OF RELIGION Field Guide to the

For more extensive coverage of Armstrong's life and ministry, see the  profile on the Field Guide site:
 History and Overview of the Ministry of Herbert Armstrong


In a Nutshell

Herbert W Armstrong (1892-1986) was a pioneer in religious broadcasting, and founder of the Worldwide Church of God denomination. His Plain Truth magazine and World Tomorrow radio and TV programs reached audiences of millions during the heyday of his ministry.



The Rest of the Story


Herbert W. Armstrong (HWA) was born in 1892. He married his first wife, Loma, in 1917.

Loma became interested in the doctrine of the seventh day Sabbath in the early 1920s through a member of a small Sabbatarian denomination called the Church of God, Seventh Day (CG7). Loma's conviction that she needed to begin keeping the seventh day Sabbath spurred HWA to study into this doctrine. He also became convinced that the seventh day Sabbath was to be kept, and for a time during the late 1920s and early 1930s cooperated with the CG7 in a ministerial role.


Independent Ministry

In 1933 he launched his own personal evangelistic ministry with public meetings in Oregon and broadcasts on a small Oregon radio station.

In 1934 he began publishing a magazine he called the Plain Truth to send to listeners who responded to the program. The radio program was originally called "The Radio Church of God." In 1941 the name was changed to The World Tomorrow (likely inspired by the theme of the 1939/1940 New York World's Fair, "The World of Tomorrow.") By this time the program was broadcast over several  stations in Oregon, Washington, and California. And in 1942 it began to reach all 48 states via the 50,000 watt Des Moines, Iowa, radio station WHO.


Prophetic Focus

Although he did address a variety of doctrines and topics in both the magazine and radio program, the main emphasis of both throughout most of his life was linking Bible prophecy to contemporary world events. The bombastic announcer introducing everyWorld Tomorrow program intoned that Armstrong was going to be speaking about "The Plain Truth about today's world news, and the prophecies of the World Tomorrow."

As early as the first issue of the Plain Truth magazine, he began predicting a specific time frame for the “Second Coming of Christ.” That time frame kept shifting as the years went by and previous predictions failed. Yet although he never declared one specific calendar date for the Return, he often dogmatically used terms such as "within the next five to seven years."


Financing the Ministry

By the mid-1940s, his radio program was reaching a wide audience throughout the United States. Initially paid for by a small group of supporters in his own area, he soon began building a network of what he called "Co-Workers" among dedicated listeners to the program who wrote to him requesting printed literature or asking questions. He prided himself that he never solicited funds on the air. Instead, he periodically informed those on his subscription list that, if they wished, they could be put on a separate mailing list to receive "Co-Worker Letters" that would inform them of the progress and the needs of the ministry. It was the tithes and offerings of this collection of Co-Workers which provided the financial backing for all of HWA's many projects.


Building a Church Organization

Because Armstrong's doctrinal package was in many ways at odds with standard Protestant theology, those who became convicted that he had "The Truth" soon found themselves uncomfortable attending the worship services of the churches in their hometown. Thus HWA realized during the 1940s that he would need to begin building a network of church congregations throughout the country which followed his doctrines.

He first dubbed this the "Radio Church of God (RCG)," later changing it in 1968 to the "Worldwide Church of God (WCG)." Although accurate membership records are not available, it appears from some of his comments in passing in old Co-Worker letters that the membership by 1960 was about 12,000. It is unclear how many of these were actually baptized members who attended a congregation of the RCG, and how many may have just been regular contributors.

In order to develop a ministry to serve this fledgling denomination, he solicited from his supporters funds to begin a college in the late 1940s. The first such "Ambassador College" campus was founded in Pasadena, California. Campuses were later added in Bricket Wood, England, and Big Sandy, Texas. Although designated "Liberal Arts" institutions rather than "seminaries," for many years Ambassador College functioned primarily to provide ministers ... and ministers' wives ... for the growing number of congregations around the U.S. and eventually around the world.


Building a Dynasty

HWA's eldest son, Richard David Armstrong, was one of the pioneers of the fledgling ministry. He was no doubt slated to take an ever-increasing role in the ministry of HWA, but his untimely death in 1958  left his younger brother, Garner Ted Armstrong (GTA), in the role of second-in-command to the elder Armstrong. By the mid-1960s, GTA was the primary speaker on the daily World Tomorrow program, a major contributor to the Plain Truth magazine, and an executive in the day-to-day running of the ministry. Eventually he was the spokesman on the weekly World Tomorrow television broadcast that was added—and for a short time even on daily television.


Going Worldwide

HWA had authored a collection of basic booklets up through the 1960s that formed the basis of the doctrinal teaching of the RCG. After the death of Loma Armstrong in 1967, he seldom contributed any new writing (other than letters and editorials) but rather turned his attention to a series of trips around the world to meet governmental leaders in foreign countries. Ambassador College had provided a growing staff of writers and administrative personnel to run the ministry and all of its media outreaches and denominational duties.


Church Government

Although in the early years of his ministry he had professed belief in a very "democratic" style of church organization, by the 1950s HWA had adopted an almost totally authoritarian, dictatorial style of leadership for his own role. And he had put in place a hierarchical system of church leadership under him that eventually micro-managed the activities of all local church congregations and, to a large extent, even the lives of the church membership.


1960s: Heyday

The 1960s were the hey-day of the RCG/WCG. At one point, the organization was said to be purchasing more broadcast time than any other organization in the world. The radio broadcast was on so many super-power stations as well as local stations that it could be heard in most parts of the country several times in an evening between 8 PM and midnight.

