On January 19, 1925, the Longmont Ledger included an advertisement which read, “Hear Bishop Alma White at the City Auditorium (Longmont, Colo.) speak on ‘The Ku Klux Klan and the Bible.’ TONIGHT At 7:30 P. M. Don’t Miss This Lecture.”
It never ceases to amaze me (“dumbfound me” might be more accurate) how earnestly the Colorado Klan members of the 1920s felt that their Klan principals aligned arm-in-arm with the Christian Bible. It was a repeated refrain throughout the newspaper articles I read as I conducted research for this series. As a Christian myself, and having read the Bible through several times, I feel compelled to first understand how they came to think as they did and second to rebut the claims they made.
I’d like to be clear here. My goal is not to prove or disprove Christianity or make any claims about the inerrancy of scripture or anything like that. I’m focusing solely on, “What claims did Klan members (and Klan supporters), particularly in Colorado, make regarding the Bible, and how likely is it that an average person reading the Biblical text would come to the same conclusions?”
I also do not believe that misuse of Christian holy writings is more or less likely than misusing the holy writing of any other religion. Any organization that is made up of human beings will, at some point or other, struggle with the human foibles, screw-ups, and outright abuses that humans within that organization will perpetrate. To err is human, after all. Why else would we pursue the divine except that we recognize our own brokenness? This is also not to say that just because we know people are screw-ups, it’s OK to allow abuse to take place. Hatred between people, or of any group towards any other group, is abhorrent.
My goal is to figure out how people lost their way. By understanding their motivations and misunderstandings, I have hope that we can better explore our own minds and hearts and see what screwed up lines of reasoning we are using to justify actions or attitudes that we shouldn’t be justifying. And through better understanding, paired with deep humility, our goal should be to learn to avoid the traps and snares that those before us fell into, whether we claim a religious affiliation or not.
So with that, let’s take a look at how a bunch of screwed up Coloradans — people, in other words — took a book whose primary tenants are based on love and unity, and used it to spread hatred and mistrust instead.
How Could They Think That?
My biggest struggle has been in trying to understand how the pastors and regular church members who were in the Klan in the 1920s managed to connect dots between what the Bible says, and what the Klan was espousing. Alma Bridwell White, a prolific writer and a preacher with a vast following across the United States, wrote entire books making the connection — none of which I’ve read. (Learn more about Alma in the last article I wrote “Colorado Women of the Ku Klux Klan.”) By building an anti-Papist, racist paradigm and reading the Bible through that lens, Alma White was able to come to conclusions antithetical to the Bible itself.
But before I address one of White’s arguments in particular, let me first start with a few other passages that I’ve heard used in relationship to the Bible and racism in general.
The Mark of Cain
Adam and Eve had two sons, Cain and Abel. Cain was jealous of Abel and killed him. God then punished him with exile. Cain was marked by God and sent away. (Genesis 4:1-16) Some believe the mark was the almond-shaped eyes of the Asian people. Others believe it was the darkened skin of the African people. No where in the Bible does it say what the mark was. All we know was that it was to be a sign to others not to take Cain’s life. It was a way for God to say, “Cain’s been punished by me by being cast out. So leave him the heck alone already. I’ve already given him his punishment. You don’t need to add to that.”
I have yet to hear anyone espouse the idea that the mark of Cain was the lightened skin or straightened hair of the European people, despite the fact that that would definitely be a noticeable mark if it had been placed upon a Middle Eastern man. In fact, for all we know, the mark could have been freckles, or red hair, or blue eyes.
Then again, no where in the Bible does it say that the mark was hereditary. As far as we know, it was a mark placed upon Cain and only upon Cain. Which makes it far more likely it was a scar or tattoo or something of that nature.
So, to use the story in Genesis 4 as a means of supporting racism requires quite a bit of guess-work and reading information into the text that simply isn’t there.
Perfect in His Generations
Another passage that has been used to support racist views comes from the story of Noah. Genesis 6 starts out with a description of some pretty strange goings on. The first two verses of the chapter state that:
When human beings began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose.
