Monday, February 9, 2015

The Metropolitan Community Church

Rev. Troy Perry, standing in the firebombed remains of his church.

It was one of the strangest full-page ads to ever appear in Variety Magazine.

Readers of the journal’s February 12, 1973 issue saw, sandwiched between stories about box-office receipts and casting calls, a single page, with two columns of text and a mail-in coupon surmounted by a large photograph.  The photograph depicted a stern-looking young minister, clad in black clerical clothes and, with his long sideburns and sculpted dark hair, looking a little like a beefier version of Elvis Presley.  His arms folded, he stood amid the charred wreckage of a church that had been gutted by a major arson fire.

The minister was the Rev. Troy D. Perry, founder and leader of the Metropolitan Community Church – the same sect whose burned-out Los Angeles headquarters was depicted in the photo.  According to the text, the church had been deliberately targeted by arsonists because it served a minority community, in much the same way that Black churches in the South had been bombed and torched during the darkest days of the Civil Rights Movement.  Much like the African-American churches had done, Rev. Perry was asking for support from the majority population against the violence and hatred that were being used to intimidate his flock.
But the Metropolitan Community Church had taken up an even more controversial cause, and served a far less “visible” minority group.  From its founding a few years earlier, the MCC had pursued a primary (but not exclusive) ministry to a population that had been condemned, disparaged, marginalized, imprisoned, tortured and murdered through twenty-five centuries of Judeo-Christian civilization: homosexuals. 

And in early 1973, the violence against the Church and its members was only beginning.

The sight of charred remains, and the smells of ash and accelerant, must have brought back bad memories to the Rev. Troy Perry.  Twenty-one years earlier, his father, Troy Perry Senior, had perished in a fiery car wreck along with a cousin, Clayton.  Perry Senior had been the biggest bootlegger in Florida’s legally-dry Leon County, and when he made the mistake of trying to evade a police pursuit, his car crashed, and ignited two carboys of gasoline he was transporting to his farm. 

His mother eventually remarried, but her new husband turned out to be an abusive drunk who beat Perry and his four younger brothers.  After a friend of his stepfather’s, who was staying with the family, raped Perry, the 12-year-old boy ran away from home, staying with relatives in Georgia and Texas.

Perry’s relatives were Pentecostal Christians, and their emotional, passionate style of worship appealed to the adolescent boy, who had been attending Southern Baptist church and prayer groups since early childhood, especially in the wake of his father’s death.  Although he soon returned home (his mother had wisely divorced the abusive stepfather), and moved with his family to Mobile, Alabama, he carried the evangelical spirit of his country cousins with him, and became a teenaged street preacher.  So great was Perry’s fervor that at sixteen he dropped out of high school and became a paid Pentecostal evangelist, even though he was still technically a Southern Baptist.

Sectarian conflict wasn’t the only inner battle Perry was fighting.  Apart from the rape, he had already logged several same-sex erotic experiences, and was finding himself increasingly attracted to other males.  But late-Fifties Alabama wasn’t the time or the place to come out of the closet, and largely because his Church of God required pastors to be married, Perry started dating the daughter of a Church minister.  Worried and confused about his homosexual feelings, Perry discussed them with his potential father-in-law, but the older Pentecostal preacher just brushed them off, saying that all he needed to do was to marry a good woman.  And sure enough, at eighteen, he married the minister’s daughter, all the while carrying on a secret relationship with a young man in his father-in-law’s congregation, who he later dumped for an older man in Mobile.

Perry and his wife moved to Joliet, Illinois, where he found work, attended a Bible college, and preached at a small Church of God congregation. Things seemed to be going well until one day when a Church overseer called Perry into a private meeting, and confronted him with evidence of his homosexuality.  Perry’s young boyfriend from the Alabama congregation, devastated by losing his lover to both another man and a heterosexual marriage, had informed on him. The nineteen-year-old pastor was excommunicated without an appeal, even though he protested to the overseer that other pastors guilty of heterosexual adultery had been forgiven, and allowed to return to the pulpit.  But the church officials held firm: homosexuality was too grave a sin to be forgiven a Christian pastor, and a first strike put one out of the Church of God.

Although the tenets of his faith were used to humiliate him and destroy his ministry, Perry felt the call to preach more strongly than ever.  He joined the Church of God of Prophecy, a rival Pentecostal sect who welcomed the ex-Church of God minister with open arms, unaware of the reason why their competitors had bounced him from the pulpit. When his employer relocated to Torrance, California, Perry and his family followed, and he found a nearby congregation that accepted him as pastor.

Even though his flock grew and thrived, Troy became disenchanted with the strictures of his church, which forbade cosmetics, jewelry, dances, movies, plays, and other “worldly” pleasures.  His marriage, although it had produced two small sons, was loveless. 

Perhaps realizing that his marriage and ministry were doomed, Perry didn’t try to run from his gayness any more. When he read Donald Webster Corey’s now-classic The Homosexual in America, he realized he would never be “cured” of his inclinations, and he couldn’t live in the closet anymore. Perry “came out” to both his wife and his ecclesiastical superior with predictable results: he was divorced, and excommunicated. 

Perry's autobiography
Freed from both familial and ministerial obligations, the 22-year-old Southern Pentecostal preacher took his first tentative steps into the early-1960s L.A. gay scene.  In his autobiography Don’t Be Afraid Anymore, Perry recounted his maiden visit to a gay bar, where he was terrified that God would strike him dead on the spot for drinking his first beer!

Two years later, Perry was drafted into the U.S. Army.  Although he continually insisted to his superiors he was a homosexual, they took his assertions as a draft-dodging scam, and put him through boot camp and MOS training as a teletype operator.  Stationed in West Germany, Perry discovered a thriving gay underground in the Vietnam-era military; it was his first extended period among men who had accepted their homosexuality and lived with it as best they could.  He also attended local Pentecostal gatherings, although half-heartedly, realizing he could never fully share in their fellowship again.

Discharged from the Army in 1967, Perry returned to Los Angeles.  Rooming with an old friend, he found work, and once again dived into the Southern California gay scene.  In that pre-Stonewall period, Southland gays mostly gathered in small, scattered bars which were under constant siege by undercover police, and rarely stayed in business more than a year.  Vice squads regularly set up entrapments against gays, and ruined lives and careers in the process.  Homosexual men were routinely harassed, beaten, and even murdered by both cops and gangs of thugs.  And all of this was justified by the teachings of the Christian churches, which cited the tales of Sodom and Gomorrah, the laws of Leviticus, and the Epistles of Paul as proof that God reviled homosexuality as an unspeakable abomination.

Finally, in 1968, Perry got pushed too far.  Tony, a friend of Perry’s, was arrested for merely buying him a beer in a gay bar, and threatened with exposure and loss of his job.  Although Perry and some friends rallied to bail Tony out and cheer him up, he remained distraught, especially when Perry suggested he pray for strength and guidance.  A Latino Catholic, Tony had been excommunicated for his homosexuality at fifteen, and couldn’t conceive of a relationship with God outside of a Church.  What church could possibly minister to “dirty queers” such as himself and his friends?

Perry, who himself was recovering from a suicide attempt over a failed relationship, began to pray for a church that would recognize that gays and lesbians were God’s children, and deserving of his love as much as heterosexuals.  “Lord, you called me to preach,” he recounted praying in his autobiography.  “We need a church, not a homosexual church, but a special church that will reach out to the lesbian and gay community.  A church for people in trouble, and for people who just want to be near you.  So, if you want such a church started, and you seem to keep telling me that you do, well then, just let me know when.” 

And a still, small voice said to the gay Pentecostal preacher, “Now.”

For the next two and a half months, Perry prepared to hold the first openly gay-friendly Christian church service in known history.  He spread word among friends and colleagues, and took out an ad in The Advocate, L.A.’s famous gay-oriented newspaper.  He had no church building or meeting space, so he readied the front room of his home as a chapel. (In the ad, Perry gave his home address and phone number as contacts – an unprecedented act of bravery in a subculture that thrived on secrecy and discretion.)  And a sympathetic Congregationalist minister loaned Perry a clerical robe, hymnals, and communion bread.  Perry picked the name “Metropolitan Community Church” for his group.

On the afternoon of October 6, 1968, the Metropolitan Community Church held its first service in Troy Perry’s living room. That day, the erstwhile Pentecostal Perry donned liturgical robes for the first time in his clerical career, knowing that most of the twelve people who attended were disaffected Catholics and Protestants used to garbed pastors and orderly services. He then conducted a service, with prayers and a homily, while his roommate Willie Smith put on an LP of religious music and led the group in hymns.

