Note: This was written in the early to mid 90s...
Reincarnation of Uncle Thomas
by Mark Renz
I had heard about Tom, my great, great uncle, when I was very young. In the early 1900s, he had been a member of the Koreshan Unity Settlement in Estero, about 30 miles south of Fort Myers. I remember hearing back then that the Koreshans believed we live inside the earth, rather than outside, and they had their own unique religion and church. For a six year-old with as much energy as a salmon on speed, that was reason enough not to want to know more about him. Church meant having to sit still, and having to do it on a hard wooden pew in dressy clothes I never have felt comfortable wearing.
So I never thought much about Tom until I moved back to Florida. The older I got, the more interested I was in all the personalities that evolved into "me." I would soon learn that Tom and his 300 or so fellow Koreshans, had a very strange way of looking at life.
My mother told me that had Tom chosen not to join the Koreshan Unity and move to South Florida, his younger brother (my great grandfather John), would never have uprooted and moved south as well. That being the case, my parents-to-be might never have met, andÖwell, I guess you wouldnít be reading this story.
All I knew about Tom was that he had come to South Florida from Atlanta, Georgia. He was an intellect, as were most of his fellow Koreshaners. His job at the settlement was to raise bees for honey, and to sharpen saws and scissors.
So I set out to look for more information about this man who so directly shaped my life. I began by setting up an appointment with Koreshan State Park ranger and historian Peter Hicks, who showed me a book outlining the history of the Koreshans. There, halfway through the book, was a short entry about Tom.
"Thomas P. Gay, entered Koreshan Unity in Chicago, October 11, 1901." Another entry read, "ÖA tall man with a soft southern accent. Eventually formed an offshoot religious group (after founderís death) and left."
"That happened probably in 1909," noted Hicks, "because the founder, Dr. (Cyruss) Teed died just before Christmas in 1908, and there was a little trouble with the succession of the group. They werenít sure who was going to be the next leader. Dr. Teed had a co-leader, a lady by the name of Annie G. Ordway, and he called her Victoria Gratia. She expected to take over, but the others didnít accept her as a leader. Dr. Teed hadnít made arrangements for succession so it was up for grabs. Annie left and went to Fort Myers, and Tom probably left in the summer of 1909."
"Tom and his brother had a laundry business in Fort Myers in the early 1900s," I said.
"One group did start a laundry business in Fort Myers," Hicks replied. "Brothers of Theocracy, I think they called themselves."
Tom didnít leave empty handed. With him were two women. But there was no hanky-panky going on. The women were at least 20 years his senior and the group was celibate. They didnít believe in replenishing the earth.
"They lived communally," Hicks said, "and the off-shoot group lasted a good 10 years after Dr. Teedís death"
"I donít get it," I said. Some of these people were doctors and lawyers. Professionals. Why would they grasp hold of something this far-fetched and alter their whole lifestyle over it?"
"One reason," Hicks pointed out, "is because Dr. Teed was a persuasive, hypnotic speaker. Another reason is that they were more or less early womenís libbers. They believed in equality of the sexes. And that was something a little bit ahead of their time.
"As for believing that you live on the inside of the earth, I think thatís a little bit hard to accept. But they did. They believed it," Hicks said.
"What kind of proof did they have? It had to be more than just responding to a dynamic speaker."
"They went down to Naples Beach and conducted an experiment. They used instruments called rectilineators, which are like two double T-squares set on standards, so that they could adjust them up and down. They lined them up on the beach and measured a site line 128" above sea level. They extended this line 4-1/4 miles, until they claimed the horizon came up to reach it. They offered that as proof.
"Their idea, Hicks said, "was that we live on the inside surface of earth. We believe we live on the outside. So if you extend a line, it just goes off into space. They believed that if you extended a line, eventually it would hit the other side. They had tried the same experiment in Chicago two or three times on canals; once in Roby, Indiana, right along Lake Michigan. Those experiments werenít successful. But when they came down here, they were."
Dr. Teed actually offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could disprove the results of his experiment. No one stepped forward.
"Was there more proof?" I asked.
"When Dr. Teed had his "illumination" in 1869," Hicks said, "he was conducting experiments in alchemy, or changing lead into gold. And that night he felt he had succeeded in doing this. And he called this knowledge the Philosopherís Stone. From that knowledge, he felt he was able to conjure up God, to call God forward, to talk to him. And thatís where he had his illumination in which God told him the secret of the universe and how things were.
"In Chicago," Hicks said, "they were like street preachers. They had these ladies that would go out on the street corner and talk about these ideas, and thatís how they got people to join."
"How would you compare Koreshanity to Christianity," I asked.
"One of the big differences," Hicks said, "is that the Koreshans believed in a mother-father God instead of a Trinity. Another difference is that they felt Dr. Teed was one of the Messiahs. He considered himself a seventh Messiah. Jesus was the sixth. The other five were from the Old Testament, such as Adam, Moses, Isaiah and two others.
"My mother told me that Tom believed he was the incarnation of James the ApostleÖ"
"Well, they had kind of a belief in reincarnation," Hicks said, "and they moved through the cycles of rebirth."
My brief visit to Koreshan State Park got me to thinking. Since I was slowly beginning to empty my head of my childhood religious programming, my eyes were opening to other possibilities concerning eternal life. I couldnít buy into Koreshanity or Christianity, or a hundred other religious beliefs, but felt I could trust in my own observations. If this time on earth is all I have, and Mark Renz as a human being will perish at death, it suddenly made life much more precious to me. When I was a Christian, I looked forward to forever in a perfect world, so what was a mere 70 or 80 years in an imperfect one? But as an agnostic, the present, imperfect world was all I had. Great! Then let me be a more active participant in it! Let me savor every moment and really make my one-and-only lifetime count.
And when I thought about Uncle Tomís beliefs in reincarnation, I wondered if he didnít have it almost right. Life is self-perpetuating. With the exception of passing parts of yourself on to your children, Iíve seen no proof that when we die, we come back as another human, or Ė as in Jesusí case Ė the Son of God. And I mean that respectfully. What I have seen proof of, is that energy never dies, it just changes its form. If I was to be buried six feet under without a casket, I know that my body would quickly become consumed and used by all kinds of organisms, which would in turn be consumed and used by other organisms. My lifeless body would provide life for other creatures. The process of living and dying is self-perpetuating.
I suspect the reason I am so drawn to nature is because the energy that is "me," did not happen out of the blue. I do not have absolute proof, but enough to convince me I am a product of evolution, of a journey stretching back to the "Big Bang," or wherever life may have begun. Itís reasonable for me to conceive that ancient parts of me are still on burned out stars that have been cold for billions of years. Theyíre in the light and the darkness, in sound, wind and rain. Theyíre in my father and my Uncle Tom and every human being ever born, including my best friend and worst enemy. I find that comforting and complete, because Ė near as I can tell -- itís the raw truth.