Liberal, Missouri: A Failed Experiment

by Roger Shouse
in Biblical Insights, Vol. 6, No. 2, February 2000

The little town of Liberal, Missouri, lies near the Missouri-Kansas border, a few miles north of Joplin, Missouri. This sleepy little town of about 800 residents is typical of many small towns scattered throughout the United States. Liberal, Missouri, had a very interesting beginning. It was an experiment in intellectualism that backfired.

In the summer of 1880, George Walser established Liberal, Missouri, as a town for free thinkers. He did not want to be burdened by rules, doctrines, and creeds. Walser, by the city charter, banned all churches and religious thinking. He welcomed non-believers to a community where they could bring up their children without religious training. So extreme was this community, that at one time a barbed-wire fence was erected around the city to keep out all influences to God, heaven, and hell. Local residents would board incoming passenger trains to inform any Christians that they were not welcome in Liberal, Missouri. A city street was named "Darwin" after the famous evolutionist, Charles Darwin. Liberal boasted of being the only town of its size in the United States "without a priest, preacher, church, God, Jesus, hell, or devil." Walser and his co-founders were excited about the new town. They really believed that it would thrive for years and years.

Gospel preacher Clark Braden visited the town of Liberal five years after it was established. His report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (May 2, 1885) revealed a far darker picture than many realized. Braden wrote:

"Liquor can be obtained at three different places in this town of 300 inhabitants. ... Swearing is the common form of speech in Liberal, and nearly every inhabitant, old and young, swears habitually. Girls and boys swear on the streets, playground, and at home. Fully half of the females will swear, and a large number swear habitually. Lack of reverence for parents and of obedience to them is the rule. ... There are more people living together, who have former companions living, than in any other town of ten times the population. A good portion of the few books that are read are of the class that decency keeps under lock and key. These infidels can spend for dances and shows ten times as much as they spend on their liberalism. These dances are corrupting the youth of the surrounding country with infidelity and immorality. There is no lack of loose women at these dances. Since Liberal was started there has not been an average of one birth per year of infidel parents. Feticide (abortion) is universal. The physicians of the place say that a large portion of their practice has been trying to save females from consequences of feticide. In no town is slander more prevalent, or the charges more vile. If one were to accept what the inhabitants say of each other, he would conclude that there is a hell, including all Liberal, and that its inhabitants are the devils."

Braden indicated that "nine-tenths of those now in town would leave if they could sell their property. ... Hundreds have been deceived and injured and ruined financially."

It wasn't very long until the unattractiveness, inconsistencies, and corruption of Liberal destroyed its founding ideals. The city charter was changed. Infidels moved away. Churches were established. Today the town boasts of seven different churches and 50% of its residents are involved with some church.

Removing God only invites greed, corruption, indecency, and all forms of ungodliness. The Liberal experiment failed. The wonderful town without God became a nightmare of social and domestic problems.

What happened to George Walser, the founder of atheistic Liberal, Missouri? Near the end of his life he became a believer in Christ. He wrote a book entitled, The Life and Teachings of Jesus. He stated in that book that he had "wandered in the desert of disbelief, waded in the river of doubt and in the sands of desolation before he came to the hope that Jesus was the Son of God."

The Liberal, Missouri, experiment with an atheistic community failed. Or, did it? Maybe it proved that removing God from your life and your community invites disaster and heartache. "The fool has said in his heart, 'There is no God'" (Psalms 14:1).

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