Reverend Perry’s sermon that first Sunday was titled “Be True to You.” It outlined his threefold vision of the Church’s ministry: 1) Salvation, through the love of Christ, which did not exclude gays; 2) Community, for a sacred family of faithful Christians rejected by the religious Establishment; and 3) Christian Social Action, to fight the oppression and injustice that plagued homosexuals. True to his word, all three aspects of the Church’s purpose would define his mission in the coming years.

After that first meeting, the Church grew rapidly. By the end of 1968, Perry and Smith’s house could no longer contain the growing flock of gay worshippers, and they started renting meeting halls for Sunday services. Most of these arrangements fell apart when the owners realized they were leasing space to a “queer church,” so Willie Smith put together a deal with his employer, the Encore Theater, where the Church was able to use the cinema virtually rent-free for over fourteen months. On Sundays nearly 200 gay men, along with a goodly number of lesbians and heterosexuals, filled the theater’s seats for worship services.

The MCC grew rapidly under Perry's leadership
Perry knew that he and his flock were challenging one of the oldest and most ingrained dogmas in the Christian tradition. Much of the wrath historically directed towards gays by the Christian church was based in Scriptural injunctions that seemed to condemn homosexuality outright. Whatever their other differences on Biblical teachings, virtually every Christian sect taught same-sex relations were a grave sin.

The Bible-literate Perry was aware of the chapters and verses cited by Christians as justifications for condemning gays, and spent much of his ensuing career challenging orthodox interpretations of them. Perry determined that there were a total of 362 admonitions against heterosexual sex in the Bible, as opposed to a mere six against same-sex activity, which seemed to imply that God gave straights’ sexual sins far more attention than gays’. Was the traditional Christian prohibition against homosexuality, he asked, based on ignorance and bigotry rather than on true understanding of the Bible?

Often his critics invoked the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as an example of Biblical injunctions against homosexuality. Perry answered that both Biblical citations (such as Ezekiel 16: 48-50) and modern scholarship implied that hostility to strangers, rather than same-sex relations, was the “sin of Sodom” that brought God’s fiery wrath down upon the “cities of the plain.” Certainly, the mob outside Lot’s door that clamored to molest his angel-guests was far more in the spirit of a prison gang-rape than a gay orgy.

When critics cited verses in Leviticus which called same-sex relations an “abomination,” Perry replied that the Old Testament’s laws also prohibited wearing garments of mixed materials, or eating shellfish or rare meat. Viewed in context, Leviticus and Deuteronomy were rulebooks for the people of the “Old Covenant” – the ancient Hebrews – and Christians had been freed from such numerous and onerous prohibitions through the New Covenant of Jesus and his sacrifice.

Perry would often go on to say that Christ himself never explicitly condemned homosexuality – the sexual sinners he concerned himself with, such as the woman at the well and the woman caught in adultery, were heterosexual. Jesus, he said, spoke against lust, which Perry believed was the sin of using people for sexual gratification, rather than sharing with them the loving communion of sex, straight or otherwise.

As for St. Paul’s seemingly straightforward pronouncements against same-sex relations in Romans, 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy, Perry maintained that the Apostle’s language was ambiguous, and that he probably meant that sex with male pagan-temple prostitutes, rather than simple homosexuality, was a no-no for the early Christians. Perry also pointed out that Paul peppered the Epistles with all sorts of statements – forbidding women to speak in church, condoning slavery – that may have been acceptable in his time, but had historically been used as justifications for oppression. For Perry, the time had come for Christendom to abandon gay-bashing in the name of God, much as previous generations of progressive Christians had rejected “Bible-justified” slavery, racism and misogyny.

Perry’s revisionist teachings became a major part of what would be known as “Gay Theology.” Much as the “Black Theology” of James H. Cone had placed African-American political struggles in the Christian theological context, identifying an oppressed people with the Hebrews of Exodus and the sacrifice of Christ, so Gay Theology saw in the homosexual experience the sufferings of rejected groups to whom Jesus reached out and healed. Perry believed the Christian ministry was inseparable from political action, and for the next decades he would be one of the Gay Liberation movement’s most visible, articulate and militant figures.

Perry and the MCC made national headlines in December 1970 when he attempted to perform a same-sex wedding at a rented Washington, D.C. Episcopal church. Although he’d officiated at a successful (if not legally binding) homosexual marriage a year earlier in Huntington Park, California, the publicity-seeking Perry was intent on making this provocative statement about gay religious rights in the nation’s capital, using the facilities of American Christianity’s most blue-blooded sect. When the local Bishop got word that one of his parishes was going to be defiled by “perverts,” he locked Perry and his sixteen followers out of the building, leaving them to perform simple nuptials and a communion service in the freezing snow.  Perry then led his little band on an impromptu march to the National Cathedral, just a few blocks away, where with the help of a sympathetic seminarian, they gained admission to the Episcopal edifice. There, Perry stood at the altar and preached a sermon asking for God “to cure the Episcopal bishop of his homophobia,” in front of a Catholic rosary-prayer group and a horde of nonplussed tourists.

An early MCC gay wedding. 
The Metropolitan Community Church grew rapidly in the early Seventies, after the Stonewall riots and the general liberalizing of American society brought countless gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transsexuals out of the closet and into a conscious community. Perry traveled incessantly across America planting new MCC congregations and networking with homosexual Christians, impressing both allies and opponents with his energy, charisma and political moxie. By early 1971, the Los Angeles Mother Church itself was well-heeled and -attended enough to purchase a permanent place of worship – an old church building at 22nd and Union, on the edge of the L.A. ghetto. Over a thousand people were invited to its gala opening ceremony in March, and the church received dozens of congratulatory telegrams from public officials, including the arch-conservative, then-Governor Ronald Reagan!

In Perry’s sermons there, as well as those at the many gay and straight Christian groups he visited, the gay reverend preached the concept of radical inclusion. To the MCC, God loved all his children unconditionally, and invited all of them to Communion and community. The MCC admitted its first female minister, the Reverend Freda Smith, in 1972, and committed itself to gender equality and an increased ministry to the lesbian and “woman-identified” communities. Blind and deaf Christians, too often ignored by mainstream denominations, were also made to feel at home at MCC services, and the Church regularly made use of Braille materials and sign-language interpreters. Some congregations even welcomed transsexuals and leather fetishists, then considered controversial in much of the gay world.

The MCC's outreach to transsexuals was controversial even among gays
Because of its inclusionary ethic, as well as the diverse sectarian backgrounds of the attendees, MCC services varied in style and content from flock to flock, and from Sunday to Sunday. A Bible-based, bare-bones Baptist-like gathering might be followed the next week by a High Church Anglican-style communion, and an quiet quasi-Quaker sharing session could happen at the same church that celebrated a smells-n’-bells liturgy cribbed from the Catholic Mass. Perry himself never strayed too far from his Pentecostal and Evangelical roots at his own services, and favored an emotional preaching style and a Christ-centered message of personal salvation through God’s grace.

Despite its ultra-liberal stance in the fields of human sexuality and social action, the MCC always retained a fairly orthodox, Nicene-creed-influenced statement of faith as its primary raison d’etre. To Perry, the MCC was Christian first, and gay-friendly second, although he did allow and approve of such innovations as having handholding couples take communion together, and sermons with humor and references drawn from, and directed to, the homosexual culture. Community-building was an important element as well, and to this day MCC congregations sponsor active social calendars along with their ministries.

One of the MCC’s unorthodox evangelizing tactics was for ministers to visit gay bars on Saturday nights, and witness to receptive gays with smiles, drinks and tracts like this one:

What are you doing tomorrow? Tonight you are having a good time, but will you have a good time tomorrow and all the tomorrows after night? Tonight you might find love, but will that love be with you tomorrow? There is one way to follow that will guarantee love and happiness for all the tomorrows in your life. That way is the way of Christ. His love can give you eternal happiness. Christ loves all men no matter what their race or their sexual inclination. 
As might have been expected, the backlash against the MCC by orthodox religionists was fierce. Some of their opponents were outright thugs and terrorists, and MCC churches across America were picketed, vandalized, and even burned.  Church contingents and floats in Gay Pride gatherings and parades were a favorite target of Fundamentalist protestors, who sometimes physically assaulted MCC ministers and laity at them. A lesbian MCC pastor in Houston had a cross burned on her lawn; live ammunition had been fixed onto its crux, and the woman and her partner were almost killed when the flames set off the cartridges and sent bullets crashing through their windows.

