Quieting the Murmur of Approval: The Suicidal Success of the Seven Sisters

Note: I’ve been working on this piece on and off since late February, when The Ledger’s Cary McMullen wrote a religion column documenting and lamenting the decline of mainline protestantism. It’s a little long and not terribly local — it grows out of my other project. But I hope you’ll indulge me. If not, well, you don’t have to.

This is from the Oct. 16, 1922, edition of the Palatka Daily News, which is both my hometown newspaper and where I got my start as a reporter.

“Ku Klux Klansmen Enter Church On Charity Mission”

“Six white robed figures in the regalia of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan appeared at the Methodist Church last night just before Rev. J.D. Sibert began his evening discourse and caused considerable emotion when they marched down the aisle, three on each side to the pulpit. There they handed a letter to Rev. Sibert, standing while he opened it, read its contents and then offered a fervent prayer of thanks. In the envelope were $50, a contribution to the church building fund…”

The story, which ran above the fold on the front page, went on to quote the letter and describe the aftermath of its reading.

“Rev. J.D. Sibert, pastor Methodist Church, Palatka, Fla. Esteemed Sir: — This organization having ever at heart the furtherance of the Master’s cause, especially a with regard to the Protestant faith, and being in hearty sympathy with the efforts of your people to complete an edifice that will better enable you to accomplish good, be an honor to our city and reflect the glory of the living God–we take great pleasure in handing you herewith a small contribution ($50) to your building fund. Assuring you of our highest regard for yourself personally and for your people collectively, we are most respectfully, Putnam Klan No. 13, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.”

“During the reading of the letter the congregation gave the most intense attention, and when it had been concluded there was a murmur of approval. [Emphasis mine] Rev. Sibert then asked the six white robed figures to join him in prayer, and he offered fervent thanks. The letter accompanying the fifty dollars in currency will be placed in the tin box to go in the cornerstone of the church when it is completed and finally dedicated.

“This is the second gift made by the Putnam County Klan to worthy undertakings, a similar contribution of $50 having been made last year to the fund being raised to pay the deficit in the school fund.”

The church in question is the St. James United Methodist. The orange brick building the Klan helped finance opened a couple of years later on Reid Street in downtown Palatka. It still welcomes the faithful every Sunday. Inside it, you’ll see a beautiful stained glass window dedicated to my great great aunt Susie Lee Walton, who I never knew. She was almost certainly in attendance the night the Klan showed up, probably with my great great grandmother, her mother, who I also never knew.

I grew up in that church, attending services with my mother and sister, mouthing the Apostles Creed, when I couldn’t get out of it by taping the service with a friend from an office behind the altar. Believe it or not, the elders considered me a pillar of the church youth; and when I was 17, St. James sent me on a wonderful weeklong trip to Washington D.C. and New York to study the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during the First Intafada.

We kids, following the lead of our broadly liberal instructors, came down overwhelmingly on the side of the Palestinians. Kids will never side with an occupation. I remember with some regret haranguing the unlucky Israeli sub-consulate who came to speak to us. Didn’t he understand that the terrorism of Menachem Begin and the Israeli Irgun was just as much terrorism as that of the Palestinian PLO? (It was, by the way. But it’s not as novel an argument as I thought it was at the time. Ah, youth.)

In other words, St. James, by the time I joined it and went to New York on its dime, had come quite a ways from the church that literally has the Klan in its cornerstone. It was, as Cary McMullen wrote in February, very much within the tradition of the “Seven Sisters”, the mainline Protestant churches that long defined “a broad and moderate consensus …” in American life.

But it was also fading in influence, just like the other sisters Cary wrote about.

I have a partial theory about the decline of mainline Protestantism, which relates to white evangelical Christian America’s strong support for torture, at least within the abstraction of polls. Sixty-two percent of self-identified white Christian evangelical protestants said that torture of terrorism suspects can often or sometimes be justified, according to a recent poll from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Another 22 percent said rarely.

Of strictly religious segments, members of mainline protestant churches approved the least – 46 percent. Non-religious people were only 40 percent. It’s worth noting those are high numbers across the board. But I do not think it’s a coincidence that the most aggressively religious people in America, white evangelical protestants, were the cohort that most approved of torture in the Pew poll.

So let’s revisit that moment in St. James in 1922.

By that time, news reporting and Congressional hearings in 1920 had detailed the behavior of the Klan.

