From 1897 to 1907 in Omaha, a minuscule religious group caused a sensation for its habit of bursting into religious services (and sometimes other public events) and denouncing everyone present as devil-filled sinners. In fact, denouncing other religious groups seemed to be the main point of their existence. Known as the Figgites, the sect disappeared from the historical record within a decade of their first public spectacle. When I first came across the group in my research into Omaha's religious history, I immediately was reminded of a more modern example of a widely-hated lilliputian religious group with a penchant for public trolling: the good folks at Westboro Baptist. And while our society has changed dramatically over the past century in regards to protecting the rights of minority religious groups, the treatment of the Figgites and Westboro shares some rather strong similarities. But more on that later. First, a little background on Omaha's prequel to Fred Phelps' clan.
The Figgites emerged from the soil of radical holiness spirituality. The holiness movement itself was primarily a 19th-century phenomenon that stretched across Protestant denominations (particularly the Methodists, Quakers, and Baptists). It featured an emphasis on powerful post-conversion "in-fillings" of the Holy Spirit, which were supposed to empower believers to live a pure and holy life free from sin. The "baptism of the Spirit" took various expressions, but to outsiders it was usually associated with the form taken by adherents of the more radical branch of the movement, who gained notoriety as "holy rollers" for their ecstatic and emotional outbursts (eventually, the Pentecostal movement would emerge from this radical holiness movement).
The notion of being a radical was not wholeheartedly embraced by all in the holiness movement. Some aimed more for the center, attempting to keep at least one foot within the religious and cultural mainstream in order to exert influence on the members and institutions of respectable society. Charles Savidge fit in with this approach, as did Phineas F. Bresee and his Church of the Nazarene, which became the standard-bearer for the moderate holiness movement. Even so, the established denominations grew increasingly uncomfortable with holiness movement enthusiasm, regarding it as disorderly and irrational, and by the early 1900s Protestant denominations had weeded out most holiness movement adherents from their ranks. Their task was made easier by the fact that holiness movement radicals and moderates alike had mostly left on their own, launching a number of independent churches and denominations in the 1890s. The Figgites were one such example.
The group began under the leadership of Louis and Sarah Figg, inhabitants of the small Nebraska farming town of Gretna. The Omaha Bee attempted to make sense of the group in 1897, writing, "their religion is of the aggressive kind and the followers of the new faith never neglect an opportunity proclaim that eternal damnation and kinds of dire disasters in this world will befall those who do not follow the true faith."
The "true faith" was apparently built on the idea that God spoke directly to them, particularly to Louis and Sarah. As the Omaha Bee described it, "They assert they are led by the Spirit of God, and that every action is thus directed." (As a side note, lest we think such beliefs are not typical of our time, more moderate and less antagonistic forms of this idea are still very popular in evangelicalism today.)
From 1897 until 1900, the Figgites continued their provocations, bursting into churches (usually Methodist or Christian), shouting at attendees and proclaiming eternal damnation for all present. Occasionally their outbursts resulted in arrests for disorderly conduct, but a $10 fine did little to deter the Figgites. However, when the specter of Louis Figg as a "new Joseph Smith" was raised, the rural community on the peripheries of Omaha decided that more serious action needed to be taken to stop the new sect.
In early 1900, three women left their husbands (all of whom were farmers in the Omaha area) and went to live with Louis and Sarah Figg. Disrupting a church service was one thing; upending the accepted family structure was quite another. The citizens of Gretna and nearby Papillion were likely influenced by the ubiquitous anti-Mormon sentiment of the time, and would have quickly associated Figg's supposed "harem" with Mormonism's founder (this even though the LDS church in 1890 had declared an end to the practice of polygamy). They also would have agreed with the view expressed by the Supreme Court in Maynard v. Hill (1888) that marriage was the "foundation of the family and of society, without which there would be neither civilization nor progress."
