Although Mr. Armstrong began the Radio Church of God in Oregon in either 1934 or 1927, depending on the specific events you think constituted the start of the church, the CG7 has been around for a century and a half.
"As a matter of fact, the CG7 is 150 years old this year, 2008," Mr. Coulter said. "It was begun in southwestern Michigan by Gilbert Cranmer, who was born in 1814 and died in 1903."
Mr. Cranmer began as a Methodist minister at age 17, then affiliated with other groups, including one called the Christian Connection, when he traveled as an itinerant preacher in New York, Illinois, Maine and Michigan and the Canadian province of Ontario.
Mr. Cranmer became a "Millerite Adventist [believer in a literal Second Coming] in 1843," Mr. Coulter said.
William Miller was a Calvinist Baptist and former deist from Low Hampton, N.Y., who through his study of Scripture became convinced not only that Jesus would literally return to earth but that He would arrive in the fall of 1843.
As a result of Mr. Miller's powerful preaching, tens of thousands of Americans in the U.S. Northeast became convinced that the return of Christ was imminent.
Movement in disarray
Mr. Miller and his followers didn't yet know the day or the hour of Jesus' coming, but they believed God would soon reveal the exact date so people could prepared for it.
"When the spring of 1843 came, Jesus of course didn't come," Mr. Coulter said, "so they said maybe it would be in the fall of 1843. And of course in the fall He didn't come. As a result, the Adventist movement was in disarray."
Today the word Adventist brings to mind for most people the Seventh-day Adventist Church. But in those days the first Adventists were not keepers of the seventh day. Like Mr. Miller, they attended church on Sunday.
When 1843 came and went with Jesus a no-show, a Millerite Adventist by the name of Samuel Snow came up with the theory that Mr. Miller had made a mistake in his calculations. Mr. Snow said Mr. Miller had not taken into consideration that there was no year 0 between B.C. and A.D. Therefore, on second thought, surely Jesus would return in 1844.
More specifically, Jesus would return on Tishri 10 (which Mr. Armstrong would many years later point out is the Day of Atonement) in the fall of 1844.
The date on the Gregorian calendar was Oct. 22, 1844.
"In addition to returning to the earth," explained Mr. Coulter, "Jesus was going to destroy the wicked. He was going to resurrect the righteous and take those who were righteous who were dwelling on the earth back to heaven for the thousand years.
"William Miller was premillennial in his belief in a period when postmillennialism was the general rule of the Christian church."
Where do we begin?
Premillennialists believe the Second Coming begins the Millennium. Postmillennianists believe the opposite: The 1,000 years of peace will precede the return of Jesus to earth.
The Great Disappointment -- that is, Jesus' failure to return on Oct. 22, 1844 -- affected Mr. Miller in ways that eventually led to the founding of several religious movements: Sunday Adventists and Sabbatarian Adventists, including the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the original congregations that have come to be known collectively as the Church of God (Seventh Day).
In 1852 Mr. Cranmer and an associate, Joseph Bates, became Sabbath keepers after reading about Sabbath observance in an article somebody had written for a Millerite newspaper in 1843 called The Midnight Cry.
Mr. Bates was friends with James and Ellen White, who were originally Sunday observers but also converted to observance of the weekly seventh day.
"Remember, William Miller's Adventist movement was Sunday keeping," Mr. Coulter said. "William Miller was a Baptist. He was never a Sabbath keeper, and only a minute part of the Millerite Adventist movement ever became Sabbath keepers."
Just what do you mean whole law?
In those days some of the Adventists would talk about the need to observe the "whole law" of God.
"When you read about the observance of the whole law," Mr. Coulter said, "it's a byword for Sabbath-keeping, because, unlike today, the Protestant community of believers generally taught the observance of the Ten Commandments except for the Fourth commandment."
Mr. Coulter gave many more details of the Adventist and Church of God movements, including the founding of a group formally called the Church of God in 1884 in Michigan. "Seventh Day" was not added to the name until 1923.
