The Anti-Vax Crusaders
In Aylmer, Ontario, a fiery doomsday preacher has amassed a diverse following of evangelicals, libertarians, conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers, united by their distrust of government, science and mainstream media. They’re loud, mad and organized. And their gospel is spreading
On a rainy Sunday morning in April of 2020, 70 cars pulled into a church parking lot on the outskirts of Aylmer, a small town a two-hour drive west of Toronto. It was a few weeks into the pandemic, so religious gatherings weren’t allowed. But Henry Hildebrandt, the pastor, decided that his congregation, the Church of God Restoration, would hold a drive-in service anyway, reasoning that there was little risk of spreading Covid if everyone stayed in their vehicles. When a photo of the gathering appeared online, locals complained, police got involved and the province eventually told Hildebrandt to stop. He didn’t. He and his 300 followers kept meeting, first in their cars, then in the pews, and finally—when the attorney general locked the church’s doors—on the front lawn. The province slapped the church with fines totalling nearly $275,000, which they paid in September. Yet the parishioners have continued to gather almost every Sunday, unmasked, undistanced and unvaccinated.
Hildebrandt argues that by suspending religious services, the government infringed upon his congregation’s freedom of religion and right to peaceful assembly. He and his followers live in strict adherence to a literalist interpretation of the Bible, and they believe that the church must gather: worshipping together, after all, is at the heart of their faith. Many members also refrain from using the internet, so meeting over Zoom was not an option. Why should their services be capped at 10 churchgoers, Hildebrandt asked, if the LCBO and Tim Hortons were permitted to serve thousands of customers a day?
Hildebrandt is now a regular presence at freedom rallies across Ontario, leading the maskless masses in prayer and inviting them to visit Aylmer. He opened his church’s doors (before they were padlocked) to those cancelled by progressive society: the lockdown-defying barbecue chef Adam Skelly, conservative party rejects Randy Hillier and Derek Sloan, the tenor who snuck “all lives matter” into the anthem. His political soapboxing has earned him hundreds of new followers, an eclectic big tent that includes radical Christians, pacifists, libertarians, anti-racists, alt-right figures, conspiracy theorists, general troublemakers and anti-vaxxers, united not by faith or dress, but by a deep-seated distrust of government, Big Pharma and mainstream media. In their telling, Covid is nothing but a harsh flu, and its severity is being exaggerated by elites—politicians, billionaires, the pharmaceutical industry—to exert control over the populace, enrich themselves and usher in an oppressive new world order. The real pandemic, Hildebrandt has said, “is an epidemic of fear and state-sponsored tyranny on a global basis.”
Hildebrandt and his flock refuse to get vaccinated for a raft of religious, anecdotal and pseudo-scientific reasons, and it will take more than a few line graphs and statistics to change their minds. Public health units have disseminated pamphlets and WhatsApp messages in English, Spanish and Plattdeutsch, the languages commonly spoken among Aylmer’s dense concentration of Amish, Mexican Mennonites and migrant workers. Front-line workers have held pop-up vaccination clinics at hockey arenas and beaches. Still, just 50 per cent of the region’s residents are fully vaccinated, the lowest of any postal code in Ontario. The provincial and national rate is about 70 per cent. The ministry of health suggests we could achieve herd immunity—the point at which the virus fails to find new hosts and dies out—at around 85 or 90 per cent, which would require virtually everyone in Canada over 12 to get immunized. The vaccine is the ticket back to a world without distancing, lockdowns and travel restrictions, a time when you can ride the TTC without a mask and attend a Raptors game without scanning a QR code. But as long as nearly 20 per cent of Canadians opt out of vaccination, that’s not going to happen.
The immovable naysayers who have coalesced around Hildebrandt are so difficult to convince because, for many of them, the choice is not really about the vaccine. According to polling by Abacus, the number-one reason Canadians refuse to get vaccinated is that they hate government telling them what to do. Hildebrandt’s followers see themselves as an oppressed minority, proverbial Davids up against modern-day Goliaths: Bill Gates, Anthony Fauci, the World Health Organization. They use the language of the persecuted, comparing themselves to Jews in Nazi Germany and hoisting “Don’t tread on me” flags. To them, defiance is necessary and noble; refusing the vaccine is an act of righteous rebellion against a greedy overclass bent on world domination. Their common dogma has nothing to do with medical science. It’s about resistance.
