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Pastor Walter “Chick” McGill, the leader of a small congregation in the town of Guys Tennessee, is serving time in a San Bernardino County prison for his use of the name “Seventh Day Adventist.”
McGill became a member of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination in the mid-1970’s after attending an evangelistic crusade in Knoxville, Tennessee conducted by Adventist minister and evangelist Kenneth Cox. McGill says that as a result of the meetings, he was baptized by Cox and “became a zealous member of the world-wide Seventh-day Adventist Church.”
On his website, McGill states that while attending the University of Montana in Missoula, his on-campus ministry “boosted him to candidacy for church elder, though his conservative stands prevented him from achieving eldership.” Conflict with his local congregation would eventually lead to his leaving the Adventist denomination, though he remained convinced of core Adventist ideas. He fervently studied the writings of Ellen G. White and of the pioneers of the Adventist denomination, becoming convinced in the process that perfection of moral character--”victory over sin”--was not only possible, but also required for one’s salvation.
McGill states that the final factor in deciding to break ranks with the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church was a 1989 lawsuit against John Marik. Marik led the twelve-member Seventh-Day Adventist Congregational Church in Kealakekua, Hawaii, and like McGill was a former Seventh-day Adventist. The General Conference Corporation of Seventh-day Adventists successfully sued Marik for for trademark and service mark infringement, unfair competition, and false designation of origin.
In 1991 McGill and his associates founded the “Remnant Church of Creation 7th Day Adventists.” The name was thereafter changed to the equally verbose “A Creation Seventh Day & Adventist Church.”
McGill states that the naming of the church was a matter of divine inspiration.
“One brother and myself had identical visions,” he said, in which they were instructed to take the name “Creation Seventh Day Adventist Church.” McGill’s website lists Danny Smith as the church’s co-namer.
According to McGill’s account of events, in 1991, he told the fledgling congregation that at some future time the Creation Seventh Day Adventist name would face a lawsuit and persecution because of their use of the divinely-inspired name “Seventh Day Adventists.” McGill told the congregation that “this would amount to religious persecution and that Christ’s second advent would follow close behind the conflict.”
McGill claimed that his prophecy came true in 2005 when the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists formally requested that he cease using the name Seventh Day Adventists for the church and on various websites McGill owned.
Lawsuit and Arrest Warrants
In early 2009, the Seventh-day Adventist Church successfully sued McGill, his associate Lucan Chartier and the eleven-member congregation for trademark infringement.
On May 28, Federal Judge J. Daniel Breen issued a decision that
Defendant [Walter McGill] and his agents, servants and employees, and all those persons in active concert or participation with them, are forever enjoined from using the mark SEVENTH-DAY ADVENTIST, including the use of the words SEVENTH-DAY ADVENTIST, or the acronym SDA, either together, apart or as part of, or as a part of, or in combination with any other words, phrases, acronyms or designs, or any mark similar thereto or likely to cause confusion therewith, in the sale, offering for sale, distribution, promotion, provision or advertising of any products and services, and including on the Internet, in any domain name, key words, metatags, links, and any other use for the purpose of directing Internet traffic, at any locality in the United States.”
In spite of the court’s orders, the congregation did not remove the words “A Creation Seventh Day & Adventist Church” from the converted gas station they used as their meeting place. In February, a crew ripped the letters of the church’s name from the building as a lawyer for the Adventist denomination stood by.
Shortly after, the words were back up. Chartier hand-painted the words “Creation Seventh Day Adventist Church” on the building after consultation with McGill according to court documents. Meanwhile McGill was purportedly doing missionary work in Uganda, Africa.
In April 2012, U.S. District Court Judge J. Daniel Breen found McGill and Chartier in contempt of court and issued arrest warrants. Breen also fined both men $500 and ordered that they pay the plaintiffs’ court costs.
McGill was traveling in the United States when he found out about the warrant for his arrest. On Friday, July 13, he checked into an inn in Loma Linda where he planned to spend the weekend. On Saturday he intended to attend a Sabbath School at the Loma Linda University Church and distribute flyers. Sunday he planned a press conference on the Loma Linda University Church campus, after which he planned to turn himself in to U.S. Marshals. However, things did not go to plan.
Loma Linda University Church staff had learned of McGill’s plans and had notified campus security to watch for him. McGill was seen Friday afternoon, and campus security apprehended him and turned him over to county law enforcement.
