This is one in a series of guest posts authored by students in an undergraduate course I taught during Spring 2014, “Protestantism and the Development of American Culture.” Each student’s task was to write an informative essay explaining some way that Protestants have shaped (or tried to shape) American culture. Students knew that their essays would be posted to this blog, so they would have a real-world online audience.
Students are entirely responsible for the content and quality of their essays; I am merely the vehicle for broadcasting them (though on the whole I’m reasonably pleased with the results).
Protestant Influence on the Klan, or Not?
By Arissa Bryant
As college students, we are extremely familiar with Greek Life. We tend to associate fraternities with Greek letter adorned chapter houses and huge alcohol abundant parties. However, fraternities haven’t always been about the beautiful sponsored houses and raging party scene. One of the earliest fraternities formed is now known better as the Ku Klux Klan. The founder, Colonel William Joseph Simmons actually envisioned the Klan as the ultimate fraternal lodge http://www.amazon.com/The-Rise-Klux-Klan-Right-Wing/dp/0816656207.
The Ku Klux Klan is a uniquely different kind of fraternity.
The Ku Klux Klan is debatably the most prominent and feared group to make its mark in the history of Civil Rights. They are mostly symbolized by the wearing of white, pointed hoods and the burning of crosses. While many know to associate the Klan with the image of the burning cross, many don’t know the actual extent of Protestant influence on this group of individuals.
Background of the Klan
“Beginning in 1915, the Ku Klux Klan organized to advance the interests of native-born, white, Protestant Americans and to restrict the rights and freedoms of individuals the organization chose to exclude by virtue of their racial, ethnic, or religious identities.” http://www.amazon.com/The-Rise-Klux-Klan-Right-Wing/dp/0816656207
Founded by a white, former Preacher named Colonel William J. Simmons, the Klan struggled for support in the beginning but eventually began to thrive and spread across the nation thanks to the strategic thinking of its most prominent leaders. These leaders would stop at nothing to get the membership and support they desired, using money, advertisements, public-speaking events, etc. to increase their numbers. Less than 6 years after the birth of the Klan, the organization was estimated to have 500,000 members in forty-five states.
One doesn’t usually think to associate a religion like Protestantism, known for its love and open arm teachings, with the Ku Klux Klan, a group historically associated with strong racism, hate and violent crimes. However, with a closer look at this group the Protestant influence is quite apparent.
Slavery caused a divide between American Protestant churches that began in 1838 with the Presbyterian Church. The divide continued on into the Methodist episcopal and Baptist denominations in 1844 and 1845. In each sect, the northern faction condemned slavery while the southern branches praised it. The racist gospel was then drilled into generations of white southern children. http://www.amazon.com/The-Klux-Klan-Organization-Activities/dp/0786427876
In Michael Newton’s book “The Ku Klux Klan”, he noted that both versions of the first Klan’s prescript opened with a statement averring that all Klansmen ‘reverently acknowledge the Majesty and Supremacy of the Divine Being, and recognize the Goodness and Providence of the Same’. For many Klansmen, there was no doubt that they were acting in God’s favor. In fact, Lambert said in his book “Religion in American Politics” that members believed that as a part of the organization, they were helping to “defeat the enemies of ‘true’ Christianity and restore morality”. http://www.amazon.com/Religion-American-Politics-Short-History/dp/0691146136
Traces of Protestant influence is not only seen in the earliest prescripts but also in ceremony of becoming a Klansmen, better known as the ritual of naturalization. Kelly Baker describes the ritual process in his book, “Gospel According to the Klan”. The ritual is concluded with the pouring of water on the new inductee’s shoulders, head and the throwing a few drops in the air symbolizing his/her dedication ‘in body, mind and spirit’. The usage of water holds resemblance to the Christian ritual of baptism, which symbolizes the act of giving your life to God. In a Christian baptism, a person is usually submerged in water to represent the act of giving their lives to Christ or being ‘born again’.
