The most recent issue of the Mennonite World Review includes an article by Rich Preheim addressing the Mennonite faith of Ben Klassen (b. 1918 and not be be confused with any other Ben Klassens out there), who founded the white supremacist Church of the Creator. The article is a nice introduction to Klassen, who was born in an Mennonite community present-day Ukraine. Facing a terrible famine, his family headed to Mexico, then to Saskatchewan when Klassen was a young child. He went on to have a successful career in real estate and as dabbled as an inventor.
And, along the way, he came to believe that Christianity was false because it was an extension of Judaism; an anti-Semite, he would never embrace Christianity. Additionally, he saw that, while white people would defend Christianity, Christianity would not defend whiteness–indeed, he saw it as too deferential to Jewish people and inclusive of nonwhites. Key Mennonite doctrines, such as the rejection of violence and loyalty to faith above state, drew more of his criticism. In the end, Mennonites were, like Jews and Roma, threatening white supremacy because of their rootlessness, though white ethnic Mennonites were not seen as racially inferior (or threatening) as Jews and Roma were.
And yet, though he rejected Christianity broadly and the Mennonite faith in particular, as Preheim explains, Klassen’s “Mennonite experiences were foundational to his development as a leading white supremacist.”
In 1973, Klassen founded the Church of the Creator (COTC), which isn’t a church at all but a racist movement; it is a religion in the sense that it provides a framework for understanding the world, but it explicitly rejects belief in the supernatural. The sum of the group’s theology is that whites are superior to nonwhites in all ways and that society should be organized for the good of whites. As point 3 in their statement of faith says, “WE BELIEVE that our Race is our Religion.”
Above, Klassen stands before a banner with the emblem of the Church of the Creator. Accoring to the Creativity Movement, which continues to use this flag, “The ‘W’ of our Emblem stands, of course, for the WHITE RACE, which we regard as the most precious treasure on the face of the earth. The Crown signifies our Aristocratic position in Nature’s scheme of things, indicating that we are the ELITE. The Halo indicates that we regard our race as being UNIQUE and SACRED above all other values.”
Klassen developed this line of white supremacy in books with titles like The White Man’s Bible, Nature’s Eternal Religion, This Planet is All Ours, and Trials, Tribulations, and Triumphs: A History of the Church of the Creator During Its 10 Year Domicile in the State of North Carolina, Coordinated with Biographical Details During the Same Period, which, uh, sounds a lot like the full title of Martyrs Mirror. Klassen gave white supremacists the rallying crying Rahowa! (“racial holy war”), which was the title of another of his books. He was a prolific writer of white supremacy, though his ideas didn’t catch on immediately. It was in the 1980s and 1990s that his movement gained traction. During that time, COTC was linked to murders and attempted terrorist activity. This included the 1991 murder of Harold Mansfield Jr., an African American killed by a COTC leader in Florida.
Facing the reality of a lawsuit from the Southern Poverty Law Center over Mansfield’s murder, Klassen sold his rural compound to the William Pierce, the leader of National Alliance, a neo-Nazi group, and author of The Turner Diaries, a fictionalized account of a race war–and the kind of thing that Timothy McVeigh liked to sell at gun shows. Klassen then committed suicide. Like many white supremacists movements, COTC went several different directions after the founding leader’s death. (In general, white supremacists are pretty good at spinning paranoid fantasies and pretty terrible at leadership.) The most important descendent was the World Church of the Creator. That group fell apart after it was sued by a peace-loving TE-TA-MA Truth Foundation (“TE-TA-MA Represents The Family Unification of Mankind In All Aspects Of The Whole. We of Like Mind Join Harmoniously In Oneness, Knowing That There Is Only One Creator-Source….”) over a copyright dispute regarding the terms “Church of the Creator.” Soon, WCOTC’s leader was arrested for trying to arrange the assassination of a federal judge, and members, without changing their minds about the superiority of white people, pulled out of the endeavor. The sale of Klassen’s books was the main stream of revenue for the group, but a member in Montana who had access to $41,000 worth of books and other materials, turned them over to the Montana Human Rights Network, an anti-hate group, for a nominal fee, to negate them as a revenue source for white supremacist movements.
Still, the Creativity Movement, another variation on Klassen’s legacy, continues, and Klassen’s writing remains in circulation online.
So, how does Preheim conclude that Klassen’s Mennonite heritage matters, given that the movement he founded explicitly rejects Christianity? Preheim doesn’t answer the question directly, but I think we can make some guesses.
Klassen’s Mennonite connections enabled his survival during a period of starvation in Soviet Ukraine. It allowed him to escape to Mexico and then to Saskatchewan. If he hadn’t been Mennonite, he might not have survived starvation at all–and certainly not found his way to the Canadian prairie. It launched him to a small Mennonite college there, an experience that was important in his journey to rejecting religion. He understood the suffering of his Mennonite childhood as a result of white Mennonite’s failure to use force to defend their own interests against what Klassen imagined were powerful Jews with international influence. His experience with the Mennonite peace witness, in particular, disgusted him; his writing frequently uses violent language to call for whites to fight for their survival, to fight, fight, fight, because, otherwise, they face extinction. It’s not hard to imagine that Klassen’s family’s own fight for survival in the face of the Polvolzhye famine shaped a life-long obsession with survival. He was an avid anti-communist (oh, and a member of the Florida legislature for a bit, elected on an anti-busing/pro-Wallace platform), undoubtedly because of his family’s experience in the Soviet Union. These factors together don’t excuse his violent racism and anti-Semitism, but they might help us understand how what Mennonites so often see as the best parts of our faith–our peace witness, our willingness to suffer, our history of martyrdom–can also inspire violence.
PS. Have you read Ben Goosen’s book, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era?
PPS. Readers might notice that I include hardly any links in this piece. Though I read a lot of hate literature for my scholarly work, I prefer not to circulate it unless someone is really interested. If you’d like to see how white supremacists handle Klassen’s history–and specifically his Mennonite ancestry–please let me know.