Who the “sons of God” are is anybody’s guess. Some say they were angels, or more likely, demons (fallen angels). Others think the sons of Seth (Adam and Eve’s third recorded child.) married the daughters of Cain. (How there were women around to marry when Adam and Eve had only had three kids so far is a whole ‘nother topic, so we’ll leave that one by the wayside.)
The children of these unions were referred to as ” the heroes of old, men of renown,” which you would think would be a good thing. But these verses are followed soon after with:
The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.
That’s when God decided to bring about a flood, but he chose to spare Noah because, “Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God.” (Genesis 6:9, NIV) At least… that’s how the translation reads in the New International Version. But if you go back to the King James Version (which was translated back in the early 1600s) it says, “Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God.” (also Genesis 6:9, but KJV). Both verses say basically the same exact thing: “Noah was a good guy. He seemed pretty perfect compared to those around him. He walked with God.” But the King James version allowed for a little creative interpretation.
If you read that Noah was “perfect in his generations” after having read verses right before that about mixed-blood people that were part human and part who-knows-what, suddenly the phrase takes on new meaning. Noah wasn’t just a righteous dude. He was a “pure blood” (a la Draco Malfoy).
There are many translations of the Bible, and when you come across a section of scripture like this that’s confusing, it makes sense to see how other translators approached the phrasing. If you want to see how this verse is treated in other versions of the Bible, head over to Genesis 6 at BibleGateway. Just above where it says “Genesis 6 New International Version (NIV)” there’s a pull down menu. Select another translation, wait a second, and the page will refresh in the new version. The more you read, the more you’ll see that most translators don’t think Noah was chosen at all because of his ancestry but because of his character.
In fact, if you read further along in Noah’s story (head over to Genesis 9:18 – 27), you realize he was not perfect. He might have been considered blameless by those he lived among — in other words they thought he was a pretty decent guy — but he was by no means a perfect human. And to take from this story that having an ancestry from only one race of people is the ideal belies the fact that Jesus was of mixed race himself (having ancestors that were Canaanite (Rahab) and Moabite (Ruth) and perhaps something else as well (Bathsheba)). If the “purity” of a person’s lineage was of critical importance to God, then he would not have sent his son into a family of mixed ancestry.
Speaking of Noah not being perfect…. After the flood and the dove and the olive branch, when everyone was back to being farmers and herdsmen, Noah managed to get drunk, naked, and utterly passed out. His youngest son, Ham, came across him in his tent, was shocked by what he saw, and went out to tell his brothers. His brothers grabbed a blanket, held it out while walking backwards so as not to look upon their dad’s nakedness, and covered him up.
For some reason, Ham got in trouble because of what happened. It’s not particularly clear why, and a lot of folks have made up a lot of stories about why he got in trouble, but none of those stories are in the Bible, just the bit I described above. (See Genesis 9:18 – 27.) Not only was Ham in trouble, but he was cursed. Well… his son was cursed. (Why his son? Your guess is as good as mine… or any of the bazillions of other people who have tried to come up with some good reason. Again, we don’t know the “why”, we just know the “what.” The “why” appears to be lost to the sands of time. )
“Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.” – Genesis 9:25
Though the Canaanites settled in the Middle East, where their dad had been, their dad and brothers both left the area. Ham seems to have gone to Egypt. There are several references in other parts of the Bible that interchange the terms “the land of Egypt” and “the land of Ham.”
So Ham went to Egypt, making him and his descendants African. And Canaan, his son who stayed in the Middle East, was cursed to be the slave of his brothers. And somehow, folks reading the Bible thousands of years later took these two details, and determined that Africans were therefore destined to be slaves because of the curse. (Nevermind the fact that it was Canaan that was cursed and he never went to Africa.)
