This is a subject that I’ve been wanting to write about for some time now. In fact, I started writing the article several months ago but it’s taken me a bit longer to get all of the pieces assembled than I thought it would. The subject? The slow but inevitable decline of the religious movement known as Armstrongism (my former religion and possibly yours). The irony should not escape us, considering that decline appears to be their favorite subject. For over 75 years, the general theme of Armstrongism has been “Nation in Decline” (regarding America, Britain and other western nations). Today, I’d like to focus on the tragic irony of this theme.
I’ll be discussing the factors that ultimately led to the success of the movement in the first place and those which have led to its steady decline in recent years. I’d like to take a look at the most “successful” splinters of Armstrongism, to see how they’ve succeeded at all. Lastly, I will hypothesize on the bleak future that will be faced by so many people still caught up in the grip of these cults.
This is a subject of great importance to those with friends and family still stuck in these cults. Understanding the decline of these groups will enable us to help these people when they need help the most. To be there for them when their religious “support system” no longer operates. But first, a look back at how it all started…
The Early Days
Before we can look at the future of Armstrongism, let us first look to the past. Let us observe the conditions that gave rise to the movement, and for a time, allowed it to thrive. The year was 1934. The primary methods of mass communication were print and radio. At this stage, radio broadcasts still carried a semblance of authority. Broadcasts were taken seriously by many people (especially those in rural areas) as a source for news from the outside world. (the War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast is clear evidence forthis). The air of authority assumed by broadcasters, coupled with the widespread proliferation of radios in American homes during this time, was the “perfect storm” that would allow for the formation of a new religious movement. The only thing lacking was someone ambitious enough to make it all work.
By the early part of the 1930’s such a man emerged. His name was Herbert Armstrong (HWA), a man who – according to his Autobiography – was at first overly ambitious, cocky, self-confident and conceited. (Perhaps later, we can debate the level of conceit required for him to write his 1300+ page autobiography). By January of 1934, Herbert and his Radio Church of God took to the airwaves.
Building an Empire
The early days of the Radio Church were touch and go, for a while. Eric Hoffer wrote: “A rising religious movement is all change and experiment” and so it was with Herbert. Despite his personal flaws, here was a man who had real vision and tenacity. It’s actually easy to admire him from a business standpoint when you consider how fast the Radio Church of God grew. He ran his church like a Fortune 500 CEO. He wasn’t just your average snake oil salesman. He wasn’t only selling superstition, he was selling himself. This was the first factor in the success of Armstrongism: Herbert became the product. He had a talent for marketing. He had panache. He had a way with the microphone. He had more flair than the average bible-thumping, sensationalist preacher. In no time at all, business was booming.
Like any good businessman, Herbert utilized these talents to create a thriving empire of his own. Like any earthly nation, his needed its own form of government. One which could best suit the needs of the businessman who’d constructed it. In the case of Herbert Armstrong, there could be only one: Autocracy. This constitutes the second factor in the success of Armstrongism: the iron fist of dictatorship.
The “Called Out” Ones
There is a third and equally important factor to be considered. The success of Armstrongism required a specific type of believer to begin with. One who would fully commit (perhaps I should say submit) to the ideals of the group. People who would unquestioningly and unflinchingly dedicate their time and money when called upon. Herein lies the third factor in the success of Armstrongism: The recruitment and retention of the ideal member.
Prior to attending services, each prospective member (PM) was subject to several ministerial screenings. They were asked a lengthy series of questions before being allowed to join. In many cases, they would be asked to make serious life changes (such as quitting smoking, or giving up a job) to be able to attend. The tithing doctrine was explained to them and their reactions gauged. The church was actively seeking out a certain type of member. If the PM didn’t make the cut, the minister could simply exit gracefully with the age-old: “We’ll be in touch!” The ones who’d passed inspection were led to believe that they’d been specifically called by God. Right from the start, they were at their most devoted.
The Culling of the Flock
Recruitment, was only one side of the coin. Once the new member was in place, great effort was made to keep them attending and to keep them loyal. The WCG was undeniably a very successful church in its day. If the numerous co-worker letters are to be believed, the WCG grew at a steady rate of 30% a year. It would be great if these claims were verifiable, (especially attrition totals) sadly, they are not.
What we do know is that during the entire reign of Herbert Armstrong, there was no shortage of members who became unhappy and left the cult. Whether they took issue with doctrines like “Divorce and Remarriage” and the makeup ban for women, or, because they became disillusioned with HWA’s heavy-handed leadership, people were always leaving. The never-ending battle waged by those in power was one of damage-control: a constant search for the disaffected, a race to find these “rotten apples” and stop the spread of the infection before it could reach others.
In the end, the tactics of selective recruiting & culling the herd left the deck stacked highly in Armstrong’s favor. As the years progressed, the group grew to become something more than just a religion. Eventually, it became a Cult of Personality.
