Branson Televangelist Arnold Murray Preaches Christian Identity Theology
Televangelist Preaches Questionable Theology
By Casey Sanchez
Photography by Shanley Scott
BRANSON, Mo. — It's a long way to go to church, especially for a congregation used to watching its pastor on television. But the flock of Shepherd's Chapel is like no other. Twice a year, almost 4,000 of its members will fly or drive from points across the country to this Ozarks tourist destination, best known for the neon kitsch and wholesome family entertainment of the Highway 76 Country Music Boulevard, to see Pastor Arnold Murray, host of the long-running TV Bible study program, "Shepherd's Chapel."
The strapping, 6-foot-4-inch octogenarian, known as "The Sarge" to his followers, has gained an audience that numbers in the millions. "Shepherd's Chapel" has been on the air for at least three decades and is broadcast in nearly every major and mid-size U.S. city.
At Passover this April 5 (Murray calculates the date for Passover according to his own interpretation of the Jewish calendar), the 81-year-old Arkansas pastor is all smiles as the packed audience in the Grand Palace country music hall rises to give him a long standing ovation before he's even said a word. His son Dennis introduces him as a man who is "taking names and kicking dragons." One woman can't contain herself. "We love you, Pastor Murray," she yells out. Murray jokes that he should get her number before pushing back his sleeves and opening his King James Bible. "Let's get to work," he commands. And they do. The audience is so rapt that throughout the 45-minute sermon the only sound they make is the onionskin rustle of thousands of Bible pages turning. But there are some things they're not being taught.
One of them is the fact that Murray's 1958 minister's license was signed by the late white supremacists Roy Gillaspie and Kenneth Goff, two early ideologues of Christian Identity, a racist theology that's been popular among Klansmen, neo-Nazis and other white nationalists for several decades. Most Identity adherents believe the Bible is the history of the white race, who are seen as the real "chosen people."
Gillaspie was the pastor of the Church of Jesus Christ, a seminal Christian Identity operation — headquartered at Gillaspie's Bellflower, Calif., church — with a handful of congregations in California and Arkansas, one of which was led by Murray. (Murray's Church of Jesus Christ in Gravette, Ark., was the precursor to his Shepherd's Chapel, in the same location.) The Intelligence Report has obtained Church of Jesus Christ newsletters dated 1978 that are signed by Murray.
Goff, for his part, was the founder of the Colorado-based Soldiers of the Cross Training Institute, a school that trained Christian Identity leaders including Dan Gayman, a well-known anti-Semitic leader during the 1980s. In 1958, Goff's pamphlet, "Reds Promote Racial War," claimed the Bible supported racial segregation. A 1969 Soldiers of the Cross newsletter penned by Goff describes black civil rights protesters as seeking "to submerge our culture and religious heritage under a flood of cannibalism, voodooism and beastly jungle sex orgies."
Arnold Murray is still connected to something called Soldiers of the Cross. According to Arkansas public records, a corporation by that name is doing business as Shepherd's Chapel in Arkansas, and Murray is registered as the corporation's agent. Murray's home, his church property where the TV studio and satellites are located, and several parcels of land in Gravette, Ark., are all listed as the property of Soldiers of the Cross.
Despite these ties to the roots of the Christian Identity movement, Murray today publicly disavows racism, and his followers include a tiny minority of non-whites. Even so, Murray preaches often about a race of evil people, descended from Cain, borne out of "the Serpent Seed" of Eve's sexual union with Satan in the Garden of Eden. He calls them the "Kenites" and identifies them in his 1979 Shepherd's Bible as people "who slipped in among the Jewish people in Jerusalem and claim to be God's chosen people, when in fact they are of Lucifer." He also mentions that "in 1967 … Jerusalem fell to the Kenites during the 6 day war"; the Israelis, in fact, won the Six-Day War. In one sermon, Dennis Murray speaks of "the Kenites, who are responsible for the slaying of Christ." (In most Judeo-Christian traditions, the Kenites are a nomadic clan of Midianites and a tribe into which Moses married.)
The Serpent Seed is a belief ripped straight from the pages of "seedline" or "two-seed" Christian Identity theology, the hard-line version of the theology that holds that Eve was impregnated by Satan and gave birth to his son, Cain, described as the first Jew. That is, Jews are seen as biologically descended from Satan, and are allegedly hard at work preparing the earth for his rule. Identity adherents also argue that whites, not Jews, are the real Hebrews of the Bible, and that non-whites are sub-human "beasts of the field" created without souls.
While Murray doesn't outright endorse these hardliner views, by promoting the "Serpent Seed" doctrine on 225 broadcast stations he's gone further than any Christian Identity preacher in pushing what seem clearly to be anti-Semitic Identity teachings into the mainstream.
"This is certainly Identity theology, inasmuch as he presents a two-seedline argument, identifies the [present] inhabitants of Israel with the descendants of Cain, and calls the mating of the Serpent with Eve the primal sin," Michael Barkun, the leading scholar of Christian Identity and a political science professor at Syracuse University, told the Intelligence Report.
Or, as Murray puts it more cautiously on his website: "What about teaching Serpent Seed? I make no apology for teaching the word of God."
