While reading a recent critique of the new Atheism in The Noise of Reason, I discovered a hidden gem of history – the story of Liberal, Missouri.
Liberal, MO, named after the Liberal League in Lamar, Missouri (to which the town’s organizer belonged), was started as an atheist, “freethinker” utopia in 1880 by George Walser, an anti-religionist, agnostic lawyer. He bought 2000 acres of land and advertised across the country for atheists to come and
“found a town without a church, [w]here unbelievers could bring up their children without religious training, ” – and where Christians were not allowed. His idea was to build up a town that should exclusively be the home of Infidels…”a town that should have neither God, Hell, Church, nor Saloon.” Some of the early inhabitants of Liberal even encouraged other infidels to move to their town by publishing an advertisement which boasted that Liberal “is the only town of its size in the United States without a priest, preacher, church, saloon, God, Jesus, hell or devil.” (from Atheism and Liberal, MO)
Well, how did that little experiment turn out? It’s more incredible than you could imagine.
The Founder and Founding of Liberal, MO
The founder of this unique community experiment, George H. Walser, was born in Indiana in 1834. He went to Barton county immediately after the war, where he was soon recognized as one of the best lawyers in southwest Missouri. He was elected prosecuting attorney there, and became a member of the 25th assembly. With an eye for future developments he purchased 2,000 acres of land and selected the site of Liberal as the home of an experiment in intellectual community living. He was an agnostic and placed himself in open opposition to organized religion. “With one foot upon the neck of priestcraft and the other upon the rock of truth,” he declared, “we have thrown our banner to the breeze and challenge the world to produce a better cause for the devotion of man than that of a grand, noble and perfect humanity.”
In harmony with the purpose for organizing the town a number of unusual institutions designed to promote the ideal community were tried during the 1880’s and 1890’s. The first of these was a Sunday Morning Instruction School, where children were taught from the ‘Youth Liberal Guide’ and from various works on physics, chemistry, and other sciences. In another class organized for older young people elementary experiments in the physical sciences were performed under the supervision of teachers whose avowed function was to encourage and direct free intelligent discussion. In the Mental Liberty Hall lectures were given each Sunday evening, and scientists, philosophers, socialists, atheists, Protestant ministers and Catholic priests were invited to speak – respectable decorum being the only limitation placed upon any speaker. Large enthusiastic crowds gathered each week in the interest of mental liberty.
The Liberal Normal School and Business Institute was another institution organized by Walser to promote liberal education free from the bias of Christian theology. This school was well advertised and soon had a large enrollment. According to a tract published in 1885, the Liberal Normal School and Business Institute was “located in the liberal town, taught by liberal teachers and courted only the patronage of liberal patrons.” Out of this organization developed Free Thought University, which opened in 1886 with a staff of seven teachers. (Sikeston (Missouri) Herald, December 1, 1938)
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. (Kansas City Star on Saturday, December 22, 2001)
Christians send missionaries
Christians, of course, found in Liberal a perfect mission field.
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.” (Kansas City Star on Saturday, December 22, 2001)
Regarding the adjoining town that the Christians created:
In an effort to throw off the yoke of Walser, the Christians purchased an eighty-acre tract of land adjoining the town, called the place Pedro and moved their houses and places of business out of Liberal. (Sikeston (Missouri) Herald, December 1, 1938)
What was it like in Liberal?
There are a few out of print books that discuss the history of the town, but their content is not available online. They include:
- This strange town–Liberal, Missouri: Founded by G.H. Walser as a place set apart for freethinkers. A history of the early years of the town, 1880-1910, … Christians, and other human interest stories by JP Moore
- The Story of Liberal Missouri by O.E. Harmon
- George H.Walser and Liberal Missouri by Boyce Houton
But one of the records we do have is the op ed published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Saturday, May 2, 1885 by Clark Braden.
Braden was an experienced preacher, debater, and author. In his lifetime, he presented more than 3,000 lectures, and held more than 130 regular debates – eighteen of which were with the Mormons (Carpenter, 1909, pp. 324-325). In 1872, Braden even challenged the renowned agnostic Robert Ingersoll to debate, to which Ingersoll reportedly responded, “I am not such a fool as to debate. He would wear me out” (Atheism and Liberal, MO)
Quick note here, Ingersoll was one of Walser’s heroes:
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.” (Kansas City Star on Saturday, December 22, 2001)
Back to Braden and his article:
Although Braden was despised by some, his skills in writing and public speaking were widely known and acknowledged. In February 1885, Clark Braden introduced himself to the townspeople of Liberal (Keller, 1885, p. 5; Moore, 1963, p. 38), and soon thereafter he wrote about what he had seen.
In an article that appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on May 2, 1885, titled ‘An Infidel Experiment,’ Braden reported the following.
The boast about the sobriety of the town is false. But few of the infidels are total abstainers. Liquor can be obtained at three different places in this town of 300 inhabitants. More drunken infidels can be seen in a year in Liberal than drunken Christians among one hundred times as many church members during the same time.
Swearing is the common form of speech in Liberal, and nearly every inhabitant, old and young, swears habitually. Girls and boys swear on the streets, playground, and at home. Fully half of the females will swear, and a large number swear habitually…. Lack of reverence for parents and of obedience to them is the rule. There are more grass widows, grass widowers and people living together, who have former companions living, than in any other town of ten times the population…. A good portion of the few books that are read are of the class that decency keeps under lock and key….
