Phineas Priesthood Parallels

The Phineas Priesthood Story

In the last half year the Spokesman has published articles on the re-sentencing of the four domestic terrorists claiming allegiance to the “Phineas Preisthood.” The four men were convicted of bombings and armed robberies in Spokane Valley in 1996. Bombs were detonated at the Spokesman-Review’s Spokane Valley office and at a Planned Parenthood clinic in the valley. A U.S. Bank branch was robbed at gunpoint. It is something of a miracle that no one was maimed or killed. All four men were caught, tried, and sentenced to lengthy prison terms in 1997. At the time of the bombings in 1996 the men ranged in age from 37 to 50. Now, after 24 years in prison, they range from 61 to 74. The latest article covering the series of re-sentencings appeared on January 25, 2021, and concerned the re-sentencing of Charles Barbee, one of the four. The re-sentencings from the original life sentences were made necessary by a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2015 holding that some of the federal laws under which these men were convicted was unconstitutionally vague.

Of these four domestic terrorists, the youngest, Brian Ratigan, a former U.S. Army sniper, now age 61, was released from prison in June 2020 in recognition of good behavior and the 23 years he had already served in federal prison. The Spokesman articles were not specific enough about the crimes of which each of the four was convicted to understand why Ratigan was released even as the three others were re-sentenced to prison terms that condemn them to spend the rest of their lives in prison. Combing through the four articles that describe the re-sentencing of each of these men one thing stood out: three of them (including Ratigan) had given up the beliefs that had led them to commit their crimes. Those three had been model prisoners. A recently retired prison employee even came to court and testified that Charles Barbee had become a model citizen during his time in prison. For what little picture one can glean from the coverage in the newspaper articles, one is left feeling a little sorry for Charles Barbee and Robert S. Berry. Despite their leaving behind the malignant belief system that once motivated them, each of them was re-sentenced to the equivalent of life imprisonment. Mandatory sentencing guidelines for the particular crimes of these two removed the option of leniency from the judge’s toolbox.

The fourth terrorist, Verne Merrell, now age 74, stood out from the rest. The Spokesman article (somewhat vague) quotes Merrell as saying at his re-sentencing that the crimes he committed almost a quarter century ago were meant to make people aware of “the degradation of our Constitutional system.” To that he added, “It [the awareness] just didn’t happen.” He had not been a model prisoner. Re-sentenced to 58 more years in prison, it seems likely that Merrell will die still believing in his righteousness as a “Phineas Priest.” 

So what is the belief system to which these men once subscribed? Here’s where things get interesting–and disturbing. The Spokesman articles don’t flesh out the story for their readers. The articles mention these men were “members” of something called the Phineas Priesthood, as if the Phineas Priesthood were an isolated, shady organization that held meetings somewhere and actually had a card-carrying membership. The truth is much darker–and instructive for our present day travails.

Recall the 1990s. In 1995, the year before the bombings in Spokane Valley, Timothy McVeigh (since executed for his crime) and Terry Nichols, a pair of Army buddies from basic training at Fort Benning, killed 168 people, many of them children, with a truck bomb detonated at the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Also in the 1990s just north of Hayden, Idaho, Richard Butler and his Aryan Nations were still in full swing, annually hosting white supremacists from across the nation for confabs at Butler’s compound. Published in 1990, Vigilantes of Christendom: The Story of the Phineas Priesthood, was conceived in the toxic mind of Richard Kelly Hoskins. For forty years Hoskins had written (and sometimes self-published) pro-Nazi, white supremacist, anti-semitic, and blatantly racist literature, but Vigilantes of Christendom found fertile ground in the minds of 1990s white supremacists. The book was found among the effects of the Spokane Valley bombers, who self-described as “Phineas Priests.” Not only was the book the inspiration for the Spokane Valley bombers but was also found among the effects of Buford O. Furrow, Jr. a man hailing from Lacey, Washington, made infamous by the Los Angeles Jewish Community Center shooting in 1999. The “Phineas Priests” Hoskins detailed in his book are exhorted to take solo or small group “Phineas action.” Such action is biblically based in the story of Phineas, a Hebrew man who, according to the Old Testament book of Numbers 25:6, was rewarded by God for killing an interfaith couple (a Jewish man and Medianite woman, a worshipper of idols) with a single spear thrust that pierced both of them. (For me it was worth noting that in the 1960s Hoskins became a member of the Southern Baptist Church, inspired by attending Jerry Falwell’s church, possibly the basis for Hoskins later biblical meanderings.) Hoskins suggests in his book that any righteous man is automatically ordained into the Phineas Priesthood merely by seeking to destroy God’s enemies, including race-mixers, homosexuals, abortionists and Jews. (Read more about this sickening man’s life and work here.)

Richard Kelly Hoskins spent a lifetime of pushing ideas that clearly inspired violence, some in our own community, and yet I only recently learned of his existence. Has he paid for his incitement of violence in any way? Well, no. A simple google search suggests that he remains alive at age 92 at 2111 Link Rd, Lynchburg, Virginia, the city of his birth. You can download his most famous, and, arguably, his most vile and consequential work, Vigilantes of Christendom, for free from the internet or you can purchase a vintage copy as a keepsake (gag) from Amazon for around $300

This putrid underbelly of American culture has always been around, but most of us choose to look away, preferring not to imagine the bile that spews forth from these people. The ideas put forward by “thought leaders” like Hoskins still fuel the simmering and twisted hate and sense of victimhood nurtured by the pastors of the Covenant Church in north Spokane, organizations like Northwest Grassroots in Spokane Valley (discussed in my post, Spokane’s White Supremacists), and the Marble Community in northern Stevens County. Equally twisted is the cloaking of these ideas and organizations in the mantle of Christianity, Christianity that has gone off the rails like that of Hoskins’ Phineas Priesthood, a Christianity thoroughly wedded to a warped idea of Patriot piety and the righteousness of parading with assault weapons, a warped Christianity that has burrowed itself firmly into the rightward side of the local Republican Party.

The local Republican Party, like many Republican members of the U.S. Congress, now express horror at the violence displayed in the U.S. Capitol on January 6th. Earlier they stoked the fires of Trump’s baseless assault on our elections systems and now expect to escape from the consequences of their own inflammatory rhetoric. Richard Kelly Hoskins, flying largely under the radar, escaped responsibility almost entirely. 

It is a shame that many Christian Evangelical Republicans have been so poisoned against anything with the word “Democrat,” “liberal,” or “progressive” attached to it. Were they not poisoned in that way, were they more clearly aware of the perversions of the Christianity that fester on their right flank, rather than being lulled by the term Christianity itself, they might recognize that real Christian values better flourish to their left.

Keep to the high ground,

P.S. For more on this link between twisted Christianity (Christian Nationalism and Christian Identity) I recommend Thomas Edsall’s excellent opinion piece published in the NYTimes January 28, 2021, entitled “The Capitol Insurrection Was as Christian Nationalist as It Gets.

P.P.S. I occurs to me there might be a reason that so many of the followers of QAnon, Hoskins’ Phineas Priesthood, various “Patriot” groups, and followers of the conspiracy theories of the ilk of Trump and Alex Jones seem to share warped, far right interpretations of Christianity. If one’s worldview, before all else, depends on the absolute and literal truth of the entire Bible, then accepting something like Hoskins’ interpretation of Numbers 25:6 in deriving the “Phineas Priesthood” is only a small step away. Reining in warped interpretations of the Bible leading down these roads depends on which interpreter catches the imagination of the listener. I am by no means suggesting here that all Evangelical (Fundamentalist) Christians go down these paths, only that their worldview is fertile ground for manipulation.