Friday, April 27, 2012

History Of The "Strange Town" Of Liberal


(This story, written by Steven Everly, was published in the Kansas City Star on Saturday, December 22, 2001 and,  while it looks good to those on the outside, and despite Mr. Everly's glowing report, those who live here know that many of the strongholds from the past still permeate the dark recesses of our town and hold many who live here in the bondage of darkness and divisiveness.)

In this southwest Missouri town, it's clear that Christmas is near. Colored lights stretch across Main Street. Garlands hang from light poles. A Nativity scene sits in front of a nearby church. But anyone familiar with Liberal's history knows that it wasn't supposed to be like this. This was a town created as a home for infidels, a place that once advertised itself as a town without a "church, saloon, God or hell."

Beginning in 1880, hundreds of people answered the call and moved here. By 1910, when its founder died, the experiment in creating a town for non-believers had failed. The story of Liberal is, in short, a story of how skepticism gave way to faith. Today, Liberal has seven churches, a tavern on its outskirts, and a history unlike any town in America.

"I was born here and I wouldn't live anywhere else," said Vernon Snodgrass, 80, who once owned a general store in the town. "But I understand why some call it 'This Strange Town of Liberal.' "

A drive through Liberal gives few signs that religion was once put to a test here, or that it was a community conceived in the notion that faith in God was not necessary for a fulfilling life. There's no sign informing visitors that this was once called the "Godless town of infidelity." Instead, visitors are more likely to find a Christmas message like this one, which graces the front porch of one home: "Jesus is the Reason for the Season." But there are hints of its unorthodox past in this town 125 miles south of Kansas City. It's a place where residents still live on Darwin Street, named after the man who set forth the theory of evolution. Visitors can take a walk along Ingersoll Street, named after Robert Ingersoll, a well-known lecturer in the 19th century who questioned the existence of God. Both men were heroes to George H. Walser, a Civil War veteran who moved to Lamar, Mo., in 1866 to practice law. He was a follower of Ingersoll and carried a deep conviction that intellect and religion were incompatible. His favorite description of Christianity was "superstition." His views didn't fare well in Lamar, and he bought 2,000 acres about 17 miles west of the town. He began advertising across the country for like-minded people to move to the town he called Liberal.

"With one foot upon the neck of priestcraft and the other upon the rock of truth we have thrown our banners to the breeze and challenge the world," he wrote in The Liberal News, the newspaper he started.

People who moved to Liberal signed an agreement promising not to hold religious services on their property. Nor would they sell it to someone who planned to use it as a place of worship. Institutions to further the new order were born. The National Liberal Orphans Home was established to take care of children without parents or guardians. It would teach them an upright life, but they wouldn't be exposed to a "sectarian or a supernatural religion," according to incorporation papers that were filed with the Missouri secretary of state.

Free Thought University, which had a faculty of seven, was founded in 1886 with courses of study that were "untrammeled by Bible, creed or isms," according to one of the university's surviving publications. As residents moved in, they created an everyday life with a twist. There was Sunday School, but in Liberal people listened to lectures about science followed by concerts and music. Sunday School often concluded with chemistry experiments for the kids. Evenings were reserved for debates and speeches at the Universal Mental Liberty Hall. Evolution vs. creationism was a favorite, but most any topic could be heard.

As news spread about Liberal, Christians came to convert the town. Walser tried to keep them out by posting his followers at the Liberal train station to tell passengers that if they were Christians they were not welcome, according to an 1896 article in The Kansas City Star. They came anyway. Some Christians quietly bought homes and began holding religious services. Walser would interrupt them and even put a stop to it after he proved to a court that the services were being held on properties he still partly owned. The Christians then bought land next to Liberal and moved more than a dozen houses there from Liberal. The last building had a sign attached that said: "And the Lord said: Get thee out of Sodom."  Walser then built a barbed wire fence to keep them out of Liberal. It was time to fulfill the original aim of the town to "enjoy the full benefits of free American citizens without having some self-appointed bigot dictate to us what we should think."

But in the end, Walser's dream was unfulfilled. Liberal was based on free thought, and that naturally bred dissension. Eventually, Walser seemed to lose interest. He even sold his beloved Universal Mental Liberty Hall to the Methodist Church. Today, there are few surviving artifacts of the Walser era. Liberal still uses the cemetery he designed. It's shaped like a wagon wheel, with the grave stones facing the center where Walser was to be buried. The story passed down is that if there was a resurrection, Walser wanted to be sure his followers saw him first. Walser ended up, however, being buried in Lamar. Artifacts like the Universal Mental Liberty Hall and other buildings associated with Walser are gone. Free Thought University and the orphans home were closed down long ago. Today, like other small towns, Liberal can be slow in accepting newcomers. But the debate and divisions about the existence of God have long disappeared.

"There isn't any of that animosity," said Gene Curless, a resident. Instead, there are the seven churches - all Christian, about one for every 100 residents - proof that religion triumphed despite Walser's attempts to keep it out. "It is winning," said the Rev. Phil Abbott, minister of the Christian Church in Liberal.

Walser probably would not be surprised at how things turned out. When he died in May 1910, the funeral was held at his home and there were remembrances and music. Then there were excerpts read from a book titled The Life and Teachings of Jesus. It was published in 1909, and the author was Walser. He was, he wrote, a converted infidel. By surviving accounts, he didn't try to push his new beliefs on others. But he did write the book, a remarkable document from someone who once said that Christianity and the Bible were the crude reasoning of primitive man. He had searched for hope during his life through materialism, atheism, agnosticism and spiritualism but had found none. Walser wrote in the book that he had "wandered in the desert of disbelief, waded in the river of doubt, and in the sands of desolation." But near the end of his life he found hope. Jesus was the son of God, Walser concluded, and the Holy Ghost was the infinite spirit of our maker. "We should study the chart which Jesus has given us," Walser said.

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