Why I Left the Philadelphia Church of God

01 Jul 2021 - Kieren Underwood

  1. First Doubts
  2. Forbidden Websites
  3. News Bureau Secrets
  4. Term Papers and Speeches
    1. Spokesmen's Club
    2. Speeches
    3. Papers
  5. Edstone
    1. Reading
    2. Classes
    3. A Lack of Seriousness
    4. Trump
  6. Facing Fears
    1. Stephen Flurry's Office Call
    2. The Assyria Video
  7. Leaving Headquarters for Good

Attention Conservation Notice: A long take on why I left a small, cult religious group that I grew up in. Directed almost entirely at the group itself, and will only be of marginal interest to outsiders.

I grew up in the Philadelphia Church of God (PCG). I attended Herbert W. Armstrong College (HWAC) for three and a half years, and was a writer for the Philadelphia Trumpet. This is the story of why I left the PCG–one I’m writing for four reasons.

The first is so that those who count themselves part of the group of members who have reason to doubt that everything the PCG says is correct have a story to read: about someone who thought the same way as them at an earlier point in time.

(Merely because of the title of this essay, almost all others outside that demographic have likely stopped reading already.)

The second is to dispel the notion, believed by some of those who knew me in the PCG, that there was some other reason apart from not believing the PCG was correct anymore for why I left. The closest people to me when I left in 2017 quickly came up with reasons so far from the mark that it was almost comical: That I had scored badly on a test while attending HWAC and become mad about it, or that I had left because a lady I was interested in had rejected me and I had become bitter.

The third reason is that I believe there are too many stories online which rely too much on accusations of emotional or mental abuse: ones that can be quickly dismissed by PCG members with reasoning along the lines of “humans make mistakes, but that does not mean the PCG isn’t God’s One Truth Church.” I’d also come across overblown stories of “kids being pushed too hard at PYC” or “ministers telling me to do something I didn’t want to do”–stories that, while not at all ideal, don’t do much to affect one’s opinion on the PCG’s status, especially if you are still under the illusion that everything else the PCG teaches is correct.

And finally, I’ve wanted to write this story for a while now–for myself–in order to sort out exactly how I changed my mind. Changing your mind happens only on rare occasions, and a change this big warrants some larger self-reflection. That type of self-reflection comes often from sitting down and writing until it all makes sense.

First Doubts

This probably wasn’t the first time I had doubts, but it’s a significant enough place to start.

During my first two years at HWAC, an exhibit was run in Armstrong Auditorium displaying several archaeological finds the PCG had been involved in. Exhibit visitors were given a tour of the kings of Judah. Along with archaeological finds which intersected with biblical stories, the tour ended with the claim that the prophet Jeremiah took the daughter of the king of Judah to Ireland.

Up until this point, this specific belief hadn’t seemed weird. It was something I knew mainline Christians didn’t believe, but it was never something I’d discussed with anyone outside the PCG community.

One day, I was told the following story. A student giving the tour was confronted by (most likely) an evangelical Christian to whom he was giving the tour: “That’s not true. Jeremiah didn’t go to Ireland,” the student was told. The student responded that Jeremiah did go to Ireland, and I assume he gave the exhibit goer the standard spiel that you could “find the proof in ‘the Irish annals,’” as Herbert W. Armstrong (HWA) had told us in the United States and Britain in Prophecy (USBIP).

Why did this impact me? I’m not entirely sure, but I think it had something to do with the unfamiliarity of being challenged on a belief. HWAC, as an institution, is extremely insular–unlike other colleges, you simply will not find a single person who will not publicly agree with every single thing that is taught in the curriculum. Of course, the PCG is like this as well–but if you live and work outside the HWAC campus, you’ll find yourself interacting with members of the public who don’t share your beliefs. HWAC provides an extra barrier of protection from opinions opposed to your own. When you don’t usually get challenged, challenges surprise you more.

The incident made me want to make sure I could prove Judah’s throne really had moved to Ireland. This meant, first, re-reading Armstrong’s book the USBIP.

For most members of the PCG, this would count as the first and last step of “proving” the above claim. You could do your due diligence by reading the book, and perhaps even going to the scriptures HWA mentioned in your own bible, checking that God really had promised that “David’s throne would last forever.” You could check that David’s dynasty had “supposedly” ended when the Babylonian’s killed all the Jewish heirs to the throne and get all the way until you reach the part where HWA tells you, sneakily, that the scripture never mentioned anything about the daughters being killed!

But HWA stopped quoting sources when he arrived at the part where Tea-Tephi–supposedly a daughter of a Jewish king–arrives in Ireland with the prophet Jeremiah. For that claim, he simply tells you it’s something that you can find in the “Irish annals.” No book reference, no page numbers, no quote.

That omission really impacted me, and I spent a good deal of my time, sitting in my study, searching obscure websites, trying to find which Irish historical documents contained the missing references to Jeremiah and Tea-Tephi.

My position in the HWAC study rooms was at the end of the hallway, next to the window–a spot that meant people couldn’t immediately see what was on my screen. At that time, and many times in the future, I would sit with my laptop facing away from anyone who happened to walk into the study–for some strange reason, there was a guilty feeling associated with trying too hard to search for evidence of HWA’s claims.

I didn’t end up coming to any conclusions after my failed search to find evidence for the USBIP’s central claim. I did find myself crying to sleep, for the first time ever wondering whether the HWA was wrong–wondering whether all my beliefs were wrong, because, as any PCG member would be able to tell you: if the USBIP is wrong, lots and lots of the other things you believe would have to be wrong as well.

This brief period of doubt ended with me crying and praying that God would show me the truth, and in time I managed to get on with my college experience–one where I was currently writing articles on the basis that Jeremiah really had transported the Jewish throne to Ireland (and eventually England), all without anyone in the country remembering that fact!

