Quest/77, a glossy, six-times-a-year magazine costing $2 an issue, began publication last month. “Its charter is the pursuit of excellence,” the editors announced in a prologue, “the search for the fully lived life, yours as well as mine.” Quest/77 is put out by the Ambassador International Cultural Foundation, yet there is no hint that the money behind the foundation comes from a religious sect that believes the end of the contemporary world is due in three or four decades. It last predicted such a catastrophe would occur on January 7, 1972.
The sect is the $100 million Worldwide Church of God, whose leader, Garner Ted Armstrong, seems undiscouraged by confusion over the timing of the Apocalypse. The extension, among other benefits, allows him to continue to spread his word, primarily through The World Tomorrow TV and radio shows.
Armstrong, 47, calls most televised religion “the Sunday morning comedy hour” and “totally commercial.” Broadcasting from lavish studios, the silver-haired Armstrong mixes science and scripture with frequent right-wing observations on secular matters. He never makes on-air pleas for money. Nonetheless, the public gets the message. They contribute to the average $1 million a week that flows into Armstrong’s Pasadena headquarters.
The 75,000 church members are asked to donate up to 30 percent of their income while adhering to the doctrines set forth in 1934 by Armstrong’s father, Herbert, a former advertising man. Garner Ted is credited with liberalizing the church’s canons against divorce and lifting a ban on medical care. But because the church interprets the Bible literally, Christmas and Easter continue to be shunned as pagan holidays.
“We’re accused by detractors of having a hodgepodge,” says Armstrong. “But where does the membership come from if it’s all that weird?” He has a point. Contributions support the 1,450-student Ambassador College, which hopes to win accreditation this year, a reported $23 million onyx-walled concert auditorium (where the likes of Arthur Rubinstein have performed), an IBM computer(which keeps tabs on members) and two jets (which Armstrong himself sometimes flies).
Armstrong is indisputably the organization’s major asset. Growing up in Eugene, Ore., he says, “I wasn’t at all religious. I loved the Coke-and-can-teen double date and the old ’36 Ford.” But he enrolled in his dad’s college in 1952, began studying the Bible and took his father’s place on the air by 1957. Married in 1953, he has three sons: Mark, 22, David, 21, and Matt, 20. The two younger boys are “profoundly deaf,” says Dad, “but they’re perfectly normal and intelligent.”
Armstrong’s value to the church became apparent in 1972 when his father, now 84, banished him from the air-waves. Four months later, with revenues down a reported 40 percent, Garner Ted was reinstated. One hypothesis for Herbert’s action was suggested later by the resignation of six ministers after charging Garner Ted with adultery. Armstrong reportedly told one dissident, “All great men God uses for great purposes are men of great passions.”
Armstrong’s home in Pasadena contains landscapes painted by him and a collection of rifles and trophies. He says he would like to be a guide, “showing someone how to knock off an antelope in Wyoming or a bear in Kodiak.” He also writes songs (e.g., Where Oh Where in the Halls of Fame Is the Place To Find a Workingman’s Name?) and is considering putting out an album featuring his own voice.
Armstrong believes he was chosen to preach his doomsday gospel, and the thought is not entirely comforting. “If there weren’t any prophecies in the Bible that talk about the potential destruction of America, I don’t know whether I’d be a news anchorman, a pilot or what—but I wouldn’t be an evangelist.”