Against the Gates of Hell
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Against the Gates of Hell

Chapter 3:

A Faith Is Born


   One cold January day in 1917 Herbert Armstrong journeyed out to a tiny crossroads hamlet thirty miles southeast of Des Moines to visit an aunt who was recovering from a bout with Pneumonia. His mother had written asking him to see how her twin sister, Emma Morrow, was faring. Dutifully, he went. The settlement, called Motor, was too small to be even a dot on any map, then or ever. It consisted of a general store, a church, a cemetery, a one-room schoolhouse, and several houses clumped forlornly together by the roadside as if for company against the loneliness of the prairie. The population numbered about two dozen.
   Aunt Emma, who lived on a farm a mile north of the crossroads, was feeling fine. Herbert was chatting with her and another visitor a young third cousin named Bertha, when suddenly a slim girl literally bounded into the "best parlor." She had rich, golden hair, cut short in the fashion of the day, a straight nose, and large, expressive eyes. She was Loma Dillon Bertha's sister and the town's schoolteacher. She literally exuded energy, sparkle, good cheer, the friendly warmth of a sincere outgoing person," Armstrong remembers. They were the words of a young man close to being smitten, and before long he was.
   Loma, who was twenty-four and precisely Herbert's age, was the daughter of the general storekeeper. As an early dusk gathered and the parlor lamps were lit, Herbert wondered to himself: "Where could I have been all my life, never to have run across these two cousins before."
   He asked the sisters to meet him next day in Des Moines, where he had some accounts to see. Loma, however, came without Bertha, which did not disappoint him. ("I had preferred to meet Loma alone, but I had felt that propriety demanded that I ask both girls.") They had lunch and saw a movie, about which he remembers nothing except that he held a "soft, warm hand') throughout its unreeling. The following morning, Armstrong felt a great need to visit his Aunt Emma again, though her convalescence had been proceeding at a rapid rate. He and Loma spent much of the time together, walking in the deep snow, much to the consternation of his aunt and uncle, who saw them holding hands.
   After he had gone, they cautioned Loma against any further involvement with the young man. "You had better let Herbert alone," they told her. "He probably doesn't even go to church anymore. He's probably an atheist."
   Some of this was true enough: Herbert Armstrong's visits to church were infrequent and, while he was surely not an atheist, he had been giving far more thought to advancement in the business, world than he had to God.
   Herbert returned to Chicago, but not before he had extracted a promise from Loma to correspond. He wrote almost daily and received several letters a week in reply. Although, in the past, he had not considered Iowa "lively" territory for his ads, it had suddenly become positively sparkling. He went there with increasing, frequency.
   "In the spring," Tennyson wrote, "a livelier iris changes on the, burnished dove; In the Spring, a young man's fancy lightly turns, to thoughts of love." It was May time and Herbert Armstrong's thoughts, too, were turning in that special and delightful direction toward which, he candidly admits, they had been rotating all winter long as well. Early in May of 1917, Loma met him again in Des Moines. After an afternoon spent picking wild flowers, they returned to the apartment of his Uncle Frank and his family who lived in the city. Herbert was taking a midnight sleeper for Sioux City and Loma was to remain at his uncle's home for the night.
   Shortly before train time, Loma came out into the corridor of the building to say goodnight. "Suddenly, impulsively, she reached her arms around my neck and planted a good earnest kiss on my lips," he recalls.
   He admits he was unable to sleep that night for hours. That kiss, he felt, was "real" — "it came on impulse straight from the heart it produced an emotional upheaval he had never known before! "Through the mental daze," he says, "I began to realize this was love.
   Next day in Sioux City, his first visit was not to a prospective buyer of advertising but a doctor he knew. Was there, he asked,
   Any prohibition against the marriage of third cousins? The physician laughed.
   "None whatsoever," he replied. "Third cousins are no cousins as marriage is concerned." A few days later, he was back in Motor. After dinner, he and Loma walked down the road past the old Quaker Church building and, in the quiet of the evening, he told her he was in love with her. Loma hesitated. She was not sure. She was a country girl, living in sophisticated, fast-moving Chicago. Deeply disappointed, Armstrong pleaded with her not to worry about "outer polish." "You are real, Loma," he told her. "You have the real qualities for a good wife and mother of my children. Don't, Worry about the lack of social training and sophistication. I don't "Want it. All I want you to decide is whether you're in love with me.
