Branson, Mo. — It's a long way to go to church, especially for a congregation used to watching its pastor on television. But the flock of Shepherd's Chapel is like no other. Twice a year, almost 4,000 of its members will fly or drive from points across the country to this Ozarks tourist destination, best known for the neon kitsch and wholesome family entertainment of the Highway 76 Country Music Boulevard, to see Pastor Arnold Murray, host of the long-running TV Bible study program, "Shepherd's Chapel."
The strapping, 6-foot-4-inch octogenarian, known as "The Sarge" to his followers, has gained an audience that numbers in the millions. "Shepherd's Chapel" has been on the air for at least three decades and is broadcast in nearly every major and mid-size U.S. city.
Pastor Arnold Murray
At Passover this April 5 (Murray calculates the date for Passover according to his own interpretation of the Jewish calendar), the 81-year-old Arkansas pastor is all smiles as the packed audience in the Grand Palace country music hall rises to give him a long standing ovation before he's even said a word. His son Dennis introduces him as a man who is "taking names and kicking dragons." One woman can't contain herself. "We love you, Pastor Murray," she yells out. Murray jokes that he should get her number before pushing back his sleeves and opening his King James Bible. "Let's get to work," he commands. And they do. The audience is so rapt that throughout the 45-minute sermon the only sound they make is the onionskin rustle of thousands of Bible pages turning.
Murray's 1958 minister's license was signed by the late white supremacists Roy Gillaspie and Kenneth Goff, two early ideologues of Christian Identity, a racist theology that's been popular among Klansmen, neo-Nazis and other white nationalists for several decades. Most Identity adherents believe the Bible is the history of the white race, who are seen as the real "chosen people."
Gillaspie was the pastor of the Church of Jesus Christ, a seminal Christian Identity operation — headquartered at Gillaspie's Bellflower, Calif., church — with a handful of congregations in California and Arkansas, one of which was led by Murray. (Murray's Church of Jesus Christ in Gravette, Ark., was the precursor to his Shepherd's Chapel, in the same location.) The Intelligence Report has obtained Church of Jesus Christ newsletters dated 1978 that are signed by Murray.
Goff, for his part, was the founder of the Colorado-based Soldiers of the Cross Training Institute, a school that trained Christian Identity leaders including Dan Gayman, a well-known anti-Semitic leader during the 1980s. In 1958, Goff's pamphlet, "Reds Promote Racial War," claimed the Bible supported racial segregation. A 1969 Soldiers of the Cross newsletter penned by Goff describes black civil rights protesters as seeking "to submerge our culture and religious heritage under a flood of cannibalism, voodooism and beastly jungle sex orgies."
Arnold Murray is still connected to something called Soldiers of the Cross. According to Arkansas public records, a corporation by that name is doing business as Shepherd's Chapel in Arkansas, and Murray is registered as the corporation's agent. Murray's home, his church property where the TV studio and satellites are located, and several parcels of land in Gravette, Ark., are all listed as the property of Soldiers of the Cross.
Despite these ties to the roots of the Christian Identity movement, Murray today publicly disavows racism, and his followers include a tiny minority of non-whites. Even so, Murray preaches often about a race of evil people, descended from Cain, borne out of "the Serpent Seed" of Eve's sexual union with Satan in the Garden of Eden. He calls them the "Kenites" and identifies them in his 1979 Shepherd's Bible as people "who slipped in among the Jewish people in Jerusalem and claim to be God's chosen people, when in fact they are of Lucifer." He also mentions that "in 1967 … Jerusalem fell to the Kenites during the 6 day war"; the Israelis, in fact, won the Six-Day War. In one sermon, Dennis Murray speaks of "the Kenites, who are responsible for the slaying of Christ." (In most Judeo-Christian traditions, the Kenites are a nomadic clan of Midianites and a tribe into which Moses married.)
The Serpent Seed is a belief ripped straight from the pages of "seedline" or "two-seed" Christian Identity theology, the hard-line version of the theology that holds that Eve was impregnated by Satan and gave birth to his son, Cain, described as the first Jew. That is, Jews are seen as biologically descended from Satan, and are allegedly hard at work preparing the earth for his rule. Identity adherents also argue that whites, not Jews, are the real Hebrews of the Bible, and that non-whites are sub-human "beasts of the field" created without souls.
