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The Forgotten Christian Terror Cult That Presaged Trump’s Memes

How a right-wing conspiracy blossomed in the pre-internet age

A man wears a QAnon shirt at a rally for Trump last year in Tampa, Florida. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Last Christmas, I found myself alone, stoned, and poolside at the Trump National Doral Miami wearing a “Fake News” T-shirt under a fluffy white Trump robe. Before the noon checkout, I’d gone to catch some rays and take a video of myself reading a passage about Mike Flynn from a galley of my book. 

I’d done a lot of reporting on Flynn’s career. In 2012, then a lieutenant general, Flynn was appointed by President Obama to run the Defense Intelligence Agency, but he was unceremoniously fired after two years of tumult and politicking in uniform. He would go on to secretly lobby for Turkey and spout conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton’s health, as well as an imagined pedophilia ring in a Washington pizza parlor. This post-Army fall was fascinating to me because Flynn was a true military believer, a throwback to another era, Colonel Kurtz come home. People I respected in the Army respected him. My CIA friends did not seem to share this respect. He thought differently than most Army general officers I knew. 

Flynn’s tenure in the Trump administration was even briefer: He was ousted as national security advisor after just 24 days over pre-election Russia contacts and his foreign lobbying, which also led him to plead guilty to a federal count of lying to investigators. Since then, the main public support he’d garnered was from his family and the QAnon people, who exist in that liminal internet space called the chans and believe a “storm” is coming in which President Trump will bust an international pedophilia ring of Democrats, globalists, and satanists. In these apocalyptic fantasies, Flynn was a good Christian warrior working to bring the deep state cabal down from inside: Some even theorized that Flynn was Q, the anonymous author of the online posts that delineated this alleged global conspiracy. As I pondered the man’s legacy that holiday morning, a single lizard emerged from a crack in the wall, slinked to the hot tub, and swam three laps. 

For me, that was a clear sign it was time to go. Doug Laux—the ex-spy I’d spent two consecutive Christmases with, staying in properties owned by the president—and I collected our rental, a red convertible Camaro, from the Venezuelan valet and rolled out, bound for South Beach. Just outside the property a woman stood, wearing a yellow reflective vest, holding a sign that said “Who is Q/I know/Do you?” As we drove past, I shouted the initials “WWG1WGA”—short for ”Where we go one we go all,” a Q tagline—from the convertible. She looked confused by the reference. I wondered who was paying her to stand there and hold the sign.

A QAnon proponent surveys the streets of Doral, Florida, and her cellphone, on Christmas Day, 2018, outside the Trump property where the president plans to host the G7 summit next year.
Matt Farwell

Those who talk don’t know. Those who know don’t talk. The information wars continue apace. Earlier this month, the Trump Doral hosted the “American Priority Conference.” One panel called “Is America in a Great Awakening?” seemed like a dog-whistle to followers of what I’ve come to think of as “the QAnon psychological operation.” Before the shitshow in Syria and Trump’s grade-school notes to foreign leaders and impeachment intrigues took over the conversation, Twitter was abuzz over a snuff video shown in a side room of the Doral conference: It featured the president entering a “Church of Fake News” to beat, shoot, and stab Trump’s most-hated media members to death.

That Christmas night, at a South Beach hotel, Doug and I watched cable news. Trump had made a surprise visit to Iraq. In a commercial break between the talking heads, The 700 Club advertised a prayer line. I dialed the number. After several minutes of listening to recordings of Pat Robertson and his son asking for money, I was connected with a Filipino-accented 700 Club prayer representative. She asked for my prayer request. I thought I knew the men who needed the most prayers: the brave Navy SEALs protecting Trump in Iraq right now. The prayer she said for them was worth the wait, fierce and fiery, calling doom on the enemies of God, the president, and the SEALs. America had entered a golden age of magical thinking. It was no longer just the fringe awaiting apocalyptic scenarios. An entire political entertainment system that feasted on the next day’s hope for a deus ex machina now did eschatology as well. Not long after, I’d discover the story of The Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord, a 1980s Christian terrorist cult, and realize they had anticipated this very moment. 

