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I’d like to believe it was the music that did it. What was going around him, what spread like a prairie fire, must have tested his nerves and laid siege to his theology, but I’d like to believe what hit the switch was heretical hymnody.
Picture him sitting behind the pulpit in a big church in rural Iowa in the 1920s, a church where one hyper member had showed him a new version of “The Old Rugged Cross.” That man had signed himself into the madness all around, but the preacher hadn’t, even though half the town followed the muck-a-mucks who did. Joining up cost only $24, and, shoot! the hood and the robe and the whole ball of wax came with the membership. The pastor couldn’t help seeing why good people signed up with the hooded bunch: after all, they claimed to want, like nothing else, to keep America Christian.
The preacher’d been silent mostly, but he had refused membership.
He pastored a fair-to-middlin’ congregation in town, and he’d been aching to tell his people that things he’d read about the outfit—and what an outfit!–weren’t particularly endearing. It’s Black folks they were after down south, he knew, where real blood had been spilled. But here in town, way up north of the Mason-Dixon, there was only one African-American around and he was, well, special–he polished shoes at the hotel downtown.
And Jews? They were after Jews too in a quiet village where just a couple of Jewish shop owners had come up north twenty years ago when a bunch of Russians arrived in northwest Iowa–Sioux City.
There in town, it was the Catholics who caught their ire, peddling booze when good Christian people stood for Prohibition, which was, mind you, the law. The Catholics—they were criminals, and Papists.
Who knows exactly what it was that made that preacher bring his grievances to the pulpit? It could have been any number of things he’d already witnessed. But I’d like to think it was the music that took him over the edge, vile lyrics to a trusty old favorite. He wasn’t known for pounding the pulpit, but he couldn’t help drawing a line in the sand. No, he said, to the super-righteous; he most certainly wouldn’t use their new hymn in his church, in God’s church. No “Bright Fiery Cross,” sung to the tune of “The Old Rugged Cross.” He wouldn’t have it. And don’t let the door slap you on your way out.
First verse went like this:
Over all the USA, the Fiery Cross we display,
The emblem of Klansman domain,
We’ll be forever true to the Red, White, and Blue
And Americans always remain.
Won’t have it and won’t sing it, even though membership was getting to be a thing in town and throughout the region, the entire state. More than 40,000 Iowans registered as Klan members.
“Oh, my, what a wonderful organization,” people said, because the Klan loved America. They did. They’re patriots. They loved the flag. “Immigration bars must be kept up,” they said—you could read it yourself in their “Twelve Klan Points.” “Our Anglo-Saxon Protestant Christian civilization must be preserved,” point number 12, the bottom line.
On a Sabbath morning in 1924, this pastor stood before the congregation and told them that it was good and pleasant in the sight of the Lord for the congregation to stay away from that hooded bunch. He told them those people deal in hate, even though a gallery of the town’s leading citizens had donned hoods. “Stay away,” he told his congregation, quietly and sincerely, from the pulpit of First Reformed Church, Sheldon, Iowa.
Timothy Egan’s new book, A Fever in the Heartland, maps out the amazing growth and eventual, steep decline a century ago of the Northern arm of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s a largely untold story, perhaps deliberately left unspoken, of the Klan’s shocking growth in the rural Midwest, up to and including Sioux County, Iowa, where I live. The story I’m telling was whispered to me by one of Sheldon’s most dedicated historians. Once upon a time, she told me, 25,000 Iowa KKK members met in Sheldon, Iowa.
History doesn’t repeat itself, Mark Twain once said, but more than occasionally it does appear to rhyme–something like that.
But the story of the pastor of First Reformed, who got up in his pulpit one Sunday morning and warned the congregation to stay away from the people with hoods is a story some people still tell. He told them to be wary–that’s what he told his congregation. Exactly what he said is not recorded.
What is remembered is that a night or two later, a bright fiery cross burned on the church lawn.