According to the biblical book of Daniel chapter 3, King Nebuchadnezzar, who ruled the Babylonian Empire where the Jews lived in exile, commissioned the building of a ninety-foot golden image and commanded the people to worship it. Refusal to comply meant one's death in a fiery furnace. While most obeyed the king's dictate, the story recounts how Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego, Jews who worked for the king, refused to worship the image and remained loyal to their God. In response, the king bade his men to stoke the furnace and burn the defiant rebels. To the king's amazement, the trio appeared unscathed amid the red-hot flames, and he glimpsed a mysterious fourth figure with them. Seeing this, the king called the men to come out of the furnace and they emerged unharmed, protected, according to the text, by the fourth figure, an angel. The story depicts Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego as heroes who withstood the forces of evil and witnessed the power of their God. It speaks to the fidelity of these men and to the intolerant nature of Nebuchadnezzar's faith. While this passage and its lessons may be familiar to many, in the 1920s they gained additional meanings that provide us with important insights into the workings of religious intolerance in the United States.
Lynn S. Neal is an assistant professor of religion at Wake Forest University.