They told us we were the “salt of the Earth”. They said we were a “peculiar people”.
Well, maybe they were right. We were as peculiar as hell. But salt of the earth?
It was awfully good hype, and it was straight out of the Bible. But what did it mean, exactly? The explanation I remember was that, in our small numbers, we were like the salt in a dish of food, one part per several hundred thousand. If a dish were 100% salt it would be inedible, but by being few in number we “salted” the population of the world in approximately the same proportion that real salt is applied to food.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? Until you realize that, by that logic, God should never want to save more than a few thousand people. It makes more sense that God would want to save everyone (100%), but then the dish would be pure salt and therefore inedible.
Analogies are such risky business! Especially in the face of simple logic.
But when you have a brainwashed membership you can tell them pretty much anything and they’ll swallow it.
So who were these people, these Worldwiders? Why were they such a small group? Why was God incapable of attracting more than he did? At its peak, the Worldwide Church of God was composed (we were told) of just about 100,000 members. When you consider that many of these were single individuals (no family attending), and that others consisted of married couples with from one to six kids, you can extrapolate, at most, maybe half a million people (baptized and unbaptized).
That isn’t very many, when you call yourself a worldwide organization. Mormons have millions, Jehovah’s Witnesses have millions, and they are considered cults. We were also called a cult, but why were we so small?
The reason, of course, is that as a cult we went a bit too far. Mormons keep Christmas and Easter and worship on Sunday. JW’s also worship on Sunday (though they decry pagan holidays). We not only decried pagan holidays, we observed Jewish ones, including the weekly sabbath. Maybe that was part of the reason.
(The official explanation, of course, was that God is not calling everyone now. But that was a lot of crap. The real truth is that very few people thought so little of themselves that they would swallow Armstrong’s line of theology.)
When I left the Worldwide Church of God I spent a great deal of time mulling over and studying a number of issues, and one of these was the simple question: who are these people? Why are they here? What attracted them to a life of self-denial and poverty? Who in his/her right mind would agree to pay up to 30% of his gross income in tithes?
I’m not sure I know the entire answer. I’m not trained in psychology, but based on some personal observations (and “leaning to my own understanding”) I can perhaps sort out part of the truth.
In his excellent book The True Believer, Eric Hoffer points out that lunatic-fringe organizations can always find members, usually from the ranks of the dispossessed, the unwanted, and the hopeless. Hoffer likely never heard of Herbert Armstrong (his book was written right after WWII, so he was more likely thinking of Nazis or Communists), but reading his book is like looking into a bowl of Worldwiders. Certainly the Worldwide Church of God is/was composed of an inordinate number of the dispossessed, the unwanted, and the hopeless. But I think the answer is more complex than that.
My own mother was drawn to HWA because of a discontentment with her own Pentecostal religion. She saw large segments of the Bible that were never preached. She saw hypocrisy in her church, its membership, and its leadership. She was looking for a change, and she found one. Herbert Armstrong was the ultimate con man, for he said, “Don’t believe me! Believe your Bible!” Then he would quote the Bible, passages that many people, including most Christians, had never seen before. And sure enough, when he quoted the Bible, he quoted exactly the words that were written there. As a result, my mother thought she had “proved” that HWA was telling the truth–simply because he quoted the Bible exactly.
Never mind the interpretation of what he had quoted.
Not only my mother, but thousands of others “proved” that Herbert was right via this same mechanism. Thus a lot of people became convinced he was right simply because he read portions of the Bible (mainly prophecy) that other churches never touched. He also pointed out the very real inconsistencies in orthodox Christianity, ridiculed them, and led people away from them.
But it didn’t work on everyone. Not everyone who heard HWA’s voice on the airwaves was “called by God”–that is, not everyone swallowed his hype. What was it that caused tens of thousands of them, my mom included, to buy into it? Was it the Holy Spirit? The personal call of the Almighty?
Or something else entirely?
Again, I don’t know all the answers. But let’s take a look anyway.
First of all, I have to believe that probably half of all the Worldwiders I knew were honest, sincere people. That figure may be high, but I will allow fifty percent. These were people who, for whatever personal reasons they may have had, somehow got hooked into the cult and honestly believed it was the right place to be. Many of these were people with oppression in their backgrounds. The dispossessed, the downtrodden, people searching for truth and finding deception instead. Many were motivated by fear, another of HWA’s mechanisms. Fear of tribulation, fear of nuclear war, fear of Basil Wolverton’s graphic pen- and-ink illustrations in many publications, most notably 1975 In Prophecy. Fear motivated me my entire life, until the day I discovered it was all a hoax. Fear got me there (my mother’s fear, for I was only a child at the time) and fear kept me there as an adult, married and with kids of my own.
