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How the Christian Identity Movement Began

The history of the Christian Identity movement reveals its startling foundations — which posit that both Christians and Jews are God's chosen people.

The acidly anti-Semitic religion driving much of today's extreme right first gained a following as a Victorian curiosity, a benign British eccentricity propounded by the son of a radical Irish weaver. Born as British Israelism, the belief system now recreated as Christian Identity saw Jews as the long-lost brothers of Anglo-Saxons, the fellow elect of God.

Picking up on an obsession popular in his era, John Wilson was fascinated with the fate of the "lost" 10 tribes of Israel described in the Bible who disappear from history after being captured by the Assyrians. In a series of lectures published in 1840, he asserted that these tribes had migrated across the Caucasus (and so were called Caucasians) and were in fact the peoples who eventually inhabited northern Europe and the British Isles.

The ethnic group known in modern times as Jews, he wrote, were descendants of the two remaining Hebrew tribes. These tribes (the "southern kingdom") were conquered before the birth of Christ by Babylonians, but eventually were allowed to return to Jerusalem.

In other words, Jews and northern Europeans, for Wilson, comprised God's chosen.

These ideas, which gained a large following of Britons including many wealthy and titled patrons, were developed by others. Edward Hine maintained that the 10 tribes' descendants were actually limited to British Anglo-Saxons, that the regathering of Hebrews foretold in the Bible had occurred in Britain.

In the 1880s, Hine traveled to the United States, where he was enthusiastically received. Americans, however, generally believed that all Anglo-Saxons, Americans included, were the descendants of the 10 tribes.

Identity Is Born
In coming years, the doctrine would be transformed by American racists.

During the 1920s and 1930s, leaders in this transformation included William Cameron, editor in the 1920s of the Dearborn Independent, the Michigan newspaper owned by anti-Semitic automaker Henry Ford. A key follower was Gerald L.K. Smith, for decades the nation's preeminent anti-Semite and a one-time aide to Louisiana Governor Huey Long.

In the 1940s-1960s, the Identity message was refined by California lawyer Bertrand Comparet; Wesley Swift, founder of a California Identity church known as the Church of Jesus Christ Christian; and William Potter Gale, a World War II aide to Gen. Douglas MacArthur who directed guerrilla operations in the Philippines and later founded the Christian Defense League.

By degrees, Jews were stripped of their Biblical roots. At first, the two southern tribes (the "House of Judah") were accused of having intermarried with heathens, thus defiling themselves and God's law. Then they were turned into descendants of savage Khazar tribes, having nothing to do with the original 12 tribes.

Eventually, the doctrine that Jews were actually direct descendants of Satan, having been born to the Serpent and Eve in the Garden of Eden, became the theology known as Christian Identity.

In recent years, this "two-seed" doctrine —that Jews are the progeny of the Serpent and Eve, while whites come from Adam and Eve has come under attack. Several leading Identity ministers, while certain that Jews are "ungodly and Satanic," dispute the genetic gist of the message. Instead, they see Jews as representative of evil in all humans.

Other Identity adherents bristle at being called racists. Non-whites are not human, they say, but are part of God's creation. Like farm animals, they are not inherently wicked.

Seedlines and The Garden of Eden
Today, the interpretation of Christian Identity varies markedly from place to place. Identity ministers like Charles Weisman, who last year published a 56-page tract attacking the "seedline" doctrine, have set off a rancorous dispute on some of the faith's basic tenets. But many adherents still hold the most racist beliefs of early Identity, which include:

  • Anglo-Saxon-Celtic peoples (whites) are God's real "chosen people," and descend in an unbroken line from Adam and Eve. They are by nature a superior race.

  • Jews derive from Cain, himself the product of a sexual liaison between Eve and the Serpent (the original sin) in Eden, and so are biologically evil, the "synagogue of Satan."

  • Non-whites are "pre-Adamic" beings, soulless and akin to the Biblical "beasts of the field." Cain mated with these peoples to produce today's Jews.

  • Jews are part of a Satanic plot to unite the world under a single government, to be taken over ultimately by the Devil himself. The plot is thousands of years old.

  • Whites in America (the true "House of Israel") must battle bloodily to usher in a period of Godly rule prior to the Second Coming. That means a race war.

However Identity evolves in coming years, it is clear that it has made a close fit with the burgeoning antigovernment Patriot movement, which has largely avoided explicit racism but has woven a master web of conspiracy theories to explain its view of the world.

"Every purported conspiracy theory and cabal, whether of international bankers, Trilateralists or the U.N., can be brought within Identity's great conspiracy — Satan's plot to take over the world and deprive 'Aryans' of their birthright, a plot that Identity believes began in the Garden of Eden and will end only at Armageddon," Michael Barkun, a leading expert on Identity, wrote in a 1995 book on militias.

"Plot can be nested within plot, in an ascending pyramid of conspiracies that ends with the devil himself."