Born in Lynn, Massachusetts, William Dudley Pelley grew up in poverty. He was the son of William George Apsey Pelley and his wife Grace Goodale. His father was initially a Southern Methodist Church minister. The senior Pelley later went in business as a printer.
According to "The Door to Revelation" (1939), the autobiography of Pelley, he could not remember his early life in Lynn. His earliest memories dated to when he was about two-years-old, residing in Prescott, Massachusetts. Pelley reports "My first observations of life that impressed themselves upon my mind and caused me to marvel at the mortal status in which I now found myself, began in that parsonage beside a country church. My father was pastor in that church. I was his only son—between two and three years old. He was a very young and earnest pastor, my father, in the Methodist denomination. He was very pink in his aquiline face, as I remember him first in those far-off years, very slim in his build, and took a vast amount of pride in the assumption that the Tribe of Pelley could trace its genealogy back in an unbroken line to one Sir John Pelley, knighted and sponsored by Good Queen Elizabeth which attested, of course, that the Pelleys were English."
"It was a very lonely spot, the location of that dusty wayside church. On the eastern side of the parsonage stretched a graveyard. There was no other house in sight…. About that graveyard I thought a lot about. It was a very pleasant place in which to play, among those mossy headstones, finding berries in the brambles along its hoary fences. But when on week-day afternoons I saw the buggies of farmer folk draw up around the church, or when the weather beaten sheds in the rear had been filled with stamping horses, and after strange services for the midweek our neighbors brought out a long, black, cloth-covered box from the church's sacrosanct interior, toted it slowly up the road, and bore it in among the senile headstones, I knew a Nameless Horror. What was contained in those heavy narrow boxes that made our parishioners act so stricken and constrained? Why were they always that dull unglistening black? I appealed to my mother. She always said, "Hush!" and cast a glance at father..." ... "At the end of those two years father received a "call" to a larger parish in East Templeton —still in Massachusetts. The town was bigger, the church was bigger, so too was the parsonage. This last was a gaunt, two-story house set behind lugubrious pines that moaned softly when the wind swished through them on rainy autumn nights. You know how pine trees might be—great Norway pines—standing before a parsonage in a bleak New England village…
Pelley gives a short description of his parents and their personal history:"A more wholesome man than my father never lived. He was clean in his thinking, he was clean in his living. He had his peculiarities, indeed who has not? He aroused my ire on a hundred times when I had become a normal young American going about life's business on my own. But neither blood taint nor soul taint did he ever bequeath me. For that I can overlook our lesser dissensions. The Pelleys had been clean living, deeply religious people ever since the first Pelley set foot on Newfoundland. Mayhap that North Atlantic storm took all of the worldliness out of the runaway Pelley and set him on land aptly frightened at God. In her religious scruples and conscientious living, mother equaled father. If either of them erred in my early upbringing, it was by giving me an overdose of personal and domestic sanctimony, painful but guileless. Still, people took their religion seriously up in New England fifty years ago. And besides, my father was a minister. I, his son, had to measure to my role.
"At just what life period father "got religion" I have never been advised. I believe his age was fourteen years when his parents brought him down here to "the States" and he started to work in the shoe shops of Lynn. He was foreman of the Valpey & Anthony stitching room when he met and married mother. They set up a modest home on Henry Avenue, in Lynn, moving later into Goodrich Street, where I was inducted into a new mortal coil at seven minutes to one o'clock on the morning of March 12, 1890. Let astrologers do with that date what they will… " ... "Back there in 1893 my father had never heard of esoterics. My parents knew nothing of any aspects of life but those which offered them food and clothing, made them conform to current social dictates and impressed upon them that the Age of Miracles closed nineteen hundred years bygone—when our Lord took a sort of celestial levitation to heavenly realms, thereafter to become divine counsel for the defense, leaving the earth to run itself and talk about His visit through all future time. In short, they were devout, clean living, orthodox people, strictly circumscribed by the Puritanic code of ethics and a literal interpretation of the Jewish Holy Scriptures.
Largely self-educated, Pelley became a journalist as a young man and quickly gained respect for his writing skills, his articles eventually appearing in national publications. Following World War I, Pelley traveled extensively throughout Europe and Asia as a foreign correspondent. He particularly spent a great deal of time in Russia and witnessed much of the atrocities of the Russian Civil War. Pelley’s experiences in Russia left him with a deep hatred for Communism and Jews, whom he believed were planning to conquer the world.