Say what you will about doomsday cults; zealots know how to pick killer real estate. The self-castrating Heaven’s Gate members who wore Nikes to commit suicide and travel to a spaceship behind the Hale-Bopp comet did so from a California mansion near Encinitas. Well before Joanna and Chip Gaines made Waco, Texas, into a mecca of shiplap and rusted tin, David Koresh’s Branch Davidians built and lost their own fixer-upper cult compound—Mount Carmel—just outside of town. The Manson family lived for a time at the Spahn Ranch, a Southern California stand-in landscape for western films and television shows. 

These were my thoughts last month, driving northeast from my home in Fayetteville, Arkansas, to check an old cult compound. 

In the late 1970s, a group un-ironically calling itself the CSA—which was easier to embroider on hats than The Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord—purchased 224 acres of Arkansas-Missouri borderland in the lakes of the Ozarks region from the Campus Crusade for Christ. There, they established a separatist commune called Zarephath-Horeb to stockpile food and practice self-sufficiency while awaiting the tribulations. On the way to find Zarephath, I’d pulled off about halfway in Harrison, Arkansas—which had gone from having four white-power billboards to one in 2017—for a cathartic shit in a Hobby Lobby restroom. 

The story I was driving toward hit a little too close to home. My paternal great-grandfather hailed from Cassville, Missouri; we still have kin there. My mother’s side of the family are Mormons. The Mormons in Missouri have their own dark history, having settled in Jackson County in the 1830s after Joseph Smith declared it to be his followers’ Zion. The residents of Jackson County had other ideas; attacks followed, and Smith’s followers and a Mormon paramilitary sect calling themselves the Danites carried out a terror campaign of reprisals in the “Mormon Missouri War,” leading Governor Lilburn Boggs to sign Missouri Executive Order 44, known as the “extermination order,” on October 27, 1838, to rid the state of the Mormons and the problems they brought. 

The Christian terror cult I was chasing was four hours away from the Mormons’ last Missouri stand, but I was glad my bowels were empty as I continued twisting on mountain roads, saw-toothing around Bull Shoals Lake, near the old CSA border compound. 

James Ellison, a Church of Christ minister, founded the CSA as a Christian commune with seven other families in nearby Elijah, Missouri, in 1971. The group grew in fits and starts, and Ellison bought the compound on the Bull Shoals lakefront in ’76. They lived an insular, severe life there. Smoking and drinking were forbidden; everybody worked, gave their personal possessions up to the commune, and listened to Ellison’s increasingly conspiratorial sermons about America’s imminent decline. In 1978, Ellison told his flock that the apocalypse was coming on August 12. To prepare for the inevitable decline that would attend the end of the world, the group stockpiled $52,000 in arms and ammunition, appointed a “defense minister,” and began to study military tactics.

When August 12 passed without the foretold tribulations, some of Ellison’s original flock left the fold, and he took a job on a crew building nuclear missile silos in Missouri, while other men in the group earned money as hired hands or logging cedar, with all money earned consecrated toward the group’s goals. It got weird, fast. “Members of the CSA are tied by a non-traditional religion which includes faith healing, speaking in tongues, and a prophecy which says that society will soon collapse in turmoil,” a 1982 internal FBI report stated:

In preparation for this, the group stockpiles food and weapons and trains themselves in military and survival procedures…taught are firearms and marksmanship, rappelling, foraging for food, erection of such obstacles as punji sticks and barbed wire to detour looters [sic], urban warfare, military field craft, national forest survival, home defense, Christian martial arts, Christian military truths, nuclear survival and tax protesting.

