July 17, 2019 in Sociology

The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of Lord

In people’s perception, religious extremism and terrorism are associated with Islam in the first place. However, fundamentalist organizations are potentially dangerous, irrespective of the particular religion. Fevered religious feelings result in murderous acts covered by the assumed God’s will. Those engaged in Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, the bombing of Atlanta Olympics of 1996, and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church explosion of 1963 in Alabama professed Christian ideology. While the reasons for the attacks ranged from racial hate to anti-abortion sentiment, the result was the death if innocent people.

The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of God (CSA) stands among such militant Christian groups as Ku Klux Klan, the Aryan Nations, Branch Davidians, and the Christian Identity movement. However, the distinctive feature of CSA was its orientation towards destruction and mass terror instead of influencing the legislation. CSA was a “paramilitary, survivalist religious organization”. This essay will investigate its origin, history and links to other radical religious organizations, as well as its history and possible connections to Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.


The founder of CSA was James Ellison, a fundamentalist Protestant preacher from San Antonio, Texas, who abandoned mainstream Protestantism. Ellison believed that the USA was heading in a wrong direction. In 1971, he organized a community called Zarephath-Horeb and settled on a farm in Elijah, Missouri. The name of the community had Biblical allusions: Zarephath was the city where God sent Elijah for a trial, and Mount Horeb was the location where Moses led Israel during the Exodus. Ellison had a vision, in which God told him to find a refuge in Arkansas. In 1976, Ellison purchased a secluded plot of 224 acres along Bull Shoal Lake in Arkansas and turned it into a paramilitary compound. The plot was independent of external sources as it had its own electricity generator and water supply system. Ellison welcomed ex-convicts, drug addicts and religion seekers. In 1982, when it attracted FBI attention, the group counted 90 to 120 members.

The declared objective of the emerging community was to exercise their religious rights in the way they wanted. The group’s ideology was based on the Bible; its members shared such traditional Christian beliefs as the God-inspired nature of the Bible, oneness of God, Jesus Christ being the Son of God, and the proximity of Armageddon. They practiced faith healing, speaking in tongues, and prophesying as it is common in Pentecostal church. The interpretation of Biblical texts, however, was peculiar. For instance, they believed in the supremacy of the white race and propagated racist and anti-Semitic views. Additionally, they considered the US government corrupt and occupied by Zionists.

In Ellison’s vision of 1978, God revealed that America would soon fall into chaos sent by Him as punishment. Natural disasters, such as fire, earthquakes, devastating epidemics, famine, would accompany the economic collapse. The gangs from the famine-stricken cities would plunder the countryside. Parents would eat their children, and millions of people would die. The nuclear attacks of the USSR, China and Japan would end the system, and a Satanic Communist regime would be established on the territory of the States. Therefore, according to Ellison’s apocalyptical prophesy, the community started preparing to survive the doomsday. From that moment on, the group’s activity bore an apparent isolationist character; they started “coming out of Babylon”. The community began stockpiling food, clothes, supplies, weapons, munitions, firearms, and explosives. For survival purposes, they grew their own vegetables and reared animals for food. “Plundering the Egyptians”, which meant stealing from shops and committing arsons with the aim of profit, was also common. The CSA people felt themselves in a position to render the judgment on unrepentant sinners, and they believed that with such actions, they were in accord with God to create Armageddon.

In 1981, the group adopted the name “The Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord”. “The Covenant” meant the Old Testament covenant that God concluded with Jewish people; however, in the CSA followers’ belief, the white race was the true Israel. “The Sword” meant God’s wrath against those who did not fulfill his commandments. “The Arm of the Lord” implied God’s omnipotence.  Ellison’s closest associate was Kerry Noble, the Chief Elder; the Council of Elders performed administration of the group. CSA followers did not have an expressed political doctrine, though they supported political movements against gun control, against granting equal rights to gay and lesbians, and were involved in militia groups. Among the legal sources of financing were there own farm, a sawmill, a salvage business, survival courses and sales of firearms accessories.

