may not have as much of Mystery in print in other booklets as do we in English. This fact was considered very carefully before the decision was reached. But we believe that in time the further production of core booklets will increase all international inventories to the point that the essential elements of our teachings, if not the exact words used in Mystery, will be available in all areas.28
The “exact words” of Mystery available in other literature?
At least he acknowledged the great impact this decision would have on the non-English areas. Schnippert continued, “This was a case where the need for a unified approach and considerations of accuracy had to take precedence over individual circumstances.”29
Yet the whole purpose for the literature core was so the work could “realize a truly unified and coordinated worldwide media effort.”30 And how could Mystery not be considered a “core” publication? Mystery of the Ages is a magnificent summary of all Mr. Armstrong’s work and teachings. To have that book available in all eight languages, which it nearly was, would have been a major step forward for the work in spreading the gospel around the world. This was Mr. Tkach’s goal for the core literature initiative. But the English version is the only one that even got off the ground—and even then, it was short-lived.
According to Roger Lippross, the wcg’s literature production director at the time, the church distributed 1.245 million copies of the hardcover and softcover editions of Mystery of the Ages.31 By comparison, the church distributed more than 3 million copies of The Seven Laws of Success and 6 million copies of The United States and Britain in Prophecy.32 Mr. Armstrong wanted this to reach the “largest audience possible” and the book only went to less than half the number of people that received The Seven Laws of Success.
Yes, distribution of Mystery got off to a phenomenal start. Yes, it was the fastest-moving book the church had ever produced. But it certainly had not reached a near-saturation point. In fact, the incredible response to the book for 32 months makes the decision to remove it that much more ridiculous!
Nearly a year after Mystery of the Ages had been released—after being distributed to all church members, offered on the television program and to Plain Truth readers—Richard Rice wrote in the Pastor General’s Report,
The comments we continue to receive about Mystery of the Ages show that it is still having a powerful impact on the lives of many. Readers consider this book the apex of Mr. Armstrong’s writings. The brethren often say they have never seen God’s plan unfold as clearly as in the pages of this book.
Many people who were never interested in religion before have been moved to ask for ministerial visits after reading it. … Mystery of the Ages continues to be an effective tool in spreading the gospel.33
Implying that the book had run its course, nearly saturating the church’s audience, while it was still flying off the shelves, is patently dishonest. The reason the Worldwide Church of God retired its most popular piece of literature is because they believed it had so many doctrinal flaws that it simply could not be revised without turning it into a completely different book.
Not Completely Accurate
Larry Salyer offered this as an example of why Mystery of the Ages wasn’t “completely accurate theologically”:
In Chapter 2 on page 70 (page 59 of the softbound edition), we find the following statement: “What was God’s ultimate objective for the angels? Beyond question it is that which, now, because of angelic rebellion, has become the transcendent potential of humans.” The impression may be perceived by some to be that God was initially going to reproduce Himself through angels and, since they failed, the opportunity was given to humans.34
Actually, Mr. Armstrong was quite clear in his book that because of angelic rebellion, God set out to reproduce Himself through man. He wrote,
To fulfill his purpose for the entire vast universe, God saw that nothing less than himself (as the God family) could be absolutely relied upon to carry out that supreme purpose in the entire universe. …
God then purposed to reproduce himself, through humans, made in his image and likeness, but made first from material flesh and blood, subject to death if there is sin unrepented of—yet with the possibility of being born into the divine family begotten by God the Father. God saw how this could be done through Christ, who gave himself for that purpose.35
Mr. Armstrong repeatedly made the point, and backed it up with scriptural passages like Hebrews 1:1-8, that God never offered this potential to angels.
What Tkachism had a problem with in the above quote is the fact that God enacted His purpose through man because of angelic sin. They had no problem accepting that God initially created a pre-Adamic, animal-like man with architectural skills. But how dare Mr. Armstrong teach that man was created on Earth to succeed where the angels failed!
Mr. Salyer said, “Another area of concern is the sensitivity surrounding any discussion of the races.”36 Of course, much of what Mr. Armstrong had to say on the subject of race had already been edited out of the softbound version. So this seems picky.
Outside of the above quote and the sensitive statements made regarding race, the only other inaccuracy Salyer addressed was how Mr. Armstrong “quoted freely” from Alexander Hislop’s Two Babylons.37 In actuality, Mr. Armstrong referred to Hislop on two occasions and does not quote him once.
These all, taken at face value, would have to be considered minor points that could have been easily fixed (assuming, of course, that they are even errors in the first place). But remember, Mystery of the Ages was “on hold” for more than six months, awaiting the chance to be revised, before Mr. Tkach decided it would be retired permanently.