Many of these sincere believers were escaping something in their past. I can think of several who had miserable childhoods, overbearing fathers, or oppressive marriages. Many of those who came in the 1950s were survivors of the Great Depression and/or veterans of WWII. They had seen enough misery to last a lifetime, and wanted a guarantee that they could escape whatever bleak future lay in store for mankind. Armstrong used their fear to subdue them, then to extort every cent he could get from the fruit of their (often manual) labors.
I knew another man who came in 1979. As a young man he had robbed banks for a living. He had also spent some 16 years behind bars, and while in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary he heard HWA on the radio, became a Worldwider, and upon his release became a pillar in our local church. This man–I’ll call him Joe–believed that God had called him out of a life of self-destructive sin into a new life with a glorious future. But certainly Joe is not unique. Many men who ran afoul of the law in their youth have subsequently converted to some form of Christianity when their unlawful ways landed them in a dungeon. Joe could as easily have been “saved” by Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics, Muslims, or any of a variety of fundamentalist Christian sects. It was only chance that led him to follow Armstrong out of the cellblock instead. (Though he is still a Worldwider, I have to say that Joe is one of the finest men I have ever met. If ever there were a true example of “pure Christian” manhood, Joe would be the poster boy. I would trust him with my life, even today.)
Another significant group were what we might now call “single moms”. Most of these were either divorced with children or were living with an “unconverted mate”. Many of these were also sincere, but certainly not all. Out of our local congregation of 300+ members I can think of perhaps 20 such people who were in it only for whatever financial assistance they could get (yes, third tithe was occasionally paid out). These people used the church just as surely as the church used the rest of us. They paid no tithes, contributed nothing but gossip and dissension, and made money off the deal at the same time.
Not to pick on women, we also had several men who were similar in category. One man I remember (let’s call him Ralph) had four or five kids and after about age forty never worked a day in his life. Yet two of his kids attended AC and graduated. Ralph was a freeloader of the worst sort. He kept his family in poverty, borrowed money from other members, moved in whenever he could (a few actually allowed this!), and somehow got his kids to AC. He sucked up in disgusting fashion, annoyed everyone in sight with his bullish opinions, and generally made himself a nuisance.
When Glen White came to our area he shut down the third tithe gravy train to most of the abusers. During his five year residency an amazing number of leeches simply disappeared, either dropping out of church or leaving the area for greener pastures. Ralph moved to the coast and spent the five years in another church area. During that time (as related to me by a deacon I knew who lived over there), Ralph still did not work. He was “disabled”. Yet he was seen playing volleyball at a beach party. The following sabbath the minister apparently delivered a sermon about people who were not willing to work yet were able to play strenuous sports. The week after that sermon Ralph came to church leaning on a cane. The week after that he showed up on crutches. The week after that he was in a wheelchair!
Then Glen White was run out of town and two weeks later Ralph was back. He was still there when I left. The last I heard he had a stroke while attending the Feast of Tabernacles in Sweden. (How in the hell did he get to Sweden? The son of a bitch never worked! I worked my whole life and paid tithes my whole life, but I’ve never been to Sweden! Obviously he conned someone into financing his trip with “excess” second tithe.) Most of the other freeloaders also surfaced again after White was transferred.
A third group that was well represented would be what I would have to call simply Losers. At a guess, I think maybe 30% of the church consisted of losers (many of these overlap some of the other categories–some losers were freeloaders and probably many were also sincere). Included were men who believed it was proper to browbeat their wives (and found biblical support for it in Worldwide Church of God doctrine); people with really radical personalities whom you would normally cross the street to avoid; complete nerds; educated men who had degrees in everything but never worked; and just about everything else you couldn’t imagine.
Many factors combine to make an individual. The way a person was raised, the circumstances of his childhood, disease, abuse, malnutrition, bullies, teachers, preachers, classmates, accidents–thousands of things can affect the way a person turns out, how a person thinks. Many, even most, of these factors are beyond the control of an individual. Yet the net result is often that a person is worthless. Obnoxious. Undesirable. To be pitied, certainly, but still a Loser.
Pasadena was full of them, mostly single males, but the local areas were not spared, either. One man I knew must have had an IQ able to boil water. He attended AC but never graduated. He lived with his mother until she died, then drifted in and out of the area, worked at the college for several years, finally drifted back home to stay. He was a bookworm to the nth degree, devouring all manner of scholarly works, proved back in the 1970s that HWA was full of crap, yet he never left. He lived with one or another of the local brethren, working as a window washer (when he worked at all). He almost got married once, but he and his fiancée had a falling out before a wedding could be arranged–to wit, she thought he should be employed. He disagreed.
