The story starts in the century which began with the explorations of Lewis and Clark and saw momentous events in America, including the War of 1812, the Civil War and the end of slavery. In 1811, devastating earthquakes (one of which changed the course of the mighty Mississippi River) could be felt across much of the country and the Great Comet shone bright in the skies.
In 1833, a Leonid meteor shower convinced many that the stars were actually falling. And a little over a decade later, the Great Comet re-appeared as a double comet in the sky while Mars reached its closest point to the earth, appearing as a bright red orb. Small wonder then that the 19th century saw an emergence of spiritual zeal as many prepared for the end of days.
New York State – the religious fervour begins
Indeed, Upstate New York became such a hotbed of religious fervour in the 1800s that it became known as the Burned Over District.
One of the first was Jemima Wilkinson who awoke from a fever and announced she was an angel. She began a sect known as the Universal Publik Friends which gathered a good many followers.
Then there were the Millerites, the Shakers, the Oneida Society, and for good measure, the Fox sisters – probably the most famous early spiritualists. Theirs were the first rapping, tapping séances and people flocked to the area to communicate with the dead.
It was in Palmyra, NY, that Joseph Smith had his first vision in 1820 which led to the publishing of the Book of Mormon nine years later, and the founding of the Chruch of Latter Day Saints.
But Dr. Cyrus Teed, founder of the Koreshan Unity, has disappeared from memory, though he might have been considered the most forward thinking of these early prophets.
A medical doctor, Teed had his first revelation in 1869 while working in his laboratory near Utica, NY. He was doing experiments in alchemy when something went wrong – or right? – and he saw a vision of a God as a woman who revealed the mysteries of the universe to him.
God is a woman
God a woman? As the 21st century still keeps women in secondary place in many religious communities, the idea 150 years ago that the ultimate deity might be female was certainly radical.
Her revelations were even more radical. She told Teed that the universe is contained inside a hollow sphere in whose centre is an “invisible electromagnetic battery” revolving on a 24-year cycle. From this is reflected the light for our sun and moon. Exactly how the battery is recharged wasn’t made clear though Koreshanity, the practiced religion in the Unity, was Christian-based, referring to the New and Old Testaments of the Bible. Koreshanity was also based on Teed’s book, The Cellular Cosmogony, The Earth, a Concave Sphere.
In this, he meticulously described his view of the earth, “The earth’s shell is one hundred miles thick and has seventeen layers. The outer seven are metallic with a gold rind on the outermost layer, the middle five are mineral and the five inward are geologic strata. Inside the shell there is life, outside a void.”
He frequently lectured on the physics of his theories and even made significant attempts to prove it. In the late 1890s, the Koreshan Geodetic Survey of 1897 tried to prove that the earth was concave, or curved inward, rather than convex. Apparently they succeeded – to their own satisfaction at any rate. It should be noted that a reward of $10,000 offered to disprove this theory was never claimed.
The pastoral paradise begins
The name Koresh derived from the Hebrew version of Cyrus which Teed began using after his revelation . He moved to Chicago and found a handful of followers, but it was a donation of land in Estero, Florida that resulted in the community’s final settlement there in 1894, to form the “New Jerusalem“.
At its peak between 1903-1908, more than 250 residents lived here with as many as 4,000 more followers around the USA. Teed’s Utopia was expected ultimately to have a population of 10,000,000.
It’s interesting to survey the surviving buildings here. Amongst beautiful grounds bordering the Estero River, handsome homes, a bakery, a printing house, a general store, and concrete works still stand. A power plant supplied electricity not just for their own needs but to nearby Ft. Myers, years before it was available elsewhere in the region.
While his ideas may seem bizarre, the community’s approach to life was very appealing. The large meeting house was apparently more than a religious gathering place. Each evening, everyone would gather to sing, be entertained with musical performances and even put on plays of their own devising.
The Koreshans had some interesting ideas for their time including the equality of men and women. Koreshan women were treated as equals and had voting rights in the Unity. Indeed, Teed’s second in command was a woman as were his deputies.
They also believed in communal ownership of property. Those joining the Koreshan Unity gave up all their possessions, including homes, furniture and valuable items. These items were either used in the settlement or sold in order to buy needed commodities.
The small community thrived and grew. Koresh relied on conversion for this growth as sex seems to have been discouraged. But it was the attempt to join religion and politics, rarely successful, that brought about their downfall.
The beginning of the end
The community formed the Progressive Liberal Party, attempting to make a run at county government against the locally powerful Democratic Party. They didn’t succeed but persisted in attempts at political power. During a rally in 1906, Koresh was beaten badly. Although he appeared to improve with treatment, he never fully recovered. On December 22,1908 – the Winter Solstice – he died. In these events, the community saw parallels with the life and treatment of Jesus.
Convinced that, like Jesus, Koresh would arise from the dead, his followers propped his body in a tin bath and kept vigil for several days. This was probably unwise in Florida temperatures. Christmas Day – three days after his passing – was to be the day of his resurrection. Alas, he did not appear and the local health department understandably intervened, insisting that his body be interred immediately.
Now one might think that this would be the end of the story, but a hurricane two years later, added yet another remarkable chapter. It washed away both body and marker. The community continued, holding to their belief that he would, one day, return.
The last of his followers, Hedwig Michel, a German Holocaust survivor who found peace in the small Florida retreat, died in 1982, and deeded the land to the state of Florida.
It remains a State Park but one that seems to have relatively few visitors despite its proximity to Ft. Myers. It’s a pity, for the design elements of the buildings are quite remarkably beautiful. Indeed, the Planetary Court Building, which was home to the seven women who were the governing body of the community, features a remarkable hanging staircase.
The meeting house still has many artifacts and the original hollow sphere model Teed devised. Pretty walking trails and peaceful picnic spots can be found throughout the park while the Estero River offers gentle canoeing amid overhanging branches.
It’s hard not to mourn the passing of what indeed have been, despite some of its rather peculiar tenets, a New Jerusalem.