These infidels…can spend for dances and shows ten times as much as they spend on their liberalism. These dances are corrupting the youth of the surrounding country with infidelity and immorality. There is no lack of loose women at these dances.
Since Liberal was started there has not been an average of one birth per year of infidel parents. Feticide is universal. The physicians of the place say that a large portion of their practice has been trying to save females from consequences of feticide.
In no town is slander more prevalent, or the charges more vile. If one were to accept what the inhabitants say of each other, he would conclude that there is a hell, including all Liberal, and that its inhabitants are the devils (as quoted in Keller, 1885, p. 5).
According to Braden, “[s]uch are the facts concerning this infidel paradise…. Every one who has visited Liberal, and knows the facts, knows that such is the case” (p. 5). (Atheism and Liberal, MO)
So let me sum up. What do we find in the intellectual, atheist, tea-totaler paradise?
- Many drunks and three places at which to buy alcohol in a town of 300
- Disobedient and rebellious children
- Abundance of foul language
- Feticide (What else do you think happens when promiscuity leads to unwanted pregnancy? Today, it would be abortion)
- Prostitution (see below)
Now granted, the author was a preacher. Why should we believe him? Because he was taken to court twice for slander and damages and twice exonerated.
The Infidels are Offended
The residents of Liberal didn’t take such criticisms lying down.
As one can imagine, Braden’s comments did not sit well with some of the townspeople of Liberal. In fact, a few days after Braden’s observations appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, he was arrested for criminal libel and tried on May 18, 1885. According to Braden, “After the prosecution had presented their evidence, the case was submitted to the jury without any rebutting evidence by the defence (sic), and the jury speedily brought in a verdict of ‘No cause for action'” (as quoted in Mouton, n.d., pp. 36-37).
So they had him arrested, but without even presenting a defense, the JURY said “no case.” But that wasn’t the end of it.
On the following day (May 19, 1885), a civil suit was filed by one of the townsmen – S.C. Thayer, a hotel operator in Liberal. The petition for damages of $25,000 alleged that Clark Braden and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published an article in which they had made false, malicious, and libelous statements against the National Hotel in Liberal, managed by Mr. Thayer. He claimed that Braden’s remarks, published in the St. Louise Post-Dispatch on May 2, 1885, “greatly and irreparably injured and ruined” his
business (Thayer v. Braden). However, when the prosecution learned that the defense was thoroughly prepared to prove that Liberal was a den of infamy, and that its hotels were little more than houses of prostitution, the suit was dismissed on September 17, 1886 by the plaintiff at his own cost (Thayer v. Braden). Braden was exonerated in everything he had written. Indeed, the details Braden originally reported about Liberal, Missouri, on May 2, 1885 were found to be completely factual.
LOL! Completely factual! But the proof is in the pudding. Did people want to live and move there?
Nobody wants to live in Liberal
Again, we have the report of Braden, who probably spun it a little, but still…
It took only a few short years for Liberal’s unattractiveness and inconsistency to be exposed….Only five years after its establishment, Braden indicated that “[n]ine-tenths of those now in town would leave if they could sell their property. More property has been lost by locating in the town than has been made in it…. Hundreds have been deceived and injured and ruined financially”….
Walsen Has Change of Heart about Atheism
One report has it that Walsen became a spiritualist
Walser and others became ardent converts of spiritualism, and he spent $40,000 laying out a camp meeting ground of thirteen acres, with twenty cottages, and auditorium seating 800 people, and grounds landscaped with catalpa trees. In addition he built a magnificent home for himself and called it Catalpa Park. On these elaborate camp grounds a number of international conventions of spiritualism were held, attended by as many as 2,000 converts. Walser died in 1910, a firm believer in the spiritualistic cult. (Sikeston (Missouri) Herald, December 1, 1938)
Yet another source reports that he may have actually become a Christian towards the end of his life, and this point is supported by the fact the he published a book entitled The Life and Teachings of Jesus.
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. (Kansas City Star on Saturday, December 22, 2001)
Today, the town is a normal town with very little evidence of its history. There are seven churches (all Christian) in the town of about 800, and it is the second largest city in the county. And very few remember the late 1800’s, and the ignominious beginning of the town.
But this utopian atheist experiment, like the others we’ve seen on a national scale in our lifetimes (Mao, Stalin), proves again the point that when man shuns the God of the Bible, he declines into moral and social chaos, if not cruelty. The paragraph below is for all of you atheists who think that a society can be run on atheism. Re-read the story of Liberal and weep, because you are spiritually and intellectually lost.
But, as one young resident of that town, Bessie Thompson, wrote about Liberal in 1895, “…like all other unworthy causes, it had its day and passed away.” Bessie did not mean that the actual town of Liberal ceased to exist, but that the idea of having a “good, godless” city is a contradiction in terms….
It appears that even committed atheists found living in Liberal in the early days intolerable. Truly, as has been observed in the past, “An infidel surrounded by Christians may spout his infidelity and be able to endure it, but a whole town of atheists is too horrible to contemplate.” It is one thing to espouse a desire to live in a place where there is no God, but it is an entirely different thing for such a place actually to exist. For it to become a reality is more than the atheist can handle.