The Cult of Personality
The death-blow to Armstrongism was dealt on January 16th, 1986 with the passing of Herbert Armstrong. That it was a death-blow, was not immediately apparent. The church administration still had a corporation to run, the ministry still had a flock to tend to, and the members still had the “return of Christ” to prepare for. There was only one small problem… For the first time since 1934, the machine was missing its most vital component. The GCI website puts it this way:
In 1986, shortly before he died, Herbert Armstrong appointed Joseph Tkach (pronounced Ta-cotch) to be his successor. Tkach had been a loyal administrator who supervised all the ministers. He did not have the magnetic personality that Armstrong did, and he assigned other people to present the television program and write the articles.
Fast-forward 25 years: Since the death of Armstrong, the church he founded has disintegrated into hundreds of splinter groups. Groups that grow smaller with each passing year. Yet his adherents maintain a strong reverence for Herbert. Certain groups even mandate that prospective members must acknowledge HWA as the “end time Elijah” before they can attend. They ignore his flaws left and right. They make excuses for his numerous failed prophecies. They replay his various sermons, ad-nauseum. It’s the closest thing to idol worship I’ve ever seen. Not only does this validate the Cult of Personality theory, it indicates that HWA’s death was the impetus for the decline of Armstrongism in general.
The Winds of Change
The years following the death of HWA are similar to those following the death of another dictator with a cult of personality. Following the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, change was nowhere in sight. However, by 1955 the Soviets were entering a period later known as the Khrushchev Thaw. During this time, the iron grip of Stalin was eased and massive changes were implemented within the USSR. Contrast this with the new WCG administration in the years following 1986: With both Tkach & Krushchev, there were initial purges of political/ministerial enemies, followed by a period of ever-increasing change. By 1956 Krushchev gives his famous Secret Speech denouncing Joseph Stalin. In 1994 Tkach gives his “Russian Christmas Present” sermon renouncing the old beliefs.
The parallels between these two events are quite evident. Tkach & Krushchev both set out to change their organizations as much as they possibly could. In the case of both the USSR & the WCG, those changes had unintended consequences that forever changed the lives of millions of people and, arguably, for the better.
Armstrongism & Communism
The similarities between Armstrongism and Communism do not end with Russia. The comparison can easily be made today between the largest remaining communist nations and the larger of the Armstrongite cults. Communist China could easily be compared to UCG (and more recently, COG-WA): While China is still Communist by name, their policies have changed so much as to make them almost unrecognizable to Communists of decades past. UCG too has changed dramatically from Armstrongism of yesterday. It is not uncommon for new UCG members to have never heard of Herbert Armstrong. Similarly, visit their “About UCG” page and you’ll see that HWA is naught but a footnote.
The next largest nations, Cuba and North Korea, easily compare to the next largest COG splinters. For one thing, both countries have brutal, autocratic governments: Cuba has Castro: An athletic man in his younger years, who found his purpose later in life, one that led to a violent revolution. Later, as his health began to fade, he reluctantly handed the reins of power over to his closest living relative, in a charming (if not familiar) display of nepotism. North Korea, has Kim Jong Il: a xenophobic despot of questionable sanity, sitting within a fenced-in-compound of a nation, reveling in his delusions of grandeur, his love of fine wines, and always collecting new and ever more grandiose titles for himself.
All Results Not Typical
Remember, these are comparisons to the largest Armstrongite splinters, groups that are unique for being successful at all. Most Armstrongite churches are considerably smaller and probably contain 100 people or less. The last Holy Day I attended with COG-FF (a fairly well-known group with a substantial web-presence) had barely 100 people in attendance. Even this pitiful number is likely to be much larger than the majority of Armstrongite groups. Why have the vast majority of these cults utterly failed? Put simply, none of these groups have been able to replicate the success of the original WCG. (1) They all lack a dynamic leader like Armstrong (playing tapes or videos of him is not a solution to this problem), (2) An autocratic form of government is difficult to maintain when the group lacks a strong & charismatic leader with whom the members are enamored, (3) The selection of splinters to choose from provides the membership with considerably more options than were ever available to those in the WCG. Instead of a single “one true church”, the members now have 700+ “one true churches” that they can choose from, should they become unhappy with their current group. Or, if push comes to shove, they can simply form their own church. Many have done just that.
Everyone is Doing it!
