Alec Ryrie’s Misinformation about the KKK

Alec Ryrie’s recent book, Protestants: The Faith the Made the Modern World, has much to recommend it. It is a scholarly review of nearly 500 years of history. While he is clearly partisan, he usually manages to control his bias. He certainly acknowledges many warts. But in a chapter called “Religious Left and Religious Right,” he makes major errors concerning the KKK of the 1920s.

He claimed the KKK “was never a mass movement; at its peak, in 1924, its weekly magazine Dawn: The Herald of a New and Better Day had a circulation of fifty thousand” (p. 293). The KKK was most certainly a mass movement. Keep in mind that the KKK was a secret organization, so estimates necessarily contain a good deal of guesswork. Also since membership was restricted to males, and was relatively expensive after you include mandatory costs of official clothing, etc., membership estimates strongly underestimate its influence – there were lots of free riders. That said, estimates of KKK membership in the 1920s range between 2 and 5 million (see wiki). It was probably larger than the American Federation of Labor (this is before it merged with the CIO).

A couple of well-known examples will make it clear that Mr. Ryrie’s estimate of 50,000 is ludicrously low. First, on August 8, 1925, the KKK held a march on Washington. Over 50,000 hooded Klansmen turned out. Second, the Indiana Klan held a Fourth of July rally in Kokomo in 1923. While the total population of Kokomo was well under 50,000, over 200,000 turned up for the rally.

While the Klan was many things to many people, religion played a major role – its trademark fiery cross was no accident. The Klan of the 1920s was the militant arm of fundamentalism. It was founded by William Simmons, a former circuit riding preacher. Its lecturers/trainers were predominately fundamentalist preachers. It stressed “family values,” and was generally far more concerned with demon rum, fornicators, “Americanism,” etc., than race. While it lynched some, its primary punishment was flogging, emulating Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple.

The Klan of the 1920s was the spiritual ancestor of today’s evangelicals. Ryrie and other authors tend to ignore or downplay its religious aspects. For those interested, I recommend Wyn Wade’s The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America.


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