In the book of Revelation, chapters 2 and 3 are messages to seven respective “churches.” When understood, these are actually eras spanning the entirety of New Testament church history. The Bible teaches that Jesus Christ has worked with His Church through seven separate and successive eras. In these two Bible chapters, Christ briefly describes each era or phase of His Church. The first five eras (with the exception of the second) are described as having their own unique set of doctrinal and spiritual problems that eventually led to their downfall. Each time this happened, God raised up a new leader to establish the next era. These seven eras are Ephesus (AD 31-100), Smyrna (100-300), Pergamos (300-1100), Thyatira (1100-1600), Sardis (1600-1933), Philadelphia (1933-1986) and Laodicea (1986-present). (These dates are approximate.)
Originally, these were seven cities that lay close together (in the above order) on a mail route in Asia Minor (now western Turkey). Each city reflected corresponding attitudes that would exist in the seven eras that they represented. Christ was able to use these cities to show a spiritual pattern that would span the history of His Church for 2,000 years.
Christ gave specific identifying descriptions of each of these eras, creating a series of earmarks allowing the discerning, observant historian and Bible student enough information to successfully locate God’s Church at any point in history.
Here is the first portion of what the living Jesus Christ said to those of Philadelphia—the sixth era of His Church—from Revelation 3:7-9: “And to the…church in Philadelphia write…I know your works: behold, I have set before you an open door, and no man can shut it: for you have a little strength, and have kept My word, and have not denied My name. Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before your feet, and to know that I have loved you.”
This era was prophesied to be in sharp contrast to the one that preceded it—and the one that follows. The “open door” in verse 8 will become evident, along with the fulfillment of other points in Christ’s description. The account of this era will be shown to be very similar to certain other eras and periods of resurgence in God’s Church, in that God continued the pattern, this time most powerfully, of working through one man—never committees or groups. The basis for much—but certainly not all—of this narrative is The Autobiography of Herbert W. Armstrong, volumes 1 and 2.
While the dying phases of the Sardis remnants were absorbed with political infighting, Christ had selected Herbert W. Armstrong, located in Eugene, Oregon, to lead this next extraordinary phase of His Church. God called Mr. Armstrong in the fall of 1926 and he was baptized six months later. He was ordained by the Church of God in early 1931, as God was preparing to use him to formally begin the Philadelphian era of the Church in October of 1933.
Mr. Armstrong had been trained in the business world, particularly advertising, and had developed uncanny skills in getting people’s attention. Christ had orchestrated events in the background to get this man’s undivided attention by causing his successful, thriving business to be swept away, not once, but three times. Through his wife, Loma, he was motivated to undertake a most extensive study of the Bible. His purpose was to prove to her that Sabbath-keeping was unscriptural. But, to his dismay, he was forced to accept that God had, indeed, ordained that His true Sabbath (the seventh day, not the first, of the weekly cycle) be kept.
About the same time, one of Mr. Armstrong’s relatives challenged him, maintaining that evolution, not a divine creation, could be the only possible origin of all life. He disagreed with his evolutionist relative, but could not prove the point one way or the other. This prompted Mr. Armstrong to enter into a six-month, in-depth study in order to prove the existence of God, whether the Bible was His Word, and whether His laws (particularly including the Sabbath command) were still binding upon mankind. During this study, Christ began to open his mind to the truth. Remember, God had opened the minds of many of His servants through history, in like manner, through personal intensive study. As did the others, Mr. Armstrong emerged with a deep conviction and ability to teach that understanding to many others.
This would prove vital in the decades to come!
First Contact with Sardis
Mr. Armstrong believed Christ’s promise that He would not let His true Church die out (Matt. 16:18)—but where was it? He knew that true Christians faithfully kept all of God’s commandments, including the seventh-day Sabbath. But to his knowledge, the only Sabbath-keeping churches were the Seventh-day Baptists, the Seventh-day Adventists, and the Church of God (Seventh Day).
Mr. Armstrong’s daily Bible studies revealed that Christ promised to keep His disciples in His Father’s name (John 17:12), and that the Bible lists the name of God’s Church 12 times—“Church of God.” This ruled out the Seventh-day Adventists and the Seventh-day Baptists, who were named by human beings.
Mr. Armstrong’s search for the true Church had narrowed to the Church of God (Seventh Day). And yet, he wrote this about what he saw: “They were so small, so uneducated, except for their limited amount of ‘Sabbath-keeping’ Bible knowledge—and their work, as I found, so ineffective and unproductive, I could not believe they could be God’s one and only true Church” (“History of the Beginning and Growth of the Worldwide Church of God” series, The Good News).