"I want you to consider the heritage that our pioneers left us," Mr. Coulter said. "First of all, they left us a rich heritage of doctrines ... They articulated the doctrine of salvation in Jesus alone, Sabbath-keeping, conditional immortality, the unconscious state of the dead and the reestablishment of the state of Israel."
The Church of God founders "did not claim to be prophets, nor apostles or anyone special. In fact, they just said, like James said of Elijah, that we're men of like passions as he."
But the founders' greatest gift to today's COG membership, Mr. Coulter said, was "that they left us a church with an open creed."
Mr. Coulter explained what he was talking about when he said "open creed."
It means that "our church is a work in progress and has been since its founding, even unto today. We can study and, as God's Spirit leads us into a deeper, better understanding of certain principles and doctrines, can make a change without imputing the integrity or honesty of our founders. And we have done so ...
"I think that's what it means when Peter says grow in the grace of the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ: to be a work in progress in spiritual development toward the goal of the high mark of the calling of God."
As an example of growing while unfettered by a closed creed, Mr. Coulter said today's CG7 understands "grace in a way that our founders didn't understand.
"Even though they proclaimed that we were saved by grace in Christ alone, they still had a certain legalism in their practice. They didn't understand the terms of the New Covenant as well as we do."
Covenant includes God's laws
Mr. Coulter believes that understanding the New Covenant doesn't mean Christians should "abandon the law of God," but rather to understand that God's laws are a continuous part of the New Covenant."
The church pioneers also didn't understand "Christology, the nature of Christ, as we do," he said. "Christ is God the Son, who shares the attributes of God with His Father. Most of our pioneers were Arian, and some were even adoptionist. But thank God the Holy Spirit, through study, has led us to a better understanding of who Christ is."
The Journal has encountered more than one technical definition of Arian over the years as a result of its reporting. Mr. Coulter defined the term as referring to a person who believes Jesus existed as a spirit being before His conception in Mary but was a creation of God the Father at some distant time toward past eternity.
When Mr. Armstrong was preaching under credentials of the CG7, the church was, by Mr. Coulter's definition, Arian. It believed God the Father created the Word as He had created the angels at some indefinite time in the past, perhaps before He created the universe.
The created Word united with the embryo in Mary's womb and became Jesus.
A form of binitarianism
The current CG7, at least the CG7 denomination headquartered in Denver, has not officially believed in Arianism so defined for many years, said Mr. Coulter.
Rather, CG7 Denver believes in a form of what he acknowledged could be called binitarianism, although not exactly the binitarianism believed and taught by Mr. Armstrong.
For example, Mr. Armstrong never referred to the Holy Spirit with the personal pronouns He, Him and His. But Mr. Coulter said he believes it is proper to do so, even though at the same time he believes the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Father and the Son rather than a third member of the Godhead.
"Our dogma has evolved and will continue to evolve," he explained. "I hope we don't evolve from the truth of God's Word for convenience ... but we can evolve without ever imputing the integrity or honesty of our founders."
Mr. Coulter talked about his personal history in the church, along with the development of the CG7 and the origin of its theology.
"I grew up in the Church of God (Seventh Day) from the age of 7 onward," he said. "My father was converted when I was 7 years old, and, without being taught by anyone, he began to keep the Sabbath."
When Robert Coulter was a teenager he came across a book by Andrew Dugger and Clarence Dodd called The History of the True Church.
"Dugger was a guest in our home a couple of nights when I was a child," he said. "I knew C.O. Dodd and his family. His daughter is about the same age as me. We grew up as teenagers in the church together."
Mr. Dugger's and Mr. Dodd's book was later published as The History of the True Religion, copyrighted in 1936.
"Dodd, by the way," said Mr. Coulter, "did disavow any interest in this book at a later period, recognizing it was based on a faulty premise. The premise of this book is that you can trace the history of the Church of God (Seventh day) back through the ages to apostolic times."
