Stupid Question ™
Nov. 14, 2002
By John Ruch
Q: Why does a burning cross symbolize racial hatred? And why is it the logo of the Methodist Church?
A: The burning of a wooden cross is an old Ku Klux Klan ritual sometimes used to intimidate minorities and other perceived enemies by signifying the KKK’s presence.
The “Fiery Cross,” as KKK groups call it, is vaguely linked to an apparently real Scottish practice immortalized by Sir Walter Scott in his 1810 poem “The Lady of the Lake.” But really, the Klan picked it up from the movies.
In Scott’s poem, a small, handheld wooden cross is carried from village to village to announce a meeting of the clans for war. The cross was fiery only at first; it was extinguished with the blood of a sacrificial animal before making the rounds as a charred object. (Most likely it was the X-shaped cross of St. Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland.)
Scott’s story was copied by Thomas Dixon for his bizarre 1905 novel “The Clansman,” a highly romanticized tale of the original, pre-Civil War KKK. Obsessed with the incorrect notion that the KKK had been founded by secret Scottish group, Dixon had them carrying the Fiery Cross around.
The novel was the basis for D.W. Griffith’s infamous film epic “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), which depicted Klan horsemen wielding flaming crosses—a more photogenic interpretation.
The original KKK (circa 1865-1870) never burned crosses. But “The Birth of a Nation” inspired a former Georgia preacher to start up a new KKK, which he inaugurated by burning a small, fixed wooden cross on a mountaintop.
Today’s various KKK groups (there is no single KKK) call it a “cross lighting,” not “cross burning.”
It is intended to glorify, not denigrate, the cross. The post-1915 KKK groups have always been strongly Christian, and cross-lightings signify the “Light of Christ dispelling darkness and ignorance,” as the Arkansas-based Knights of the Ku Klux Klan put it.
KKK groups use cross-lightings as social events, recruitment parties and induction ceremonies. The multiple meanings of fire are often involved. One 1979 ceremony emphasized fire-as-truth: “Behold the Fiery Cross still brilliant. All the troubled history failed to quench its hallowed fame.”
But with the KKK’s history of bombings and arson, the fire also means destruction, and KKK crosses have been placed so as to terrorize minority families, Vietnamese fishermen, even Prohibition-era whiskey-makers—any enemies of the right wing of the day.
The similarity to the United Methodist Church’s (UMC) “Cross and Flame” insignia hasn’t been lost on the KKK or the church itself, but there’s no connection. (Nor to the similar Presbyterian Church logo.) The logo features a cross with a stylized, two-tongue flame to its left, licking up behind the cross’s arm.
The logo was created in 1968 to mark the UMC’s creation with the merger of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church.
The flames signify the Holy Spirit as it appears in the Biblical “burning bush” and “tongues, as of fire” in the book of Acts. The dual flames also symbolize the two churches that united to form the UMC.