Forbidden Websites

The USBIP doubts never fully went away and would surface from time to time.

Once, I began to have doubts about how the United States could have been descended from the tribe of Manasseh, when its population had come from England–which was meant to be descended from the tribe of Ephraim. Unknown to me at the time, this is a pretty standard objection that arises when a normal member of the public is presented with this claim: “What?! How can the United States be Manasseh when its population came from England, the Netherlands, Germany, and all the other European countries?” The answer I gave myself at the time was that God must have hand-picked every English citizen who migrated to the United States based on whether they were a descendant of Manasseh or not. Of the other immigrants–Dutch, German, African, etc–I simply ignored them. Answering the question of how they were simultaneously from the tribe of Manasseh as well was just too hard.

Another time, before a choir rehearsal I was attending, I began to worry about the supposed Germany-Assyria connection, mainly because of the complete lack of mention of this connection in histories of the German people. I began reading the Wikipedia entry on German history during the rehearsal: an endeavour that didn’t do much to soothe doubts that I had at the time. Apparently no historian apart from the Worldwide Church of God’s (WCG) Herman Hoeh had ever noticed this incredible origin story. A better method was to just wait and hope I forgot about the question in time.

The problem (for the PCG) with the scarcity of explanations for the types of questions I had was that I turned to the internet to search for answers. There were two types of people online who attempted answers to this category of questions. The first were people in the extended Church of God (COG) community who believed (almost) the same things we did, and the second were people who used to believe the same things. Both had an impact on me.

The first group contained websites like the United Church of God (UCG), Restored Church of God (RCG), and Continuing Church of God (CCOG) websites. To the uninitiated observer, it would be almost impossible to differentiate between the PCG, RCG, UCG or CCOG. Searching for questions about the USBIP might lead me to UCG or RCG websites, which I would click on without even realizing they belonged to the dreaded category of Laodiceans.

Having not been old enough to have gone through the WCG split, the RCG and UCG were names that came up only briefly in sermons. One knew these groups were bad, but wasn’t really given too many good reasons for why that was so. They didn’t accept HWA as the so-called “End-time Elijah”, but at the same time, if you read any of what they wrote about HWA, it didn’t really seem to matter–they still believed and preached everything he taught just the same as the PCG did. Sure, we were told they were “lukewarm”, but if you read their websites, you really couldn’t tell exactly why that was the case.

A few years later, when I was living in Edstone, England, I asked Stephen Flurry a question: If members of Laodicean groups like the RCG or UCG had children, would those children be sent to their eternal death because they were part of those Laodicean groups? Sure, the parents had chosen not to follow The True Church, but the kids had never chosen–they simply grew up in error, just like mainline Christians had. Would they be punished just for being born in the wrong church?

Flurry told me that it was an interesting question, but that he didn’t know what the answer would be. But the line of questioning opened other thorny issues. What about people who had been searching for The True Church while remaining in other Laodicean groups, who had never managed to find the PCG? While travelling around the United States, I came across an elderly couple who just came into the PCG in the past year. They told me after years of searching for a group, they finally found the PCG’s Key of David on an early-morning TV channel. “Why didn’t you just google Herbert W. Armstrong?” I asked. “We didn’t know how to use the internet,” they told me. How many other people, I thought, are in the same situation, facing eternal death because of a lack of technological skills?

That wasn’t an isolated problem, of course. It was part of a wider set of questions: Why would God punish the hardest the group of people in the COG community who were closest to following exactly what he commanded (besides a small issue, which perhaps they were ignorant about!) and give another chance to those people who completely rejected Him? Things just didn’t make sense.

The second group of websites belonged to those people who used to believe. They were the type of people who wrote articles about the USBIP or even Malachi’s Message. One article I stumbled across, after making a rather innocuous search, claimed that Malachi’s Message was copied directly from a collection of seven letters called The Letter to Laodicea, written by Jules Dervaes. Jules Dervaes even claimed that among the 237 people who received the collected letters–before Malachi’s Message was even published–were Gerald Flurry and John Amos! At the time, all I could do was hope that whoever had written that article was lying. The only problem was, the photos of Jules Dervaes driving his van covered with signs telling the WCG it was in the Laodicean era and his detailed mailing lists (showing Barbara Flurry signing off on receiving the letters) made this possibility incredibly unlikely.

Even after noticing, or coming across, the above issues, I still believed the PCG’s doctrines were correct. The above issues would just nag at me, at various intervals, sitting there–unanswered–and waiting to be given a proper explanation.

News Bureau Secrets

Although everyone in the PCG’s New Bureau seemed genuine in their belief, and I enjoyed working with my boss, Robert Morley, there were a few episodes which stood out to me.

The first episode came when Robert Morley assigned an article to me about the “increasing number of earthquakes.” This was based on the prophecy in Matthew 24:7 where it says “there will be famines and earthquakes in various places”, which the PCG interpreted in this case to mean that in the lead up to Christ’s return there would be more earthquakes.

The WCG had done an article on this very topic in the past, claiming that the number of earthquakes had been increasing, but when I checked the sources and did some further digging, I realized there wasn’t any increase. Other “end-times”-focussed Christian groups also claimed this same increase, but made the same mistakes the WCG had.

In the end, I had to return to Morley and tell him there wasn’t any increase and we couldn’t write an article on the topic when there wasn’t any evidence for it. He agreed to sideline it. But that wasn’t the issue. The issues were that, firstly, the WCG had written about the topic in the Plain Truth, and it had been based on bogus evidence. Secondly, Morley suggested the article simply because the WCG had written on it in the past and something about earthquakes had come up in the news. Thirdly, since the number of earthquakes wasn’t actually increasing, we simply didn’t publish the article.

