Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

Christianizing the Klan: Alma White, Branford Clarke, and the Art of Religious Intolerance


According to the biblical book of Daniel chapter 3, King Nebuchadnezzar, who ruled the Babylonian Empire where the Jews lived in exile, commissioned the building of a ninety-foot golden image and commanded the people to worship it. Refusal to comply meant one's death in a fiery furnace. While most obeyed the king's dictate, the story recounts how Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego, Jews who worked for the king, refused to worship the image and remained loyal to their God. In response, the king bade his men to stoke the furnace and burn the defiant rebels. To the king's amazement, the trio appeared unscathed amid the red-hot flames, and he glimpsed a mysterious fourth figure with them. Seeing this, the king called the men to come out of the furnace and they emerged unharmed, protected, according to the text, by the fourth figure, an angel. The story depicts Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego as heroes who withstood the forces of evil and witnessed the power of their God. It speaks to the fidelity of these men and to the intolerant nature of Nebuchadnezzar's faith. While this passage and its lessons may be familiar to many, in the 1920s they gained additional meanings that provide us with important insights into the workings of religious intolerance in the United States.

Hide All

1 Notably, the political cartoons of Thomas Nast were central to bringing down Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall. For more, see Press Charles, The Political Cartoon (London: Associated University Presses, 1981), chapter 9, and Fischer Roger A., Them Damned Pictures: Explorations in American Political Cartoon Art (North Haven, Conn.: Archon, 1996), chapter 1.

2 For more on the portrayal of Jews, see Appel John and Appel Selma, “Anti-Semitism in American Caricature,” Society (November–December 1986): 7984.

3 White Alma, The Ku Klux Klan in Prophecy (Zarephath, N.J.: The Good Citizen, 1925), 78.

4 Higham John, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860–1925 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1955), 56; Dumenil Lynn, The Modern Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920s (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995), 237; Chalmers David M., Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan, 3rd ed. (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1987), 245. Others have focused on the causes of religious intolerance. For example, John Higham often explains its rise and fall in terms of economic depressions. In contrast, others argue that intolerance and prejudice happen in good times and bad, during periods of prosperity and those of poverty. They conclude that no rational cause exists: see Jaher Frederic Cople, A Scapegoat in the New Wilderness (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994), 2, and Volkman Ernest, A Legacy of Hate (New York: Franklin Watts, 1982), 8, 300.

5 Masur Louis P., “‘Pictures Have Now Become a Necessity’: The Use of Images in American History Textbooks,” The Journal of American History 84:4 (March 1998): 1410. See also Kemnitz Thomas Milton, “The Cartoon as a Historical Source,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 4:1 (Summer 1973): 8193.

6 See “Portraits of Hate, Lessons of Hope,” <>.

7 Morgan David, The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 9, 25, 31. The phrase “ways of seeing” and the concept comes from David Morgan, The Sacred Gaze, 34, 115; Dyer Richard, White (New York: Routledge, 1997), 83; and Dyer Richard, The Matter of Images: Essays on Representation (New York: Routledge, 1993), 16.

8 For more on visibility and invisibility in representation, see Dyer, Matter of Representation, 16, 19, 141.

9 Hall Stuart, ed., Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE, 1997), 258259.

10 Murphy Paul L., “Sources and Nature of Intolerance in the 1920s,” Journal of American History 51:1 (June 1964): 61.

11 For more on the Holiness movement, see Synan Vinson, The Holiness-Pentecostal Movement in the United States (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1992), and Jones Charles Edwin, Perfectionist Persuasion: The Holiness Movement and American Methodism, 1867–1936 (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow, 1974).

12 For more on the life of Alma White, see the following: Stanley Susie Cunningham, Feminist Pillar of Fire: The Life of Alma White (Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim, 1993); White Alma, The Story of My Life and the Pillar of Fire, Volume I (Zarephath, N.J.: Pillar of Fire, 1935); White Alma, The Story of My Life and the Pillar of Fire, Volume II (Zarephath, N.J.: Pillar of Fire, 1935).

13 Synan, The Holiness-Pentecostal Movement in the United States, 143, 199.

14 Marsden George M., Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870–1925 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 34.

15 White Alma, Klansmen: Guardians of Liberty (Zarephath, N.J.: The Good Citizen, 1926), 98; Paige C. R. and Ingler C. K., eds., Alma White's Evangelism: Press Reports, Volume I (Zarephath, N.J.: Pillar of Fire, 1939), 219.

16 White Alma, Short Sermons (Zarephath, N.J.: Pillar of Fire, 1932), 88; White Alma, Radio Sermons and Lectures (Denver: Pillar of Fire, 1936), 241. While published in the 1930s, these texts represent collections of sermons that White gave over a period of several years.

17 Stanley, Feminist Pillar of Fire, 3–4.

18 Dolan Jay P., The American Catholic Experience: A History from Colonial Times to the Present (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), 127. Alma White made numerous references to immigration as a problem; see, for example, Klansmen, 101, and Heroes of the Fiery Cross (Zarephath, N.J.: The Good Citizen, 1928), 115–132.

