In Memoriam: Two Con Men, Herbert W. Armstrong and L. Ron Hubbard
Armstrong and Hubbard
Twenty-five years ago this week, the two greatest con men of the 20th
century both died, within the space of eight days of each other. The creativity and sheer chutzpah of Herbert W. Armstrong and L. Ron Hubbard are worth remembering, and in some ways even treasuring as a species of human achievement, with the same sort of awe one reserves for the destructive power of a tsunami. Though both men were failures in the business world, when they turned to religion they discovered a sucker market of breathtaking scope.
Herbert W. Armstrong, born in 1892, worked at several jobs in the world of commercial advertising, failing at each. In the 1920s, he decided that religion was an easier racket, and fought to take control of a small congregation in Oregon. He failed at that, too, but on his way out the door managed to take the mailing list with him.
In 1935 Armstrong launched Plain Truth magazine, initially in mimeographed form; at about the same time he began regular radio broadcasts. To distinguish himself from the evangelical pack, Armstrong specialized in prophecy. He got lucky when an early prophecy, that Mussolini would conquer Ethiopia, actually came to pass. That a mechanized army would defeat spear-carrying tribesmen may seem to be not going too far out on a limb, but Armstrong hyped it into something special.
More prophecies followed, as Armstrong discovered that his audiences ate them up: Italy would conquer Palestine; then Russia would attack Palestine; then Britain would fall to the Germans; then German armies would appear on American shores. The accuracy rate began to deteriorate, but in wartime America where censorship kept the news bland and upbeat, Armstrong’s juicy predictions built his following.
The end of the German threat in 1945 would have dealt a lesser man a serious blow. Armstrong responded by assuring his readers and listeners – for decades on end – that Hitler was still alive, and ready to strike again any minute now.
Advertising man Armstrong knew that product differentiation was critical. He offered a unique take on Christianity, based on his own interpretation of the Bible. Key doctrines included:
- Healing is God’s work, not man’s; medicine and surgery are therefore sinful. (In 1967, Armstrong relied on prayer rather than surgery to correct his wife’s colon blockage. She promptly died.)
- Interracial marriage is absolutely contrary to God’s will.
- The use of cosmetics is vanity, and therefore sinful.
- Birthday celebrations exalt the self, and are therefore sinful.
- Voting in civil elections is a rejection of God’s sovereign reign, and is therefore sinful. (I wish more evangelicals felt this way …)
- Herbert W. Armstrong is the reincarnation of the Prophet Elijah.
The prophecy machine kept churning as well. Listeners learned in 1951 that the Pope would be moving the Vatican; in 1956 that “the USA [is] riding to total collapse in 20 short years – famine, disease, epidemics, to be followed immediately by World War III”; in 1960 that “In 12 years or less the USA will suffer the worst depression ever suffered by any nation”; in 1964 that we had “Only seven more years before H-Bomb warfare breaks out!”
By far the most important doctrine, though, was that of tithing. Armstrong loved tithing so much that he had his followers do it more than once. One tenth of everyone’s income had to go straight to the church for normal expenses. A second tenth had to be spent on church festivals. A third tenth, every third year, had to go to the church for the support of widows and the needy (though there was never an accounting of how this money was actually spent). A sophisticated computer system designed by a NASA engineer tracked individual contribution histories, to facilitate harassment of members whose contribution levels dropped. When that engineer heard Armstrong deny from the pulpit that he ever practiced these tactics, he quit in disgust.
Revenues grew to over $160 million a year, leaving competitors like Billy Graham, Jimmy Swaggart, and Jim Bakker in the dust. Armstrong’s head count was far smaller than that of his rivals, but he was able to extract an enormous percentage of his disciples’ income. Armstrong’s World Tomorrow program was broadcast on 382 stations, and Plain Truth magazine grew to a circulation of over 8 million – aided heavily by the popularity of the highly imaginative artwork of church member Basil Wolverton depicting the horrors of the coming catastrophes. Wolverton’s day job, interestingly enough, was doing artwork for Mad magazine. (I am not making this up.) After Armstrong’s death 25 years ago last Sunday, though, his successors blundered by trying to bring the Church’s doctrines more in line with mainstream Protestantism. When the Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God lost its distinctive wacky voice, it lost its earning power, and quickly fell from view.
L. Ron Hubbard began his career as the author of pulp science fiction in the 1930s. His particular talent was that he worked amazingly quickly – colleagues claimed he simply sat and typed steadily until a manuscript was done. When World War II broke out, Hubbard joined the Navy, where his fertile imagination got him into trouble. While taking a small ship he was given to command on a shakedown cruise, Hubbard attacked two Japanese submarines, only ten miles off the coast of Oregon! The battle lasted two full days and brought in at least four other American vessels plus two blimps. Nothing was sunk; after reviewing the logs and the other captains’ accounts, the Admiral in command of that sector concluded there were never any submarines in the vicinity. A month later, Hubbard was relieved of command.
That incident plus other misfortunes seems to have driven Hubbard into something akin to a nervous breakdown, accompanied by near destitution as his health issues restricted his writing output. In 1948, he was arrested for check fraud. The following year, though, Hubbard hit a gusher. Starting with some early ideas of Sigmund Freud that Freud himself later abandoned, Hubbard published an article on something he called “Dianetics” in Astounding Science Fiction magazine (an appropriate spot for it). Dianetics was based on the Hindu/Buddhist notion of reincarnation, teaching that all your troubles resulted from trauma in previous lives. By reliving these incidents, through a process called “auditing,” you could somehow erase them, and suddenly your ulcer would disappear – “a milestone for Man comparable to his discovery of fire and superior to his inventions of the wheel and the arch.” The beauty of Dianetics was that it didn’t require a trained professional. By purchasing Hubbard’s instructions, a pair of friends could “audit” each other, a pastime even more entertaining than using a Ouija board. Within a year, Hubbard’s instruction book had sold 150,000 copies.
According to author Jon Atack,Dianetics was supposed to “Clear” people of irrational behavior. A “Clear” would have a near perfect memory and his or her IQ would soar by as much as 50 points. Asthma, color blindness, stuttering, allergies, arthritis, morning sickness and the common cold would all disappear. When pressed for a demonstration, Hubbard exhibited his first complete “Clear” at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. To a packed house of 6,000, Hubbard presented a young physics major named Ann Singer. Unfortunately, not only could she not remember a simple physics formula, she could not even remember the color of Hubbard’s tie when he turned his back. A large part of the audience got up and left.
After getting in trouble with the FDA for making specific claims that his “Dianazene” tablets could cure radiation sickness, Hubbard made the shrewd move to turn Dianetics into a religion, which he called “Scientology,” giving him vastly greater Constitutional protection under which to operate. Relying on LSD and other drugs to enhance his already remarkable imagination, Hubbard regaled readers with Bible-type stories of warfare among spirits called “Thetans” that are trillions of years old, ominously warning in 1952 of a “Fourth Invader Force” that still had outposts on Mars. His church was awarded tax-exempt status in 1956, with “auditing” taking on the trappings of the Christian confessional. Paid therapists were called “ministers,” who began performing wedding, naming and funeral rites while wearing black costumes.
By 1982, Forbes magazine estimated Hubbard’s net worth at $200 million. They were way off; when he died, 25 years ago tomorrow, his estate was actually valued at $600 million.
You and I are definitely in the wrong line of work.