At that time, the Church was small and scattered, with less than 2,100 members, most living in rural areas. There were very few local congregations, with none as large as 100 members, and its ministry consisted of men who had little education. Though its elders preached with zeal, they lacked the power to attract sizeable audiences—the kind of preaching that moves people to action, stirs them up, and leads them to want to change their lifestyles.
How could such a tiny, scattered, virtually dead organization be God’s one true Church? This question constantly troubled Mr. Armstrong’s mind. He described his feelings this way: “I could not then reconcile myself to believing a church so small, so fruitless, with an uneducated ministry, could be God’s one and only true Church” (ibid.).
Because he could not come to grips with this in his mind, Mr. Armstrong associated with its membership, but never became an official member of that organization.
It would be helpful to examine the contrast between Mr. Armstrong and the Sardis ministry during the time that he was being prepared by Christ for a greater Work. The following information comes from the same serial article by Mr. Armstrong (ibid., ch. 2). After Mr. Armstrong had completed his initial studies and had come into contact with some brethren in the Church of God, he made arrangements to speak to a minister.
This account begins: “My first encounter with a Stanberry minister had been in the spring of 1927—the first of their ministers I had seen. He, too, had little or no education, but a dominant and argumentative personality…But now I wanted to talk to a minister of the Church of God about…baptism.” Upon meeting this minister and explaining his interest in baptism, the minister replied: “‘I haven’t any time to waste on an unbaptized man,’ he said, insultingly…I was taken aback at his gruff, insulting manner.” After a short conversation that left Mr. Armstrong understandably disenchanted, he finally replied, “I’m glad that you are not my judge.”
Asked to Speak
In August of 1927, Mr. Armstrong was invited by certain local brethren of the Church of God to speak to them, and he agreed to do this. The subject of his sermon was the recent healing of his wife from near death. On this occasion, her doctor had indicated that Mrs. Armstrong had less than 24 hours to live. Mr. Armstrong gave the details of the afflictions, her subsequent anointing, and her instant miraculous healing. Later that afternoon, a Sardis minister “vehemently attacked” his sermon.
Mr. Armstrong wrote, “He quoted the scripture saying many would come saying they had done many wonderful works in Jesus’ name, but He would reply, ‘Depart from me, ye that work iniquity’ (Matt. 7:23). Of course he twisted this scripture out of context” (ibid.).
Even though Mr. Armstrong was not a minister, the newly elected officers asked him to hold an 11-night evangelistic campaign in Harrisburg, Oregon. This was the first time he had ever preached before the general public, and it yielded fruit: Four new converts asked to be baptized.
Since he was not ordained, Mr. Armstrong consulted with a visiting Stanberry minister, who was confined to his bed due to a broken leg. Both men examined Matthew 28:19-20, Acts 2:37-41, and the example of the deacon Philip in Acts 8, who baptized those to whom he preached in Samaria. Both men concluded that Mr. Armstrong had God’s authority to baptize these four new converts. So he baptized them.
This brought him criticism from certain church leaders at Stanberry because the Oregon Conference had paid for Mr. Armstrong’s expenses, even though he was not a member of the Church of God (Seventh Day). This was only the beginning of much more opposition to come.
Mr. Armstrong summarized what happened with the Sardis ministry: “From the very first, in my association with these Sardis brethren, I was treated by their ministers as a greenhorn tail-ender. The Sardis brethren all loved me. But their jealous ministers used every device constantly to humiliate me and persecute. God blessed my efforts to produce ‘fruit,’ but their efforts produced none!” (ibid.).
During the Eugene campaign, the Oregon conference hired another minister, Roy Dailey. He and Mr. Armstrong were assigned to conduct a campaign in St. Helens, about 25 miles north of Portland. Despite newspaper ads and advertising circulars, the campaign was a failure.
With the conference’s permission, they switched to Umapine. After two weeks of campaign meetings, Mr. Dailey rushed off to attend a conference business meeting, fearing that he was about to be laid off. But Mr. Armstrong chose to stay behind and continue the campaign—which, when he worked alone, had produced a small congregation of five local members, including four new converts.
They did not have a trained and experienced local minister to lead them, so Mr. Armstrong organized this small group into a local Sabbath school, and appointed one of them to act as superintendent and teacher. The tiny flock lasted for a while after Mr. Armstrong left. However, without a faithful shepherd to lead and protect God’s flock from “grievous wolves” (Acts 20:29), they scattered and disappeared.
