Armstrong, Garner Ted

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Armstrong, Garner Ted

(b. 9 February 1930 in Portland, Oregon; d. 15 September 2003 in Tyler, Texas), controversial radio and television evangelist and writer who founded the Church of God International, the Intercontinental Church of God, and the Garner Ted Armstrong Evangelistic Association.

Armstrong, the youngest of four children, was the son of Herbert W. Armstrong, an evangelist, and Lorna (Dillon) Armstrong. In 1934 Armstrong’s father organized the Radio Church of God, using the comparatively new medium to spread his unorthodox interpretation of scripture. From his headquarters in Eugene, Oregon, the elder Armstrong disavowed the Trinity, endorsed Sabbatarianism (the doctrine that Saturday is the proper day of worship), observed Jewish rather than Christian laws and holy days, and advocated “Anglo-Israelism” (the belief that modern Anglo-Americans were the lineal descendants of the ancient Israelites).

Eager to escape his father’s autocratic influence and reluctant to accept his father’s unconventional theology, Armstrong joined the navy in 1948. He was honorably discharged in 1952. Despite continued skepticism about his father’s ministry, Armstrong enrolled in Ambassador College, which Herbert Armstrong had established in 1947 after moving to Pasadena, California. While a student at Ambassador, Armstrong experienced a religious conversion and joined his father’s church.

Ordained in 1955, Armstrong soon assumed important responsibilities in his father’s organization. Named vice president of both Ambassador College and the Radio Church of God in 1958, Armstrong also wrote extensively for the Plain Truth, the official magazine of the church, and appeared regularly on its radio program, The World Tomorrow. When The World Tomorrow debuted on television in 1960, the handsome, urbane, articulate, and charismatic Armstrong was the natural choice to serve as host. By the early 1970s approximately 165 television stations aired a weekly broadcast of the show to more than 20 million Americans, while 360 radio stations transmitted Armstrong’s message to five continents.

Despite their apparent reconciliation, tensions lingered between father and son. Finally, in 1972, amid allegations of repeated sexual misconduct, Herbert Armstrong temporarily suspended his son from the church, now called the Worldwide Church of God, and removed him from television and radio. An investigation revealed a pattern of infidelity to his wife, Shirley Hammer, whom Armstrong had married 8 March 1953, and with whom he had three sons. Many of Armstrong’s liaisons involved Ambassador coeds. Critics outside the church as well as dissidents within also circulated rumors hinting at Armstrong’s bisexuality. Armstrong repented, confessing that he had sinned “against God, against his church and his apostle, against the wife God gave me in my youth, against all my closest friends.” His reinstatement induced six prominent ministers to leave the church, with at least one, Barry Chase of Texas, openly complaining of “monumental immorality in the highest echelons” of the church.

In addition to the complications of his personal life, Armstrong began to question aspects of his father’s heterodox creed. He opposed his father’s insistence that second marriages be disbanded and that, if possible, a reunion with the original spouse, which may have been due to the fact that he and his wife had divorced following the scandal. At the same time, he argued that church members could obtain some forms of medical treatment, a concession that his father had proscribed. Perhaps his most flagrant act of insubordination, however, was to deny that heaven was racially segregated. More than his numerous extramarital affairs, Armstrong’s efforts to reform church doctrine and practice aroused the schism that led to his excommunication in 1978. “I derived my authority from the living Christ,” raged Herbert Armstrong in the statement ousting his son. “You derived what you had from me, and then used it totally contrary to the way Christ had led me.” Shortly thereafter, Armstrong left Pasadena for Tyler, Texas, where he started the Church of God International.

Their many differences notwithstanding, Armstrong retained the core of his father’s theology. In a pamphlet entitled Facts You Should Know about Christmas! (1981), for instance, Armstrong, like his father, dismissed Christmas as a pagan feast. Similarly, in Europe and America in Prophecy (n.d.), Armstrong repeated and defended his father’s contention that, as the progeny of the ancient Israelites, the English and the Americans were the true and rightful heirs to God’s covenant with His chosen people. Again, like his father, he prophesied that a “United States of Europe” would threaten Great Britain and the United States of America, anticipating the final confrontation between Jesus Christ and “the Beast.”

Armstrong’s best-known and most controversial book is The Real Jesus (1977), in which he advances a view of Christ that, according to the tenets of Protestant Christianity, is both orthodox and heretical. In The Real Jesus, Armstrong maintains that although Christ was the Son of God, He surrendered His divinity to become human and then had to “requalify” for salvation. His sacrifice and death nevertheless offered eternal life to sinful men and women, who otherwise had no hope of attaining immortality.

Renewed accusations of sexual impropriety emerged in 1995 and culminated in 1997 with the airing of a videotape on the Geraldo Rivera Show (11 July 1997), exposing Armstrong’s sexual assault of SueRae Robertson, a licensed vocational nurse and physical therapist. Although no criminal charges were ever filed, the episode resulted in a civil suit against Armstrong and prompted his dismissal as head of the Church of God International. He subsequently created the Intercontinental Church of God and, in January 1998, the Garner Ted Armstrong Evangelistic Association, over which his son presided after his death. In the essays that he wrote during the last years of his life, Armstrong reiterated his father’s warnings about a resurgent Holy Roman Empire under German leadership that was destined to subdue the Anglo-American world. At the same time, he assailed the global economy, the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the European Union, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Roman Catholic Church, and Islam, interpreting their preeminence as the fulfillment of biblical revelations signaling the approach of “the end times.” Armstrong died of pneumonia at the age of seventy-three.

Armstrong published numerous books and pamphlets in which he expounded upon his ideas and beliefs. These include The Wonderful World of Tomorrow: What It Will Be Like (1966), The Real Jesus (1977), Facts You Should Know About Christmas! (1981), The Ten Commandments (1981), The Answer to Unanswered Prayer (1989), and Europe and America in Prophecy (n.d.). Secondary studies include Joseph M. Hopkins, The Armstrong Empire: A Look at the Worldwide Church of God (1974), and J. Gordon Melton, Religious Leaders of America, 2nd ed. (1999). During the 1970s Time published a series of articles detailing Armstrong’s deepening estrangement from his father and the Worldwide Church of God. These include “Garner Ted Armstrong, Where Are You?” (15 May 1972), “Garner Ted Returns” (10 July 1972), “Trouble in the Empire” (4 Mar. 1974), “Strong-Arming Garner Ted” (19 June 1978), and “Propheteering?” (22 Jan. 1979). Obituaries are in the Los Angeles Times (16 Sept. 2003), Chicago Tribune (17 Sept. 2003), New York Times (17 Sept. 2003), Washington Post (18 Sept. 2003), and Christian Century (4 Oct. 2003).

Mark G. Malvasi

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Armstrong, Garner Ted

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