Put simply, the men of the organization used extra-legal violence and intimidation to enforce social mores such as white superiority, separation of races, sexual and marital ethics, and prohibition. They enforced these concepts against people of all races, although black men and women felt the brunt. This violence often consisted of beatings with leather straps or chains or other material that made for useful flogging. And the lynchings that exploded during the era of the 10s-20s Klan – many of them not carried out by the Klan, but just by run-of-the-mill mobs — often involved dismemberment, castration, and other forms of mutilation. This is torture, as surely as when the government induces the feeling of drowning in someone to try to get that person to say what the government wants them to say, even if that person is a monster deserving of pain.

We’re talking about violence inflicted with the purpose of coercing behavior — or of punishing it outside of law. When you strip a woman naked, tie her to a tree, and flog her with a chain as she screams in pain because you want her to stop selling liquor or because you think she’s having an affair, that’s torture. This happened repeatedly in Putnam County in the 20s. At least 63 times in 1926 alone. But it also occurred in many other places throughout the country — north and south. Methodists in New Jersey, of all places, helped establish the Klan in that state. Oregon, Colorado, California, Illinois – all of them hosted strong Klan presences.

Less than two years after the Klan visited St. James, the mayor and police chief in Gainesville – both active Klansmen in the Alachua chapter – abducted an activist Catholic priest from his church in Gainesville, tortured him through beating and castration, drove him to Palatka, and dumped him on the steps of St. Monica’s Catholic Church. (Florida Historical Quarterly, July 1992) I was baptised in that church. It’s where we held the funeral for my grandmother a few months ago.

As white protestants learned more about this type of Klan torture in the early 20s, either through media reports or word of mouth, they didn’t immediately recoil. Precisely the opposite. They joined the Klan in droves. The Klan even formed a “ladies auxillary.” David Chalmers Klan history, “Hooded Americanism,” documents this very well.
This demonstrates that the Klan, as an entity, a discrete thing, is just a shiny historical object distracting from what really mattered: the “murmur of approval” expressed by the 1922 congregation of St. James and a broad swath of the protestant religious establishment of the day. The Klan was primarily a political/religious/fraternal movement, sort of Hezbollah meets Kiwanis.

Although not unanimous in its support, enough of the religious establishment of the day backed the Klan and its methods to give it popular legitimacy. I want to repeat that as starkly as I can. If you were a religious conservative in 1922, you likely either belonged to the Klan or openly sympathized. They used all the same rhetoric Sarah Palin uses today. Look it up. Real America? The Klan’s slogan was “100 percent Americanism.”

This is incompatible with Cary’s description of the “Seven Sisters” as a “moderate” force, at least in the way we understand the word moderate today. Cary writes: “They shared a broad and moderate consensus about the essential beliefs of the Christian faith, they valued cooperation on the basic tasks of mission and service and they assumed a secure place in the halls of government, from small towns to the White House.”

And yet, I don’t think he’s wrong. Rather, entirely to their credit, these religious institutions evolved into what we’d recognize today as moderation. And through their very real social and political power, they influenced the secular trajectory of the country, moderating it in irreversible ways, delegitimizing many of the worst instincts of their congregations.

But here’s where my theory comes in. I think that evolution, while inexpressibly valuable for the country, wrought great consequences for the Seven Sisters themselves. Their decline seems to overlap pretty closely the process by which they purged the culturally violent instincts of their congregations. In the ongoing battle between power and humility for the soul of the religious experience, the Seven Sisters generally chose humility. And it cost them. (The Baptists are complicated. I’m not sure how southern Baptists fit into American Baptists, but clearly the southern elements of the church tacked more to the conservative power tradition in recent years and had some success. But that seems to be waning now. Cary can address that better than I can.)

I touched on this battle between power and humility last year in writing about “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Key paragraphs:

While I’m clearly not a theologian, it seems to me that It’s a Wonderful Life is religious, but not evangelical, a distinction that continues to blur in modern America. In the film, God is a mystery, best exemplified by the conflicting beauties of the Sermon on the Mount, which I’ve always sort of considered the divine expression of conscience, God’s way of keeping us uncomfortable about our own behavior and morality. In this sense, religion is about defining one’s own relationship with God and how that affects the way one lives within God’s mysterious creation. I think the key value of this approach is spiritual humility. That contrasts greatly with the evangelical movement, which, I think, prizes above all testimony to the received truth, which believers never publicly doubt, but can’t define. While the first approach cannot measure its success, the second can, through conversions and souls “saved.” I think that’s an advantage for growth. However, it will probably come to no surprise to those of you masochistic enough to read this far that I prefer the former approach…

“…Now, let me ask: How many of you out there have been blessed with an angel to explicitly justify both your life choices and your belief in a just and loving God? It generally doesn’t work that way. That’s the nature of faith, I suppose, and why the first approach to religion I mentioned seems harder than the second.”

