The Fragmentation of a Sect

My next three posts are going to be autobiographical with the first two also book reviews.

Review: The Fragmentation of a Sect: Schism in the Worldwide Church of God, David V. Barrett, 2013.fragmentation-of-a-sect

It’s not often that I review books where I have some personal knowledge of the topic. I seldom read books outside of work that have anything to do with my day job. And who would want to read reviews of books about taxes and bankruptcy law anyway (though I do have one such review in the archive)?

For the first 20 years of my life, I was a “member” of the Worldwide Church of God (WCG), the faith I was born into. (I say “member” because one of its doctrines was adult baptism which I never did thus I was never a true member.) At age 20, I stopped attending it. There were very various reasons, but the main one was love.

I met my future wife, not a member of the church, and marriage with non-believers was strongly discouraged. I was also tired of balancing strict adherence to the faith with attending college. It wasn’t one of WCG’s colleges, and, among other things, I was tired of justifying school choice to other members. I was even more tired of the pressure to socialize more within the church. I don’t like political or religious groups that try to set up their own subcultures and expect me to stay within them.

So, when I saw that David B. Barrett, sometime reviewer of science fiction books in the Fortean Times and also author of occasional religiously-themed articles in that magazine, had written a book on the WCG, I was intrigued.

Barrett actually has a long entry in the Internet Speculative Fiction Database (as do I though mine is much shorter), but he’s not the only connection between WCG and science fiction. As I’ve noted before, both Michael Moorcock and Terry Pratchett alluded to that faith in some of their works. WCG also gets a mention in John Sladek’s non-fiction The New Apocrypha: A Guide to Strange Science and Occult Beliefs.

And, I suppose, a childhood interest in science and science fiction caused me to question the anti-intellectualism of the WCG. How, on the one hand, could they brag about the technological innovations they boasted of using in “the work”, early adaptations of satellite broadcasts and sophisticated printing setups, while denigrating the science and the scientific method that led to those technologies?

Being interested in history at a young age, I was also not entirely convinced of the church’s dismissal of conventional historical timelines in the service of its prophetic predictions and accounts of biblical history. Reading Popular Science and The Plain Truth (the main publication of the WCG) led to some cognitive dissonance regarding dating techniques disparaged by WCG in defense of their version of history.

Science fiction works were alluded to in some sermons, but it was always of the dystopian sort because, you see, mere humans, without God, could never produce a worthwhile society. Technological innovations were always going to lead to worse problems.

There was also, as I’ve written about elsewhere, the science fiction-WCG connection of comic book artist Basil Wolverton. He did commercial work for comics and produced some memorable and apocalyptic illustrations for WCG’s The Bible Story series.

And there was the minister who liked to preach about things like UFOs and hauntings. Sure, the grade school me, who occasionally came across old copies of Fate magazine and read Charles Berlitz’s The Bermuda Triangle, liked the subjects, but even then I intuited the fallacy of the argument from ignorance: just because you can’t explain something doesn’t mean there isn’t a rational explanation.

And then there was a sermon by the infamous Gerald Waterhouse (his name brings shudders in the various online reminiscences of ex-WCG members) in which I was told the canteen scene in Star Wars was the most demon infested thing he had ever seen. (There’s another WCG-George Lucas connection. WCG lawyer Stanley R. Rader sued Steven Speilberg and George Lucas for alleged plagiarism of the script for Raiders of the Lost Ark. Needless to say, he lost.)

I also get the sense, from a few things I’ve seen from ex-WCG members, that mine was not the only case of a love of science fiction being something of a psychological bulwark against church doctrines or a balm of sanity. For my own case, I think it led to a bit of minor league metaphysical questioning of church doctrine.

When I stopped my affiliation with WCG in 1983, I spent no time keeping track of it, so, when I heard its founder, Herbert W. Armstrong (HWA — the “W” being as meaningless as the “S” in Harry S. Truman), had died on January 16, 1986, it was only a point of minor interest. I was busy finishing up college and married.

But my first hint that things had changed was when I got a birthday card from my mother.

That was something of a shock.

Celebrations of birthdays, you see, were forbidden by the church. (What do you think Job’s kids were doing when God wiped them out?) However, my parents, not being totalitarian zealots, did allow me to attend the birthday party of a cousin and yearly birthday cards from my grandmother.

But a birthday card from my mother? “There have been some changes in doctrine” my mother’s accompanying note, anticipating my surprise, said.

And that was not the end of it.

Returning home in 1987, I found my parents were no longer members of the church, and copies of Ambassador Report, a newsletter started by church dissidents in 1976, were lying about the place. It was quite revealing of past church scandals, many new to me.

There also started to be the first of many publications from church splinter groups. WCG, like a hand grenade, had exploded into hundreds of fragments.

Religion was still something of a touchy topic with the family, so I didn’t ask for too many details about which sibling had went to which group and why.

That fragmentation and the history of WCG was why I picked up Barrett’s book.

Barrett, formerly trained as a sociology of religion, uses the history of the WCG to answer a question about what happens to faiths founded by one man when that man dies.

HWA founded an authoritarian and legalistic religion. When is a bit nebulous because he led a breakaway group from another church, but he was preaching by 1928.