These and other events would lead Mr. Armstrong to understand two things.
(1) When he teamed with ministers of the Sardis era, no fruit was borne. This is explained in chapter 3 of the previously quoted series: “By now I had begun to notice that when I worked alone God blessed my efforts and spiritual fruit was borne. But I noticed that not one of the Sardis ministers ever produced a convert. I asked some older members in the church, and not one of them could remember of a single new convert ever having resulted from the work of one of those ministers” (ibid.).
(2) God’s people need faithful, loyal ministers to teach, protect, feed and guide them—otherwise, they cannot spiritually and doctrinally survive. Many unsuccessful attempts to start and maintain thriving congregations would prove this point time and again. How Mr. Armstrong would ultimately be led to solve this problem will be addressed momentarily.
After the Church of God (Seventh Day) rejected new truths, such as the annual Holy Days and the identity of Israel, Mr. Armstrong continued, undeterred by their action. Mr. Andrew Dugger, the leader of that church, had admitted in a private letter to Mr. Armstrong that his teaching pertaining to the identity of Israel was correct. Most likely, these new understandings were rejected for fear of offending loyal tithe payers. Christ led him to disassociate with them by the mid-1930s, and to step out in faith, giving up even his tiny $3-per-week salary.
Mr. Armstrong began with a congregation of 19 people, including his own family of six. These early brethren were the pioneers of what became the Philadelphian Era.
The “Open Door” Appears
Christ was now able to begin opening doors for the Philadelphian phase of His Work. The door to begin proclaiming the true gospel to the world, first by radio (The World Tomorrow program) and printing press (The Plain Truth magazine), was opened in 1934. At the same time, Mr. Armstrong slowly added certain crucial pieces of literature that could be offered to the public. Within its first 19 years, the broadcast grew tremendously, until it blanketed North America.
The next phase, beginning in 1953, saw the gospel broadcast in Europe, over Radio Luxembourg, the world’s most powerful station at that time.
The Plain Truth began in the form of 350 copies cranked by hand on a mimeograph. Years later, Mr. Armstrong wrote: “It is doubtful whether any institution in human history started from as humble and small beginnings. When God starts something on His power alone, it is big from the beginning. For example, the creation of the universe—the creation of the earth. But when God starts something through humans, it usually, like the grain of mustard seed, starts the very smallest and most humble, and then grows as the spiritual character of the humans develops” (“Now It Must Be Revealed How the Worldwide Church of God Began,” GN, May 1979).
This magazine was part of what Mr. Armstrong called a “Three-Point Campaign”: The radio broadcast brought in listeners—the magazine gave readers greater details of what the Bible actually teaches—and these were followed and reinforced by nightly evangelistic campaigns.
The Plain Truth magazine was destined for tremendous growth, reaching a circulation of 8,270,000. No other single servant of God, or group of servants working together, has ever reached more than a fraction of this number throughout the history of God’s Church! Consider that the actual readership was estimated to be three times this number, or about 25 million. However, even this number is further dwarfed by the estimated 250 million people (10 times more) who heard his voice broadcast around the world on radio or television! Truly, an extraordinary Work and ministry was underway.
But let’s go back in time. It is worth noting here what the radio station manager, Mr. Frank Hill, told Mr. Armstrong in late 1933, pertaining to the early-morning, 15-minute, free radio broadcasts they were producing: “Mr. Armstrong, you’ve stirred up havoc among the ministers in Eugene. They held a meeting of their Ministerial Association yesterday and informed me they don’t want you on the air anymore—and they will see to it that one of them is here for the morning devotional every weekday hereafter. It appears that members of their congregations are coming to them and bringing their Bibles, and pointing out what you’ve been preaching and embarrassing the ministers by asking why they are preaching the very opposite of what the Bible says” (ibid., ch. 4, GN, Aug. 1980). Mr. Hill then offered Mr. Armstrong a half hour slot at half the station’s cost to go on the air. The new program began on January 7, 1934.
Three Colleges Begin
As mentioned, in the past, Mr. Armstrong had held nightly evangelistic campaigns in various towns and cities in Oregon and Washington. His efforts yielded newly baptized members, who were then organized into local Church of God congregations. However, without a trained minister to spiritually feed, protect and lead them, these new converts got pulled back into the world, or were deceived by false leaders bringing wrong doctrines. In the end, not one of these small congregations survived more than six months.
Mr. Armstrong began to realize that God wanted a college once again—an institution of higher education founded on His principles and His teachings. This college would educate and train young people to become leaders. Some would become ministers and lead congregations that would continue to be established. Others would serve in the ever-growing Work, which would be headquartered on the campus.
