Servants' News

May/June 1999

Karl Beyersdorfer Letter on Herbert Armstrong

Letter: May 29, 1999

Dear Norm,

Thank you for continuing to send Servants’ News. I find your material thought provoking and stimulating, though as you know, I don’t agree with some of your positions.

While I feel it is pointless to debate doctrinal issues, there are two regarding HWA which I feel are sad and misguided. The first is the plagiarism issue, and the second is the "only true Church" issue.

In the early days of Ambassador College, Mr. Armstrong taught many classes and guested in others. I remember vividly a few of his observations. In one class a student asked about copying others material. People often asked things that were impossible to ask in later years because of limited access—not because of fear. (HWA had a huge thing about people who were confrontational. If you asked sincerely for an answer, he would comment on both sides of an issue and speak of his concerns and even misgivings. If you were confrontational, he could get angry, and be very abrupt—it would also often end the enjoyable part of the conversation.) Mr. Armstrong said, "No one has a monopoly on truth".

Response: I have spoken with many others who were with Herbert Armstrong in the early years and they agree that he did answer difficult questions non-authoritatively or sometimes even admit that he did not know. However, as the years went by, this happened less and less. I remember him saying in a 1980’s sermon: "if people don’t have an attitude of agreement with what God is doing through me, then I just have to get them out of my sight". Most of the people I know who personally spoke with HWA during the 70s and 80s were very careful to avoid controversy. Even Mr. Armstrong’s loyal assistant, Aaron Dean, freely talks about the many times that he was fired from his job, then rehired. There were many others who were not re-hired. Fear was a factor.

Contrast Mr. Armstrong’s quick temper with the scriptures: "He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, And he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city (Prv 16:32). Also, "For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money" (Titus 1:7). How can we point others to Herbert Armstrong as a "leader of God" when nearly all those who knew him agree that he was self-willed, quick-tempered, and, for a time during the 70s, given to wine (actually Dom Perignon champagne) The reaction to some people may be: "How dare you ask Mr. Armstrong’s friends such personal questions?" But how can anyone apply Titus 1:7 unless they do ask such questions?

Letter: I took this as his philosophy on plagiarism. In his early years HWA was very widely read. In fact, he felt that a person could be adequately educated simply from reading widely. We all knew that much of what he taught came in part or whole from the teachings of others. How we felt about it was this: Mr. Armstrong would read 10 books on a subject and from all that information he would focus on a single bit of truth. We felt this was his strength. Many of us might read the same 10 books and the result would be confusion. We would be overwhelmed with all the conflicting concepts and contradictory logic and evidence.

Response: Your description does not fit Herbert Armstrong’s plagiarizing of J. H. Allen’s work on British Israelism—he copied much of the structure of the book. Also, he used most of the words from Has Time Been Lost. There probably are cases where he did what you said—distill truth from many sources and present it in an easy-to-understand manner. But Mr. Armstrong kept his sources and his methods a secret from nearly all his readers. He kept his followers dependent upon him. When he died, look what happened! Many of his followers abandoned nearly everything he taught.

The Scriptures teach us that mature brethren should be able to sift out truth for themselves: "However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth" (John 16:13) "Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth" (2Tim 2:15, KJV). "But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil" (Heb 5:14).

Letter: People’s offense in all this comes from two directions. 1) HWA’s 19th century philosophy and orientation. Books were fewer and concepts and knowledge was precious. People would read a book and discuss it; and its points would alter the way they lived and thought. Nowadays, people read like they watch TV. Nothing affects them very much and they can’t remember the titles or the contents of the 10-20 books they read last year. Reading is more entertainment than educational. 2) The concept of plagiarism is a modern concept. Plato with his writings founded a class of philosophy that changed over centuries, but his works were copied, and debated, and used by much of the known world. No one thought of it as plagiarism if you wrote something or gave a talk and used his thoughts.

Response: I do not see how you conclude that people in Mr. Armstrong’s era had a different view of plagiarism. My 1947 Encyclopedia Britannica, article Copyright, shows that U.S. Congress passed the first copyright law in 1790, and additional laws in 1802, 1819, 1831...12 acts prior to 1870. In 1846, congress authorized the Smithsonian institution to obtain one copy of every copyrighted book in the USA. An international copyright committee was established in 1885 and related statutes were passed in 1909. All of this occurred before Herbert Armstrong was an adult.