Just how difficult is it to start a new church? Not very. Here’s what the Armstrongist tree of splinters looked like, circa 1997 (source):
That’s a lot of splintering. But notice that only three of these flocklets boast memberships exceeding 3,000. The vast majority surely possess far below that number (and probably not much more than that number in aggregate). It can be estimated that, by 1995, some 25,000 (or, by some accounts, 50% of the membership) had left WCG to join or start splinter groups since Armstrong’s death. Safely assuming that almost all of the splinters’ members are former WCG affiliates, we can derive a number of at least 9,000 (but certainly more–we know for a fact that one single group snatched up about 12,000 WCG attendees) who left for the three major groups. This wildly conservative estimate leaves only 16,000 to divide up among the approximately 50 or so smaller groups, yielding an average of about 300 per group. This is the economic environment wherein the disaffected and ambitious heretics fall all over each other trying to snipe sheep a few at a time from the rolls of the more established juggernauts. And yet they have little reason to be daunted in their efforts (provided they don’t require a large following). Armstrongism has become an increasingly diversifying market, a smorgasbord of variously Armstrongist options in which the barriers to entry are exceedingly low. In fact, it doesn’t even take a bricks-and-mortar operation to constitute a splinter group.
Anyone with a computer, internet access and a little startup capital can pastor his own E-flock. Once the Articles of Incorporation have been filed (perhaps using Legal Zoom), the new splintrepreneur need only create a website (don’t forget that “Donate” button!), write a statement of beliefs, work a little SEO magic and then they can just sit back and watch the hits roll in! The doctrines are already written (have been for 30+ years now) and require only minor modifications to distinguish this “one true” clone from the others. Long gone are the days of the ordained ministry hogging the podium. Now, anyone can “spread the gospel”. It’s like some insane infomercial: “Are you tired of being forever stuck on sermonette rotation? Have your long years of faithful song-leading, sound-crew jockeying, door greeting, seat-reserving, coffee brewing and bringing the minister his water not paid off with an ordination of your own? It’s just not fair! Well congratulations, good and faithful servant, your ship has finally come in! Just fire up this website and start writing. Now you too can have a piece of the pie!“
But the market is surely on the verge of saturation. What these fly-by-night mini-gurus don’t realize (or care about) is that there is only so much of that pie to go around. To carry the analogy a little further, it’s a shepherds pie, and the shepherds will soon outnumber the sheep…
You Can’t Stop the Signal
In addition to the three factors of success that I mentioned earlier, I believe that there is one other factor essential to the original success of Armstrongism. The fourth factor: The control of information. In the golden age of Armstrongism, there was no such thing as the Internet. Dissenters were reduced to word of mouth to spread their message. Print runs on books like David Robinson’s: Tangled Web and others were ineffectual in the grand scheme of things. Even the much vaunted Ambassador Report was severely constrained by finances, a problem not shared by the WCG.
We, today, do not have that problem. We have the Internet. The information age has proven to be a powerful tool in combating the control of information. Try though they might, Armstrongite ministers are not stopping members from going online. Ex-COG sites are sprouting up left and right, in many cases, created by younger members. In just the past year or two, sites like Armstrong Delusion & Silenced have come online – both run by ex-members in their twenties and thirties. It appears that the days of COGs controlling information have come to an end. They’ve lost that fight, among others. To quote from one of my favorite movies: “You can’t stop the signal.” The truth will be heard. And that truth will promote further splintering and reductions in membership.
The Tampa Bay Microcosm
Even going by the possibly inflated attendance numbers provided by the cult itself, we are able to track a precipitous loss of membership. But perhaps the best way to view directly the full scope of the decline of Armstrongism would be to look at what happened to one of the largest and most successful church areas in the original WCG.
During the 1980’s, one such place was St. Petersburg, Florida. For one thing, every time the Feast was held there, the festival coordinators would receive more transfer requests than they were ever able to accommodate. It was a popular location, with a temperate fall climate, pristine beaches, close proximity to Disney World, Busch Gardens and numerous other attractions. Presumably also for these reasons, Tampa Bay had a larger concentration of WCG members than did many other regions across the United States. By 1986 there was a total of four congregations spread out over a relatively small area (the two outlying churches were less than 70 miles apart).
In addition to the 500+ people meeting weekly in St. Pete, there were three other congregations of similar size meeting in Sarasota, Lakeland and Tampa each week. Combined, this put the population of WCG members living in Tampa Bay at around 1,600 people. Twenty-five years later the question becomes: where did they all go?
Scattered to the Four Winds
Tracking down 1,600 people is no easy task, especially given the passage of time. It is, however, a safe bet that many of them are no longer connected with Armstrongism. Hard data is tough to acquire, but I’ll start with what I do know: the largest Armstrongite congregation remaining in Tampa Bay was UCG as of two years ago. When I last spoke to a friend who attended, they numbered at around 150 people. This, however, was before the UCG/COG-WA split, so that number has probably changed. LCG also has a congregation in Tampa. I have no information on their attendance figures, though I’m pretty sure they are less than UCG. When I was in the Tampa congregation of the PCG (at its peak) we almost never had more than 50-60 in attendance. Of those, a dozen or so left when my parents did. Furthermore, according to sources within the PCG, the Tampa congregation has been moved and possibly merged with another congregation (presumably due to declining attendance in both areas).
