PHOENIX — Days before the midterm elections, Pastor David MacLellan was ready to preach far-right politics through Bible verses to his small congregation. MacLellan, a hulking man with a long, grizzled black beard, isn’t an ordinary pastor. He proudly identifies himself as a far-right, extremist pastor and a Christian nationalist, someone who believes American politics should reflect fundamentalist Christian values.
And he’s part of a growing national religious political movement called the Black Robe Regiment, a modern-day group inspired by a myth of a group of militant pastors during the American Revolution who took up arms to lead their flock into battle against the British. The movement, imbued with support from far-right political activists like Michael Flynn, wants pastors to play a central role in not only preaching politics from the pulpit but also actively getting their congregations to rise up and claim election fraud by weaving myths about the American Revolution together with modern-day conspiracy theories and hard-line Christianity. These pastors believe they’re saving democracy, though what they’re really doing is encouraging supporters to undermine the democratic process.
And MacLellan plans to take an active role: He’s convinced that the 2020 election was stolen and that fraud has already been committed in the 2022 midterms. He wants his congregants to fight back.
“This Tuesday, I'll be taking some of our seniors to the polling station,” MacLellan announced at the beginning of his service, held in the living room of his home in Mesa, Arizona. That day, he wore a tweed jacket over a black shirt, and a bolo tie. His hands are gnarled with faded tattoos—a nod, he says, to his Scottish heritage and a holdover from a past life when he played in punk bands in New York and was a “heathen biker.”
His sermon mixed Bible verses with remarks about evolution, made claims of violence against anti-abortion groups, and described Jewish people as a “wealthy group of people who didn’t believe in heaven or hell, didn’t believe in angels, and they had political control over everything.”
“Interesting, huh?” he said, as an aside to the congregation crowded into his living room, who responded with knowing sounds.
The movement, imbued with support from far-right political activists like Michael Flynn, wants pastors to play a central role in not only preaching politics from the pulpit but also actively getting their congregations to rise up and claim election fraud by weaving myths about the American Revolution together with modern-day conspiracy theories and hard-line Christianity.
MacLellan also trotted out widely debunked conspiracies about the 2020 election. “The fact that we're still utilizing machines that are connected to the internet, it's going to happen,” he said in an interview. “The fact that they're using a different type of marker on ballots, it's going to happen. The fact that they're driven to do mail-in ballots, it's going to happen.”
He then referenced the GOP’s current master plan to “stop the steal” during the midterms.
MacLellan is one of many pastors across the United States who are seeking to revive the Black Robe Regiment movement and take advantage of the rise in support for Christian nationalism. But while MacLellan is working on his own to spread the message, others are coordinating to bring the movement to a national stage.
Flynn, the disgraced former national security adviser-turned-de facto leader of the nationwide election denial movement, is one of the regiment’s biggest supporters.
“You cannot preach the Bible without the United States Constitution. Period,” Flynn announced to a crowded hall on stage of the QAnon-infused evangelical “ReAwaken America” July tour stop in Virginia Beach. Thousands were in attendance, and Flynn’s speech was full of fire and brimstone, espousing a Christian nationalist ideology about how the church should be at the heart of all aspects of American society.
During Flynn’s speech, dozens of pastors stood right behind him; in total, 150 pastors had just signed a pledge to become part of the regiment. Flynn’s group was founded by Virginia pastor William Cook with the aim of putting a Black Robe pastor in every single constituency in the United States. This new iteration of the group wants pastors to preach the gospel of Trump, actively spread conspiracies about COVID vaccines and stolen elections, and get more involved in local politics. Many of the pastors aligned with the movement were involved in the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021, including several who encouraged their flocks to take part in the protest and then traveled to D.C. themselves. And experts worry that their incendiary language about spiritual warfare could incite real-world violence.
“You cannot preach the Bible without the United States Constitution. Period.”
Cook’s organization is growing fast: An old website full of dead ends and missing content has been replaced by a slick new site with PayPal links and sign-up forms. Cook has already established outposts across the country that are making inroads into local and state government, and he has the backing of some of the most influential figures within the evangelical community, including longtime Trump adviser Paula White.
And, with the backing of Flynn, who has attained a God-like status among huge swaths of the American right over the last couple of years, this iteration of the Black Robe Regiment could become much more real than its nonexistent ancestors. They could actually pose a significant threat to American democracy.
