Woe to the PCG if it publishes HWA book

This article is reprinted from The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 21, 2001. It appeared under the headlines "Bad Tithings: Sect Disavows Tenets, and Woe to Him Who Printeth Them Anyway: Crying Copyright Violation, It Demands Money Donated to a Breakaway Church: Portents of the Last Days." © 2001 by Dow Jones & Co., Inc. Reprinted by permission of Dow Jones & Co., Inc., via the Copyright Clearance Center. Mr. Bravin is a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal who receives E-mail at

By Jess Bravin

PASADENA, Calif.--On Jan. 7, 1934, the Radio Church of God took to the air with the remarkable teachings of its founder, a former advertising man named Herbert W. Armstrong. Among them: that the British and their colonists in America had descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel, that God was not a Trinity but a family (Father and Son, but no Holy Ghost) and that the apocalypse would begin in 1936 (later postponed to 1943, then 1972, then indefinitely).

On his program, The World Tomorrow, and in his magazine, The Plain Truth, Mr. Armstrong called his beliefs the product of methodical explication of the Bible, which he said was "a coded message not allowed to be revealed and decoded until this time."

Members contributed up to 30 percent of their income. Some attended the church's Ambassador College and joined a media empire that strove to link current events to prophecies of a coming "Tribulation." Renamed the Worldwide Church of God, the congregation claimed 100,000 members and a $131 million annual budget when the founder, who called himself "Christ's chosen apostle," died in 1986 at age 93.

Then his successor had a message of his own for the faithful: Mr. Armstrong was dead wrong. Joseph Tkach Sr., whom Mr. Armstrong had anointed just a week before his death, began abandoning the church's unusual doctrines one by one. In 1989 he suspended publication of the founder's final summation, Mystery of the Ages, a 381-page work that Mr. Armstrong had called perhaps "the most important book written in 1,900 years."

Half of the church's members left. Tithes dwindled. The church was forced to slash its payroll drastically and liquidate a real-estate empire that had included campuses in Texas and England. Last year it sold its 48-acre Pasadena headquarters complex, including one of California's leading concert halls, to condo developers.

Through it all, a splinter group in Oklahoma continued to take Mr. Armstrong at his word. Wanting to provide new converts with all of Mr. Armstrong's insights, the group began to print Mystery of the Ages and give it away. The Worldwide Church sued for copyright infringement. The Oklahoma group said it was just exercising its freedom of religion.

The result is an unusual legal challenge in which the courts are asked to decide between two rights protected under the Constitution, with each side claiming not only the law but also God on its side--and a novel copyright twist for good measure.

Worldwide Church hasn't lost sales of its founder's book because it never charged for it while publishing it and certainly has no wish to sell it now; nor has its adversary ever sold the book. But Worldwide claims it is entitled to all the tithes and other contributions given to the splinter group's church by people inspired by copies of the book that the group printed.

Late last month [January 2001] a divided federal appellate court, reversing a lower federal court, found in favor of the Worldwide Church. A hearing on the damage claim is on hold while the U.S. Supreme Court decides whether to hear the Oklahoma church's appeal.

Nipping Napster

The case is already having an impact beyond the pews. Last week a federal appeals court cited it in the decision that could shut down the Napster Web site's free music-sharing service. The judges relied on the Mystery of the Ages decision for their finding that Napster could infringe copyrights even if it didn't make any money by its actions.

Closely watching the religious battle are dozens of other splinter churches and unaffiliated Armstrong believers, some of whom have posted Mystery of the Ages and other Armstrong works on the Internet.

Following the fight, too, is Garner Ted Armstrong, once the church's radio voice and heir apparent, who now leads his own church in Texas--preaching many doctrines of a father who publicly "disfellowshipped" him 23 years ago.

Says Garner Ted: "Whenever there's an earthquake in Pasadena these days, that's my father rolling over in his grave."

Herbert W. Armstrong began life modestly as a Quaker in Des Moines, Iowa, although he later traced his ancestry to "Edward I of England and a line extending back to King David of ancient Israel."

His 1,305-page autobiography details his boyhood and shares bits of practical wisdom, including a system he used to "coldly analyze" which girls were worth dating. He settled on the advertising trade and went on, he said, to pioneer the use of opinion polls and other marketing methods.

Then God intervened. "He began to deal with me in no uncertain terms, and from that time every business or money-making venture I attempted was turned into utter defeat," he wrote.

In 1931, after wrapping up a sales assignment for Wearever aluminum pots, Mr. Armstrong obtained his ordination from a small Oregon church. Three years later, paying $2.50 for 30 minutes of radio time, he began his media ministry, preaching that the Bible had prophesied the Depression, "the hoarding of gold [and] the topsy-turvy political conditions throughout the world."

His commanding oratory brought in acolytes. Picking up on an obscure theory concerning the Lost Tribes, Mr. Armstrong said these ancient Hebrews had found their way to Britain after Israel fell to the Assyrian army in 721 B.C. (Sample proof: "Is it mere coincidence that the true covenant people today are called the 'British,' since the Hebrew words for covenant and man are 'b'rith' and 'eish'?)

He said the Assyrians had migrated to Germany, and the Nazis were their descendants. After World War II he prophesied nuclear devastation of London and New York. His followers would escape to a "place of safety," probably the Jordanian city of Petra.

