Animated by extremist theology, a group of neo-Confederate zealots are seeking control of Southern 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.
Reconstruction to the Fore
In recent years, Wilkins has been building up his Christian Reconstructionist credentials. He began to publish in a number of Reconstructionist journals in the late 1990s, speaking as well to several theological conferences on the topic.
Wilkins also joined the editorial board of The Counsel of Chalcedon, a journal produced by a theonomist and former PCA minister, Joseph Moorecraft.
Moorecraft was "encouraged to leave" the denomination because of his Reconstructionist views, according to Rev. Smartt. And in early 2001, Wilkins spoke to the convention of the Constitution Party, which until last year was the anti-abortion U.S. Taxpayers Party.
The Constitution Party has virtually the same platform and religious ideas as the former party, and it is run mostly by the same men, many of whom are Reconstructionists.
As Wilkins' importance in Reconstructionist circles developed, so too did his interest in remaking the PCA. Finally, last April, Wilkins told Christian Renewal that "the denomination is unreformable" and that after years of work to turn it in a more "reformed" direction "things have only gotten worse." He also distributed a memo to his church members decrying a whole host of injustices, particularly the lack of "true justice" for those who are "TR (truly reformed) and theonomists."
Last August, Wilkins sponsored the meeting in which the 10 churches of the Louisiana Presbytery discussed leaving the PCA because of these and other similar concerns.
Pressure is building within the PCA to address this situation, in part because of the threatened departure of Woods' church. Rev. Smartt told the Report that "an investigation of these views" may well come up in the next General Assembly.
Reconstruction and Death by Stoning
Driving all of these events is the little-known theological doctrine of theonomy — and, more specifically, its particularly hard-line variant, Christian Reconstruction. Reconstruction arose out of conservative Presbyterianism in the early 1970s.
Its founding text is Rousas John Rushdoony's 1973 book The Institutes of Biblical Law, an 800-page explication of the Ten Commandments, the Biblical case law that supposedly derives from them and their application today.
Reconstruction is opposed to modern notions of equality, democracy and tolerance. A theocratic society — in which one brand of religion rules — would be established and the Constitution overturned since, in North's view, it is "a legal barrier to Christian theocracy."
North says that "pluralism will be shot to pieces in an ideological (and perhaps even literal) crossfire." Those who do not believe as Reconstructionists do would find themselves in a precarious situation.
"Anyone viewed as Biblically incorrect is heretical at best and subject to execution at worst," said Frederick Clarkson, an expert on the theology.
Indeed, executioners would be busy in a "reconstructed" society. North has called publicly for the execution of women who have abortions. Stoning, he has said, would be the preferable method because "the implements of execution are available to everyone at virtually no cost."
According to Clarkson, Rushdoony, who is North's father-in-law, also suggests the death penalty be used to punish those guilty of "apostasy (abandonment of the faith), heresy, blasphemy, witchcraft, astrology, adultery, 'sodomy or homosexuality,' incest, striking a parent, incorrigible juvenile delinquency, and in the case of women, 'unchastity before marriage.'"
Non-capital crimes would be sanctioned with whipping, indentured servitude or slavery.
Theology Meets Real Life
Views like these — the idea of applying "Biblical" standards to contemporary society — can have real-life consequences. Consider the physician, a former member of Wilkins' church, who several years ago worked 36 hours a week in an emergency room in Carthage, Tenn., then-Vice President Al Gore's home town.
"I treat pagans all the time, though there are some things I do not do (like prescribe birth control pills or other abortifacients)," said an e-mail to other members of Wilkins' church that came from Dr. Frank T. Chin, who now works in Jackson, Tenn.
"And there are some things I do to pagans that might be a little off base (if someone comes in with a venereal disease, I can treat them with painful shots, or painless pills. I do the former, to remind them of the wages of sin)."
Another posting from the same e-mail address asked whether "a Christian may have Scriptural warrant to stand by and watch an enemy of Christ perish, and not offer help." The e-mail ended with this remark: "The odds of Gore needing emergency room treatment is [sic] extremely rare, but one wonders."
Asked if these were his messages, Dr. Chin acknowledged that the e-mail address from which they were sent was once his. He said he could not remember if he had sent the e-mails in question when queried by the Intelligence Report.
Stealth Campaigns and 'Rahab's Lie'
Reconstructionism has an explicit strategy for infiltrating and taking over churches. In Crossed Fingers: How the Liberals Captured the Presbyterian Church, ideologue Gary North provides a road map for how to install the theology into denominations.
The book examines how "liberals" in the 1930s used the judicial structures of the mainline Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) to markedly change that denomination.
North suggests that Reconstructionists now use the same judicial structures to reverse this liberal victory — just as Wilkins and the other League members did in the case of Pastor Wood by bringing charges against him through the PCA'S Standing Judicial Committee. The aborted church takeover in York, Ala., also comes to mind when considering North's influence on the League.
"That North spent years studying the 'liberal triumph' in mainline Presbyterianism illuminates the scale of what is at stake," writes Lewis C. Daly in A Moment to Decide, The Crisis in Mainstream Presbyterianism, published in May 2000.
"His vision of the future of church history is one in which successive mainline denominations are recaptured using political strategy and judicial power."
