North Dakota Pastor’s ‘Big Lie’ Turned Many Protestants Against Catholic Neighbors

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This is often called a “conspiracy theory”. A common component of the big lie is instilling fear in the group. The logic for using a big lie is knowing that if it’s repeated often enough, a lot of people will start to believe it. It can be used at the national level or at the state or community level.

Adolf Hitler’s big lie was the conspiracy theory that “Germany was not defeated in World War I, but was instead betrayed by internal groups”, such as Jews or other selves. – saying “unwanted”. US Senator Joseph McCarthy’s grand lie / conspiracy theory was that there were a large number of Communists “working in the national government and the US military”, with the ultimate goal of overthrowing the US government. Hitler and McCarthy both called for large-scale purges to get rid of people who allegedly had sinister plans for their country.

In Grand Forks during the 1920s, F. Halsey Ambrose and the Ku Klux Klan succeeded in purging Catholics from city government because, they argued in their theory, “Roman Catholics cannot be good. Americans because the first allegiance of Catholics is to the Pope in Rome, ”implying that ultimately the Pope would have the final say on how Catholic city officials run the city.

Ambrose served as a minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Grand Forks from 1918 to 1931 and, because of his charisma and fiery speeches, filled the church for his Sunday night lectures. Most of the participants in these services were not Presbyterians, but members of other Protestant denominations. Ambrose also disparaged Jews and African Americans, but since they were such a small minority of the city’s population, they did not pose a credible threat to the city’s political power.

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F. Halsey Ambrose, a minister from Grand Forks and top local Klan leader.  Photo courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota / Special for the Forum

F. Halsey Ambrose, a minister from Grand Forks and top local Klan leader. Photo courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota / Special for the Forum

Frederick Halsey Ambrose was born November 30, 1888 to Robert and Anna (Johnston) Ambrose in Burden, NY. served as the minister of supply for the presbyterian church chair in the small village of Carrollton, Maryland. A supply minister is a replacement position and serves until the congregation can secure a regular minister.

Ambrose then moved to the small town of Footville, Wisconsin, to become a minister of the Presbyterian Church there. Despite the fact that he did not have a degree in theology, “Madison Rectory registered him as a Presbyterian minister.” Ambrose could not be ordained because he had not studied the Greek and Hebrew languages ​​and because he lacked courses on “biblical exegesis (critical interpretation of the Bible in its original languages)”.

Ambrose also had to pass five exams required for ordination. “From 1913 to 1918 he was head of the First Presbyterian Church in Marshfield, Wisconsin, where he doubled the membership of the church and took an active part in prohibition and patriotic activities. His zealous patriotism was due to the fact that the United States was involved in World War I during the last two years he was in Marshfield.

Meanwhile, the First Presbyterian Church in Grand Forks was in trouble. By 1916 the membership had exceeded 600, and by 1918 it had fallen below 500. The donation for the year 1918 was only $ 8,275. In 1918, the elders of the church began to look for a new pastor, someone dynamic, both as a person and in his sermons. They contacted Madison Rectory to express their desire and needs and were recommended to consider Ambrose. They suggested that with Ambrose, “You will have a very vigorous preacher, an active pastor and a citizen,” and if hired they predicted that they would “have a successful ministry in their city.”

Ambrose was hired on September 7, 1918 and officially installed on February 21, 1919. One of the first things he did as pastor of the Grand Forks Presbyterian Church was to preside over two services each Sunday. In the morning, Ambrose gave the regular sermon to church members, and in the evening, he lectured on things that pertained to him that were going on in the community, state, and nation. He also began to frequently write opinion pieces for The Grand Forks Herald.

Two issues that captured Ambrose’s attention were the rapid rise in popularity of the Non-Partisan League (NPL) in North Dakota and fears that Catholics in Grand Forks would take over the city government and n ‘impose the will of the Pope on his citizens. On the NPL issue, Ambrose won a big supporter in Jerry Bacon, the publisher of the Herald. Bacon and Ambrose were both strong supporters of capitalism and viewed the NPL as a form of socialism, if not Bolshevism.


Jerry Bacon.  Photo of "North Dakota History and Biography Compendium," Geo.  A. Ogle & Co., Chicago, 1900 / Forum Special

Jerry Bacon. Photo from “Compendium of History and Biography of North Dakota”, Geo. A. Ogle & Co., Chicago, 1900 / Forum Special

In 1919, Bacon’s Herald Press published a pamphlet written by Ambrose, “A Sermon on Applied Socialism”, which was “a violent assault on the NPL.” It was so popular that it sold over 5,000 copies in two weeks. As their friendship grew, Bacon began posting notices of Ambrose’s Sunday Night Lectures on the front page of the Herald.

In 1921, a KKK leader from Indiana came to Grand Forks and met Ambrose. He offered the pastor free membership and “the privilege of acting as a Kleagle, or local Klan recruiter.” Ambrose was honored because he “was a spellbinding orator, an indomitable opponent of the Roman Catholic Church, and an agitator for stricter enforcement of the ban.”

As the leader of the Klan, Ambrose stepped up his attacks on Catholics and the NPL during his Sunday night lectures, and Tracy Bangs, a prominent Grand Forks lawyer, called Ambrose’s lectures “sermons of hate.” . During his lectures, Ambrose would get very lively and would often say what many people considered to be strange things. Citizens of the Grand Forks area found his weekly lectures entertaining, and every week 1,200 people gathered at his church to hear what he had to say about the NPL, immigrants, prohibition, government, sin, Catholics, Jews, and African Americans.

Sadly, many of these people got caught up in Ambrose’s poisonous rhetoric, including some of Grand Forks’ top businessmen. As a local recruiter for the Klan, Ambrose signed up a number of community members to be “Knights of the Klan.” Then, in September 1922, he held his first Konclave (a gathering of the Knights) 22 miles west of Grand Forks, and all members were dressed in their white robes and masks.

We will conclude the story of Reverend Ambrose and the KKK in Grand Forks next week.

Update: On April 17, 2005 and March 29, 2015, I wrote articles on the unsolved murder of Susan Berman in 2000. On October 14, 2021, Robert Durst was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for her death. .

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections or column suggestions to Eriksmoens at [email protected]


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