The first time he was in the news, Aylmer pastor Henry Hildebrandt spoke about his congregation.
“We’re not a rebellious, defiant people . . .” he said in a 2001 interview with The London Free Press. “We haven’t breached any Ontario or Canadian laws. . . . We do not want to be in conflict with the government and its agencies.”
Twenty years later, Hildebrandt — now with the title of church apostle — has become not only a spiritual firebrand in the movement against public-health regulations aimed at stopping a deadly pandemic, but also a conspiracy theorist fighting a perceived worldwide effort to destroy humanity’s freedoms.
“I’ve been warning you, they have a plan — an evil plan,” he tweets.
“We are living in times of fear,” he says in a WhatsApp voice message. “We are scared the police will come to our door any moment, and we don’t know what they will do.”
Whatever happened to “not a rebellious, defiant people?”
What happened to the desire to avoid conflict with the government?
What is happening with Henry Hildebrandt and the Church of God Restoration in Aylmer?
Hildebrandt agreed to answer Free Press questions, but only in written form, a version of which — edited for length — can be read here.
Some former church members and observers say the answers can be found in a church still clinging to its doctrines, but trying to expand and gain attention — amid a pandemic that’s also fuelling the effort.
The doctrine governing Church of God congregations always has resisted modern medicine, to the point some members in the U.S. have died, they point out. The church and its leadership, especially Hildebrandt, always have sought publicity to gain followers, they say.
But that desire to gain followers has prompted the church to open its doors and abandon some of its principles, they contend.
“They have been prophesizing for years that in the end time, there’s going to be an influx of people coming into the church by the thousands or by the millions,” said former Indiana Church of God member Adam Pamer.
To make that happen, they’ve opened the door so wide now they’re attracting a collection of militant anti-government protesters, he says.
“This is completely contrary to Christianity and even what this group once stood for.”
There are likely hundreds of Christian congregations with the words “Church of God” in their name. The Church of God Restoration in Aylmer belongs to a branch of now 30 churches that separated in the 1980s from an older organization known simply as the Church of God.
Hildebrandt and the Church of God Restoration in Aylmer first came to public attention in 2001, when Family and Children’s Services of St. Thomas and Elgin removed seven children from the home of a congregation family over concerns about the children being struck.
The media frenzy that followed focused on the rights of parents to hit their children. But what brought Family Services to the battle was an October 2000 report that a child’s injuries weren’t receiving medical attention.
The Church of God’s opposition to medical treatment is well known in the U.S., where criminal charges and convictions have resulted after the deaths of children. In 2002, founder Daniel Layne announced children could be taken to doctors.
Children in the Aylmer church, in his experience, still don’t get vaccinated and adults rarely seek professional medical help, said a former Aylmer member.
“You could wipe out their congregation with one infection. That’s why this COVID stuff is so scary,” said the man, who still has relatives in the church. “These guys are more vulnerable than anyone out there.”
But Hildebrandt told The Free Press it’s up to individual congregants to decide on their medical care. “Each person or family can make their own choice, obviously.”
Given Hildebrandt’s penchant for raising publicity, it’s no wonder the media flocked to the protests, beginning in the fall, that he helped lead.
Even when police showed up at his Aylmer home in November to ticket him for attending an anti-COVID restrictions rally in London, under the Reopening Ontario Act that restricts the size of outdoor gatherings, Hildebrandt’s media savvy was on display: His son, Herbert, filmed the exchange that went straight to Facebook. In it, Hildebrandt said he intended “to do nothing” with the ticket because “we have the right . . . to have a peaceful protest and that is what I attended.”
This week, a similar exchange between Hildebrandt and Aylmer police officers was live-streamed to Facebook.
In her 2003 ruling on the Aylmer spanking case that rejected the parents’ claims their Charter rights were violated, Ontario Justice Eleanor Schnall gave a scathing dissection of Hildebrandt’s publicity efforts.
Hildebrandt orchestrated the frenzy that surrounded the removal of the children from their homes, calling congregation members to show up and protest, arranging for media to be called and requesting police to delay removal until reporters showed up, Schnall said. When reporters didn’t make it in time, Hildebrandt’s son took photos to provide to the media, she said.
Soon after, Hildebrandt arranged for media interviews and photos of the “unhappy parents in their empty home,” and created a website providing the pictures, names, ages and email addresses of the children, so supporters could send encouraging messages, Schnall said.
A media-savvy, fiery preacher was hardly what he saw in Hildebrandt, says an early mentor, Harvey Elke, a retired minister of the German Church of God.
Elke says he was leading a congregation in Mexico in the 1980s when Hildebrandt and his wife joined. Elke left for a congregation in Hamilton in the late 1980s and the Hildebrandts followed.
He got Hildebrandt a job in a factory, and nothing about his parishioner stood out, Elke says.
“He was just a regular parishioner in the church,” Elke says.
But when Hildebrandt joined the upstart Church of God Restoration in Aylmer in the 1980s, things changed.
“When he joined this other group, somehow he became one of their pastors,” says Elke.
Founder of the Church of God Restoration was Daniel Layne, a controversial figure accused by ex-followers of running the church as a dictatorship, ruling on how members should behave and dress, and excommunicating anyone who disagreed with him.
He died in 2011, and an Ohio pastor named Ray Tinsman took over as chief apostle, with several more added a few years ago, says Pamer.
