When talking about my cult upbringing, people sometimes ask me what I would say to Herbert W. Armstrong if I were able to travel back in time and meet him. (He died in 1986 when I was 13)
My answer is always the same.
I would grab him by the lapels of his $2000 suit coat and shout in his face as loudly as I possibly could, “YOU STOLE MY POTENTIAL AND MADE ME AFRAID OF MY OWN FAMILY, ASSHOLE!” And then, depending on my ability to restrain myself, I might then, possibly, spit in his face.
But here’s the real kicker of the whole scenario… I don’t think that he would have had much of a reaction to our confrontation.
After all, we are talking about someone who, when confronted with accusations about his incestuous acts on his youngest daughter, never once denied them and is said to have even admitted abusing her to several people. (Source links available upon request)
The incest allegations notwithstanding, you can’t really call Herbert a “monster.” Looking at other cult leaders like Jim Jones, L. Ron Hubbard, and David Koresh, Herbert Armstrong looks almost harmless. So, really, what did he do that was so bad? I mean, after all, didn’t his organization donate money and labor to truly worthy causes all over the world? Didn’t his teachings promote things like eating healthy diets and strengthening the nuclear family? Who could have a problem with a guy like that?
Well, when you look at the backgrounds and behaviors of notorious cult leaders, a commonality becomes apparent. Those people share the distinction of recognizable acute mental illness. Herbert wasn’t diabolical or sadistic, he was just a charismatic and selfish (and/or greedy) narcissist. And that was the secret to his success and longevity. “Crazy” cult leaders burn themselves out (sometimes literally), but a “Con Man” cult leader can live to the ripe old age of 93 and die surrounded by millions of dollars’ worth of golden finery and his very own private jet.
Now let’s look at what he left behind besides the $80,000 golden chalices and a stack of writings, that if laid out page by page, end to end, could reach beyond the moon.
He left millions of isolated, confused, and fearful people with little or no financial stability or plans for the future aside from going to “the Place of Safety” in order to hide from “the Great Tribulation” (aka “Armageddon”). Each of those people had been encouraged to cut ties with their “unconverted” family members and friends. They lived in a world where their only real support structure was The Worldwide Church of God and the followers of the teachings of Armstrongism.
Even though “the church” was VERY big on family, it had an ability to destroy families that statistically rivaled substance abuse and infidelity. A bizarre doctrine known to Armstrongers as “D and R” (Divorce and Remarriage) was arguably one of the worst offenses that the church ever committed.
It was a position that made, at least a little bit of sense, on paper.
If a man and woman made an oath before God to belong only to each other until separated by death, then they should be held to those terms. So, if a woman divorced her abusive husband and then years later married another man who treated her with nothing but love and respect, their otherwise legal marriage could be ruled invalid by the Worldwide Church of God, and the couple would have to separate if they wanted to escape the horrors of “the End Times.” It was not uncommon for children to have loving and safe two-parent homes ripped apart because of the ill-informed judgments of a man and his ministers.
And then you have families like mine.
Now, I’m not naïve to think that were it not for my mother’s indoctrination into the WCG that my parents would have remained happily married. The most likely would have divorced at some point anyway. All of my parent’s siblings divorced at least once, so I’m sure my mother and father would have split up as well. But WCG doctrine made the idea of her ever getting remarried iffy at best. Moreover, my actual father was considered “spiritually dead” and despised by God for rejecting Armstrong’s “true gospel” teachings when they were shared with him. (More on that in a page or so)
Now add to the surgically precise and sterile removal of my father’s influence (or any hope for a future step father to take his place) from my life, the endless preaching that my unconverted family members were, at their core, people who hated the “truth” about God’s Plan and would constantly be inspired by demons to pull me away from God’s divine protection so that I would fight for the side of Satan.
For reference, think of the movie, The Matrix. When you were in the matrix, each and every person you encountered, who wasn’t a part of Morpheus’ group, could at any moment turn into an Agent and kill you. According to the cult of Armstrong, any person who wasn’t under God’s protection could conceivably be a demon (or under a demon’s control) and actively seeking to pull you away from God’s protection.
Now let’s follow that to the logical conclusion that myself and many other children raised in this belief structure came to.
Your unconverted family members, school mates, and basically anyone you don’t go to church with (and possibly some of the one’s you do go to church with) might be a demon intent on tempting you to do something that would make God mad enough to exclude you from being among the protected.
But then it gets worse.
You see, in Armstrongist belief, the people who never knew the truth will eventually be instructed by God’s chosen people on the true purpose and plan that God has for them. It’s fine just as long as you never knew that you about the rules you were breaking. HOWEVER, if you had been shown the truth and then rejected it, well….
All I can say is that it sucks to be you.
The good news is that you aren’t going to hell - because there is no hell. The bad news is that there is a “Lake of Fire” (no, it’s not like the one in the Meat Puppets song) and you’ve got a one-way ticket straight in.
No written warning, no second chances.
You’ve got to get it right the first time or God will judge you to be as evil as the demons who lead you astray.
Let me make this crystal clear for you.
Adolf Hitler gets a second chance because (presumably) was never able to receive Herbert Armstrong’s broadcasts or publications. God is going to show him mercy.
Me, on the other hand, I’m beyond forgiveness. I had the ultimate blessing of being born into God’s true church. I was given unlimited access to information about God’s true plan. I lived among God’s chosen people. I “kept” (observed) God’s true holy days and followed his laws and commands – and then I rejected all of it (for several reasons I will go into later in another post) and walked away forever.
So let’s recap.
Family is super duper important to God, but some people aren't allowed to have one because that would break God's rules.
My entire family, aside from my mom and my sister, everyone at my school, and basically anyone I meet who isn’t a cult member is potentially a demon with the intent of making me a servant of the Prince of Darkness.
Adolf Hitler gets a mulligan and a private tutor from among God’s chosen faithful servants, but if I leave the cult, I am damned to burn because (unless, of course I change my mind and return to the cult BEFORE the Great Tribulation starts).
This seems like a good place to pause until next time.
I will be glad to answer any questions or address any comments you'd like to share below.
Or you can email me at Ripley@ripleyjohnson.com