“By 1980, we had grown to about 60 members, including children,” wrote Kerry Noble, a Texas-born spiritual seeker who became the CSA’s second-in-command and public face. Noble helped further radicalize the community when he began to play them tapes by John Todd, a Dallas-based hellfire preacher who claimed to be a defector from the “Grand-Druid Council of 13,” the innermost circle of the evil hidden hand of the world—the Illuminati, who sought to enslave humanity with the aid of demonic forces and the Trilateral Commission. 

Todd claimed that the Robert Redford movie Three Days of the Condor was more real than anyone knew: The codebook that Redford’s CIA character discovers was in fact Ayn Rand’s 1950s doorstop Atlas Shrugged, which, Todd argued, was a blueprint for the takeover plan of the Illuminati. Rand’s hero, John Galt, was really a stand in for the Philippe Rothschild, whom Todd asserted was the leader of the cabal. (Ellison, too, had returned from his missile-building to the compound with tapes of sermons—there were no email threads or Twitter accounts to spread ideas then—from the nearby Church of Israel, which promulgated Christian Identity, a racist theology that held whites to be the real chosen tribe of Israel and Jews to be the spawn of Satan.)

In December 1979, the group entrusted its military training to a refugee from the Southern California rock-and-roll scene named Randall Rader, who adopted the title of General. “Rader had no formal military training, but he owned several military fieldcraft books,” Noble wrote later. Noble was in charge of a “Home Guard,” a paramilitary unit that he described as “a man fifteen years older than me that has an artificial leg... an epileptic, retarded man; two half-blind, fat young men; and two men who could care less about the military than I do.” 

The author surveys one of the last outbuildings standing on the old CSA compound. The holes torn into doors and walls, a local caretaker says, were defensive firing ports.
Matt Farwell

They began paramilitary training; some footage of the “Endtime Overcomer Survival Training School” remains available in a documentary on YouTube. In it, a CSA instructor explains to a row of eight adolescent long-haired girls standing in formation, rifles slung on their shoulders, why they’re there. “It is our duty as Christians, as Americans, to learn how to survive,” he tells his “cadets.” He is wearing tinted aviator glasses below a low-slung field cap and tanker goggles—just in case. There’s a dusting of snow on the ground. “We’re here to learn how to survive what’s coming on the earth, so we can better serve God’s people for His name’s sake.” 

The teens, wearing green fatigues and combat boots, listen intently. On one, a sheathed army surplus combat knife hangs from a leather harness slung over a Wehrmacht field jacket. “Part of how we’ll survive this thing is proper weapon technique,” the CSA man says, before leading girls who do not appear old enough to drive through live fire drills. The lesson ends with a benediction: “Thank you Jesus. Lord, just teach us your ways of war, teach us how to love and how to hate, bless us Jesus and keep us safe.” As they move through the compound, a hand-painted sign above the CSA man’s shoulder becomes visible: It reads US Embassy Tehran. That footage was shot in 1980, shortly after Ellison had prophesied apocalypse. When it didn’t come, the members that stayed on sunk deeper into preparations for the battle against the Illuminati.

Then the polygamy started. Michael Haddigan, a reporter for the Arkansas Gazette in the 1980s, told me a story over the phone: Ellison gathered all the community elders and explained that the Lord had told him, in a dream, that he was to sleep with everyone on the compound, including their wives. This upset some elders. The next day, Ellison gathered them back together and explained that the Lord had told him, in a dream, that he was to sleep with everyone on the compound except for their wives. 

That did not go over well with Ellison’s wife, Ollie, who’d grown alarmed at her husband’s shift over the course of their marriage. She’d fallen in love with Jim, the charismatic Texas preacher, a man slightly older than her who was once kind to her, when she was a single mother raising a daughter with Down syndrome.  