   Over night she decided she was and less than three months later, on July 31, 1917, they were married in a simple ceremony by the pastor of the Oak Park Baptist Church, with only the ministers daughter and a friend of Mr. Armstrong's from the Hotel Del Prado as witnesses. It was Mr., Armstrong's twenty-fifth birthday.
   We were married," Armstrong, recalls, "not as so many de­luded people are today, 'till divorce do us part,' but 'till death do us part'.
   For two years, the family prospered, personally and financially. Two daughters, Beverly and Dorothy, were born — Beverly in 1918, Dorothy two years later. Armstrong became the sales representative for eight other regional bank journals and did well; once he received a $3,500 commission for an hour's consultation.
   But in late 1920, a flash postwar depression struck forcibly and, in a short time, every one of Armstrong's big-space advertisers in the tractor and affiliated industries went into economic failure. Their demise wiped out Armstrong's business and source of income almost overnight.
   He obtained part-time work writing ad copy for local stores and, in the summer of 1924, took his family on a grueling eighteen-day automobile trip across country to visit his father in Salem, Oregon. He decided to settle in Portland and became involved in several advertising and merchandising projects that prospered, grossing close to $1,000 monthly, a substantial amount for those times.
   But again came business reverses and, according to Armstrong, "it seemed as if some invisible and mysterious hand was causing the earth to simply swallow up whatever I started. It seemed almost as if I were being softened for a knock-out blow of some kind."
   The Armstrong's were left with an income of fifty dollars a month. Loma began to use beans and other low-cost, filling foods at mealtimes. Once, several days before their check was due, they ran out of funds and the gas and electricity were shut off. The outlook was bleak.

"The Toughest Battle"

   In the fall of 1926, still buffeted by business reverses wherever he turned, Herbert Armstrong's morale was fast descending to what he called the "sub-basement." In moments of despair, which were deep, dark, and frequent, he felt more strongly than ever as though "some invisible and mysterious hand" were causing the earth to crush any effort he made to pull out of the trough.
   Then one day Loma confronted him with a discovery which at first horrified him.
   Loma had become friendly with an elderly neighbor of Armstrong's parents in Salem, where Herbert and Loma were frequent visitors. The woman, one Ora Runcorn, was a student of the Bible. Loma, an active Methodist for years, had been a diligent Bible student herself at one time, but her interest had waned; now, however, it had become revitalized through her friendship with Mrs. Runcorn, with whom she spent long afternoons reading and analyzing the Scriptures.
   One day, while Herbert Armstrong was in his parents' home planning some way to reestablish his business, Mrs., Runcorn turned to a biblical passage and, without comment, asked Loma to read it aloud. After she finished, Mrs. Runcorn selected a second passage, then a third and a number of others, again with no explanation. Loma read them all.
   Finally she said, half questioning, half exclaiming: "Why! Do all these Scriptures say I've been keeping the wrong day as the Sabbath all my life?"
   "Well, do they?" Mrs. Runcorn countered. "Don't ask me whether you have been wrong — you shouldn't believe what any person tells you, but only what God tells you through the Bible. What does He tell you there?"
   Loma was almost speechless. For the passages in the Bible told her that Saturday, not Sunday, was the true Sabbath. Quickly she rose and rushed next door to share this discovery with her husband. She met a reaction she did not expect.
   Herbert Armstrong was plainly shocked. "Have you gone crazy?" he demanded,
   "Of course not!" she answered impatiently. "I was never more sure of anything in my life."
   Armstrong stared at her, wondering if she had slipped into religious fanaticism. "Loma," he said at last, "this is simply too ridiculous to believe." When she insisted, they argued for a long time, the closest they had come to a serious marital quarrel in their lives. Armstrong, too busy seeking financial stability to give much thought to religion, was nonetheless a traditionalist in his beliefs and was outraged at what he considered a heretical opinion "Loma," he said, "you can't tell me that all these churches have been wrong all these hundreds of years!"
   Unable to shake her conviction, mortified that his friends and business colleagues would learn of it, he made a bargain with her. He admitted he knew little about the Bible — "I just never could seem to understand it." But he knew he had an analytical mind, sound expertise in research, and a capacity for lengthy and broad ranging study. Moreover, he thought a little ruefully, he also had time, plenty of it, since the sole advertising account he still retained required only about thirty minutes' work a week.
