When an influential preacher with intolerant views and Nazi sympathies sat on the cusp of power in 1938 Kansas, an unlikely quartet of Wichita clergymen tried to halt his charge and score a victory against hate. It’s a historical tale that provides inspiration – and cautionary lessons – for those looking to step forward and lead in heated situations today.
It sounds like it could be the opening to some bad joke: A rabbi, two priests and a minister climb in a truck and drive across Kansas.
Yet this ecumenical posse from Wichita wasn’t joking. They were out to stop a fifth minister, or at least to keep him from getting elected to a powerful political post. But even more than that, this group of men from very different religious traditions was undertaking a mission of promoting tolerance. Their quest came in the midst of tumultuous Great Depression-era times that had brought suffering, uncertainty and change to the lives of many Kansans.
The men in the truck were Rabbi Harry R. Richmond of Congregation Emanu-El, Monsignor William Michael Farrell of St. Mary’s Cathedral, the Rev. Samuel K. West of St. James Episcopal Church and the Rev. John Henry Hornung, Plymouth Congregational Church. The man sparking their quest was the Rev. Gerald B. Winrod, founder of the Wichita-based Defenders of the Christian Faith, who sought the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in 1938. He had expressed anti-Jewish views and sympathized with the Nazis, who had risen to power in Germany. But the beginnings of World War II were still a year away, and America’s entry into the conflict would not come for another three years.
Winrod’s foray into politics represented an expansion of his efforts after developing a substantial following to his devout but conspiracy-laden expression of religious faith. His call to ministry was uniquely Kansan. According to family legend, Winrod’s barkeep father was on duty when Carry Nation smashed up the Wichita saloon on one of her temperance raids. That event started a change of heart for the family, which was completed a few years later when Winrod’s dying mother experienced a miraculous healing.
His overcome father entered the ministry. Winrod delivered his first sermon in his teens.
Winrod only briefly had his own church, instead traveling for months at a time speaking as a guest in other pulpits or broadcasting in a vehicle outfitted with speakers.
Typical of evangelical pastors of his time, Winrod was more interested in soul-saving than in the issues of the day. When he spoke out through his magazines, circular letters or radio appearances on issues, he emphasized moral living. His best-known book, Christ Within, was built on a theme that resonated with many Christians: “America is confronted with a crisis and … only an applied Christianity and the ‘Faith of our fathers’ will solve its problems.”
Part of that crisis, according to Winrod and many other Christians, was the practice of teaching evolution in schools. Controversies over the issue inspired 25-year-old Winrod to call a meeting of self-described fundamentalist clergy in Salina and, from there, to start the Wichita-based Defenders of the Christian Faith. By the time he announced his Senate candidacy about 12 years later, Winrod had national support. His publication, The Defender, claimed a circulation of 100,000. Winrod was speaking weekly on WIBW (Topeka) and KANS (Wichita) radio stations controlled by the popular former governor and current senator Arthur Capper. He was widely regarded as an expert in biblical prophecy.
Winrod’s take on prophecy was likely how he came to the attention of Rabbi Richmond, who served Congregation Emanu-El from 1930 to 1955. The 1930s were a difficult time in American Judaism. Jews found themselves all too often a target for blame in the nation’s woes. The number of anti-Jewish groups in the United States grew from a handful in the 1920s to more than a hundred, according to scholar Richard Frankel. The Defenders was the one closest to Richmond’s home. Winrod’s writing demonstrated that he was anti-Semitic and sympathetic to Nazi policies.
The Wichita evangelist had written for the past decade about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which purported to reveal how a small number of Jews controlled world events. Though it had been thoroughly discredited, this piece of writing repeatedly fueled anti-Jewish sentiment and conspiracy theories. The conspiracy claims would have made an educated man like Richmond laugh if the potential consequences were not so serious.
Leo Ribuffo, a religious historian, summed it up:
“Winrod combined popular anti-Semitic lore and conservative theology to produce an extraordinarily coherent theory of subversion by ‘a certain element of apostate Jewry.’” At this stage of his ministry, Winrod viewed Jews as a threat but also a necessary part of God’s plan for redeeming the world. “Let no defender of the faith allow his heart to be filled with hatred for the Jews,” he wrote. “Your attitude should not be so much a matter of trying to determine what is right and wrong! You should be interested rather in interpreting these strange events in the light of fulfilled prophecy.”
When he was stumping, Winrod said none of this, staying with safe topics in Republican Kansas — defend against Communism, preserve states’ rights and push back on the New Deal.
A risky decision
Winrod was no pushover, either. He struck back against his critics, denying the accusations against him to The New York Times in July 1938 and dismissing them as smears used against the enemies of communism.
“The insinuation that I have Fascist or Nazi inclinations was not uttered in sincerity, and is too absurd to be considered seriously. I denounce it as an outright falsehood. I condemn it as the cheapest kind of politics. “I am now and always have been opposed to every ‘ism’ except Americanism. It is the custom, you must understand, to smear all enemies of communism with the charge of fascism and nazism.”
Richmond worried that Kansas voters might see and hear Winrod as a gifted orator and Republican stalwart without hearing about his repugnant views. Richmond was already involved in interfaith work with other Wichita clergy who had joined him in the truck: Farrell of St. Mary’s Cathedral, West of St. James Episcopal Church and Hornung of Plymouth Congregational Church. They were cooperating on relief efforts for German Jews and discussing ways to hold back the scorn heaped on Catholics during the Al Smith presidential campaign (which occurred 10 years earlier in 1928).