Since the burning of the Mother Church in 1973, seventeen MCC meeting places were torched by persons unknown (three in 1973 alone), and it wasn’t until 1985 that the annual Church General Conference went off without someone calling in a bomb threat.

All these incidents paled in comparison to what happened in New Orleans on June 24, 1973. It was Gay Pride Day in the Crescent City, and the MCC was having a post-parade beer bash in the UpStairs, a French Quarter bar that had until recently served as the local church’s worship spot. Located on the third floor of an old building, the party was in full swing when someone opened the bar’s front door, and an immense fireball roared into the packed room. The backdraft blew out all the electrical lights, and spread flames and smoke all over the room. Patrons panicked in the smoke, fire and chaos, trampling each other, and trying to squeeze through any aperture that led out of the inferno. Investigators later determined that someone had started the fire by pouring accelerant on the building’s stairs, lighting it, and waiting for the flames to burn up to the third floor.

The aftermath of the UpStairs fire.The corpse of MCC Rev. Bill Larson
is visible at the second window from the right, on the second floor. 
Although thirty-two people perished in the fire – the deadliest conflagration in New Orleans history – the press expressed little sympathy. Instead, local papers covering the story made snide insinuations about the UpStairs and its patrons, and published a macabre photo of MCC Rev. Bill Larson’s charred corpse trapped under a metal pipe in one of the UpStairs’ windows. The city and state governments were even worse, with nary a word of condolence for any of victims or their families from elected officials, save for the Police Chief of Detectives, who called the bar a hangout for “thieves” and “queers.”

Incensed, Perry and his associates traveled to New Orleans, demanding compassion for the dead, and respect for the gay community in the wake of the disaster. Although a local Episcopal parish held an impromptu memorial service right after the fire, when the MCC tried to organize a formal day of mourning for the victims, they were barred from every religious building in New Orleans large enough to accommodate the hundreds of mourners who converged on the city.

Ever the adroit publicist, Perry made sure his media contacts were aware of the situation, and how it illustrated that too many Americans treated gay men and lesbians as less than human. He mentioned that several of the bodies from UpStairs were never claimed by victims’ families, too embarrassed to acknowledge that their loved ones had died in a “queer bar.”

By the time the formal day of mourning arrived, the story had been picked up by the national wires, and news crews surrounded the small Methodist church that had consented to host the service. Knowing that mourners would be photographed as soon as they stepped outside the building, Perry informed the assembled flock that the press was waiting outside, and gave attendees the option of exiting out a hidden back door. None took it.

The persecution of, and attendant publicity campaigns and activism by the MCC, prepared it to take a leading role in fighting the larger-scale and legal – but equally dangerous – actions against the gay community. In Florida, Miss America finalist, singer and evangelical Baptist Anita Bryant fought to repeal an anti-gay-discrimination ordinance that had passed in Dade County. When she succeeded, cities such as St. Paul, Minnesota, Wichita, Kansas, and Eugene, Oregon also passed legislation that barred gays and lesbians from teaching in public, parochial and/or private schools.

The groundswell of anti-homosexual activism inspired California State Senator John Briggs to draft an initiative that would have banned not only gays, but also anyone who supported gay rights, from teaching in the state’s schools. Early polls indicated that the now-designated Proposition 6 had an excellent chance of passing when it appeared on the ballot in the very state that had birthed the MCC and housed its Mother Church.

Once again, Perry sprung into action. He kicked off his protest of Proposition 6, Briggs, and the homophobia that fueled them with a sixteen-day public fast in front of Los Angeles’ Federal Building. The Church also helped organize groups and raise funds to defeat the initiative. (Perry noted that since election law mandated that anyone who contributed $50 or more to a political campaign had to be publically identified, the No-on-6 forces were receiving countless checks for $49.99 from closeted gays and their less-than-courageous allies.) Eventually, the MCC and its allies had swayed public opinion enough to soundly defeat the Proposition that November; even future-President Ronald Reagan had editorialized against the measure. Senator Briggs’ career ground to a halt soon afterwards.

Rev. Perry and a clerical cohort at a gay-rights demonstration
The Reverend Perry, on the other hand, was quickly becoming a major political player. In 1975 he had spoken for gay rights at a meeting with then-Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter; two years later, he was invited to President Carter’s inauguration, as well as to a White House meeting regarding the American gay political and cultural scene. Perry later remarked that his appearance on TV emerging from the White House not only helped bring countless gays and lesbians out of the closet, but also finally convinced his socially conservative relatives that if Troy the Homosexual was good enough to meet with the President, he was also good enough to be part of the family.

Two years later, he and lesbian comic Robin Tyler, along with a sizable entourage, traveled to D.C. in an old-fashioned whistle-stop cross-country train tour. At its conclusion, on October 14, 1979 an army of 75,000 people converged on the Capitol in the “National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.” Several successive rallies in 1987, 1993 and 2000 would be attended by between 300,000 and one million people – awesome shows of strength for a community that just a few years earlier had been a hidden demi-monde in American society.

By the 1980s, Perry and the Church faced its greatest foe yet: the AIDS epidemic, which devastated the gay community, and eventually killed thousands of Church members. Too, homophobia was back under a new rationale: gays were no longer portrayed so much as a moral menace, but as a disease-spreading health threat, victims of their own unnatural and uncontrollable lusts. When radical cult politician Lyndon LaRouche sponsored two California initiatives that would have put the AIDS virus on a list of communicable disease (and probably led to quarantines of HIV-positive people) the Church helped defeat the measures. When Fundamentalist minister and conservative activist Jerry Falwell said that “AIDS is God’s gift to gay people,” Perry excoriated him for his callousness, and debated him in several high-profile TV appearances.

Within the gay world, the MCC became an important provider of pastoral care, and source of spiritual strength, for people suffering from the disease. In 1986 the San Diego Church held a fifty-hour prayer vigil for AIDS victims, and their families and friends, attended by faithful from many Christian and Jewish denominations. Local MCC congregations developed active ministries and healing services for people afflicted with the disease. And Perry and other gay theologians challenged the view that AIDS was God’s punishment for sexual license, noting that nowhere in Scripture did Jesus threaten sinners with disease, and that the virus was nearly unknown among lesbians. (Ironically, female homosexuals became very prominent in the MCC as ministers and caregivers to AIDS-afflicted gay men. As of this writing, a majority of the MCC’s Board of Elders are women.)

Despite – or perhaps because of – the AIDS epidemic’s devastating effects on the gay world, the MCC eventually spread across not only America, but the world. By the 21st Century, the Church called itself The Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, and claimed congregations in 45 U.S. States, along with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Internationally, the MCC could be found in 23 nations, from Nigeria to Romania, and from Malaysia to Uruguay. Although the Church was rejected for membership in the National Council of Churches, it was granted Observer status in the World Council of Churches, further cementing its self-image as a mainstream, liberal Christian denomination with a special ministry to an otherwise-neglected population.

And Perry’s star continued to rise. During the Clinton Administration he was a guest at White House conferences on AIDS and hate crimes, as well as an attendee at a special Presidential breakfast for religious leaders. Perry also wrote two autobiographies, a collection of gay biographies, a book of gay-themed Christian meditations, and contributed to books on gay theology. The 65 year-old reverend retired from Church leadership in 2005, but he continued to speak before religious and political groups, and agitate for gay rights. He also married his longtime lover Phillip Ray De Blieck in a legal Canadian ceremony, and successfully fought the courts to have their status recognized in the State of California (although the nuptials, along with those of over 18,000 other married homosexuals, were ostensibly negated with the passage of California’s anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 in November 2008. Several years later the proposition was ruled unconstitutional.)

Perry’s life and work, as well as the history of the MCC, were the subjects of a 2007 documentary, Call Me Troy. Along with anecdotes and reminiscences about the Church and the rise of gay power and consciousness over the last four decades, the award-winning film featured a surprising revelation by the now grey-haired Reverend: when he wasn’t clad in his clerical collar in church, or sporting an expensive suit at a White House meeting, he was often at the local gay bar in full black-leather fetish garb, partying with gay male sadomasochism enthusiasts.

Rev. Troy Perry today
A proud “bear” (a burly, hirsute homosexual male with earthy tastes unlike those of the stereotypically effete “queen”), Perry told Canadian journalist Shaun Proulx that he was impressed by the “spirituality and the care – especially during AIDS - of leathermen, the owners of leather bars and clubs, just amazing…” The Reverend mentioned that, “Some of the things I’ve seen and witnessed at leather gatherings are akin to reading about the saints filled with rapture of being so involved with God and God’s love,” and viewed the S/M subculture as a powerful spiritual practice in its own right.

