“A few figs from thistles…”
by Howard A. Tabor
Seven Days in May
After our good friend Hal Holt died in 2008 and we scattered his ashes at Gnostic Grove, I wrote here about the Grove’s eclectic past. Few places in Fennimore county have seen such diverse use; none is so richly infused with the geist of so many zeits. A vein of irony flows beneath the fields of Fennimore County and intensifies in the Grove’s vicinity.
It has been the scene of 19th century religious revival, Crispin Creek standing in for the River Jordan. More glossolalic flames have appeared above the heads of revivalists there than practically anywhere in a hundred mile radius. More sin, washed away by its crystal waters. For decades following the Second Great Awakening, it was a holy place.
Flash forward to the early years of the sexual revolution—Elvis, Rock & Roll, and worse. By the 1940s, the Grove had become Agincourt’s favorite make-out spot: late-night campfires; demon rum, especially during Prohibition; sticky fumblings in its shady nooks and crannies. It has (as I wrote a couple years ago) always struck me more than coincidental that any place could be so closely associated with the cleansing of Original Sin, as well as its enthusiastic practice. But first things first.
THE GREAT DISAPPOINTMENT
The Holy Spirit visits from time to time and decides, now and then, to take up residence. We call the intensity of its 19th century presence the Second Great Awakening. By the early 1840s two generations of Americans had been “burned over” with revival and transformed the American religious landscape. Even today, whiffs of it cloud the current political rhetoric.
October 22nd, 1844, might have been the Awakening’s greatest moment, but disappointment rose with the sun on the 23rd: Jesus had failed to return. William Miller and his Millerite followers felt the disappointment more keenly than most, as they returned to family and friends; to growing old; to disease, death and whatever awaits us. Some of Miller’s disciples carried the message forward, unphased by his miscalculation. One of them brought its faintly glowing embers to Agincourt.
Eliphalet Davidson, one of William Miller’s lieutenants, was also the great-grandson of Eliphalet Adams, 18th century New England divine. Traveling westward with his wife Elizabeth, the Davidsons’ camp meetings leap-frogged across Ohio, Indiana and Illinois to Fennimore county, Iowa, in the spring of Agincourt’s founding year, 1853. Drawn, perhaps, by the Wester tragedy, and hoping—again, perhaps—to heal its still fresh wound, the Davidsons pitched their revival tent at Gnostic Grove.
Camp Meeting began Sunday afternoon, May 15th with a handful of locals but swelled for the next seven days until a climactic service on Sunday the 22nd. Estimates vary—The Plantagenet hadn’t begun publishing then—but even conservative figures tell of hundreds drawn in waves from the surrounding countryside, from at least a fifty miles radius, as souls burned for Christ, exhortations slew the spirit, and Crispin Creek cleansed the slain, as lives were changed. So much Original Sin swept downstream that they ought to have filed an “Environmental Impact” statement, warning to other settlements in its course.
Amos Beddowes and his wife Sissy were there; his diary mentions it. And a good thing, too, for Sissy, the Sac and Fox medicine woman, was called upon to soothe a rash, set a broken bone, and even to midwife a premature birth, as the enthusiasm spread and intensified. Amos helped build the tent.
Elizabeth Davidson, the revivalist’s wife, was apparently a formidable ally and helpmete. It was Lizzy who planned the tent city that sprang upon the creek’s sunny north bank. And she who multiplied the loaves and fishes that fed the assembled throng, while the men dug privy pits and fed the stock. Davidson’s revivals were legends of efficiency and organization. Only the saved know their own names, though, salvation being one of life’s most intimate acts.
The deed safely done, God’s work accomplished, the Davidson’s moved on to Nebraska and Kansas, where Eliphalet died of typhoid and his widow returned to the East. But a pattern had been set: revivals, camp meetings, full-immersion baptism continued at Crispin Creek for another eighty years into the Pentacostal movement of the 1920s.
The legacy of those seven May days lives on.
On a boulder near the Council Ring a palindrome in Latin bears this inscription: “In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni” —whose translation seems appropriate for what must have happened around those campfires in 1853: “We enter the circle of the night and are consumed by fire.”