Yes, people borrowed ideas from Plato and other well-known philosophers, but we do not find another philosopher who copied 50% of Plato’s Republic, added some of his own ideas, and claimed it was an original work. People would often quote these well-known philosophers without a reference, but that was because educated people knew their works and would recognize them. The New Testament quotes the Old Testament and some Greek writers in this fashion—it does not pretend the quotes are new, original work, but simply cites them with a vague reference ("it is written" or "your own poets have said"), realizing that the educated readers would know the source. If Armstrong’s readers knew about Allen’s work, they obviously would not have believed his grandiose claims.

Letter: Let me give you another illustration. I bought a home here in Joplin several years ago. In the early days there were surveyors, but the science was inexact, and they were not always used.. My neighbor’s home was 18" into my lot, it was built in good faith 80 years ago, and no one thought much of it when the error became known. All the lots in our subdivision were off by several feet. I sold my neighbor a 10’ strip, because some idiot might someday find grounds for a lawsuit. People sue for anything and everything. WWC sues Gerald Flurry because they want to use the copyright laws to censor HWA’s writings.

HWA used other people’s material and seemed to expect others to use his. As we got more sophisticated, we had a legal department, which seemed to have its own philosophy. A very different philosophy. Mr. Helge would often give talks during ministerial conferences. He would outline suits they were defending, and some they were pursuing or perhaps persecuting. Legal was a strange alien world that seemed to have little to do with what we were about. Mr. Armstrong seemed to tolerate them—perhaps he didn’t know what to do with lawyers either. But to confuse the legal department’s amoral legal philosophy with HWA’s moral philosophy seems to be part of the confusion.

Response: Do you expect me to believe that the WCG legal department operated without Herbert Armstrong’s request or approval? In the 70s and 80s, I implemented computer programs for that department. They operated very much by request of Mr. Armstrong. When most other departments had budget cuts, they would still have money available for his priority projects. Can you show me any case where some other group copied Mr. Armstrong’s writings, printed them under their own name and were not resisted by Mr. Armstrong? The WCG often fought other groups for just looking too similar. When Garner Ted Armstrong started the Church of God International in Texas, the WCG reserved that name in all 49 other states just to stop them from using it. Mr. Armstrong approved this effort.

Letter: Most early ministers had a copy of Joseph’s Birthright, Judah’s Sceptre. Most read it, or parts of it. The implication that we were ignorant is shallow. We knew, we simply viewed it in a different light. We knew some of his work was plagiarism, but did not think of it as a horrible moral or legal issue.

Response: The "early ministers" who had a copy of the book and did not let their congregations know about it share the guilt in covering this up. I did not know about this for many years, and most other former-WCG members I know did not find out till this decade. I still occasionally meet some who refuse to believe it. Why? Because Herbert Armstrong claimed that he was the only one who taught it. Notice these quotes:

By God's direction and authority, I have laid the truth before you! To neglect it will be tragic beyond imagination! To heed it will bring blessings, happiness and glory beyond description! The decision is now YOURS! (United States and British Commonwealth in Prophecy, 1975 & 1980 editions, last 2 paragraphs in book.)

The truly amazing truth about Israel is a mystery totally unknown by any religion—by Christianity—by even Judaism! (Mystery of the Ages, Chapter 5, Mystery of Israel).

Filling this page with similar quotes would be of little additional value. The problem is that Mr. Armstrong claimed his information was from God and that nobody else taught it. Several sects of Christian religion taught British Israelism and Herbert Armstrong (and many "early ministers") knew it.

Letter: Norm, have you ever compared Jude with 2Peter or Matthew with Mark. It is obvious someone copied from someone. No credit is given. Several times in the NT, (John and the concept of the Word for example) concepts are borrowed from worldly writers or poets. Rarely is credit given. Yet none of us writes scathing denunciations of the early apostles. We do not think these things diminish from them morally, or think them thieves. Why are we so quick to condemn HWA?

