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Heretic of the week: Herbert W Armstrong

Herbert W Armstrong (1892-1986) was an American prophet, in the mould of Joseph Smith and Mary Baker Eddy – though his doctrines were far removed from theirs.

Born in Des Moines, Iowa, to a Quaker family, he married a distant cousin, Loma Dillon, in 1917. The newlyweds moved to Chicago. Early in their marriage, Mrs Armstrong had a dream in which she was told that her husband had a divine mission. In 1924, following some business reverses, they moved to Eugene, Oregon, to live with her parents. There the intrepid couple joined a Seventh Day Adventist splinter group, and Herbert began to develop his distinctive doctrines. These combined some of the usual Adventist beliefs – adherence to the Saturday Sabbath, for example – with a refusal to observe “pagan” Christian holidays and the adoption of certain other Jewish beliefs. Added to that was a highly developed and unusual set of Bible prophecies, as well as British Israelism. This is the idea, dating back to the 19th century, that the peoples of the British Isles are the descendants of the children of Israel, and the Royal Family are the successors of the House of David – Queen Elizabeth II, in effect, being the true successor of David and Solomon, not Christ.

Using radio very judiciously, Armstrong spread his message so successfully that his Worldwide Church of God was soon supporting a four-year university in Pasadena, California, and providing millions in humanitarian aid to struggling nations – which in turn allowed him to hobnob with heads of state and gather decorations.

A very public falling out with his son damaged Armstrong’s work, and after his death his successors purged his beliefs from the denomination’s teachings. But Armstrongism continues to be held by a large number of splinter groups.