Although the Dugger-and-Dodd book lists "five or six" criteria that its two writers said pertain to true religion, "it's interesting that when the church was founded in the middle of the 19th century it did not observe all of these things.
Mr. Dugger and Mr. Dodd believed they could trace the true church back through the Mill Yard Church, a Seventh Day Baptist congregation founded in England in about 1653, and, earlier, through other Seventh Day Baptists.
The important doctrines they found in those groups included the Sabbath, the name Church of God, baptism by immersion, communion (or Passover) on Nissan 14, foot-washing at the Passover service, an Arian disbelief in the Trinity and "conditional immortality" (that is, people can gain salvation -- immortality -- by faith in God and Jesus but do not automatically possess it).
Yet, said Mr. Coulter, the Church of God in the 19th century embraced only four of the precepts: the Sabbath, the belief in the Second Coming, baptism by immersion and an anti-Trinity belief.
"Our founders didn't know anything about the Hebrew calendar," he said. "It wasn't until about the 1860s or 1870s that a brother from Texas visited the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and stumbled onto a copy of the perpetual Hebrew calendar."
Whenever they felt like it
Also, the 19th-century Church of God members observed communion, or Passover, "whenever they felt like it," not just on an annual day as established by the Hebrew calendar.
Further, the church in the 19th century did not for many years call itself the Church of God. Various congregations had various names.
"So the truth is that the Church of God had its birth in the United States in 1858 without European or other influence older than the religious movements of the 19th century. In other words, our pioneers were not influenced by what had gone on through the ages to the 19th century.
"Our movement began out of religious movements that had their founding in the 19th century starting with William Miller's Advent movement."
The early Church of God -- the brethren of the 1800s -- didn't have a statement of belief, he said, and individual congregations differed with other congregations on their specific practices.
"They had opinions, but not statements. They had no statements on Christology. They had no statement on the frequency of communion and how it ought to be taken. They had no statement on baptism. They didn't even have a direct statement on Sabbath-keeping."
Therefore early Church of God (that is, 19th-century Church of God) doctrine evolved from "personal Bible study and from the influence of others who had studied the Bible and been led by the Holy Spirit to adopt positions that went beyond William Miller's understanding of the Lord Jesus Christ."
Mr. Coulter concluded this part of his presentation: "We are a 19th-century creation. We cannot trace our history back to apostolic times."
Three became one
Mr. Coulter said the church developed from a union of three regional 19th-century churches:
Gilbert Cranmer's group, founded in 1858 in Michigan, which became known two years later as the Church of Christ.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Marion, Iowa, founded June 10, 1860, by Merritt E. Cornell, who like Mr. Cranmer was a Millerite Adventist but a Sunday keeper until Joseph Bates convinced him to keep the Sabbath in 1852.
Some in this loose affiliation of groups called themselves the Church of the Firstborn and some the Church of Jesus Christ.
"They were Adventists, Sabbath-keeping," Mr. Coulter said, "and believed in the conditional immortality and the resurrection of the righteous at the advent of Christ."
A church in Daviess County, in northwestern Missouri, that learned of the Marion, Iowa, group in 1866. The Missouri group was founded in 1858 by two men who were evangelists associated with James and Ellen White's still-unorganized Adventist Sabbath-keeping movement.
However, when Mrs. White began having certain visions, the groups in northwestern Missouri became disillusioned with her, and about half of those brethren severed their association with the Whites. One of those leaders was a man named A.C. Long, and those Christians became the General Conference of the Church of God.
Mr. Coulter said he finds interesting the differences in the organizational policies of the SDAs and the Churches of Gods at that time.
The SDAs were organized by the Whites so their affiliation could own property.
"But when our conference was organized it was a grassroots effort. It originated in Iowa and Missouri. We had state conferences. Each passed a resolution earlier in the year that they needed to organize a general conference."
Principles rather than doctrines
The doctrines of the Churches of God have evolved into the present assortment of beliefs, said Mr. Coulter.
