6 Things You Learn Living In (And Killing) A Cult
The Church Of Scientology managed to gain worldwide infamy, despite numbering only roughly 25,000 in the U.S. That's a damn fine annoyance per capita ratio. At its height, the Worldwide Church Of God had nearly 90,000 members in the United States, and you've never heard of them. Its followers didn't believe in space alien ghosts or anything, but they used to have other things in common with Scientology: both were founded by a charismatic hustler who told them not to go to the doctor, for example. And yet today the Worldwide Church Of God is more church than cult. That's a rare transition: From crazy to sane. It usually runs the other way, and doesn't stop until the men in white coats take it down with a net. Mike Feazell is part of the reason for WCG's shift to respectability. We asked him how he managed to pull a full-blown cult out of its tailspin of insanity, and he told us ...
It Started With A Crazed Ad-Man Who Found God
Mike came into the Worldwide Church Of God when he was three. He grew up in the church through the '50s and '60s, until he became an adult and started looking for work. The church operated its own school, had several locations all over the world, and a sprawling media empire that reached millions.
Eventually, Mike became a denominational administrator and began to interact with the church founder, Herbert Armstrong. This guy.
You know, that guy you've never heard of, despite being bigger than Jerry Falwell and Oral Roberts.
As Mike explained, "His business was advertising ... and he was very good at it. He had a very strong persuasive, Type-A personality. And he grew up during the period of what they call the captains of industry and ... admired the big industrial leaders."
At some point Herbert's wife became "a kind of fanatic" for the Church Of God Seventh Day, whose major contention was that all the other Christians were wrong for not keeping the Sabbath, Jewish-style.
Later, a similar interpretation would lead to Ozzy Osbourne creating the Christian rock band Black Sabbath.
At first, "he was very embarrassed by that and felt that all his business associates would think he was an idiot and so he spent, as he put it, six months ... and finally concluded they were right. So then he got religion, and he just decided he should start preaching."
Herbert's following expanded quickly, and he immediately took the expertise he'd picked up as an ad-man and put it to work for God. "He started his World Tomorrow radio program. He started a magazine ... that grew, and eventually he moved to Pasadena and started a college ... so he was just indefatigable and persuasive ... in many ways pioneered radio evangelism."
He started one of the first evangelical radio shows, The World Tomorrow, and it did well enough to justify moving from Oregon to Pasadena, securing some office space, and purchasing a printing press. To Mike and all his other followers, Herbert Armstrong was the world's only hope for salvation. Out of a chaotic, squabbling mass of fractured denominations, he'd gone back to the Bible and presented his followers with 'true' Christianity.
"So that's why people followed him. It was the one and only true church."
Here's where the ominous music kicks in.
Medicine And Birthday Parties Were Sins Against The Lord
You may have seen, and been subsequently infuriated by, stories like these ...
Well the Worldwide Church Of God was once one of those churches, and yes, you're going to have to read about dead kids. Sorry. Tomorrow's article is about jet robots, we promise.
Mike explained, "I wouldn't say that it was a common occurrence. I know it did happen. I know at least one , when I was in junior high school, a boy a couple years younger than I got appendicitis and died of it."
While these deaths were viewed as "tragic," the party line was that, "Whoever dies is in God's hands ... for whatever reason he chose not to intervene for this person and we trust him anyway because he gave us so many good years with them." But, people being people, and people being terrible, losing a child to "prayer therapy" was something parents could be judged for. Not because they hadn't gone to the doctor, but because, "There was the idea that if you really had enough faith you would've been healed so there's probably some sin in your life that you hadn't repented of."
Never mind that no one else in the church has ever prayed their way out of renal failure; this is your fault.
There were basically three kinds of reaction from church members, when someone died of an untreated illness, Mike told us: "Some people who would say, I don't know if I would have that kind of faith ... there would be a few who in their heart of hearts would say, what an idiot they should've gotten medical help ... and there would be some who'd say, well if they had more faith their son would've been healed. And I think that's probably where most people would come down."
Note that there was one weird exception:
"The church teaching was ... if you had an accident you could go get your bone set, but if you had a disease ... that was God's will ... it doesn't make any sense really, it doesn't add up, but accidents were OK to go to the doctor and somehow diseases weren't."