Hildebrandt looks every part the preacher. At 58, he has a thick salt-and-pepper beard and a wardrobe of white shirts, black vests and polished dress shoes. He is a vivacious orator; when he preaches, his neck gets veiny and his face turns red. He pontificates about familiar subject matter—the depths of hell and the saving power of Jesus—yet, unlike some ministers, he is cheeky and self-deprecating, pausing mid-sermon to flash his incandescent smile. Before and after Sunday-morning services, he greets adoring churchgoers and quietly consoles wayward young men. If Tarantino were to direct a Hildebrandt biopic, he’d cast Christoph Waltz to capture the preacher’s verve and subtle German accent.
Hildebrandt grew up speaking Plattdeutsch in a Mennonite colony in Mexico. At 22, he and his wife, Martha, drove north with their young son, Herbert, and settled in Hamilton, where they attended a German-speaking church. Over time, Hildebrandt grew worried that the congregation was spiritually dead, merely going through the motions of Christianity. So he started looking for a more vibrant church, unwavering in its devotion to God and the Bible.
In 1990, Hildebrandt went to see a travelling preacher named Daniel Layne speak at a rented schoolroom in Aylmer. Layne, the son of a minister, had spent the 1960s and ’70s drifting around San Francisco, shooting heroin and serving time in prison and psych wards. In 1980, he says, God spoke to him, so he got clean, started preaching and eventually founded the Church of God Restoration. He borrowed much of its doctrine—pacifism, anti-racism, a strict adherence to the Bible—from existing Churches of God (there are so many congregations that go by that name, including two in Aylmer alone, that each requires an additional identifier). He believed that, to be holy, Christians must be free from sin, and he had an unyielding interpretation of what constituted sinful behaviour: not just homosexuality, divorce and abortion, but anything deemed superfluous, like neckties, musical instruments used during worship, and haircuts for women. The church was radical, residing on the fringes of conservative Christianity. To join, members had to adhere to Layne’s austere rules, which dictated what they wore (plain, old-fashioned clothing in white, black and grey) and what colour cars they drove (also white, black or grey). His followers weren’t allowed to listen to the radio or read the news. He counselled his followers on who to marry and whether they could go on vacation. In exchange for observing his stringent restrictions, Layne promised the ultimate reward. He said the only way to get to heaven—and not burn in hell—was to join him.
Hildebrandt fell for Layne’s fervent, unrelenting vision of Christianity. He began preaching in 1991. Layne ordained Hildebrandt two years later, then left the Aylmer congregation in his hands and took off to start another church someplace else. Thanks to his prolific proselytizing, the Restoration now has more than 3,000 members and roughly two dozen congregations scattered across the U.S., Canada, Latin America, Ireland, Austria and the Philippines. Layne died in 2011 at the age of 67 after a series of illnesses, so leadership of the church fell to Ray Tinsman, an Ohio man who claims to be an earthly conduit to God, as well as an inner circle of 10 senior preachers, including Hildebrandt, who call themselves apostles.
By that point, Hildebrandt had bought a piece of land at the edge of Aylmer and built a house of worship for his growing flock. Even among the town’s Amish and Mennonite population, his followers stood out because of their monochromatic garb. “People are curious about us because, to be honest, we’re a curious group,” says Adolf Friesen, a genial 47-year-old church member with a tuft of facial hair at the end of his chin. He understands outsiders’ bemused fascination because he had the same reaction when he first attended a Restoration service in 1991. “I was like, ‘Seriously? These people are fanatical.’ ” He was a teenager then, more obsessed with BMX bikes than the Bible. But he was struck by Hildebrandt’s passion and his followers’ genuine belief, so he kept coming back. Eventually, he cut ties with his old friends, stopped listening to rock ’n’ roll and joined the church, baptized by Hildebrandt in the frigid waters of Lake Erie. For him, adopting the church’s uniform was an act of both faith and resistance. “We’re doing it in rebellion to Hollywood and every fashion magazine that tells us we need to dress a certain way.”
Members of the Restoration don’t date. Rather, they consult their pastors about potential partners within the congregation with an eye to marrying and starting a family. When Friesen asked Hildebrandt about a girl he was interested in, Hildebrandt instead recommended Eva Peters, a devout young woman who’d grown up with the pastor in Mexico. Adolf and Eva hardly knew each other, so they’d never considered pairing up, but the idea grew on them. On Friesen’s 25th birthday, they got married.