This other Jim made her uneasy; this “King of the Ozarks,” wholeheartedly embracing the neo-Nazi Christian Identity lifestyle. She thought her husband would keep her safe; instead, he was making alliances with the Idaho- and Washington-based Brüder schweigen of “The Order,” a neo-Nazi revolutionary group founded by a Mormon survivalist named Robert Jay Matthews. The CSA began offering sanctuary and training space to Order members, who funded their revolution with a string of robberies that kicked off in a Spokane sex-shop heist and evolved into bank jobs. Ollie had reason to worry. Ellison and his flock—he’d recruited young psychic casualties of the 1970s, damaged people trying to start over—were beginning to fracture over the polygamy, and the danger was real.

The CSA land on Bull Shoals Lake became a meeting and training ground for white supremacists from all around the United States. A flyer for the CSA National Convocation—held October 8-10, 1982, in Pontiac, Missouri—promised free admission to listen to three guest speakers. The first was Jack Mohr, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and former prisoner of war in Korea who ran his own Christian Identity paramilitary group, recruiting through his publication The Christian Patriot Crusader. There was “Pastor Bob” Miles, a one time grand dragon in the Michigan Ku Klux Klan, who’d been arrested and tried for plotting to bomb school buses and stop integration. Finally, there was Richard Butler, an aeronautical engineer from Los Angeles who’d joined an American fascist organization called the Silver Shirts before Pearl Harbor, then founded the Aryan Nations during Vietnam in a northern Idaho compound. 

The disparate white supremacist cells were attempting to merge into a body—a National CSA Confederacy—and like any good conference, pre-registration was required. “Only White, Patriotic, Serious CHRISTIANS need apply,” the flyer insisted, promising classes on weapons, the income tax, nuclear survival, the betrayal of America, natural childbirth, food storage, and the Jews. Rappelling was also an option.           

In June 1984, Richard Wayne Snell, a free-ranging white militant who operated out of the CSA compound and an Oklahoma safehaven called Elohim City, killed a pawn-shop owner he thought was Jewish in a robbery; in the getaway, he killed an Arkansas state trooper he knew was black. At the funeral for the trooper, Louis Bryant, Governor Bill Clinton announced that investigating extremist groups was among his top priorities.

Things went south for the movement quickly. The Order’s founder, Robert Jason Matthews, was killed on December 8, 1984, following a standoff with the FBI at his Washington state home, in which he donned a gas mask and fired 1,000 rounds at federal agents, including some in a circling helicopter. The confrontation the CSA cultists were waiting for was nigh, and by this time they’d acquired 30 gallons of potassium cyanide for the armory.   

Federal officials in Little Rock called FBI headquarters for help with their bubba problem; this activated a newly formed paramilitary cell within the FBI called the Hostage Rescue Team, whose name only hinted at their real function: counterterrorism. These were the FBI’s elite shooters modeled on the Army’s Delta Force, who’d gone operational in late 1983 after Operation Equus Red—a capstone nuclear terrorism scenario in New Mexico in which Hostage Rescue Team operators assaulted a safehouse to recover a mock weapon of mass destruction. 

This, now, was the real thing.

The Hostage Rescue Team guys deployed to the Ozarks, posing as white-collar types on a corporate fishing retreat when checking into hotels and lodges from Branson, Missouri, to Mountain Home, Arkansas; they discreetly suited up like commandos and set into concealed positions around The Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord property. On April 20, 1985—Adolf Hitler’s birthday, a feast day for white supremacists—“the FBI and ATF, assisted by the Missouri and Arkansas State police, surrounded the compound and began negotiations with Ellison,” the FBI’s report states.

Remarkably, the standoff ended peacefully. Demonstrating that they had overwhelming numbers and overwhelming firepower, FBI agents opened a dialogue with Ellison; behind the scenes, Ollie Ellison convinced her husband that it was God’s will they surrender. Asa Hutchinson, an up-and-coming Arkansas politician, at that time the youngest serving United States attorney, threw on an FBI raid jacket to go in and finalize the surrender deal. Ellison and the order members with active warrants—for membership in “the ORDER, a secret terrorist organization that has close ties to both the CSA and Aryan Nations,” the FBI reported—went quietly. 