Recap So Far
So that’s just three examples that I’ve heard used to try and justify racism. I believe they’re feeble attempts that require significant amounts of conjecture in order to build any sort of basis for support. However, at least they include a Bible story from which to build their conjecture upon. Alma White, on the other hand, used another method for mishandling the Bible. She co-opted Bible stories for her own bigoted purposes, ignoring the Biblical meanings behind the stories, and injecting them with her own insidious arguments. And it wasn’t just White that did this, but she was perhaps the most vocal, as well as the most prolific writer, on the subject in Colorado in the 1920a, at the height of Klan power in the state.
Nebuchadnezzar and the Pope
Though White may have referenced the chapters of Genesis mentioned above, the only descriptions that I could find online of arguments that she made focused instead on the book of Daniel. Though you may be familiar with the story of Daniel in the lion’s den, the story that Alma referenced in one of her books (and probably in her preaching as well) was that of Shadrach, Mechach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace.
For those unfamiliar with either of those stories, let me back up and give a quick overview of the book of Daniel. Some time around 600 B. C. the Babylonians were marching around conquering other nations, one of which was Judah (the only part of Israel that was left to be conquered at that point). They captured the royal families and nobility and took their children back to Babylon. The young men were trained and given jobs in the king’s palace. Among them were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, who were renamed Beltashazzer, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Long story short, they did well in their positions and even had some good interactions with the king in which he was impressed by their knowledge and skill at interpreting dreams.
But then the king decided to get a huge statue made in his likeness and he wanted everyone to bow down and worship it. Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego refused to bow before anyone other than their god. (The Bible doesn’t explain what Daniel, AKA Beltashazzer, was doing during this time and why he wasn’t included in this particular story.) So the king, Nebuchadnezzar, had them thrown into a fiery furnace. They miraculously survived without even getting singed. The king was impressed, and he promoted them to even better positions in the palace than they’d had before.
So Alma White takes this story of a conquering king who, in his great pride and arrogance, has a statue built of himself and wants everyone to bow down to it, and likens it to the Catholic Pope. Given the time period, she’s either referring to Benedict XV (pope from 1914 – 1922) or Pius XI (pope from 1922 – 1939).
What White objected to was the pope’s insistence that the church is more important than any nation-state, as Pius XI made clear in a statement against Mussolini in 1938 in which he stated “if there is a totalitarian regime – in fact and by right – it is the regime of the church, because man belongs totally to the church”. But the pope’s statement lines up fairly closely with the Bible which states that a Christian’s citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). Jesus also said (in Matthew 6:33) that Christians are to seek first the kingdom of God. So there’s certainly room for argument about whether a Christian’s citizenship is to a specific church (i.e. the Catholic Church) or to “the church” in the world-wide, “God’s people” sense. But scripture lined up more closely with the pope’s statements than Alma White’s, who once preached a sermon entitled “America—the White Man’s Heritage” and who believed that devotion to the United States was more important than religious identity. For White, being an American was of primary importance. Proof that one was a “true” American relied upon being a White Protestant. One’s faith was not more important than one’s citizenship. Rather, one’s faith was one of multiple criteria that verified citizenship.
By co-opting a Biblical story in her argument against Catholics and aligning the pope with the king of Babylon, White was able to claim that God was on her side, that the Bible supported her opinions, and that all good Christians should do likewise. Nevermind the fact that the stories she referenced didn’t support her arguments at all. The association, and her charismatic, emotional, and fiery sermons, were enough to convince many that she was speaking truth. (Plus, for many people she was preaching exactly what they wanted to hear.)