Today, the Friesens’ lives are inextricably linked to the church. They usually attend service three times a week, and the majority of their friends are also members of the church. Adolf works as a tool and die maker for a business owned by another member and spends most Sundays cooking communal post-service meals. Like most of Hildebrandt’s followers, the Friesens sent their children, Jonathon and Serena, to the Church of God Academy, a private, four-classroom school located in the church building. Jonathon, now an eloquent 21-year-old, spent nine months as a missionary in the Philippines and later started broadcasting livestreams of Sunday services during the pandemic; it was his first time recording video. Serena, a soft-spoken and sweet-natured 18-year-old who sings in the church choir, recently moved to Leamington to help start a Restoration congregation there.
On paper, the church’s rules are rigid. In practice, they’re more fluid. Inside the Friesens’ home, a charming brick bungalow with a pristine front garden, there is a shelf of encyclopedias but no TV. Adolf reads the news on his smartphone occasionally, but Eva doesn’t use the internet except for email. The kids aren’t on social media, but they don’t think they’re missing much—“I’d rather have real friends than virtual friends on Facebook,” says Jonathon. Serena listens mostly to classical music, but Adolf has played the Beatles and Kanye West for her. Like most people, the Friesens know who Kim Kardashian is.
Adolf acknowledges the Restoration lifestyle is demanding. “To be a Christian is a challenge,” he says. But he is more concerned with what the family is gaining than with what they’re giving up. He says they have a tight-knit community that looks out for them, and a pastor who does the same. They describe Hildebrandt as a father figure, a friend of 30 years who has helped them raise their kids, find work and brave difficult patches in their lives. More importantly, as members of the Restoration, they feel they’re doing right by God. “It’s a sense of fulfillment,” says Jonathon. “You’re doing what you know in your heart is right. I don’t think there’s a better feeling than that.”
The Friesens have never been tested for Covid, but they told me they’d all had the symptoms. They have chosen not to get vaccinated for a host of reasons: they know people who they say have suffered severe side effects from other vaccines; they don’t believe the Covid vaccines to be effective; and their church generally distrusts modern medicine. “I know Covid is real, but there’s been too much fear-mongering,” says Adolf. “There seems to be an agenda that everybody has to conform to one idea, and it seems to be an attack on religion.”
Before Zvonko Horvat became Aylmer’s chief of police, he helped oversee law enforcement at a year’s worth of protests over First Nations land rights in Caledonia. One misbehaving church did not alarm him. When he heard about Hildebrandt’s drive-in service, he was hesitant to start handing out tickets. Though the church was in clear contravention of the Reopening Ontario Act at the time, Horvat says, he wanted to start with education. So, he assigned an officer to make sure the congregation understood the restrictions and why they were in place. Shortly thereafter, the province amended the legislation to allow for drive-ins. “I’ve got to give them credit,” says Horvat. “They were pioneers. It was outside-the-box thinking.”
The Restoration caused little trouble throughout the first Covid summer, when lockdowns eased and religious gatherings resumed. But when the province tightened restrictions again in the fall, the church became more rebellious. In October of 2020, a local couple, Kimberly and Terry Neudorf, organized a freedom rally at the public bandshell behind Aylmer’s town hall. Speakers called for the community to come together, for businesses to open without fear. They railed against masks and prophesied that the Trudeau government would, like the Nazis, be judged harshly for their actions. Hildebrandt led a prayer for the crowd of 200, which included dozens of Restoration members, one holding a sign with a quote attributed to Hildebrandt’s son: “If you’ve ever wondered whether you would have been a Stasi informant and snitched on your neighbours in East Germany, well, now you know.”
The rally caught Aylmer by surprise. The Neudorfs hadn’t applied for a permit to use the bandshell (they would have been denied), so town officials didn’t know what was coming. Horvat dispatched a number of officers to keep the peace. Passersby had started shouting at the demonstrators; one local loaded large speakers onto his pickup truck and played heavy metal to drown them out. Police refrained from issuing fines again, instead doubling down on warnings and education, hoping the church would fall in line. It didn’t work. “In fact,” Horvat says, “they became more defiant.”
