Friday, January 9, 2015

Book Review: Autobiography of Herbert W. Armstrong

Title: Autobiography of Herbert W. Armstrong
Author: Herbert W. Armstrong
Date: 1986
Publisher: Worldwide Church of God
ISBN: none; Amazon page here
Length: two 600-page volumes
Illustrations: photo inserts
Quote: “[I]t seemed that I owed [listeners and subscribers] an installment each month, in The Plain Truth...The Autobiography began appearing with the September 1957 issue.”
The Autobiography of Herbert W. Armstrong is ponderous partly because of the large clear print, but also because it’s a long story. Herbert W. Armstrong packed a lot of experiences into the years between 1892 and 1986; he kept his memory up to the end, and as he printed his memoirs in the magazine he edited, he left out very little, from the pranks little boys played on each other circa 1900 up through the last days of his life.
One question outsiders often wanted Armstrong to answer was, “Are you a Seventh-Day Adventist, and if not why not, and how can you tell?” Differences in the interpretations of the Bible found in Armstrong’s collected work and in the Seventh-Day Adventist Bible Commentary are remarkably technical and trivial. It would be easy to conclude that Armstrong was an ex-Adventist who thought a few bits of Bible prophecies might have referred to different events than the ones SDA’s usually link with them, but, as this book explains, that’s not the story. Armstrong began studying the Bible in a different church and reinvented the Adventist doctrinal “wheel” before he’d made contact with Adventists.
Some years before I was born, once again my father attempted to read the Bible on his own and make sense of everything in it...and his interpretation bore a remarkable resemblance both to the Adventists’ and to the Worldwide Church of God’s. When so many different people of intelligence and good will independently conclude that the Bible says the same things, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that those are what the Bible does say, so my understanding of the Bible is similar to theirs. And what the Bible plainly says is rather different from what is generally preached in mainstream churches. Scholars who have given equal weight to the need to examine what the Bible says, and the need to conform to the tradition of an organized group, tend to preach and practice bits of extrabiblical traditions that may directly disagree with the Bible.
Although I’ve never been a member of the Worldwide Church of God, although I was christened in one other church and later baptized in yet another one, my parents were involved with WCOG in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when I was a little girl and we spent a lot of time near church headquarters in California. Herbert W. Armstrong was the preacher who told us that Christmas wasn’t Christian. I've never argued with his facts but don't always agree with his view of what those facts mean for us. Still, I can say firsthand that this was a legitimate church, with no “cultlike” quality, whose history and doctrines deserve to be studied by Christians of all denominations.
You’ve heard that WCOG was “plagued by scandals” at the time when my parents knew these people. There were two scandals, and the Autobiography of Herbert W. Armstrong discusses both at length:
1. During an IRS audit, Armstrong’s collecting valuable gift items for leaders of countries where he proselytized was challenged, but found legitimate.
2. Garner Ted Armstrong left his father’s church and started a separate ministry with a separate congregation. The Armstrongs, father and son, had not disagreed about religious doctrines; their differences had to do with parental authority, and with impropriety, if not immorality, in GTA’s relationships with a few of the older ladies in the church. (GTA was often called handsome, and certainly liked to flirt. Whether he did anything worse may never be known.)
Read this review and get a free sermon...I personally didn’t want to know about any “unresolved emotional conflicts” that might have caused GTA to take adulterous interests in women because they were much older than his wife and himself. That’s not the sort of thing I think Christians need to know about one another. Since GTA was definitely not a pedophile, I was not affected by his “emotional conflicts,” if any, and didn’t need to hear things that should have been kept between the people directly involved.
There are more than 1400 allegedly Christian denominations in the United States. When asked why he didn’t join a church, my father used to cite this statistic as evidence that the differences among these denominations originated in petty personal disputes and he didn’t want to take sides with any of them. I think some of the denominations did, at least originally, separate from others over legitimate disagreements about doctrine, some of which are even significant, and some denominations are more biblically based than others, but indisputably there are groups whose separate identity originated in a dispute between people who would have done better to seek reconciliation with one another. The Armstrongs’ father/son conflict was such a dispute; I think the subsequent history of the splintered WCOG shows that their conflict hurt both men and both of their congregations.
As an adult I’ve remained part of my ancestral cultural tradition, as a “Bible Christian.” I don’t attend church regularly for several reasons; the most obvious one is that my body tolerates neither bread nor wine. I still have connections with, and sympathy toward, members of several denominations including Baptists, Methodists, SDA’s, the WCOG, the Church of Christ, Quakers, Mennonites, Episcopalians, and a group that used to be known as the Lord’s Covenant Church. I’ve found it harder to relate to the beliefs of Universalist, Catholic, and Pentecostal Holiness friends. In any case I’ve observed some things about religious groups that do and don’t fall apart.
Groups that last preserve a clear identity. Without that distinct identity, groups probably should merge and fade into other groups. When the groups are defined as Christian, in the absence of real differences of belief, separations between them may be merely functional (e.g. meeting in different times and places), or based in unsanctified personal disputes.
Sometimes the distinct identity of a group involves lifestyle choices that may or may not make sense to anyone else. Religious groups have adopted rules forbidding members to wear clothes that fastened with buttons, because, two hundred years ago, decorative buttons were the insignia of a social group to which they did not belong; or mandating ringless wedding ceremonies, because, two hundred years ago, members sold their rings to raise money for mission projects; or cut their hair, or let it grow, or tie it back, or have it curled or straightened, because some hairstyle used to be identified with some social group at some time in the past. The claim that these groups shouldn’t have imposed these rules on all members has both scriptural and psychological validity, but once the rules have been adopted, it’s hard to relax the rules without losing the group’s founding and senior members, and thus losing its identity.