   He would, he told her, make a complete, thoroughgoing study of this question in the Bible and prove to her, citing chapter and verse, that she was mistaken.
   So for the first time in his life he launched into an in-depth study of the Scriptures. His quest for information led him from the Bible into textbooks, pamphlets, newspapers, and countless other sources. He was at the Portland Public Library when it opened, remained until closing time and then continued his studies at home.
   "I studied the Commentaries," he said. "I studied the Lexicons and Robertson's Grammar of the Greek New Testament. Then I studied history. I delved into encyclopedias — the Britannica, the Americana and several religious encyclopedias. I searched the Jewish Encyclopedia and the Catholic Encyclopedia. I read Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I left no stone unturned."
   He began at the beginning: with the biblical account of the creation of the world and of man. Reading Genesis slowly, approaching this first book of the Bible as an analyst would, then simultaneously studying tangential scientific findings, he began to question the theory of evolution. This concept that all living things developed by the slow process of change from earlier, simpler forms was by then widely accepted.
   But doubts entered Armstrong's mind and, one day, he voiced his growing skepticism to his young sister-in-law, Hertha Dillon the wife of Loma's brother Walter. Hertha, a girl of German extraction who had been indoctrinated with the evolutionary theory at college, was impatient. Sharply, she lashed out at him: "Herbert Armstrong, you are simply ignorant," she said. "One is uneducated and ignorant unless he believes in evolution. All educated people believe it."
   That much was true enough; other scientists had enlarged upon the theory, formulated by Charles Darwin some eighty years earlier, and the circle of doubters had narrowed considerably. Still, Armstrong remained unconvinced. He vowed to make a thorough study of evolution, creation, and eventually, "make you eat those words."
   Once again, his talent for thorough research led him to read everything he could find on the subject. He read textbooks on biology, paleontology and geology. He studied comparative anatomy, learned about radioactivity and the law of biogenesis, that only life can beget life. In addition to Darwin, he studied the works of Ernst Heinrich Haeckel, a German biologist and philosopher; Herbert Spencer, the English philosopher and Thomas Huxley, the English biologist. Finally, after absorbing and analyzing all that had been written, he came to the realization that evolution was still but a, theory — "a faith, not based on proof, though its zealous proponents push it onto the world as if it were proven fact." Though he scoured all the literature, he could find no hard evidence that life could arise from dead matter.
   But if evolution could not honestly be reconciled with the first chapter of Genesis, he did find proof of another kind: "I found proof of the existence of the Creator God," he says. "I also found proof that the book called the Holy Bible is, in fact, the very inspired revelation from that all-intelligent, all-knowing God, of the vital, necessary, basic knowledge and instruction, without which man is unable to solve his problems, prevent his evils, or live in peace, happiness, universal prosperity, and abundant well-being here on earth. *
* A complete explanation of how Herbert W. Armstrong disproved the theory of evolution and found proof of the existence of the Creator God is contained in the booklet Does God Exist?.
   Armstrong now undertook a six-month, night-and-day, seven day-a-week study in a "determined effort" to disprove Loma's belief in a seventh-day Sabbath. Candidly he admits he did not have a scholar's unbiased approach to his studies. "I wanted more than anything on earth... to prove that Sunday was the true Christian Sabbath, or Lord's Day," he says. To track down every possible questionable text, he studied Greek so that he could read the originals. But he searched in vain for a refutation of Loma's discovery. There was nothing in the Bible to suggest Sunday was the Sabbath; instead, there were countless references to Saturday as the true day of worship. At long last he became convinced that the Saturday Sabbath was binding on God's people and those who "refused to obey the true God" are thereby "proving they are not His people,"
   These discoveries converged into a series of conclusions that, quite literally, staggered Herbert Armstrong.
   He had discovered that there is a God and that He exists. He had learned that the theory of organic evolution disintegrated under scientific analysis. He had found proof of the divine inspiration of the Bible, that many of the popular church teachings, such as the observance of Sunday as the Sabbath, were not based upon the Bible but originated in paganism; and, above all else, that most people were obeying false gods and rebelling against the one true Creator.