It’s easy to imagine that bringing up Winrod’s candidacy was a difficult choice for Richmond. With all the horrors Jews faced in Europe, a primary election in Kansas could seem trivial. Richmond also had to consider what risk he might create for his congregation. Winrod did not appear violent, and anti-Semitism in Wichita usually looked more like exclusion from social groups than destruction of property. But the lessons of the world were recent and severe. Would his people suffer if the rabbi spoke out against an anti-Semitic candidate?
The four clergy colleagues decided some response was in order, probably after some discernment. Public action carried some risk. All clergy are vulnerable to the disapproval of their congregations, and any political stance was bound to upset someone.
There were plenty inside and outside the church who believed ministers should stay out of politics, as evidenced by a pastor of one of Wichita’s black congregations who told newspapers he neither endorsed nor opposed Winrod and had “no interest in politics whatsoever.” United action might unravel the ecumenical bonds the men were in the process of forming.
The Wichita men could have joined an ongoing effort by Kansas City ministers opposed to Winrod’s candidacy who hinted that he accepted Nazi funds and claimed that his writing was in the hands of Nazi officials, wild claims that were difficult to prove. Instead, Richmond and his allies were more restrained.
“I do not accuse Gerald Winrod of being a Fascist or a Nazi. I was not one of the ministers who made that accusation against him personally. I take little stock in such accusations,” wrote Father West. “But I do say that a fair and unprejudiced examination of the record as it appears in the Winrod magazines will convince any reasonable person that the editor is very, very sympathetic with the anti-Semitic program and propaganda of Mr. Hitler.”
A traveling tactic
They decided to start where Kansans were. Inspired by The Tolerance Trio, an interfaith clergy group that went on a cross-country speaking tour in 1933, they employed a favorite tool of the Depression-era campaign and of Winrod himself — a speaker truck. “We visited nearly every city and town in Kansas,” Richmond said. “Always together,” a Catholic, two Protestants and a Jew, “we tried to explain that this kind of hate had no place in America, in a democracy. We pointed out that the constitution asks for fraternity, equality and good will.”
They earned the name The Four Horsemen of Tolerance, a tip of the yarmulke to a nickname for the founders of Wichita.
The foursome crafted their message. The Jewish population in Kansas was small, particularly in rural areas. And the 1938 election was barely a decade past the height of the Ku Klux Klan in Kansas; thousands of Kansans were or had been members. To connect the issue to the Republican voters who would choose their Senate candidate, the Four Horsemen had to do more than expose Winrod’s anti-Semitism. They also drew attention to his other outrageous views.
He was anti-Catholic, making claims such as “75 percent of the rites and ceremonies of the Roman Church are of pagan origins.” He believed “illuminized” Masons were part of the world conspiracy. Winrod repeatedly criticized the Federal Council of Churches and the denominations represented in it for conspiring with communist enemies; for instance, he wrote about the shame of Methodism leaving its evangelical roots for modernist practices.
Jew baiting, as the practice of harassing Jews was known, might not fire up Kansans. Criticizing the churches and Masonic lodges in their own communities would.
The campaigning clergy used media where they could. The Wichita Beacon was friendly to their message, carrying many news stories and editorials critical of Winrod. Not coincidentally, the paper was owned by the Jewish Levand family. The Beacon covered a radio address by West and followed it up with a West column on the weekly church page.
Audiences warmly received the men of the cloth, and Richmond believed their words helped voters see Winrod for what he was. “Kansans didn’t fall for the propaganda,” he said.
Winrod lost the nomination to former governor Clyde M. Reed of Parsons (who would ultimately win the seat). Winrod finished second in his home base of Wichita and third overall. The campaign seemed to discredit him. His reputation was further damaged when he was formally charged with sedition in 1942, although he was never convicted.
Winrod continued his work and rebuilt his magazine’s circulation. By the late 1940s and early ’50s he was consumed by “the Levand family as a menace to our city,” as he wrote in a brochure sent to every Wichita postal address in 1951.
Winrod died in 1957. The Defenders distanced themselves from their founder and continued overseas mission work and operation of several retirement homes; they ran Defenders Townhouse at 155 N. Market in the 1970s.
The Four Horsemen made a difference in the 1938 election and then continued their interfaith work. Richmond wrote a series of sermons for the Interfaith Chapel Hour on Wichita’s KFH radio that became a well-received book, “God on Trial,” in 1955. With other people of faith, they helped form the Wichita chapter of the National Council of Christians and Jews. The chapter gave Father West its Humanitarian Award in 1953. Pastor Hornung received the same recognition in 1957, and Rabbi Richmond was recognized in 1977, the year following his death.
In 1938, the Four Horsemen knew exactly who and what they were against. Their efforts were risky but skillfully executed. They sought to make lasting change and founded an organization chapter to carry that mission on past their own lives.
But in looking at their efforts, and those of Winrod, there are still warning flags of caution for those of us hoping to exercise leadership today. We should think carefully about our passions and fears, how we express them and how they might be viewed in the decades to come, lest we become extremists of some cause or faith in our own right. Furthermore, the creation of institutions or organizations should not become a complete substitute for continuing to advance our purposes to benefit the common good. Within the past few years, the Wichita NCCJ chapter, for instance, has folded. Intolerance still exists and may often exist in less obvious forms than in the past. The further challenge, however, is to maintain energy and effort when the work is not so cut and dried as countering a voice of hate.
The story of the Four Horsemen reminds us of the importance of advancing the values we wish to see represented in our state over the long haul and not giving up when the heat subsides. In the case of tolerance, Kansas still needs a truck full of mobilized people to work for it, even if who needs to be in the truck and where it needs to go continues to change.
Seth Bate of Winfield is a leadership development facilitator and coach who is pursuing a master’s degree in public history at Wichita State University. His interest in nearby history led him to the Rev. Dr. Gerald B. Winrod Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, WSU Libraries, which contributed greatly to the development of this article.