I still believe that’s broadly correct. But there’s an additional, related element at work in the power approach – the actual feeling of dominance, the inherent satisfaction of power over another to which I think all human beings, myself included, are susceptible.

Torture is the ultimate expression of power. To use mental and physical pain to force another human being to lie, or to reveal secrets, or to feel your wrath, or to live the way you want them to live, is to dominate them in a visceral way. It’s a brutal and real human instinct, which, frankly, organized religion has used as fuel throughout much of history. American protestantism certainly didn’t event that.

I think white evangelical approval of torture has little to do with security and the importance obtaining information. If that were the case, you’d think we’d have heard the same clamour for torturing Timothy McVeigh, or Olympic bomber Eric Rudolph, or the guy who murdered abortion doctor George Tiller, or the Hutaree militia people. Each of them was part of a loosely organized white evangelical Christian terrorist network – if these words have any meaning – with ambitions of additional violence. And yet, crickets. Nobody complained about reading them Miranda rights.

No, more than anything else, I think this abstract torture support is about what it’s always been about – earthly tribal dominance and asserting one particular view of the divine. The point of torture, as George Orwell apparently said, is torture. The fact that it’s aimed now at a relatively few scary, foreign, brown boogeymen, rather than huge swaths of the society around us, as it was in the 20s, is progress of a sort, I guess.

The Seven Sisters probably deserve much of the credit for that progress. As the century unfolded, they generally became institutions that tempered the instinct to dominate rather than enabling it. They evolved into bastions of the civic religion we see in “It’s a Wondeful Life.” But that human instinct to dominate didn’t go away, and no social organization is better positioned to harness it than a church.

Churches, like other earthly institutions, depend on human energy for growth. Assertion of power, particularly in the context of struggle with a Satanic enemy, is like a reactor. The song is “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” not “Humility, Christian Contemplaters.” I would argue that even the prosperity gospel that drives so much religious growth today derives from the pursuit of divinely-sanctioned dominance. We measure prosperity in relation to others. To prosper is to win. If the Seven Sisters don’t preach victory, someone else will. It’s too easy to win converts to dominance. It’s not that churches make people support torture of scary others. It’s that people most likely to support torture, most likely to feel the pull of dominance, want to hear God tell them they’re right. Moderation makes lousy fuel for organized religion.

But there’s one other important reason, I think, for the decline of the Seven Sisters: me.

As an outstanding church youth, I should have become the next generation of religious moderation. But the truth is I couldn’t be bothered. I attended primarily out of obedience to my mother, and I never really felt the joy of worship that I’m sure many people feel. Once I hit college, I was largely done with it.

I believe the Bible is a sublime and inspired religious text that I enjoy reading. But I don’t remotely believe in the earthly conception of God that churches peddle. As I told somebody once, “I believe in God, but I don’t believe in you.”

A few months ago, I got into a late-night discussion of religion with a church-attending friend after a bottle of wine. And I finally dropped this line on her: “My conscience, given to me by God, won’t allow me to attend your church.” That’s pretty good, I thought, at the time. It wasn’t until the next morning, a Sunday, that I realized how full of crap I was. I apologized the next time I saw her.

It’s true, I despise the way some large churches have worked hard to marginalize and stigmatize their gay neighbors. (Looking at you, Jay Dennis. Still waiting on that heterosexual divorce jihad you owe us.) And conservative political religion, with its ecumenically murderous history and hypocritical certainty, is what it is.

But it’s not everything.

I could easily find a church where my conscience could dwell in relative comfort. I just don’t feel like it. I can contemplate the universe and my role in it from my home on Sunday morning. I can read the Sermon on the Mount or write silly things like this without throwing on a tie and driving or walking somewhere. After all, it’s hot in the summer.

The fastest growing religious group in America is no religion. I wonder how many of them are like me — expatriates of a mainline protestantism that didn’t try to scare or bully us into staying. Hard to know.

In any case, let me raise a glass of non-alcoholic punch to the Seven Sisters and the people who fought from within them to help change our national murmur of approval. I think they helped my children live in a far better country, for all its troubles, than did the congregation of St. James on Oct. 16, 1922.

And here’s to their counterparts today: my churchgoing friend, who excused my bloviating insult with a truly Christian sense of forgiveness; Cary McMullen, who writes with unparalleled erudition, sincerity, and honesty about religion in all its forms; and my neighbor and friend Rob Moses, assistant rector of St. David’s Episcopal Church and a fervent, unapologetic religious voice for social justice. (Check out his outstanding blog.)