In the forty-plus years of the MCC’s existence, Perry saw, and helped direct a massive change in not only social, but religious attitudes towards homosexuals, with many mainstream churches eventually soft-pedaling or even eliminating traditional condemnations of same-sex relationships, and forming “welcoming” programs for non-heterosexual seekers. Yet his Church remained as vibrant and healthy a sect as ever, perhaps because it offered homosexuals and other “sexual minorities” the only major organized religious community where they could follow a Christian path without censure or judgment.

As with the original Christian church of 2,000 years earlier, a meeting of twelve people and their leader had led to a spiritual and social revolution. One can only speculate where the ripples radiating from that simple gathering in a Los Angeles living room will lead in the years to come.

The Metropolitan Community Churches (worldwide site)

Call Me Troy. Documentary film by Scott Bloom, 2007.
Perry, Troy, and Swicegood, Thomas. Don't Be Afraid Anymore: The Story of Reverend Troy Perry and the Metropolitan Community Churches. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.
Perry, Troy, and Lucas, Charles L. The Lord Is My Shepherd and He Know's I'm Gay. New York: Bantam, 1978

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

William Monéy and the Reformed New Testament Church

William Monéy's tombstone, showing his octagonal San Gabriel house. 

William Monéy was the great-granddaddy of all California cult-leaders and mystic eccentrics. The founder of the first historical indigenous sect in California, as well as the author of the first book published in Los Angeles, the irascible, querulous Monéy argued and blustered his way into Golden State spiritual history as the original, quintessentially Californian religious crank.

What little we know of him comes mostly from his few surviving writings, as well as from the spotty reports of the mid-19th century Los Angeles press, and the recollections of early Anglo-Californios who crossed paths with the singular religious prophet and self-taught frontier eccentric.

According to his own accounts, Monéy (he pronounced his surname Mo-NAY, in deference to Hispanic usage) was born into a working-class Edinburgh, Scotland family in 1807. “By a singular circumstance,” he said of his nativity, “I was born with four teeth and the likeness of a rainbow in my right eye,” as well as a veil on his brow. His father died a year later, and he was brought up by his mother as a precocious autodidact, studying natural history at the age of seven, and soon adding philosophy, law, medicine and theology to his youthful intellectual pursuits. Family poverty, however, forced him into the workplace, and at twelve he began an apprenticeship with a Glasgow-area paper manufacturer.

Monéy endured Glaswegian factory life for five years. But he ached to travel and study “the religions of the Jews, Gentiles and Christians,” and at 17 he embarked on a voyage to the New World, landing in New York in 1825. There, he heard the call to preach the Gospel while standing on a Manhattan street corner, and decided that the newly-independent Republic of Mexico cried out for his ministrations.

The Gospel that Monéy preached, in keeping with his background and with the tenor of the times, was an ultra-Protestant one. Centuries of anti-Catholic feeling in the United Kingdom (particularly in Monéy’s native Scotland), combined with fears of the increasing Catholic immigration to British and American shores, fed a rising tide of theological and political anti-Popery in the English-speaking world that no doubt deeply influenced the young evangelist. And Monéy’s destination, nominally-Catholic Mexico, was just beginning a struggle over the Church’s political influence that would bedevil the nation for over a century.

Monéy first migrated to Mexico City, where he opened a small paper factory. Then he shifted his operations to the town of Piquito, Sonora, where in 1835 he began a series of public debates with seven different Franciscan friars about the nature and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Like so many other would-be reformers before and since, Monéy argued that the Church had lost its direction over the last fifteen centuries, and that it needed to jettison its dogma, ritual and priestcraft, and return to the first-century Christian community’s simple evangelical approach and Bible-centered doctrines.

According to Monéy:

These and other learned propositions were discussed and rediscussed, constantly for five years, during which writing paper arose to such an enormous price that special enactments were made withdrawing the duties thereon. Time would not admit of detailing the shadow of what transpired during the session.

Suffice it to say that through the indomitable faith and energy of Mr. Monéy, his seven opponents were entirely overcome; one sickened early in the second year and was constrained to take a voyage by sea; two others died of hemorrhage of the lungs; one went crazy, two became converted and left the Council in the year 1838, and were found by Mr. Monéy to have entered into connubial bonds, and were in the enjoyment of perfect happiness. The other two strenuously held out up to the year 1840, when exhausted, sick and dismayed, the Council…’was broke up by offering me Monéy to give up my sword, the word of God, but [I] protested, saying God keep me from such treacherous men, and becoming a traitor to my God.”

After triumphantly driving the Franciscan padres to defeat, exile, insanity and death, Monéy traveled to the settlement of El Pueblo de la Reyna de los Angeles ("The Town of the Queen of the Angels") in Mexican Alta California. Home to around 2,000 Mexicans, Americans and Europeans in 1840, the pueblo employed Monéy, apparently a skilled craftsman, to repair the plaza church for $126. Monéy also used his cartographic skills to draw up a map of a proposed land-grant for the wealthy Sepulveda family.

Monéy migrated between Los Angeles and Sonora throughout the 1840s. On one trip during the 1846 Bear Flag Revolt, he and his Mexican wife Isabella were taken prisoner by General Stephen W. Kearny, who was leading a detachment of 100 United States dragoons to support the American California rebels. Monéy claimed that while he was in custody, Kearny’s Indian troops destroyed over 1,000 of his hand-drawn maps of the California territory, which John C. Fremont later estimated may have been the greatest collection of its kind in the United States, and worth as much as $250,000. The Scots-Mexican-Californian sage tried to sue the US Government for compensation, but was rebuffed.

By the time California had become American territory, Monéy had turned his attentions towards other fields. In the classic manner of the American frontier, the multi-talented Monéy settled in Los Angeles, and reinvented himself as a doctor and healer, albeit one unlettered by any known medical school. The self-taught physician would later claim that in this career he had treated over 5,000 patients, only four of whom died under his care. Monéy also said that he’d written two full-length medical books, complete with full-color illustrations, although apparently neither volume ever made it to print. Eventually, faced with more educated and sophisticated competitors, as well as a litany of complaints about his conduct during a smallpox epidemic, Monéy abandoned the medical profession.

The Scotsman then returned to his first intellectual love: Christian theology. In 1851, Monéy claimed, he had written a massive theological work while in New York City. Titled The Church of Rome Reformed, the book earned him $300 advance money from a prospective publisher that he used to buy fare back to Los Angeles. Like his medical works, the volume – if it ever existed outside of Monéy’s imagination – never appeared in print.

However, Monéy did manage to produce one tangible theological monograph: Reform of the New Testament Church/Reforma de la Iglesia del Nuevo Testamento. Published in 1854, the 22-page booklet was printed in parallel columns of both English and Spanish, and is believed to be the first English-language tome published in Los Angeles.  The book appeared under the auspices of the New Testament Church, whose council had chosen the author as Bishop, Deacon and Defender of the Faith, and had given him and his work “all dignified admiration.” Along with his youthful studies in theology and other academic disciplines, the Curriculum Vitae described in the volume also boasted the author’s expertise in such subjects as “Relation of cause and effect, “Philosophy of Sound in a Conch shell, peculiar habits of the Muskrat, and the component parts of Swain’s Vermifuge.”

In the work, Monéy claimed a lifetime of suffering in defense of sound Christian doctrine: “I have been turned out of doors. I have been stricken by men’s hands. I have suffered hunger, thirst, sickness, nakedness, imprisonment, [and] treated like a foolish man.” He expected further calumny from not just the Church of Rome, but also from the Eastern Orthodox and Protestant communions, saying, “I will not be astonished to hear from these denominations as soon as this work comes to light, because it will be against their own personal interest – that they will from the pulpits thunder against this work, according…their excommunications to all them that read this work, by the penalty of unpardonable pains of hell.” Monéy, however, reassured his readers that everything in the book was “the complete truth of eternity,” and solidly based in Biblical research and interpretation. A true Christian, he said, would have no argument with any of his points.

Essentially, Monéy reiterated and expanded the arguments he’d made in front of the Sonoran padres nearly twenty years’ earlier. Much in the style of Martin Luther, he made his case against Roman dogma, ritual and hierarchy in a series of fifty-two articles, set out as theses and antitheses that contrasted the Primitive Christian Church against the modern-day Church of Rome:

Article 1: The Primitive State of the Church of Rome in no where teaches us her infallibility

The Actual State of the Church of Rome decrees that she is infallible; the Pope, Council General and the rest of the clergymen claim this infallibility, and none of them has got [sic] this from God….