"Hmm ... My toe is infected. Better cut it off so a doctor can have a look at it."
We also spoke to Jeff, Mike's son, who grew up in the church when his dad was a pastor. He told us, "We couldn't get vaccinations. I remember getting the flu every year." But even so, he felt sorry for the healthy masses of the world: "I believed I was fortunate to be born into this group of people who knew what's up."
"I'd jump up and cheer, except I'm not strong enough to move at the moment."
But as he grew, the church's proscriptions against things like 'birthday presents' and 'Christmas celebrations' had him feeling a bit less stoked. His family members who did "keep Christmas" were treated as if they had some dark secret, like a drug addiction or a subscription to Cinemax: "There was an old woman who was some kind of relative of ours. To this day I don't remember how ... I just remember being told 'she keeps Christmas so don't bring that up'."
Mike explained that this was simply because the Bible never mentioned birthdays in a positive light. There were two birthday celebrations mentioned in the bible: "One was the birthday of the pharaoh, when Joseph was imprisoned in Egypt." The pharaoh wound up hanging his baker for reasons that don't really make sense to us, being idiot heathens and all. Still, not exactly a fun party. The Bible's only other birthday party was for infamous bad guy Herod, and it ended with the beheading of John the Baptist. Perhaps the meaning of 'party' has changed over time ...
It Was Both A Church, And A Wildly Successful Business
The good news is, sentiment eventually prevailed, and after a re-study of the subject, Mike's family began to Mike let his son celebrate holidays ... but only in secret at first. "I think in 1989 we secretly celebrated Christmas from inside the house ... we couldn't put anything on the outside of the house, it was a church-owned house.
As a denominational level administrator, pretty much everything Jeff and Mike had was actually church property, along with a sizeable chunk of Pasadena. The church magazine, The Plain Truth, enjoyed a circulation of eight million and the church was flush enough with donations to essentially create their own city within a city. Jeff recalled:
"The church even had its own gas station that we would fill up our church car at ... everything was in-house. The church physically printed ... these magazines and pamphlets in its own Pasadena print shop. The TV broadcast was all created and shot in church studios, on church property. The church employed thousands of people. My dad's first job at the church was as a landscaper and other than three years as a public school teacher in Arizona, he's never had another his entire life."
The risk of eternal damnation is a great motivator to produce immaculate looking lawns.
Mike described the Pasadena headquarters as "a 43-acre campus, a college with 1200 students. It had a press facility ... at one time with 1500 employees alone. A TV studio that had a couple hundred employees, the maintenance department alone was pretty big because you had several hundred buildings."
And that maintenance department? You had to be careful around them: Mike explained, "They would go in and check outlets and plumbing from time to time ... and Jeff had put some Christmas lights around his bed, because he thought they were cool. It actually had nothing to do with Christmas ... one of ... I think it was one of the plumbers or painters ... he saw those lights, and he went out and told all of his coworkers and so on that we were keeping Christmas. He was right ... but he didn't have any evidence besides those lights."
"If you have a better way to keep the devil's darkness from under the boy's bed, I'd like to hear it."
They got away with the great sin of festive lighting, but the fear of being caught and shamed kept many believers in line. And so, for a while, Herbert Armstrong had his own mini-nation of controlled believers within the United States. But then he died, at the ripe old age of 92. By that time, Mike had risen to be one of the church's senior leaders, and senior advisor to the man Armstrong appointed his successor, Joseph Tkach.
So now we're inside the upper echelon of a powerful cult. Surely, this absolute power corrupted poor Mike absolutely, and everything went downhill until we wind up in Reebok and Kool-Aid land.
When The Founder Died, We Started Questioning 'Doctrine'
Armstrong was dead, but not forgotten: Jeff recalled that some of the most common questions for misbehaving kids were, "what would Mr. Armstrong say? What if Mr. Armstrong saw you do that?"