Protestant churches were an important potential source of not only members but also resources. Klan members are documented to have done various things to win favor from Protestant congregations, including various visitations and monetary gifts to prominent congregations. This attention did not go unnoticed however. In Rory McVeigh’s book, “The Rise of the Ku Klux Klan”, he noted that “in return for the Klan’s support of Protestant churches, Klan leaders expected (and received) endorsements from Protestant clergy.” These endorsements weren’t always in monetary form. In exchange for their support and or membership, clergymen were offered free membership, complimentary subscriptions to Klan publications, and the promise to actively promote the supremacy of Protestant Christianity
Protestant influence is clear in the movement’s song selections. “Onward Christian Soldiers” was actually one of the Klan’s favorite anthems. With lyrics such as “Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before. Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe.” http://www.hymnsite.com/lyrics/umh575.sht A huge initiation or naturalization ceremony in Pueblo, Colorado ended with the singing of “Blest Be the Tie That Binds”. Opening with the lyrics “Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love” http://www.hymnsite.com/lyrics/umh575.sht, both of these songs are Christian hymns that show the Protestant manner many Klan events followed.
Protestants have always been known for their ability to attract new followers. This is an ability that the Ku Klux Klan seemed to have in common. “Simmons made use of his fraternal ties to recruit new members and, drawing upon the skills that he crafted as a circuit-riding preacher, used fiery religious oratory in public-speaking engagements to motivate the audience members to join his new organization” http://www.amazon.com/The-Rise-Klux-Klan-Right-Wing/dp/0816656207 . These huge engagements were similar in appearance to large Protestant revivals, complete with religious language and high emotions. The Klan definitely didn’t shy away from the media to spread the word about their organization. “Colonel Simmons strategically placed advertisements for his new organization in the Atlanta Newspapers, alongside promos for showings of ‘The birth of a Nation’” http://www.amazon.com/The-Rise-Klux-Klan-Right-Wing/dp/0816656207 . Protestants also frequented the media with Christian ads being heard consistently on radio stations.
National recognition was a goal of the Ku Klux Klan’s from the very beginning. Like Protestantism during the Great Awakening, the Klan hoped to spread like wildfire. Also, like Protestantism they aimed to promote the organization as attractive to many, not some. Simmons even solicited members by labeling the organization as a “High Class Order for Men of Intelligence and Character”. What man wouldn’t want to be a part of that?
On The Contrary
While, the Klan claimed to be an order created by God, there were many Christians who begged to differ. In the same speed that their number of supporters grew, so did their number of contenders. A big opponent to the religious claims of the Klan was actually a previous member named Henry Fry. Baker mentions Fry in his book, explaining his many complaints against the Klan. In a letter of resignation to the order, Fry denounced the Klan’s ritualistic work as an insult to all Christian people in America.
Fry believed the Klan’s ritualistic practices to be offensive to his Christianity which was extremely sacred to him. In his opinion, the Naturalization process made a “mockery and parody” of the Christian holy rite of baptism. The fact that a members did a Baptism-like procession to give their life to an organization such as the Ku Klux Klan sickened him.
One thing the Klan became extremely well known for is their secrecy. Nothing quite Protestant like about that. However, even though the Klan had a knack for secrecy, most of its officers are known, but this is because of public statements or illegal actions that propelled them into headlines (not really choice). The Klan was often referred to as the invisible empire. The Protestant religion is more about visibility than secrecy.
Some might even argue that the Ku Klux Klan is more Catholic-like than Protestant-like. The wearing of the white hooded robes could be compared to the wearing of robes by Catholic priests. They had large ceremonial meetings in which leaders spoke their beliefs onto the members. This importance of and frequent occurrence of ceremonial like gatherings is a huge part of the Catholic faith.
While many look at anyone in or supporting the Ku Klux Klan as sinners, full of hatred, they see themselves as the total opposite. They believe they are the only true Christians, with every seemingly evil act they commit being in his name. Looking at the number of ministers, preachers and congregations in support of the organization, it’s not hard to believe that the Klan had some sort of religious affiliation. Not to mention, their many Protestant-like practices including the reliance on gospel music and the revival like public events. While the Protestant influence is clear, so is the abundance of contradictions. This includes their claim to not be a racist organization and their declaration of minorities as their enemies. These many contradictions brought controversy, and like many controversial groups they had their fair share of opponents, a number of which happened to be Christian ministers. Nonetheless, recognizing the fact that the founders and countless members of the Ku Klux Klan believed they were doing their duties as Christians opens up a whole new realm of thought on the history of Civil Rights.