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Illinois Jesus

August 18, 2014 | by

A forgotten Midwestern religious sect and the strange novel it inspired.

An illustration from Six Years in Heaven.

The most confusing thing about the rural Midwest is the importance placed on being normal. Perhaps this comes from demographic homogeneity: there’s a comforting stability in being able to drive a hundred miles in almost any direction and find a landscape almost identical to the one from which you set out.

The Midwest is construed as a place where nothing happens—that being, it should be emphasized, a good thing. Native Americans once lived here, of course; but there’s no longer any sign of them aside from some low mounds and their continuing near-universal use as school mascots. When I grew up here, no one wondered why they’d left. Probably it was more exciting somewhere else. Who could blame them? It’s a fine place to leave.

But on returning, as I did recently, the effect is disorienting: this is a place where everyone is cheerfully convinced of the rationality of their insanity. I was never immune to this. In school, everyone was perplexed by race problems. We weren’t racist. How could we be when there weren’t any black people? We ignored that in Rockford, Illinois, ten miles away, desegregation lawsuits were impossibly still grinding through the court system. Likewise, we firmly believed that gay people weren’t something we had; we learned we’d had a Jewish family in our town only after they’d safely escaped. This seems ludicrous to me now, and things have undoubtedly changed since the turn of the century. With the arrival of the Internet and cable TV, the boast that newscasters were carefully trained to speak like us—because we, among all Americans, had no accents—isn’t quite as impressive.

In 1988, when I was ten, my parents moved to a five-acre farm between the rust-belt city of Rockford and the village of Winnebago. Not being from the area, they were naturally curious about the history, and one of them found a Works Progress Administration history of Illinois in the library. In that book, we discovered that the country road we lived on had once not been so somnolent. A block north of us, a large complex of buildings painted red bore the name Weldon Farm, but once it had been called Heaven. In the 1880s it had been the center of an obscure religious sect—still lacking a Wikipedia entry of their own—called the Beekmanites. A woman named Dorinda Beekman had declared herself to be Jesus, as one did in those days; she died after promising to rise from the dead in three days. Her considerable followers were disappointed until one of them, a red-headed man named George Jacob Schweinfurth, neatly solved the problem by explaining that her spirit had moved into his body. Many agreed; he and his followers, the Church Triumphant, moved into Heaven and lived communally, where he’d attracted attention as far away as the New York Times.

A block south of my parents’ place, the road dead-ended in front of a run-down house. A “bad” family lived there, and their children occasionally went to school with me. We would have called them poor white trash had we not been afraid of being beaten up. Their house, ramshackle as it appeared to be, had a history as well: it had once been Hell. Schweinfurth had lived in luxury in Heaven, arrayed with young women called Angels. Their husbands, had they any, and members of the group who’d fallen out of favor, were sent to Hell, where the work needed to keep the sect fed was done. Read More »

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