But this didn’t give the readers–the PCG members–the full story. If, by chance, earthquakes had been increasing in frequency, we would have written about it–confirming members’ “faith” that the end-times were getting closer. But if increases meant the end-times were near, wouldn’t an absence of increases mean the end-times weren’t near? The asymmetry, both of how the evidence impacted our thinking, and whether PCG members would find out about the topic if it didn’t fit the narrative, was troubling. When you publish the times where the evidence lines up, and fail to publish when the evidence doesn’t line up, you’re essentially lying to your audience.

I had similar thoughts when a group of writers, including Jeremiah Jacques, Robert Morley and Richard Palmer, were discussing an update of the booklet He Was Right. I have to apologize to the readers here because I don’t remember the exact details of the discussion–and I wasn’t involved, I just happened to be in the same room, listening in. A prediction that HWA had made came up and was being discussed by the group when Richard Palmer reminded them that it hadn’t actually come true. “Well, of course, we wouldn’t want to draw attention to that fact,” Jeremiah responded. And they all agreed, it probably wasn’t something they’d want to include in the book He Was Right.

Another example was when I bought the book The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America by Barry Latzer. I had bought the book with the mistaken assumption that Latzer had a thesis that crime in America was about to rise (it turned out Latzer had never said this). The book (under my mistaken assumption) was exactly the type of research material a PCG news bureau writer would want, because it fit with our narrative that the world was getting worse, crime was increasing, or society was becoming more degenerate. I read the entire book waiting for Latzer to show me how crime was going to increase, and in the end it never came. Actually, Latzer, tracking crime over the past 150 years, showed that the latest crime-rate peaks had ended in the 1990s, and that crime had steadily decreased to a historically low rate in the first two decades of the 21st century. The recent (two or so years) of increasing crime rates in the US–the ones that the news bureau had been writing about in the Philadelphia Trumpet–were comparatively way lower than the peaks of the 1960s and 80s.

This was another case of asymmetrical reporting. Consider the following: If the PCG were to report every year that crime rates increased over the previous year, but ignored every year they decreased, they would still be able to report that crime rates were increasing every couple of years. When overall US crime rates decreased, there were usually still a couple of anomalous states where crime did increase: the PCG could simply report these increases instead! So PCG members could be told every single year that somewhere, crime was increasing!

I, of course, never ended up writing about crime.

There were plenty of other warning signs I should have picked up on, and they all fit the same pattern. If something in the news fit with our end-times narrative, we published it. If it didn’t we ignored it. And it was really easy, because we were always looking for end-times news.

Term Papers and Speeches

Spokesmen’s Club

Spokesmen’s Club was a revealing affair. I found that the newest members usually gave the most interesting answers to questions, as the longer one had been in the church, the more one’s answers became the same as everyone else’s: the correct answers.

Certain questions stick out at me now–ones that scared me at the time. Once, a student during Table Topics asked about Pope Francis’ role as the head of the Catholic Church in the end-time. I believe it was Nick Irwin who reminded everyone that it was probably Pope Benedict XVI who was steering things behind the scenes. Gerald Flurry had predicted Benedict’s election and had big things to say about his future role in end-time events. But when Francis had been elected, I–and I assume lots of other PCG members–had completely forgotten about those predictions. Now Nick had reminded us: “Oh yes,” we thought, “… yes, Pope Benedict XVI probably will be involved.”

Benedict XVI played a similar role that the German politician Karl-Theodore zu Guttenburg had played in PCG predictions. Here were men for whom Flurry had predicted big things, and here were men who left the scene early without doing any of them. Every now and then, the News Bureau would put out an article, meaning to demonstrate that zu Guttenberg or Benedict XVI were still around, lingering in the shadows, secretly working out their plans despite no longer being in power. It never occurred to members that the prediction was wrong. It simply was happening in a way they hadn’t expected.

(Barack Obama also fits this mould. He was meant to be a political Antiochus, but when his presidency passed without incident, and another four years passed with Donald Trump, suddenly the Flurry’s decided to bring him back into their predictions: insinuating that Obama was running a shadow-presidency with Biden as his puppet. A good excuse to explain the fact that Obama was no longer relevant and the predictions weren’t very accurate.)


In my Sophomore year of HWAC, I began researching for a speech on the excavation of Jericho. I was interested in biblical archaeology, mostly because I was interested in what (I thought) it could do for establishing the historical accuracy of the Old Testament stories.

This was another scenario where the meaning of what happened only hit me years later.

The city which some archaeologists have labelled Jericho had been excavated more than once. In the field of biblical archaeology, the techniques of excavation greatly improved over the 20th century, meaning locations that were once excavated could be later reinspected with greater accuracy.

Essentially, arguments over whether there was evidence of Jericho being conquered by the Israelites in the correct (biblically-calculated) time period had occurred between different archaeologists. As different archaeologists re-excavated the site with new technologies, they came to different conclusions. Kathleen Kenyon, who studied the site in the 1960s, believed that there was sufficient evidence to back up this claim, while others did not. So I went and read her book Digging Up Jericho.

The parts where Kenyon described that the site matched what we should expect if Jericho was conquered by the Israelites (signs of destruction and fallen walls) I readily accepted. But in the same book, Kenyon described the city as being inhabited as far back as 9,000 BC, with the population using stone tools and other prehistoric instruments.

While I was ready to accept the conclusions that Kenyon made when it agreed with the biblical text, I balked at her dating the city any earlier than 4000 BC. How could the city be older than that, when mankind was only 6000 years old? But the same Kenyon who was an archaeologist making claims about Israelite Jericho was the one making ones about 11,000 year old Jericho. In reading the books of experts, I was only willing to accept their conclusions if they agreed with mine–or with the PCG’s interpretation of the biblical text.

I would notice the same things when researching in the News Bureau. A number of writers there used Reddit News as an aggregator. I began to use it too, and soon, because I was interested in biblical archaeology, my feed often included stories of cities being discovered with bones and tools of humans that were thousands of years older than the PCG’s 6000-year timeframe would allow. The first few times I saw news stories like these I dismissed them as mistakes. Then, as I begun to see more stories with similar dates, I simply got scared and tried not to read them. It was easier to ignore them than to reason about how professional archaeologists could be wrong, and me, a non-expert, could know better.


