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The Social Gospel Hereabouts

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

The Social Gospel Hereabouts

“Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.” (Sonmi 451)

― David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

Religion—by which I may mean institutionalized spirituality—has become a binary proposition in 21st century America: it depends in large part whether the things that divide us outweigh those that unite. Agincourt’s current Methodist preacher Rev Candice Varenhorst is of the inclusive sort.

There are those in the community, a significant number, in fact, who stand against marriage equality, immigration reform, and much of government’s provision for a social safety net. Even the ordination of women remains contentious; just ask Candy. [On that score, Rev Francis Manning’s grave at St Ahab’s chapel has become sacred ground.] So when the history of Asbury UMC is written, there will likely be a substantial chapter on the Social Gospel and a necessary re-acquaintance with 19th century theologians like Walter Rauschenbusch and Washington Gladden—names even too obscure for Final Jeopardy.

Among the liturgical branches of Christianity (Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, and some Lutheran synods), the Social Gospel was little more than rumor. Rather, it was in the mainstream of Protestantism that it thrived: Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists (of the Northern species) Congregationalists and several smaller denominations, like Disciples of Christ and United Brethren. Despite doctrinal differences, they shared a view that Jesus’ brotherhood with Mankind could possibly matter more than his divinity; the belief that we are our brother’s keeper. And especially, that the church as a physical plant has far more meaning than a few hours’ service on Sunday morning. The result were churches unlike any before or since—until the  mega-church movement today, that is, where congregations occupy entire defunct shopping centers.

Ground, Second and First Floor Plans of Asbury United Methodist Church, Agincourt, Iowa

Our own Asbury UMC is a full-blown Akron-Auditorium plan church, with spacial flexibility between auditorium and Sunday school, as well as the (nearly) full complement of auxiliary services: adult classrooms, social hall, lending library, and athletic facilities (the seed for our YMCA). There are even living quarters for the pastor’s family and emergency housing for the temporarily displaced or dispossessed.  Social Gospel churches are often mistaken for civic or neighborhood centers, far more secular than sacred. So, whether Chicago or Agincourt, such facilities addressed the fullest societal needs of their communities in 24/7 fashion.

The founder of this particular feast was Rev B. D. E. Barnes, pastor of Asbury in the ‘teens and instigator of its Social Gospel programming. Working with Des Moines architects Liebbe Nourse & Rasmussen, he crafted a multi-faceted ecumenical facility that has kept pace with Agincourt’s development. The YMCA, just north on Second Street, began in its lower level, offering programs to keep young men from pool halls and other distractions. The social hall sheltered refugees displaced from the Fourth Ward by the Flood of ’34; the sesqui-centennial quilt was sewn there. The auditorium was “lent” to the members of Temple Emanu-El while their synagogue was under construction, and to the Muslim community until the Islamic Center was opened in 2004. Indeed, the parking lot they share can truly be called ecumenical, filled with cars on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

asbury UMC windows

Stained Glass Windows, Asbury United Methodist Church, Agincourt, Iowa

Next year Asbury UMC’s building will celebrate its centennial and with it the opportunity to recall a Christian movement whose need is felt across the community today.

INTRODUCTION (a first draught)


Agincourt is a town in northwestern Iowa—America’s heartland—and the seat of Fennimore County government. Twelve hundred twenty-eight feet above sea level, its population of 17,693 according to the last census is holding its own. The elderly from smaller rural communities come to enjoy shopping convenience and access to health care, to attend funerals of friends and family until they themselves ultimately become one; meanwhile, young adults bolt for economic opportunity elsewhere. Anywhere! Lately, though, that displacement has slowed. Building a diversified economic base through enlightened self-interest and the internet has made the future less cloudy, if not actually bright for small towns like Agincourt.

Culturally, the community is Protestant and 91.38% White—with marginal representation of African, Asian, and Native Americans. Conservative, with a lingering whiff of Progressivism, yet the likes of Teddy Roosevelt could not field a candidacy in today’s political color spectrum: Agincourt is purple tending toward red, in the otherwise bright crimson of the state’s 7th Congressional District. Its current representative might have done a cameo in “Pleasantville” and remained uncomfortable with the film’s shift from black and white to technicolor. He and another prominent political figure hold that White Nationallists are “fine people.”

The city was founded in 1853, when the former reserve of the Sac and Fox Nation opened to White settlement, and incorporated four years later. The only plausible reason for its name—the definitive battle in the Hundred Years War between the French and English—is the Classics background of the townsite’s promoters Virgil, Pliny, and Horace Tennant, East Coast investors who intuited Horace Greeley’s admonition that the country’s surplus population “Go West” years before he actually said it. With financial backing from their brother-in-law and a Philadelphia banker, the Tennants acquired a mile-square section of The Louisiana Purchase—the physical building block of Manifest Destiny—and then conceived a rational plan for growth based on Enlightenment Philadelphia, let it waft onto the unplowed tall-grass prairie, and stood back to watch.

The consequences weren’t unexpected considering their plan had provided for all the civic virtues—education and culture, government, enterprise, and spiritual nurture, in no particular order. Long before arrival of the railroad, the mighty Muskrat River offered rudimentary water power for the milling of grain and wood, as well as fish and fowl to supplement the frontier diet. And when the seat of government at Muskrat City proved flood-prone and untenable, the block already designated for a courthouse was another stroke of foresight. The frenzy of railroad speculation twenty years later effectively sealed the city’s good prospects.