   What had begun simply as an exercise in analysis to Loma wrong had drawn aside a curtain and revealed truth were at once dazzling and devastating. For he looked within self and saw with painful clarity that for all his thirty-four year that he too had been rebelling against God. The truth, he now saw, lay in perfect obedience to Him. It meant repentance o r his sins and "going the way of God, the way of the Bible, living ad cording to every word in the Bible instead of according to the ways of society or the desires of the flesh and of vanity." It meant, in short, a total life-change for Herbert Armstrong, the upwardly striving advertising man.
   Facing the gravest crisis of his life, he was a man in deep emotional turmoil. It had become only too plain that "once again,
   God had taken me to a licking," he admits. From the age of sixteen, the "turning point" of his life, he had devoted his energies to making a success in the business world, But this kind of success, he now knew, was not what God had in mind for him, for every money making enterprise he started eventually failed. ("As often as I got back on my feet to fight, to start another business or enterprise, another blow of utter and bitter defeat seemed to strike me from behind by an unseen hand.")
   The turning point, his resolve to study hard, was real enough, but the study had been intended to lead in a direction that was not to be revealed until his thirty-fourth year.
   In an agony of self-abnegation, Mr. Armstrong realized he had been, in his words, "a swell-headed egotistical jackass." In desperation, he threw himself upon God's mercy.
   "I said to God that I knew, now, that I was nothing but a burned-out hunk of junk," he said. "My life was worth nothing more to me. I said to God that I knew now I had nothing to offer Him — but if He would forgive me, if He could have any use whatsoever for such a worthless dreg of humanity, that He could have it. It was the toughest battle I ever fought. It was a battle for life.
   I lost that battle, as I had been recently losing all battles. I real­ized Jesus Christ had bought and paid for my life, I gave in. I surrendered unconditionally.
   This surrender to God — this repentance — this giving up of the world, of friends and associates — was the most bitter pill I ever swallowed. Yet it was the only medicine in all my life that ever bought a healing. In surrendering to God, in complete repentance, I found unspeakable joy in accepting Jesus Christ as personal Savior."
   His new — life began that year. Continuing his studies, he began to sift out real truth a doctrine at a time." Following a study of water baptism in 1927, he was baptized. The biblical injunction against lust­ of the flesh, he felt, prohibited smoking and he stopped.
   In August 1927, the dark specter of tragedy loomed. Loma fell seriously ill with a combination of severe tonsillitis, quinsy, and blood poisoning, resulting from pricking her finger on a rose thorn. The doctor had said she would not live another twenty-four hours, when a neighbor asked permission to bring a couple over to anoint Loma and pray for her healing.
   Reluctant at first, Armstrong agreed, and that evening the couple, described by him as "plain people, obviously not of high education yet intelligent appearing," arrived. Then the man anointed Loma with oil from a small vial and began to pray.
   "It was different from any prayer I had ever heard," says Mr. Armstrong. "This man actually dared to talk directly to God and to tell God what He had promised to do. He asked God to heal her completely, from the top of her head to the bottom of her feet."
   "You have promised," he said to God, "and you have given us the right to heal by the power of your mighty Holy Spirit. I hold you to that promise."
   After the short prayer, the man's wife put her hand on Mrs. Armstrong's shoulder. "You'll sleep soundly tonight," she said and they left.
   Armstrong relates that his wife slept until 11:00 A, M. the next day, then "arose and dressed as if she had never been ill."
   "She had been healed of everything," he says, "including some
   Longstanding internal maladjustments." This episode led to a study and belief in divine healing through prayer.

   Armstrong kept searching for the "true" church, one that lived by the teachings of the Bible. Because he believed in the Saturday Sabbath, only three churches — the Seventh-Day Adventists, and the Seventh-Day Baptists and the Church of God at Stanberry Missouri — qualified. He eliminated the Seventh-Day Adventists because he believed their precepts were not derived solely from the Bible, and the Seventh Day Baptists because, save for the day of worship, they were similar to other Protestant denominations.
   Only the Church of God remained. When he continued his research into the New Testament and found twelve references by Christ to "the Church of God," he was "confused."
   The only church he had found that met the test and also bore the "true" name was "this almost unknown little Church of God." But it had a scattered membership of no more than two thousand persons, belonging to local churches of about 100 members. Its leaders were men of little education; even its ministers lacked college degrees.