Article 41: The Primitive Church teacheth that there is not such a place as purgatory or limbo, because the Holy Scripture no where makes any mention of such places; such was invented in the 7th century to serve as a mint to the priests.

But the actual Church of Rome teacheth in the creed of Pope Pius IV, Council of Trent, year 1564…that such doctrine of places should be taught to the faithfull [sic] where souls are relieved by the help of money and prayer; said council pronounces a curse on all them that say to the contrary.

Article 44: The Primitive Church teacheth from the New Testament, according to St. Paul to 2d Timothy, chap. Iii, and to Titus, chap. I, that the ministers of the Gospel has [sic] authority to marry one wife, and if she dies he has the same authority to marry another.

But the actual Church of Rome…prohibited the clergymen the use of marriage…(But this is contrary to the Scriptures…To prohibit marriage is doctrine of the devil.)

Like much of what would later be called Christian Fundamentalist theology, many of Monéy’s arguments were hackneyed, poorly-reasoned, and clumsily written. Only a small number of copies of the book were printed, and today Reform of the New Testament Church is one of the rarest of all early-Californian tomes, with the two known copies in existence held by San Marino’s Huntington Library and UCLA’s Special Collections archives.

Monéy's controversial writings were featured in the early Los Angeles Star

Monéy’s book found few readers, but his diatribes still reached the ears of Los Angeles’ religious establishment, who traded sharp words with the Glaswegian gadfly in the mid-1850s Los Angeles press. Chief among Monéy’s critics was Los Angeles priest Fr. Anaclete Lestrade, who refused a public debate with the would-be theologian, remarking that Angelenos thought of him as nothing more than “a crazy old man.” The Bishops of San Gabriel and Monterey also weighed in against Monéy, with a follower of the latter warning him to “[d]iscontinue your struggles with a giant that can strangle you without exertion.”

Monéy also remonstrated passionately with the followers of another New World sectarian maverick: Joseph Smith. When he challenged Elder Parley P. Pratt, a California-based Mormon leader who had been part of Smith’s Quorum of Twelve Apostles, to a debate about polygamy, the Latter-Day Saint, much like Fr. Lestrade, responded that Monéy was “out of his head, or non sana menti”, and that his writings condemning plural marriage weren’t worth addressing in a public forum. Eventually The Star, the Los Angeles paper that had hosted most of these controversies, tired of Monéy’s endless tilting at ecclesiastical windmills, and banned the Californian contrarian from its pages.

In 1855, Monéy made his other great mark in California history when he founded the state’s first homegrown religious sect. He formally organized the Reformed New Testament Church in Los Angeles that October, naming one Ramon Corona as Bishop and claiming an appropriately-Biblical following of twelve (eight men, and four women) – a respectable flock in a town of fewer than 3,000 inhabitants. Monéy aimed to evangelize Southern California through the church, and stressed the Bible-centered, apologetics-oriented aspect of his ministry, saying, “Miracles are for the ignorant and barbarous, who cannot be enlightened by arguments.”

Los Angeles Plaza, around the time Monéy formed the Reformed New Testament Church
Yet Monéy was not immune to the lure of the supernatural and the sensational. According to one story, he once announced that as a test of his faith, he would volunteer to be buried alive, and, like Christ, would arise from the dead in three days. When a skeptic bet Monéy that he couldn’t do it, the evangelist procured a pine box, and had himself sealed inside it in front of a crowd of spectators. A grave was dug, the coffin was lowered into it, and dirt was shoveled onto the bier. When the reality of being buried alive hit Monéy, he panicked, kicking at the coffin and screaming wildly, “For the love of God, get me out!” Eventually he smashed open the coffin lid with his feet, and climbed out of the grave, to the great amusement of spectators who remarked that he didn’t have the faith to spend three minutes, let alone three days, buried in the good earth.

Around this time, Monéy wrote a 300-page follow-up to The Reform of the New Testament Church, but once again the lack of funds and interest prevented it from being published. However, in 1859, he managed to produce The Christian Church – Los Angeles’ first monthly periodical, which, like his book, appeared as an English-Spanish bilingual work. The few people who picked up the April 10, 1859 issue resisted his appeals to pay then a then-outrageous five dollars for a years’ worth of more Monéy jeremiads, and the monthly never published another number.

Still, the assorted failures and embarrassments didn’t slow Monéy one whit. While he pastored his small sect, the self-styled polymath also combined his cartographic talents and his vivid imagination to produce a bizarre geographic theory he called the “Discovery of the Ocean.” Monéy maintained that inside the Earth was a vast subterranean ocean, created by a hole in the North Pole that sucked in seawater. This interior ocean was dammed on all sides by fiery volcanic rock, which heated its waters, and then expelled the “Kuro Siwa” warm currents through another hole in the South Pole. To illustrate his theory, he created a complex drawing of the Earth’s hemispheres and the hidden sea within, and filed it with the Los Angeles county archives in 1872. Monéy never completely explained the reasoning behind his theory, although historian J.M. Guinn said that the eccentric cartographer claimed that the Earth’s fiery mantle had worn through most of the crust beneath San Francisco, and predicted that the wicked city would fall through it into a flaming caldera of lava.

By 1880, the septuagenarian Monéy had largely withdrawn from public life, settling in the town of San Gabriel just north of Los Angeles. On a three-acre parcel there he constructed a bizarre dwelling: two octagonal buildings of adobe and wood, linked by a gateway at the front of the property. Upon the gate were inscribed Greek, Latin and Hebrew slogans that promoted the value of learning, as well as ancient Assyrian cuneiform decorations. Behind the double gate lay Monéy’s oval-shaped main house and a small orchard. When San Gabriel’s public school burned to the ground, Monéy rented his home out to the district, which was soon dubbed “The Monéyan Institute” by locals.

Although he had amassed a vast collection of books, manuscripts, charts, and mounted animals, Monéy was virtually penniless. When California historian Hubert Howe Bancroft visited Monéy in 1880, the old eccentric offered to sell Bancroft a big chunk of his possessions for $1,000, and said he’d throw in his life story to sweeten the deal. Bancroft turned him down – a terrible decision in retrospect, since Monéy’s priceless collection of early Californiana vanished after his death.

The end came for Monéy in either 1881 or 1890 (accounts vary, and no death record exists for him). His passing was as colorful and enigmatic as his life; a contemporary report maintains that “the harmless old fanatic” died in one of the octagonal buildings “with an image of the Holy Virgin above his head, an articulated skeleton at his feet, and a well-worn copy of some Greek classic within reach of his hand.”

Although he died a pauper, Monéy was buried in the Mulock family plot, in San Gabriel Cemetery. According to the story, Monéy had treated young Dan Mulock when the boy had been gored by a wild boar, and in gratitude, the prominent family gave him a final resting place. Today Monéy’s grave sports the cemetery’s strangest tombstone: a black granite marker inscribed with a picture of his octagonal edifices, and a legend that would surely have pleased the frontier polymath:


Although Money’s life and writings intrigued early California historians, he has largely been forgotten today, save for the occasional mention of his doings in newspaper and magazine articles about famous Southland eccentrics. Still, he occupies a key place in Golden State cultural history, both for his pioneering literary efforts, and for the Reformed New Testament Church – the first of the countless homegrown sects that would mark California as the world’s capital of cultism and new religions.


Rasmussen, Cecilia. "To Catholics, Cultist Was Beyond Belief" Los Angeles Times, 6/27/2004.
Rice, William B. William Money: A Southern California Savant. Los Angeles: Privately printed, 1943,
Waldie, D.J. "Professor Money, God, and the First Book Published in Los Angeles (Maybe)." KCET Commentary/Where We Are, 7/28/2014.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Wesley Swift and the Church of Jesus Christ - Christian

Rev. Wesley Swift, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ - Christian

When Joe Jeffers was asked about British Israelism’s implications for non-Anglo-Saxon peoples, the preacher was always at pains to stress that he wasn’t a racist or an anti-Semite. Like most advocates of the doctrine, he maintained that he primarily preached God’s love for all humans, and that if anything, having a bloodline from the ancient Israelites made White Christians more obligated to behave gently and righteously towards people of color and modern-day Jews.