As late as the 1960s some “conservative churches,” including WCOG, seemed to be in competition to see which group could impose the strictest rules. Now many of these groups seem to be in competition to see which group can discard most rules fastest. Some rules (I think of an Adventist congregation that required male members to identify with the right element in their community by wearing “a short full beard if able”) may need to be discarded, but I’m underwhelmed when formerly “conservative” groups rush to discard prohibitions on drinking, gambling, and fornication, or employ preachers who don’t believe the group’s central doctrines.
As I read his autobiography, I’m struck by the difference between the judgmentality sometimes associated with Armstrong and the humility and spirituality in his actual words. He was not one of those hairy fire-and-brimstone evangelists who used to terrify children with shrieking judgments on all their innocent little games. I could describe him as a kind, generous, and also outgoing, opinionated, and excitable old man. Italics and capital letters in his book reflect the way he talked. He didn’t rant and rave, but he took his ideas very seriously.
I never could go along with his belief that all use of the imagination to invent stories, fantasize, visualize, or create “fancy sketches” (drawings not from real life) was “wicked imagination” that wouldn’t appeal even to children who really cared about the Truth. Maybe it’s the wickedness in me...I thought this was a stupid idea when I was five years old, and I think so still.
Apparently other people, evidently less gifted with imagination, have hung up on other points in the WCOG’s admittedly pointy, even bristly, mass of doctrine. What’s wrong with just a little observance of Christmas...just a little lipstick, a little football pool at the office, a little glass of wine...Maybe some people can and will use some things in ways with which nothing is wrong, and some cannot. I’ll spare readers my sermon on how, as a student at an SDA college, I saw nothing wrong with using lipstick in order to look recognizable on television or relieve the pain of dry skin in a dry climate, but I did see a great deal wrong with young girls, who were in fact trying to practice celibacy, accepting the idea that they needed to paint an artificial “sexual flush” onto their faces all the time. I wanted older SDA’s to help girls resist the pressure to waste our scanty resources in order to give the world a misleading message about ourselves, a message none of us wanted the world to believe. I thought that maybe the women who wanted to go around looking “painted” shouldn’t have tried to join a church that had a rule against that look, just as I, who wanted to read and write fiction, shouldn’t have tried to join the WCOG.
I would prefer that WCOG remain WCOG, now, rather than trying to be Universalist in all but name. We have enough churches these days that are trying to be Universalists in all but name. “Oh, none of us pays any attention to any of those old rules, we just try to relax and feel good about ourselves...” Who needs those groups? We already have the Unitarian Universalist Church; those who want to join it should join it. If present-time members of a church that claimed to be based in “the plain truth of the Bible” have decided that their founders were mistaken about some aspect of biblical interpretation, by all means let them tell us what they’ve learned...but, please, none of that venal, money-grubbing blather about how churches should meet people where they are and accommodate their emotional needs. Let the Universalists support their own church, and not create discord in the other churches.
So, I recommend Armstrong’s Autobiography first of all to members or prospective members of the WCOG. I don’t ask them to agree with everything Armstrong said; I don’t ask SDA’s to agree with everything Ellen White said; I’m glad that most members of the LCC, including Sheldon Emry by the time we knew him, criticized some of the fear-driven things Pastor Emry wrote when he was younger...but I do ask people to think seriously about the original founding principles of their groups, and about whether they want to keep their groups alive, or would prefer to disband, perhaps merging into some other group that better reflects what these people say and do. If the WCOG still has any reason to exist, it needs to adhere to enough of the teachings of Herbert W. Armstrong to justify any continued use of his writings, or his buildings, missions, printing presses, or connections.
The Autobiography of Herbert W. Armstrong is also recommended to anyone interested in the history of the Christian church, and to those who enjoy stories and prefer biographies to fiction. Those reading for the story will certainly find this book on the lengthy side, and will probably find some dull parts in it...but not so many dull parts as they might have feared. No minister can write an autobiography without preaching. No founder of a denomination can write an autobiography without some harangues about the organization and administration of the church, which may make even the members of the church nod off. And it would be hard for a minister who preached in almost every country on Earth to write an autobiography without some name-dropping. If Armstrong had been born rich his reminiscences about the heads of state he met might have become tedious; what redeems those parts of the autobiography is his na├»ve, what’s-a-good-old-boy-like-me-doing-in-a-place-like-this tone. In between those passages, however, Armstrong could tell a story, and although he tried to be serious he was born with a sense of humor. 

Probably the best thing that can be said about the Autobiography in strictly literary terms is that Armstrong always preached that ideas, even complex ideas, ought to be expressible in language a bright ten-year-old child could understand...and his writing was. His Plain Truth was a very special news magazine. No matter how many sophisticated professionals wrote reports on events Armstrong could tie into his view of unfolding prophecies, all reportage had to be accessible to anyone who claimed to speak (or translate) English at all. The resulting clear, direct style Armstrong cultivated deserves study. There may be times when some of us want to make some points in ways that go over some people’s heads; when that’s not our intention, we could do worse than write like Herbert W. Armstrong.

According to the WCOG tradition, you shouldn't buy these books at all. Traditionally all WCOG literature was free of charge; after reading books or magazines readers donated whatever they thought the literature would be worth to the next reader down the line. I sold the copies I physically owned for a dollar. To buy the set online now, apparently, costs a bit more. If I replace the copies and sell them online, at the time of writing I'll have to charge $60 for the books and $5 for shipping...and Armstrong no longer even needs $6.50.