Being a man of great personal charisma and organizational skills, Ellison developed paramilitary direction of his organization. At first, it was defensive, called to protect the chosen from the apocalyptical perils. Further, it assumed apparently offensive character. The community members were manufacturing grenades, silencers and other firearm accessories at several factories within the compound territory. They sold firearms accessories at various firearms shows and accumulated a considerable stock in the compound. Soon, CSA started a so-called Endtime Overcomer Survival Training School; it offered courses in organization, urban warfare, survival, weapons use, and military tactics. Training courses for outsiders cost $500 and more. The residents received survival training and mastered “Christian martial arts”. In particular, they were taught “marksmanship, repelling attacks, foraging for food, erection of such obstacles as punji sticks and barbed wire”, and other skills useful for home defense, forest and nuclear survival. On the compound territory, they erected a modern Silhouette City shooting range imitating the FBI shooting range in Virginia. The difference was that the mock targets in the CSA version were wooden cutouts of famous Jews and federal agents. Besides, the group monitored the houses of federal agents and practiced mock assassinations of their potential victims with scope rifles. Ellison used to wear camouflage and arms on the compound territory; Kerry Noble, his right hand, appeared in jungle fatigues with a rifle, a knife, and a pistol during several interviews.

Much attention was paid to ideological preparation. CSA issued a magazine of ideological and military orientation. They also published a series of books, such as “Witchcraft and the Illuminati, Christian Army Basic Training Manual, The Jews: 100 Facts, and Prepare War”. Additionally, CSA leadership spread and encouraged reading survivalist, conspiracy, racist and anti-Semitic literature; its official reading program included The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, The Negro and the World Crisis, Who’s Who in the Zionist Conspiracy, The Talmud Unmasked, and A Straight Look at the Third Reich. Thus, the organization opposed communists, Jews, blacks, Asians, mongoloids and non-whites in general, the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Reserve System, and the Trilateral Commission. In 1982, Ellison increased his prophetic authority by proclaiming himself the “King James of the Ozarks”, and he was anointed to kingdom by Pastor Robert Millar, a preacher of Identity Christian doctrine.

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Connections to Extremist Organizations

The basis of the CSA ideology was the Christian Identity doctrine. The doctrine taught the two-seed theory, according to which, Eve gave birth to Abel from Adam and to Cain from Satan. The descendents of Adam were Aryan nations (British, Teutonic, and Scandinavian). Respectively, Jews were the children of Cain and descendents of Satan. Their false claim that they were a chosen people made them natural adversaries of the white race of Adamic origin. Christian Identity adepts considered black people and other non-whites the pre-Adamite peoples, only half-humans. Consequently, the white race was the true Biblical Israelis, the Kingdom of the Lord belonged to, and Christ would come to save them. Christian Identity adherents linked some peculiar hopes with the turn of millennium. According to them, the world was approaching its end, and the struggle between God’s people and the servants of Satan would forego the establishment of the Kingdom of Christ as a necessary cleansing period. They associated all evil with Jews, black people and non-whites in general, and believed that they had been called for defense of the remains of the white race. American government was thought to be occupied by Zionists and hence evil. According to Christian Identity ideologists, killing sinners and Jews was appropriate as it brought closer the coming of Messiah. CSA maintained ties with other survivalist, supremacist and radical Christian organizations that shared Christian Identity ideas, such as the Aryan Nations, the Ku Klux Klan, the Militia of Montana and the Christian Patriots Defense League (CPDL) from Illinois.

In July 1983, James Ellison was present at a conference of the Aryan Nations Congress. Together with the leaders of other extremist Christian groups, he developed a plan of overthrowing the US government and building an Aryan nation within the USA. The plan included acts of terror, assassination of key public figures and Jews, sabotage of gas pipelines and electricity networks, contamination of water supply system with cyanide, and bomb attacks on federal buildings. The aim of those actions was to create panic, to undermine the authority of the government and to provoke mass riots. The role of CSA in the plot was collecting and storing weapons for the state overturn. Some of the weapons were bought legally through the federal license, but the larger part of the arsenal was stolen.