No such disclaimers troubled the career of Reverend Wesley Albert Swift, late of Lancaster, California. The founder of the Church of Jesus Christ – Christian, Swift spent over three decades proudly transforming British Israelism from a largely-harmless Biblical revisionist doctrine, into a racist ideology that portrayed non-Whites as sub-humans and Jews as Satanic schemers, and inspired religious-based terrorism that has claimed lives across the United States.

Like so many other Christian figures that have put their distinctive marks on the Golden State’s spiritual culture, Wesley Swift was an East Coast transplant. Born in 1913, he grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey, the son of Richard C. Swift. The elder Swift was a minister in the Methodist Episcopal Church South, a sect that split from mainstream American Methodism because of the latter’s anti-slavery stance. 

In his teens, young Wesley heard the call to spread the Gospel, and his father’s Church licensed him as a preacher when he was a mere 18 years old. The freshly-ordained young minister then trod off to Los Angeles, where he studied at Philip E.J. Monson’s Kingdom Bible College. Monson was best known a representative of Howard Rand, the founder of the Anglo-Saxon Federation of America and an advocate of British Israelism.

"British Israelism" theologian Howard Rand

The form of British Israelism that Rand and Monson taught deviated sharply from the versions preached by Californian Christian leaders like Joe Jeffers, Gene Scott and the Armstrongs. Unlike original British Israelism, which claimed modern-day Jewish people – “the tribe of Judah” – were related to Saxons and Celts via the “Lost Tribes of Israel”, Rand and his followers taught that the Jews of the 20th Century were Canaanites – descendants of Isaac’s son Esau, who had lost his birthright as Patriarch of the Israelites to his brother Jacob, and had married outside the Abrahamic lineage. As a result, so-called “Jews” were actually Semitic impostors, whereas the true Israelites had been dispersed into Northern and Western Europe, and were the White race of today – a Chosen People blessed by God to dominate all His Creation.

Married to this was an even more sinister concept: the so-called “Two-Seed Theory”. In Randian British Israelism, this was the idea that Adam and Eve were the first true humans, created by God in about 7400 BC to have dominion over “the beasts of the field” – the prototype pseudo-humans who preceded them in the six days of creation, and who were identified with the non-White races. The fall from Eden came when Eve, yielding to the temptations of either Satan or a demonic entity in the form of the Serpent, mated with the creature and birthed Cain, the murderer of Adam’s birth son Abel. After killing his half-brother, the demon-child Cain then married into the Hittite beast-tribe, forming the Canaanite line that Esau later joined. 

The "Two-Seed" theory held that Canaanites
were the descendants of Eve and the Serpent

Although versions of the two-seed theory had been taught in ancient Jewish writings, as well as the Gnostic Gospel of Philip and other Christian Apocrypha, the early Church rejected the concept. But 20th Century fringe-Adventists like Rand rediscovered it, and used it to literally demonize Jews, seeing them as serpentine connivers and a pseudo-human pestilence that had lied and tricked the White race into economic and political servitude, and spiritual and racial alienation. Their racist and anti-Semitic variant of British Israelism told White Gentiles: You are the lost children of Israel. Throw off the yoke of false, Judaicized “Christianity” and reclaim your birthright as the Chosen People of God, and as the masters of the planet.

Swift absorbed and embraced this doctrine during the 1930s. For the rest of the decade he worked as an itinerant preacher, mounting the podium at any Southern California church that would host him, and bringing the Gospel of Randian British-Israelism to any audience that would listen. Swift’s best gig of the era was at Aimee Semple MacPherson’s Foursquare Temple, where he served as a warm-up act for the fading Pentecostal superstar.

Somewhere on the pastoral circuit, Swift met San Jacinto Capt, a California-based Baptist minister. Capt later claimed to have set up the young preacher’s first ministry in Temple City – a “Pyramid Study Group” where his flock, like so many other fringe-Adventists, delved into the mysteries of Egyptology and what they foretold for American and Christian destiny.

By the 1940s the racist British-Israelite doctrine promulgated by Swift didn’t exactly have mass-appeal in a nation fighting a total war against advocates of another Jew-bashing, master-race ideology. But the Southern Californian pastor attracted one major convert to his cause: the legendary preacher and rabble-rouser Gerald L.K. Smith.

Populist firebrand Gerald L. K. Smith
Originally a Disciples of Christ minister, Smith was a charismatic speaker and demagogue whom iconoclastic journalist H.L. Mencken called “the greatest orator of them all, not the greatest by an inch or a foot or a yard or a mile, but the greatest by at least two light years.” Smith first got involved in radical politics as an organizer for Louisiana Governor Huey Long’s Share Our Wealth movement.

When Long was assassinated in 1935, Smith took over the movement, and joined with controversial “radio priest” Father Charles Coughlin and pension-advocate Francis Townsend to form the Union Party, which ran populist Congressman William Lemke against Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1936 Presidential election. When Smith’s rhetoric became increasingly racist and anti-Semitic in the late 1930s, his former allies split with him, and during World War II the Federal Government tried (but failed to convict) him for sedition.

Smith met Wesley Swift in 1947, three years after the sedition trial. Impressed by the 34 year-old preacher, who he called an “eloquent and crusading clergyman,” Smith hired Swift initially as a bodyguard and chauffer, but soon made him the West Coast representative of his “Christian Nationalist Crusade,” and shared the pulpit with him on his California lecture tours. 

Poster advertising a talk by Smith and Swift in Hollywood

Still a potent speaker who could easily rally disaffected and angry Americans, Smith and his protégé filled Los Angeles’ Embassy Auditorium in 1949, as well as other venues across Southern California, one of which they claimed was picketed by “nearly 20,000 Reds and their Dupes.” Their talks merged nascent Cold War paranoia with “Biblically-based” anti-Semitic and White-Supremacist rhetoric drawn directly from British-Israelite sources. They asserted that America was under siege from Jewish Communists who were manipulating everything from Hollywood to race-relations in a plot to bring down White Christian civilization. 

But Wesley Swift wasn’t content to merely share a podium with Smith, and act as his California agent. Now a rising star of the postwar American far-Right, Swift was making waves across the state’s political and spiritual landscapes all by himself. In 1946 he attempted to resuscitate California’s dormant Ku Klux Klan when he burned a cross on a hillside near Big Bear Lake, and lectured to American Legion posts about “the new Klan” and its mission to save America from Communism and race-mixing. When the Attorney General’s office investigated Swift’s doings that year, it found that not only had he organized his own KKK faction, the Christian Knights of the Invisible Empire, but that he’d built a private rifle range in the backyard of his Lancaster ranch, and was conducting paramilitary training for Klansmen in the Antelope Valley desert. For his part, Swift refused to cooperate with the investigation.

Swift's formation of an Antelope Valley-based KKK chapter alarmed California officials

Around this time, Swift founded his own religious denomination: The Church of Jesus Christ – Christian. Originally known as the Anglo-Saxon Christian Congregation (in a seeming hat-tip to Howard Rand), the Church was formed specifically as the spiritual arm of his racist, anti-Semitic and anti-Communist crusade,  and dedicated to disseminating Swift’s version of British Israelism.

The denomination grew steadily throughout California in the 1950s, planting branches in San Francisco, Oakland, Lancaster, Riverside, Hollywood and San Diego. There was also a Church center in St. Petersburg, Florida under the Rev. Oren Potito, Swift’s East Coast coordinator and an organizer for the National States’ Rights Party, a Neo-Nazi/Klan fusionist group whose leaders would later serve time for bombing a Black church in Birmingham and a Jewish temple in Atlanta. Swift’s own lieutenant and co-preacher in California, the Rev. Charles “Connie” Lynch, also served as the NSRP’s state leader, as well as a “traveling parson” at Ku Klux Klan rallies across the South.

Swift’s most important associate in California, however, was William Potter Gale. Gale, formerly the youngest Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army during World War II and a close associate of General Douglas MacArthur, retired from the military in 1950 and worked afterwards as a securities trader. 

Col. William Potter Gale, in clerical garb

Introduced to Swift by San Jacinto Capt, Gale, who had organized the guerrilla resistance in the Philippines during the war, lent a distinctly paramilitary tone to Swift’s operations, helping the preacher found the Christian Defense League as an umbrella group to bring together the various religious and political far-Right groups that cross-pollinated in Swift’s world. Gale also started the California Rangers, a secretive guerrilla corps that acted as the Church and League’s armed militant wing.