For MacLellan, aligning with the Black Robe Regiment movement means he’s spiritually obligated to get his flock to believe someone is stealing elections.
“The Black Robe Regiment, historically, were pastors that fought for the revolution, what it has become today is pastors who are willing to fight politically,” MacLellan said. “So we're not afraid to speak from the pulpit on a subject, especially when you get around to election times. And it's important because people need to be emboldened in what they believe to be true. and if you're not going to give them that encouragement, you get what you get.”
Though the Black Robe Regiment is based on a belief that there were groups of Christian ministers who took up arms against the British and led their congregants into war, these stories are based on thinly sourced and misinterpreted tales. These historical claims made by those who ascribe to the Black Robe Regiment today have been widely debunked, and even the name itself is a misquotation.
But that hasn’t stopped Cook. The Virginia pastor’s goals are simple: He wants pastors to become the de facto political leaders in their district. He wants them elected to school boards, become members of their local Republican Party, and push Christian nationalist dogma to political leaders in their area.
And with the midterm elections, this is an opportunity for Cook’s group to demonstrate their grassroots influence. Already, Christian nationalism beliefs are increasingly overlapping with the Republican Party’s political agenda, especially on issues like transgender rights, abortion, and same-sex marriage.
Members of these groups have already advocated for violence and took part in the Capitol Riot.
“If Cook can actually turn this into a real organization, as opposed to a publicity stunt with the kind of really militant or oftentimes, apocalyptic rhetoric from Flynn, that'll make him genuinely dangerous,” Thomas Lecaque, an associate professor of history at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa, told VICE News.
Members of these groups have already advocated for violence and took part in the Capitol riot. Tennessee Pastors Ken Peters and Greg Locke and Kentucky Pastor Brian Gibson, all of whom subscribe to the Black Robe Regiment movement, encouraged their followers to travel to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021. Peters and Locke were also both present at the insurrection (neither has been charged with any crimes). “If you can make it, please come to DC. Get there maybe on Tuesday, or get there early on Wednesday. I think the stuff starts around 10 in the morning, alright? So you want to be within striking distance,” Peters told his flock days before the riot.
Now, some fear the violent language being used by the Black Robe Regiment movement could spark further violence.
“This violent, spiritual warfare rhetoric can inspire people and lead to actual physical violence like we saw on January 6,” Brian Kaylor, a former Baptist minister and editor-in-chief of Christian publication Word & Way, told VICE News. “And so the embrace of the Black Robe Regiment by people who cheered on the insurrection could help inspire more violence in the future.”
In recent months, Cook has ramped up recruitment efforts, holding a pastor summit promising “Biblical training on how to become a Black Robed preacher in the 21st century” in October. At the end of the month, Cook and Flynn were back at another edition of the ReAwaken America tour, where more pastors were “commissioned,” according to a video of the event reviewed by VICE News.
Cook announced at that event that his Black Robe Regiment organization had already established outposts in 25 states, and that more pastors were signing up quickly. Cook also claimed that he had spoken to Eric Trump at the event and they had discussed Cook’s movement.
(Cook declined to answer specific questions about his group, from its membership to its influence, but warned this reporter that “one day you will account for every syllable you have written” while claiming that the “American media have become instruments of tyranny and oppression.”)
Though MacLellan, the Arizona pastor, is not affiliated with Cook’s group, he holds the same beliefs about the central role the church needs to play in American political life.
For now, his reach is limited. There are just 17 people in MacLellan’s congregation. And at a service last Sunday—held in the living room of his home in Mesa just days before the midterm elections—only four people showed up.
Many had stayed home because they were sick, he said, but they’d be able to watch a video of the service on Bitchute, a video streaming platform popular with the far-right. (MacLellan can’t stream on YouTube—he’s been repeatedly kicked off YouTube, including for preaching “medical misinformation,” he said.) One elderly congregant brought a fleece blanket and her white Chihuahua named “Lulu.” Another congregant, Khristine Freeland, 53, came wearing a red T-shirt emblazoned with the words “We The People” and “1776”. She was clutching a copy of The Epoch Times, gifted to her by MacLellan because he wanted her to read the cover story claiming that a former police sergeant and member of the Oath Keepers had helped a Capitol Police officer (this claim has been verified by NBC News).