Hildebrandt became one of those apostles, listed on the Church of God Restoration website. After almost 20 years of little public attention, he popped back up on the public stage with his refusal, amid the pandemic, to end drive-in church services last spring after Ontario adopted emergency orders.
Publicly, he focused on the rights of his congregants to go to their church parking lot — and stay in their cars — to worship. He stressed the use of masks and social distancing at his outdoor services. A church online post in April said: “We are grateful to our federal, provincial, and municipal government leaders for their commitment to public service during this time of crisis and appreciate their responsibility for the well-being of the people they serve.”
Hildebrandt no longer seems grateful to governments. He now claims the entire coronavirus pandemic is a political tool to seize control and stamp out freedoms. Though Hildebrandt argues his resistance is rooted in spiritual duty, it goes well beyond the sphere of religious gatherings.
He started a Twitter account in October, which posts photos of himself with eastern Ontario MPP Randy Hillier, an ally and outspoken critic of COVID-19 public health precautions, and messages of support for Ezra Levant of the far-right outlet Rebel News.
He was to speak at a January rally called The Awakening: World Truth Summit, which was to expose the worldwide conspiracy set to destroy freedoms and enslave humanity and included author David Icke, who believes a hybrid race of aliens and humans is leading the world to slavery.
Hildebrandt has become a fixture at Ontario rallies, including a Toronto protest in support of a restaurant owner whom police charged with opening in defiance of the COVID-19 emergency law.
In a Dec. 28 WhatsApp voice message sent to many of his contacts — a version translated from Low German was reviewed by The Free Press — Hildebrandt calls COVID-19 a “game.”
“Some people would confront me and try to challenge me that this is a serious disease, this is a serious illness, we have to take it serious, we’re just trying to protect people. No, no, no, that’s not true. This is all just a game. This is all just a set-up, this is a plan that is fabricated, there is nothing to this whole thing, it’s all just a made-up plan by governments.”
Later in the eight-minute voice memo, the pastor compares provincial COVID-19 restrictions to Nazi Germany, pointing to those who report violations of public health rules and provincial laws, including limits on indoor gatherings.
“I have no clue what it would take or what point I’d have to come, to go down to a level where I would call the police on my own friends, my own neighbours, and betray them,” Hildebrandt said.
Hildebrandt’s anti-government approach and conspiracy theories surprise both former followers and observers.
None of the charges against him or the church has been settled legally, and Hildebrandt says the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms is representing him and other groups, and will be filing constitutional challenges on all of the summons received.
The charges alone shock one former church member.
“You needed to obey the law, you needed to be a law-abiding citizen,” says one former member, speaking about the rules when he followed Hildebrandt in the past.
“But now, because this coronavirus goes against their normal life, like meeting and having a service, they’re breaking every law in the book. That is the biggest shocker for me. Since when do they not have to obey the law?”
The Church of God Restoration professed to be separate from politics, retired pastor Elke says.
“I am surprised by anti-mask (protests) because they were really totally detached from politics, period,” he says. “They did not feel it was right to pick up arms and go to war and on and on.”
But it doesn’t surprise Abe Harms, executive director of Mennonite Community Services of Southern Ontario.
“I always feel that he thrives on controversy and thrives on crises. If there are no crises, he has to create one,” Harms says.
Though a lot of Hildebrandt’s followers would identify themselves as Mexican Mennonites, the church itself is not based on Mennonite faith, whose principles include separation of church and state and non-resistance and pacifism rather than confrontation, Harms says.
“They have a whole bunch of church practices I don’t know of anywhere else. They call each other saints rather than church members.”
Among the Mennonite community in which Hildebrandt was raised, concerns have been raised about his focus on opposing public health measures.
“There’s a lot of folks that are very, very upset about what they are doing,” says a member of the Low German community in Steinbach, Man., home to another branch of the Church of God Restoration.
“Church leaders have signed petitions and asked them to change their way of doing things.”
Hildenbrandt’s brand of leadership is about adherence and control, the Steinbach source suggests.
“He is the church — he’s the bishop, the pope, and his calls, you better go according to his calls. I think if there were even the slightest opposition, that would be detrimental to that person.”
Many who know Hildebrandt say they’re hesitant to speak publicly for fear of personal or professional consequences. Some declined to speak to The Free Press for this story.
The growth of the devout pastor’s popularity during the pandemic, especially among those who believe COVID-19 is exaggerated or a hoax, strikes the Steinbach source as particularly paradoxical.
Hildebrandt has picked up a following including those with values diametrically opposed to his own, including atheists and members of the LGBTQ community, the source says.
“If he knew a lot of his supports or people who are pushing him, inviting him to all these protests, there are so many people who, if they were part of his church, within a week they’d be gone — they’d not want to be under his leadership.”
For now, that doesn’t seem to matter. Hildebrandt isn’t acting on his own, he’s acting in tune with the even more strident rallying cries of the Church of God Restoration leadership.
“Resistance, now more than ever, is duty,” says the November issue of the Church of God’s newsletter, The Gospel Trumpet.
The virus is a “Trojan horse” and government restrictions aren’t about public health, but a money-hungry attempt to seize control and slap down the church, the newsletter warns.
“This isn’t a fight of mere civil disobedience. It is not just a struggle for the soul of a nation. It is warfare against the very prince of darkness himself.”
Where that war leads the Aylmer Church of God Restoration, its reinvigorated leader and his loyal followers, remains to be written.
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