THE TRUE CHURCH ERAS
Chapters 2 and 3 of the book of Revelation contain seven messages to seven "churches". In the Sabbath keeping Churches of God these seven messages have traditionally been understood to denote seven consecutive time periods, or eras, from the time of the foundation of the Church almost two thousand years ago, until the soon coming return of Jesus Christ.
Herbert W Armstrong (HWA) (1892-1986), founder of the Worldwide Church of God (WCG), proclaimed frequently that he established and headed the sixth Church era, called in Rev 3:7 by the name "Philadelphia".
Unbeknown to most Church of God members today, when HWA first came into contact with the Church, its general belief was that the Philadelphia era had long since passed, having come to an end around the middle of the 19th century.
I believe that with close examination and the benefit of hindsight we can see that their interpretation was most probably correct.
Herbert W Armstrong consistently taught that the era previous to his own was that of the "Sardis Church", described in Rev 3:1-6. That era is stated there to be "dead". The Sardis era of God's Church, according to Armstrong, supposedly covered approximately 300 to 350 years prior to the beginning of his ministry in the 1930's.
This supposed Sardis period, however, was a "Golden Age" in the history of man. It attained the highest standards in a wide variety of areas such as literature, painting, music composition, architecture, construction, craftsmanship, scholarship, exploration, manners, conduct, dress standards etc.
The Church and the world are closely related; they mirror one another.
The Church, created near the end of the fourth millennium, is pictured by the moon, created on the fourth day of Creation. For more on this see the page "THE SEVEN DAY BLUEPRINT". The nations of the world are pictured as waters (Rev 17:15). Just as the moon affects the oceans' tides, so the Church affects the tides of this world.
When the Roman Empire tried to "break" the Christian religion, the Empire itself was broken in half. When the Church went "into the wilderness", the world experienced the Dark Ages. When the Church emerged from 1260 years in hiding (325-1585AD), this was accompanied by the Christianisation of the world as a result of the Reformation and the widespread distribution of the Scriptures. When there was great turmoil in God's Church in the United States in the 1860's, that country fought a terrible civil war. When God's people were in serious decline in the first half of the 20th century, the world experienced the Great Depression sandwiched between the greatest wars ever known to man. When apostasy befell the Church in the latter half of the 20th century and onward, again this was mirrored, and is still mirrored, by the terminal decline of this world.
So how could the poor quality "Sardis era" of the Church of God have paralleled such a high quality period in the history of mankind?
This era is usually said by the Churches of God to last from the end of the 16th century until the emergence of Herbert Armstrong in the 1930's. However, this period extends from the enormously influential reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and James I until the splendour of the Victorian Age, an era that saw the emergence of the greatest empire of all time, the British Empire, as well as the greatest single nation ever founded, the United States of America. This was a period in time when the descendants of Israel received Abraham's blessings after 2520 years and were truly at their peak.
Identifying the Church era at this time as "Sardis" does not add up.
William Penn (1644-1718), in founding the state of Pennsylvania, started what he termed "A Holy Experiment". Religious persecution had existed in Europe for a long time. However, with the settlement of the "New World", a way opened up for all who wanted to escape the restrictions placed on Christian worship. Penn and others actually went around marketing their colonies to Christian groups in Europe, for the specific purpose of offering them somewhere to live and worship in freedom. Penn was himself a Quaker, and the Quakers were also a persecuted group. These people in many cases left behind family and friends, home and work, and went looking for a better place, without knowing where they were going; so strong was their desire to worship God as they believed He was commanding them.
Among these pilgrims were Sabbath keeping members of the true Church of God. They had no guarantees, no governments to protect them, no travel, health or life insurance, nothing but faith in their Creator and a burning desire to live a peaceful, quiet and humble life in obedience to Him.
They travelled on dangerous ships and in perilous waters. These people happily started all over again, enduring much hardship, but in the process helping to build up a nation founded on God and His law: the United States of America.
One city stood out as a beacon among others; a city purposefully named by Penn; a city built without fortifications. The US independence from Great Britain was declared there. In the twelfth year of independence the new nation's constitution was drawn up in that same city. The first President resided there, and the first US Congress met there. The providential city that William Penn founded was Philadelphia.
The true, faithful Christians of that era were made of sterner stuff than we are; they earned and deserve the name Philadelphian. We in this end time, on the other hand, are as a group, Laodicean. We are not spiritually as strong. That doesn't mean all of us, but certainly the majority.
As time progressed, with religious persecution mostly a thing of the past, the American people became prosperous with Abraham's blessings and, just like Israel after conquering the land of Canaan, they gradually became lukewarm; they didn't need God quite so much any more.
By the time of World War 1, the Christian Western nations were in serious decline. By then, Charles Darwin's theories had been around for more than half a century and it was no longer considered progressive to believe in God, or Bible stories like the Creation and the Flood. The Bible was ridiculed.
I think of my own grandparents. All four were born around 1900 (in the Netherlands); all four were really decent, law abiding people who wouldn't hurt a fly. However, none of them went to Church, none of them believed in God, and none of them taught their children anything religious. That just wasn't the thing to do anymore in a modern, educated, Western society. I remember anything to do with God or religion was embarrassing in our family. The decline in Western society started much earlier than many people think and this is clearly paralleled in the Church eras.
The author of this website wracked his brain for years over how the "Philadelphia era" could have produced such leaders as Herbert and Garner Ted Armstrong, who on the one hand led God's Church and taught much truth, but on the other hand were of questionable character, and desperately sought to look good in the eyes of the high and mighty of this world. The answer of course is that their reign was during the seventh and final, Laodicean, Church era, not the sixth, Philadelphia, era.
Much Biblical truth was certainly taught and the Gospel was preached around the globe, but much damage was also done.
Well and truly, hot and cold at the same time; that's what Laodicean is.
With the added benefit of hindsight, I believe that an honest assessment of all the available evidence strongly indicates that the boundaries of the Church eras can be defined in the following ways:
The Ephesus era comprised the time of the twelve apostles and ended at, or soon after, the death of the last original apostle, John, around 100AD. Two second century writers, Polycrates and Irenaeus, say that John resided in Ephesus in his latter years. It is a long held tradition that he was also buried there.