Another man had been a college professor. His wife was a health care specialist. She worked, he didn’t. He sat home and studied all day long, living off his wife’s labors. It took no genius in domestic affairs to notice that their marriage was on the rocks, yet they were too old to start over. Their kids were grown and gone. She was abrasive and generally rude (understandable, considering who she was married to), he was reclusive and petulant. Yet he always dominated TableTopics in club, expounding obscure data to knock down the other guy’s theory. No one could ever tell if he knew what he was talking about or not.
Yet another man loved to corner you at a social function and tell you all about his demon possession. He claimed to have a “family demon” (of course he was cured now), and it was his only claim to fame. His demon possession gave him validation as a human being, I guess. Certainly his personality did not. (His brother, a somewhat more normal specimen, told me privately that it was all bullshit. He knew nothing about a family demon.)
There was a black woman who hated white people, a handsome young Nazi who hated blacks, and a young Mexican who hated Mexicans. One newly married woman loved to tell people how she had been raped at age six by a man ten times her age. (It probably happened, but who wants to hear about it every week?)
We had a one-legged child molester who, on holy days, went around handing out candy to the little kids. Don Billingsley, our pastor at the time, made an announcement one day that children should not take candy from adult members of the church “because it might cause them to trust strangers” who were not in the church. Good advice, but thinly veiled as to the real reason. Sure enough, the first holy day after that announcement, I caught this bastard giving my kids candy. I called him on it and he got real smart with me. They “warned him and warned him”, but they never threw him out. I guess his tithing record must have been pretty good. (The last time I saw him was on a holy day in 1992, sitting outside with a beautiful redhead sitting on his lap. She was 5 years old. Her parents stood nearby watching with rapture in their eyes. I had always thought they weren’t very bright, but I had no idea they were complete idiots.)
The fourth group that comes to mind is probably the smallest group, yet in its way the most insidious. This group could be called the Takers, the Opportunists, or the Conquerors.
You’ve probably seen them. They come into the church like a whirlwind, sometimes a single male, sometimes a young couple, sometimes a family. They may already be successful on the outside. They are hailed as new members and take the place by storm. Within days their names are on everybody’s lips, people swoon at their feet, and within six months he is a deacon, with two years he is a minister. And chances are that, within 5 years at most, he will be on the HQ staff.
These people, in my opinion, are not deceived at all. They are the Vini Vidi Vici crowd. Wherever they go they are looking for an angle. How does this place work? Who is in charge? Who has the power? How do I get it?
And they do. They go straight for the throat. They do or say whatever is required. They can pray in public like veterans. They can speak like politicians. They are as humble as they can publicly be. They are as corrupt as anyone in Pasadena.
I could tell you about several such individuals, but one in particular sticks in my mind. He had been career army, holding the rank of captain when he retired. Still in his late thirties, he was fit, handsome, articulate, and everyone loved him. Including me. He never did a thing to me personally, but at a basketball tournament in 1992 I saw him cheat in favor of his local church’s team (he was a referee, both in and out of the church). I saw him do it. I have proof on videotape. It was so blatant that four ministers who had sons, stepsons, or grandsons playing on the losing team were beside themselves with fury. Yet not one of them was man enough to stand up in public and call him on it. This man had been appointed by the district minister and the ministers, though they knew he was cheating, were afraid to buck “authority”. He had only been in the church three years, was already a deacon and was being considered for higher ordination.
We were always told that God had called the “weak of the world” (a friend of mine paraphrased this statement as “the weak and the weird”, not without good cause). I guess this explained why so many of the members were people I would never have associated with by choice. Many of them were the lowest of the low. Others were simply too depressing to be around. A few were professional people, a few had money, but they were generally aloof from the rest, and generally got ordained before too long.
In spite of this assessment, I lost a lot of good friends when I left the Worldwide. I didn’t turn my back on them, but they no longer wanted anything to do with me. They were still true believers, and their programming told them that I was now suspect, no longer to be trusted, actually a threat to their spiritual salvation. Nothing I could do about that. When I found out the truth, I had to leave. I owed it to myself and to my kids. I had to go. But thankfully, about a dozen of my closer friends also left within a year of my exit, so at least I was able to maintain relations with most of them.
Salt of the earth? No. Just another collection of unfortunates of all kinds. Some good, some bad, some sincere, some dishonest, but all victims in one way or another. No matter how we got there, or what we hoped to gain (if anything), all of us, in one way or another, got hosed by Herbert DoubleYou Armstrong.
And Joseph DoubleYou Tkach.
And little tiny baby joe w. tkach.
In that respect, at least, we are all the same.
Article by John Bowers, former Painful Truth Editor.