Forces, Factor, Faces

A middling Midwestern town, Agincourt’s establishment, growth and development for one hundred and sixty-seven years have been subject to the same factors and forces experienced elsewhere, especially in the Midwest and Great Plains; and like other communities, those large-scale phenomena continue to be modified by local conditions, by special interest groups and even by specific families and individuals. The Civil War and the westward march of Manifest Destiny mentioned earlier; the arrival of the railroad and impact of the automobile; large scale agriculture, all but industrialized even in the 19th century; government initiatives (or their absence), war, pestilence and other natural disasters; shifting population and economic uncertainty: these have all played their part in shaping today’s Agincourt. For purposes of telling this story, let’s call them Forces, Factors, and Faces.

FORCES are the raw natural conditions into which we are born: geology and plate tectonics, climate, the force of gravity, disease. It would be comforting to think we have some effect over them—planetary warming suggests we do, in spite of our better intentions—but rivers jump their course and cyclones rage in their season. The influenza pandemic of 1918 is just one case in point where an event of worldwide implication had very local consequence.

FACTORS, on the other hand, are generated by us and our intent as a society: culture and all its sundry institutions, such as commerce, education, religion, government and all that flows from them. How might Agincourt have reflected these phenomena:

  • The Second Great Awakening washed over us, as it did Western New York State, bringing salvation to the banks of Crispin Creek.
  • Agincourt was a station on the Underground Railroad as former slaves fled north.
  • President Roosevelt’s Executive Order #9066 incarcerated everyone of Japanese ancestry, regardless of citizenship, while leaving German lives unaffected.
  • The Hill-Burton Act of the 79th Congress underwrote a spate of hospital and rural clinic construction.

FACES, finally, are individuals—whose reach may be long, like Pope John XXIII, JFK, or Dr Jonas Salk, or more localized and immediate, like the founding Tennant family and other community leaders past and present. Without Andrew Carnegie, who funded 2,500 public libraries between 1883 and 1929, and Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, whose small-town banks brought Progressive design to Main Street, this project would not exist. And so, as radio announcer Fred Foy opened each weekly episode of “The Lone Ranger”, “Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear!” We invite you to explore the community of Agincourt, Iowa, the town that time forgot and geography misplaced.



Mausolus [sounds like a vegetable oil, doesn’t it] was a Persian Satrap, from whose monumental tomb we take the word mausoleum.

The mausoleum is a building type infrequently encountered here in the U.S., and then primarily in the older cemeteries of larger cities, like Graceland in Chicago. And because so many of them coincide with the pre-tax days of the Robber Barons, our mausolea [spellcheck doesn’t like proper Latin plurals] can be found in virtually any of the manifold historically derivative styles of the 19th century. So, today I spent half an hour sleuthing examples from that era, because it will frame the case for one of them at The Shades, Agincourt’s non-sectarian burial ground.

Searching the blog for earlier entries on the life and death of Edmund FitzGerald Flynn, Agincourt’s half-term mayor who died unexpectedly in office, I was surprised to find fifteen entries carrying his name! Frankly, I hadn’t realized that Ed had come to play such a prominent role in local history. The entry for Ed in the “Who’s Who” mentions his death and adds “more than a few people felt this was no bad thing.”

Ed had prepared for the Big Sleep—what Cecil Elliott called “the dirt nap”—by preparing a mausoleum to preserve his remains but really to maintain a prominent presence in the community for a very long time. I think of Hal Holt, former director of the Fennimore Co. Heritage Center, whose ashes are spread at Gnostic Grove and marked only by a natural boulder inscribed “Harold Russell Holt 1920-2008. He taught history and now he has become it.” Such humility was not Ed Flynn’s style.

Scouring the web for inspirational images, I came upon several that may prove helpful. Historically, for example, there is Sir John Soane’s discrete burial place, designed for his wife Elizabeth and their son, who predeceased him:

And though it was not properly a mausoleum, the Roman temple at the gardens of Chiswick House in London is another interesting source:

Closer to home and our own time, there are the three tombs designed by Louis Sullivan. I include here the Wainwright tomb in St Louis, rather than the two more familiar examples in Chicago’s Graceland cemetery, because it gives a tip o’ the hat to both Roman antiquity and to Ottoman Turkey:

Humbler examples might include these two, one in Oakwoods (a Chicago cemetery of less stature than Graceland) and another in the Woodland cemetery in Des Moines (as long as we’re talking about Iowa):

What strikes us squarely between the eyes is Eternity’s claim on symmetry; the Dead apparently require this sort of formal balance until the last trump. [Somehow that phrase, “the last trump”, has taken on special meaning, hasn’t it.]

My initial thoughts on the FitzGerald Flynn mausoleum at The Shades are three:

  1. However lavishly Ed may have entertained—or made us believe it was lavish—he went economy class when preparing for his own entombment: negotiating with the marble works in Omaha, Ed learned that one of a pair of Ionic columns on their way from the quarries in Bedford, Indiana had cracked while in transit, so he got a deal on the survivor.
  2. So, what does one do with a singleton column? Given the symmetry of all these examples (above), how might one lone column achieve the required solemnity?
  3. If this structure is going to have any class whatsoever, it will have come from Ed’s widow Amity Burroughs Flynn, a shadowy figure during his life but one who blossomed as soon as Ed had been safely and ceremoniously shelved.

You can see where this is going, can’t you. But not here….