Jail Time and Cleansing Fast
McGill was taken to the San Bernardino County Central Detention Center. Upon arrival he indicated that he would not eat any solid foods for the duration of his imprisonment.
On the fourth day of his fast, Monday, July 16, I spoke exclusively with McGill at the detention center about his legal battle with the Adventist denomination and about his incarceration.
For twenty minutes, McGill stood at the visiting window in an orange jumpsuit and told his story.
“It’s punishing to the flesh,” he said of the prison. “The company is not the best, but I’m learning the rules. I may be the only one here with no criminal record,” he added.
McGill said that he had hoped to pass flyers to members of the Loma Linda University Church to raise awareness about the denomination’s treatment of his congregation, and to create corporate accountability. He planned to turn himself in because he was not hiding or running, he said. He chose Loma Linda as the place to do it because he felt the campus was symbolic.
Asked about what beliefs distinguished his congregation from the Adventist denomination, he pointed to three things: First, he suggested that the early Adventists were non-trinitarian until after the death of co-founder Ellen White. For McGill, the Holy Spirit is part of the godhead, but not a personal God as are the Father and Son. Second, McGill holds to the doctrine of “total victory over sin.” Finally, and perhaps most significantly, McGill believes that the Seventh-day Adventist denomination is the “Fallen Babylon” described in Revelation because of its use of civil authorities in disputes such as McGill’s.
McGill rejected the idea that his refusal to eat was a hunger strike. He preferred to call it a cleansing fast that he hoped would set an example of self denial. “Society is toxic,” McGill said flatly. He said he had been told his detention could last for up to ninety days, and indicated that he was prepared to fast for the duration because God had instructed him to do so.
On Saturday, McGill said, he had experienced some pain and headaches, but hoped that he would not be force fed. He expressed concern that he had not been given legal counsel regarding force feeding.
McGill reported that a prison nurse had put him under surveillance because of his refusal to eat, and that he was staying in the prison’s infirmary. He had made friends by sharing his food, and remained upbeat despite the seriousness of his situation.
“A deputy told me he’d have to put me in with the bubble gum thieves,” McGill laughed.
Asked whether he had a message for his wife and his congregation, he said that he was advising them to avoid subpoenas. “And tell them I love them all.” His voice broke and he teared up at the mention of his loved ones.
McGill was unsure what might come after his release, and seemed concerned whether he would live long enough to see the day. “I don’t wanna die,” he said, “but I don’t know if I can go ninety days.” He was satisfied with waiting to hear from God, but suggested that two alternatives could be to abort his church work and return to Africa, or to continue battling for what he felt was his freedom of conscience.
The Adventist Church’s Position
When asked for comment on the situation, the Seventh-day Adventist Church issued a statement which read in part:
It is not now nor has it been the intention of the Seventh-day Adventist Church to shut down McGill’s ministry or for him to be jailed. Recent developments are results of actions taken by the court because Mr. McGill did not comply with the court’s ruling.
We believe that Mr. McGill has the right to exercise his religious beliefs and
operate a ministry, however to falsely identify himself with an organization of which he is not a part, is not acceptable. This false association confuses the public, media and at times members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The Seventh-day Adventist Church has processes and procedures for establishing and maintaining congregations.
In a phone conversation, Church PR Director Garrett Caldwell described religious liberty as the ability for one to practice what they choose to believe or not to believe, but added that at issue is not the free practice of religion. “It is improper identification at the least, and deception at the most,” Caldwell said.
Caldwell indicated that the Adventist Church’s concern in this case is maintaining the precision with which Adventism is defined.
“The Adventist Church must be able to maintain clarity over who we are and who we’re not; it’s important to insist that if you call yourself by name ‘Seventh-day Adventist,’ then you adhere to what organization believes and practices,” Caldwell said.
Asked to comment on McGill’s imprisonment, Caldwell stated, “The church has only concerned itself with his using the name ‘Seventh-day Adventist.’ Everything that resulted from his failure to agree with what the court handed down is his responsibility.”
According to a report in the Press Enterprise, McGill will serve his sentence in California--most likely in San Bernardino County where he was apprehended.
In an email interview, Lucan Chartier described himself Pastor McGill's assistant who helps with emails, repair work on the church, answering phone calls and occasionally filling in to preach. Chartier said that he has not yet received official notice of a warrant for his arrest.