Response: Because HWA so often claimed that he was the only one to whom God revealed these things—that the Gospel was being preached for the first time in 19 centuries and other similar exaggerated claims. Secondly, the scriptures you mention do not remotely compare to Mr. Armstrong’s plagiarism. Most of the duplication between Matthew and Mark are quotes of Jesus. There are other duplicate descriptions, but most scholars think they used a common source. The authors of these books do not even identify themselves in the text and offer virtually zero personal opinions. The gospels (and apparently the prior sources they used) are nearly an anonymous reporting of facts—a practice common among newspapers many years ago (they allowed others to copy their stories because by the time they did, it was already "old news" anyway).

There is some overlap of subject matter and a few similar phrases between Jude 1:10-18 and 2 Peter 2:12-3:3. However, the rest of the material is vastly different. There would be no legal case of plagiarism here as there would be in the case of Armstrong and Allen. It is far more likely that Jude and Peter discussed church problems before writing their letters, and included a few similar subjects and wording.

Letter: Norm, I think all this plagiarism brouhaha is just a modern quirk, an idiosyncrasy unique to our age and probably nothing God in heaven is bothered about at all.

Response: I have met people who were disfellowshipped and marked—lost a lifetime of friends and acquaintances—for openly talking about Allen’s book. Herbert Armstrong could have stopped that type of persecution at any time by simply openly acknowledging it, but he did not. Does God care about that, or are truth-seeking church members "expendable" in his eyes?

Letter: Now, the "Only true Church" concept. In listening to Mr. Armstrong, I heard him say repeatedly that there were people who were converted, who would be in the resurrection with us in other groups. Specifically, he mentioned the 7th Day Church of God. Early members here in Joplin were encouraged to attend services there till we could raise up a congregation convenient for them. Rod Meredith preached in 7th Day congregations while working a summer job in Oregon. I visited a 7th Day congregation in New Auburn, Wisconsin in 1970 while I was the pastor of the Duluth Congregation. I count as friends several 7th Day pastors. Did Mr. Armstrong exclude 7th Day Baptists or any other Sabbath keeping group?

Response: Karl, I know that you have friends in other Sabbatarian groups whom you believe are converted—I respect you for that. I believe that Herbert Armstrong said those things, especially in his early years—and especially when he was around other Sabbatarians. Unfortunately, I believe that Mr. Armstrong was double minded—because he wrote the opposite of what he said. But I challenge you to find a place where he wrote that there are a significant number of converted people in other groups. The last few issues of Servants’ News have shown many quotes where Mr. Armstrong claimed that he was the human head of the one True Church. Before the CGI started, nearly all WCG members believed that if they were put out of the WCG, there was nowhere else to go. (And all the way through the 80’s, many considered CGI a false church, too). Karl, I hope that you did not disfellowship people for petty reasons, but you know that many other ministers did.

Letter: HWA explained it this way: "We, The Radio Church of God (later WCG) are called to do a work. Others are asleep. I attended a 7th Day evangelization seminar, and found it pathetic. I have searched out the 7th Day Baptists. They are for the most part fading away, and are hostile to the idea that we (WCG as it used to be) are their brethren." Norm, here and there is a lively viable congregation connected with these groups. Occasionally we read about an incredible "work" (such as the Japanese leader of the 7th Day movement in Mexico City). I respect and applaud these exceptions.

Response: Who gave Mr. Armstrong the right to judge all other Sabbatarian congregations because he found one (or even several) evangelization seminars "pathetic"? Most church people today would find the video-sermon services of the Church of God groups "pathetic". Why judge the Seventh Day Baptists because they do not appear to accept the WCG as brethren—can you find any written evidence that the WCG ever accepted them as brethren?

I will agree that many congregations of other groups are dead. But so were many WCG congregations. We cannot measure truly converted people, we can only measure total attendance. It is possible that the combined branches of the Church of God 7th Day have always had more people than the RCG/WCG. The first article in the December 1998 Servants’ News details many other groups with somewhat similar doctrines, but a total attendance many times the WCG’s.

Letter: HWA felt that all these others were a distraction from the focus we needed. In that I feel he was partly right and partly misguided. As we grew bigger, the impact, of other groups faded in significance. However, several times congregations from other groups would be welcomed if they wanted to join us. Sadly, many of the field ministry did not share HWA’s view. Keith Thomas, for example, in his district required all 7th Day members to be re-baptized. It was very offensive to some wonderful people. I felt grieved by such a superior and exclusive approach.