In early November, the Neudorfs organized another freedom rally. It was 10 times bigger than the first, attracting 2,000 people from across Ontario. On high alert this time, the town declared a state of emergency. A dozen local shops closed for the day, anticipating a maskless mob. Horvat, whose small service employs 13 full-time officers, paired up with the nearby OPP detachment. Hildebrandt says the church was not involved in planning the rally, but Restoration members wearing reflective vests and earpieces provided security, and Hildebrandt once again ministered to the masses, exclaiming, “Welcome home to the nicest town in Canada.”
Later that day, united by their displeasure with the state, a bizarre coalition of devout churchgoers, fed-up parents, small business owners and agitated radicals chanted “freedom” as they marched through the streets of Aylmer. Protesters in MAGA hats walked alongside children in their Sunday best holding signs that said “Please let me be with my friends.”
At least one fight broke out between marchers and counter-protesters. A local sprayed the procession with his garden hose; when demonstrators charged at him, his wife launched a gourd at their heads. For many Aylmer residents, it was the most disruptive day in recent memory. Police eventually issued 104 tickets for violating lockdown orders, more than half of which were to non-Aylmerites. “The majority of our problems were created as a result of outsiders coming in,” says Horvat. “At some point, you realize these people are just not getting the message.”
In the wake of the rallies, a number of locals called for Horvat’s resignation. Residents asked why the church and its ilk got away with massive gatherings while law-abiding citizens were holed up in their homes. Conversely, Hildebrandt and his followers cried religious persecution. Thanks to media coverage of the rally, Horvat received letters from around the world telling him he was on the wrong side of the law, no better than a spineless official following Nazi orders. “You have to stay the course,” says Horvat. “You can’t try to please one side or the other. You have to look at the law.”
The Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees Canadians freedom of religion and the right to peaceful assembly. Several churches, including Hildebrandt’s, have filed Charter challenges against the government, arguing that Covid restrictions, including bans on religious gatherings, infringe on those freedoms. The courts will rule on those challenges in 2022. Many legal scholars suspect that judges will find that the government acted constitutionally, thanks to the first section of the Charter, which acknowledges that “reasonable limits” may be imposed upon Canadians’ rights and freedoms if those limits are “demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” During a global pandemic, the state has reasoned, it is sensible to limit individual freedoms if it benefits the collective citizenry. Restrictions might hinder the spiritual and mental health of Hildebrandt’s followers, but they do so in the service of saving lives.
The unenviable task of enforcing this line of thinking has largely fallen to Horvat and his officers. Throughout the winter and spring, they became a fixture at Restoration services, monitoring by drone, handing out tickets and maintaining order. Most of the interactions between the church and police have been the picture of small-town politeness, a string of thank yous and sorrys. But there have been exceptions. In total, police have laid nine criminal charges on six members of the Restoration group—one assault, plus three counts of intimidation and five counts of obstructing police. In December of 2020, Hildebrandt’s son Herbert allegedly shoved an 84-year-old man to the ground, leaving him with a cracked rib, after the man posted a pro-mask sign across the road from the church. (Herbert was charged with assault but says he acted in self-defence, and threatened to sue the man for libel.) This past spring, an out-of-town church attendee—easily distinguishable by his street clothes—violently charged at a local reporter, resulting in another assault charge. Visitors to Hildebrandt’s church have threatened police, blocking a cruiser from exiting the parking lot and asking where the officers’ children lived. Several locals say that church members have tailed their cars and photographed their licence plates. “We have tried to work with them,” says Horvat. But they continue to resist. “I am a little surprised by the stance they’ve taken because, at the end of the day, when this thing is over, they will still have to be part of this community.”
The tension between the Church of God Restoration and the rest of Aylmer is now palpable. In late 2020, locals began holding roadside protests against the church on Sunday mornings and boycotting local businesses with ties to the church, including a berry farm, a towing company and a restaurant. Eva Friesen was berated and banned from a store after walking in maskless. For a while, Adolf says, “I hated going into town.” In December, an anonymous Aylmerite started posting disturbing videos of a masked figure with a computerized voice threatening Hildebrandt and Kimberly Neudorf. “We have made it our mission to excommunicate you from the peaceful community of Aylmer,” the video warned.