As the Civil Rights movement gained steam, and the Fifties became the Sixties, the rhetoric of Swift, his associates, and his followers, got louder and more strident. Using British-Israelite exegesis, Swift insisted that God created the races not only separate but unequal in one publication called THE MYSTERY OF INIQUITY:

And God spoke out then, against these Hivites that came out of the Hittites. He spoke out against the Amorites, the Canaanites. He spoke out against the Perizzites, the Jebusites. And he told His people not to mix with them, not to have covenants with them, not to intermarry with them, for they would teach His people to serve other gods. They would have no spiritual capacity, and the spirit of God would not cohabit in any of their mixed-blood offspring. Such offspring, He said, would be totally unable to understand the truths of God. So God was calling for segregation!

Jews fared no better in Swift’s doctrines. The preacher was quoted as saying “All Jews must be destroyed,” and in a 1962 sermon, stated "the days are going to come when there's not going to be any of them (the JEWS)  in the United States either, because the Bible says so in the book of  Zechariah .... The destroyers of America (the JEWS) are going to discover that it's not the best place to remain inside of these United States, as America wakes up." Colonel Gale seconded his spiritual leader, ranting, “You got your nigger Jews, you got your Asiatic Jews and you got your white Jews. They’re all Jews, and they’re all the offspring of the Devil.”

Gale, who preached Swift’s teachings at his own Ministry of Christ Church in Glendale, later claimed that he coined a new term to describe this Jew-baiting, White-supremacist form of British-Israelite Adventism: Christian Identity. Like many other heterodox Christian doctrines, Christian Identity maintained that apocalyptic Biblical prophecy was being fulfilled in the modern world, and called on its followers to repent and join its struggle against principalities and powers of evil. Unlike most Christian millenarianism, however, the Identity creed prophesied that its believers would not be raptured into the Kingdom of God in the Last Days, but would have to fight to establish the Kingdom on Earth, in an all-out war against Satan’s worldly minions: the Communists, the “mud races,” and the Jews.

Some of Swift’s followers took his battle cry to heart. In August 1963, California Ranger George Joseph King Jr., the son of a retired Admiral, was busted for attempting to sell a .50 caliber machine gun and a British Sten submachine gun to undercover agents who posed as prospective Rangers. King allegedly assured the agents that he could get almost any type or amount of illegal weapon they desired. 

One year later, agents raided the Cucamonga home of Christian Defense League member William H. Garland, a self-described “patriot” who wanted to fight off “invaders,” and seized nearly 100 arms, including fully-operational machine guns, 105MM rockets, and bomb-making equipment. And in 1965 another Swift follower, Keith Gilbert, was caught with 1,400 pounds of stolen TNT; when asked what the explosives were for, he replied that he planned to blow up the Hollywood Palladium when Rev. Martin Luther King spoke there.

Alarmed, the California Attorney General’s office once again delved into Swift’s doings. In 1965 it issued a 100-page report, California Rangers, where it theorized that the Church of Jesus Christ – Christian was a front for the Rangers and a networking device for extremist organizations, and that both Swift and Gale were working to dominate the spiritual and political worlds of the Californian far Right. 

Not all Golden State ultra-Rightists, however, were impressed with Swift and his approach. Don Sisco, a onetime American Nazi Party member who would later gain notoriety writing survivalist manuals under the pen-name Kurt Saxon, recounted how underwhelmed he was with the pastor during a 1964 visit to his Hollywood church:

One night [Swift] raved, "There are 60,000 niggers training with guns in Arizona". A few months later the Watts riots broke out. Where were the "60,000 niggers"? Another time he said, "There are 60,000 Red Chinese hidden in Baja, California, brought over here by submarines". (He was hung up on the number 60,000).
Those in the audience were all southern Californians and had to know that Baja is a barren desert peninsula which couldn't hide or support 60,000 field mice, much less 60,000 Chinese troops. Besides, at that time, the Chinese had only 30 WW II subs, hardly enough or the type of vehicles to transport 60,000 men.
The thing that impressed me about this was, first, Swift was a liar. Second, his audience believed him, even though such lies were preposterous and could be believed only by an exercise in credulity. That is, training the mind to accept absurdities as a test of faith and loyalty, in a pathetic desire to belong.

No less a hard-Right avatar than John Birch Society leader Robert Welch also condemned Swift. In a paper called “The Neutralizers”, he charged that the preacher’s virulent anti-Semitism and fanatical Christian-Identity preaching were alienating potential allies in the fight against Communism. The Bircher chief felt Swift was an embarrassment to the patriotic American Right, and thought it would be a grievous strategic victory for the Reds if “everybody else should come to believe everything he is teaching.”

Yet Swift’s message was still getting through, far beyond the confines of his Southern California home territory. Lacking the national-radio pulpit of predecessors like Father Coughlin, Swift instead took advantage of a new technology to spread his doctrines: cassette-tape recordings. Although not nearly as gifted or forceful a speaker as Coughlin or Smith, Swift nevertheless had a singular talent for explaining Christian Identity concepts in his sermons, and he regularly recorded them, then duplicated the tapes onto cassettes and sold them to followers across America. 

As the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the general Zeitgeist of the Sixties drove White racism out of the respectable American mainstream, there still remained a considerable audience for these tapes. “Listening parties” were held across the besieged Southern states, where far-Right radicals terrified by the end of Black segregation and White supremacy found in Swift‘s preaching a righteous spiritual rationale for fighting back against what they saw as a Godless Communist takeover of the country.

In the book The Awful Grace of God: Religious Terrorism, White Supremacy, and the Unsolved Murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., authors Stuart Wexler and Larry Hancock made the case that Swift’s taped sermons, along with the agitation campaigns of Church preachers like Connie Lynch and Oren Potito, and the crimes of their followers in the KKK and the NSRP, were intended to provoke a race war that would spread from the beleaguered South into all of the United States, and would bring about Federal repression, a full-scale revolution, and the eventual victory of White Christendom over the forces of Communism, Zionism and “race mongrelization.” 

Using previously-unreleased FBI records, the authors also revealed that Swift’s Church of Jesus Christ Christian acted as a front for the Army of White American Kingdom Evangelists (AWAKE), a militant British-Israelite activist organization. AWAKE in turn supplied its most talented agitators to “The Christian Knights”, an elite paramilitary whose inner core members were groomed for terrorism against Black, Jewish and Left-wing leaders and groups. 

Mug shot of Thomas Albert Tarrants III

One of these core members was Thomas Albert Tarrants III, a young Klansman who bought a rifle from Swift with the expressed purpose of using it to kill the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and who was  imprisoned after a bloody 1968 shootout with Mississippi cops.  Wexler and Hancock believe that Tarrants, who later repented of his violent racism and became an Evangelical minister, was part of an underground KKK/NSRP terror network that had taken to heart Swift’s cassette- and pamphlet-driven White-supremacist teachings, and had made the killing of King a primary mission since the early 1960s. This network, they maintain, had provided James Earl Ray, who would later be convicted of the civil rights leader’s assassination, with financial incentive to commit the murder, as well as cover within its ranks. If true, this made Swift the intellectual author of, if not an active co-conspirator in, one of the greatest crimes in American history.

Yet back in Lancaster, Swift’s physical ministry was fading rapidly. Observers of the time noted that while the preacher could still fill meeting halls, he wasn’t able to hold onto a solid cadre of Californian followers, and his string of churches across the state rapidly began to close down. A big blow came when Gerald L.K. Smith dissociated himself from Swift’s organization, and migrated to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, where he built a “religious theme park” that featured a 67 foot-tall statue of Jesus (“The Christ of the Ozarks”) and a 4,100-seat amphitheater that hosts an annual Passion Play based on the one in Oberammergau, Germany.

In 1965, further troubles came when Swift quarreled with William Potter Gale about the Christian Defense League and its role in their operations. The Colonel-cum-Reverend split with Swift shortly thereafter, claiming years later that he thought the Lancaster preacher was “a pig,” and that he had defrauded some of his most loyal followers in an investment deal. Gale continued to preach Christian Identity doctrines for the next twenty years at his own Ministry of Christ church, now relocated to a Gold Country ranch near Mariposa, California.

Before his departure, however, Gale introduced Swift to a middle-aged, Los Angeles-based aerospace engineer who would later, help make the Church of Jesus Christ – Christian, under an appended name, synonymous with American White-racist crime and terrorism.

The engineer was Richard Girnt Butler. Born in 1918, Butler had studied at Los Angeles City College in the 1930s, during which he had also been a member of William Dudley Pelley’s Silver Legion fascist paramilitary. Later, he joined the California Rangers, and it was Commandant Gale who told Butler that the Lancaster preacher had the goods on who and what was really behind the Reds and their assorted ill-doings.