Response: "Misguided" is a very nice word to describe what Mr. Armstrong did. Let us be honest. Herbert Armstrong saw converted people in other groups as a "distraction" to the work he planned to do so he lied about them and told his followers that he was the only true church, the only one accomplishing anything. He wrote the following in January 4, 1985, and the paragraph was reprinted in his second-to-last letter dated January 1986:

We are humanly inclined to judge by what we can see physically. What we see physically is a small church body on earth [the WCG]. Yet what we should see spiritually is something so stupendous as to defy any comparison, so colossal above all that has been accomplished by all the combined efforts of the large churches of this world. Spiritually it is a gigantic worldwide accomplishment compared to no spiritual accomplishment whatever.

Where does that leave all of the other Sabbatarian brethren? The Seventh Day Adventists certainly are a "large church". What would they think if they read that? Paul and the other apostles were so often careful not to offend brethren of various backgrounds. Herbert Armstrong brags about his own accomplishments worse than most lying politicians.

Karl, can’t you see why I no longer can stand up and tell others that I learned what I know from Herbert Armstrong? I agree with some of what he said about the Bible, but his own personal practices that he so well documents are unscriptural beyond belief. Karl, I hope you can see through this, too. You are skilled at reading and teaching, and could serve brethren without leaning on that stumbling block that Herbert Armstrong’s own writings have caused him to become.

Letter: What confuses people was Mr. Armstrong's flamboyant, hyperbolic style. In his zeal to infuse brethren with a commitment to, and a love for "the Work", he often implied we were the only ones. I found that if you listened to HWA with one mind set, you got clearly that we were not alone, but that it was not an important issue. If you were of another mind set, and you wanted to be God’s only true believers, you found that supported in his writings and sermons.

So, the problem was with people. Those who wanted to be the only true believers, or who needed a narrow focus blocked out anything contrary. They went far beyond where Mr. Armstrong stood in his thinking—still he knew (I think) and tolerated that approach.

Response: Please show me the proof! Show me where the average church member could have known about Mr. Armstrong’s tolerance for other groups. Even if you can show me, I will show you dozens of other quotes where he clearly has none. The Bible says nothing about a church leader needing a "flamboyant, hyperbolic style", but it says a lot about the need for leaders to tell the truth. Is salvation an issue of so little importance that it does not matter that Mr. Armstrong said thousands of people were not converted even though he knew they were?

Letter: Norm, I think of HWA as being very human, with serious failings, both personal and doctrinal. It doesn’t offend me to examine his doctrine, or his methodology and learn from his mistakes. However, some of the criticism seems so misguided, so hostile. My conclusion is this: if HWA made mistakes and I believe he made many, his critics are making worse mistakes. If he was a socialist, they are commies. If he was a nationalist, they are Nazis. They don’t like the strong words he occasionally used to dissuade brethren from following someone he saw as a threat. They use stronger words (and just as misguided) to ruin his legacy and his reputation. It is another case of the pot calling the kettle back.

Response: I have read other criticisms of Mr. Armstrong that are hostile or unprovable. But is there anything in Servants’ News that you find in these categories? On the other hand, Herbert Armstrong frequently wrote untrue things about other groups. Searching his writings for "churches of this world" produces many false statements. (For example, his September 15, 1980 letter claims that no other groups teach Christ is returning to earth to rule as a king—that teaching has been in many groups for hundreds of years.)

Letter: Norm, don’t feel you need to reply. Please feel free to use any or all of this letter if you choose.

Sincerely, your brother in Christ,

—Karl Beyersdorfer, Missouri

[Living Church of God, pastor]

Response: Thank you very much for writing. Almost no other corporate minister will touch the subject. Obviously, we do not yet agree—Christ will straighten us both out in the judgment. While I am far from a perfect person (ask my wife), I feel fairly confident that I have taught truth that I believe was right according to the Bible. I never taught something because I thought it would increase circulation or because it would keep people away from "distractions". In spite of his many works, I would not want to trade places with Herbert Armstrong in the judgment.

—Norman Edwards &

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