Two decades ago, as Terry Ratzmann was embracing the small Christian community upon which he left his fatal mark this month, a spiritual earthquake was beginning to shake the foundation of the Worldwide Church of God he had entered.
In a series of stunning, rapid changes considered without precedent in American religious history, the California-based church known for its trademark televangelism program, "The World Tomorrow," renounced key doctrines and lurched toward its current status in the mainstream of America's evangelical movement.
By the mid-1990s, the tremors had left 145,000 members at a crossroads that wound up separating friends, dividing families and driving some pastors to nervous breakdowns. The tumult, for many, meant a choice. They could abandon lifelong views and swallow the new mainstream message. Or they could join new offshoots that would follow the controversial teachings of the late Herbert W. Armstrong, the Iowa-born advertising-man-turned-preacher and self-appointed apostle who founded the Worldwide Church of God.
Ratzmann, like tens of thousands of others, took the latter path, staying the course and landing in a small splinter group, the Living Church of God. On March 12, his rampage during his congregation's Saturday Sabbath service at a Brookfield hotel would leave eight people dead and bring new attention to the practices and views of the Living Church of God and the other Armstrong-inspired "splinters" around the globe.
With 7,000 members, the Living Church of God is considered stricter in enforcing lifestyle rules than most of the splinters. The North Carolina-based church is led by Roderick Meredith, a patriarch of the Armstrong movement and a man whom religious scholars view as an authoritarian figure in the mold of Armstrong. Church leaders confirm they follow Armstrong's teachings almost to the letter.
The tragedy also drew attention to the group's booming end-of-time prophecies and its controversial beliefs, espoused by Armstrong, that it should focus mainly on preparing an exclusive group - the British-descended "Anglo-American peoples" - for the second coming of Christ.
Living Church of God members and former members report that the group's rules and practices discourage dating and marriage with non-members, frown on interracial dating, prefer women wear modest attire and be subservient to their husbands, and discourage use of anti-depressant medication or mind-altering prescriptions. Like many other churches, they oppose abortion, divorce, premarital sex and homosexuality.
Members are to shun birthdays, and the church considers Christmas, Easter and other traditional Christian holidays as pagan. The crosses left as memorials outside the hotel where the shooting occurred are generally accepted as sincere messages of condolences, but the Living Church considers them pagan symbols rather than religious icons.
How the church's rules and practices may have affected Ratzmann is one of the central mysteries of the Brookfield tragedy. Church members and others have said that Ratzmann must have been mentally ill, leading to the question of how much his church follows Armstrong's old policy of urging members to rely on God instead of medical professionals for healing. Friends have talked about how the socially awkward 44-year-old was desperately searching among congregations throughout the country for a wife.
Living Church of God pastors say they have moved beyond Armstrong's rigid rule on medical consultation and leave the decision up to individual members while encouraging them to pray for healing. But some still follow the old way, and prescription anti-depressant use is discouraged by some pastors, according to interviews with church members. Ratzmann's mental condition is unknown, but some who knew him have said he was unhappy.
Members of the Armstrong movement, past and present, say they have grown used to being asked if they are in a cult, given the unusual combination of Old Testament-based practices endorsed by the church, its strict adherence to doctrine and the heavy financial demands on members.
Officials of the remade Worldwide, looking back at their former beliefs, say Armstrong was in charge of a "cult" - the label that critics had plastered it with for years.
Armstrong and his ministers always preached that the end of time was near, to be followed by the second coming of Christ. But they drew major attention with an unusually specific prediction that the end-time was coming in 1975.
Living Church of God members hail from all walks of life, and many are highly educated. Members object to the cult label, often citing biblical chapter and verse to support the church's beliefs. Past and present members are frequently described by themselves and observers of the groups as normal and decent people striving for truth.
Members say they are a peace-loving church, one that discourages military service by its members.
Ruth Tucker, a professor at Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids, Mich., and an expert on alternative religions, said nothing in the Armstrong movement supports violence. The slayings could have happened at any church, she said.
"You can argue the theology is a little crazy, but it would seem to me the shooter was mentally ill," Tucker said.
Some scholars who have studied the Churches of God say it is not a cult but has "cultish" tendencies. They say the popular understanding of "cult" conjures images of forced communal living, suicide pacts and similar extreme behaviors that have not been a factor in the Churches of God groups.
Initially called the Radio Church of God because of Armstrong's pioneering use of the airwaves, his Worldwide Church grew rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s. Leadership turmoil and questions about finances have marked the movement's history.