This first era, which began on the day of Pentecost in the year 31AD, set off on a solid footing. Many brethren continued in the faith, which is affirmed by Christ's comment, "you have persevered and have patience, and have laboured for My name’s sake and have not become weary" (Rev 2:3).
Already in this first Church message it is stated that there are true apostles and false apostles (Rev 2:2), and we see evidence of this in the book of Acts.
Over time, a substantial number are said to have "left your first love" (Rev 2:4). The Olivet prophecy states that "lawlessness" is the reason that the love of many brethren would grow cold (Mt 24:12), and so it seems likely that what is alluded to here is the inroads false Christian ideas were making in the Church in the latter stages of this era. Jude mentions "licentiousness" (Jude 1:4) regarding the law of God, which was quickly suppressing the true gospel already in this first century of the Church. The apostle John, in I John 5:3, says that the love of God involves keeping His commandments, not abolishing them. The false teaching that God's grace leaves man free to transgress God's law appears to have taken hold at an early stage of Christian history.
The apostle Peter speaks at length about this same condition in the second chapter of his second epistle. In verses 15 and 16 he compares this apostasy to the practices of the wicked prophet Balaam, who led physical Israel into transgressing God's law while yet in their forty years of wandering before entering Canaan. This "error of Balaam" is a recurring theme in Scripture, and appears again in the third Church era message.
Another doctrinal aberration, Nicolaitanism, is also mentioned as having arisen in the Ephesus era. This seems to refer to the adoption of pagan practices and doctrines as Christian. However, Rev 2:6 states that the Ephesus era in general rejected this error.
The first Church era is considered to have come to a close at the end of the first century AD.
The Smyrna era started at the death of John and the emergence of Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna, around the year 100AD, and ran till about 325AD.
The Smyrna message is one of only two Church messages that is totally complimentary of its members. They are said by Christ to have been spiritually "rich" (Rev 2:9), even though they were physically poor. The most likely reason for their being rich is that during this post-apostolic period the New Testament Scriptures began to be recognised, copied and circulated, leading to an enduring depth of understanding of Christ's message, and God's purpose for mankind.
This era saw serious oppression and torment inflicted on all who called themselves Christian, by pagan Rome. As the era drew to an end it witnessed the terrible ten years of persecution initiated by Roman Emperor Diocletian, from 303AD until early 313AD, which had been foretold in Rev 2:10.
In 312 Emperor Constantine was converted to "Christianity", and in 313, having defeated his rivals, he issued the Edict of Milan which permitted freedom of religion.
In 325 Constantine organised the highly influential Council of Nicea, by which he sought to doctrinally unify the various factions of Christianity under the umbrella of the Roman Empire.
From this point on "Christianity" became organised according to the discretion of the emperor. To preserve its doctrines and practices, the true Church was forced into hiding, or as Scripture says, to flee "into the wilderness", for 1260 years, until the liberating times of Queen Elizabeth I (Rev 12:6,14).
A clear distinction is seen to have developed in this era between true Christians (those addressed by Christ) and organised false Christianity, which is labelled "a synagogue of Satan" (Rev 2:9).
The Pergamos era ran from about 325AD until 1095AD, the latter date being the year when the first Catholic Crusade began.
Rev 2:13 says that the Pergamos Church era dwells "where Satan's seat is", which is a very interesting statement. Satan is the god of this world (II Cor 4:4), so one could argue that Satan's "seat", or throne, is omnipresent throughout man's 6000 years under his sway. One could also say that the entire succession of "Beast" empires is Satan's throne, so why does God single out this particular period in history and label it specifically "where Satan's seat is"?
The Roman Empire up until this time had been anti-Christian. However, at this remarkable juncture in history, in the first half of the fourth century, when Constantine was emperor, the Roman Empire had a remarkable about-face. In effect, Satan manifested himself as an "angel of light" and masqueraded his empire as "Christian". Over time, the Papacy was established and Church and state were united. This was all foretold in II Thes 2, where it was predicted that one who "opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God" would come on the scene and that this would be by "the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders".
So it was in the Pergamos era that the throne of Satan, the Papacy, was established. The Catholic Church says that, prior to this time, there already were Popes, but that is not correct. What they had before this time was a succession of men who held the office of the "bishop of Rome", and who presided over Rome and its surrounding areas, just like there was a bishop of Antioch, a bishop of Alexandria, a bishop of Caesarea, a bishop of Jerusalem etc. None of these had preeminence over the others. Read Eusebius' Church History (written around 310AD) which clearly shows this.
Now people might object and say that the false church cannot be described as "the Temple of God" as it is in II Thessalonians 2. The fact is, however, that the true Christian faith over time was corrupted and taken over by people with false, unbiblical teachings.
The leadership of this false Christianity, again over time, took on the form of an office filled by one single man, i.e. the Papacy, as opposed to 12 leaders over the Church, as established by Christ.
So we see that, during the Pergamos era, Satan hijacked the Church in an organised way, on a state level, forcing true Christians to go "into the wilderness" (Rev 12:6,14), i.e. to disappear from public view. The phrase "where Satan's throne is" should therefore be understood as "when Satan's throne is established".
Following on from here, a reference is made in Rev 2:13 to a certain "Antipas". Antipas is an abbreviated form of Antipatris, meaning "against the father". I believe this is a cryptic description of the true Christians of the Pergamos era, who stood against the "holy father" of the great false church, for which they frequently were martyred. Verse 14 is full of information that identifies the issues they faced: "But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel (in this case, true Christians), to eat things sacrificed to idols (false doctrines), and to commit sexual immorality (to transgress God's laws)".
The Pergamos era message continues by denouncing "those who hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans". In Greek, the word Nikolaos means "conqueror of the people", and this spiritual conquest seems to involve the adoption of pagan practices and doctrines. This would include matters like the Trinity, the worship of Mary, the worship of saints, idol worship, Christmas, etc.