By promoting the "Serpent Seed" doctrine on 225 broadcast stations he's gone further than any Christian Identity preacher in pushing what seem clearly to be anti-Semitic Identity teachings into the mainstream.
Kenites, Cainites and the Jews
Rarely does a month go by without the elder Murray warning his followers about the Kenites. "Bless your heart if you have ever been deceived by the Kenite, and I am speaking now on the spiritual level, if you have ever really believed that group was the chosen of God, you were deceived by Satan," Murray says in one popular audio tape sermon. "Repent of that even more so than your personal sins in the personal sense."
Although Murray states on his website, "Anyone saying that I use the word [Kenites] to describe Judah is not telling the truth," it's not hard to figure out why many of his followers — and others — equate Kenites with Jews.
In one written sermon, Murray says that "the Kenites slipped in among the Jews." In an audiotape sermon called "Demons," he says of the Kenites, "Why do you think their own Talmud is the filthiest piece of literature ever written? Because they're at home with it. They love it. It's their cup of tea. It's Satan's cup of tea."
For their part, longtime Shepherd's Chapel students, seeking to avoid what they feel is Satanic deceit, believe they must learn how to "identify" a Kenite. On Internet forums where Shepherd's Chapel followers congregate, there is much debate over the racial identity of the Kenites. On a Shepherd's Chapel MySpace group, some ask whether the Kenites might be of Asian ancestry. But over on TheSeason.org, a long-running forum for Shepherd's Chapel students, there's little ambivalence. Numerous essays, citing the anti-Semitic hoax, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, claim that the Kenites and the Jews have long plotted world domination.
Unlike unapologetic Identity preachers, Murray doesn't condone or suggest violence against the "Kenites." "Let's get one thing straight, coming out the gate. Are you saying we should hate Judah? That would be stupid indeed," he says in one recorded sermon. Instead, Murray encourages followers to focus their energy on identifying and avoiding Kenites, claiming an end-times event will "take care" of them. In "Kenites," a widely distributed audio sermon, he claims this teaching comes directly from Jesus. Murray uses the New Testament parable of the "tares," a bitter weed that Jesus warns can grow hidden in wheat fields and go unnoticed till harvest. Murray likens the tares to the Kenites, adding, "The angels will take care of the tares — the tares are taken together in the fire — that's the end of the world — that's how it's going to be."
For Murray, the end of the world isn't an abstraction. The 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption that happened during the week of Pentecost led him to proclaim the Antichrist would return in 1981. Murray's resolve has only hardened during the 27 years since that prophecy failed to come true. He dismisses his critics as "numbskulls," "Bible-thumpers" and "yo-yos."
The formula for his TV program is deceptively simple. "Verse by verse, chapter by chapter," Murray, often partnered with his son Dennis, sits between a wood desk and an American flag and interprets the King James Bible with the help of a Greek/Hebrew concordance. At the end of each show, he fields caller questions on global politics, end-times prophecy and scripture.
During a live taping of Shepherd's Chapel in 1998, an audience member yelled, "Blasphemer!" Murray turned around at his desk and pulled out a gun. The broadcast cut to Shepherd's Chapel's satellite logo but the audio continued. "Here. Take this 9mm to that boy," Murray said. The clip aired on "The Daily Show" and remains widely available on the Internet, as is another Shepherd's Chapel clip in which Murray reaches into his desk and pulls out what he claims is the fossil of an angel footprint, from a pre-Adamic time when angels walked the earth.
In a Shepherd's Chapel website post called "An Answer to Our Critics," Murray says: "To say I teach racism or practice racism is another outright lie. We have people of all races that attend and study with the Shepherd's Chapel."
With the exception of New York City, "Shepherd's Chapel" airs in every major market in the country, in one- to four-hour slots, usually between midnight and six a.m. For hardcore fans, a 24-hour, seven-day a-week satellite broadcast of Shepherd's Chapel is available on DirecTV. A prophecy hotline is also available where callers can listen to a two-minute loop of Murray's commentary on events of the day.