End of the world here for two - thank God!
writing in The Weekend Australian Magazine 22-23 February 1986
L. Ron had a few things in common with Howard Hughes. He was fabulously wealthy, excessively reclusive and had to prove he was alive before he could die.
The founder of Dianetics and Scientology, a global empire turning over $100 million a year, had been bobbing around the ocean in a 3400-tonne ship, Apollo, whence he pulled the strings and counted the loot. Captains Queeg and Bligh would have admired his increasingly eccentric and brutal behaviour.
Trivial misdemeanours were punished by hurling people into "the locker". "Even kids of eight, nine or 10 were locked up for up to three days ..." recalls a victim. "They sat and slept on a coiled-up chain. They urinated and defecated there. When they came out they looked awful ... filthy dirty, tired and weeping. Like something out of Belsen."
Then L. Ron went very silent. There were rumours that he was with God. Perhaps he'd even replaced Him. In late 1982 Hubbard's son, L. Ron junior, began a superior court petition to prove his dad was dead so that he could get at the goodies. Like Howard Hughes, Hubbard refused to make a live court appearance but sent a hand-written letter complete with a thumb print. On this basis the court decided that he was, after all, extant.
But now his demise, in a Rocky Mountains retreat, has been confirmed by the church's hierarchy, it's time for a divvying of the spoils. Not that there'll be much left for Ron junior if the "squirrels" have their way. The squirrels are victims of the cult, dissidents or excommunicants (a number of Australians among them) who are joining in an international class action being prepared in California. The squirrels want their nuts back.
The estate of Herbert W. Armstrong will certainly be subject to similar claims, given that his Worldwide Church of God is in just as much trouble. I learnt of Armstrong's death the same day that a welcome letter arrived from Mr Peter Morris, our Minister for Transport. It was in response to my complaints about the Plain Truth, Armstrong's pseudo-news magazine, being made freely available on Commonwealth property, namely Australia's major airports. This noxious rag, with a claimed circulation of 7.9 million, was Armstrong's main recruiting device. Looking a little like Time or the Bulletin, it was targeted at the fearful, the vulnerable, those who cannot cope.
Once they accepted a "free" subscription, they were on their way to self-destruction. My filing cabinets bulge with horror stories from Armstrong's victims, of families destroyed and pauperised by his demands. It is greatly to his credit that Mr Morris gave the thumbs down.
Armstrong was born 93 years ago and became a pioneer of radio evangelism in the '30s. His ministry spread like a tumour, eventually claiming 80,000 ardent members plus the innumerable supporters conned by television programs beamed from no less than 374 stations worldwide.
Armstrong founded his opulent ministry in 1934, beginning with a radio show from a tiny 500-watt station in Eugene, Oregon. A former salesman from Des Moines, he would travel the globe in a mission he called the Great Commission. Somehow he managed to get audiences with such world leaders as Emperor Hirohito, King Juan Carlos, Menachem Begin, Ferdinand Marcos and Margaret Thatcher. Photographs of his summit meetings would appear in the Plain Truth, adding authority to his activities.
Armstrong claimed that the only true church had faded out in Jerusalem in AD70, somehow managing to resurrect itself in America in 1927 in order that God could give his last messages before ending the world. Salvation from the coming holocaust could only be found within its ranks ... And Herbert W. Armstrong had been appointed God's spokesman.
Members were required to keep to the Old Testament laws and calendar feasts, eschewing their New Testament counterparts as pagan festivals. They were required to tithe their income as well as making at least twice-yearly offerings to the work. This generally meant up to 30 per cent "tithe", plus offerings.
The theology of Armstrong was an unlikely mixture of Seventh Day Adventism, Mormonism, British Israelism, Jewish Legalism and the ideas of the Jehovah's Witnesses. Armstrong denied the Trinity, the divinity of Christ and the divine personality of the Holy Spirit. He was also unimpressed by the bodily resurrection, the immortality of the soul and the need to be "born again".
Like all his ilk, Armstrong constantly claimed a financial crisis. Time was running out and the faithful had to cough up as a matter of urgency. His members and followers, including a considerable number of Australians who never missed his radio or television shows, were persuaded to donate up to 40 per cent of their annual income, giving Armstrong the same $100 million per annum gross as Hubbard.
