Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930
By Kelly J. Baker
University Press of Kansas, 2011, 326 pp.
When most people think of the Ku Klux Klan, they think of the original, Reconstruction-era (1865-1871) Klan and its unabashed aim to stymie the advancement of Blacks in the postbellum South via intimidation and violence. The reconstituted KKK was founded on Stone Mountain, Georgia in 1915. While Blacks were still a concern to the re-born KKK, the heavy influx of “ethnically-inferior” Catholics and Jews from Eastern and Alpine Europe was also perceived as a serious threat to White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant-American society. The 1920s Klan would largely use political means to oppose their perceived foes rather than violence.
In this book, Professor Baker examines the philosophy of the 1920s Klan through articles from its own publications. She focuses especially on the KKK’s image of itself as the defenders of the Protestant “gospel” against the onslaught of immigrant Catholic papists loyal to the Vatican and against the cosmopolitan Jew with their Christ-denying religion. But Baker unsurprisingly does not define the gospel other than a nebulous belief in Jesus Christ. According to her understanding, the Protestant and Catholic gospels were/are similar excepting Catholics’ fealty to the pope. She transfers her misunderstanding of the opposing gospels to the Klan, claiming they had no problems with Catholic doctrine except for loyalty to the papacy. That clearly was NOT the case. Some/many in the Klan were genuine Christians and were well aware of the genuine Gospel of salvation by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone in contrast to Catholicism’s false gospel of salvation by sacramental grace and merit.
While many Protestants of the era objected to the Klan’s postbellum legacy of violence, they strongly sympathized with the new Klan and its anti-immigrant message. Many White Protestants of the era shared the Klan’s belief in Anglo-Saxon ethnic/racial superiority and were anxious regarding the future of their daughters in a nation that was becoming a “melting pot,” with the increasing threat of “miscegenation,” the interbreeding of people of different racial (and ethnic) types.
The KKK was surprisingly popular in 1920s America and attracted a large number of members and sympathizers in the mid-Atlantic and mid-Western states in addition to the South (see chart). Many conservative-evangelical churches of the 1920s came down on the wrong side of history regarding the resurgent 1920s Ku Klux Klan. The chaplain of each chapter usually doubled as the pastor of a local, Protestant church. When did the appeal of the Klan start to wane? The scandalous news of the rape and murder of a young, single woman by David Curtiss “Steve” Stephenson, the Grand Dragon of the Indiana Klan, in 1925 precipitated the public’s loss of confidence in the organization.
Like many historians, Baker scoffs at 1920s-era Protestants’ suspicions of American Catholics’ dual loyalties, but makes no mention of papal condemnations of democratic forms of government and freedom of religion as late as pope Leo XIII’s Testem benevolentiae nostrae encyclical, written in 1890, which condemned “Americanism.” Baker feigns a lack of scholarly expertise regarding current events, but then proceeds to draw many comparisons between the Christian nationalism of the 1920s Klan and the Christian nationalism of the Tea Party (and by extension, Trump’s MAGA-ism). There certainly are parallels, but equating the Tea Party/MAGA-ism to the Klan is as slanderously inaccurate as saying all Democrats are Marxists.
Personal note: After I was saved out of Roman Catholicism and trusted in Jesus Christ as my Savior in 1983, I began collecting reference materials about the Catholic church. One of the books I purchased was “House of Death and Gate of Hell” (originally published in 1918) about the horrors of Catholic convents written by evangelist and ex-Catholic, L.J. King. To my surprise, included in the text were several positive references to the Ku Klux Klan. I was also surprised when I learned the Klan wasn’t restricted to the South as I had previously thought. In my studies of Rochester history, I learned that the local chapter of the KKK burnt crosses near the newly-constructed Monroe Community Hospital in the early 1930s because the edifice was partially designed by the area’s first Black architect, Thomas W. Boyde Jr. Boyde would later design my wife’s maternal grandparents’ cottage at Henderson Harbor on Lake Ontario in 1954. The Rochester Klan held its rallies at a large field in East Rochester. The field, only a half-mile from our home, is now part of the East Rochester Public School Campus.
Negro and White: Desegregation – Right or Wrong? How Much? How Soon? Principles and Problems in the Light of God’s Word
By John R. Rice, D.D., Litt. D.
Sword of the Lord Publishers, 1956, 22 pp.
What a coincidence that this pamphlet was next in line in my reading queue following “Gospel According to the Klan.” As the publisher of The Sword of the Lord newspaper from 1934 to 1980, John R. Rice was one of the main leaders of the independent fundamental Baptist movement in this country. In this pamphlet published in 1956, Rice upbraids the Federal government for mandating the desegregation of public schools in the South. Rice concedes that the Jim Crow laws were problematic, but argues that it was up to each state to work out its own racial policies. He argues that Black folks were not yet ready to assume the rights and responsibilities that communist and socialist “agitators” were demanding. Rice also expresses his anxieties regarding the threat to the purity of White womanhood and the racial miscegenation that would inevitably follow radical desegregation, especially given what he posits as the voracious and unbridled sexual appetite of the Black man. Rice’s preacher father was a member of the violent, Reconstructionist-era KKK, a fact you won’t find in his authorized biography. The Sword of the Lord still publishes many of Rice’s pamphlets, but not this one. It’s an embarrassment. John R. Rice and the independent fundamental Baptist movement came down on the wrong side of history…and the Gospel…in regards to race and segregation. Rice asserts in the title of this pamphlet that his pro-segregationist views would be presented “in the Light of God’s Word,” but he actually presents no Scripture passages to support his racist views. This pamphlet is a good example of what happens when Christians become subservient to the surrounding culture rather than being obedient to Jesus Christ and the Gospel.
Postscript: Note the lofty (honorary) academic credentials appended to Rice’s name, a very common practice of pastors in the IFB. Rice’s honorary academic credentials weren’t much help in the writing of this racist diatribe.