Matthew J. Lucio
January 10, 2022
Seventh-day Adventists have championed the twin legacies of a sympathy for the abolition of slavery and support for Jim Crow laws that preserved racial discrimination. We are justifiably more proud of the former and inexcusably unaware of the latter. Our good friend Dr. Michael W. Campbell (Adventist Pilgrimage Podcast) shined some light on Adventist connections to the Ku Klux Klan during a presentation at the annual pow-wow of the American Society of Church History in New Orleans.
Approving the Klan with the Plan
Campbell notes that Adventists were uniformly opposed to the first phase of the Klan (1866-1872), blaming them for being a secret society which "terrorized the superstitious negro." Things changed when Adventists took notice of the Klan during their second phase (c.1915-1930). Aside from adopting their distinctive white robes, this is when the Klan took a strong anti-Catholic and (usually) pro-Prohibition stance. Both of those positions naturally appealed to Adventists, and Campbell found Adventists both for and against the Klan.
"While it is difficult to trace with any certainty how many Adventists were part of the Klan (due to limited extant records), both Adventist and Klan sources offer numerous examples that Adventist church members participated in Klan activities."
Campbell notes how twelve Klan members were present for an Adventist member's funeral in Oklahoma, as well as how Adventists were present at a meeting of the Klan in South Dakota which featured their Grand Cyclops, Rev. F. Halsey Ambrose. Twenty-five Klansmen showed up at an Adventist evangelistic effort to donate $25 toward expenses in appreciation for the Adventist work there. In return, they invited the Adventist members to join the Klan. (The result of that evangelistic effort was the birth of the Ardmore SDA Church.)
"More than anything else, Adventists during the 1920s noted with appreciation how the Klan stood against the infiltration of Roman Catholicism within American culture and society."
C.S. Longacre, in charge of the religious liberty department at the General Conference, even spoke at a Klan rally in West Virginia. He was blindfolded at a train station and led to the meeting. Of course, he didn't know to whom he was speaking at the rally, but the next morning he was greeted by several prominent businessmen around town who appreciated his words.
Campbell found that the most forceful critiques of the Klan came from Adventists residing outside of the United States. C. F. McVagh, writing from Canada, worried that American Adventists' patriotism blinded them to the danger of the Klan, which he called a "disease." C. M. Snow, editor of Signs of the Times (Australia), similarly lamented the bigotry of the Klan and its efforts to "fierce determination to rob of their rights the Jews, the Roman Catholics, and the negroes."
Though it seems that no Adventists openly supported Klan violence, it's shocking that Adventists would find anything worth supporting in the Klan. No doubt this is partially because we remember the Klan solely as a terroristic organization. But, as Campbell notes, the second phase of the Klan was "anti-Catholic, pro-private eduction, and pro-religious liberty (albeit only for Protestants!)," not to mention their concerns about alcohol. Naturally, some Adventists would have shared the Klan's racial prejudices and used Ellen White to justify them.
"Adventists began to selectively use a few select quotations by Ellen White at the end of her life, dealing with racial strife in the south and the need to not inflame the situation by allowing temporarily for segregation, as becoming normative for Adventist race relations in the twentieth century. Some of the most militant and conservative Adventist Fundamentalists began to articulate a new theology of segregation."
Adventists understandably like to talk about their abolitionist past, but the church's flirtation with the Klan during Jim Crow must also be told as part of her legacy on race. How do we reconcile the two? We can learn a few a few things from this episode:
Race relations are not a matter of General Conference policy, but ultimately are based on how individual Adventists treat each other.
Adventists need to own the story they have, and not the story we wish we had.
Each generation writes a chapter in the history of Adventist race relations. Adventists in 2022 cannot change the church's past with the KKK, but they can help ensure that the chapter they are writing today is better.
This article is based on an early draft of Michael W. Campbell's paper and does not purport to represent his views on the broader subject of race. This article does not reflect any subsequent changes Michael may have made. If the reader would like a copy of the paper, they are encouraged to reach out to Dr. Campbell.