Mr. Tkach Finally Speaks
Nine months after he directed Bernie Schnippert to put the book on hold, Mr. Tkach finally broached the subject of Mystery’s status. He addressed the ministers first in the Pastor General’s Report and the membership one week later in the Worldwide News. Mr. Tkach began his column by saying, “It is critically important that God’s church never be in a position of continuing to put out what may be misleading or inaccurate material once we have become aware of it. God expects us to continually be growing in understanding and knowledge. Mr. Armstrong often reinforced that concept.”38 To that point, that’s about as close as any of them got to the real reason for removing the book. It contained “misleading” and “inaccurate” material. But in removing these supposed errors, Mr. Tkach said he was only following Mr. Armstrong’s example. This excuse would be used repeatedly in the years that followed—Mr. Armstrong made changes and so do we—what’s the big deal?
Mr. Tkach then downplayed the significance of the errors in Mystery.
The fundamental truths of God’s Word are contained in Mystery of the Ages. But we must realize that some of the peripheral or incidental points it contains give occasion to critics to fault the whole book, as well as inadvertently misleading readers on a few points.39
But it was the Tkaches who were misleading people! Everyone close to them knew how they felt about Mystery of the Ages: It was “riddled with error.” Yet in telling the brethren why it was discontinued, he talked about “incidental” points that could give critics the wrong impression.
Mr. Tkach did not elaborate on any of the “peripheral or incidental points” that needed changing. Instead, he devoted much space to explaining how much of the church’s literature had become “dated.”
Mystery of the Ages—Outdated?
“We must … face the fact,” Mr. Tkach wrote, “that literature written in the early to late 1950s does not always have the same impact today as it surely had then.” He continued,
Mr. Armstrong was explaining the truth to different audiences with different kinds of understanding than we face today on the brink of the 1990s. It behooves us now, as God leads us, to present the truth of His Word in a format that will reach people in a world that has traveled 30 to 35 years down the road of secularism and spiritual ignorance, and that is looking beyond into the last decade of this century.40
Later, after explaining how they had been taking a “serious look” at the church’s body of literature, Mr. Tkach wrote, “A manner of presentation that worked in 1959 may have less impact on a reader in 1989.” Understandably, he continued, this process of updating would be difficult for some church members.
I’m sure you feel, as I do, a certain nostalgic reluctance to revise or retire some of the booklets that the church has used for years and that we have all learned and grown from. But healthy change is a part of growth, something that has long been a vital part of the production of the church’s literature.41
Mr. Tkach concluded by making this unbelievable comparison: “No one would argue that we should still be producing such booklets from the past as 1975 in Prophecy or Hippies—Hypocrisy and ‘Happiness.’”42
He actually equated the removal of Mystery of the Ages with discontinuing Hippies—Hypocrisy and ‘Happiness.’ Mr. Armstrong finished Mystery of the Ages less than three years before Mr. Tkach removed the book. That he could even imply it was outdated in 1989 is truly ridiculous.
Mystery of the Ages is not a pamphlet attacking a social evil that took place in 1963. Neither is it a booklet outlining prophetic trends in the lead-up to 1975. Mystery of the Ages is a 363-page book explaining the church’s entire body of beliefs—every major doctrine! In fact, what’s most notable about the book is how timeless the content really is.
Mr. Tkach wrote, “I heard one man say, ‘But we’re taking Mr. Armstrong out of everything.’ How shortsighted and imperceptive!” Actually, that man, whoever he was, turned out to be quite the visionary. “Mr. Armstrong’s teaching will always be a part of us,” Mr. Tkach insisted, even though Mystery of the Ages, The Incredible Human Potential and The United States and Britain in Prophecy were already gone for good.43
The Real Reason
Putting together comments from Bernie Schnippert, Larry Salyer and Joseph Tkach, we now have these five reasons offered in 1989 for the removal of Mystery of the Ages: 1) content available in other literature, 2) too expensive, 3) distribution at near-saturation point, 4) content outdated, and 5) incorrect peripheral or incidental points.
Yet the documented evidence points to one reason—and one reason only: Tkachism had major problems with the book’s doctrinal teachings by early 1988. Notice what Church Administration told the field ministry just a few months after all these excuses were given:
Apparently a number of ministers have recommended obsolete literature to prospective members. These recommendations include two books, The Incredible Human Potential and Mystery of the Ages, and the booklet The Book of Revelation Unveiled at Last [discontinued in December 1988]. It obviously creates an uncomfortable situation when these [prospective members] are told that the recommended literature is not in print.
Please consult the updated lists of current literature that we publish twice a year before recommending a book or booklet.
In addition, it is inappropriate to photocopy and distribute obsolete articles. If the literature is not on our current literature index, then it should not be used.44
Now please again examine the five reasons they discontinued Mystery. You couldn’t logically cite any of those as reasons why someone could not at least obtain a photocopied version—or possibly borrow the book. The reason obsolete literature was not to be used, under any circumstances, is because it was doctrinally wrong! It was, as Tkach Jr. stated dogmatically, in private, later that year, “riddled with error.”
While working on this chapter, someone forwarded me an e-mail they had sent to the wcg on June 27, 2003, asking this question: “Why did the church really discontinue Herbert Armstrong’s teaching?”
Paul Kroll replied three days later: “[T]he reason the Worldwide Church of God had to discontinue many of them is because they were in error from a biblical perspective, and some were legalistic in nature.”45
Would to God they had been that honest in 1989.