Herbert W. Armstrong needs no introduction, but it would be prudent at this point to modify our perception of the man. When Armstrong walked onto the stage of BI history he was not the bombastic preacher of prophecy that we knew him to be. In the late 1920’s, when he first encountered BI, this self-proclaimed “idea man” was all out of ideas. Once a rock star of the advertising world, he was now humiliated, unemployed and desperately grasping for a way of escape from the obscurity he had been plunged into. It was under these bleak, ego-starving circumstances that Armstrong had turned to religion. But what began as a search for solace quickly blossomed into a new opportunity for self-promotion.
Through a neighbor the Armstrongs were introduced to a local congregation of the CoG (Seventh Day), which just happened to be that of Andrew Dugger, editor of The Bible Advocate. It was around this time, in 1926, that Armstrong’s prosaic view of Christianity was challenged by his wife Loma, specifically on the point of the Sabbath. Driven more by the threat to his ego (“wifely religious fanaticism” as he put it himself) than a thirst for truth, Armstrong launched a new career, one that would befit his high opinion of himself. He would eschew the search for honest employment in favor of long days at the library, poring over tedious books on theology, esoteric theories, and pseudo-scientific pablum.
The “idea man” was back in the saddle.
A Pyramid Scheme
In the following months Armstrong became convinced of the CoG (Seventh Day)’s teaching on the Sabbath and began to attend services with them. He also began reading their paper, The Bible Advocate. In 1927, the paper published an article on pyramidology that fired Armstrong’s imagination (and/or ambition). Pyramidology is a harebrained numerology scheme whereby biblically significant numbers are sought in measurements of the pyramids, and, as with children looking for images in the clouds, pyramidologists (or as legitimate Egyptologists call them, “pyramidiots”) always manage to find what they are looking for. In a letter dated June 3, 1927, Armstrong wrote to the author of that pyramidology article (a “Reverend” Lincoln McConnell) to request more information on the subject. To our ultimate detriment, he received a most productive response. McConnell writes:
The most recent book on The Great Pyramid and a much easier one to read if you want this, is by “Discipulus,” and can be had of the same people…. Its special value lies in the fact that it connects Pyramid truth with “British”-Israel truth in a fine way…I must say that if you really want to KNOW your Bible you will have to get the books on “Anglo-Israel”…. You will never know the real truth the BOOK is teaching without this key. This sounds radical perhaps, but you will see when you study it that it’s simple truth (Reverend Lincoln McConnell to Herbert W. Armstrong, HWAP collection, #867).
And so it was that Armstrong was led to what he would later proclaim as the “key” to Bible prophecy, by way of an interest in pyramidology (Ibid.).
Another Dead End?
So Herbert high-tailed it back to the Portland, Oregon library to see what he could find on the subject of BI. And, as it happened, that was quite a lot. In fact, by this time the Pacific Northwest had already become something of a nexus for BI disciples. Armstrong’s favorite library had in its collection at least three BI books: The House of Israel or the Anglo-Saxon by Samuel Albert Brown, Anglo-Israel or the Saxon Race by W.H. Poole, and, of course, Judah’s Sceptre and Joseph’s Birthright by J.H. Allen. These he devoured and, regarding the last as the most reliable, wrote to its publisher for a second opinion. This publisher was A. A. Beauchamp Publishing Co., which he was referred to by the pyramidologist McConnell in the letter quoted from earlier. Armstrong wrote to Beauchamp in the spring of 1928:
I have heard that the most recent book on the Great Pyramids is one by “Discipulus,” published by you. I know nothing about this book, but if it is authoritative, giving accurate and reliable measurements of the interior passages as well as other measurements, I want it.
I have seen the works by Smyth [that’s Charles Piazzi Smyth, the pyramidologist mentioned previously as a supporter of the BI popularizer, John Wilson], and have read The Miracle in Stone by Seiss. If this book is equally authoritative and dependable, but giving more recent data and information, you may send it to me at once, C.O.D.
What do you regard as the most authoritative and dependable book on the Anglo-Israel theory? I have seen many on this subject which I could not regard as at all reliable. One book which I have read, Judah’s Sceptre and Joseph’s Birthright, by Allen, appears to be more reliable than others I have seen. (Armstrong to A.A. Beauchamp Publishing Co., 28 March 1928)
Not surprisingly, Beauchamp confirmed Armstrong’s faith in the superiority of Judah’s Sceptre and Joseph’s Birthright.