Brent Nagtegaal, a HWAC graduate and the student who worked most closely with the Israeli archaeologist Eliat Mazaar, was one of the more qualified and knowledgeable lecturers at the college. As I mentioned in an essay I wrote on my experiences at HWAC, I enjoyed his classes and on a few occasions he would expose us not just to the usual fundamentalist views on the Bible, but to some of the critic’s views as well. In fact, his choice to play a critical view of biblical archaeology played a big role in my eventual loss of faith in the PCG’s narrative of biblical infallibility–but that is a story that happens later, in Edstone.

While I was still in the US, I had asked Brent for help on a topic I was researching for a term paper. The paper looked at the prophecy of Cyrus the Great in the book of Isaiah. Usually, students took the idea that the text in Isaiah was a prophecy for granted, as the PCG and its ministers certainly did. Unfortunately for the PCG, the important aspect of prophecies is that they must be written before the event.

Brent was sure Isaiah had been written before the events it described, but was little help in giving me good reasons why. The WCG had also written several articles purporting to prove that Isaiah had been written before the events it claimed to describe. I had read these in class without any real scrutiny, but I thought I’d better do my due diligence in checking the research for myself. I went, as I often did, to the library.

It turned out that there had been significant debate for decades–mainly in the 19th century–over that very question. Along with the debate over the dating of Isaiah was the dating of Daniel. Over these two books, conservative and critical scholars had debated for decades, but today there is hardly a biblical scholar–and no credible ones–who believe in an early dating of the books of Daniel and Isaiah. For example, in Isaiah, there were chapters that talked about the destruction of Israel in the past-tense (a clear sign it was written after the destruction).

At the time, though, I would go to the library and take out every book on Daniel and Isaiah, every related commentary, and every book that dealt with the dating of biblical texts. I went through periods of being extremely anxious (whenever the arguments of the critical scholars seemed convincing) and then semi-relieved, when it seemed like the conservative scholars had good arguments in return. The scary thing was that despite really wanting the conservative scholars to win the argument, the more I read, the more it seemed like critical scholars were right. I ended up writing my term paper, using conservative scholarship to claim that Isaiah had been written early (before the events), but I spent the next two years with a hidden fear that if I looked too closely into the claims of critical scholars in the future, I wouldn’t be able to avoid the inevitable loss of faith in the early dating.



The mansion in Edstone, England housed both the Flurry and Macdonald families as well as all the students. Without all the extra events that would usually take up students’ time in Edmond, I was able to read a good deal more–an activity that expanded my view of Christianity, but did nothing in the end for my faith in the PCG’s doctrines.

Much of the reading I did was about Christian history and Christian apologetics. It had always been my opinion that Armstrong and Flurry weren’t the greatest writers (while Armstrong was at least personable, Flurry was just plain boring), and I didn’t think they had the strongest arguments for the existence of God.

So I began to read a few of the classics in the field of Christian apologetics: G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man, C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity and The Abolition of Man. I read George West’s Observations on the History and Evidence of the Resurrection of Christ and Lord Lyttelton’s Observations on the Conversion and Apostleship of St. Paul. I began to read much of Robert Wilson’s books on the reliability of the Old Testament, as well as Alfred Edersheim’s and Paul Johnson’s biographies of Jesus. I read commentaries on the books of Samuel, Kings and Psalms by A.F. Kirkpatrick. I began to read heavily about the characters of the New Testament, from Alexander Whyte and William Brock.

I also began to read biographies of influential figures in Christian history: there was Lyndal Roper’s Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet, Melvyn Bragg’s William Tyndale and even one assigned from class, Conybear and Howson’s The Life and Epistles of St. Paul.

All of these books gave me an impression of something that the PCG vigorously denied–that these Christians had something to say about Christianity that was useful and important. Reading anything about Christianity outside of PCG literature, especially from other Christians, was not strictly banned, but frowned upon by other members. A number of times students gave me strange looks when they saw me reading a biography of Martin Luther. What could I possibly want to know about a man who was so obviously wrong?!

Luther, Erasmus, and Tyndale for example, all figures I’d been reading about, were essential in translating the Bible into the languages that common people could actually read, making the very existence of the PCG possible. Sure, the PCG might reply that they were simply tools in the hands of God allowing the True Church to continue, but there was a distinct culture of unwillingness to even learn about the history and a complete arrogance in the way that they were described by lecturers. Brian Davis, who lectured on Church History, would routinely bash leaders of the Protestant Reformation, apparently unaware of the fact that many of them had done more to spread biblical literacy, freedom of worship, and the freedom to merely read the Bible than any of the supposed True Church leaders had done. The complete dismissal of everything outside of the PCG and astonishing ignorance of what actually happened in Christian history became grating.

The scariest book I read during my time at Edstone, though, was James Carroll’s Constantine’s Sword, a history of the Catholic persecution of Jews. In fact, I was so scared by it, I didn’t even make it halfway before I had to stop reading.

Carroll was a Catholic who was intensely critical of the Catholic Church’s behaviour. The book started out discussing the New Testament, and tried to explain the reason why, despite the fact that the Romans killed Jesus, the Jews got the blame! Carroll, drawing on a lot of scholarship done in the last 200 years, pointed to the fact that Christians–although originally Jewish–were in intellectual competition with the Jews of their day. But while they competed with mainstream Jews over the status of Jesus, they happened to be under the rule of the Romans. Thus, the authors of the New Testament went out of their way to appease the Romans and denigrate the Jews, putting as much emphasis on the idea that Jews killed Jesus–even though, if you read the narrative, the Romans were the ones who crucified him!

