State Sen. John Smith lives in a remote part of the largest legislative district in Washington, an area with sparse population and wide open spaces that over the decades has attracted people with extreme political and religious views.
Smith acknowledges that both his grandfather and his wife’s grandfather were among those with extremist, anti-Semitic views, and that both ended up living in northeast Washington. Both were adherents of a radical strain of Christianity known as Christian Identity, an offshoot of a belief known as British Israelism.
Smith and his wife, the former Dezarae Bright, said their marriage vows and attended events at a church called The Ark that the Southern Poverty Law Center lists as a hate group.
But he said he was never a member of that church’s congregation and doesn’t share his grandfather’s beliefs. Those are legacies he’s worked for years to escape: “I am not my grandfather, and my wife is not her grandfather.”
Over the years he did attend what he said were essentially community events like potlucks in The Ark but stopped in 2007 or 2008. At that point, he and his wife became alarmed at the racist comments of people who were attending “and we decided we didn’t want to be around them.”
About that same time, someone using an Internet account with the name of Brythstone – a name Smith chose for his farm from the Hebrew word for covenant and the English word stone – was commenting on different aspects of British Israelism and Christian Identity on a Wikipedia page. Smith said that wasn’t him, although he did frequently comment on a number of topics over the years.
He doesn’t recall setting up an account under the name “Brythstone” or making the comments about British Israelism on Wikipedia, he said. After The Spokesman-Review contacted him about those Web postings and others that seem to connect him with The Ark, many of those postings disappeared from the Internet that same day. Smith said neither he nor his campaign deleted the material and he wasn’t even aware it could be done.
The Ark, now called Our Place Fellowship, is about a mile from the 20-acre farm Smith has owned and worked since he was a teenager.
While the Southern Poverty Law Center calls it a hate group, an expert in religious fundamentalism says it’s part of a small and slowly disappearing strain of Christianity known as British Israelism.
Spawned in England in the late 1800s, British Israelism held that Anglo-Saxons and other northern European groups, and not the Jews, are the true chosen people of the Bible, said Jeffrey Kaplan, director of the Institute for the Study of Religion, Violence and Memory at the University of Wisconsin in Oshkosh. Based on an unusual interpretation of the Bible, the belief gained a foothold in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s via Garner Ted Armstrong, a radio preacher.
Kaplan said the religion isn’t necessarily racist or anti-Semitic, because it originally taught that northern Europeans forgot they were the chosen people. He places The Ark in this category. Over the years, with growing anti-Semitism in the United States, some British Israelists changed their beliefs to the highly racist Christian Identity, saying Jews stole the claim of being the chosen people as part of a conspiracy to oppress and cheat Gentiles.
Smith said he moved from Southern Idaho to northeast Washington as a teenager, in part to get away from the religious views of his grandfather, who shared many Christian Identity beliefs. His grandfather, however, followed him there.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Eastern Washington and North Idaho were considered “the Northwest Frontier” for the Christian Identity movement, said Kaplan, editor of the “Encyclopedia of White Power.” There were almost no minorities and so much space that “you could retreat, start your own community, find your own way of life,” he said.
Among the more notorious adherents of Christian Identity were Richard Butler’s Aryan Nations and white supremacists Cheyne and Chevie Kehoe, who lived for several years in the same area as Smith.
Smith’s wife Dezarae’s late grandfather, Ray Barker, operated a Christian Identity church in Gig Harbor which he later moved to property a couple miles from Smith’s Brythstone Ranch. Barker accompanied Cheyne Kehoe when he surrendered in Colville in 1997 on charges of killing law enforcement officers in Ohio.
Kaplan said both Christian Identity and British Israelism are slowly disappearing. Older leaders are dying off. Some of the younger adherents have been imprisoned for violent acts against minorities; others adopted more mainstream Christian doctrines.
Smith says he’s not a believer in either British Israelism or Christian Identity. He describes himself as a devout Christian who has done extensive studies of the Bible and is what some would call “born again.” He and his family have attended The Vineyard Church, a mainstream Protestant church in Colville, for years. He and Dezarae were married there in 2011 after finding out their original “wedding” at The Ark wasn’t legal because the pastor wasn’t authorized to perform the service.
He remains on good terms with his neighbors who operate The Ark, and many others in the sparsely populated part of Stevens County, although he recognizes many have views that most people consider extreme: “I try to represent my constituents. I don’t share their views.”