Like so many others, they’re out there fighting for the legacy of Seven Sisters, for religion that encourages self-criticism and humility before God, religion that looks at earthly power with skepticism. I hope they win. Maybe one day I’ll get off my ass and join them.

Creative Commons License photo credit: minds-eye

8 thoughts on “Quieting the Murmur of Approval: The Suicidal Success of the Seven Sisters

  1. “I fyeel so unsyatified.”

    Interesting, but you went walkabout in this, and it’s hard to see a real point to much of what you wrote. Did the details enhance or detract from your point? I’d say detract, because I’m not really sure what your point was. Something about the Seven Sisters (to whom/what are you referring?), protestantism, the KKK, tolerance for torture amongst the religious, lapsed faith, and maybe a return to it when the will is weak and the holy water is tepid.

    It’s not bad writing, but I consider it bloated with unnecessary… dare I say it?… bloviation.

    Oh, and that first intifada bull, I got issues with that. :>

    “American protestantism certainly didn’t event that.” I think you meant “invent”.

  2. “I fyeel so unsyatified.”

    Interesting, but you went walkabout in this, and it’s hard to see a real point to much of what you wrote. Did the details enhance or detract from your point? I’d say detract, because I’m not really sure what your point was. Something about the Seven Sisters (to whom/what are you referring?), protestantism, the KKK, tolerance for torture amongst the religious, lapsed faith, and maybe a return to it when the will is weak and the holy water is tepid.

    It’s not bad writing, but I consider it bloated with unnecessary… dare I say it?… bloviation.

    Oh, and that first intifada bull, I got issues with that. :>

    “American protestantism certainly didn’t event that.” I think you meant “invent”.

  3. Thoughtful and well-researched article, Billy. It is one I want to read again and think about some more. Thanks!

  4. Thoughtful and well-researched article, Billy. It is one I want to read again and think about some more. Thanks!

  5. Beloved DR: I’m fine with you thinking this is pointless and disjointed. After all, I asked for indulgence from the beginning. But don’t pretend like you actually tried to read it with anything approaching attention. What are the Seven Sisters? How about this, which I wrote in the piece:

    “It was, as Cary McMullen wrote in February, very much within the tradition of the “Seven Sisters”, the mainline Protestant churches that long defined “a broad and moderate consensus …” in American life.”

    And I don’t even know where the hell this comes from: “and maybe a return to it when the will is weak and the holy water is tepid.” But you do have a habit of reading things I don’t write. Anyway, I fear your vampire schedule is getting to you.

  6. Beloved DR: I’m fine with you thinking this is pointless and disjointed. After all, I asked for indulgence from the beginning. But don’t pretend like you actually tried to read it with anything approaching attention. What are the Seven Sisters? How about this, which I wrote in the piece:

    “It was, as Cary McMullen wrote in February, very much within the tradition of the “Seven Sisters”, the mainline Protestant churches that long defined “a broad and moderate consensus …” in American life.”

    And I don’t even know where the hell this comes from: “and maybe a return to it when the will is weak and the holy water is tepid.” But you do have a habit of reading things I don’t write. Anyway, I fear your vampire schedule is getting to you.

  7. Billy,

    So the Seven Sisters is/are Protestant Churches in general, or a specific brand of Protestantism? I thought it might be the name of one of the churches somewhere.

    Here’s the hell from whence my comment came:

    You wrote:

    “But I don’t remotely believe in the earthly conception of God that churches peddle.”

    And you wrote:

    “Maybe one day I’ll get off my ass and join them.”

    I took the latter to mean you’d join them in church. Hence, my quote: “and maybe a return to it when the will is weak and the holy water is tepid.” So you might go back to church when it’s more in line with your way of thinking church should be.

    Vampire sleeping tendencies or not, it’s my impression of the article and what was written, and your refutation of certain parts of my comment is weak. Don’t be lazy, fix it.

  8. Billy,

    So the Seven Sisters is/are Protestant Churches in general, or a specific brand of Protestantism? I thought it might be the name of one of the churches somewhere.

    Here’s the hell from whence my comment came:

    You wrote:

    “But I don’t remotely believe in the earthly conception of God that churches peddle.”

    And you wrote:

    “Maybe one day I’ll get off my ass and join them.”

    I took the latter to mean you’d join them in church. Hence, my quote: “and maybe a return to it when the will is weak and the holy water is tepid.” So you might go back to church when it’s more in line with your way of thinking church should be.

    Vampire sleeping tendencies or not, it’s my impression of the article and what was written, and your refutation of certain parts of my comment is weak. Don’t be lazy, fix it.

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