The Nicolaitans are mentioned in the Ephesus era message, so the phenomenon was already in existence then. However, whereas the Ephesus Christians are said to have withstood this form of apostasy, the Pergamos brethren unfortunately were adversely affected by it.
The long Pergamos era ended when the "synagogue of Satan" (false Christianity), led by the "throne of Satan" (the Papacy), shifted into an even deadlier phase of its diabolical existence.
The Thyatira era ran from 1095 until 1347, the former date being the commencement of the First Crusade, the latter date the onset of the Black Death.
Thyatira is warned by Christ about "Jezebel", who is representative of the same Catholic Church that oppressed the Pergamos era, but was now taking things to a whole new level. Jezebel was a gentile woman who married an Israelite king (Ahab), but actively continued her pagan religion in Israel, whilst murderously persecuting and hunting down the true worshippers of God.
The story of Jezebel can be found in the book of I Kings and has notable parallels with the Catholic Church at the Thyatira point in history. The Catholic religion, like Jezebel's, is largely of pagan origin, but it palms itself off as the wife of Christ, and Christ of course is the ultimate Israelite King. The Catholic Church, like Jezebel, was also very murderous.
Rev 2:24 speaks of "the depths of Satan", and during this era Satan certainly showed himself at his very worst.
In the year 1095, Pope Urban II called the First Crusade to liberate Jerusalem from Muslim control. In the following century the Inquisitions began. The enormity of the suffering inflicted and barbarism meted out in these endeavours, supposedly in the name of Christ, is incalculable. The details are too grotesque to mention, and prove the satanic mindset from which they originated. The Crusades and the Inquisitions brought an enormous escalation in evil from that perpetrated during the Pergamos era. How fitting that the great false church, which masterminded these evils, is figuratively referred to as "Jezebel".
The capture of Jerusalem by the Crusaders in 1099 led to them establishing what they called "The Kingdom of Jerusalem". Obviously the Catholics would have felt that God had handed them the Holy City because of their perceived righteousness. They would have also felt justified in enforcing their brand of Christianity in all territories they controlled or influenced.
Enforced conversion to Catholicism is symbolically described by God in Rev 2:20 as: "you allow that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, to teach and seduce My servants to commit sexual immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols". Significant numbers must have given in under the terrible pressure. When the Scripture calls Jezebel a teacher, keep in mind that her teaching involved the sword.
God's response was proportionate to the crime. He says in Rev 2:22-23 of Jezebel's people that He will "cast her into a bed" (a sick bed), "into great tribulation" (the Black Death), and "will kill her children with death", unless they repent of their deeds.
As the Catholic leaders did not repent, this prophecy was fulfilled with the arrival in southern Europe of the Black Death in 1347. Many estimates say that more than half of Europe's population was wiped out; in southern Europe, where Catholicism was headquartered, perhaps as many as eighty percent died.
The Sardis era most likely ran from 1347 until 1455, from the beginning of the Black Death in Europe, until one of the greatest interventions by God in the history of man.
The enormity of the Black Death would have made a life changing impact on the surviving members of the true Church. They certainly recognised that this enormous curse was from God, as we find stated in Rev 2:23 regarding this plague "I will kill her (Jezebel's) children with death and all the churches shall know that I am He who searches the minds and hearts".
In Rev 3:1, Christ says to the Sardis brethren "you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead". As the general population of Europe had been decimated, Church member numbers could have also been greatly reduced. Those who had been compromised by false Christianity would not have been spared the wrath of God, as Rev 3:22 would seem to indicate.
Another reason the Sardis era was not in good shape is given in Rev 3:2, where Christ encourages the brethren to "strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die". Some 1300 years had passed since the original apostles first went out into the world, so it is likely by this point that, through the passage of time, and the corrupting influence of false Christianity, as well as the relentless persecutions, very little of the original truth did "remain".
In Rev 3:3 Christ continues "Remember therefore how you have received and heard". The word "heard" is very significant here, as the general absence of written Scriptures meant that the transmission of the gospel had largely been a matter of word of mouth. This same word "heard" also alludes to the enormous change God was about to bring on the world in the next era.
In Rev 2:16, in the Pergamos message, Christ had said in regard to the false church "I ..... will fight against them with the sword of My mouth". Heb 4:12 states "the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword", and Gal 6:17 speaks of "the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God". Therefore, the sword that Christ uses, to fight and disarm evildoers, is His Word, the Holy Bible.
In Rev 2:21, in the Thyatira message, I believe God had foretold how long He would give "Jezebel" to repent. He says "I gave her time to repent". The classical Greek in which the New Testament is written doesn't contain the indefinite article "a". Rather, literally, it will say things like "I will cast her into bed" or "Behold, I come upon you as thief". A word for "a" doesn't appear, but we add it in English. I believe, likewise, that the word "time" in verse 21 should read "a time". A "time" in Scripture is a year. In prophecy a time constitutes a year of 360 days, and using the "day for a year" method given in Num 14 and Eze 4, 360 days pictures 360 years.
Therefore, the "fight" of Rev 2:16 was held back by the "time", or 360 years, given to "Jezebel" to repent, starting the count from the commencement of the Thyatira era in 1095. As the Black Death did not convince the Catholic Church to repent and instead she quickly resumed her evils, "Jezebel's" fate was sealed.
The Philadelphia era ran from 1455 until about 1860, and began with one of the greatest turning points in history. It involved the introduction of the printing press, and the beginning of mass production of the Holy Scriptures.
In 1455, exactly 360 years since the commencement of both the Crusades and the Thyatira era, Johannes Gutenberg produced the first Bible printed using movable metal type, in Mainz, Germany. This Bible was printed in Latin, the only language the Scriptures were permitted to appear in, by Catholic edict. Only about 180 copies of the Gutenberg Bible were produced, but the invention of a means to mass produce printed material, combined with the onset of the Reformation, led, over time, to Bible translations in various languages, giving access to the Scriptures to people in general.
In 1522, a German language New Testament, translated by Martin Luther, was printed. A full Dutch language Bible was printed in 1526. The first full version printed in French appeared in 1530. English language printed versions included that of William Tyndale and Myles Coverdale in 1535, the Great Bible of 1539, and the Geneva Bible of 1560. The first full Spanish Bible was printed in 1569.