As is the case with much modern Christian nationalist rhetoric, antisemitism figures prominently in MacLellan’s theological outlook.
“If we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we have to have one religion. One nation under God, and one religion under God.”
His personal Facebook page is full of memes targeting Jewish people. One recent post featured a parasite-like creature, emblazoned with the Star of David, suffocating the Statue of Liberty. Another makes reference to the “Synagogue of Satan.”
When VICE News asked him about his antisemitism, he appeared unfazed. Judaism, he said, is an “Antichrist religion.” He also noted that the “whole concept of antisemitism is big now, especially with Kanye West making a statement.”
Unlike others in the movement, who often couch anti-Jewish sentiments in dog whistles and euphemisms, MacLellan is unapologetic. But ultimately, the Black Robe Regiment movement wants to return the country to what they see as its founding Christian principles. Figures like Cook and Flynn want to use these pastors to further their belief that the United States should revert to a Christian nation, one where the only accepted religion is Christianity. “If we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we have to have one religion. One nation under God, and one religion under God,” Flynn said during a previous stop on the ReAwaken America tour.
Cook’s first attempt at creating a Black Robe Regiment group began in 2012, with the Black Robe Regiment of Virginia. Limited to pastors from his home state, the group never took hold and was limited to a dozen or so pastors.
But with the rise of Christian nationalism in American politics has grown in recent years, parallel with the rise of Trumpism, Cook tried again, this time with the more inclusive title of America’s Black Robe Regiment.
Cook really rose to prominence in December 2020 when he spoke at a pro-Trump prayer rally while wearing an Oath Keepers T-shirt on the National Mall organized by Jericho March and Stop the Steal in December 2020. Hours later, on the same stage, the Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes, who is currently on trial facing seditious conspiracy charges for his role in orchestrating the Capitol riot, threatened bloody civil war if Trump did not stay in power.
After that week in Washington, Cook, known to his followers as Bill, had a clear goal in mind for his new group: “Within the next couple of years, we would like to see the Black Robe Regiment formed in all 50 states…consisting of at least two pastors within each political jurisdiction in America, who are asserting their influence within local government and also the influence of their flock,” Cook outlined in an August webinar for members of the group that was reviewed by VICE News. The church has got to “return in its role as steward of liberty and government,” Cook added.
Cook’s Black Robe Regiment group is far from alone: Many groups besides his have used the Black Robe Regiment moniker over the last decade.
The first modern revival of the Black Robe Regiment myth was by conservative radio host Glenn Beck when he announced the re-creation of the movement at a rally in August 2010. Days later on his radio show, Beck proclaimed that “our churches have fallen asleep” and that the “thousands of clergy” in the regiment who subscribe to his particular views on the role of religion in American life, will “start the heart of this nation again and put it where it belongs: our heart with God.”
Beck was inspired by self-taught “historian” David Barton who suggested weeks before Beck announced his plan that the Black Robe Regiment was the perfect vehicle for getting pastors more closely involved in the running of the country, at a time when the influence of the Tea Party movement was first growing in the U.S.
“Within the next couple of years, we would like to see the Black Robe Regiment formed in all 50 states…consisting of at least two pastors within each political jurisdiction in America, who are asserting their influence within local government and also the influence of their flock.”
Another Black Robe Regiment group is based around the Patriot Church movement led by Peters, which includes QAnon-spouting Locke, who spoke at a rally in Washington, D.C., the night before the attack on the Capitol.
Allen West, a former Ccngressman and most recently the chair of the Texas GOP, is also trying to revive the group. In a video posted to YouTube in Jule, West outlined a scheme to honor two pastors every month who embody the “spirit of the Black Robe Regiment.” The winners of the award will each receive an engraved tomahawk.
“It's this narrative of Christian nationalism tied into the American Revolution in ways that are aggressively ahistorical, but now has over a decade-long tradition in American far-right politics, that kind of stuff concerns me,” Lecaque said. “The fact that all of these little groups are popping out of the woodwork to latch on to this rhetoric and language, it feels accelerationist.”
