I’m camping this week at the Koreshan State Historical Site in Estero, Florida. The campground itself is replete with palms and scrub oaks, and the Estero river moves lethargically along its northern border. My tent is about a hundred yards from a nature trail which follows the river for about a half a mile.
At the other end of this trail is the namesake of the park, the Koreshan Unity Settlement. A group of utopians moved here from Chicago in the 1890s and built a self-sustaining, communal colony. Their founder and leader, Dr. Cyrus Teed, started the movement after accidentally electrocuting himself in a lab in 1869 and having an “illumination.” He saw God in the personage of a beautiful woman, who told him what was what and commissioned him to usher in the New Jerusalem on earth.
He changed his name to Koresh, and created a belief system with some interesting components. He preached gender equality (he saw God as both male and female) as well as communal living, self-sufficiency, celibacy – and “cellular cosmogeny”, which taught as scientific fact that the surface of the earth was on the inside of a sphere, and the sun, moon, and stars were electrical projections emanating from the centerpoint. Teed’s universe looked like this:
He claimed to have scientifically proven that the surface of the earth curves upward, rather than downward. He did this through some system of land survey which I didn’t completely understand, and published a 200-page book in which he proves his views and rebuts the common understanding of the earth’s surface on the outside of the planet. I didn’t read the book, but I did look at this poster:
At its height, almost three hundred people lived in this settlement. Everyone had a job (even the children, who were also educated formally, had apprenticeships in a trade), arts and music were celebrated, and, it seems, people were generally happy. An arts and theater building sat in a prominent place on the settlement.
Most of those who joined the Koreshans were women. As one of the volunteer rangers suggested to me, it made sense in a way – at the turn of the 20th century, women didn’t have much of a chance to be independent. So the appeal of the place must have been, for many, the promise of equal standing, self-sufficiency, respect. Did they believe in the cosmology, the religion, the celibacy? Maybe, or maybe not. They might have been willing to go along with those other beliefs, simply because someone told them that they had a right to be seen as equals. Which they were – though Teed was the leader, a group of seven women (one for each of the known planets) ran the commune’s businesses – although they needed to work through a man when dealing with those outside the community. These women also lived in the nicest house on the place.
But I don’t know why they chose to come. What makes us believe what we do? Why do we choose what to believe, what to disbelieve, what to ignore? I’ve been wondering this when it comes to supporters of Trump this past election, how many of them were willing to overlook so much simply because he promised them respect and equality. If his view of the world is skewed – lewd, racist, misogynist, bullying – at least he’s telling them (poor and middle-class whites) that they’re worth something and they’ve got a shot at equal treatment. So they’ll believe that part of it at least, and brush aside the rest.
Teed preached something else too – that he, as well as his followers, would be resurrected after they died. So when he did die, his followers kept his body on the porch of his house, greeting it, and waiting for him to come back to life. When he didn’t, after about a week, they begrudgingly buried him, on a gulf island not far from the commune, and left a rowboat for him in case he did resurrect (twenty years later, a hurricane washed out the gravesite and carried most of his bones to the sea). The group fell apart after that, eventually dwindling to just four members at the time they transferred the land to the state of Florida.
Perhaps we can’t really pick and choose from a belief system. If one piece falls, then the rest of it may eventually as well. I wonder what that phenomenon might look like in America, when Trump fails to rise from the dead. Or when the liberals and progressives fail to rise from the dead. Are we in those last stages today, right as the whole American utopia is about to disintegrate? If so, how long will we keep the body on the porch, or when will we begin to let the bones be carried out to sea?