The Geneva Bible was so popular, that over a period of about eighty years, and as a result of many printed editions, an astonishing 360 thousand copies were sold in England, at a time during which the population increased from about four to five million people. Its publication in England was temporarily banned to promote sales of the King James Bible, which appeared in 1611. The Geneva Bible was especially popular as it contained lengthy marginal, explanatory, notes, and was printed using an easy to read letter type. It was also the first full English Bible to contain verse numbers.
People who had hitherto been unable to read the Word of God had a whole new world opened up to them. Those who were unable to read flocked to churches just to hear the Scriptures read out loud; such was the thirst to hear God's message. In a relatively short period, historically speaking, Europeans went from being virtually cut off from access to God's Word in the middle of the 15th century, to being awash with the Scriptures in their own languages by the end of the 16th century.
The Biblical awakening of this time fuelled the Protestant Reformation, which was a turning point in history of proportions hard to overestimate. The Reformation led to a great diminishing of Catholic power and influence, the emergence of numerous additional Christian denominations, and the rise of much Biblical inquiry, discussion and scholarship.
The Reformation also brought the remarkable Iconoclastic Fury, which saw large crowds attacking Catholic Churches all over northern Europe and destroying idolatrous statues and artworks. Whole books fill the remarkable societal changes that the Reformation led to.
In England, Queen Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603) made Church attendance compulsory; those who didn't comply were fined. In Scotland, Bible ownership was made compulsory for those who were of means. The result of all this, historian J R Green summed up in the following way:
"No greater moral change ever passed over a nation than passed over England during the years ..... of the reign of Elizabeth. England became the people of a book, and that book was the Bible. And its effect ..... was simply amazing. The whole temper of the nation was changed. The whole nation became, in fact, a Church" - (A Short History of the English People, Chapter 8, Section 1, 1874).
Through this momentous period of change, God's true Sabbath keeping Church also saw its turnaround. The rapid introduction of the Scriptures, in an ever wider variety of languages, gradually allowed the Sardis era's Scriptural ignorance to be replaced by solid Bible literacy. By this direct access to the Scriptures, God was able to call people to understand His truth directly from His Word.
The Anglo-Spanish War that commenced in 1585, and the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, curtailed Catholic influence in the world and assisted in creating the breathing space required to bring the true Church back to life, allowing it to come out of hiding, grow in numbers and thus to emerge from the near death experience of the Sardis era.
Records exist of substantial numbers of Sabbath keeping congregations that sprang up from the early 1600's onwards in England and Wales.
The Church had originally set off on a strong footing, having been taught personally by Jesus Christ in the first century. After some 1300 years, that foundation had been all but fully eroded. How was the Church brought back to health? Did men bring this about? No, just like in the first century, God brought it about, this time by making His Scriptures available to the general public. This is the "open door" of the Philadelphia era mentioned in Rev 3:7. By providing His Word in languages people could understand, God opened Himself up to them. Christ said "I am the door" (Jn 10:9). The Bible is the mind of God in print. Christ is The Word. An open, legible, intelligible Bible is an open door, giving access to God.
It is significant that the Philadelphia era is said to have "kept my word" (Rev 3:8). This makes sense, for how can people keep God's Word if they haven't received God's Word?
This is a crucial marker of time, showing that the Philadelphia era sprang up as a result of the widespread distribution of the Holy Scriptures. This is no small point. It was the mass circulation of the Scriptures that created the necessary conditions for the transition from the "dead" Sardis era to the Philadelphia era.
These Christians are said to "have a little strength" (Rev 3:8). They had some strength because these people spent much time reading God's Word, and were not beset by the multitude of distractions that we are. As a consequence they were able to gain spiritual strength.
Additionally, in Rev 3:8, Christ says "you have not denied my name". We are commanded to not take His name in vain, but to represent Him in all our words and deeds. That's what a true Christian does. But again, how can people do that without having His Word available for instruction, deep meditation and reflection?
In Rev 3:9 we are informed that this era was opposed by false Christianity ("the synagogue of Satan") and that these persecutors will at some time in the future be forced to admit their error. Again, this is a marker of time, because those of our day who want to claim the Philadelphian mantle have encountered little or no opposition or persecution from false Christianity. In true Philadelphian days, however, being a Sabbath keeping Christian was not easy. For many years, Sunday keeping in England was compulsory, Church attendance records were kept, and fines were imposed. People were not free to congregate wherever they wished, as we are. Permission had to be sought to meet at specified addresses, and preachers were required to be credentialed by the authorities. These ministers could not travel freely to other congregations; they were only licensed to preach at particular localities. Rebellion against the authorities was not tolerated, with strict laws of assembly enforced in order to discourage or minimise dissent. Many a Sabbath keeper spent time in jail for his unorthodox practices in Philadelphian days.
The history of the post-Reformation, Sabbath keeping, Church of God has been largely ignored by the end time COG's. As the agenda in our day has mostly been one of glorifying our recent leader or leaders, this of necessity has required downplaying the accomplishments, and sometimes even the existence, of those who went before them. It is somewhat ironic that HWA portrayed himself as the one who restored Church doctrines, when this was exactly what drove the era prior to his. From the writings of Sabbath keepers in the 1600's, we can see that they felt it was their duty before God to rid themselves of all false doctrines that Christianity had been saddled with by Rome. They believed that the Reformation had not gone anywhere near far enough, and even petitioned leaders of the country to change the national day of worship from Sunday to Saturday.
A very good source of information on this topic is "The Seventh Day Men - Sabbatarians and Sabbatarianism in England and Wales, 1600-1800" by SDA scholar Bryan W Ball. The great wealth of factual information gathered therein comes from old church records, church bulletins, correspondence between congregations, county records, court records, and the many publications put out by Sabbath keepers.