Kenites, Cainites and the Jews
In the atrium of the Grand Palace, a stately country music hall, teenagers are as common as senior citizens. Southern drawls mix with Wisconsin and Southern Californian accents. About two dozen black families are in the audience as well as a white woman wearing a pink hoodie with the words "Homeland Security" superimposed on a photo of four armed American Indians.
Over the course of the weekend, the Murrays will anoint two dozen babies with oil and baptize 83 adults and teenagers next door, in the indoor pool of the Radisson Hotel. There's a rock concert feel to the weekend, both intense and oddly impersonal for a religious gathering. When either of the Murrays' sermons end, his followers quietly file out of their chairs and make their way back to the parking lot, only briefly loitering for conversation or fellowship.
Rarely does a month go by without the elder Murray warning his followers about the Kenites. "Bless your heart if you have ever been deceived by the Kenite, and I am speaking now on the spiritual level, if you have ever really believed that group was the chosen of God, you were deceived by Satan," Murray says in one popular audio tape sermon. "Repent of that even more so than your personal sins in the personal sense."
Although Murray states on his website, "Anyone saying that I use the word [Kenites] to describe Judah is not telling the truth," it's not hard to figure out why many of his followers — and others — equate Kenites with Jews.
In one written sermon, Murray says that "the Kenites slipped in among the Jews." In an audiotape sermon called "Demons," he says of the Kenites, "Why do you think their own Talmud is the filthiest piece of literature ever written? Because they're at home with it. They love it. It's their cup of tea. It's Satan's cup of tea."
"Murray is a bit distinctive in one respect, and that is the emphasis on 'Kenites,'" Barkun, the scholar, told the Report. "None of the central figures in the formation of Christian Identity … speak of the Kenites. Rather, they discuss descendants of Cain and sometimes Cainites. … However, there appears to be a small number of Identity pastors who trace Biblical genealogy from Cain through the Kenites (were they somehow attracted by the similar sounds of the names?).
"Murray is obviously one."
For their part, longtime Shepherd's Chapel students, seeking to avoid what they feel is Satanic deceit, believe they must learn how to "identify" a Kenite. On Internet forums where Shepherd's Chapel followers congregate, there is much debate over the racial identity of the Kenites. On a Shepherd's Chapel MySpace group, some ask whether the Kenites might be of Asian ancestry. But over on TheSeason.org, a long-running forum for Shepherd's Chapel students, there's little ambivalence. Numerous essays, citing the anti-Semitic hoax, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, claim that the Kenites and the Jews have long plotted world domination.
For Some, Disillusionment
Paul Stringini, a former Shepherd's Chapel student, told the Intelligence Report that Murray "promotes what I would call soft resentment against Jews." "He'll say he loves the Jews, it's the Kenites he doesn't like," say Stringini. "Just try and nail him down on it. There's a semantic game that goes on. Frankly, the only real 'benefit' which I have ever seen of knowing ‘who the Kenites are' is that knowledge makes many people prejudiced against Jews … assuming they are 'Kenites.' I know that is not explicitly what Pastor Murray teaches but that is what it does to many Shepherd's Chapel students I have known."
Stringini knows he's not alone among former Shepherd's Chapel students who left in disgust over Murray's Serpent Seed theology. But whatever students Murray may lose are quickly replaced, thanks to his coast-to-coast TV and radio presence. That's how Stringini got involved with Shepherd's Chapel in 1993. In 1995, he was baptized in a hotel pool at the group's Branson Passover. "By 1996, I owned and had studied every single-subject cassette available at the time," wrote Stringini. He even married his wife at the Shepherd's Chapel headquarters in Arkansas.
But the more he heard from Murray about the "trumpets" of the end times and the "evil" of the Kenites, the less it rang true. Stringini quit Shepherd's Chapel in 1999 and remains one of the few former Murray followers willing to publicly criticize his ex-mentor, though he says that when Arnold Murray is not talking about the apocalypse or Kenites, "he's actually a pretty decent Bible teacher."
Unlike unapologetic Identity preachers, Murray doesn't condone or suggest violence against the "Kenites." "Let's get one thing straight, coming out the gate. Are you saying we should hate Judah? That would be stupid indeed," he says in one recorded sermon. Instead, Murray encourages followers to focus their energy on identifying and avoiding Kenites, claiming an end-times event will "take care" of them. In "Kenites," a widely distributed audio sermon, he claims this teaching comes directly from Jesus. Murray uses the New Testament parable of the "tares," a bitter weed that Jesus warns can grow hidden in wheat fields and go unnoticed till harvest. Murray likens the tares to the Kenites, adding, "The angels will take care of the tares — the tares are taken together in the fire — that's the end of the world — that's how it's going to be."
For Murray, the end of the world isn't an abstraction. The 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption that happened during the week of Pentecost led him to proclaim the Antichrist would return in 1981. Murray's resolve has only hardened during the 27 years since that prophecy failed to come true. He dismisses his critics as "numbskulls," "Bible-thumpers" and "yo-yos."