White, and the Colorado Klan in general, were just as opposed to Jews as they were to Catholics, even positing that the two groups were in collusion against America. As White said in her book The Ku Klux Klan in Prophecy in 1926,
The unrepentant Hebrew is everywhere among us today as the strong ally of Roman Catholicism. … To think of our Hebrew friends with their millions in gold and silver aiding the Pope in his aspirations for world supremacy, is almost beyond the grasp of … The Jews in New York City openly boast that they have the money and Rome the power, and that if they decide to rule the city and state … It is within the rights of civilization for the white race to hold the supremacy; and it is no injustice to the colored man. The white men of this country poured out their blood to liberate the colored people from the chains of slavery, and the sacrifice should be appreciated. (via Wikipedia)
Bible as Authorizing Emblem
The speaker’s first act, and opening words, told plainly the underlying principle of the organization which he represented, a principle of pure Americanism and loyal adherence to the flag of the United States. Opening a small silken flag, he held it aloft while reciting the lines of a gripping patriotic poem and followed with: “This flag which stands for Christian citizenship is found wherever the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan meet for the transaction of any business, whether In their claverns, on the hill side, or within their halls it is always laid on the altar, and beside it rests the Bible, opened at the twelfth chapter of Romans. – “Given Principles of the Ku Klux Klan,” Craig Courier, October 9, 1924.
Some Ku Klux Principles
The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan have always stood for, does now, and ever will stand for among others the following principles:
1. Protestantism without apology.
2. Education through Free Public Schools, open to all, good enough for all, and by all.
3. Placing the Bible, the foundation of all Christian Civilization, in our Public Schools.
What Does the Bible Actually Say?
Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35) When Jesus talks about loving others, it’s a sacrificial, foot-washing, to-the-cross-if-need-be kind of love.
In the book of Leviticus, the book of the Law, God’s people are told “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:18) And when an “expert in the law” asked Jesus, “who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered with the parable of the Good Samaritan. In this parable, a Jewish man is beaten by robbers as he’s traveling. Three men come upon him bloody and beaten on the side of the road. The first is a priest. He passed by the man and went on his way. The second was a Levite, another man that would be expected, because of his devout faith, to help the man. But he too scurried past. It wasn’t until a Samaritan came upon him that he received help. Samaritans were people of mixed race, part-Jewish and part-Gentile, a result of the intermixing from when Assyria had conquered most of Israel in 724 B.C. And notice, in the parable, it’s not the mixed-blood Samaritan that requires mercy and assistance. It was the full-blooded, but beaten, Jewish man. Jesus made the racially “inferior” man the hero of the story. He was making a point that our racial heritage is not what matters but how we treat our fellow human beings.
Jesus came to bring about reconciliation: reconciliation between mankind and God and reconciliation between people groups.
The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, wrote:
For he himself [Jesus] is our peace, who has made the two groups [Jews and Gentiles] one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. (Ephesians 2:14-17)
Paul also said:
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
In other words, God’s children are of equal importance before him — no matter their race or gender. Jesus was all about crossing racial lines and socio-economic lines. He wasn’t hung up on gender or status or wealth. He cared about a person’s character.
No Place for Nationalism
An important part of the Klan’s platform was the preeminence of America. When a car-load of hooded Klansmen interrupted a Salvation Army meeting in Boulder, the leader of the group stood before the congregation and explained:
The speaker outlined the purposes of the klan as promoting “100 per cent Americanism, not anti-anything, but merely pro-American.” The great work of the Salvation Army is to save the souls of Americans,” said the klansmen. “The great work of the Ku Klux Klan is to save Americanism, to preserve America for Americans.” (Fort Collins Courier, November 27, 1922)
Of course, the phrase “to preserve America for Americans” came fully loaded with all sorts of stipulations left unspoken, though the audience could fairly easily make assumptions regarding the Klansman’s meaning. Who did the Colorado Klan consider to be Americans? If you were a Catholic or a Jew at the time, no matter what your legal citizenship status with the United States of America nor how many generations your family had been in the U. S., your Americanism was suspect, if not questioned outright. As the KKK ad in the Longmont Times stated, one of their principles was “Protestantism without apology.” They didn’t mean Protestantism for Protestant Americans and other religions for other Americans. They were making a statement that true Americans were Protestant. Full stop. (A wee bit ironic considering the protestors for whom the name ‘”Protestant” was first used were all Germans… in Germany. … OK, OK, so Germany didn’t precisely exist yet, but it was all folks in that part of the world.)