“The community is split,” says Rayne Gelinas, a long-time resident who helped organize the roadside protests. “Aylmer used to be a quaint little town. Now it’s a hotspot for hate, intolerance and stupidity. And I can’t see a way back from that.” The unrest has taken a toll on the town. Mayor Mary French is worried people from surrounding regions will stop visiting and shopping in Aylmer. Brett Hueston, whose family runs the community newspaper and a printing company called the Aylmer Express Graphics Group, says he’s considering a rebrand of the printing division because of the name’s new baggage. “I’m born and raised here. My father is born and raised here. We’re Aylmer people,” he says. But, he continues, “Aylmer is hard to say, hard to spell, and now I’m worried about its reputation.”
On a sweltering afternoon in mid-August, I pulled into the Church of God Restoration parking lot to meet Hildebrandt. The church, a plain one-storey brick building, sits on a large, grassy lot on the north end of town, sandwiched between a Jehovah’s Witness temple and a No Frills where Hildebrandt no longer shops—the owner issued a statement asking people not to come in without a mask. The doors to the church were still padlocked by the province, so Hildebrandt greeted me outside, toting a bible and laminated copies of the Charter and the Criminal Code. As we sat down at a shaded picnic table, he introduced me to his entourage: Susan Mutch, a fellow Restoration apostle and long-time editor of the Gospel Trumpet, the church’s magazine; his son Herbert, who now serves as the church’s chief of security and publicist; and two 12-year-old boys, his grandson and a friend, who would record our interview.
I told Hildebrandt I wanted to understand his view on vaccines. At the core of his resistance is Restoration doctrine, which largely rejects Big Pharma and medical intervention and instead mandates holistic medicine (including exercise and nutrition) and relies on the power of prayer and divine healing. The church applies this approach unevenly, taking no issue with dental work or eyeglasses yet shunning medicine and surgery unless absolutely necessary. And if it is necessary, it carries social stigma. When members get sick, they consult the church’s elders, who pray for them. Illness and even death are treated as God’s will—to interfere would be a sign of spiritual weakness.
Hildebrandt also offered anecdotal reasoning. He told me he’d witnessed friends and family suffer ailments, including partial paralysis, after getting other vaccines. For that reason, he said, “My personal stance is that I would shy away from vaccination, period.” When I asked how he was sure the problems were caused by immunization, he said that doctors will admit, under pressure, that vaccines are unsafe. He then claimed that the Covid vaccine was an “experimental injection” with severe side effects—blood clots, paralysis, death—and no credible track record of being safe and effective.
When I asked how he would counsel a parishioner who was on the fence about getting vaccinated, he said he’d encourage them to do their own research and let them make their own decision. But members who break rank with church doctrine are often rebuked; Bob Mutch, the husband of apostle Susan Mutch, was excommunicated in 2008 for questioning the church’s stance on refusing medical help. Hildebrandt’s followers also have limited access to material produced outside the church. In the last year, the Gospel Trumpet has published erroneous and misleading articles about the health hazards of masks, the potential side effects of vaccines (cancer, Alzheimer’s and death, supposedly) and the checkered history of the pharmaceutical companies manufacturing them. An editorial by Susan Mutch begins, “If someone were to approach Bill Gates and Tony Fauci with the intent to give them a dose of the real Covid vaccine, I envision the vaccine duo running in horror for their lives. They know too much.”
This mirrors the stance of the Church of God Restoration at large. At a doctrinal meeting in November of 2020, the church’s leaders claimed that vaccines cause autism, ADHD, infertility and other serious illnesses. They intimated that U.S. politicians are profiting monetarily from vaccine development, and they suggested that Bill Gates is the devil in human form, trying to prevent the church from gathering. One apostle performed an original song that mentioned Gates by name, singing, If I was the devil, I’d make up a brew / I’d get a needle and inject it into you. Hildebrandt commented on a livestream of the meeting, saying, “Praise the Lord from Ontario, Canada.”
I asked Hildebrandt if he’d considered the possibility that he and his church might be wrong. Research shows that vaccines greatly reduce the likelihood of hospitalization and death. Could they be putting members in danger by advising against getting the vaccine? Hildebrandt wouldn’t entertain the premise of my question. “I would be putting people in danger by encouraging them to get vaccinated,” he said. “How am I supposed to be an advocate for the devil and play both sides?”