What he was preaching was a faith that most definitely set its members apart from not only Satan’s world but mainstream Christianity.

There was the observances of Jewish festivals – though not necessarily on the same day that Jews did and Jewish dietary laws. (And you can never appreciate the power of food taboos if you’ve never lived by them. The last psychological vestige of my old faith was not eating pork.)

There was an emphasis on prophecy, an end time apocalypse, “pre-millenarianism”, the belief that the horrors of the Book of Revelations would be unleashed on the world, and Christ would return to the world and reign for a thousand years before the Final Judgement. This prophecy was fueled mostly by British-Israelism, the notion that “lost tribes of Israel” emigrated to Europe and can be identified with European nations. The notion goes back to 1590 but really took off after 1840 with John Wilson’s Lectures on Our Israelitish Origins. HWA lifted, without attribution (Barrett rightly says the exact mixture of deception and self-deception is unknowable), from Wilson while passing it off as the product of divinely guided study and revelation.

WCG’s day of worship was Saturday, the true Christian Sabbath, and to be observed by a strict sundown Friday to sundown Saturday refraining from worldly pleasures and labor.

Tithing was ordered, three tithes to be specific: ten percent to the church, ten percent to be saved for attending distant religious festivals, specifically the week long Feast of Tabernacles, and, in every third year, another ten percent to be used for the support of poor church members.

Christians are not saved by grace but by works. This was later finagled to be saved by grace but eternally rewarded by works.

Similar to Mormonism, though there is no evidence of any direct influence on HWA, WCG preached that “all resurrected and perfected mortals become gods”.

There was no “immortal soul” thus no eternal damnation to Hell. The dead were to be resurrected upon Christ’s return. The bad were to be destroyed forever. The good became those gods. (Isaac Newton, incidentally, believed in this idea of “conditional immortality”.)

Christmas and Easter and Halloween were deemed pagan holidays and not to be celebrated at all.

Last, but certainly not least, of its major deviations from traditional Christianity was a renunciation of the Trinity for binarianism, a belief in God and Christ as entities with the Holy Spirit being but an impersonal force. It was that belief, more than any other, that caused traditional churches to denounce WCG as a cult.

All this doctrine was delivered from HWG with no room for deviation. God’s true church, as HWA frequently reminded, was not a democracy. (Take that Presbyterians!)

Barrett’s book, like other Oxford University Press publications I’ve seen, is usefully and clearly organized with evidence followed by concise conclusions.

Barrett is impeccably fair. When addressing the most serious personal criticism of HWA’s behavior, a long term incestuous sexual relationship with his daughter by blood, he merely cites the evidence pro and con. (For what it’s worth, I believe the charge and some church leaders believed it too but tried to rationalize it away as unimportant in various ways.) Based on my own personal experience, reading Ambassador Report and Walter R. Martin’s The Kingdom of the Cults: Major Cult Systems in the Present Christian Era, Barrett’s descriptions of church doctrine and history are accurate.

Barrett did a great deal of research into writings by and about the church. He also conducted extensive interviews with ex-members of the church.  (Virtually everyone is an ex-member here because that’s the whole point of the book. They all went to other churchs or started their own.) And, of course, being a sociologist, he has a questionnaire.

Barrett looks at how closely HWA matched traditional traits of the schizophrenic or a religious guru. His conclusion is that he was not a schizo, but he fits a lot of the traits of the guru.

WCG was already have problems in the 1970s. HWA’s son, the even more charismatic Garner Ted Armstrong, was once and for all “disfellowshipped” for sexual improprieties. In a high profile legal case, the State of California put the church into receivership. Garner Ted started his own church. But it was really on HWA’s death that the fragmentation began.

HWA’s successors tried to bring WCG more into the mainstream. But, when you’ve spent decades telling your members that God’s only true way is keeping the Sabbath, scorning the Trinity and Christmas, it can be tricky to get them to change their minds when you change yours.

The question Barrett is interested in is how did WCG members react to all this. Take the new dictates as new revealed knowledge from God’s apostles on Earth or decide the Church is corrupt and go elsewhere?

One theory, from religious sociologists Rodney Stark and Richard Finke, is that family and friends, “social capital”, is the main factor determining whether a person stays or go in a reforming religion. Barrett disputes that, and my own experience backs that up. I was the first out the WCG door and not one of my immediate family members shares the same religion (though my brother and I are of the atheist/agnostic persuasion but not hostile to religion).

Barrett says that “moral capital”, adherence to religious doctrine, was the determining factor in the fate of ex-WCG members. Their schisms were doctrinal disputes. Barrett strongly disagrees with the notion that doctrinal disputes are just disguised schisms in social networks.

I agree. It’s hard for the non-religious to realize that these things are important to some people. They want to get right and keep right with God.

And the schism is still continuing.

A few months ago, I had occasion to talk to an ex-WCG member of my acquaintance from years back. Like everyone else I knew and kept track of from the WCG, he left. He told me of a church he recently joined that fragmented over doctrine.

It had six members.


Next posting I’ll look at an autobiography of an ex-WCG member: Jerald Walker’s The World in Flames: A Black Boyhood in a White Supremacist Doomsday Cult.


More reviews of nonfiction books can be found at the review index at the top menu.


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