Lonnie Dennis: From the boy evangelist to American fascist
In early March 1910, Tamaqua's Bethany United Evangelical Church on East Broad Street hosted a young evangelist whom one reporter called one of the "most unique characters to ever visit the town."
Large audiences filled the main auditorium to hear Lonnie Lawrence Dennis, who won world-wide fame as the "boy evangelist." Crowd members had no idea that the penetrating 16-year-old they flocked to hear preach the Gospel would later be charged with undermining the morale of American armed forces during World War II. Even Life Magazine labled him "America's number one intellectual fascist."
During that series of church meetings in Tamaqua, however, Nazism and fascism were still years away. The people came to be encouraged and uplifted and according to the Tamaqua Courier writer, Dennis delivered. One writer said his style was not to inspire an audience with "gesticulation and vociferousness," but with a "quiet but penetrating" appeal.
"He captures his audiences in a very short time by his tactful method of presenting the truth," the writer noted. "All through his sermon (based on James 5:20), he had the undivided attention of those that were present and the consensus of opinion is that it was a splendid sermon. These meetings cannot help but be productive of good and should be greatly encouraged by the people of Tamaqua."
The speaker was also able to win over his biggest skeptics.
"Men of Tamaqua have gone to hear him with critical minds but after listening to his sane, logical and sensible presentation of the truth, they are now praising him," the writer stated.
Dennis was born in Atlanta, Ga., in 1893. His mother was African American and his father was reportedly French and Indian. One reference states that his father was a prominent white lawyer. At a very young age he was known as "The Mulatto Boy Evangelist." After preaching to black American congregations, word of his talent of inspiring an audience quickly spread outside the state.
By the age of 10, he had crossed the American continent four times and had also been on evangelistic tours to Europe, Asia and Africa. At the age of 12, he began studying at prestigious schools like Harvard, where one reporter said "he passed as a white man."
In England a reporter said "he labored with some of the leading evangelists, preaching to immense multitudes in London and other large cities." He spent a large portion of six years in Great Britain before returning to America to tour the states. That was when the Tamaqua church booked him for an appearance.
In World War I, Dennis commanded a company of military police in France. After the war he studied in Harvard. After graduating in 1920 he entered the foreign service.
A turning point in his life came while serving in Nicaragua. When the U.S. intervened during a rebellion there, Dennis resigned from the foreign service in disgust. He became an adviser to the Latin American fund of the Seligman banking trust but again stirred controversy with his articles in The New Republic and The Nation in 1930.
Those controversial writings launched Dennis' career as a national public intellectual and led to his first book, Is Capitalism Doomed?, which was published at the height of the depression in 1932.
Although many who knew him as a child were aware he was of mixed race, those who did not still raised questions about his background. One left-wing paper called him "the tall, swarthy prophet of 'intellectual fascism.'"
During the Nazis rise to power during the 1930s, Dennis became widely known as the most influential person in American fascism. He attended the Nuremberg rallies, had a personal audience with Mussolini, and met with top Nazi leaders throughout the decade leading to World War II.
He reportedly tried to enlist in the American Army during the war, but the Army rejected him after the media ran stories about him. During the final years of the war, Dennis was placed on trial for sedition. He was one of 29 defendants charged with undermining the morale of the armed forces, and accused of being part of some kind of worldwide Nazi conspiracy. The case collapsed after the judge had a fatal heart attack.
Although his newsletter, Appeal To Reason, maintained a prominent circle of readers - including Herbert Hoover and Joseph P. Kennedy - his post-war years were not happy ones. Friends and financial supporters distanced themselves from him and his wife, who had worked as both housekeeper and secretary for his one-man intellectual operation, filed for divorce in 1956.
The boy evangelist, who once inspired audiences in large cities like London to smaller towns such as Tamaqua, died in 1977.