The Restoration’s rejection of modern medicine has led to tragedy before. Twenty years ago, a couple from the church were charged with involuntary manslaughter after their 11-month-old daughter died from untreated meningitis. Around the same time, Manitoba officials investigated Hildebrandt’s brother, who’d lost two children of his own; the London Free Press reported that one child died after being born at home prematurely and that the other passed away from a lung ailment when the family refused to put the child on oxygen. (Hildebrandt denies these reports, claiming that his sister-in-law had two miscarriages. No charges were laid.)
In the early 2000s, Children’s Aid received a tip that a couple who followed Hildebrandt were striking their children with straps, and failing to procure necessary medical care for their injuries. Social workers removed seven children from the home, resulting in a media frenzy. Church members called it a “barbaric raid” and argued that corporal punishment was sanctioned by the Bible. In the following months, more than 100 women and children from the Aylmer congregation temporarily fled to the U.S. over fears that Children’s Aid would come for their kids, too. In 2002, the church changed its doctrine to permit children to access necessary medical attention.
Adults, however, are still expected to refrain. A few years ago, Elizabeth Oppel, one of the church’s apostles, visited an Aylmer congregant named Diedrich Froese, who’d fallen ill. Afterwards, she publicly proclaimed that God would heal Froese; in fact, she’d told him to do so. “We can command God,” Oppel allegedly said. “Lord, you’re going to look real bad now unless you do something here for us.” Froese died in June 2019. He was 29. Several other members of the Restoration have reportedly died after neglecting to take medication or seek medical attention for conditions including heart failure, cancer and diabetes.
In the past, the church put only its own members in danger by eschewing medical intervention. Covid changes the equation. By refusing to get vaccinated, church members aren’t just putting themselves at risk; they could also infect others, including the hundreds of unvaccinated new churchgoers who flock to the Restoration every Sunday. So far, apart from a rash of 100 cases at the Ontario Police College in Aylmer, the town has escaped a major outbreak. Gelinas, the counter-protest organizer, worries that may change: “If Henry continues to do this stuff and exposes the community to Delta, people will die.”
On the eve of the American election in November 2016, the Gospel Trumpet published an article titled “8 Reasons Why We Are Not Involved in Politics,” outlining why Restoration members don’t vote, run for office or opine on government. Why, just five years later, has Hildebrandt become a political provocateur, haranguing Justin Trudeau and Doug Ford in his sermons, inviting elected officials to speak to his congregation and endorsing the People’s Party of Canada?
Hildebrandt told me he’s been accused of seeking attention. “I’ve been doing this since 1991,” he continued. “Shame on me if it took me 30 years to get attention.” Hueston, the Aylmer Express editor, says Hildebrandt doesn’t seem motivated by money, either. He doesn’t pass around a collection basket at Sunday service. He lives in a modest single-storey home in Aylmer and drives a workaday Volkswagen crossover. “I don’t see Henry driving around in a Rolls-Royce,” says Hueston. “I don’t see him jet-setting to Hawaii.”
Like any serious preacher, Hildebrandt wants to scale his operation. The Restoration is, at its core, an evangelical church, dedicated to growing its numbers. And nothing has attracted followers like Hildebrandt’s anti-authority activism. In recent months, Hildebrandt’s services have attracted not just Restoration members but a colourful collection of visitors, some of them sporting purple People’s Party caps and Infowars T-shirts. “When the judge ordered the doors locked, that instantly doubled the attendance,” he says. “A revival has begun. An awakening is taking place.”
To Hildebrandt, the newcomers are the fulfillment of a grim prophecy millennia in the making. The Restoration believes that the end of the world is imminent, that Jesus will return to save true believers and, in church parlance, “take vengeance in flaming fire on all sinners and dissolve the universe.” Layne believed that the one true church would grow by the millions right before the Rapture. The church has repeated this prophecy ad nauseam. “We stand on the verge of eternity and the soon-coming of our blessed Lord,” a typical Gospel Trumpet editorial proclaimed. “Prepare to meet your God.” Through the eyes of a church anticipating the apocalypse, 2021 probably looks a lot like the end: a worldwide pandemic, climate change, civil unrest, oceans on fire and, now, a surging membership. After decades of preparing for Earth’s grand finale, Hildebrandt and his church can taste it. “We know that the end is coming,” he says.