The point wasn’t that I believed what Carroll had said–in fact, I can still find notes written in the margin of the book where I argued against Carroll’s ideas. It was the awakening that I had to the fact that the New Testament was written by people with agendas. For the last decade, I had read the New Testament without thinking at all about the viewpoint of its authors, essentially viewing the document as if it were written (as historians say) with an “outside view.” That idea was shattered by Carroll, even if I didn’t believe his conclusions. And as I continued reading, what scared me enough to make me stop reading completely, was the ongoing realization that everything I had been taught by HWA, Flurry and the PCG about church history was oversimplified, oftentimes blatantly wrong, and more often than not, completely ignorant of what happened except for a few tiny data points that we happened to focus on.


Although I was often thought-stopping when it came to my doubts on the PCG doctrines, I continued to put large chunks of my time into trying to convince myself they were correct. The Advanced Homiletics class, taught by Wik Heerma, gave me this opportunity as we were asked to write a “doctrinal study” each week on different topics.

I was continually disappointed at the lack of seriousness my classmates gave to the research of their doctrinal studies: to them, the conclusion was a formality. They wrote the essay just to get it done, placing little or no effort into actually proving to themselves whether each doctrine was correct. Since HWA had done it for them, all they needed was to regurgitate his view on the topic.

I researched as if my possible eternal life depended on it, because in a sense, that was exactly what the PCG promised. One week’s topic, “Church Government”, produced an essay over 5000 words long, and even that hadn’t done the job of convincing myself that the PCG was correct. The problem was that Armstrong himself didn’t seem to have any good reason for believing that church government should be structured the way he wanted it.

After searching the WCG archives, I found four articles Armstrong had written on the subject. The first had been written in 1939, a time when Armstrong had been trying to convince members of the Radio Church of God that the competing Church of God in Oregon had no scriptural basis for their church’s governmental structure. Armstrong had explained that he believed Jesus “did not reorganize His people, or establish any government, ecclesiastical or civil, among them!” Instead, he told his followers to:

"let us have the kind of co-operative fellowship, based on love, that was practised by the early saints, as recorded in the Book of Acts. Let us work together, in unselfish effort to give of the Gospel truth to the world..."

If you had read anything of Armstrong’s in the 1980s, this kind of language was unrecognizable. That was mainly because, in the 1950s, when the WCG began to grow larger, Armstrong had changed his mind and wrote in two articles that he had found the New Testament provided evidence of a top-down pyramid structure of government. Then in the 1970s, when his authority was challenged by more liberal ministers in the WCG, he responded with a 13,000 word article explaining how God used one-man government.

The problem for me was simply that Armstrong’s arguments weren’t very convincing. In fact, his first article in the 1930s provided more scriptural evidence than his longer articles in the 1950s and 1970s. In his later articles he skipped back and forth from giving evidence from the New Testament to the Old Testament, ignoring the fact that these were two distinct time periods, each one with an explicitly different structure. Then there were discrepancies: while Armstrong claimed God had “always used one-man rule” there were times in Jewish history where that hadn’t been true: for example, in the Second Temple period when Zerubbabel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai and other prophets were all working together. And again in the New Testament, while Armstrong claimed Simon Peter was the head of the church, it was clear from almost all the evidence that Paul and other Christian leaders differed significantly in their opinions, with Acts and Galatians even recording their disputes for us to read! It was by no means obvious there was any one leader in the church that had the final say over doctrine. Just saying that the church had always worked through one man wouldn’t cut it–you actually had to prove that.

When I ended up giving a sermonette in the Homiletics class about church government, it became very clear to me that I wasn’t convinced that Armstrong was right about the topic. Saying things out loud brings another level of self-awareness–we sometimes notice it when we try to explain an idea to a friend, only to recognize instantly that what we are saying doesn’t make sense. As I gave that sermonette, mentioning the fact that Armstrong had once argued against his own position, I began to feel myself thinking: you don’t believe this.

A Lack of Seriousness

I began to see, all around me, a complete lack of seriousness for the command to “prove all things.” In my Sophomore year, my Fundamentals of Theology term paper consisted of a series of interviews with PCG members who had come from the WCG. I tried to discover the reason why they ended up rejecting the WCGs changes. The conclusion I came to at the time was that they had all been focused on “proving all things”. What I began to realise later was that the act of proving all things had not consisted of doing the necessary work to check if HWA had been right in the first place–it instead consisted of checking whether the church still said the things Armstrong had preached earlier. Proving all things, to HWAC students, consisted of reading a booklet on the topic and concluding it was correct, without even the idea of reading alternative views being considered.

It seemed I took the claims of Armstrong and the standards of evidence necessary to prove them a lot more seriously than the people around me. In counselling for baptism, I determined to read the Bible from cover to cover, insisting that I know the text to which I was going to have as a textbook for my life going forward. Another student I talked to who was also counselling for baptism didn’t seem to understand the reason why. When I asked her, one day, if she had read Galatians, she told me she hadn’t. “How can you say you’re dedicating your life to this church when you haven’t even read the book it’s supposedly based on?” I asked. She told me she would read it later.

The way PCG members dealt with the Stone and Throne “revelation” confirmed my view as well. After Flurry’s sermons on the topic came out, not a single person in the Edstone congregation asked any questions about the scriptures Flurry used. Instead of fulfilling the supposedly God-given command to “prove all things”, members simply gobbled up Flurry’s interpretations. If you asked them exactly why the scriptures now meant something completely new, the answer would be that “Gerald Flurry had revealed their new meaning.” Instead of checking to see whether the meaning made sense in terms of the scriptures context, historical background, and original intent, members were OK to simply accept the new meaning with essentially zero explanation.

This was in stark contrast to how Armstrong went about interpreting scripture. Because Armstrong had to actually convince outsiders that his interpretation was the correct one, he put in more effort into describing exactly why one would be justified in believing a certain scripture meant something.