"The first issue of Hope of Israel [magazine] was published on Aug. 10, 1863, and in that first issue the doctrinal positions of the church were stated.
"This would be the doctrinal position of the Church of Christ in Michigan. Up to this time the church in Iowa did not know about the Michigan church, and the Missouri church hadn't yet fully developed into a church."
The doctrines in those days were what Mr. Coulter calls "principles."
"They said we will maintain these Bible principles. They didn't call them doctrines. One of the reasons they wanted to stay away from doctrines was because of the sad experience with the Whites."
The Michigan group set the tone for the whole church, he said.
In Michigan Mr. Cranmer "came to understand God to be unitarian in nature. In other words, Jesus was not God, the Holy Spirit was not God, but God the Father alone is God."
Character bested doctrine
In the Michigan church's practice, the Bible was the supreme authority, and "character" was valued more than doctrine.
The earliest of the churches that would become known as Churches of God adopted the Church of God name in Iowa in 1866.
"It changed its name from the Church of Jesus Christ," Mr. Coulter said. The Missouri brethren started out as the Sabbatarian Adventist Church but changed their name to Church of God in 1875.
Concerning what Mr. Coulter calls Arianism, the belief that Jesus preexisted Mary but hasn't always existed, he said that "if you're not careful when you become anti-Trinitarian you actually devalue the position of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. Some of our pioneers devalued the identity of Christ and some of the work of the Holy Spirit.
"It's unfortunate but it's true, and you can't deny the skeletons that are in your closet, and we have a few skeletons in our history."
Some were terrible
Mr. Coulter said that "another segment" of the churches became what church historians would call "adoptionists."
Some of the churches believed Jesus had no preexistence but was "the natural son of Mary and Joseph and that God in some point in time adopted Him as the Son of God."
That view is known as "adoptionism," and "that's a terrible heresy," Mr. Coulter said.
By the beginning of the 20th century "the church pretty much had adopted the Arian view, although unofficially. Our Christology was really bad."
The first official statement of doctrine concerning the nature of Jesus came in 1949 when what is presently the Denver conference adopted the Arian view, Mr. Coulter said.
Mr. Coulter said Church of God members need not be concerned that their church is not the oldest church on the face of the earth.
"Antiquity does not make a church legitimate.
"Think about it. There are churches who are much, much older than we that we probably consider much less legitimate than ourselves."
What makes Christians legitimate, he said, "is our faith. It's who we are, what we believe and how we live. That's what gives us legitimacy with the Lord.
"Thank God, I think we have a unique mix of theology. We're not solely His church, but we're a part of His church on a worldwide basis."
Concerning other Christians -- that is, Christians who don't keep the Sabbath -- Mr. Coulter said the CG7 is nonjudgmental.
"Only God knows the hearts of men and women. Of course I'm committed to Sabbath-keeping and so on, but I don't make a judgment on Sabbath alone. I know too many people who have a godly heart who began before they became Sabbath keepers.
"It could be that their conversion experience in a first-day church was only the beginning of their spiritual journey."
Mr. Armstrong and the CG7
Mr. Coulter talked extensively about Worldwide Church of God founder Herbert W. Armstrong and Mr. Armstrong's relationship with the CG7.
He referred to Mr. Armstrong's statements that, although he was ordained in the CG7, he was not a member of the CG7.
"It is kind of unusual to claim to be a minister of the church in which you are not a member," Mr. Coulter said.
Mr. Coulter proceeded to mention points of what he considered evidence that Mr. Armstrong was indeed a member of the CG7.
In Mr. Armstrong's autobiography, he noted, Mr. Armstrong wrote that he was ordained to the ministry in the CG7 by the authority of the Oregon State Conference.
In that same book Mr. Armstrong reproduces a picture of the second certificate of his ministerial license.
Nothing but the truth
"Now he makes this statement," Mr. Coulter said of Mr. Armstrong: "I was ordained by, and under the authority of, the Oregon Conference of the Church of God, separately incorporated; not by the Stanberry, Mo., headquarters.'