Not two months later Armstrong had become determined to make his own mark on the already saturated BI market. He discussed a book idea with his minister friend Andrew Dugger and also sent another letter to Beauchamp the publisher:
I wonder if there is not a real need, as well as a ready market, for a new book on the Anglo-Israel subject?… The book I have in mind would follow, in great measure, the line of thought and proof offered by Allen. I would endeavor to keep it as dependable and as sound in its arguments as Allen’s. But the ground covered by Allen would be covered in boiled-down form, condensed where possible…. The book would be written, moreover, in an entirely different style….
If you believe there is a need and a market for such a book, and you would care to consider the possibility of undertaking to publish it, then I should like to go into the matter further and in more detail with you (Armstrong to Beauchamp, 4 May 1928, HWAP, #873) (Ibid.).
Beauchamp declined this pathetic self-selling attempt on the grounds that there was not, in fact, a “real need” or a “ready market” for a new BI book, especially not one that “would follow, in great measure the line of thought and proof” of one that had already attained great success. Why would anyone buy a book they already owned in a different form?
But Armstrong was unfazed. He simply had to make something of himself (or starve trying). So he went to his second choice of publisher (as he had put it to Beauchamp, rather douchebaggily, this particular publishing house was “not equipped to turn out as up-to-date and attractive a job as I feel will be necessary.”). This publisher was, of course, Andrew Dugger, who initially responded with encouragement.
In January of ’29, Armstrong began work on his BI manuscript, sending it in increments to Dugger for review. By July of that year Dugger had read 20 chapters. At this time he wrote to Armstrong:
You have put much work on this and I am impressed to write you now while the matter is fresh on my mind…. I have seen no work near its equal in clearness and completeness. You surely are right, and while I cannot use it in the paper at the present you may be sure that your labor has surely not been in vain…. There is a purpose in your having gone into this matter so deeply… and you will hear more from these truths and the light herein revealed later (A. N. Dugger to Herbert W Armstrong, 28 July 1929, The Autobiography of Herbert W. Armstrong, 1967 ed., 406).
Armstrong would much later assert in his autobiography that his early attempts to get himself published in The Bible Advocate were actually his way of “testing” CoG (Seventh Day) to see whether they would accept and teach God’s Truth™ on BI (as laid out by Armstrong). Yeah, right, Herbert. As Orr puts it:
Despite what Armstrong would claim, it is difficult to understand Armstrong’s mailing the manuscript to Dugger just as a test of the Church of God (Seventh Day). This is because Burt Marrs, not Dugger, was then the president of the General Conference. If Armstrong were simply testing the church, he should have mailed his manuscript to Marrs. Perhaps they could have brought up the subject at the next conference meeting. But the mailing was more than a test. Armstrong was looking for a publisher, and Dugger was responsible for the church’s press.
Well, Dugger failed Armstrong’s real “test” by ultimately deciding, although he agreed with what Armstrong wrote therein, he would not (for reasons he did not explain) be able to publish Armstrong’s book at that time (Ibid.). Patience is apparently not a virtue for an egomaniac in a hurry: Herbert wanted aggrandizement and he wanted it NOW!
Delusions of Grandeur
What was behind all of this feverish self-promotion? Was it a stubborn “stick-to-it-ive-ness,” a plucky drive to succeed? No.
Herbert Armstrong was special, far too special to stoop to the level of a normal, workaday job like the rest of us poor schmucks. Orr writes that “Armstrong became totally absorbed in his writing. Though his family was suffering severely from his lack of employment, nothing else mattered as much as completing that book. Though this was before the Great Depression, Armstrong described these months as a time of economic ‘desperation’. (Ibid.)”
He supposedly discovered his lofty status when a “mysterious woman” showed up at his door while he was “working” on his manuscript. He discussed this encounter in his autobiography:
We had reached another crisis of hunger and desperate need. Again I prayed earnestly for God to either send us some money or provide a way for me to earn it…An hour or two later, a strange woman knocked on our front door. Mrs. Armstrong opened the door. There was something mysterious about the woman’s appearance. Who was she? She did not introduce herself. She gave no inkling of her identity.
“If your husband isn’t too proud to do it,” she said in a low, quiet voice, “there are two truckloads of wood he can throw in at this address.”… The mysterious woman walked quickly away and disappeared…. We were totally perplexed as to the identity of this strange woman. How did she know we were in such desperate need? Who was she? We never knew….