Upon returning to the United States in 1920, Pelley went to Hollywood, where he became a screenwriter, credited with writing the Lon Chaney films The Light in the Dark and The Shock. By 1929, Pelley had become disillusioned with the movie industry, and moved to Asheville, North Carolina.
In 1928, Pelley claimed to have had an out-of-body experience, which he detailed in the pamphlet "My Seven Minutes in Eternity." Pelley subsequently became fascinated with metaphysics and Christianity and gained a new-found popularity with his numerous publications on the subjects.
When the Great Depression struck America in 1929, Pelley became enraptured with politics. After moving to Asheville, Pelley founded Galahad College in 1932. The college specialized in correspondence, "Social Metaphysics," and "Christian Economics" courses. He also founded Galahad Press, which he used to publish various political and metaphysical magazines, newspapers, and books.
In 1933, when Adolf Hitler seized control of Germany, Pelley (an ardent fascist and admirer of Hitler and Mein Kampf) was inspired to form a political movement and founded the Silver Legion, a fascist organization whose followers (known as the Silver Shirts and "Christian Patriots") wore Nazi-like silver uniforms. The Silver Legion’s emblem was a scarlet L, which was featured on their flags and uniforms. Pelley founded chapters of the Silver Legion in almost every state in the country, and soon gained a considerable number of followers.
Pelley was highly mobile throughout the 1930s, traversing all the regions of the United States and orchestrating mass rallies, lectures, and public speeches in order to attract Americans to his organization. Pelley’s political ideology essentially consisted of anti-Communism, antisemitism, racism, extreme patriotism, and isolationism, themes which were the primary focus of his numerous magazines and newspapers, which included Liberation, Pelley's Silvershirt Weekly, The Galilean, and The New Liberator. Of these publications, the February 3, 1934 edition of Liberation contained an infamous antisemitic canard known as The Franklin Prophecy, which claimed that Benjamin Franklin warned Americans not to allow Jews to benefit from the United States Constitution. This forgery has been disproven and revised often throughout the rest of the 20th Century, and was even used in Osama Bin Laden's 2002 "Letter to the American People.
Pelley was also a vicious opponent of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal, and as such founded the Christian Party and ran for president in 1936, basing his campaign out west in Washington. Pelley’s activities eventually gained him the ire of Roosevelt and his supporters, and charges were drawn up against the Silver Shirts in 1940. Pelley's Asheville headquarters was subsequently raided by federal marshals, his followers there arrested, and his property seized. Pelley himself was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and charged with tax evasion.
Despite serious financial and material setbacks to his organization resulting from lengthy court battles, Pelley continued to oppose Roosevelt, especially as the diplomatic relationships of the United States with the Empire of Japan and Nazi Germany became more strained in the early 1940s. Pelley accused Roosevelt of being a warmonger and advocated isolationism, stances which would give political ammunition to the enemies of fellow isolationist Charles Lindbergh (according to A. Scott Berg's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Lindbergh had never even met Pelley). Although the Attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 led to the immediate collapse of the Silver Legion, Pelley continued to attack the government with a new magazine called Roll Call, which alarmed Roosevelt, Attorney General Francis Biddle, and the House Un-American Activities Committee. After claiming in one issue of Roll Call that the devastation of the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor was worse than the government claimed, Pelley was arrested at his new base of operations in Noblesville, Indiana and charged with high treason and sedition in April 1942. In a much publicized trial, the major charges against Pelley were dropped, but he was still sentenced to 15 years imprisonment.
After the long trial, an impoverished Pelley was unable to launch an appeal, and remained in prison until 1950, when his relatives and supporters raised enough money to appeal his case. He was paroled later that year, on the condition that he never engage in political activity again. Pelley subsequently returned to Noblesville, where he founded Soulcraft Press and began publishing metaphysical and political magazines and books once again. In his new career Pelley functioned partially as a cult leader, channelling spiritual revelations from "higher intelligences" via automatic writing.
In his political publications, Pelley frequently attacked Roosevelt’s legacy and espoused anti-United Nations, pro-segregation, and antisemitic sentiments. In his final years, Pelley dealt with charges of securities fraud that had been brought against him while he had lived in Asheville. Pelley died in Noblesville on July 1, 1965, at the age of 75, where he is buried.