Flurry’s method had changed. Since he spoke almost exclusively to people already inside the church, he didn’t feel the need to justify why his interpretations were correct. If you’re in the PCG, you already believe that Flurry is “That Prophet”, that he is God’s messenger, that he speaks for God: essentially there was no reason for PCG member’s to check whether a scripture had been interpreted correctly. The proof was that Flurry had interpreted it that way!

If you asked people why there was a New Stone or a New Throne, they couldn’t tell you why. They had no grasp over the scriptures and their context: they simply regurgitated the explanation Flurry had given them.


When Flurry predicted that the current President Donald Trump would be the United States’ last president, “most likely the last term”, I got scared.

It’s likely that a lot of PCG members don’t remember that Flurry had been saying it was most likely the last presidential term before Jesus’ return. Having a short memory, especially when it comes to prophecy, is an asset in the PCG, because you can just forget about old, failed prophecies and get excited about new ones.

Lots of things have changed since that prophecy–such as Donald Trump not being the president anymore, and there having been another presidential term gone by without the world ending.

But for some reason this prophecy scared me. I was pretty familiar with the usual “Christ will return in two to three years” routine, which Flurry had been repeating ad nauseum on the Key of David for the last two decades. But having a last president meant having a set date. And having set dates meant I could be held accountable if I just forgot about the prophecy and went on with my life. I took it seriously, apparently more seriously than Flurry did himself, because Joe Biden is the president now and he’s still telling members Trump is the last one.

Facing Fears

I was one of the last students in my class to get baptised. I had put it off for several years because I’d believed I needed to be secure in my faith before I dedicated my life to the cause forever. This seemed reasonable.

But the period of time when I began baptism counselling with Stephen Flurry happened to coincide with when many of the doubts I have expressed so far began to take a mental toll on me. With so many things not making complete sense, with so many nagging questions, I began to become more and more stressed. While I wanted everything the PCG said to be true, I couldn’t give complete answers to all my lingering questions. So I created for myself the PCG equivalent of Pascal’s Wager.

Pascal’s Wager is a thought experiment about the benefits of belief in the mainstream Christian God, who can send you to Hell if you don’t believe. Pascal began with two scenarios: either God exists, or he doesn’t exist. If God exists, and you believe in Him, you’ll get an eternity in Heaven. If you don’t believe in Him, you’ll get an eternity in Hell. On the other hand, if God doesn’t exist, Pascal says there is no benefit either way to believing in him. In which case, since the benefit of believing in God is huge if he does exist, and the cost of believing in Him when he doesn’t exist is so small, you’d be smart to simply believe in God just in case he happens to exist.

(Now, there are good arguments against this Wager. If you’re a Christian, and the God that exists happens be the God of Islam, you’ll be spending eternity in Hell, not for your unbelief, but for your belief in the wrong God.)

My equivalent was this:

What all this meant was that there seemed to me to be no persuasive reason to not get baptised. All the benefits lay in being baptised, and if the PCG happened to not be the True Church, it didn’t really matter anyway.

Plus, Stephen Flurry had told me, during baptism counselling, that if God led him to believe I wasn’t ready for baptism, he wouldn’t let me. Deciding to get baptised because of the PCG’s Wager was probably not what God wanted. So in that way, it was a good opportunity to test whether Flurry really had any special insider knowledge from God about the state of my faith.

I ended up getting baptised a few months after my thought experiment and the whole exercise was thoroughly underwhelming. No Holy Spirit coming down as tongues of fire like in the New Testament. No mental or emotional changes. When I mentioned this to a few other students they said they had thought the same thing: “That just isn’t how baptism works. You get a little portion of the Holy Spirit and then it’s up to you to grow with it… that’s why you don’t notice anything different right now.” The explanation sounded good only for a moment, until I realized the lack of feeling one gets upon baptism lines up completely with what you would expect if baptism really didn’t do anything in the first place.

Stephen Flurry’s Office Call

I now know that what was holding me back from delving into the questions I had about doctrines and prophecies and historical events was fear. There is a fair amount of fear in the PCG. There is a fear of the Tribulation, of what will happen if you leave the church, of what will happen if you disobey a minister. My fear was that I was wrong, and that the PCG was wrong. That meant looking into the questions I had was scary–and I needed something to help me get over that fear. Stephen Flurry gave me something that helped.

The following story is comically mundane, and only really makes sense if you can feel the fear that getting in trouble with a minister creates when you’re buried in the PCG community. But here goes.

Classes at HWAC had a dress code. For men, one of the rules was no hoodies. You could wear a sweater, but hoodies of the same quality were not allowed. Winters at Edstone were cold, and sometimes I came into class wearing my hoodie. A few times I had been asked to take it off while in class, and I had done so. Several times, when I was cold and I knew no ministers would be in the room, I wore it.

One day, I was called into Stephen Flurry’s office for a counselling session. While it was not the main discussion topic, Flurry ended by asking me if I had been wearing a hoodie in one of the classes. I told him I had. He told me that I had a “government problem”. I was disrespecting him and the rules of HWAC by wearing that hoodie, despite the fact that I told him I was wearing it because I was cold. The meeting had come at a time when the ministry was selecting students to travel to Jerusalem to participate in one of the archaeological excavations run by Eliat Mazar. Flurry looked at me and said: “You know, these are the types of things we take into account when we decide who will go to the Jerusalem dig.” You, he was insinuating, will not be going to Jerusalem, because you wear hoodies in class.

I left the meeting with the strangest feeling of disappointment, excitement, and relief. I had been holding out for a spot in the Jerusalem dig, although I knew I could live without going. But at the same time I felt relief. Why? It was that for some reason, I knew the situation was absurd. There is not a secular college in the whole of America where you could find a dress requirement in classrooms forbidding hoodies when the weather is cold. And you could certainly not find a lecturer who would call a student into his office for the purpose of scolding him about having a “government problem” for wearing hoodies. The realization that the situation was absurd, that I didn’t have to put up with the absurdity, and that since what Stephen Flurry was saying was obviously nonsense, put me in a strange sense of elation. For some reason I felt free to think for myself, for some reason I would soon have the courage to face my difficult questions.