Mike explained that when Armstrong was alive, he'd told the other church leaders, "If anything were wrong with the doctrine, God would reveal it to him ... but with him being dead we had to answer those things ourselves ... so we developed a committee of leading ministers at headquarters who would meet, and we would go through the booklets and review all the statements and scriptures that were found there and also answer any questions that would come up. We found there were legitimate questions."
Hopefully starting with how a holy book written in the iron age could possibly have an opinion on electric lights.
The first few were about pretty minor points of biblical doctrine like, "The date that Israel went out of Egypt ... but in his booklet he had said it with such vigor that ... if he was wrong, it threw everything into question ... Eventually the issue of healing was among those dominoes as they began to fall."
As Mike explains it, his deep faith in the teachings of Herbert Armstrong actually led him to undo some of the harmful beliefs: "I accepted everything that Herbert Armstrong taught. His mantra was, don't believe me, believe the bible. And he'd have a biblical explanation for every one of his doctrines. I had never really studied it critically with the idea of, does it really make sense? Does it hold up? Once I did have to do that, once it fell upon us to make sure everything in our booklet was defensible ... that's when you'd see a crack here, and a crack there. But even then it was very much a 'well Mr. Armstrong didn't understand this but his overall picture was right and he's still God's true anointed one.'"
It's kind of hard to deny that Armstrong's track record wasn't exactly flawless.
Gradually, corrections started going out to the church members around the world. Mike described many followers as supportive, although he also told us about one man he met, years later, at a Church event who "Had really actually wanted to kill me ... he was so angry."
But for Mike -- and for Herbert Armstrong's successor Joseph Tkach -- the questioning actually started a year or so before their "end time apostle" died.
We Broke The Rules To Save A Life
In the last years of his life, Herbert Armstrong received regular medical treatment from cardiologists. This was in direct opposition to his stated stance on modern medicine, so do try to at least act surprised by the hypocrisy. Despite preaching fervently that psychiatry was the medical practice of the devil, L. Ron Hubbard died with a psychiatric medication in his system. And Ayn Rand, who was something of a cult leader in her own life, used Medicare. Cults are more of a "do as I say, not as I do" kind of thing.
No doubt the grieving parents of the "prayer therapy" kids from earlier just loved that.
Mike gives us an inside look:
"It was kind of ah, not publicly known within the church. But it was a great subject of the rumor mill. So yeah, those who knew about it found it distressing and detractors cited it as hypocrisy and so on."
The only man bold enough to call the anointed Apostle out was Joseph Tkach, who was not yet Armstrong's official successor. "He said, 'Look you know the teaching is to not use doctors and here you are using doctors ... kind of ... shook his head and said 'I, I feel very guilty.'" But when Tkach suggested that this meant the doctrine was in need of revision, Armstrong said, "No, I think it's right ... I think I don't have enough faith. I'm not doing the right thing."
What would Herbert Armstrong would have to say about that kind of behavior ...?
This was still very fresh in Mike's mind when, three years after Herbert Armstrong's death, his son Jeff fell ill.
"I expected it would clear up at first, we had him anointed and we were giving him plenty of liquids and monitoring his fever and we kept hoping he'd get better, but he didn't and that's when I started to think, I've got to look at this more seriously."
Suddenly, denying medical care to his dying son didn't seem like such a good idea.
"I thought, why is it that we don't want to go to the doctor? ... I looked at scriptures ... Luke was a physician, who wrote one of the gospels, and ... God works through police, doesn't he? God is your provider but you still get a job to provide groceries ... where do you stop with this thing? So what's the deal, if you get sick you take advantage of what is available?"
"A life vest? As I recall, Moses parted the waters."
He thought of how Herbert Armstrong hadn't had the faith to deny himself lifesaving care, and essentially decided, "Well why the hell should we be expected to show more faith than an Apostle?"
"The bottom line that occurred to me was, maybe if I'm sick and I have pneumonia and I have faith and I'm willing to die, than bully for me. But how do I impose that on a kid?"
Mike and his wife chose to take their son to the hospital. They got him there just in the nick of time.
"When we took him in he had about a 104 fever and this hacking cough, and was totally listless and was progressively getting worse."
Modern medicine dealt with Jeff's illness easily, because antibiotics are the best invention since birthday parties and Christmas lights. Mike never wound up admitting to the bulk of the church what he'd done. But he did set to work changing the church's attitude on medicine.