As Butler recalled years later: “I finally agreed to go there [Swift’s church] one time. And I must say, when Dr. Swift spoke, he spoke in Technicolor. The words came out and you could just see in living color what he was talking about. You could – he was a master orator, just a master orator.” Independently wealthy from patents and other sources, Butler moved to Palmdale, just south of Swift’s ranch in Lancaster, and soon became a force in the now-dwindling California ranks of the Church.

Although he still regularly preached sermons and distributed tapes, Wesley Swift was seriously ill by the end of the Sixties. He had long suffered from diabetes, untreated since he distrusted the “Jewish” American medical system. When he finally sought help at a Tijuana clinic, he expired in their waiting room of a heart attack on October 8, 1970, aged 57 years. Swift’s wife Olive Lorraine remained at the helm of his Lancaster operation for the next four decades, continuing to circulate his materials until her own death at 85 in 2005.

With Gale and Smith out of the picture, Butler took over as the heir apparent to not only the Church of Jesus Christ – Christian, but also to the multinational network of White racists and radical-Right militants to whom Swift ministered. As Seventies Los Angeles rapidly became a multiracial and politically liberal city, symbolized by Black Democrat Tom Bradley’s 1973 election as mayor, Butler abandoned Southern California, and moved his family and the Church to a 20-acre ranch near Hayden Lake, Idaho in April 1974. 

In Idaho, Butler renamed Swift’s organization the Church of Jesus Christ Christian – Aryan Nations, although it would become best known as simply “Aryan Nations.” To befit the neo-Nazi implications of the name, Swift adopted a standard for the Church that combined the cross-and-sword and Rebel-flag motifs of the American Christian far-Right, with the Wolfsangel – the “hook rune” associated with Third Reich symbolism. 

Richard Butler, backed by the Aryan Nations symbol

Butler also surrounded himself with paramilitary guards clad in blue shirts, black trousers, and Sam Browne belts, and sporting regalia reminiscent of Hitler’s Stormtroopers and SS men. These guards, many of whom were drawn from the White-racist fringe of the Skinhead subculture, maintained order at Butler’s Church services, as well as at the “Aryan Nations World Congresses” – annual rallies on the property that attracted hundreds of neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and ultra-Right radicals from across the Western world. At the Congresses, attendees swapped Nazi salutes, burned crosses, and listened to sermons by Butler, whose rhetoric was becoming even more militant than his mentor’s in the post-Sixties, racially-integrated America he inhabited and feared.

Among other the doctrines he preached, Butler became one of the first advocates of the “White Homeland” concept. He believed that if “race conscious” European-American people moved en masse to Idaho, Oregon and Washington, they could form a new White nation that would eventually secede from the increasingly-multiracial United States, and become a sort of Identity-Christian Israel. Unfortunately, most of Butler’s hardcore followers were Southerners who spurned the call to resettle in the rainy Northwest, and he contented himself with a few dozen adherents living in and around the Idaho Panhandle.

Aryan Nations member and White-supremacist
terrorist Robert Mathews

Although Butler was careful to never openly advocate violence, some of his followers took his militant preaching to its logical extreme. They formed Northwest-based gangs, and terrorized Jews, people of color, government officials, and other Identity enemies throughout the region. The most notorious of these was “The Silent Brotherhood,” or simply, “The Order”: an underground neo-Nazi group led by Hayden Lake regular Robert Mathews. The Order staged armed robberies and murders throughout the Northwest, until Mathews was gunned down on Washington State’s Whidbey Island on December 8, 1984, after a 36-hour police siege. 

Butler and his followers faced an American government and populace far less tolerant of racism, anti-Semitism, and politically-motivated violence than Wesley Swift had back in the Sixties. After the Whidbey Island siege, Federal, state and local law enforcement started a campaign of surveillance and infiltration of the Hayden Lake compound, and the national media became a constant presence just outside Church gates, especially during the World Congresses. 

Butler’s meager empire was an obvious target for anti-racist activists as well, and it eventually crumbled under their attentions. When Aryan Nations security guards assaulted a woman and her son in 1998, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit organization that monitors American “hate groups”, took the Church to court on her behalf, and won a $6.3 million judgment against them in 2001. Bankrupted, the Church turned its Hayden Lake center, along with other assets, over to the plaintiff. Shortly thereafter North Idaho College gained control of the compound, then destroyed its buildings and turned the land into a “peace park”.

Back in California, former Wesley Swift associate William Potter Gale’s Christian-Identity church also collapsed under government and media pressure. Although his Mariposa-based Ministry of Christ had eschewed Butler’s openly-Nazi sympathies, and he hadn’t drawn nearly as many thugs and crazies into his orbit as the Idaho preacher had, Gale was still very much a radical, and in 1984 formed the Committee of the States, a coalition of ultra-Right groups that called for the end of the income tax and the total replacement of the U.S. government. 

In 1986, Federal officials, who had linked the Committee and Ministry to paramilitary training and other illegal doings in California, raided Gale’s 100-acre Manasseh Ranch, arrested the frail 70 year-old Colonel and charged him and several associates with conspiracy to overthrow the government and murder its employees. Although eventually convicted, the ailing Gale was credited with jail time already served and avoided Federal imprisonment. He died on April 28, 1988, and received a military burial with honors; with his passing, the Ministry faded into history.

Memorial graphic for Col. Gale

As for Richard Butler, he fell victim to a political struggle within the Aryan Nations, and was deposed from its leadership. Still, he remained the spiritual head of the Christian Identity movement, a celebrity in the White-racist subculture who stayed active in the fringe-Right underworld until his death at 86 in 2004. 

Today at least three separate factions claim leadership of the Aryan Nations remnant. One, formerly led by South Carolina-based August Kreis III, preaches a mixture of Christian Identity, Islamic, Wiccan and Norse Pagan theology. Kreis made national headlines in 2005 when he proposed an alliance between Aryan Nations and al-Qaeda; imprisoned shortly thereafter, he quit the movement and passed his mantle onto Drew Bostwick.

A second faction, Aryan Nations Revival in upstate New York, is allied with the so-called “Phineas Priesthood”: an unorganized subculture of White-racist militants named after the Biblical hero of Numbers 25 who murdered an Israelite and his Midianite lover for their “race-mixing.” Members of this shadowy movement have been implicated in bank robberies and various other crimes.

Louisianan Morris Gulett leads the most visible Aryan Nations rump group. A convicted bank robber, Gulett has organized his own faction with tripartite membership for “Skinheads,” Klan-connected “Knights”, and outlaw-biker “SS-MC” subgroups. 

When looking at photos of the heavily-tattooed, hard-bitten Gulett, and the various other present-day Aryan-Nations would-be leaders and followers, one can’t help but marvel at how far Christian Identity has strayed from its origins among lower-middle-class White Protestants, and now largely constitutes an outlaw subculture that ministers to the criminal fringes of Euro-American society. 

Still, whether its tenets are shouted on the cell block, preached in country churches, or downloaded from the Internet, the Identity doctrines of Wesley Swift and his successors will no doubt enjoy a long half-life among alienated and angry Anglo-Americans. With Caucasians destined to become a numerical minority within the United States during the 21st Century, there will no doubt be White Americans ready to see in themselves, as Swift did, a Chosen People being chastised by their Lord for their impiety and sinfulness, much as the ancient Israelites were during the Babylonian Captivity. 

Whether one sees in Christian Identity a clarion-call to a people dispossessed of a distinct spiritual and cultural identity, or a dangerous and demented warrant for murder and terror in God’s name, one must acknowledge how well Swift and his followers re-invented the Old Testament mythos of the oppressed-yet-superior Holy Tribe for consumption in an increasingly racially-divided modern nation. Only time will tell how far and wide its influence will be felt.

The Wesley Swift Library (sermons and other materials from Swift and his cohorts)

Church of Jesus Christ - Christian/Aryan Nations (Kreis/Bostwick faction)
Church of Jesus Christ - Christian/Aryan Nations (Gulett faction)
Seymour, Cheri. Committee of the States: Inside the Radical Right. Mariposa, CA: Camden Place Communications, 1991.
Swift, Wesley A. The Mystery of Iniquity. Marietta, GA: The Thunderbolt, n.d.
Wexler, Stuart and Hancock, Larry. The Awful Grace of God: Religious Terrorism, White Supremacy, and the Unsolved Murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2012.