All told, the three largest splinter groups combined have an estimated total of only 350 members in Tampa Bay. Let’s assume an additional 150 members scattered among the smaller splinter cults (generous estimates, both) and we’re still left with 1,100 missing members – almost 70%.
The Ever Dwindling Flock
Again, exact numbers are impossible to obtain, but if we consider Tampa Bay as representative of the greater WCG (circa 1986), we can reach a pretty astounding conclusion: Armstrongism is quickly fading. When a belief system loses nearly 70% of its adherents over the course of 25 years, it simply cannot survive. This is the ugly truth faced by these groups: it is they, and not the world, who are in decline.
The last Armstrongite church I attended was COG-FF. For the five years I attended, I noticed a steady decline in attendance. Each fall, I’d pack up and fly off to the Feast only to learn that more friends had left. By 2009 (my last Feast), the meeting hall resembled a ghost town. It was depressing to say the least. (I was told that Festival attendance for 2010 & 2011 was even smaller still).
They are a dying church, and they are not alone. Many are starting to see the futility of it all, many are starting to have doubts. More and more are leaving Armstrongism each year. Some are returning to mainstream Christianity. Others, like myself, are becoming Atheists. Some hold out hope, but leave to attend the larger of the corporate splinter churches, others cling to the beliefs and just stop attending with a group. Whatever the case, the prognosis is anything but good for those they leave behind.
Prodigal Sons & Daughters
In reality, the majority of Armstrongite groups have more in common with retirement homes than anything else. The elderly are warming the majority of the seats, while the youth are jumping ship faster than the lifeboats can be lowered. Facebook groups and forums are filled to the brim with ex-members in the 18-35 age bracket. More are starting to question things every day. Perhaps they see the futility of spending their lives in a dying religion? How many more years will they sit and watch as the “Great Tribulation” creeps ever closer, and is perpetually postponed? They will slowly start to realize that their best years are being utterly wasted. They are beginning to see the lie for what it is. They, the youth of a modern age, see the growing disconnect between our society and the backward, homophobic and racist doctrines of Armstrongism. They won’t sit there forever.
Once the future of the cult, they are now abandoning it in droves. Unlike the biblical parable, I suspect that these prodigal sons won’t be returning in any large numbers. In light of this undeniable reality, how can Armstrongism continue to sustain losses of this nature and still survive the 21st century? Put simply, it cannot.
Considering everything that you’ve just read, the next question seems obvious: Where does it end? If the 70% figure for Tampa Bay is accurate and we apply it to the aggregate, we can surmise that Armstrongism will probably not survive to the 23rd Century. As more and more elderly members succumb to the passage of time, and as more and more of the youth flee the cults, the state of decline will reach fever pitch. If the movement loses another 70% of its membership, at the same assumed rate as the last 25 years, they will be gone well before the close of the 23rd Century. Again, if the 70% reduction is accurate, then by the year 2036 (another 25 years), the cults will be down to 9% of their original strength (1986 numbers). By 2061, that number will fall to only 2.7%, and by 2086 they will be down to 0.81%.
Yes, you read that right. If my estimates are accurate and we assume a steady rate of decline, by the year 2086, Armstrongism will have shrunk to less than one percent of their 1986 attendance figures. In absolute numbers (and assuming the self-reported attendance statistics are accurate), that’s a reduction from around 120,000 to less than 1,000 individuals worldwide! According to this rather generous projection, there will be not one Armstrongist left by 2236.
If that sounds too long to wait, consider that this is likely an overly rosy trajectory. It’s quite possible that compounding effects of shrinkage (like the loss of administrative manpower and financial incapacitation among competing sects, and the persuasive effects of apostate family members on clinging individuals) will accelerate the hemorrhaging of true believers to well beyond the proposed 70% rate. There will most certainly come a point (definitely before 2236) at which further cannibalization among splinters will become impossible, as so few will still be viable. It goes without saying that Armstrongism, already finding it difficult to recruit members from outside the constellation of Armstrongist cults, will grow less and less attractive to the wider world. It will progressively become a belief system imploding in on itself as it passes the event horizon of history’s black hole.
During this time, groups will continue to fracture. Power struggles will invariably arise. People will become more and more disillusioned with each passing year. In the end, those who remain will not even resemble the originals. The strongest then will resemble the strongest now: the group which has deviated the most from Armstrongism’s original form. It is inevitable. Soon or sooner, Armstrongism will cease to be.
The end of Armstrongism will not be heralded by the ringing of trumpets or great fanfare. It will simply come and go, as any other day, to be quietly and forever forgotten by history.
At least, that is, until the next Herbert Armstrong comes around. I can only hope that this future generation can learn from the lessons we had to endure–and in so doing, skip many of our trials…