   Could this be the "true Church?" For the next three and a half years he and Loma visited many of its small congregations. Articles based on his findings appeared in The Bible Advocate, printed by the Church of God in its Stanberry publishing house. In the summer of 1928, Armstrong delivered his first sermon in a Church of God meeting, held in a country-store building near Jefferson, Oregon.
   At the conclusion of his talk, in which he described the Sabbath covenant, one of the members, who had recently moved from Texas, declared he had "heard nearly all of the leading ministers in the Church of God but I have heard this afternoon best sermon I ever heard in my life."
   Although he had not yet joined the Church, Armstrong began to meet every week with a group of its members in Oregon City, n miles from Portland, and was soon asked to lead its afternoon study sessions. Many times he could not pay his fare to Oregon City for his family, so he went alone. On several occasions he walked three miles up a steep hill to the church building because he lacked bus fare from downtown Oregon City.
   He remembers going to the meeting without return car­ fare home. "Someone would' happen' to hand me a dollar or two he recalls, "and, strangely, no one ever handed me money on those Sabbaths when I had enough to get back to Portland.
   Two more children were born to the Armstrong's, Richard David on October 13, 1928 and Garner Ted, a year and four months later. Both would grow up to aid their father in spread­ing the message Of the Church of God. But both, in different ways would cause him overwhelming sorrow.
   These were lean years. Often the rent was long overdue, the utility bills unpaid and the cupboard bare. Armstrong says the "children were crying with hunger" and "my stomach gnawed with pain."
   To provide for his family, Armstrong and a partner developed a facial mask, made from clay — found on a farm in the Cascade Mountains of Skamania County, Washington — that was supposed to have curative powers, especially for acne and eczema. When the stock market crash in October 1929 killed chances of interesting a cosmetic firm in the product, Armstrong took a job selling aluminum cookware. But the income was not sufficient and the family was forced to move back to Salem into his father's home.
   In November 1930, members of the Church of God in Oregon decided to organize into an Oregon Conference. Armstrong was asked to hold evangelical meetings for them in a rented church building in Harrisburg.
   "By nature, I shrank from the idea," he says. "Yet here were these simple, Bible-loving people, looking to me for leadership. It seemed impossible to refuse, more and more I was being drawn into the ministry by some power greater than I."
   He continued to lead the Sabbath services and conduct evan­gelical campaigns and, in the summer of 1931, was formally ordained by the Oregon Conference of the Church of God. When church funds dwindled and he was laid off until more money was obtained, he took a temporary job as the twenty-five-dollar a week manager of the advertising department of a newspaper in Astoria in the northeastern corner of the state.
   The position lasted fifteen months and the family planned to move to Astoria to be with him. Shortly before they left, two year-old Ted, who had been unable to talk because, the family thought, he had fallen on his head from his high chair, became seriously ill with pneumonia. Mrs. Armstrong called Astoria in a panic and asked her husband to return home.
   When he arrived, Armstrong knelt beside his son's bed, anointed him, and began to pray, asking for the boy's recover from the illness and restoration of his speech.
   Garner Ted's fever left quickly. The next day he uttered a few words and, according to Armstrong, was speaking in whole sentences within three days.
   In February 1933, Armstrong was rehired by the Oregon Conference at a salary of three dollars weekly plus produce to be supplied by the members, most of whom were farmers. The family moved back to Salem, where Armstrong once again conducted evangelical meetings. Many were attended by Pentecostals whose noisy and fervent demonstrations were abhorred by Armstrong. Again, money was tight and when the Conference was unable to pay the seven dollars rental on the house, which they had promised, Loma did their landlady's laundry.
   In July Armstrong began a series of evangelistic meetings in the one-room Firbutte country schoolhouse, located in a rural area, eight miles from Eugene, Oregon. He considers this to be the actual start of the Worldwide Church of God.
   No money was available for advertising the meetings, so Armstrong borrowed a typewriter and, using carbon paper, typed out thirty notices announcing the meetings and sermon topics for the first ten days. Then, sometimes walking, sometimes driven by a church member, he covered a five-mile area informing people of the meetings. The first night, twenty-seven of the thirty-five seats were filled. Later meetings had capacity crowds, even Standees.