The formula for his TV program is deceptively simple. "Verse by verse, chapter by chapter," Murray, often partnered with his son Dennis, sits between a wood desk and an American flag and interprets the King James Bible with the help of a Greek/Hebrew concordance. At the end of each show, he fields caller questions on global politics, end-times prophecy and scripture.
During a live taping of Shepherd's Chapel in 1998, an audience member yelled, "Blasphemer!" Murray turned around at his desk and pulled out a gun. The broadcast cut to Shepherd's Chapel's satellite logo but the audio continued. "Here. Take this 9mm to that boy," Murray said. The clip aired on "The Daily Show" and remains widely available on the Internet, as is another Shepherd's Chapel clip in which Murray reaches into his desk and pulls out what he claims is the fossil of an angel footprint, from a pre-Adamic time when angels walked the earth.
Under the Radar
Despite his gaffes with guns and failed end-time prophecies, Murray has received very little attention in the mainstream press. In the mid-1990s the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette did briefly examine whether Murray's airplanes, which he claims are used in the nonprofit religious mission of Shepherd's Chapel, were in fact private vehicles and therefore taxable assets. But it did not delve into the nature or origins of Murray's theological teachings.
Few chapel students will ever attend services at the actual Shepherd's Chapel in Gravette, a tiny and remote town of 1,800 in far northwest Arkansas. Located just a couple of blocks from the town's main street, the headquarters chapel is a former roller rink, flanked by four satellites, one the size of a carousel. A stone plaque that reads, "I Am That I Am," sits in front of the church. The chapel holds videotaped services on the first and third Sunday of every month. As with his live appearances at the Passover in Branson this April, Murray seldom lingers on stage to chat with or greet his followers after his sermon concludes.
"I'm a very private person, almost a loner," Murray says in one audiotape sermon. Murray says he prefers the outdoors and maintains an intensely private life on a wooded 30-acre property in rural Benton County, Ark. Few biographical details are known about the pastor. Born in 1927, Murray grew up in a farming family. On the Shepherd's Chapel site, he says he served in the Korean War as a Marine. He also claims to have received a doctorate, though he doesn't name the institution. Murray almost never gives media interviews and did not respond to requests for comment for this story. But he has addressed some of those who criticize him.
In a Shepherd's Chapel website post called "An Answer to Our Critics," Murray says: "To say I teach racism or practice racism is another outright lie. We have people of all races that attend and study with the Shepherd's Chapel." While that may be true, Shepherd's Chapel's supporters who defend their church as non-racist have some former colleagues among white supremacists. On the neo-Nazi website Stormfront, an array of former Murray students who now pray and pastor at hard-core Christian Identity churches, have weighed in on Murray's anti-Semitic credentials. "Yep, Murray is 'lukewarm,' he is half right, which makes him all dangerous," wrote "NC patriot." Another poster going by the handle "Artemis Clydefrog" stated: "I've been studying with the Chapel for about 15 years. He's not C.I. [Christian Identity], but he does teach the 'Serpent's Seed.'" "[Murray] believes that blacks are exactly the same as Whites in the eyes of God," said Stormfront poster "LeBrune" with evident disapproval. "Just because he teaches about the "Serpent's Seed," don't think for a moment that he is a White Nationalist, promotes Christian Identity, White Separation, or even White Preservation."
But a 1997 complaint filed with the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates broadcast media, argued otherwise. Shepherd's Chapel's broadcasts were one of the subjects of a complaint by former media company MediaOne (now part of AT&T) against Georgia's WNGM-TV in a dispute over market access. MediaOne alleged that "Shepherd's Chapel," then carried on WNGM-TV, "has purveyed racist dogma," citing claims by the program on Nov. 13 and 15, 1996, that "not all races can come from Adam and Eve," that "God created different races … and that's the way he wanted us to stay," and that the Biblical flood "was to destroy those [of different races] who had intermixed."
With the exception of New York City, "Shepherd's Chapel" airs in every major market in the country, in one- to four-hour slots, usually between midnight and six a.m. For hardcore fans, a 24-hour, seven-day a-week satellite broadcast of Shepherd's Chapel is available on DirecTV. A prophecy hotline is also available where callers can listen to a two-minute loop of Murray's commentary on events of the day.
All that airtime doesn't come cheap. In 1990, the Arkansas-Democrat Gazette reported that Murray spent $75,000 a month on television time. Where all that money comes from remains a mystery. Arkansas churches are shielded by state law from having to disclose their finances like other nonprofits. Unlike other, more notorious televangelists, the Murrays rarely make direct appeals for funds. At Passover in Branson, a single discreet tithing box was unmanned in the main room.
But many Shepherd's Chapel students are all too happy to donate to their pastor. For them, he's often the first and only religious figure to have walked them through the Bible verse by verse. Buying his books and sermons, or directly donating, seems less like tithing to them and more like paying tuition.
But at the Passover in Branson, if they listened closely, students could hear snippets of a theology that probably was more than they bargained for, like when Dennis Murray blamed the Kenites for the crucifixion of Jesus. "I'd like to see them crawling around the floor picking up their blood money," Dennis Murray said of the people his father still insistently claims are not the Jews, despite all appearances. "That'd be a picture."