These groups have drawn support from disparate figures like former Trump adviser Roger Stone and Pastor Hyung Jin “Sean” Moon, the head of the gun-toting Rod of Iron Ministries church and son of the founder of the Unification Church, whose followers were known as the Moonies.
“These groups don't like each other and they're going to end up fighting for influence, [but] I think it's concerning that all of them think that there's a big enough market to support this many different iterations—and that that seems to actually be true,” Lecaque added.
But with the backing of Flynn, and his loyal audience on the right, Cook’s new group could become the most prominent group nationally.
Some of the new regiments under Cook’s umbrella organization, like the one run by Pastor Stephen Mannion in New York, are still in the process of getting the word out about their group.
“We are expanding our network, letting groups know that we exist,” Mannion told participants on an August webinar Cook ran for pastors in his group. “We all know at some point stuff’s going to heat up again and the church which doesn’t want to get involved in politics will be forced to get involved in politics, and they are going to need a place to land,” Mannion added.
And some groups appear to be much further ahead in their efforts to make inroads with local governments.
Keith Hemmila, a senior pastor with Crossfire Church in Rockford, Michigan, told Cook that his group welcomed Overstock.com founder and one of the major financiers of the Stop the Steal movement, Patrick Byrne, this month, as well as former Republican member of the Michigan Senate, Patrick Colbeck. Paula White, the Pentacostal megachurch pastor and longtime Trump adviser, was on the call as well. Last year, White was appointed to head up the former president’s national faith advisory board, the formation of which many took as a sign that Trump was planning to run for president again in 2024.
Hemmila said on the webinar call that his group meets every week to discuss a strategy for how they are going to increase the number of pastors aligned with the Black Robe regiment in Michigan and says that everyone has to go through a vetting process before being admitted.
And earlier this month, Hemmila said a group of pastors would meet at the state Capitol. “We’re going to start becoming visible,” he told the webinar, outlining how they are working with Michigan Capitol House of Prayer Director Gina Johnsen, who just won her primary in a race for the Michigan state Senate.
We’re going to start becoming visible.”
Also present was Lance Wallnau, a Texas-based evangelist and an influential figure in the dominionist New Apostolic Reformation movement, which calls for Christian control of virtually every aspect of culture and politics. He has a history of making outlandish claims, like calling President Joe Biden the “Antichrist” and spreading homophobic conspiracy theories—like his claim in 2017 that reformed prostitutes turned the owner of a gay bar straight by baking him an “anointed cake.”
During the webinar, Wallnau said that pastors should be engaged in “spiritual warfare,” fighting back against perceived threats such as child grooming, critical race theory, and transgender rights. He described the Black Robe Regiment as a “populist movement of citizen saints… It’s the closest thing we have to revolutionary patriot intervention.”
Wallnau has been stumping for the Trump-endorsed Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, a major booster of Trump’s election conspiracies and promoter of Christian nationalist beliefs. The far-right pastor recently stoked controversy when he took part in a rally for Mastriano where he asked the audience to raise their right hands in unison, a gesture that some critics said resembled a Nazi salute.
(Wallnau, White, Mannion, and Hemmila did not respond to multiple requests for comment from VICE News about their work with the Black Robe Regiment movement.)
Even though the varying regiments enjoy different levels of support from their communities and congregations, their influence nationally, and locally, is growing.
“The intent behind the Black Robe now is to fight through legislation to try and get things changed for our community so we can have a more conservative environment.”
In Arizona, one of the few people who attended MacLellan’s service last Sunday is convinced that her pastor is telling her the truth about election fraud.
“There’s gonna be fraud,” Freeland told VICE News. “They are already setting it up. The man—resident—in the White House is saying it’s taking days and weeks to count votes. This all started happening since 2016, massive mail-in ballots. That’s how they stole that. 2,000 Mules showed that out.” [2,000 Mules is a conspiracy film from far-right commentator Dinesh D’Souza that makes widely debunked claims about ballot mules altering the outcome of elections.]
MacLellan makes no bones about the fact that his role, and the role of all Black Robe Regiment pastors, is to influence the government and be ready for battle.
“The intent behind the Black Robe now is to fight through legislation to try and get things changed for our community so we can have a more conservative environment,” MacLellan told VICE News. “There is a very serious spiritual battle we have and we don't have any problem with saying we are fighting things we can't see.”