Silver Shirts

William Dudley Pelley
William Dudley Pelley

The League of the Silver Shirts was an avowedly fascist and antisemitic paramilitary organization active in the United States in the period between the two world wars. Created in 1933 by William Dudley Pelley (1890–1965), a Vermont novelist, newspaper editor, and onetime Hollywood scriptwriter, its activities peaked before Pelley’s presidential bid of 1936, and had largely imploded by 1942 when Pelley was imprisoned for sedition.

Most of its membership was concentrated on the West Coast and in the Great Lakes region and numbered at most an estimated 15,000 members. The Silver Shirts stood for a corporatist and communitarian program that was modeled on Italian fascism.

They also sympathized with German National-Socialism and envisioned the systematic eradication of Jewish power in finance, politics, and culture, and the eventual reorganization of the United States as a “Christian Commonwealth.”

To explain and legitimate their radical program, the Silver Shirts proffered various conspiracy theories and tried to produce an overarching, eclectic conspiracist synthesis. This conspiracist synthesis combined elements from various occult philosophies, from more traditional Christian millennialism, and from modern political, economic, and racist antisemitism.

For most of its members, the Silver Shirts’ conspiracism was cohered by the radically dualist worldview of Christian millennialism. This conception of historical time postulated a cosmic conspiracy by satanic forces of evil, a continual conflict between these forces and the Christian forces of good, and an ultimate millennial victory by the Christian side.

Both of the two main types of Christian millennialism—pre- and postmillennialism—were interchangeably espoused by Pelley, who preached both an imminent victory over the cosmic anti-Christian conspiracy, presumably through the Silver Shirts’ militant agency, and a more distant, direct divine intervention to establish a millennial theocracy.

Apparently rooted in Pelley’s own background as the son of an itinerant Methodist minister, the millennialist theme provided the Silver Shirts’ public doctrine its least controversial and most widely appealing dimension. It would also appear to have been the root of most of the Silver Shirts’ conspiracism, for the majority of the movement’s members came from traditional Christian Protestant backgrounds.

After an epiphanic out-of-body religious experience in 1928, however, Pelley radically decentered traditional Christian millennialism and refocused his own conspiracism through the influence of various occult speculations. These were gathered especially from Great Pyramidism and spiritualism but also from Theosophism, Rosicrucianism, sexology, and telepathy.

Pelley professed to have received direct “master messages” from Jesus, from various angelic beings, and later also from the founder of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, and he claimed that these messages had identified Jews and Communists as the primary actors of the millennial cosmic conspiracy and exposed them as reincarnated “demon” spirits.

Spiritualist and Great Pyramidist influences provided Pelley’s speculations further fixity, of a type unavailable to traditional Christian millennialists. By their means Pelley came to calculate the precise future trajectories and timelines of the conspiracy’s unfolding and coming destruction. He settled eventually on 17 September 2001, as the moment of millennial victory and Jewish defeat.

The fairly uniform public political doctrine that was constructed out of these theoretical beliefs and proffered by the Silver Shirts during the 1930s obscured Pelley’s personal occult beliefs and emphasized his more consensually held forms of antisemitic conspiracism.

Thus the Silver Shirts claimed that in the twentieth century the cosmic world conspiracy was embodied in the Illuminati, a secret society founded in 1776 by Adam Weishaupt and allegedly dominated by an inner core of Jewish conspirators.

The Illuminati was portrayed as using socialist, Communist, and liberal movements—as well as finance capitalism, modernist religion, and the “lower” races—as its tools in the undermining “Christian” civilization that was to pave the way for its own global domination.

Consequently, most of the Silver Shirts’ political effort was predicated on an attempt to defuse and destroy the most important, overt manifestations of the alleged conspiracy—the New Deal, the Federal Reserve, international communism, the League of Nations, and, above all, the purported financial, political, and cultural power of Jews of which all of these were alleged aspects.

One of a number of religious and political mass movements that in the 1930s assailed a putative Jewish world conspiracy, the League of the Silver Shirts was exceptionally driven by an eclectic, all-inclusive conspiracism. Despite its relatively small numbers it played a significant role in molding extremist opinion in the 1930s, as was attested to by its suppression by the federal government.

The impact of their leader Pelley on the ideology of such subsequent conspiracist and antisemitic movements as British-Israelism and Christian Identity was also considerable, and provided a posthumous influence that other similar movements of the interwar period could not equal.