The agents recovered stolen vehicles, 155 Krugerrands, $800 in U.S. currency, “numerous gold and silver coins,” a rocket for a light anti-tank weapon, two computers, CB radios, records, knives, 94 long guns, 30 handguns, 35 machine guns and sawed off shotguns, a heavy machine gun, two land mines, 25 improvised booby traps, 40 makeshift grenades, blasting caps, detonation cord, dynamite sticks, blocks of C-4 explosives, flares, smoke grenades, and “several hundred thousand rounds” of ammunition. Ellison and Noble and several others at the compound went on to prison. Federal law enforcement would not have such a smooth time with later sieges, such as the one on Koresh’s Branch Davidians in Waco, which ended in a fiery death for 76 disciples on April 19, 1993, a day short of the CSA siege’s anniversary; on that same day in 1995, the state of Arkansas executed Richard Wayne Snell by lethal injection, and a Christian Identity adherent and Army veteran and Special Forces washout with a Bronze Star for valor from the first Gulf War named Timothy McVeigh detonated a truck bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City. The CSA first discussed bombing the building in 1983. 

It was harder than I expected to find the compound; that was part of the original charm, I supposed. I finally located it with the help of a postal worker, whose kin had moved the family graveyard to higher ground when they dammed and flooded the valley to create Bull Shoals Lake in the early 1950s. The CSA’s old property had been subdivided and sold since the siege, and the owner of one parcel let me walk around as he mowed the lawn. Two outbuildings, carefully hewn beam-and-stone structures—the masonry was excellent—remained, but the structures had fallen into disrepair. Still, the firing positions were there, horizontal notches carved into the boarded-up windows and doors. As chiggers bit my legs, leaving small wounds that would linger for weeks, the infantryman in me imagined what a last stand here would’ve looked like; the human in me is grateful it didn’t go that way then.

Ellison was tried in July of 1985 on federal weapons and racketeering charges. The indictment was full of real criminal allegations arising from the CSA’s fantasy war against the “ZOG,” or Zionist Occupied Government; these included arson attacks on a Springfield, Missouri, church known to be gay-friendly and a Jewish community center in Bloomington, Indiana. Convicted and facing 20 years in prison, Ellison flipped for the feds and got out in six. He currently lives free, wheelchair-bound and elderly, in Elohim City, that Oklahoma white supremacist enclave once preferred by Richard Wayne Snell. 

I couldn’t help but see the similarities between Ellison’s situation and ours. Anyone paying attention to the news cycle knows we live in a time of tech- and Trump-driven magical thinking, often ignoring the truth of what’s right in front of us to focus on whatever bullshit baits our social network’s attention that day. The human attention span is finite, easily drawn to scandal, and already prone to suspecting darkness as an explanation for our broken political system. Hucksters, seeding narratives that are simple, neat, and wrong, exist on every frequency of the political spectrum, if not equally so.  

Yet for me, of all those proffering a seer-stone to secret knowledge today, Q is the most interesting. Most of the media labels it a conspiracy theory, but that doesn’t quite cut it for me. It is too intentionally dismissive and ignores the tangible, real-world effect of Q. From its start, I watched as an anonymous poster on the chans created a digital guerrilla army. Just as The Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord stockpiled guns and ammo, the Q folks stockpile rare Pepes, dank memes and elaborate link-analysis charts for when the cause needs them. If Illuminati and Christian Identity sermon tapes were enough to radicalize the clustered CSA flock in the 1980s—imbuing their day-to-day life struggles with divine meaning—what could a similar Manichean narrative do today when unleashed in a carefully calibrated cyber campaign? How long could such a narrative survive? How many people could it radicalize?

I’ve tried to ask Mike Flynn, the Q hero and information-operations expert, but he’s kept ducking my attempts to get in touch. I would ask Q, but 8chan is still down. Maybe I should reach out to the National Security Council; Flynn is gone, but his protege, Matt Pottinger, was just promoted to second in command.