God’s college would also be coeducational, training young women to take on vital roles in the Work beside their husbands. This new college would develop the character and personality of fresh, young, teachable minds, providing poised, properly cultured, well-rounded individuals. Ambassador College’s basic purpose was to teach its students how to live—not just how to make a living.
In spite of severe initial hardships, opposition and growing pangs, the college grew into a tremendous success. Within the 1950s, the benefits of a well-trained ministry were seen. Qualified ministers and assistants began taking their place in the field and at headquarters. Membership continued to grow.
During the turbulent 1960s, the Work and God’s Church continued to mushroom in size and power. By the end of the decade, The Plain Truth reached more than 2.2 million copies per year. The Radio Church of God exploded in attendance, from approximately 7,000 in 1960 to more than 54,000 in North America by 1969.
Up until 1960, there had only been one Feast site for brethren to attend God’s fall festival. But in 1961, another site was added. Another came in 1963. By the end of the 60s, there were five major (and two smaller) Feast sites in North America, ranging from 7,602 to 12,250 attendees, with many additional sites located in other parts of the world.
In the meantime, Ambassador College was also growing, acquiring new properties that greatly expanded the scope of the Pasadena campus, including the addition of properties nearby that were not directly contiguous with the 59-acre campus. The college began to take on an extraordinary, even breathtaking beauty—and the contour of upper and lower campus could only be likened to a large, perfectly manicured garden. In fact, there were the lower gardens, the Italian sunken gardens, the Japanese gardens, and several others. The 1970s would see the college win national awards year after year, recognizing it as the most beautiful campus in America, and thus probably the world.
In 1960, a second campus opened, this time in the United Kingdom. Once again, Mr. Armstrong was led to another magnificently landscaped property, located on a 10-acre estate 19 miles northwest of London, in Bricket Wood. With the Work growing around the world in quantum leaps, it was necessary to train more students with an international background so that they could return to serve in their own countries, either in the ministry or in the growing number of regional offices serving an expanding Church, now with members on every continent and in scores of countries.
Also in 1960, Mr. Armstrong completed his first trip around the world, during which he had arranged for 39 radio stations to blanket Australia with the program.
In 1964, God inspired Mr. Armstrong to establish yet one more Ambassador College campus, this time in Big Sandy, Texas.
International offices of the Work were set up and staffed in several countries, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, the Philippines, South Africa, New Zealand, Germany, Mexico and the Caribbean. These all allowed for greater efficiency in serving local peoples where they lived.
In 1967, The Plain Truth became a four-color magazine, with 52 pages per issue. By the end of the decade, the magazine had become truly respected and well-known, and was being read by every strata of society across the world, including the “rich and famous” and various world leaders, who understood that it was an absolutely unique publication, unlike anything else they were reading.
With the growing presence of The World Tomorrow, now expanded to include television, and the Work continuing to increase by 30 percent each year, the Church changed its corporate name to better reflect its size and growth. In 1968, the Radio Church of God became the Worldwide Church of God (WCG).
The 1960s were truly the decade that changed the Church and its impact around the world in carrying out Christ’s Great Commission of taking the gospel of the kingdom of God to the world. While the world was undergoing enormous changes in the “turbulent 60s,” none of them for the better, God’s Work was fast-forwarding, enjoying extraordinary unity, peace and growth. Though this was to change later, and in a dramatic way, wonderful fruit continued to be borne in virtually every aspect of the Work throughout the decade.
Visiting Heads of State
In 1968, Mr. Armstrong’s ministry entered an unprecedented new stage. King Leopold III of Belgium sent word through the Church’s German office that he would like to meet Mr. Armstrong. The two met at the king’s Belgian chateau, and started what became a long friendship. It also led to the opening of a monumental door—one that would put Mr. Armstrong in the presence of kings, presidents, prime ministers, and other heads of state around the world.
Nothing in the first 35 years of the Church’s existence—or its first 1,900 years—would have signaled to Mr. Armstrong what God was about to do. He could not have imagined that he would eventually meet leaders such as India’s Indira Gandhi, Israel’s Golda Meir, the president of Indonesia, the president of the Philippines, Prince Mikasa of Japan, Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, England’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the king of Thailand, and a great many others—over one-third of the world’s heads of state!
Mr. Armstrong came to understand that these visits were part of a special commission that God had long foretold to occur at the end of the age.
