The Allure of Immortality: An American Cult, a Florida Swamp, and a Renegade Prophet, by Lyn Millner. University Press of Florida. 368 pages. Hardcover $24.95.
Maybe the approach of a new century fostered utopian, apocalyptic, and millennialist communities to flourish, though the career of self-proclaimed prophet and savior Cyrus Teed began in the 1870s in upstate New York. Here he started preaching his ideas regarding a hollow earth (we live inside of the sphere, not on top of it), socialism, celibacy, his own transcendence, and other arcane matters. The Koreshan Unity didn’t gain much traction until after Teed relocated its headquarters to Chicago in the late 1880s.
However, it would be impossible to found a New Jerusalem in the Windy City, though Teed was able to build his following and do a better job of funding his movement’s activities there. He developed ardent supporters, far more women than men, and built larger audiences for his lectures. There were always those who considered him a quack, but the movement was sustained by diehards.
The would-be New Jerusalem ended up being built in the community of Estero in Southwest Florida. After beginning to develop its new home in 1894, Koreshanity flourished for about a dozen years, attracting about 250 members at its peak. After Teed’s death in I908 (he didn’t ascend, though followers were watching hopefully), the movement began to fade. What’s left of it now are the historic buildings and interpretive exhibits at the Koreshan State Historic Site – and in the comprehensive history and assessment found in Professor Millner’s glorious book.
Prof. Millner’s study is at once fascinating biography and contextualizing cultural history. She puts the Koreshan movement squarely in the company of many other friendly and rival organizations. These would include Christian Science, Swedenborgian thought, the Brook Farm community, and many other initiatives. Some of these shared Teed’s mistrust of capitalism as well as his enthusiasm for reconciling science and religion. Labeled by Mark Twain as “The Gilded Age,” the late 19th century saw rapid industrialization, wage growth, and life-changing technologies that kept proliferating
Railroads soon drew the country together, electric lighting turned night into day, and soon the motor car exploded the horizons of families and individuals. Lyn Millner sees Teed and his Koreshan Unity church against this backdrop of accelerating technological change. One of the book’s spellbinding sections describes the experiments by Teed supporters that proved – to themselves at least – the validity of their hollow earth theory.
Teed and others were enthralled by the amazing rebirth of Chicago after its near-death by fire. The iconic World’s Columbian Expedition (Spring-Fall 1883) was a major stage in projecting an era of limitless possibilities. It was the magnificent anteroom to the twentieth century.
To tell Teed’s story is to tell the story of his supporters, followers, rivals, and detractors. Prof. Millner breathes life and magnitude into a large cast of characters, people who were ready to take chances, who needed to give their lives meaning, and who would find both ecstasy and disappointment in their relationships to the charismatic Teed and his grand endeavor. . . .
To read the full review, as well as an interview with Lyn Millner as it appears in the October 21, 2015 Fort Myers Florida Weekly, the October 22 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Punta Gorda / Port Charlotte editions, and the October 29 Palm Beach Gardens/Jupiter and Palm Beach/West Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Millner 1 and here: Florida Weekly – Millner 2