Ball has identified over 60 Sabbath keeping congregations in England and Wales between the years 1617 and 1750. Groups varied in number from just a family or two, to congregations of hundreds of people. Ball also lists 66 known pro-Sabbath writings published between 1628 and 1745 in England. At least as many pro-Sunday publications were produced, and often these writings were in response to each other. Some of the authors of this period state that the Sabbath v Sunday argument was the biggest point of Christian debate in 17th century England.
Sabbatarian ministers and writers of this period include John Traske, Theophilus Brabourne, Peter Chamberlen, John Belcher, James Ockford, Francis Bampfield, Thomas Bampfield, Edward Stennett, Joseph Stennett I, II and III, Samuel Stennett, Robert Cornthwaite, Thomas Tillam, Christopher Pooley, Edmund Townsend, Joseph Davis, John James, John Sullins, Henry Jessey, William Saller, Henry Soursby, William Whiston and many, many more.
Many of these brethren were highly intelligent, educated people. Henry Jessey was a Cambridge University educated Hebrew scholar. Thomas Bampfield was a lawyer and a member of Parliament. William Whiston was a Cambridge University mathematician and lecturer, as well as a Greek scholar, who is best known for translating the writings of Josephus. Peter Chamberlen was the royal physician to King Charles I and King Charles II.
Beliefs held generally among these people were: the Ten Commandments, including the Saturday Sabbath from Friday sunset until Saturday sunset, adult baptism, rejection of infant baptism, baptism by immersion, laying on of hands, anointing of the sick, foot washing, Millennialism, prophecy interpreted according to the school of thought called Historicism, which uses the "day for a year method", belief that Sunday worship is the "mark of the Beast", clean and unclean meats, the "little horn" is the Roman Church, and the belief that Anglicanism was tainted with the false doctrines of "Popery". Some brethren even kept Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread.
Tillam and Pooley espoused more radical beliefs over time, even advocating circumcision, incurring the rebuke of other Sabbatarian ministers.
A few notable events of the 1600's in Britain, listed by Ball:
1) In the town of Exeter in the year 1600, a group of Christians attempted to keep Passover, but were prevented from doing so by authorities. In those times public meetings needed government approval and were strictly regulated. "Non-conformity" to the State religion was a punishable offence.
2) In 1607 theologian John Sprint, in a publication supporting Sunday worship, referred to "Sabbatary Christians" of his time who insisted on keeping "the Jewish Sabbath". The fact alone that so many pro-Sunday writings were produced shows the subject to have been a serious point of contention.
3) In 1621 Archbishop of Canterbury George Abbot objected to a bill brought before Parliament on the grounds that it contained the word "Sabbath", which he felt might be misinterpreted. He argued that "many of late have run to Judaism" and have "written for the very day".
4) An opponent of John Traske (1585-1636) wrote that Traske believed "the resurrection of Christ should be celebrated on the fourteenth of March moon to coincide with the Jewish Passover and should be followed by the eating of unleavened bread for seven days."
5) In 1657 and in 1682 Sabbatarian ministers appealed to Parliament and the judiciary to change the official day of worship from Sunday to Saturday, on the grounds that Sunday had been instituted by Rome without Scriptural proof and contrary to apostolic practice.
6) During the 1690's a Frenchman by the name of Henri Misson travelled throughout England and recorded his observations in a detailed memoir. Here are some of his notes on people he encountered there, who referred to themselves as "Sabbatarians": "There is a particular society, though it makes but a little noise, of people, who ..... go by the name of Sabbatarians (footnote: "the common people call them Seventh-Day Men") [and] make profession of expecting the Reign of a Thousand Years...... These Sabbatarians are so called, because they will not remove the Day of Rest from Saturday to Sunday. They leave off work betimes on Friday Evening, and are very rigid observers of their Sabbath. They administer baptism only to adult people..... The major part of them will eat neither pork nor blood, nor things strangled..... For the rest, their morality is severe, and their whole outward conduct pious and Christian-like." (M. Misson's Memoirs and Observations in his travels over England, 1719, pp 233-235).
The seriousness with which brethren of this time period kept the Sabbath is echoed by English Sabbatarian George Carlow. In his writings, he quotes Neh 13:15-18, which condemns doing business on the Sabbath. He also advocates sunset to sunset "holy rest", and hails Nehemiah for "causing Jerusalem's gates to be shut before the Sabbath", calling this "a good example for earthly minds, who will not leave their servile labor till the last minute, but perhaps allow themselves liberty to do some household business after the Sabbath's beginning" ("A Defense of the Sabbath", 1847, p74 and p97, originally published in 1724 as "Truth Defended").
The above mentioned information only deals with Sabbath keeping Christians in Britain, but a sprinkling of like-minded people are also believed to have existed throughout other countries in continental Europe.
Throughout the 1600's and 1700's many European Christians began making their way across the seas to the New World, giving themselves the opportunity to escape the oppression of European Protestant rulers and to start a new life in what would become the United States of America.
As mentioned in the introduction, the city of Philadelphia became the launchpad of the United States, the "great nation" of Manasseh that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had been promised by God so long ago. The history of Philadelphia is embodied in the person of William Penn, the founder of both Pennsylvania and Philadelphia. His 1701 "Charter of Privileges" was the foundation for Christian freedom of religion in the United States. It also provided for democratic rule of the people, and wisely, only allowed inhabitants who professed the Christian faith to hold office in Pennsylvania.
Through the foundation that freedom of religion provided, Christians, including Sabbath keeping Christians, were able to flourish in this undeveloped new continent, many congregations being raised up of quiet, humble, hard working, God fearing people. These times of spiritual prosperity lasted for the best part of two centuries on American soil.
The first known Sabbath keepers to make the journey to the New World were Stephen and Anne Mumford who, with other members of their family, had belonged to a Sabbatarian congregation in London. They arrived in Rhode Island in 1665, and within a few years had begun a small congregation in Newport. Soon other congregations were raised up in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. These people referred to themselves as Sabbatarians, Sabbatarian Baptists, and later, Seventh Day Baptists.
