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Sleep-walking through the Second Great Awakening

The roots of Agincourt are firmly planted in the Enlightenment; its plan is a last gasp of the intellectual framework that also wrought our Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights. My friend Howard Tabor has written elsewhere about Agincourt’s original plat as a physical consequence of that philosophy. The 1683 plan for Philadelphia is its inspiration, which partially explains my reaction to the recent rightward religious turn of American politics.

I’ve actually done a major study of the Philadelphia plan developed by William Penn and his surveyor-general Thomas Holmes (who should receive far more credit than he has heretofore been granted). If you’d like to see the antithesis of Philly’s 18th century rationalism, take a look at Ave Maria, Florida–an exclusive urban religious “theme park” circa 2005 for those who would have a theocracy in the United States–and may achieve it soon enough. The New Urbanism can be creepy, especially when it privatizes the public realm.*

Agincourt has to exhibit the fullest range of religiosity, a reality I will not ignore and cannot deny. As our nation may find itself in the midst of a Third Great Awakening, I have wondered how this corner of Iowa would have been affected by the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century, the religious intensity instrumental at its founding and settlement. Three years ago my friend Howard touched on this theme in a sesqui-centennial piece about the Wester Cemetery in the northwest corner of the county.

A few figs from thistles…

by Howard A. Tabor

Don’t Blink

County Road 22 crosses the Muskrat River about eleven miles northwest of Fahnstock. It’s an uneventful stretch of two-lane country road. Unless, of course, you turn left just after the bridge abutment onto a pair of ruts obscured by a mangy cottonwood clump. Then travel upstream for a thousand yards or so toward what may be Fennimore county’s closest brush with national notoriety. Pick a long summer day for your visit, but wait until late afternoon and bring a picnic basket to explore the Wester Cemetery. Its permanent residents won’t mind.

The Wester Cemetery lacks the usual grid-like organization common to rural burial sites. The rhythm of its headstones is spastic and disjointed, yet they’re identical, like a military cemetery. Surviving inscriptions tell a grim and saddening story: everyone died on the same February day in 1846–six years before the founding of Fennimore county itself; even before ratification of the U.S. government’s treaty with the Sac & Fox that opened the area to settlement. The story told at Wester is a footnote to the Second Great Awakening, those tumultuous years of religious experimentation at the beginning of the 19th century. It also connects us with one of the Awakening’s most controversial innovators, Joseph Smith, Jr., founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints–better known by us Gentiles as Mormons.

Ben Wester

The last of Joseph Smith’s heavenly visitors, the angel Moroni, revealed a set of metal plates whose translation became the Book of Mormon–and, not incidentally, gave the new church its popular name. Translating the plates, organizing an administrative hierarchy, and raising funds for its promotion attracted men who became Smith’s closest collaborators–men with whom this latter-day prophet shared the inner-most revelations of the new dispensation. Some of Smith’s associates became life-long true believers; others fell by the wayside as new church practices became more controversial. Hindsight suggests that at least one convert joined the church with less-then-wholesome intentions.

Benoni Wester, a miner in Pennsylvania coal country, left home and family to join the LDS church at Kirtland, Ohio, the first stop on its gradual westward migration. Proselytizing along the road to Kirtland, Wester preached Mormon theology he had learned from the popular press and a copy of the Book of Mormon (one of the first off the press in the 1830s). He, too, attracted converts with their own personal agendas, all expecting to be welcomed to the Ohio fold on arrival. But Wester’s journey was more than mere mileage: he began to experience his own ecstatic visions, to receive his own revelations, which diverged from LDS orthodoxy.

Smith and his followers found enemies wherever they settled. Forced from Kirtland, members traveled west to Johnson County, Missouri, revealed as a promised land for the church. But they were equally unwelcome there and retreated to Nauvoo, Illinois, where Smith was assassinated in June 1844. Ben Wester and his band were always a few months behind their moving target. With his own declining resources and ever-diverging doctrine and practice, Wester took Smith’s assassination as a sign to lead his group–by this time called “Westerlings”–to their own appointment with destiny.

What the Westerlings believed is scarcely documented. But their leader brought them to northwestern Iowa in the spring of 1846. Howard finished their story in his next column.

 


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