But God looks at nations a bit differently than did the Klan. While the Israelites were God’s chosen people (Exodus 19:5, Deuteronomy 7:6-8, etc.), the Bible still declares that all of the nations belong to God (Psalm 22:28, Psalm 82:8, Zechariah 9:10, etc.). And God doesn’t show favoritism between them. He both blesses and punishes Israel and other nations alike.
“Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:16-19, emphasis added.
Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. (Acts 10:34-35, emphasis added)
When God sent Jonah to Ninevah to preach a message of repentance to the people there, it wasn’t because they were a part of Israel that had fallen away. On the contrary, Ninevah was an enemy of Israel. That’s why Jonah didn’t want to go there and tried to escape instead. God had to send a storm such that the other men on the boat threw him over in hopes of quelling the storm, and Jonah ended up swallowed by a big fish. Ninevah was anathema to Israel and followed other gods, yet God sent a prophet to them anyway.
This impartial attitude on the part of God is to be reflected in his followers. Jesus said as much in the Sermon on the Mount.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers,[i] what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)
As I said earlier. God doesn’t care about nationality (nor socio-economic status, nor size or beauty or a whole host of other factors that we silly humans use to elevate some persons over others). God said to the prophet Samuel, when he had been sent to find and anoint the new king, “The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
In fact, Jesus caused an uproar among the people (Luke 4:24-30) when he pointed out that the prophet Elijah was sent to a poor Sidonian woman (1 Kings 17:8-16) to provide her with an unending supply of food, even though there were Israelites in the area that he could have been sent to. He also noted that Elisha the prophet was sent to a Syrian man to cure him of leprosy, despite the fact that there were also Israelites with leprosy. His point was not that Sidonians and Syrians were better than Israelites. His point was that all people are God’s creation. God shows no partiality between them.
Christians in Contact with Other Religions
I’ve addressed racism and nationalism, but what about prejudice on the basis of religion? What does the Bible have to say about that?
The Bible stands out quite adamantly against the following of idols, meaning any god other than the One True God that the Jews (and later the Christians also) believed in. The Bible is also clear that the ways of non-believers are different and should not be followed by those who follow God. And yet, John wrote,…
They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood. Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.
There Was Church Opposition
It’s important to note that though the Klan declared that it was Protestant, not all Protestants agreed with the Klan. This was highlighted in November of 1922 when by a consortium of Protestant churches as announced in an article in a local Jewish paper, “Federal Council of Churches Declares Organizations Arousing Religious Prejudices and Racial Antipathies Are Not Consistent With Christianity.” (Denver Jewish News, Volume 8, Number 45, November 8, 1922.)
So there was some opposition, but unfortunately it was not particularly loud nor pervasive. Church after church was swept up in the Klan movement that took place in the 1920s. Many sat on the fence, unsure of how to proceed, and through their silence they allowed the movement to grow and flourish. It wasn’t until problems arose from within the Klan itself that the movement’s demise began. But though the organization was diminished in Colorado, it was never fully crushed. And many Protestant churches today continue to avoid conversations of race and prejudice. Thankfully there are still the few who do, a remnant that seek to explore the entirety of the Scriptures for an understanding of how to proceed, even in today’s environment.
This article is part of a series. Read the other articles here:
– An Overview of the Klan in Colorado, Part 1 – Chronological Context
– When the Klan Came to Colorado, Part 2 – Rise to Power
– When the Klan Came to Colorado, Part 3 — Denouement
– How the Klan Took Over Colorado, Part 4 — Shrewd Planning, Crafted Messaging
– Colorado Women of the Ku Klux Klan, Part 5
– The Klan in Colorado Part 6 — Bringing Religion into It
– The Klan in Northern Colorado, Part 7 — We Weren’t Immune to the Rhetoric
Most source material is linked to in the article above.
Neal, L. (2009). “Christianizing the Klan: Alma White, Branford Clarke, and the Art of Religious Intolerance“. Church History, 78(2), 350-378. doi:10.1017/S0009640709000523