By Russel Chandler
January 17, 1986
Herbert W. Armstrong, a pioneer radio preacher who used his sales talents to build the multimillion-dollar Pasadena-based Worldwide Church of God, died early Thursday at his home in Pasadena. He was 93.
Armstrong “died peacefully at 5:59 a.m. while resting in the favorite chair of his late wife, Loma,” church spokesman David Hulme said. The cause of death was “basically just the effects of becoming old, just old age,” Hulme added. “He began to suffer with it back in August.”
His death was announced two days after Joseph K. Tkach, director of church administration, was named Armstrong’s successor.
“I am in a very physically weakened state enduring severe pain and with virtually no strength whatsoever,” Armstrong wrote church members earlier this week.
Although television viewers saw videotapes of Armstrong as recently as last Sunday, he taped his last telecast in August, Hulme said, adding that a decision will be made later about whether the taped appearances will continue.
The deteriorating physical condition that marked Armstrong’s final months was in marked contrast to the rest of his long and controversial life.
The jet-setting Armstrong was the patriarch of a religious empire often as mysterious as it was famous. In 1934 he founded the Radio Church of God on a shoestring in Eugene, Ore. He moved it to Pasadena in 1946, renamed it the Worldwide Church of God in 1968 and proceeded to build a lavish church headquarters and the Ambassador College campus near the corner of Orange Grove Avenue and Green Street.
In addition to the 725-student, four-year unaccredited Pasadena school, the church operates a 350-student junior college in Big Sandy, Tex., and controls the education- and culture-oriented Ambassador Foundation in Pasadena. The opulent Ambassador Auditorium, a pet Armstrong project and a showplace for performing arts concerts, was built for $11 million in 1974.
Armstrong brought in the Vienna Symphony for the auditorium’s debut at a cost of $112,000. A year later the foundation inaugurated a glittering 64-concert series featuring world-renowned artists.
In recent years, saying stress could put a fatal strain on his frail condition, his attorneys repeatedly tried to keep him from having to testify in church-related civil suits. Even when he was in good health, Armstrong ducked court appearances and rarely spoke to the media.
Armstrong suffered a serious heart attack in 1977, but he remained at the helm of the church, which claims a worldwide membership of 80,000 and an annual income of about $150 million.
He was once widowed and once divorced.
The Worldwide Church teaches a blend of Christian fundamentalism with non-Trinitarian and Seventh-day Sabbath (Saturday worship) doctrine. Although it is among the smallest of the nationally and internationally recognized religious bodies, it boasts media and financial power well beyond that of many larger church groups. Members are expected to contribute up to 30% of their income to the work of the church.
Armstrong, proclaiming himself the only “chosen Apostle of Christ,” flew extensive “good-will” missions in his private jet, extending church recognition and currying favor. He frequently lectured on world peace and presented expensive gifts to dignitaries and heads of state. His travels brought him personal audiences with such diverse leaders as Emperor Hirohito of Japan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain.
Armstrong also spoke on weekly radio and television broadcasts and was overseer of numerous Worldwide publications, including the popular 8-million free-circulation magazine, The Plain Truth. He was the author of several books, including “Mystery of the Ages,” described as a synopsis of the Bible and, according to Armstrong “the largest and most important book of my life.”
Over the years the church was tinged with apparent scandals and plagued by lawsuits and squabbles in the Armstrong family. These seemed only momentarily to slow the growth of the church, however, and to only temporarily impede the power of its founder-patriarch.
In 1984, the Worldwide Church lost a $1.26-million libel and slander suit (later appealed) that had been filed by the former wife of a Worldwide Church executive. She claimed in the suit that Armstrong and other church leaders had tried to smear her reputation after her 1976 divorce.
That same year Armstrong divorced his second wife, Ramona, then 45, after seven years of marriage. That bitter litigation reportedly cost the church more than $5 million in legal fees.
The church was racked during the late 1970s and early 1980s by sweeping defections, personnel shake-ups and continued allegations by several former members that Armstrong and other church leaders had siphoned off millions of dollars for personal use.