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Looking Back on Liberal, the Midwest's Failed Atheist Utopia

Liberal, Missouri, was founded to be an atheist oasis in Bible country. But today, you'd never know it.

Liberal, Missouri, looks indistinguishable from any other tiny town in the Midwest. There's a sleepy business district and a single gas station that serves its 750 residents. There are rows of houses and more than half a dozen churches interspersed between them. This part of the state, after all, is one of the most religious parts of the country, with a sizable evangelical Christian population.

But it wasn't always like this. The clearest remaining indication is the street signs: There's Darwin Street (as in Charles Darwin), and Ingersoll Street (as in Robert Ingersoll, the famed 19th-century agnostic). When Liberal residents drive to church on Sundays, they're driving on avenues named after the heroes of what became the atheist movement.

The origin of these streets goes back to 1880, when George Walser, a wealthy attorney from nearby Lamar, purchased 2,000 acres to build a town exclusively for those with a mindset similar to his own—people who at the time were commonly called "freethinkers" or "liberals." The town of Liberal, he advertised, "shall have neither God, Hell, Church, nor Saloon." It would be an atheist oasis in Bible country. And for a brief period, despite pushback, it managed to meet those parameters. But Walser's beliefs changed with time, and the town did so as well.

"There's not much left," Willis Strong, a volunteer with the county historical society and a former owner of the Liberal News, told me on a recent visit. "Everything's been torn down."

Today, there's no trace of Free Thought University, founded in 1886 to offer courses "untrammeled by Bible, creed, or isms." There's no marker noting where on Sundays, instead of going to church, Liberal residents gathered for the late 1800s equivalent of TED Talks. Even Catalpa Park, the magnificent home Walser built for himself, is gone, ripped up to get to the coal beneath it.

"That would have been a draw for people for years and years," Strong told me.

It's natural to lose signs of the past. But Strong is part of a small group that says there's more than ordinary forgetting happening in Liberal—it's an outright disassociation.

At Mary's Flower Cart Cafe on Main Street, the regulars chat about cattle, the weather, and the price of grain. Owner Mary Toney said the town's early days are "not something I hear talked about among the locals."

"They have a lot of reservations about being associated with that," she told me.

The town's occasional visitors, however, are more interested in the past. And Toney believes that perhaps more tourists would come through if Liberal emphasized what sets it apart.

"We're the only town that was founded strictly on an idea," said Toney, a churchgoer herself. "And I think we should embrace that. Not the idea but our history."

When Walser founded Liberal, he claimed it was "the only town in the United States set apart for liberalism alone"—and at the time, he was right. While a number of communes were established in America in the 1800s, a lack of religion was never their key selling point. And though you might assume Liberal would be a hotbed of leftist, proto-communist beliefs, Walser sold land to those moving in, and the businesses that settled there were independent.

By 1890, the census found the town had 546 residents. The arrival of the railroad and the region's natural resources had helped the town grow. There had been tension, however. Within a year of the town's founding, William Waggoner, who owned land adjacent to Liberal, filed for an addition to city limits, and invited Christians to come settle.

In response, Walser erected a barbed-wire fence. In 1883, he wrote that he believed Waggoner's addition was laid out "for the purpose of inducing immigration of Christians who would be strong enough to outnumber the Liberals and defeat the enterprise." By that time, though, Walser found an easy solution—he purchased the land himself.

Present-day downtown Liberal

Liberal's greater threat came in 1884, when an adjacent town, ultimately called Pedro, was established. Christians were among those to settle in Pedro, which had its own downtown. In 1885, when traveling preacher Clark Braden made a stop in Liberal to debate those he dubbed "infidels," he forecast the settlement would fade, while Pedro would become a model city.

David Embree, a religious studies professor at Missouri State University, said Liberal benefitted in its early years from the area's live-and-let-live frontier mentality. That sort of thinking still exists to a degree today, he told me, and the region has more diversity of thought than most people think.

That said, "it is really, really hard to keep anything going as an oppositional community," Embree explained. "If the only thing you've got is that we're all against something, it usually doesn't last."

What may have ultimately doomed Liberal, however, was Walser himself. The first saloon opened in Liberal in 1887, and Walser allowed a Methodist church to be constructed in 1889. It's unclear exactly why he did so. What's certain is that by that time, his personal beliefs were decidedly in transition. Liberal would soon become a hotspot for spiritualism, with encampments featuring mediums attracting thousands to Catalpa Park. In 1909, Walser released a new book, The Life and Teachings of Jesus, in which he signaled he had converted.

Today, not even a roadside sign details what originally brought people to Liberal. That stands in contrast to towns like New Harmony, Indiana, where a museum marks the site of two short-lived early American utopian communities—the second of which, Embree said, somewhat resembled Walser's vision.

To people like Strong, it's a missed opportunity. There's not much bringing people to Liberal these days. After a drought in 1980, local businesses started moving to bigger cities, and the exodus even included the town's last grocery store. Now, Strong told me, Liberal is "just kind of holding its own."

A civic group Toney belongs to did get approval to place a sign out by the highway, welcoming drivers to the "strange town of Liberal"—a reference to the title of a 1963 book on Liberal's early days. But even that indirect reference to history prompted some in the community to grumble. Perhaps they felt it implied they themselves were strange, Toney said.

For now, the street corners are the best place to find acknowledgment of history. That and the small cemetery, established by Walser early on, which is still in use today. The grave sites form a circle around a large open space. Walser was to be buried in the clearing, as legend goes, so his followers would see him first in the case of a resurrection.

That doesn't quite fit the image of a diehard atheist. But it doesn't matter now: When Walser died in 1910, his wife had him buried in Lamar, the next town over.

Follow Thomas Gounley on Twitter.