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Freedom of religion guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment was alive and well in the 19th century as evidenced by the conflict and confrontations between atheism and Christianity. Robert Owen (atheist) and Alexander Campbell (Christian) debated in 1829. A “freethought” movement began around 1850. Charles Darwin's book, On the Origin of Species was published in 1859. The years 1875 to 1914 were known as “The Golden Age of Freethought.” Robert Ingersoll, the foremost leader of this movement, was known as the “great agnostic.”
George Walser, a lawyer and an avid follower of Ingersoll, set out to form a freethinker's haven. In 1880, he bought 2,000 acres of land to establish Liberal, Missouri. It was to be an atheist utopia where there would be no God, no hell, no churches, and no saloons. He said Christianity and the Bible were “superstition” and the crude reasoning of primitive humans.
People who moved to Liberal signed an agreement promising not to hold religious services on their property. Within a year, William Waggoner bought land adjacent to Liberal and invited believers in Jesus to move there. In response, Walser put a barbed wire fence around Liberal and charged that Waggoner intended to induce the “immigration of Christians who would be strong enough to outnumber the Liberals and defeat the enterprise.” At the Liberal train station, he posted a sign that Christians were not welcome. The battle began.
Some people bought homes and began holding worship services to God. Walser would interrupt them, and he even put a stop to this practice after he proved to a court that the services were being held on properties he still partly owned. So the believers then bought land next to Liberal and moved more than a dozen houses from Liberal. In competition, Walser reserved Sunday evenings for debates and speeches at the Universal Mental Liberty Hall. Evolution versus creationism was the favorite subject.
Walser founded Free Thought University in 1886 with courses that were “untrammeled by Bible, creed, or isms.” The first saloon was built in 1887, and the churches came in 1889. Walser gave up on his atheist dream and sold his Liberty Hall to the Methodist church. Walser himself eventually became a believer and wrote a book, The Life and Teachings of Jesus, in 1909. Excerpts of that book were read at his funeral in 1910. Today, Darwin Street and Ingersoll Street remind Liberal, Missouri, of its failed atheist heritage.
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