The most radical individuals formed a new group called the Order. Five CSA members, among which was an FBI informant Randall Rader, joined the new formation. The Order took charge of the financial means of the plot. In 1983-1984, the group committed a series of insolent robberies with the total amount of stolen money over $4,000,000.


CSA actively engaged in violence and criminal activity in 1983, after the conference of the Aryan Nations. They set on fire a synagogue in Bloomington, Indiana, but the damage was insignificant. The firebombing of the Metropolitan Community Church in Springfield, Missouri that was supportive of homosexuals failed too. In November, they activated an explosive device on a pipeline supplying natural gas to the Midwestern part of the USA. The coming winter without gas would provoke mass riots in the cities, including Chicago. The act did not reach its goal, however, and the gas supply continued. The next attack took place later that month when CSA organized an explosion on an electrical transmission line at Fort Smith, Arkansas. The terrorists’ plans that were elaborated but never implemented were bomb attack on the Oklahoma City Federal Building and poisoning of the centralized water supply system with cyanide. Additionally, some CSA members prepared a “plan to assassinate the judge, U.S. Attorney, and federal law enforcement agent” involved in the persecution of the tax protestor Gordon Kahl and his associates.


On June 30, 1984, CSA member Richard Snell killed a black-skinned Arkansas state trooper Louis Bryant. Snell tried to escape but was arrested in Oklahoma. During the police pursuit, he was shooting back and surrendered only after being wounded. The search of Snell’s car revealed “a Mach 10 machine pistol converted to full automatic with a homemade silencer, a .22 semi-automatic pistol, a grenade, CSA literature…, and maps and surveillance documents on a federal judge, an FBI agent, a U.S. Attorney, and ATF agent Bill Buford”.

From that moment, FBI and ATF (the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) kept a close eye on CSA. Through their informants, they discovered that CSA had kidnapped children, produced and stored a huge arsenal of firearms, grenades, silencers and modified weapons, fortified the compound with landmines along its perimeter, and stolen cars. Federal agents also discovered the facts of murder by a CSA member. They found the body of the victim but failed to provide substantial proofs of CSA involvement. Attempted murder of FBI special agent John Knox, who was in charge of the investigation, brought CSA to a quick end. By 2015, the members of the combined investigation of FBI, ATF and Arkansas State Attorney came to the conclusion that CSA presented a serious domestic threat, and they had a substantial reason to search the CSA compound in Elijah, Missouri. The agents had an arrest order for James Ellison, who was charged with violation of firearms regulations.


The operation planned for April 1985 consisted of three phases; the first two phases included reconnaissance and isolation of the compound. The third phase, depending upon the situation, could be negotiation, demanding the surrender, or assault. During the first phase that took 10 days, FBI elite Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) “executed a slow, methodical night reconnaissance of the CSA compound to assess the structures for possible assault and rescue operations”. They established the location of CSA members, and assessed the possible threats. They discovered that the compound had been well prepared for a federal attack. There were indicators along the perimeter of the compound to detect the attackers. Built-in bunkers for 1 to 3 men constructed along the perimeter were numbered and assigned to certain persons. There was a 29-meter-tall defense tower on the territory. A concrete bunkhouse next to the tower would serve a rallying point in the case of attack. The arsenal was considerable too, and an open assault could be bloody and violent. At that moment, there were 65 CSA members on the territory of compound, including women and children. Respectively, Special Agent Colson, who was in charge of the reconnaissance, recommended increasing the number of agents and ordered “not to assault the compound unless absolutely necessary”. FBI surrounded the perimeter of the compound with 300 agents. The lake next to the compound was a popular fishing spot, so some of the agents were disguised as fishermen to continue surveillance from their fishing boats. The command of the operation decided upon negotiations in order to avoid casualties.