Around 1684 Abel Noble, a Sabbatarian minister, came from London to America and settled a few miles from Philadelphia, teaching the seventh-day Sabbath. As a result of his work a church was raised up near Philadelphia around 1700. Noble also laboured as a missionary in New Jersey and introduced his views among the German Seventh Day Baptists at Ephrata, Pennsylvania.
In 1705 Edmund Dunham, a Baptist deacon, organised a small Sabbath keeping congregation in Piscataway, New Jersey after being challenged on the validity of observing Sunday. Dunham was later ordained a minister by elders from Rhode Island.
A history of the Sabbath keeping Church in America was published in 1811 by Henry Clarke, a Seventh Day Baptist minister from New York. Clarke presided over a congregation of about 160 Sabbath keepers in that state. His book lists in detail 11 congregations of SDB's in North-Eastern USA, with a total of just under 1800 baptised members at the time of writing, and adds that thousands more non-baptised people attended their services.
As today's Seventh Day Baptists are mostly Trinitarian, in line with mainstream Christianity, it is noteworthy that in Philadelphian days this was not the case. Clarke states that they believed in "one God, the Father", and "one Lord, Jesus Christ", but that the holy spirit is "the operative power or spirit of God". He goes on to say "there are few if any, of this denomination, as I conceive, who believe that the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost are three absolute distinct persons, coequal, coessential, and coeternal Gods, and yet but one God, as such an idea would be in the face of Scripture, and repugnant to right reason" (A History of the Sabbatarians or Seventh Day Baptists in America, 1811, p62).
These brethren strongly believed in the validity and morality of the Ten Commandments, keeping the Sabbath "from even to even". They utilised local congregational government, rejecting the concept of the Primacy of Peter, thereby avoiding individuals gaining control of the Church.
It is a very interesting fact of history that when Biblical awareness was greatly re-ignited during the time of the Reformation, there was, among Christianity in general, a wholesale move away from the concept of one man leading a church.
Clarke also states that Sabbatarians in his time believed that God had created all things by Jesus Christ, and that Christ was the giver of the law and the Rock that followed Israel in the wilderness. They believed in a resurrection, were Millennial in outlook, practised baptism by immersion, and baptised adults only. They understood Christ spent fully three days and three nights in the grave, from late Wednesday until late on the Sabbath. Clarke also stresses that Sabbath keepers should avoid fellowshipping with Sunday keeping "Christians".
In 1830 the Seventh Day Baptists began publishing a periodical called "The Protestant Sentinel", which soon after was renamed "The Seventh Day Baptist Register". Its October 6, 1841 edition states that at that time there were about fifty SDB churches, with sixty-two ministers, and a membership of 5500.
The Philadelphia era came to its conclusion around the time of the commencement of the US Civil War in the early 1860's. The world had then clearly begun a downhill slide in standards and morality, with Christianity beginning to take a back seat to the emerging belief in evolution and the non-existence of a Creator. Over time, being affected by the changes occurring in the world and made complacent by growing affluence, those who comprised the true Church of God became lukewarm in their allegiance to God. Serious splits developed in the Church, where individuals sought to draw away personal followings.
As the end of the era drew on, the danger God had warned the Philadelphians about when he said "hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown" (Rev 3:11) began to rear its ugly head. The cooperative spirit as embodied in the governmental principle established by Christ in His appointment of 12 apostles, rather than just one single leader, began to be eroded by individuals seeking selfish glory among God's people and proclaiming themselves to be "some great one" (Acts 8:9). Most Bible translations read something like "let no one take your crown" in Rev 3:11, which is more correct as both men and women are alluded to here.
From the mid 1800's on, the Church saw the emergence of people like James and Ellen White, and others, who proclaimed some of God's truths, but who also introduced "damnable heresies" (II Pet 2:1) to the Church of God, including beliefs about their own importance or office, echoing the spirit of "Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence" (III Jn 9).
This condition would only grow worse over time.
However, God promised the faithful Philadelphians that "Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world (the World Wars), to try them that dwell upon the earth" (those of the "earth" of Israel, i.e. the Jews) (Rev 3:10). And so He did. By the time of the horrors of the World Wars, including the terrible Holocaust that killed one third of the Jews in the world, the Philadelphia era had long since run its course.
An explanation should be given here of the phrase "the key of David", mentioned at the beginning of the Philadelphia era message. One COG makes a very big deal of this, but totally misses its simple meaning.
At the start of each of the seven Church era messages there are introductory statements that enumerate attributes of Christ, confirming that He is the one who is speaking to the Churches. If the reader refers back to chapter one of Revelation, he will find all these attributes of Christ already mentioned. This is where we are given the clue to the meaning of the key of David.
In Rev 1:18 Christ says "I have the keys of Hades and Death". The terms Hades and Death are shown, in Rev 20:11-15, to simply refer to the grave. Christ Himself was in Hades when He was in the tomb (Acts 2:31).
Christ, however, died having lived a sinless life. He paid the price for all who have sinned, making possible their resurrection from death to eternal life. In Jn 11:25 Christ says "I am the resurrection".
So what is the connection between "the key of David" and "the keys of Hades and Death"?
God's plan is to reproduce Himself in mankind. However, man sinned.
In the Scriptures, David is presented as the ultimate example of a sinful man finding redemption with God. His sins were serious; they included murder and adultery. And yet, he found favour with God. God said he was "a man after My own heart". God called David and showed him his sins, and he genuinely repented, not just in word, but also in deed. He is our ultimate human example, showing there is hope for all of us, even the worst of sinners.
Christ says that He holds the keys of Hades and Death and the key of David. He says that He "opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens" (Rev 3:7). If He opens the door of eternal life to a person, no one can shut that door. Likewise, even if all men speak well of you, but Christ shuts the door of His Kingdom to you, you won't be in it. All power has been given to Christ, as He says in Matt 28:18. The key of David that He holds is the key to His Kingdom and eternal life.
In a single phrase, the key of David is the key to salvation.
The emergence of the Laodicea era of God's Church must be sought in the aftermath of the "adventist" movement begun by William Miller in the 1830's in North America. Although not a Sabbath keeper, Miller was a persuasive preacher who believed in the imminent return, or "advent", of Jesus Christ. He had made calculations, based on Biblical prophecies, which led him to believe that 1843, and when it didn't materialise, 1844, would be the year of Christ's second coming.
