“The Big Lie” (große Lüge) is defined as “a gross distortion or misrepresentation of the truth, used especially as a propaganda technique.” It is often employed by a person or group of people against another group of people to make that group look like they are plotting or have plotted to do something that causes harm or injustice to the masses of common, hard-working citizens.

This is often referred to as a “conspiracy theory.” A frequent component of the big lie is to instill fear of the group. The logic for using a big lie is the knowledge that if it is repeated often enough, many people will begin 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 during World War I, but rather was betrayed by internal groups,” such as the Jews or other so-called “undesirables.” U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s big lie/conspiracy theory was that there were a large number of Communists “who were working in the national government and U.S. Army,” with the ultimate goal of overthrowing the U.S. government. Both Hitler and McCarthy called for large-scale purges to get rid of the people who allegedly had sinister plans for their countries.

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

Ambrose was the minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Grand Forks from 1918 to 1931 and, because of his charisma and fiery orations, packed the church for his Sunday evening lectures. Most of the attendees to those services were not Presbyterians, but members of other Protestant denominations. Ambrose also denigrated Jews and African Americans, but since they made up such a small minority of the city’s population, they were not a credible threat to the political power of the city.

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

Frederick Halsey Ambrose was born on Nov. 30, 1888, to Robert and Anna (Johnston) Ambrose in Burden, N.Y. He attended Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., for his preparatory (high school) education, and graduated in 1909. Ambrose then served as a pulpit supply minister of the Presbyterian Church in the small village of Carrollton, Md. A supply minister is a fill-in position and serves until the congregation can get a regular minister.

Ambrose then moved to the small town of Footville, Wis., to become minister of the Presbyterian church in that town. Despite the fact that he did not have a divinity degree, “the Madison Presbytery enrolled him as a Presbyterian minister.” Ambrose was not able to be ordained because he had not studied the Greek and Hebrew languages and he lacked coursework in the “Biblical exegesis (critical interpretation of the Bible in its original languages).”

Ambrose also needed to pass five examinations required for ordination. “From 1913 to 1918, he was the head of the First Presbyterian Church in Marshfield, Wis., where he doubled the church membership and took an active part in prohibition and patriotic activities.” His zealous patriotism was because the U.S. was involved in World War I during the last two years he was at Marshfield.

Meanwhile, the First Presbyterian Church in Grand Forks was struggling. In 1916, the membership was over 600 and, by 1918, it had dropped below 500. Giving for the year 1918 was only $8,275. In 1918, church elders began the search for a new pastor, someone who was dynamic, both as a person and in his sermons. They contacted the Madison Presbytery expressing their desire and need and were recommended that they consider Ambrose. They suggested that with Ambrose, “You will have a very vigorous preacher, an active pastor, and citizen,” and if he was hired, they predicted that they would have “a successful ministry in their city.”

Ambrose was hired on Sept. 7, 1918, and officially installed on Feb. 21, 1919. One of the first things he did as the pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Grand Forks was presiding over two services each Sunday. In the morning, Ambrose gave the regular sermon to the church members and, in the evening, he gave a lecture about things that concerned him that were taking place in the community, state and nation. He also began writing frequent opinion articles for The Grand Forks Herald.

Two issues that received much of Ambrose’s attention were the rapid rise in popularity of the Nonpartisan League (NPL) in North Dakota and the fear that Catholics in Grand Forks would gain control of the city government and impose the will of the pope on its citizens. On the issue of the NPL, Ambrose gained a major supporter in Jerry Bacon, the publisher of the Herald. Both Bacon and Ambrose were ardent supporters of capitalism and they viewed the NPL as a form of socialism, or possibly even Bolshevism.

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

In 1919, Bacon’s press at the Herald published a pamphlet written by Ambrose, "A Sermon on Applied Socialism," which was a “violent assault on the NPL.” It was so popular, it sold over 5,000 copies in two weeks. As their friendship grew, Bacon started to run notifications of Ambrose’s Sunday night lectures on the front page of the Herald.

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

As a Klan leader, Ambrose intensified his attacks on Catholics and the NPL during his Sunday evening lectures, and Tracy Bangs, a prominent Grand Forks attorney, labeled Ambrose’s lectures as “sermons of hatred.” During his lectures, Ambrose would become very animated and often say what many people considered outlandish things. Citizens in the Grand Forks area found his weekly lectures entertaining, and each week, 1,200 people gathered in his church to hear what he had to say about the NPL, immigrants, prohibition, government, sin, Catholics, Jews and African Americans.

Unfortunately, a large number of those people got caught up in Ambrose’s venomous rhetoric, including some of the leading businessmen of Grand Forks. As the local recruiter for the Klan, Ambrose signed up a number of members from the community 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 of the members were dressed in their white robes and masks.

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

Update: On April 17, 2005, and March 29, 2015, I wrote articles about the unsolved 2000 murder of Susan Berman. On Oct. 14, 2021, Robert Durst was found guilty and given a life prison sentence for her death.

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@gmail.com.