By the 1970s, congregations existed in all of the larger and mid-size cities in the United States and Canada. Many existed in Britain, Australia and Africa, throughout Latin America, and around the world, with members in over 120 countries. Television was also utilized, beginning in earnest in the 1970s (with the exception of a brief 13-week television trial in the mid-1950s).
By the late 60s, and constantly until 1977, Mr. Armstrong was visiting world leaders, fulfilling his commission to witness to kings and leaders. Preaching the gospel of the soon-coming kingdom of God occupied over 80 percent of his time—about 300 days a year. Not since the time of the original apostles had the gospel message gone out in such power.
In 1977, Mr. Armstrong suffered complete heart failure. Those present insisted that, according to his vital signs, he was lifeless. CPR was administered and he was revived.
Upon rehabilitation, Mr. Armstrong found himself having to quell a rebellion, in which a liberal element within the ministry had been posturing for control of the Church during his extended absence. He was able to purge most of the instigators. In 1979, a small group of dissidents petitioned the state of California, which led to an attack by the state. They attempted to place the Worldwide Church of God into receivership, pending investigation of the dissidents’ charges. This amounted to a major crisis for the Church and the Work. But, as He always had, Christ saw His Church through this crisis. Through Mr. Armstrong, He made some major moves over the next three-and-a-half years to put the Church back on track.
The result would be dramatic!
Getting “Back on Track”
One by one, Mr. Armstrong re-established doctrines that had been watered down or discarded by the liberals who had been at work behind his back while he was traveling the world. He also set about to put the end-time Work “back on track.” This process consumed him and was the constant theme in the Church for at least three-and-a-half years, from June 1978 until November 1981. During this period, the term “back on track” was used at least as often as Mr. Armstrong’s well-known reference to “the two trees” of Genesis 2 and 3.
Mr. Armstrong also turned his attention to the youth of God’s Church. In Y.O.U. (Youth Opportunities United), weekend activities were set up for teenagers—basketball, track and field, dances, etc. The camps comprising the S.E.P. (Summer Educational Program) had already existed, teaching teens to broaden their interests and helping them to build confidence.
In 1981, a youth magazine (Youth 81, 82, 83, etc.) was launched. Each issue offered articles that pointed teens in the Church in the right direction, while helping them prepare for life’s challenges. Y.E.S. (Youth Educational Services) lessons and activities were established for young children and preteens, teaching them God’s ways.
The Feast of Tabernacles became the largest annual, multi-site convention on Earth. Full-page ads were published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, among others. A massive international Plain Truth Newsstand Distribution Program was put into action.
Congregations that had stagnated in size for years suddenly returned to life. Once again, the Church was growing at almost 30 percent per year. Many thousands responded to the gospel and were moved to live a new way of life!
Statistical growth soon returned to the near-explosion level that had been enjoyed by the Church in nearly every category in which it had so recently been declining.
A Great Servant Dies
In January of 1986, Herbert W. Armstrong died. For the first time, the Worldwide Church of God existed without his steadying leadership. Here was a very large Church and an immense organization that Christ had raised up. There had been two major crises in the 1970s, in which some members left the Church, but a complete apostasy had certainly not yet taken place. What happened in the 1970s was to be an enormous lesson, and a sobering warning for the 1990s.
Would this lesson and warning be quickly forgotten?
From mid-1978 through 1981, Mr. Armstrong taught, warned, encouraged, admonished and corrected the Church and set it back on track, even being led by Christ to “rescue” it on two occasions from threats by dissenters from within. From January 1979, and for two years thereafter, he staunchly withstood what had been an illegal encroachment into the Church by the state of California.
Would God’s people remember from whom they had learned the truth that they possessed in his absence? Would all those loyal ministers still remain loyal in his absence? In less than a decade, the answers became all too apparent. Mr. Armstrong was dead and the brief Philadelphian Age would very quickly end! However, while the era was coming to an end, a faithful remnant of Philadelphia remained.
Time Like No Other
To summarize, Herbert W. Armstrong led the Worldwide Church of God (formerly the Radio Church of God) from 1934 until his death in 1986. Over the course of his ministry, hundreds of millions heard his voice and read his literature. The scope and power of his ministry was unprecedented in almost 2,000 years of New Testament Church history—and probably in all history!
Over time, God revealed, through this man, hundreds of true doctrines, which had been lost over the centuries. Even though he came under extraordinary attack throughout his life, he never allowed this to deter him. Although Mr. Armstrong is gone, the huge impact of his ministry and God’s warning through him still resonate.
Read the rest of Where Is the True Church? – and Its Incredible History! to gain more detail from this era, and to learn about the other eras Christ foretold.