The isolation phase started on April 18, 1985. In the darkness, HRT and FBI snipers surrounded the compound to prevent CSA members from leaving it. Colson moved the headquarters to the vicinity of the compound gate and conducted the operation. Next morning, when any armed CSA member approached the perimeter of the compound, the agents would order them back while remaining undiscovered. In that way, the CSA leaders learned about the siege.

The initial plan of negotiation involved a trained negotiator. However, since CSA was a hierarchical organization, James Ellison and Kerry Noble would not speak to a lower-rank person. Thus, Colson had to conduct negotiations, although he was not specially prepared. He notified the CSA leaders about the state of things and assured them that he did not want unnecessary victims. It was clear that CSA could not fight back as they could not detect the agents. The confrontation lasted two days, after which Ellison agreed to surrender. The problem was that some CSA members were willing to defend the compound at any rate. Ellison asked the Christian Identity leader Robert Millar, who was their spiritual advisor, for mediation. Colson risked involving Millar as it could be the only chance to end the standoff in a peaceful way. Attorney Asa Hutchinson joined negotiation personally, too. On April 22, after a night in the compound, Millar and Ellison declared the surrender. The CSA members left the compound in their civilian clothes and without arms. During the surrender, the snipers did not leave their positions for some risk of a ruse remained. The siege finished successfully on the fourth day of the operation without shots and casualties.

FBI and ATF searched the abandoned compound to discover “hundreds of automatic weapons, a military grade light anti-tank weapon (LAW), land mines, grenades, plastic explosives, detonators, 30 gallons of cyanide, and an armored car equipped with a machine gun system”. Ellison alleged at first that they kept cyanide for poisoning coyotes, but later confessed that they had planned to poison water in New York, Chicago, and Washington.


Attorney Asa Hutchinson, who had been among the would-be target of CSA, led the prosecution against Ellison and other CSA leaders. Most of them were accused of racketeering and illegal weapon possession. The investigation established connection of CSA with the arsons in Bloomington synagogue and Springfield church, sabotage of the gas pipeline and electricity network, and the Texarkana murder.

James Ellison was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. Christian Identity leader Robert Millar was his spiritual advisor at that period. Millar organized collection of money for Ellison. Ellison collaborated with the investigation and testified against the leaders of the Aryan Nations. None of them was convicted because the jury found the government witness unreliable. For his help in preventing the assassination of two officials, Ellison’s imprisonment term was reduced to five years. After serving his term, he moved to Millar’s armed compound of Elohim City, Oklahoma.

Kerry Noble spent five years in jail. He was disappointed by his leader’s betrayal and after serving his term, engaged in denunciation of hate cults.

Richard Snell received a life sentence for the murder of trooper Bryant. In the course of investigation, he was found guilty of the murder of Texarkana pawnshop proprietor and was sentenced to death. His body was buried by Millr in Elohim City. Six other CSA members received different imprisonment terms for their CSA activity.

Possible CSA Connection to Oklahoma City Bombing

The terrorist attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City took place on April 19, 1995, three days after Ellison had been released from prison and on the day of Snell’s execution. It took the lives of 168 people and left more than 800 injured. The bomber, Timothy McVeigh, sympathized with militant Christian groups, though he had no personal ties with Elohim City. He committed the attack close to the 10th anniversary of the Elijah compound siege. The most obvious link is that CSA member Richard Snell envisaged the attack on the same building in 1983 in revenge for Gordon Kahl’s death. Besides, Snell threatened his jailers with “something drastic” on the day of his execution. Despite these links, the CSA or Christian Identity involvement was not proved.


CSA showed the danger of domestic terrorism. Investigation of the CSA activities evoked suspicions of the American society as to non-traditional cults and sects and drew the attention of FBI to other militant religious organizations. The main lesson to learn from the CSA history is that religious zealotry can lead to terrorism irrespective of the particular religion. Christian extremists can be as perilous as Muslim or any other extremists, and terror in the name of God is deadly no matter which god it is. Racism and hate are destructive in any manifestation; if they find justification and support in religious postulates, they are increasingly dangerous.

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