He endorsed Old Testament laws such as avoiding pork and keeping the Saturday Sabbath, but not Christian holidays such as Easter. He prohibited makeup and interracial marriage and discouraged birthday celebrations.

In the 1940s he moved the church from Oregon to Southern California but avoided Los Angeles, Mr. Armstrong wrote, because it was "the spawning ground of crackpot religions." Instead he built an elegant complex in Pasadena, whose Ambassador Auditorium was the setting for concerts by renowned musicians. He traveled the globe to tell foreign leaders such as Ferdinand Marcos of the coming "End-Time."

The church and its prophecies were a comfort to some who were distressed by social change. Nancy Stonick, as an Ohio teenager in the 1960s, was repelled by "the long hair and everything," she says, and "felt at the time that the world was going to be coming to an end." She is still a member today.

But by the 1970s divisions and scandals were brewing. The church had foretold a mid-1970s apocalypse, in a booklet full of horrifying drawings by Basil Wolverton, a church elder who was also a Mad-magazine illustrator.

The failure of doom to arrive as predicted exacerbated a power struggle, involving allegations of moral lapses, that ultimately drove out the founder's high-profile son, Garner Ted.

Then in 1979, after dissidents alleged that Herbert Armstrong and a top aide were misappropriating church property, the California attorney general seized control of the organization.

The founder, who denied wrongdoing, won that battle. He gained the support of other churches fearful of the legal precedent, and soon lawmakers stripped the state attorney general of authority over religious groups.

Closed book

The real shock, though, came after Mr. Armstrong died. His successor, Mr. Tkach, a former machinist from Chicago, stopped publishing some dated Armstrong works, such as one assailing hippies. He renounced the makeup ban and a policy of discouraging voting.

And then, after the church had given away 1.25 million copies of Mr. Armstrong's Mystery of the Ages, Mr. Tkach suspended publication of the book, citing "editorial and budget questions." The move, supported by his son Joseph Tkach Jr., provoked a battle that pitted the Tkaches against a Worldwide Church minister in Oklahoma named Gerald Flurry.

Mr. Flurry had turned to the church after a youth in which, he says, he "did the sinful things that every normal young person does, drinking and messing around."

Feeling insecure as he tried to make his way in an advertising career, he came upon an article in Plain Truth magazine explaining that "the way to real confidence is through unquestioning obedience!" Mr. Flurry enrolled at Ambassador College and was soon a Worldwide Church minister.

To Mr. Flurry, the Tkaches had worked "a Judas-type betrayal." He began preaching from an essay of his own that he said was revealed by "a mighty angel directly from God."

Summoned to Pasadena in 1989, he had a showdown with Mr. Tkach Jr. According to Mr. Tkach, Mr. Flurry "leapt up and pointed his finger and said he was being used by God in a unique way, that no one had ever been used like him before. I suggested that he seek some professional counseling."

Mr. Flurry calls that account "a diabolical lie" but says the meeting was traumatic. The next day he was dismissed for heresy.

Back in Oklahoma, Mr. Flurry established his own church, calling it the Philadelphia Church of God, after a sect mentioned in the book of Revelation. He set about reproducing the Armstrong empire.

From a suburban office park in the town of Edmond, he pumps out publications and broadcasts modeled after the founder's. His church, now claiming 7,000 members, is building a campus envisioned as a replica of now-closed Ambassador College. His staff interprets current events as signs of the coming tribulation.

Mr. Flurry targeted Worldwide Church of God members for proselytizing, an urgent task because, he wrote, "most of the WCG members are going to die in the Tribulation. Only those who come to the [Philadelphia Church of God] shall escape."

Early joiners already had copies of Mr. Armstrong's masterwork, Mystery of the Ages. Since newcomers didn't, Mr. Flurry says he had no choice but to publish it and give it to them, ultimately printing 118,000 copies. He ranks the work right behind the Bible in importance.

Still, he observes, "anybody that hears about this religion, they are going to think it's somewhat peculiar."

Mr. Tkach Jr., who took over the Worldwide Church upon his father's death in 1995, says the founder's book is "extremely faulty," and it is his "Christian duty" to keep it out of print.

Fair use

Claiming copyright violation was a challenge, though, because copyright protects an author's commercial interests and Worldwide hadn't been selling the book. The church identified its commercial interest as the money donated to its adversary.

But U.S. District Judge J. Spencer Letts said that was trumped by the Philadelphia Church's speech and religious-freedom rights.

Copyright law permits "fair use" of a protected work--an elastic concept that weighs the work's nature, how much of it is used, whether the use is commercial or educational, and whether the use affects the work's market value. This use met all of the tests, Judge Letts said.

For instance, he said printing the entire book, not just an excerpt, wasn't a problem because the defendants considered the work divinely inspired and thus not to be altered.

Wrong, said the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in September. An owner's rights to control publication of a copyrighted work aren't erased just because others have beliefs attached to it, wrote Judge William Schwarzer in a 2-1 ruling.

With the case sent back, the lower court late last month [January] ordered the Philadelphia Church to stop distributing Mystery of the Ages. Lawyers expect the Supreme Court to decide this spring whether to hear an appeal.

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