The January 1969 Plain Truth magazine Radio Log shows 39 super-power stations heard widely across the US, as well as over 150 regional stations. That didn't include more than 40 in Canada, and over 25 stations around the world in Europe, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America.  The television broadcast was continually adding stations across the US and Canada, with the TV log in the January 1969 magazine showing 25. And by that same issue, the Plain Truth  had a circulation of over one and a half  million copies. Church membership was in the tens of thousands (reportedly over 100,000 by the time of HWA's death in 1986.) Congregations had been established in many cities throughout the country.


1970s: Decline

A downward spiral started in the early 1970s. HWA and his associates had strongly hinted for many years that the Church would be taken to a "Place of Safety" in 1972 prior to the beginning of the "Great Tribulation" prophesied in the Book of Revelation. When the date came and went without any miraculous fulfillment, disillusionment set in for many church members as well as those in leadership positions.

Questions about doctrine and procedures and ethics in the ministry that had been festering quietly for a number of years came to the fore and led to turmoil at the organization's headquarters. Rumors about sexual scandals involving Garner Ted Armstrong, and eventually Herbert Armstrong himself, added fuel to the fire.

Waves of disruption and defections came throughout the 1970s. A number of small split-off groups were formed by disenchanted members and ministers. And an "underground magazine" was launched in 1976 called The Ambassador Review, later the Ambassador Report, which began documenting alleged problems, improprieties and scandals regarding the administration of Ambassador College and the Worldwide Church of God.


Special Dispensation

Herbert Armstrong remarried in 1977 at age 85. Church doctrine for decades had forbidden a church member to remarry after a divorce until the death of the former spouse. If a prospective member was married to someone who had a living previous spouse, no matter how long ago the previous divorce had been, and no matter if the current marriage had small children, baptism was denied unless the prospective member ended the current marriage. Church policy  had also highly frowned on any sort of inter-racial marriage. But Armstrong flouted his own doctrines and married Ramona Martin,  a divorced church member less than half his age, with a living ex-husband, and whose father was a registered member of the Cherokee Indian tribe. This led to even more criticism among the membership.


Health Crisis

Shortly after the marriage, HWA had a serious heart attack and was not expected to live. Garner Ted Armstrong took over most of the administrative rule of the organization, and put in place many reforms to doctrines and procedures. By early 1978, however, HWA's health improved. He returned to leadership of the organization, removed GTA from all responsibilities and later that year disfellowshipped him from the Church. He rescinded the changes made by GTA and came down more firmly than ever with an authoritarian hand.


Organizational Crisis

His marriage to Ramona failed shortly after that, and ended in a scandalous divorce case in the early 1980s.

Garner Ted Armstrong started his own church organization, the Church of God, International (CGI) , in 1978 and was joined by several  hundred members and a few ministers from the WCG. Leery of GTA's reputation, many other ministers and members left the WCG around the same time, but did not affiliate with him.

A number of former WCG members brought a class-action suit in January 1979 against some of the WCG church administration for alleged financial improprieties. The ensuing court battle between the state of California and the WCG  lasted for almost two years, and was finally ended only when a Supreme Court decision hampered the ability of the state to prosecute a religious organization.


End of an Era

Herbert Armstrong died in 1986, leaving no clear leadership in place to continue his policies and vision. Although he did name a successor to his role as "Pastor General" of the Church, Joseph Tkach, Sr., Tkach had not been a long-time member of the top echelon of WCG leadership, and did not have the loyalty of many in positions of responsibility. When he began slowly making subtle changes to the doctrinal stance of the Church over the next few years, he further eroded his support base. A number of split-off groups continued to form during the next decade.

Tkach and his son, Joseph Tkach, Jr., continued to make changes to the WCG until a point in 1995 when it was obvious that their ultimate intent was to turn the organization into just another Protestant denomination. They downplayed or dropped almost all of the distinctive doctrines of the Church, including eventually the seventh day Sabbath. Thus in 1995 there was a major split in the denomination, and thousands left to form the largest split-off to that point, the United Church of God.

As the new millennium started, the WCG was a shadow of its former self, and had no connection at all with the beliefs and vision of its founder. All of the college campuses were gone, the church headquarters in Pasadena was in the process of being sold. Income was only a fraction of the amount coming in when HWA was alive. And most of its congregations had either switched to meeting on Sundays or were considering doing so in the near future.

And at the same time, many of those who had left the organization because they still believed much of the teachings of HWA were squabbling among themselves over who had inherited the "mantle" of HWA to carry on his Work. The number of small groups which trace their roots to the disintegration of the WCG now number into the many hundreds.

Twenty-five years after the death of Herbert W Armstrong, a Myth has grown up around his life and ministry that still strongly affects even the daily lives of many people. One question which most of the groups descended from the WCG have had to answer is:  Just what role should the memory of Herbert Armstrong play in the future of the group?  The answer to that question usually depends on whether the members of the group have a clear view of The Man, or have instead a misty view of The Myth.

Click here for a brief description of The Myth.

Click here for an overview of how The Myth affects former members and ministers of the WCG.


For a much more comprehensive look at the inner-workings of the WCG, and an update on the continuing disintegration of the legacy of Herbert Armstrong, see History and Overview of the Ministry of Herbert W Armstrong in the Worldwide Church of God profile on this Field Guide site.


For a fascinating look inside the mind of Herbert Armstrong, through excerpts from the collection of his bombastic Co-Worker letters spanning over 50 years, explore:

Herbert W Armstrong in his own words: The Myth & The Man…

Questions about the Myth–Answers from the Man



Unless otherwise noted, all original material on this Field Guide website
is © 2001-2011 by Pamela Starr Dewey.

Careful effort has been made to give credit as clearly as possible to any specific material quoted or ideas extensively adapted from any one resource. Corrections and clarifications regarding citations for any source material are welcome, and will be promptly added to any sections which are found to be inadequately documented as to source.

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Brief Biographical Sketch of

Herbert W. Armstrong