"As far as that goes," continued Mr. Coulter, "that's true, but it doesn't tell the whole truth."
In his autobiography Mr. Armstrong wrote: "I had never joined the church whose headquarters were at Stanberry, Mo."
Mr. Coulter sees two possibilities to explain puzzling statements by Mr. Armstrong about his CG7 membership or lack of it.
"Mr. Armstrong showed a pretty serious lack of understanding of our polity, of our organizational policies of the Church of God (Seventh Day). He did not seem to understand. It might be that he didn't realize that the Oregon State Conference operated under the auspices of the Stanberry."
"The other possibility is that he didn't want to admit being a member of a church that he came to hold in contempt."
Mr. Coulter emphasized that he believes Mr. Armstrong held the CG7 "in a certain derision or contempt ... He certainly was not willing to admit to having had much of a relationship to it."
Sometime between Mr. Armstrong's conversion in 1927 and his baptism, "he would have had to accept membership in a congregation of the Church of God (Seventh Day) because when you become a member of our church you become a member of the conference. You do not join [only] a state conference. You do not join the general conference directly."
Even a person who was considered to be an "isolated member" would still technically have to be an official member of some local congregation, Mr. Coulter said.
"When Mr. Armstrong received a ministerial license from the Oregon State Conference, he was receiving it by the authority of the general conference, because the Oregon State Conference, even though it was incorporated locally, was actually authorized and operated under the auspices of the conference whose headquarters at the time was Stanberry, Mo.
"So either he was ignorant of that or did not want to admit it. That's the only explanation I have for that."
Severed all ties?
Although Mr. Armstrong "gives the impression" in his autobiography that by 1933 he had severed all ties with the CG7, "here is something that I don't think is revealed," Mr. Coulter began.
He said Mr. Armstrong was a close associate of Andrew N. Dugger and that Mr. Armstrong looked upon Mr. Dugger as a mentor.
In 1933 Mr. Dugger "led a rebellion in the Church of God (Seventh Day)" after failing to gain office during a conference of August 1933. "On Nov. 4, 1933, Andrew Dugger and several colleagues organized a separate conference at Salem, W.Va., to compete with the conference at Stanberry, Mo., which was the original one organized in 1884."
Mr. Dugger and friends tried to create the illusion that the new Salem headquarters was the legitimate successor to the original organizers of the CG7, Mr. Coulter said.
"As evidence, [Mr. Dugger] used the name General Conference of the Church of God, and he issued a volume of the magazine that carried the same volume and number as the magazine that was published in Stanberry, Mo."
The new Salem conference could boast of several "unique features" that set it apart from the Stanberry conference, Mr. Coulter said, "and this is where Herbert Armstrong comes into play here."
Salem organized around a structure that Mr. Dugger called "Bible or scriptural organization." This terminology referred to a board of 12 men whose objective was to oversee the spiritual life of the church.
The Salem-based folks elected a board of seven men to conduct the business of the church.
They identified 70 elders, ministers or evangelists "who would go out to carry out the gospel endeavors of the Church of God (Seventh Day)."
They stated that the church's world headquarters was to be in Jerusalem.
They decided to "appropriate apostolic succession for its authority to govern in this manner and to function as it was supposed to function."
The 12, 70 and 7
"Now, on Nov. 4, which was a Sabbath, 1933, a group of men, members, gathered in Salem, W.Va., and they had prayer and so on, and they wrote 140 names of different ministers and prominent laypeople in the church, both in the United States and places abroad. There were names from Mexico, Norway and other countries which were placed in a box."
The gathered members entreated God and drew names for the board of 12 and the board of 70. Among the 70 was the name of Mr. Armstrong.
Then they voted on who would serve on the board of seven.
The Salem conference sent to the 70 men a form letter for each man -- including Mr. Armstrong -- to fill out and return.