Even though Miller employed some sound Biblical interpretation principles, his application of those principles left a lot to be desired. He correctly used the "day for a year" method of calculating prophecy, as was the custom in times prior to ours, and believed the Bible speaks of prophetic periods of 2300 years and 2520 years as pertaining to major events. He also correctly believed that the "times of the Gentiles" mentioned by Christ in Luke 21:24 are the same as the "seven times" of punishment spoken of in Leviticus 26. History has proven him correct on these points, but not about what these time periods pertain to. A very good source of information on the subject of William Miller and his beliefs is "The Journey - A History of the Church of God (Seventh Day)" by Robert Coulter.
Over a number of years, Miller gained thousands of followers, some of whom sold all their belongings in anticipation of Christ's return. When the appointed date passed without event, it became known as the "Great Disappointment" among Miller's followers. However, in the same year that Christ was expected to return, 1844, some Millerites were introduced to the doctrine of the seventh day Sabbath and began keeping it. Soon this belief began to gain acceptance by many other Millerites, though not by Miller himself, who died in 1849.
James and Ellen White were among those who had been won over by Miller's predictions regarding Christ's return. In 1846 they also began observing the Sabbath. Ellen White claimed that she received regular visions from God, and, over time, many Sabbath keeping adventists began to view her as a prophetess. In that process, she and her husband James also began to be seen as the movement's leaders. Still convinced that Miller's identification of 1844 was accurate, Ellen White claimed that Miller's predictions concerning the year 1844 hadn't been incorrect, but rather, involved Christ entering a new phase of His work in heaven in that year.
In the 1850's, Ellen White's visions led to a split amongst Sabbath keeping adventists. James White, Ellen's husband, had established a number of Sabbath keeping congregations in Michigan. Over time, the Whites began to insist on members accepting the legitimacy of Ellen's visions. One of the Church's preachers at the time was a man by the name of Gilbert Cranmer. Cranmer rejected the visions of Ellen White and was on that basis denied the opportunity to speak in the congregations established by James White. Cranmer subsequently departed from them and together with others who were of the same opinion regarding Mrs White, established the Church of Christ in 1858, later renamed the Church of God, and later still, the Church of God Seventh Day.
In 1860 the Seventh Day Adventist Church officially commenced by that name, and brethren began the now common trend of putting a human being, or the ideas of one human being, in charge of the Church.
In 1861 the US Civil War commenced. It is hard not to see this as an outward manifestation of the spiritual state of the Church: the physical nation at war was a reflection of the spiritual nation at war. It was certainly a sign of a house divided against itself. During the Civil War, Ellen White predicted that the British would invade the US and fight against the North, but of course this did not eventuate.
During the last century and a half, the SDA Church has grown to enormous proportions, and now has more than 20 million members worldwide. From their earliest days SDA's have believed that the Laodicean Church message of Revelation 3 applied to them, although, to this day, they strangely seem to see it partly as a badge of honour.
The Church of God Seventh Day has also grown, but at a much slower rate. Internal frictions caused it serious damage through the years, and the divisive legacy of long term leader and preacher Andrew N Dugger hangs heavy over its history. At present the COG7 numbers some 400 thousand members, mostly outside the USA.
One branch of Sabbath keeping churches that emerged from the COG7 in the 1930's was the Sacred Name Movement. These churches insist on the use of God's names in the Hebrew language only, but offer questionable explanations as to how God's names can be found written in Greek in the New Testament. Also, a wide variety of possible pronunciations are offered by various groups, all insisting that theirs are the correct ones.
Another breakaway from the COG7 lead to a relatively short lived, but very influential branch of the Church of God:
In the 1930's, Church history saw a man emerge who would go on to personify the Laodicean era, adopting the Papal style "one man rule" principle into the Church of God.
That man was Herbert W Armstrong. The Church he raised up was the Radio Church of God, later renamed the Worldwide Church of God. At its highest point it grew to over 100 thousand members. Armstrong claimed to be the "end time Elijah", and that God had raised him up to restore all lost doctrines to the Church, supposedly in fulfilment of Matt 17:10-11.
Many individuals have arisen since him, although none quite like him, who have also laid claim to being "some great one" (Acts 8:9), such as an apostle, a prophet, the fulfilment of some particular Scriptural prophecy, or simply, the successor of HWA.
The desire for power and dominion over the Church on the part of charismatic individuals is one of the most obvious hallmarks of the final Church era.
This fits well with Seventh Day Adventist belief that the Laodicean era commenced in the 1860's, with the emergence of their group and its central figure, Ellen G White.
The Laodicean era message (Rev 3:14-22) has been applied, by some groups, to those who have departed from the faith, but in reality, most of those who left the faith, at whatever time they left, were pruned by Christ from His vine. The Laodicean passage applies to those who remain, to those who still have God's spirit and therefore constitute the Church, not to those who were pruned off and cast away, and no longer constitute the Church.
The Laodicean era has been characterised by the teaching of the validity of God's law, the willingness of many to die in the faith while waiting on God for healing, the willingness to give up a job or career for the sake of God's Sabbath and Holy Days, and other significant fruits and traits that are truly "hot".
At the same time this era has seen doctrines that are undoubtedly "cold". Serious aberrations have been introduced involving idolatry of Church leaders, and autocratic Church government, thus denying the direct way that God interacts individually with His children. In addition, opulent lifestyles of leaders have been witnessed, including the amassment of significant personal and family wealth, justified on dubious grounds like "he is God's man", and financed through centralised tithing, leaving the local congregations poor, but the people at the top very wealthy.
In the late 1970's the average annual wage in the USA was approximately $12.000. According to Worldwide Church of God lawyer Stanley Radar, in his book "Against The Gates Of Hell", Herbert Armstrong's income around this time was $200.000 per year, plus expenses (as was Rader's own). This means that Armstrong was taking about sixteen times the average wage for himself from the Church's tithe income. There can be little doubt that he was the highest paid Church of God minister of all time.
