An American Eden, Dead on the Fourth of July

Coming out this August!

Greetings, fellow Americans. I’d like to pay tribute to a little-known patriot who died on the fourth of July, 30 years ago. Although it’s not as exciting as being Born on the Fourth of July, I think Elvy Edison Callaway of Bristol, Florida, would be happy to be associated in any way possible with Independence Day.

Callaway was a retired lawyer who wrote a book claiming that the Bible’s Garden of Eden could be found in the Florida Panhandle. He opened the Garden of Eden Park along Highway 12 in Bristol, where tourists could visit paradise for the small fee of $1.10. What kind of crazy Bible thumper was he? Not the kind you’d expect, and that’s why he’s my patriotic hero.

Callaway was a freethinker. He left his hardline Baptist church as a youth when they punished him for dancing with girls; he sided with Clarence Darrow and evolution after the Scopes Trial. He was also politically conservative, the chairman of Florida’s Republican party. He even ran for governor, promising to overturn the New Deal and return to the gold standard—and lost magnificently. In his older years, he did find religion again, but hardly of the Bible-thumping variety.

After visiting a central Florida guru known as Dr. Brown Landone, he was “called” to practice a form of mystical numerology called the “Teleois Key,” which used the numbers 1, 4, and 7 to transmit wisdom throughout the ages.

That’s when Callaway became a Buddha-killer. The Teleois Key, whatever it was, inspired him to revisit the Bible, and, with the precision of a former attorney, redefine everything in it, starting with the Garden of Eden.

God created Adam, and the lovely Garden, along the Apalachicola River. Eve was created from Adam’s rib—not because she was inferior to him, but so that “she might be his exact equal in the right of liberty.” Eve had two choices: continue living the immortal life in Eden, but without education or progress, or receive the fruits of the Tree of Knowledge in return for giving up immortality. The serpent, which was most certainly “not a serpent, but a Communist or a welfare-statist,” wanted to keep Eve barefoot and pregnant forever. God, says Callaway, wanted Eve to eat from the fruit of empowerment. So she did, and Adam and Eve left Eden of their own accord for a new, enlightened life.

And the angels with flaming swords that the Bible says God placed at the gates of Eden to protect the Tree of Life? Well, since the Tree of Life represented “liberty,” those fearsome cherubim looked more like Founding Fathers, there to protect Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. If you meant Liberty no harm, Callaway figured, you were welcome to visit Eden anytime.

And some people did—paid their $1.10 entry fee, which Callaway promised would go to local non-profit causes. In 1964, after Barry Goldwater lost the presidential election, Callaway tried to drum up further business by publicly inviting his political hero to purchase a retirement home near the Garden of Eden. It didn’t work, and the Garden of Eden Park eventually ceased to exist. Still, whenever I get depressed about how conservative politicians like to parrot the same narrow readings of the Bible for the same political ends, I like to think of Elvy Edison Callaway, and celebrate the liberty of being able to interpret it for yourself. Let’s hope that didn’t die on the Fourth of July.

Brook Wilensky-Lanford is the author of Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden (Grove Press, 2011). An editor of Killing the Buddha, she lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Follow Brook on Twitter: @modmyth