In 1979, the State of California investigated allegations that millions of dollars had been stolen from the church by Herbert W. Armstrong and Stanley Rader, a top aide. But the church rallied other denominations behind legislation pre-empting such investigations into religious groups. The investigation was eventually closed without charges, but the church was in court-ordered receivership for more than a year during the probe.
Living Church members say they believe the legalistic teachings help them lead good lives, and that they find hope for a "glorious outcome" in the end-time prophecies, not just fearfulness. They say the church practices what it preaches, unlike some churches that allow congregants to routinely ignore key teachings. They say they are following Jesus' teaching from the first century, living as the early apostles did.
The Living Church turns to the book of Leviticus for guidance on how to live as Jesus did. They celebrate Passover, Pentecost, Purim and other Old Testament holy days; they follow dietary rules similar, but not identical, to those of Jews.
They are not supposed to vote in elections or serve on juries.
"The Scriptures teach that we are not to be a part of the civil government, but that we should support the leadership and respect its laws as long as it does not conflict with the law of God," said Tom Geiger, a church member. "In a sense, we are aliens residing in this country. We answer to our home government, God's government."
The Lord's day begins at sunset Friday and ends at sunset Saturday. The worship service often runs two hours or more, beginning with the singing of hymns selected from a collection of those composed by Herbert Armstrong's brother, followed by an opening prayer delivered by one of the men in the congregation. Another man will give a "sermonette," essentially an introduction to a live or videotaped sermon delivered by an ordained minister.
Women may become deaconesses, but they do not have leadership roles in the services.
Members say they don't always follow the church's rules, and enforcement appears to be inconsistent, but as a whole the dictates are taken seriously, in some cases leading to members being "disfellowshipped" - kicked out.
Members are asked every year to double tithe - give 20% of their income - and triple tithe twice every seven years. The first tithe goes directly to the church for "the Lord's work"; the second defrays members' own expenses for keeping the holy days, particularly the Feast of Tabernacles, an eight-day gathering attended by members from all over the world; the third tithe is to support widows and others in need.
Tithing is done on the honor system, but founder Herbert W. Armstrong accused those who didn't as "stealing from God." Actual giving is an individual decision, members said. "They don't come and check my taxes every year to see that I give my pound of flesh," Geiger said.
The church's harshest critics say the legalistic nature of the groups, and their restrictions on member's contacts with outsiders, socially isolate adherents and leaves them vulnerable to mind control.
"The individual is lost to the group. It's very clannish, very closed," said William Hohmann, a former Worldwide Church member from Texas who is part of an "exit and support network" for persons leaving the Armstrong splinters.
"The majority of members are of greater than average intelligence, believe they can't be deceived and don't know the Bible well when they join," Hohmann said. "So they are susceptible."
A former member of the Fort Worth congregation of Worldwide, Gloria Elam, scoffs at the idea that those that departed the church need to be "deprogrammed because we were in some strange cult."
"We were always concerned about the people around us. We prayed for others not in our fellowship, and we tried our best to set a right example to all," Elam said.
Other critics focus on the Anglo-based theory and the organization's "one true church" message as divisive and exclusionary. The Living Church of God welcomes minority members, but still emphasizes the salvation of Anglo-American people in its public statement of beliefs.
The Living Church is not the only one to claim a corner on salvation. And the Armstrong churches are hardly alone in issuing end-time speculations. Those are pandemic in evangelical Christianity, said Hank Hanegraaff, president of the California-based Christian Research Institute, an evangelical organization that counters what its regards as doctrinal errors in religious groups.
Hanegraaff sees a bleak future for churches that rely on repeated doses of doom and gloom to hook new members.
The Living Church of God, whose top officials did not respond to interview requests for this story, does not appear to have extraordinarily deep pockets. It took in $8.9 million in 2003 and reported a $320,000 deficit, with net assets of $2.3 million, according to figures it provided to the GuideStar Web site that tracks non-profits.
Its response to the Brookfield shootings could play a role in its future. But it will continue to rely on mass media campaigns to reach new members, much of it in the form of leader Meredith's in-your-face "Tomorrow's World" telecasts and commentaries worldwide.
He issued a particularly emotional appeal in the wake of the devastating Indonesian earthquake and tsunamis in December. Meredith saw portents of the last days, declaring the quake "only among the very first of an entire series of natural disasters which are destined to shake the entire world in a manner never before experienced!"
He concluded with a plea for people to learn more by sending away for a free copy of the Living Church's booklet titled "Fourteen Signs Announcing Christ's Return."