No matter who this mysterious woman was, I knew God sent her! And I realized instantly that God was answering my prayer his way, and not mine. I knew he was giving me a test to see whether I could accept a humiliating job (The Autobiography of Herbert W. Armstrong, 1973 edition, 330–31).
One has to wonder what job he wouldn’t have found “humiliating.” It isn’t as though he was looking for work. Notice what he wrote in a February 1929 letter to fellow CoG (Seventh Day) “brother,” G.A. Hobbs: “I am writing for Bro. Dugger about [BI]…. I have spent all the time I had for writing on that.” In the same letter he revealed his strange interpretation of a neighbor’s charity:
We simply reached the end of the rope about a week ago, and I decided the time had come to [Get a job? No…] fast and pray until I received a definite answer from the Lord. I received it. Will explain how when I see you, but the answer was to go ahead with this work as hard as I can and trust the Lord to take care of us. All our immediate needs have been taken care of. In fact, we were out of wood, and it came to our front door from a most unexpected source even while I was yet praying for it. I was made to see clearly that I have been given a commission to get this warning message out with the loud shout to the world. The true, full message never has been carried at all, much less with the shout. I don’t see how I am to do it. The Lord will open the way, and I must simply trust him and look to him for guidance. The means will be provided and the way opened, I am sure (Armstrong to Brother Hobbs, 6 February 1929, HWAP, #850, emphasis mine).
It apparently never occurred to him to look for work, nor did it occur to him that his family had been provided for not by his personal divine promoter in the sky, but by a neighbor who likely noticed the pathetic condition of his children. She obviously also noticed his own pathetic condition, as is made clear by her statement, “If your husband isn’t too proud to do it…” Because we all know that stacking wood is below the station of an unemployed advertising genius. Did he even thank her? Probably not. She was just a tool after all, an instrument in the hands of an imaginary god whose only purpose was to prop up the ego of a self-important fool and negligent father. Orr writes:
Armstrong had seen no vision. He dreamt no dream. He heard no voice. There was only the woman at the door with an offer for him to stack wood. Yet, whose prayers had God answered? Armstrong’s? His wife’s? His children’s? All of the above? To those who were hungry it does not matter. That offer to chop wood kept the Armstrongs from starving and enabled Herbert Armstrong to continue to write [instead of working]. That was all it took to convince him that he had a unique calling.
Escapees from the Armstrongist sub-cult, PCG, should be familiar with the unwholesome practice of self-styled “prophets'” plagiarizing supposedly specially revealed messages to the faithful and claiming to have gotten them from God. As it turns out, Flurry was indeed following in the old man’s footsteps in this regard (if not so much in others) when he copied down Malachi’s Message from an earlier manuscript sent to him by its author, Jules Dervaes, through registered mail two years before Flurry started getting his “revelation.” Flurry’s “spiritual father,” Armstrong, proved to be similarly unscrupulous with regard to literary theft.
The indefatigable Herbert Armstrong continued to work on the manuscript that would become The United States and Britain in Prophecy, and by 1930 he began distributing it among any who showed an interest in reading it. In this work were a few ideas that were original with Armstrong, and some that were a synthesis of ideas he had come across in his reading of Adventist materials. The main concept Armstrong contributed to the BI myth was a contrived connection between the question of identity and the commandment to keep the Sabbath, based upon an unconventional interpretation of Ezekiel:
Armstrong’s transformation of Ezekiel into a warning for America is unique in all Anglo-Israelism. It may be the one significant addition he made to the belief. As such, it became an effective tool in calling people…to the Sabbath…In making the Ezekiel connection, Armstrong repeated the error made by many prophecy expositors. He ignored Ezekiel’s plain words, which identified to whom he was writing and about when God would fulfill his prophecies. Training in proper hermeneutical tools would have been helpful (Ibid.).
Besides this contentious exegesis and a few insignificant details, Armstrong’s book was in large part a duplication of J.H. Allen’s Judah’s Sceptre and Joseph’s Birthright, written in 1902. A multitude of entire passages from US&BiP are nearly word-for-word facsimiles of their counterparts in JS&JB. Often Armstrong repeats in exacting detail the analogies used by Allen, or closely models Allen’s original phrases, and he generally follows Allen’s arrangement of the relevant material. These instances of plagiarism are recounted comprehensively elsewhere (for example here and here).
It is clear that BI was not revealed to Armstrong if he copied it from other writers, but the full truth is worse: Armstrong didn’t just copy their words; he copied their errors. In Part Three, we will explore these errors when we handily disprove the spurious claims of British Israelism. Stay tuned…