19 White, The Ku Klux Klan in Prophecy, 8, 26, 90; White, Klansmen, 15–16, 139; and White, Heroes of the Fiery Cross, 123. Very little of Alma White's accusations against Catholicism are new. As John Higham writes, “Hardly any aspect of American xenophobia over its course from the eighteenth to the twentieth century is more striking than the monotony of its ideological refrain. Year after year, decade after decade, the same charges and complaints have sounded in endless reiteration”: Strangers in the Land, 31. For more on the number and power of Klanswomen, see Blee Kathleen M., Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).

20 Higham, Strangers in the Land, 209–210, 203, 311, 324.

21 Murphy, “Sources and Nature of Intolerance in the 1920s,” 61.

22 Wade Wyn Craig, The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 183; Goldberg Alan, Hooded Empire: The Ku Klux Klan in Colorado (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981), vii.

23 Wade, The Fiery Cross, 169; Higham, Strangers in the Land, 293.

24 Dumenil, The Modern Temper, 237.

25 White, The Ku Klux Klan in Prophecy, 101. In the 1920s, the Pillar of Fire was the only denomination to publicly endorse the Klan.

26 I have been unable to locate a library with a complete collection of White's The Good Citizen, a nativist periodical she published from 1913 to 1933. Branford Clarke illustrated this newspaper, and many of these images were then used in White's pro-Klan books. For example, the August 1925 issue (volume 13, no. 8) features four of Clarke's drawings, three of which later appeared in Klansmen.

27 White, Heroes of the Fiery Cross, 41.

28 “Obituary for Rev. Branford Clarke,” The New York Times, 8 July 1947, 23; C. R. Paige and C. K. Ingler, eds., Alma White's Evangelism: Press Reports, Volume I, 203. Clarke's hymns can be found in White Alma and White Arthur K., Cross and Crown Hymnal 2nd Edition (Zarephath, N.J.: Pillar of Fire, 1943), 62, 158, 261, 316, 325. His “perambulatory pulpit” merits a mention in Hale's James Marketing Mobiles: The Wonderful Wacky World of Promotional Vehicles, 1903–2000 (Dorchester, U.K.: Veloce, 2006), 11, and his artwork also appears in Arthur Sears Henning's article “How La Follette Dug His Political Grave,” Chicago Daily Tribune, 31 January 1954, G14.

29 Morgan, The Sacred Gaze, 76, 105.

30 Morgan David, Protestants and Pictures: Religion, Visual Culture, and the Age of American Mass Production (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 323.

31 White, The Ku Klux Klan in Prophecy, 5–6; White, Klansmen, 5–6.

32 Miller, Illustration, 102–103; Gutjahr Paul C., An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777–1880 (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999), 56.

33 Goodman Helen, “Women Illustrators of the Golden Age of American Illustration,” Woman's Art Journal 8:1 (Spring–Summer 1987): 13.

34 For more on the relationship between author and illustrator, see Miller J. Hillis, Illustration (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992), and Harvey J. R., Victorian Novelists and Their Illustrators (New York: New York University Press, 1971).

35 Appel and Appel, “Anti-Semitism in American Caricature,” 82; Fischer, Them Damned Pictures, 122.

36 Kemnitz, “The Cartoon as a Historical Source,” 84. Also, see Mitchell J. A., “Contemporary American Caricature,” Scribner's Magazine 6:6 (December 1889): 729.

37 Kemnitz, “The Cartoon as a Historical Source,” 84.

38 Morgan, The Sacred Gaze, 39.

39 Morgan David, The Lure of Images: A History of Religion and Visual Media in America (New York: Routledge, 2007), 2.

40 Hatch Nathan O. and Noll Mark A., The Bible in America: Essays in Cultural History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 3, 4.

41 Wright Melanie J., Moses in America: The Cultural Uses of Biblical Narrative (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 6. See also Phy Allene Stuart, ed., The Bible and Popular Culture in America (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985); Gunn Giles, ed., The Bible and American Arts and Letters (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983); Gutjahr, An American Bible; and Neal Lynn S., Romancing God: Evangelical Women and Inspirational Fiction (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006).

42 Noll Mark A., “The Bible in America,” Journal of Biblical Literature 106:3 (September 1987): 501.

43 Frerichs Ernest S., ed., The Bible and Bibles in America (Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1988), 8.

45 Haynes Stephen R., Noah's Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 8, and Barkun Michael, Religion and the Racist Right (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997).

46 White, The Ku Klux Klan in Prophecy, 14, 17. George M. Marsden highlights perspicuity and immutability as the two identifying features of conservative Protestant biblical understanding in “Everyone One's Own Interpreter?: The Bible, Science, and Authority in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America,” in The Bible in America: Essays in Cultural History, ed. Nathan O. Hatch and Mark A. Noll (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 80–81.

