League of the South Works to Take Over Churches
Key members of a white supremacist organization, the League of the South (LOS), are moving to take control of conservative churches around the South, prompting a possible split in a major Presbyterian denomination.
The central player in this little-noticed drama is the Rev. Steven J. Wilkins, pastor of the Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Monroe, La., and a founder and current board member of the neo-Confederate LOS. Wilkins is an advocate of Christian Reconstruction, a theology that seeks to impose draconian Old Testament law on civil society.
The League's goal, Wilkins has said, is to save America from "paganism" and restore it as "the last bastion of Christendom" — a Christendom that, in Wilkins' view, sees slavery as "perfectly legitimate."
Last summer, Wilkins almost caused a rupture within the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), a conservative Southern denomination founded in 1973 that has more than 300,000 North American members.
Persuading 10 churches to join him, Wilkins called a meeting of the PCA'S Louisiana Presbytery to consider the possible departure from the PCA of those with "theonomic" views — the idea that the Bible, not man-made civil law, should form the legal basis of society.
Although the debate was temporarily tabled, PCA officials say that a schism may be imminent.
Theonomists, and especially Reconstructionists, know their views are an anathema to most Americans. Reconstructionist ideologue Gary North, in fact, has written that Reconstructionists need "the noise of contemporary events" to hide their goals.
"If [non-believers] fully understood the long-term threat to their civilization that our ideas pose, they ... would be wise to take steps to crush us."
Wilkins and other LOS leaders have put a particularly Southern spin on Reconstructionism, melding theonomic ideology with the view that during the Civil War, the North was animated by "radical hatred of Scripture." For them, the idea is to reconstruct the South according to their hard-line view of Christianity — a view that sees government as necessarily an extension of Godly rule.
Wilkins is just the most obvious sign of growing League influence within the PCA and among Southern churches generally. The Rev. C. Richard Barbare of the PCA'S Edgefield Presbyterian Church in Edgefield, S.C., is also an LOS member.
[Editor’s note: In December 2005, Rev. Barbare contacted the Intelligence Report to say that he had dropped out of the LOS and also the Sons of Confederate Veterans, explaining both groups “are divisive in their present goals.” He said he had no association with Rev. Wilkins, other theonomists or their “radical beliefs.” He said he was not a racist and “deplore[d] the recent subversion of the SCV.”]
John Thomas Cripps, the League's Mississippi state leader, has built up his own Confederate Presbyterian Church. And for a time, LOS leaders took over a former PCA church in York, Ala., by stacking the pews with their members.
No Room for Compromise
At the moment, Wilkins is fighting a two-front war. On the one hand, he is mobilizing churches to join with him in the possible split. On the other, he is putting pressure on more liberal PCA churches to conform to his rigid theology.
The pastor of one of the PCA'S largest churches told the Intelligence Report that Wilkins and two LOS members from South Carolina have repeatedly brought ecclesiastical charges against him for espousing relatively liberal theological positions.
John Wood, who leads the 5,000-member Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tenn., said the charges resulted in investigations by the PCA'S Standing Judicial Committee for failing to follow rules about the role of women. (Wood allowed a woman to give a presentation from the pulpit.)
Exhausted by the repeated charges, Wood said Cedar Springs may well join a "sister" black church, with which his congregation works closely, in entering a more liberal denomination. He said the black church would "find it too hard ... to go into the PCA." [In late 2000, Cedar Springs joined the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.]
If Wilkins fails to change the PCA, he has made it clear that he is serious about splitting away. And he would probably not be alone. The Rev. Kennedy Smartt, moderator of the PCA'S 1998 General Assembly, says that the PCA could lose "25 to 30 churches" pastored by men with "theonomic views."
"You have to believe as they do or you are wrong," Rev. Smartt told the Intelligence Report about these theonomists, men whose views he characterized as "extreme."
Even Dominic Aquila, the official spokesperson for the PCA, says that Wilkins' church appears to be the "mother church" to this theonomic movement. Wilkins, he said, "is very aggressive."
Aquila added that when "pulpits were without pastors" Wilkins and others who agreed with his religious views have tried to convince congregations to hire people "who thought like they did."
Wilkins did not return phone calls seeking comment.
In Alabama, A Movement Begins
The first evidence of a church take-over by League-linked theonomists came to public attention in 1998, when a court battle erupted over the control of a small church in the sleepy West Alabama town of York. York Presbyterian Church was originally part of the PCA, but departed for a more conservative denomination as key League members began to take control of the church.
In 1997, Pastor Martin Murphy — a man the York congregation had paid to put through seminary school in the late 1980s — joined the League of the South.
In the next year, new faces came to dominate the pews, including four leading League members. The most prominent of these was LOS President Michael Hill, who had to commute 120 miles to attend services each Sunday.
At the same time, Murphy's office filled with Confederate symbols, including a portrait of General Robert E. Lee and a toy Confederate soldier holding a battle flag on the pastor's desk.
"It was a slowly developing relationship," congregant Aubrey Green recalled. Pastor Murphy "approached me and my wife to join [LOS] and we, of course, turned him down. ... The next thing we knew Murphy had the national [LOS] president, the state president and the Sumter county chapter president, all of 'em in our church."
Soon, League rhetoric was being preached from the pulpit. "He openly advocated secession from the United States and all kinds of crazy ideas," said Green, who ultimately brought suit with another long-time church member, J. Everett Cobb, to wrest control of the church back from Pastor Murphy and the League.
In the end, Judge Eddie Hardaway ruled that LOS adherents "were admitted to [church] membership before the local congregation realized that the true intent and purpose of these new members was to promote the League of the South."
The church, he added, was used "as a staging ground for an increased membership for the League of the South and for promoting its purposes and missions."
The PCA now describes the York episode as an embarrassment. Aquila told the Intelligence Report that the PCA "really ran into a real stink there" and that what occurred "was a total aberration from where we are as a denomination."
At around the same time, the League's Mississippi state leader, John Thomas Cripps, was building up his own hard-line congregation. For at least the last year, Cripps' Confederate Presbyterian Church has been located in his Confederate States Research Center in Wiggins, Miss., the same one-story, gray storefront building from which his campaign for governor is being waged. Like Pastor Murphy, Cripps preaches the virtues of Southern secession and a form of theonomy.