An important tool of the movement is stealth. Theonomists justify this strategy with a Biblical story, "Rahab's Lie," of a young woman who lies to protect the lives of Israelite spies in Jericho. In an article posted on the web site of Wilkins' church, Deacon Kevin Branson praises Rahab as "a spiritual hero" because "she deceived the wicked who sought to kill God's own people."
Branson said he writes about Rahab because "some of us don't have a clue about honorable and necessary deception of the wicked." His conclusion is that "sometimes God requires that we offer by way of our right hand a sweeping sword, and from our lips deception, that the wicked might fail, and Christ and His Bride might flourish."
League thinkers offer their own distinctive spin on theonomy and Reconstruction. They invoke a particularly Southern view of history that is increasingly popular in Reconstructionist publications, especially The Counsel of Chalcedon.
In these articles, Wilkins, among others, argues that the South was the only part of the United States to remain true to the Bible. The North, he says, abandoned true Christianity and became a heretical society.
It was this theological divide, and not slavery, that led to the Civil War, Wilkins argues. He also sees slavery as sanctioned by the Bible. Besides, "American slavery was perhaps the most benevolent slavery that has ever existed in the history of the world," Wilkins told The Counsel of Chalcedon in 1997.
"Their purpose [Northerners] was not merely to destroy slavery and its evils but to destroy Southern culture," he alleged. "There was a radical hatred of Scripture and the old theology, which they felt were so bad for the country. They saw the South as the embodiment of all they hated. Thus, the northern radicals were trying to throw off this Biblical culture and turn the country in a different direction."
Wilkins also discussed LOS, then known as the Southern League.
"We believe the South was the last bastion of Christendom," Wilkins said in the journal's interview. "We want the principles upon which the South stood to be embraced again by the entire country. We want, not only the South, but the whole union to rise again from the paganism that presently prevails."
"Our goal is to rebuild on the ruins and see this lost civilization restored again by the grace of God. This is the goal of the Southern Heritage Society [an arm of Wilkins' Auburn Avenue church] as well as the Southern League."
'A Boil on the Body of Christ'
Wilkins' church is a key focal point for this movement. He pushes Reconstructionist and League ideas from the pulpit and elsewhere.
In December, The Chalcedon Report, the leading Reconstructionist journal that is published by Rushdoony's Chalcedon Foundation, devoted an entire issue, including a Wilkins piece attacking abolitionists as "terrorists," to "The Civil War Revived: Secularism vs. the South."
Wilkins' church hosts semi-annual conferences and Confederate balls that bring to Monroe men like LOS President Hill and Joseph Moorecraft, the Reconstructionist theologian.
During these events, Wilkins reportedly demanded that congregants provide lodging for the church visitors. "They got real pushy about us not putting people up," says Kathy Holland, a former congregant.
"They were glaring at us from the pulpit. Wilkins said we were a boil on the body of Christ that sticks out, pops out, pokes out and squirts."
Wilkins, add some former and present church members, spends much time discussing the coming end-times anarchy, a situation that will involve a government crash or even a race war. They say that church elders in late 1999 were so concerned about a Y2K crash that they stocked the church basement with supplies.
It is perhaps no coincidence that one of the country's major founts of Y2K paranoia was none other than Gary North, the Christian Reconstructionist ideologue.
Race War and Children
"They believe either a race war will happen or the government will collapse," Michael Holland, a former Auburn Avenue member who has left the congregation, said in an interview. "They said you have to fight for what you believe in."
The church actually wanted congregants to become physically prepared for the end-times battle, adds Roger Carter, a disgruntled congregant. "They liked the idea of a strong body, in case we'd ever have to fight."
According to Michael and Kathy Holland, other children at the church taunted the Hollands' youngsters because the Hollands refused to allow their children to train to fight, fearing they'd be hurt. The Hollands say that led to more trouble.
The elder Hollands say knives were held up to their kids' throats. They say one son was stuffed in a trash can headfirst, while their youngest, then 6, was thrown down a flight of church steps, leaving him with a back injury.
Matthew Holland, 8 at the time of the reported 1999 incidents, said other kids in the congregation "pulled at me and tried to shut a door on my fingers. They pulled Elijah's head backwards and yelled some stuff at him. When they pulled his head back, they said there were going to stick it up his bottom. They said they were going to cut our heads off."
When the Hollands stopped attending the church for fear of the children's safety, they were put up for excommunication.
"The elders hold the key to heaven and the gates of hell. When they excommunicate, they do it to the whole family," says a distressed Michael Holland. "If you believe, then this is like saying that you are going to hell. It's the Biblical equivalent of holding a gun to your head."
They are still waiting to hear the outcome of the procedure.
Today, thanks to Wilkins and few compatriots in the League of the South, extremist interpretations of the Bible are spreading in the South. Already, there is a very real chance of a religious split in the PCA denomination that could result in the formation of a hard-right group of theonomic churches.
In Louisiana, Wilkins is already spreading the ideology of Reconstruction from the pulpit and his web site. In Mississippi, John Thomas Cripps is pursuing a similar course. And the League and its leaders seem clearly to have embraced theonomy as their theological base.
As the activities of these men and the journals they write for picks up, there is a real danger that their ideology will spread. And that scares Michael Holland.
"Others need to know what they are facing," Holland said of the apparently spreading movement. "What I want people to understand is they believe in a hierarchy of individuals. Equality is Satanic, democracy is Satanic. They preach this from the pulpit... . If League of the South is on the banner, then watch out."