Perhaps an even greater blow than the ideological offense supposedly caused by Louis Figg was the personal insult to the three men who lost their wives. Their honor at stake, they retaliated by reportedly leading a group of fourteen masked men to the Figg residence around midnight on March 21st. They dragged Louis and Sarah out into the yard, beating and kicking them, and then applied a coat of tar and feathers. The mob told the Figgs to send the three runaway women home and to stop disturbing the community, or face further consequences.
The nighttime raid quieted the Figgs for a couple months, but by July they were back in business, targeting a Christian Church in Gretna. Meanwhile, most newspapers in the area applauded the vigilantes for their attack. Only one newspaper seemed concerned, noting that the way the Figgs were treated reflected a "peculiar type of Christian civilization." Charles Savidge did not fully endorse the tar and feather plan, but at the same time believed "extreme measures...ought to be done to rid the state of such people. They have been a menace to society."
Despite the sensational coverage of the attack in the press, physical violence did not quite end the Figgite experiment. The residents of Gretna and Papillion thus turned to the courts. They claimed that Sarah Figg's unorthodox religious beliefs amounted to mental insanity and they attempted to get a court order to put her in the state asylum. The judge in the case declined to take such a step, instead ruling that even though Sarah "was considerably eccentric on the question of religion" and insane in the eyes of man, she was not insane under the law.
After the court case, the Figgites temporarily relocated to an island near Bellevue (The Gretna Breeze approved of the move, writing "they can pray and dance without fear. May their hopes be realized and may they never come back.") Interestingly, the three women who had caused an uproar in early 1900 eventually reunited with their husbands. By 1907, Louis and Sarah had returned to Gretna, where they lived without incident until Sarah's death in 1922. The Figgite sect passed away into historical obscurity with precious little lasting impact, save for a few sensational newspaper stories.
A century later, much has changed in the way that American society approaches religious minorities. Barry Hankins, in his book Jesus and Gin: Evangelicalism, the Roaring Twenties, and Today's Culture Wars, argues that events in the 1920s were especially important in America's transition from a "majoritarian view of democracy" in which communitarian notions of public morality (i.e. the morality of the majority) were deemed more important than the rights of the individual, to our current culturally liberal view that individual rights and the autonomy of the individual "trump corporate notions of morality."
Religious minorities played an important role in that transition, perhaps none more so than the Jehovah's Witnesses. From winning the right NOT to salute the flag to winning the right to proselytize in public places, their Supreme Court victories in the 1940s helped set a legal precedent for protecting the practices of even the most unpopular religious groups. Westboro Baptist has certainly taken advantage of those protections. No matter how much everyone detests their message, most people seem to agree that they have a right to express themselves, as long as they follow the proper legal protocol. As recently as 2011 the Supreme Court overwhelmingly decided (8-1) in Snyder v. Phelps to uphold the right of Westboro Baptist to continue its on-going trolling campaign.
Yet, even if the federal legal protections are much stronger for Westboro than they were for the Figgites, at a local level, passion sometimes trumps the law, particularly when a group is perceived as breaking the most sacred of social bonds. For the Figgites, their supposed interference in the marriages of three men led to mob violence, which, aside for a fine levied against one individual, had no legal repercussions.
In the case of Westboro, the primary social taboo that they cross (among others) is to interfere in the funerals of U.S. military men and women. Their actions have led to the perfectly legal organization of counter-protests, as well as the implementation of laws that intend to blunt the impact of their funeral protests. In some cases, though, their actions have led to acts of vandalism, such as in Tulsa when the sect found the tires to their van slashed. Like the Figgites a century ago, no one seemed particularly concerned with a little vandalism levied against such a hated group. Indeed, many would say that they had it (and much worse) coming. Such reactions point to a continued impulse in our society (or rather in human nature itself) to protect cherished social boundaries and norms, especially against groups that are blatantly antagonistic.
No matter how much our society prides itself on the defense of freedom of religion, the limits of that freedom are continually tested and rewritten by each generation, both at the level of the local community and national law. And while I hold out hope that Westboro follows the footsteps of the Figgites down the path to historical obscurity, I have no doubt that the clash between the social values of the majority and religiously-inspired offense to those values will be with us a long time yet.