The Assyria Video

I believe some time after the Hoodie Meeting I opted to return to the Edmond campus. Before I arrived back in the US, I would research questions that had been nagging me for the past two years.

Two more events which are noteworthy happened before that final straw. The first was a documentary Brent Nagtegaal made students of his Biblical Archaeology class watch. The second was an article assignment from Stephen Flurry.

Nagtegaal had always been a little more intellectually honest than the rest of the HWAC lecturers. One class, he decided to play us, after a semester of lecturing on how the Bible was historically accurate, a documentary on how modern archaeologists actually viewed the historicity of the Bible’s stories.

One of the documentaries’ main characters was the Israeli archaeologist Israel Finklestein, a name known to us only as the Bad Guy, the one who claimed the Bible’s stories, all the way up to the Solomonic Era, were made up. We listened as Finklestein told us the story of how the evidence gathered by his team of students who had scoured the Palestinian landscape demonstrated that there hadn’t been any takeover of Palestine by an invading Israelite group. The Israelites, according to the evidence of the towns and ruins, had grown out of the Canaanites already in the area. Other archeologists told us how there was not a single scrap of evidence for the Exodus and the largescale conquering of Canaan. Others still told us how the traditional dating of supposedly Solomonic buildings had been overturned when they had been carbon dated.

Nagtegaal told us he was playing the video to let us know about the views of critical archaeologists. For some reason, he expected the documentary to not have any impact on us. And for most of the students that was true: they simply laughed it off, accusing the archaeologists of being ignorant and most importantly, arrogant. I couldn’t do the same. I’d already been having doubts about the historicity of events and the lack of evidence for the Exodus was so clear that the best books on the issue simply concluded that “you’d better just believe it on faith, because there’s no record left of it.” Having all my doubts, and new ones still, put in one place, out loud, was too much. I left the class reeling. I believed the documentary.

The second event was Stephen Flurry’s article assignment. Flurry had been giving Trumpet Daily’s on the new Jeroboam revelation–the idea the President Trump was a type of the Israelite king, Jeroboam. He gave me the assignment of writing up his Trumpet Daily in article form, to be posted to the Trumpet website.

I gave the Trumpet Daily a listen and went to try and turn it into an article. But as I tried to structure my article, it became increasingly obvious that Flurry wasn’t clear on which Jeroboam President Trump was meant to be. The Bible talks about two Jeroboam’s: Jeroboam I, the king who broke away from the alliance with Judah, and Jeroboam II, the king who lived over a hundred years later, who was given a prophecy by Amos. Flurry, following his father’s lead, would talk about both Jeroboams, using traits from both of them to describe Trump’s behaviour.

That didn’t make sense. Jeroboam I had nothing to do with Jeroboam II, or at least, as much to do with each other as two people named Michael do today. Amos, when writing his book and mentioning Jeroboam II, did not have Jeroboam I in mind when he gave his prophecy about the state of Israel! He was prophesying about contemporary events, not to a king over 100 years in the past.

No amount of wrangling could allow me to write the article in a way that still kept Flurry’s meaning intact. So instead, I simply left the assignment hoping that Flurry wouldn’t notice I hadn’t posted anything. He asked me how I was going on it once, and I simply bought myself time, hoping he would forget about it. He eventually did. But that didn’t make me forget: Stephen Flurry obviously had no idea about what this Jeroboam prophecy was about, and neither did his father.

Now for the event that crumbled everything.

Jonathan Mansour, a HWAC student, had been assigned to create a 90-second Trumpet video about the Germany-Assyria connection. Since we worked at desks that were next to each other, I saw him working on the project constantly, and I was curious to see how exactly he would fit in the evidence that the Assyrians migrated to Germany in the short space of 90 seconds.

The solution he came up with was to say that the Assyrians moved to Germany in three stages:

“Greek and Roman historians record the Assyrian people migrating in three stages:

This explanation conveniently ignored who was in Germany before that time, and conveniently disdained to provide the historians who tracked the migration. Since what I really cared about were the specifics, the video didn’t help me at all. But it did inspire me to do what I’d been wanting to do for years. I took David Vejil’s article, “The Remarkable Identity of the German People” and I scoured it, line by line, for evidence of its main, and only important, claim.

I remember walking to my desk in the upstairs study and sitting down at my computer to check every piece of evidence that Vejil provided in that article. I remember it vividly because it was the moment I knew the PCG was wrong.

Not a single piece of evidence that Vejil provided was reliable. In the beginning, Vejil even told readers that some of the documents he referenced had been “relegated to pure myth.” Other documents he provided had been thrown out by historians hundreds of years previous–they were not reliable, simply relics of ancient stories told when people didn’t have good standards of evidence. Vejil would start one sentence talking about Assyrians and end it assuming that they were now known as Scythians–a claim that was never backed with any evidence. When I checked quotes that purported to be talking about one group of people, I found that they were really talking about different people, often in different time periods Vejil said the quote was referencing.

Other quotes were simply manipulated. The worst quote manipulation came from an old encyclopedia. Vejil’s quote had a dangerous ellipsis (“…”) where it seemed that important information could be hiding. I looked up the original encyclopedia, checking the entry. In fact, hiding in the ellipses was half a sentence that, when added, changed the entire meaning of the quote. While Vejil pretended that it proved the Germans had originated from Assyrians, it told you they were simply “a branch of the great Indo-Germanic race”. I finished the article, after checking every single source provided, with the knowledge that there was not a scrap of evidence that Assyrians had become Germans.

