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Heresy, Apostacy, Blasphemy 1.2

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Faith is a simple thing. Either you have it or you don’t. But the ABC World News last night offered an interesting kink to my oversimplification.

The teaser to last night’s report hinted at a number of pastors hiding something from their flocks, leaving us to stew during the commercial break what their secret might be. Clearly some denominatinos have more to hide than others–matters of sexual abuse, for example. But the revelation last night shouldn’t have surprised anyone: many ministers–who spend hours studying the Bible, scouring its text for sermons, counseling, etc.–have concluded that what we take for its richness is simple contradiction. They have lost their faith through the study of its principal source. Father Karcher must have sought consolation in those pages, shifting six times among four denominations during his lifetime and, perhaps, never finding peace from his study of The Book or its many interpretations. I can identify.

I cannot claim for the 19th century a range of spirituality broader than that in our own time. J. K. Karcher was hardly typical of his age, but his spiritual odyssey makes the point: people shifted between and among religions with frequency and conviction, if not with permanence or ease. In America, this was true for denominational change within Christianity, as it was for sectarian change between Christianity and other faiths. Today most of us would find the phrase “liberal religion” a contradiction in terms; I do not and neither would many during the 150-plus years that Agincourt has existed.

At times of stress and indecision, I too have searched for answers in religion. But even Unitarian-Universalism has left me stone cold sober and shaking my head in confirmed disbelief. So, while I can imagine a group who’ve elected to share that quest, and while I might also welcome such a client’s need to give form to that collective inquiry, I must also agree with Groucho Marx: “I won’t belong to any organization that would have me as a member.” And with Thomas Jefferson, who was the only member of a denomination of one.

For Agincourt, I’ve decided once again to borrow someone from my research files: Frank H. Irons, itinerant journalist and real estate agent, who was both an Episcopalian and a Unitarian during the years he lived in Fargo. The story of Frank and Susan Irons is doubly tragic–perhaps a decisive test of their faith–because they lost two children to a needless epidemic brought on by laissez faire city government disinterested in regulating Capitalist free enterprise within the Fargo corporate limits.

Though the story is not fully formed, I think Franklin Irons will be station agent for the Milwaukee Road, beneficiary of the bureaucratic snafu that delivers two water towers some time in the 1930s. The site: a twenty-five-foot square of junk real estate, on Carousel Alley behind Hradek’s shoe repair.

Stay tuned.

PS[12Jan2021]: Friends know that my attention span has yet to be exceeded. And so it is with the story of the five children lost by the Irons and Birge families here in Fargo in the Fall of 1882. Yesterday I related the outline of the story to some associates — I think they’d like that characterization — and today I went back to ancestry.com, since there are new databases added and old ones expanded every day. Here’s what I found:

  • Franklin Henry Irons [1846-1905] was resident in Fargo from at least 1882 until at least 1900; he died in Kansas City in’05.
  • Martha Susan (née Parrish) [1848-1910] appeared in most sources as Susan M. or M. Susan; she died in California, possibly Los Angeles.
  • She bore eleven children! Walter B. [1869-1875]; Robert Ingersoll [1871-]; Charles Frank [1875-1882]; Susan Mae [1876-1959]; Peretic [1878-1882]; Jennie [1880-?]; Victor Hugo [1883-1936]; Edward Darrow [1884-1964]; Blanche C. [1886-1958]; Stella B. [1887-1958]; William Henry [1889-1940]. Those in red died in Fargo of an unidentified fever; those in blue were born in Fargo and survived their residence here. Oh, and Peretic was a boy; hadn’t figured that out until today.

The reason the Irons and Birge families interest me in that they lost a total of five children from a mysterious fever contract in the neighborhood west of University and South of 12th Avenue in the Fall of 1882. What we call Co. Drain #3 — the soccer field near student housing — is labeled “Long Lake” on early maps, a flattering name, because it was actually a dumping ground for offal, all the “leftovers” from slaughter, because it was beyond city limits and civic control. Normal burial was impossible, because roads to the cemetery were impassible, so my friend Rev. B. F. Cooley permitted burial on Gethsemane church grounds, within city limits and in violation of city ordinance, for which he was fined $50, worth about $1200 today. I’m sure you appreciate the irony: the city did nothing about the likely cause of death, yet find Cooley for doing the human thing. Some things never change.

Now, here’s the weirdness: I used the Irons family to tell the story of the 1918 pandemic in Agincourt. And also as a way to write about crises of faith. I’m guessing you didn’t notice the link with atheism, or agnosticism at best: The second Irons child was Robert Ingersoll Irons, named for the most (in)famous atheist in 19th century America. I had not know about any of the children except those who had died here.

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