Additionally, HWA's leadership saw the acceptance of desecrating the fourth commandment by encouraging Church members to visit restaurants on God's holy Sabbath Day in direct violation of Neh 10:31 and Neh 13:15-22. Other aberrations are listed elsewhere on this website.
Unfortunately, by only focusing on "hot" aspects, whilst hiding or ignoring the "cold" aspects, a unbalanced view of its history has been retrospectively portrayed by the Church, obscuring the true nature of this final Church era.
The breaking away of ministers and members from the Worldwide Church of God after Joseph W Tkach took over the helm and led the Church into oblivion after Herbert Armstrong's death in 1986, was very commendable. These brethren sought to retain the true doctrines handed down through the ages, but unfortunately continued to teach many unsound doctrines that had been introduced by Herbert Armstrong as well.
With all this in mind, let's read the Laodicean message:
(Comments in brackets are added by the author)
14 And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things saith the Amen, the
faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God;
15 I know thy works, that thou art neither cold (unconverted) nor hot (converted): I would thou wert cold (never converted, so one's calling could occur later, in the resurrection) or hot (converted, and "on fire" for God, so one could be part of the firstfruit harvest).
16 So then because thou art lukewarm (possess traits of both converted and unconverted people), and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth (remove you from the Body of Christ. The unconverted are not in the Body of Christ, so this can't apply to them).
17 Because thou sayest, I am rich ("we are the true Church; we understand"), and increased with goods ("we know better than those of previous eras"), and have need of nothing ("all things have been restored by the 'end time Elijah'", HWA (COG's); "we have the 'Spirit of Prophecy'", Ellen G White (SDA's); and knowest not that thou art wretched (in a dismal state) and miserable (pitiable), and poor (in Godly knowledge), and blind (in Biblical insight, especially regarding prophecy), and naked (lacking God's character and nature, as a result of the sinful practices of the Churches, such as papal style Church government, following false prophets, making idols of human beings, needlessly trading on God's Sabbath, not honouring family members who are in a different branch of the Church, observing pagan practices and beliefs, teaching doctrinal and prophetic lies, etc.):
18 I counsel thee to buy of me (obtain from Christ) gold tried in the fire (God's truth, direct from His Word), that thou mayest be rich (in Godly knowledge); and white raiment (God's nature, obtained through genuine repentance and obedience, having learnt His law from His Word, not the dubious explanations of men), that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear (as keeping God's law develops His nature in us); and eyesalve (God's
understanding) to anoint thine eyes, that thou mayest see (especially regarding fulfilled Bible prophecy) (ASV).
19 As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.
20 Behold, I stand at the door, and knock (Christ shut out of His Church by members following "the commandments of men"): if any (individual) man (willing to go against the flow of this era) hear my voice, and open the door (open their Bible, which is "Christ in print"), I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me (be given solid, wholesome, spiritual food by Christ).
21 To him that overcometh (but not to him who remains in the Laodicean state) will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.
22 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.
In conclusion, I feel that the above mentioned sequence of Church history cannot be too far off the mark. The evidence in most cases speaks for itself, as long as we are willing to look at the facts objectively, without prior biases and allegiances to certain individuals.
Some people totally deny that the Church era messages comprise a historical sequence. And yet many historical markers are given:
Ephesus, where John, the last of the 12 apostles resided; Smyrna, "rich" with the treasures of God's Word and its "ten days" of severe persecution; the "martyr(s)" slain by the "throne of Satan" of the Pergamos and Thyatira periods; the Black Death "sickbed" of Sardis and the "time", or 360 years, leading to Catholicism's loss of power; Philadelphia's "open door" of receiving God's "word" in print, and the "hour of temptation" they were spared from; and finally, deceived "rich" Laodicea which has failed to "let no man take your crown", by allowing humans to rule them ahead of Jesus Christ.
The historical sequence in the seven messages to the Church also shows seven stages of the false Church that can be identified throughout:
Era 1) "Apostles" who are "liars" (single deceivers)
Era 2) "A synagogue of Satan" (organised deception)
Era 3) "Satan's throne" (false State Christianity with its Papacy)
Era 4) "Jezebel" and "the depths of Satan" (Catholicism's murderous endeavours)
Era 5) "Death" (Catholicism's severe punishment by means of the Black Death)
Era 6) "The synagogue of Satan who say they are Jews" (predominantly Protestantism)
Era 7) No mention of a false Church (their power waning and ultimately "fallen" - see the page "BABYLON IS FALLEN" for more information)
This historical account of the Church eras shows three glaring errors made by HWA:
Firstly, it shows that he totally failed to recognise the post-Reformation re-emergence of the true Church, and its unwavering determination to restore the true doctrines Rome had suppressed for so long. This era of believers could not by any stretch of the imagination be called "Sardis" as he labeled them. They were full of life, zeal and sound Biblical knowledge, raising up countless congregations on both sides of the Atlantic. HWA himself mostly continued with these people's teachings, as shown on the page "THE END TIME ELIJAH", so his theory and his practice did not match.
Secondly, HWA's placement of the Philadelphia era in the 20th century does not make sense in light of its description given by God. Rev 3:9 mentions the "synagogue of Satan" opposing the Philadelphia era Church. As shown above in the Smyrna era description, this involves severe oppression from organised false Christianity. The problem with HWA's explanation is that, as a rule, there was no strong, organised oppression of Sabbath keepers in the 20th century. The time period of "Christian" persecution in Western nations, where the Church was mainly based, came to an end long before HWA was born.
Thirdly, the Laodicean era message makes no mention of external persecution; rather, its problems lie within the Church itself. This is a perfect historical fit with HWA's time period, and one that he failed to take into account. The fact that HWA was able to preach his message so widely, through various forms of media, virtually without any restrictions, shows that his time period was no longer the Philadelphia era. Had it still been the Philadelphia era, the forces of the "synagogue of Satan" would never have permitted it.
Surely, if we have eyes to see, and a willingness to be honest about these things, from our unique viewpoint in history we should be able to identify the historical timeline of the eras of God's true Church.