   Following a dispute with other ministers of the Oregon Conference over baptism, Armstrong wrote to the Conference, refusing the three-dollar weekly salary. He describes this as a "crucial turning point in the history of the Church of God." He did not leave the Church, he points out, but he rendered himself financially independent of it. "From that time I was dependent, solely on, God."
   After six weeks of meetings, more than twenty people, in of meetings, more than twenty people, including ten members of the Oregon Conference, decided to organize a new local Church of God, which they did formally on October 21, 1933. Armstrong was the pastor. In October, Armstrong conducted a fifteen-minute morning devotional program KORE, the local radio station at Eugene. Impressed by the public response, the station manager offered Armstrong a half-hour regular weekend morning program, at a token cost of $2.50.
   As its first action, the newly-organized Church approved the broadcast, the members contributing nickels and dimes to pay the fees. The broadcasts began on the first Sunday in 1934, under the name of "The Radio Church of God."
   Since April 1933 Armstrong had been publishing a mimeographed monthly bulletin for the Conference. This bulletin, combined with the radio broadcast and the weekly services, helped spread his message.
   "Surely nothing could have started smaller," he says. "Born in adversity in the very depths of the Depression, this Work of God was destined to grow to worldwide power."
   Armstrong revived an idea he had cherished since 1927 — and for which he had even drawn up a dummy and written articles to publish a magazine for the general public. Since he could not afford to put out a glossy, slick publication on high-quality paper, he converted the mimeographed bulletin into The Plain Truth. The first run, four sheets done by hand on a mimeograph I machine, was for 250 copies. By 1973, the more than three million subscribers received a thoroughly professional, illustrated, four-color, fifty-two-page magazine.
   The Armstrong's were living in Eugene where he held Sabbath afternoon services in their home every week. On Sabbath mornings, he alternated services between the Jeans school, twelve miles west of Eugene, and the Alvadore School, fifteen miles northwest of the city.
   In May 1935, the three groups merged and bought an unfinished building for $500 to hold their services. Members of the Church, including Armstrong, plastered and painted inside walls, built and painted benches. One of the members, a carpenter, constructed the pulpit and altar rail.
   Their financial position was still precarious. Armstrong had to hitchhike or rely on friends to transport him when he preached away from home. When his suit was threadbare, one of the members took him to Montgomery Ward and bought him a new one for $19.89. A couple of years later when it, too, showed much wear, contributions were solicited and it was replaced. Loma wore used clothes and even darned silk stockings for herself and her daughters still the work of the Church progressed. In November 1936, Armstrong expanded his radio broadcasts over two other local stations, KXL in Portland and KSLM in Salem, which, with KORE, he called his Oregon Network. Later, it was extended to Seattle, Spokane, Des Moines, San Diego, and Hollywood. The name was changed to "The World Tomorrow." Armstrong could now be heard from one end of the country to another.

   The years passed and the Church prospered.
   Twelve years after the first broadcast, four giant steps were taken. They all occurred in 1946, which Herbert Armstrong has called "the year of beginnings as an organized national and worldwide work."
   In that watershed year, the Church opened its own printing plant so that increased quantities of material for public distribution could be published at less cost; and purchased prime radio time on three powerful stations that broadcast its message throughout the United States, Canada, and Alaska. In that year, too, Armstrong undertook his first baptizing tour, lecturing in halls and auditoriums throughout California and some western States and baptizing converts. Also in 1946, he developed the idea of creating a school — not a seminary to train ministers because he believed that only Jesus Christ chooses His ministers just as He selected His original Apostles — but a liberal-arts institution that would offer biblical and theological courses as part of a broad liberal-arts program. He would call it Ambassador College.
   It was a beginning.
   Mr. Armstrong moved his headquarters, and his family, to a large, rambling house near the campus and continued an even heavier schedule than before. He spoke over the radio daily, taught at Ambassador, wrote for The Plain Truth, traveled, and lectured. Richard David and Garner Ted joined in the work of the
   Church and, in 1952 and 1953, Armstrong also ordained the first Ambassador graduates as ministers to assist him. By 1957 his listening audience was estimated at between four and five million persons on every continent, and the circulation of The Plain Truth had risen to 175,000 copies.

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Publication Date: 1980
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