Myth and Mystery: Church Rock

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“Church Rock” is a familiar landmark just off the highway between Moab and Monticello, Utah. I’ve driven past this interesting rock formation countless times over the years going to and from my grandparents’ home in Monticello. Last month after visiting Grandpa Ramsay I timed my trip home to be there at sunrise and capture the wildflowers that were said to be the best seen in this spot in 30 years. I assumed early settlers named it “Church Rock” simply because they thought it looked like a church. I was surprised to learn about a week ago that there’s quite a story attached to this area, including the belief by some that it is (or was) the “spiritual center of the universe”!

Here’s the gist of the story according to a couple wikipedia articles: In the early 1930’s, a spiritualist named Marie Ogden–a wealthy, well-educated widow from New Jersey–had been traveling around the country lecturing, gathering followers, and receiving “divine revelations” through her typewriter. At a lecture in Boise, Idaho, she announced a revelation directing her to establish a religious colony dedicated to “the truth.” Soon after, she and her followers purchased land in Dry Valley (location of Church Rock), which she indicated would be the site of Christ’s second coming, and began an ascetic commune known as the “Home of Truth.”

She purchased the county newspaper, the San Juan Record, made herself editor, and tried to recruit new followers through sharing stories about her revelations (received through her typewriter). The utopian Home of Truth commune grew to about 100 people under Ogden’s leadership, and part of the “myth” of this story is that her followers started to hollow out the inside of Church Rock to use as a place of worship. Ogden had revealed that this area was the “spiritual center of the universe”, and that those closest to the “Inner Portal”–centered in her living quarters–would be spared in the coming apocalypse. If you look closely at the photo, you’ll actually see a small dark opening at the base of the rock. The truth is that a local rancher, Claud Young of Monticello, contracted to have the 16′ x 24′ area blasted out with dynamite to store feed and salt licks for his cattle.

Things got really interesting in 1935 when a member of the group named Edith Peshak died of cancer, in spite of Ogden’s promises of a spiritual healing. Ogden claimed in a San Juan Record article that she had been communicating with the deceased Peshak and that the woman was in a state of purification and could soon be brought back to life. According to Ogden, Peshak was only “mostly dead” and this is where the writers of The Princess Bride got the idea for the Miracle Max scene (ok, I made that up just now). Investigating authorities found Peshak’s body well preserved, reportedly having been washed three times a day in a salt solution and “fed” milk and eggs by injection (didn’t make that up). The investigators decided to leave the body with the colony, determining that it was not a health threat, and since other residents in the area were in possession of old mummies of indigenous people they had found in dry caves (what?! I guess 1935 San Juan County was progressive in its views on mummy possession. Because who doesn’t want their own mummy anyway?)

Things really fell apart in 1937 when Ogden began writing again about the woman’s imminent rising, still claiming that the woman was not actually dead. This time investigators discovered that the body had been cremated by Ogden soon after the prior inquiry, and all but seven remaining followers abandoned the Home of Truth. Ogden continued to support herself by publishing the newspaper, and through teaching piano lessons to the children of Monticello. (MOM!!! Did you, your siblings, or any of your friends take piano lessons from Marie Ogden?!?) She died in Blanding, Utah in 1975. The Home of Truth is now a ghost town, with remains of buildings visible on private land near the road that leads to the Needles area of Canyonlands National Park.

I had no idea about any of this until about a week or two ago, but I wonder if this Church Rock print will be worth more if I tell people it’s of the spiritual center of the universe? 😉


P.S. The image is a “focus stack” of about 7 frames, combined to achieve sharp focus from front to back.