When Hildebrandt approached the microphone on a Sunday morning in early September, the crowd rose to its feet, clapping and cheering. They sat rapt, listening as he began to tell the story of Gamaliel, a lawyer who appears in the Acts of the Apostles, the section of the Bible following Jesus’ death. When Jewish authorities prohibited the apostles from preaching the gospel, Gamaliel argued that the government should leave them alone. The message was clear: Gamaliel resisted government to serve God; so should the Restoration. “Just let us be,” a man shouted from the congregation.
After the service, as a mix of old-guard Restoration members and neophytes lined up for a build-your-own-taco station, I spoke with Peter Blahut, a retired Canada Post mail carrier in a baseball cap. When his usual church, a Catholic parish in Brantford, closed due to Covid, he called the local diocese and asked why they weren’t defying the law and opening up. “Church is essential,” he says. The diocese wasn’t willing to breach provincial guidelines, but Blahut soon found a church that would. In May, he came across footage of Hildebrandt being locked out of the church and vowing to keep gathering. Every Sunday since, Blahut and his wife and son have attended Hildebrandt’s services, drawn by the Restoration’s energy and excitement. He’s followed Hildebrandt to rallies around southern Ontario. Even when his old parish reopens, he says, “I’d rather just come back here.” I asked Blahut whether he’d ever trade in his civvies for the Restoration’s black and white uniform. He didn’t hesitate: no. For Hildebrandt, that’s okay. For now, at least, the relationship is symbiotic. Hildebrandt fills his pews, and the newcomers find a like-minded community.
At a recent church-wide doctrinal meeting, chief apostle Tinsman told members that it was time for the church to cut ties with banks and governments and form a self-sustaining agrarian community, where members would take up work as farmers, tailors, cooks and cobblers. Then he asked for their help building such a society. “It’s time to put our money where our faith is. We don’t need bullets. We don’t need tanks. We need your George Washingtons,” he said. He told members to downsize their houses and give the funds to the church. “If you believe this, you need to empty out your IRAs and your 401(k)s. It’s time to go for broke.”
James DeGraffenreid, a former Restoration minister in Indiana, says Tinsman’s ambitions are a radical departure from the church that Layne founded. DeGraffenreid is a bespectacled, bearded man in his 60s who is warm but serious. He says Layne would not have asked members to forfeit their savings, nor to pray to God through his name, as Tinsman often does. “The Restoration is full of dear, dear people who want to love the Lord and live for him. Some of them have been there a long time, and these ministers have browbeaten them and forced them to accept changes that were not a part of their beliefs even 10 years ago,” he says. Like others who have left the Restoration, he was shunned and separated from his loved ones. It seems as if he’s still reeling from the rift that the church created in his family: his wife and son and some grandchildren have left the church, but his daughter-in-law and other kids and grandkids remain. “I fear for my family that is still there,” he says. “These people are completely and entirely under the thumb of this ministry, and it’s not going to get better. It’s going to get worse. People know what happened in Jonestown in the late ’70s,” when the doomsday preacher Jim Jones convinced more than 900 of his followers to kill themselves by drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. “I’m not exaggerating when I say that this Restoration group is headed for the same thing.”
It was the spirit of resistance that drew hundreds to Hildebrandt. Given the level of compliance he demands from his followers, the same spirit may eventually drive them away. “We’re not claiming that every single one of them will stay,” says Hildebrandt. Yet he has plans to grow. He told me he wants to convert his existing church into a bigger school and build another complex—a sacred, self-sufficient church hall with space for a thousand worshippers, a gym, a cafeteria and an extended parking lot. In the meantime, he is considering pitching a heated tent on the lawn so that he and his followers can continue to gather through the winter and lament the next wave of Covid-containment measures: vaccine passports, immunization mandates, booster shots. “You’ll have to get ready to burn us at the stake, because Christians are known to never give up.”
The question is not so much what to do with Hildebrandt and his followers, but how to come to grips with what he represents: the millions who embrace misinformation and ignore science. There are pockets of defiant malcontent in hundreds of communities across Canada, hurling gravel at Trudeau and picketing hospitals. The pandemic won’t go away so long as they persist. And they will persist. To them, the fate of the world depends on it.
This story appears in the November 2021 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe for just $29.95 a year, click here.