This at once ended the fear of investigating the PCG’s doctrines. Within a few days, I had remembered a comment that had been strangely read from headquarters during the announcements at one of the services after Brexit. The commenter said that the “PCG had nothing to brag about by finally getting one prophesy correct, when Herbert W. Armstrong had made over 200 false prophecies.” I have no idea why this comment was read out, when there was usually a strict policy of ignoring all critical messages. In any case, I had remembered that comment for nearly two years, and thought it was time to check it out. I searched online for “200 failed prophecies” and immediately came across Exit Support Network’s list of failed prophecies. Here I read about decades of Armstrong predicting the end of the world, setting dates, and having them all pass through without effect.

I began to get my hands on old Plain Truth copies, ones in the early 1930s, where Armstrong had falsely prophesied that the Day of the Lord would begin in 1936, and that Mussolini and Hitler were the 7th resurrection of the Holy Roman Empire.

Every doubt I’d harboured in the past two years exploded into disbelief in the matter of a few days. Questions I’d had about why ministers and Trumpet writers never seemed to have good explanations for things like the Germany-Assyria connection, or the US and Britain in Prophecy, began to make sense. They didn’t have good explanations because they weren’t true. Armstrong changing his mind about doctrines made sense now: he was just making it up as he went.

On the night before I was leaving on a plane to go back to the US, I knew that I no longer believed the PCG was the True Church, or in fact, right about almost anything. I would go back to Edmond, and figure out how I was going to leave.

Leaving Headquarters for Good

When I arrived back in Edmond, I headed for the library. I had decided on my flight that I couldn’t leave without telling people what I thought. I believed I had a duty to tell people that they were in a cult. A cult that proclaimed to have all the answers, that ridiculed people who didn’t believe them, and who told people to stop communicating with their family members if they stopped believing what the PCG said.

The library contained all the evidence I needed to draw up something I thought should have been convincing. It contained all the early copies of Armstrong’s Plain Truth, the ones where he made so many false prophecies it surprises me that the college faculty even let them remain in the library. It contained all the books that Armstrong had plagiarised the USBIP from–a number of them, in fact, not only Joseph P. Allen’s Judah’s Scepter and Joseph’s Birthright, but the books that Allen himself copied from! Among the same section as Allen’s book were the books on Pyramidology, books obsessed with the day-for-a-year principle and the 2,520 years prophecy–all the authors, of course, had a different idea of when the dates started and ended, and what significance the years had. It also contained other books, like the one I ended up putting on Jeremiah Jacques’ desk, called The Yellow Peril; Or the Orient Vs: The Occident as Viewed by Modern Statesmen and Ancient Prophets which was the book Armstrong copied his Russia-China prophecy from.

Once I looked, there were so many incriminating books in the HWAC library that I began to get nervous looking through it. Would someone see me checking through books that I wasn’t supposed to? Would someone suspect what I was thinking when they saw me checking old copies of the Plain Truth. These were dumb thoughts, inspired by the massive anxiety that was coursing through me in those final weeks. Most people in Edmond hadn’t read a book from that library unless the authors’ name was Herbert W. Armstrong or Gerald Flurry. They had no idea what was in it.

I was doing this search during my work hours, firstly because it was all-consuming, and secondly, because writing articles for Trumpet was now extremely easy. Because I knew what I was saying wasn’t correct, it became easy to whip up and article in a few hours. I just applied the formula all Trumpet writers used without thinking twice: Simply find a world event related to a topic we cared about, describe it, and end by saying that HWA had predicted it. I knocked up a couple of these each week before I left and no one suspected a thing.

One of the most interesting things I read in the weeks before I left was the story of an Ambassador College student, Showdown at Big Sandy: Youthful Creativity Confronts Bureaucratic Inertia at an Unconventional Bible College in East Texas, a book with a title so bad as to mislead one about how good the contents actually were. The author, Greg Doudna, told stories about his discoveries at Ambassador College, ones that I was making only now–except I was making them four decades later. The only disappointment was that, while the PCG was still repeating the same nonsense the WCG had been proclaiming, Ambassador College was big enough that more interesting characters emerged. There were black ministers who tried to rebel against the racist inter-racial marriage policies, ministers who were told to shut up about doctrinal consistencies lest they lose their jobs, and a whole heap of gossip about Garner Ted Armstrong. If one wants to read an account of just why the PCG and the COG community is wrong, but wants it to be a bit more exciting than my version, that book is the place to go.

When I eventually had the money to buy a plane ticket back to my home in Australia, I had done enough research to send out a letter. I posted it on the Trumpet website, and I emailed it to thousands of PCG members. Every now and then I get messages from people who tell me the reaction from Headquarters when my email came through to all the students and staff. I mostly laugh when I hear them recollect the events. They are stories of ministers running around to their congregations making sure that people hadn’t read the email. It’s Stephen Flurry calling an assembly to tell all students that what I said was completely wrong, but that they shouldn’t read it anyway. It’s Wik Heerma giving a sermon trying to debunk elements in my letter, but trying desperately to not give away exactly what I said. Mostly it’s just sad individuals, so scared to look at the evidence, doing anything they can to make sure that no one else even sees, let alone considers, what I had to say. Stories of people so afraid to “prove all things” that they have to demonize anyone who asks questions.

Every now and then, I receive an email from someone who tells me that although it didn’t convince them at first, the mere fact that I had sent out an email and questioned what the PCG said helped them to do the same thing months or even years later. That’s what I hoped would happen, although the frequency at which it happens is drastically lower than what I would have wished. Instead, Gerald Flurry still believes he is the King of England, that Donald Trump is still the real President of the United States, and that Obama created COVID-19. There really isn’t much hope for Flurry, but there is still some for the people inside. And although it might take years, as in my case, for someone to begin to seriously question their beliefs, I hope that this is another helpful contribution to that long struggle to figure it all out.