47 White, Klansmen, 8; White, Heroes of the Fiery Cross, 11; White, The Ku Klux Klan in Prophecy, 6. Kathleen Biddick describes typology as follows: “Christian typology posits the theological supersession of the Christian Church over Israel. Christians believed that the New Testament superseded the Hebrew Bible and redefined it as the Old Testament. Exegetically it maps the figures of the Old Testament onto their fulfillment in the New Testament”: see her monograph, The Typological Imaginary (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), 4–5. Also see Goppelt Leonhard, Typos: The Typological Interpretation of the Old Testament in the New ([1939] Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1982), and Davidson Richard M., Typology in Scripture (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 1981). In White's case, typology is not limited to biblical interpretation; for her the Bible provides the pattern, or type, which is later duplicated in American and world history—the antitype.

48 White, Heroes of the Fiery Cross, 8.

49 White, The Ku Klux Klan in Prophecy, 6; White, Klansmen, 63.

50 Popovich Ljubica D., “Popular American Biblical Imagery: Sources and Manifestations,” in The Bible and Popular Culture in America, ed. Phy Allene Stuart (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 193233. See Morgan, Protestants and Pictures, and Promey Sally M., “The ‘Return’ of Religion in the Scholarship of American Art,” The Art Bulletin 85:3 (September 2003): 581603. In addition, some scholars are researching themes of conflict in visual culture; however, the role and representation of religion in those conflicts is not prominent: see Johnston Patricia, ed., Seeing High & Low: Representing Social Conflict in American Visual Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

51 Gutjahr, An American Bible, 64; Morgan, Protestants and Pictures, 296; Morgan, The Lure of Images, 96–97.

52 Miller, Illustration, 66; Masur, “Pictures Have Now Become a Necessity,” 1421.

53 This subtitle plays off the title of Taylor's Kenneth N. devotional book, The Bible in Pictures for Little Eyes (Chicago: Moody, 1971).

54 Morgan, The Sacred Gaze, 33.

55 White, The Ku Klux Klan in Prophecy, 55–58.

56 Miller, Illustration, 67.

57 Morgan, The Sacred Gaze, 76, 105.

58 Ibid., 117, 124, 125.

59 Dyer, The Matter of Images, 16; Morgan, The Sacred Gaze, 115.

60 Morgan, The Sacred Gaze, 25.

61 White, The Ku Klux Klan in Prophecy, 61–65.

62 Mitchell, “Contemporary American Caricature,” 728. Interpreting Jesus in terms of one's own context and ideology is certainly not unique. Rolf Lundén writes that “at various points in history, Jesus has been made into a monk, a soldier, a social radical, a guerilla fighter, and a hippie. In the twenties, as I have shown, he was a businessman”: see his Business and Religion in the American 1920s (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1988), 105.

63 Levine Lawrence W., “The Historian and the Icon: Photography and the History of the American People in the 1930s and 1940s,” in Modern Art and Society: An Anthology of Social and Multicultural Readings, ed. Berger Maurice (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), 183.

64 Dyer, The Matter of Images, 12.

65 Similar tactics are used in representations of race and heterosexuality: see Richard Dyer, White, 10–13, 42, 45, 70.

66 Morgan, The Lure of Images, 132–133.

67 This subtitle corrupts Ann Braude's title to her seminal essay, “Women's History Is American Religious History,” in Retelling U.S. Religious History, ed. Thomas A. Tweed (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 87–107.

68 White, Klansmen, 42.

69 White, The Ku Klux Klan in Prophecy, 62.

70 White, Klansmen, 45, 47.

71 White, Klansmen, 43–44; see also Higham, Strangers in the Land, 205–206.

72 Blee, Women of the Klan, 38.

73 White, Heroes of the Fiery Cross, 41.

74 White, Klansmen, 5–6; White, Heroes of the Fiery Cross, 5.

75 White, Klansmen, 49.

76 Ibid., 53.

77 White, Klansmen, 56; White, Heroes of the Fiery Cross, 40.

78 White, Klansmen, 60.

79 Morgan, The Sacred Gaze, 68.

80 For more on the “conflation” of biblical and American iconography, see Morgan, The Sacred Gaze, 220–255.

81 White, The Ku Klux Klan in Prophecy, 24–25.

82 Dyer, The Matter of Images, 146.

83 Levine, “The Historian and the Icon,” 184.

84 Miller, Illustration, 102–103.

85 “Klansmen Take Notice!” The Good Citizen 13:8 (August 1925): 5, and “A Marvelous Sale,” The Good Citizen 13:8 (August 1925), 10.

86 Goldberg, Hooded Empire, 10–11.

87 Lipstadt Deborah E., Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (New York: The Free Press, 1993), 2, 5.

88 Higham, Strangers in the Land, x.

89 Lipstadt, Denying the Holocaust, 29.

Lynn S. Neal is an assistant professor of religion at Wake Forest University.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Church History
  • ISSN: 0009-6407
  • EISSN: 1755-2613
  • URL: /core/journals/church-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 6
Total number of PDF views: 22 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 708 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 22nd October 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.