When your policies begin to inspire survivors groups, it might be time to at least consider a rewrite.
"And then I went to and I said, look I think it's time we get serious about this. Maybe it's down the line but I think we need to bring it up in importance on the docket, because this is where I am on it and I don't think we should delay. It seems too urgent to me now that I've had to experience it."
Perhaps shockingly, given everything else we've ever heard about cults, once Mike suggested challenging the prohibition against basic healthcare, the other leaders agreed without much debate. For once, rational thought prevailed! Rational thought was as surprised as anybody.
But It Was Dropping The Crazy Stuff That Killed The Church
A new booklet updating the church's teachings was quickly released. Mike described the initial reactions from worshippers as "mixed."
"There was a segment of people who felt that it was a great apostasy; one more sign the church was departing from the true teachings of God ... There were people who left the church" but, on the whole, "Most of the church was very happy about it."
Who could've guessed that letting people care for their children would be met with a positive response?
It turned out many worshippers had been treating basic healthcare like weed, doing it in the privacy of their own homes while hoping "the church would come to its senses on the topic." Mike describes this as the first "crack in the dam" today, "but at the time, to us, it just seemed like, here's something that's wrong we need to fix. And I think that's true of any charismatically started movement. Once the leader dies, it'll break apart. You no longer have the loyalty to that person which is what got it started in the first place."
In light of this lunacy -- seeing a doctor, like a crazy person! -- other charismatic leaders rose up and declared themselves the true heirs to Herbert Armstrong's legacy of denying children flu shots. Mike told us about two specific "charismatic type fellows" who founded their own one-true-churches that immediately did what cults do best: split up families.
Oh, and produce an absolute mountain of apocalyptic YouTube videos.
"These are both churches who think they have the one and only true religion and they throw people out for associating with family members in one of the other splinter groups."
And there were no shortage of conspiracy theories about Mike and his fellow reformers. Jeff once wrote a descriptive blurb about his illness, trying to drum up support for an independent short film based on that experience (the film is currently in production). The comments section immediately turned into a debate over whether or not his father, Mike, and the other "liberators" were really just growing fat off the backs of the faithful.
At least it's refreshing to know that, regardless of faith or creed, internet commenters are all basically dicks.
We can't speak to the size of Mike's bank account, but Jeff had to fight to drum up $7 grand for his movie. Not exactly "rollin' deep in my ill-begotten gains" money. And the actions of the church leadership after Armstrong's death certainly didn't seem like the actions of greedy con-men. The Church Of Scientology doubled down on sucking money out of its followers after L. Ron Hubbard's death. The Worldwide Church Of God did the opposite when Herbert Armstrong died.
"We had a tithe system, the first that goes to the work of the church, the second for yourself to spend at church festivals, and a third tithe every third year for the poor."
So basically all those health insurance savings right back out the door.
So that was 20 percent of your income to the church most years, and 30 percent every third year. Even Mormons aren't expected to give like that. With Armstrong dead, it was something Mike and the other "liberators" decided they couldn't justify.
"We had to change that. And naturally the income plummeted. So yeah, that was kind of like shooting yourself in the foot strategically, economically ... we had to cut the TV program, we had to cut the Plain Truth magazine and book program, eventually we had to close the college ..."
"Look, there's just no budget for frills this year. Do we really need a Second Corinthians?"
There are still some 50,000 members in the one-time Worldwide Church Of God (after a name change in 2009 it's now called Grace Communion International), but they no longer shun flu shots or birthday parties. What was once, Mike admitted, "a cult" that urged its members to risk their lives rather than see doctors, now has a more enlightened attitude on medicine than many rich, white neighborhoods in California.
It's hard to say what the message here is, other than "hope your cult leader hands over power to decent people when he dies." And that's not really practical advice. So we guess we'll instead say "have a fun birthday party."
Jeff is a freelance video editor for Cracked, and just successfully funded a short film about a cult. It's called The Future of Man and it stars Roger, from our Honest Ads videos.
Robert Evans has a book, A Brief History of Vice about how bad behavior built civilization.
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