The form letter read in part:
"Dear Brethren: I am anxious to begin the ministry which has fallen to me by lot in the body and am determined by the help of the Lord to live and to teach the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus as found in the holy Scriptures, and as outlined in the constitution of the Church of God with world headquarters in Jerusalem, Palestine. Will you please record my acceptance and have a credential issued to me according to my ministry in the Body."
Mr. Armstrong returned his copy undated to 1142 Hall St., Salem, W.Va., marked to the attention of the office of the "Salem church."
The significance of all this, said Mr. Coulter, is that the Salem conference offered Mr. Armstrong a credential and Mr. Armstrong accepted it, "which means that they considered him to be a member of the church. Notice the words 'Church of God with headquarters in Jerusalem, Palestine.'"
Clean and unclean
Mr. Armstrong, Mr. Coulter continued, did not receive his credential immediately because "there were some ministers in the Salem organization who needed to have him clarify his position on the clean and unclean foods."
When Mr. Armstrong replied that he believed in abstaining from unclean meats for health reasons but not because he believed eating unclean meats was a sin, the conference issued his credential.
Mr. Coulter gave a summary of several reports Mr. Armstrong sent to conference officials:
He sent a report dated March 23, 1936, describing the completion of six weeks of meetings at the Eldridge School House 12 miles east of Eugene, Ore.
He reported he was broadcasting on a radio station out of Eugene.
He sent word of a successful tent meeting at an unnamed location.
He reported in September 1936 broadcasting on radio regularly and making plans to hold a campaign on the Pacific coast of Oregon.
He reported March 22, 1937, that he had expanded his radio work by adding three stations, which now covered the entire Willamette Valley.
His report dated July 12, 1937, indicated that he was holding an evangelistic campaign in Eugene.
Cease and desist
Between receiving his ministerial credentials in November 1933 and the spring of 1937, Mr. Armstrong began to advocate the observance of "the annual Hebrew festivals," Mr. Coulter said.
Since the CG7 had never taught the need to observe the festivals, church leaders decided to convene a conference in Detroit, Mich., May 5-10, 1937, to discuss them.
"They invited [Mr. Armstrong] to come to that meeting and explain his position on the observance of the annual Hebrew festivals."
Mr. Armstrong didn't attend, but he did send a long article to be read at the conference to explain his position.
Mr. Coulter's childhood pastor and mentor, the late Kenneth H. Freeman, was the man the ministerial body of the conference selected to read Mr. Armstrong's statement.
"It was probably quite a lengthy document, from what I understand," Mr. Coulter said. "Elder Freeman told me he read the document and after he got through reading it some of the other ministers accused him of supporting Elder Armstrong's position ... He read it with such feeling."
Mr. Freeman responded that he was not supporting Mr. Armstrong's position. Rather, he was trying simply to do a good job of reading the statement.
The ministers at the conference discussed Mr. Armstrong's statement and decided to "ask Herbert Armstrong to cease and desist from teaching in the future the observance of the Hebrew festivals."
However, Mr. Armstrong continued to teach that Christians should keep the feast days.
"So the ministerial council then revoked his credentials in the spring of 1938, and that ended his relationship with the Church of God (Seventh Day)."
Mr. Coulter concluded that Mr. Armstrong was an active minister of the Salem branch of the CG7 from 1933 to 1938.
The Stanberry office was the successor to the 1884 organization, the General Conference of the Church of God (Seventh Day), and a few years later, in 1949, Salem acknowledged that fact when it reunited with Stanberry.
"There was quite a bit of enmity and dissension between Stanberry and Salem for a time," Mr. Coulter said. "It's not a bright, happy time. In fact, I think it's a blight on our history. Nevertheless it occurred."
Mr. Coulter noted that the Salem conference, during its time of separation from Stanberry, made up an official seal that stated around its edge: "Church of God (Seventh Day), Organized 33 A.D., Jerusalem, Palestine, Reorganized 1933, Salem, W.Va., U.S.A."
Mr. Coulter sees that wording as a misleading attempt to authenticate the notion that an unbroken line of apostolic succession existed between the 1st century and the CG7 of the 20th.