This provided Herb and Co. with a magnificent standard of living which, in the 1970s, became a major issue. Dissident church members sued Armstrong for fraud, claiming he had squandered money on lavish homes and furnishings and on his global journeys by private jet with his then top aid, Stanley Rader. During the controversy, Armstrong commissioned full-page newspaper advertisements lambasting State officials while accusing the Government of being manipulated by Satan.
Over a period of years Herbert W. began handing over the reins to his son, Garner Ted, whose apocalyptic utterances became familiar to Australian radio audiences (for a time the Worldwide Church of God was far and away the biggest radio buyer in this country). But Garner was involved in the odd sexual scandal and, in a scene echoing the expulsion of Adam from Paradise, was evicted from Pasadena.
However, all was forgiven and he was both reinstated and confirmed as his father's successor. But there were more rumours about sexual misdemeanours and in February 1974, in an unprecedented protest, six ministers resigned from the church over his alleged misconduct. Subsequently some 29 ministers and 2000 members joined a rival church.
Garner Ted began publicly criticising his father, expressing moral outrage at the way the octogenarian had married a bimbo 40 years his junior. Armstrong's first wife, Loma, died in 1967 and in 1983 he was divorced in a highly publicised battle over property from his second wife, Ramona, 45. Supported by former church members, Garner charged that his father had spent millions of the church's annual income on personal expenses.
Little wonder that Garner hasn't been invited back into the fold. Hours before his death, Herbert W. appointed one Joseph Tkach as his successor.
Having created his own personal religion by combining aspects of fundamental Christianity with Judaism, Armstrong announced a strict policy against remarriage for divorced people. He required new church members to dissolve second marriages, remarrying their original spouses. Yet this didn't stop the energetic octogenarian changing the church's law to suit himself. Shades of Henry VIII.
Armstrong's basic strategy, demonstrated in the Plain Truth and in the radio and television broadcasts, was to warn the world that things were going down the gurgler, while offering a Utopia for believers. For week after week, year after year, the Plain Truth would focus on warfare, famines, lawlessness, wickedness and pestilence as signs that the end was nigh. However, Armstrong's followers would, miraculously, be protected and preserved. Not even World War III would hurt them. Exploding nuclear weapons wouldn't even ruffle their hair. In these anxious times, an attractive offer.
Over the years I've watched the Plain Truth become ever slicker. In the bad old days it was quite hilariously funny, being full of the most lurid, quasi-pornographic drawings of the wicked being afflicted by boils.
Well before Armstrong's death, the church was in trouble. A dissident group publishes the Ambassador Report, full of inside information about goings-on. They claim to have persuaded between 10,000 and 25,000 of Armstrong's followers to leave the fold as a result of their revelations.
Armstrong and Rader were charged by the State of California with diverting no less than $70 million in church funds for their own use.
For years Herbert W. Armstrong claimed that his was the "number one religious telecast in the US". While his program may be number one in terms of the number of channels on his network, he's by no means the most popular or influential TV evangelist.
In 1984 the Gallup organisation asked viewers "which religious television program do you watch most often?" And only one per cent of viewers named H.W.A. Surprisingly, Billy Graham still heads the list with 16 per cent of viewers indicating approval, followed by the appalling Jimmy Swaggert with 13 per cent, the awful Oral Roberts with 12 per cent, Pat Robertson with 11 per cent, Jim Backer with 10 per cent and the smooth Robert Schuller with eight.
Surprisingly, Jerry Falwell and Rex Humbard can only manage 11 per cent between them. And way down at the bottom of the list, with only one per cent, is Herbert Armstrong. Even his dissident son, Garner Ted, is out-pointing him.
On many occasions, Armstrong predicted that the end of the world was not only nigh but now. When this important event failed to occur, the faithful, with a little help from Herbert, would manage to rationalise and he would return to muttering dire prophesies. Well, the end of the world has arrived for Herbert and it may be imminent for his organisation as the Plain Truth loses ground and the TV program loses ratings.
Worse still, more ex-members are taking legal action to recover their tithes.
Not even Herbert W. could take his (rather, their) money with him.