The recent conflict in Charlottesville, Virginia over a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee prompted me to think about Mennonites and race. There were Mennonites among the counter-protesters to the “alt-right” groups assembled in Charlottesville, including Christian Peacemaker Teams and members of the local Mennonite church.
But Mennonite hands have not always been been on the side of racial equality. There have been many stories of Mennonites in Russia who have looked down on, or been paternalistic towards, their indigenous neighbors. There were Mennonite slave-owners in the U.S. prior to the Civil War, it remains a bit hazy just how many. I recall that some members of my home church in Ohio were opposed to allowing any African-Americans to live in our lily-white town. Mennonite colleges, like Eastern Mennonite University, did not admit African-American students until 1948. I have confessed in writing that in the early 1960s when my family visited my brother doing alternative service in inner city Chicago, I was a white racist going to the zoo in my attitude towards the black people I saw there. Even the Fresh Air program of the mid-20th century that brought many African-American children into Mennonite homes for two weeks in the summer, has been exposed for its implicit paternalism.
Racism has also been deeply imbedded in Canada, including amongst Mennonites, particularly in our attitudes and responses to the indigenous communities. Mennonites have settled land, including in Southern Ontario, with little thought of who lived on the land previously, or why they left.
But in this blog I want to look at more extreme forms of racism found in white supremacy movements, and the role that two former Canadian Mennonites played in the shaping of these movements.
Robert G. Millar
Robert Grant Millar (1925-2001) was the middle child in a large family born to Fred and Ida Millar, who were charter members in the Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church in Kitchener, Ontario. He married Elsie Fisher as a teenager in 1944. The New York Times reported in 1995 that in 1948 Millar had a life-changing spiritual experience, with riveting visions of world events like the widespread, bloody rioting that accompanied India’s independence that year. He also saw vast destruction in the United States, and said “I saw missiles coming out of the water before there were any Polaris submarines.”
According to the Los Angeles Times Millar moved to the United States in the 1950s from Kitchener, Ontario, after God told him, “Thou shalt go to the state called Oklahoma.” He followed God’s voice to Oklahoma City, he said, then to Baltimore, where he ran a youth camp. In 1973, Millar returned to Oklahoma with about 18 family members and bought the property near the Arkansas border that he established as Elohim City (City of God), and served as the pastoral leader of the group that never exceeded about 100 people.
Robert Millar became a leading figure in the Christian Identity movement, that holds that European Caucasians are the true descendents of the twelve tribes of Israel. They believe Caucasians were the last created race, and implicitly superior to the others, especially Jews and those of African origin. It is a very racialized interpretation of Christianity. Christian Identity adherents do not allow any inter-marriage between races.
Elohim City was essentially a pacifist group until 1982 when Millar encountered a separatist movement called the Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord, led by its founder, James Ellison, a militant white supremacist. Millar became Ellison’s spiritual advisor, and eventually Ellison married Millar’s granddaughter. Millar also became an advisor to other members of the extreme right.
The Elohim community became most notorious when it was learned that Timothy McVeigh, the perpetrator of the Oklahoma City bombings in April 1995, was linked to persons who had lived at Elohim City, and that he may have called Elohim City two weeks before the bombing. No connection between McVeigh and Millar was ever found, and Millar cooperated with FBI investigations of the bombing, but the suspicions continued for years and is still reflected in literature about Elohim City.
Elohim City still continues today, with John Millar, one of Robert’s sons, as the pastoral leader of the group. One recent observer described them as having “a passive form of modern white supremacy.”
A second Canadian Mennonite connection to White Supremacy has been Bernhard “Ben” Klassen (1918-1993). He was born in Russia. In 1923 or 24 the family escaped to Mexico, and in 1925 moved to Herschel, Saskatchewan. Here Klassen grew up and attended the Mennonite German-English Academy (now Rosthern Junior College) in the late 1930s. He went on to an engineering degree at the University of Saskatchewan in the early 1940s. According to his autobiography, Klassen’s anti-Semitism and pro-Hitler perspective were already well in place during these years.
Klassen moved to the United States where he saw more job opportunities. His right-wing views continued, and he joined the John Birch Society for six years, and worked on George Wallace’s presidential campaign in 1968, though he ended up feeling both movements were too compromised.
Ben Klassen dismissed Christianity as a Jewish religion designed to subjugate white people, and desired a “fully structured racial religion” for Caucasians. He self-published a book in 1973 called Nature’s Eternal Religion in which he set out the structure for a pagan Caucasian religion called the Church of the Creator. He was called the Pontifex Maximus (High Priest) of the church. Klassen established central offices for the church in North Carolina. A minister in his church was convicted of killing a African-American sailor in 1991. Ben Klassen committed suicide in 1993.
Millar and Klassen are two examples of Mennonites who have embraced explicit white supremacy. In both cases it seems to have been embraced as a younger adult.
What factors have shaped your understanding of racial relationships?
For me it was a “conversion experience,” being present at the last part of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march in March 1965.
Chapman, Lee Roy and Joshua Kline. “Who’s afraid of Elohim City?” This Land. 12 April 2012. Web. 19 August 2017. http://thislandpress.com/2012/04/15/whos-afraid-of-elohim-city/ .
Gazette Staff. “Making America hate again? Hate and extremist group activity on the rise.” Oklahoma Gazette. 15 April 2016. Web. 19 August 2017. http://okgazette.com/2016/04/15/cover-story-making-america-hate-again-hate-and-extremist-group-activity-on-the-rise/ .
Hastings, Deborah. “Elohim City on extremists’ underground railroad.” Los Angeles Times. 23 February 1997. Web. 19 August 2017. http://articles.latimes.com/1997-02-23/news/mn-31595_1_elohim-city.
Klassen, Ben. Against the Evil Tide. Creativity Book Publisher, 1991. Web. 19 August 2017. https://archive.org/details/AgainstTheEvilTide.
Niebuhr, Gustav. “A Vision of an Apocalypse: The Religion of the Far Right. New York Times. 22 May 1995. Web. 19 August 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/1995/05/22/us/a-vision-of-an-apocalypse-the-religion-of-the-far-right.html?mcubz=0.
Rightpedia contributors. “Ben Klassen.” Rightpedia. 3 September 2016. Web. 19 August 2017. http://en.rightpedia.info/w/Ben_Klassen
Wikipedia contributors. “Ben Klassen.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 17 Jul. 2017. Web. 19 Aug. 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben_Klassen.
Wikipedia contributors. “Christian Identity.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 15 Aug. 2017. Web. 19 Aug. 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_Identity.
A more detailed description of Christian Identity can be found in Rightpedia, an alt-right encyclopedia at http://en.rightpedia.info/w/Christian_Identity.