American Monoliths: Local Pride and Global Anxiety in ‘The Georgia Guidestones’

Exhibit / November 21, 2019

Object Name: The Georgia Guidestones 
Maker and Year: The Elberton Granite Finishing Co., Inc., 1981
Object Type: Promotional publication
Image Source: Wired.com
Description (Michael Grasso):

On the vernal equinox in 1980, a group of local dignitaries gathered on a ridgetop near Elberton, Georgia, to witness the dedication and unveiling of a monument made of six colossal slabs of Georgia blue granite. The Georgia Guidestones have remained the center of a firestorm of controversy in the nearly four decades since their unveiling, while simultaneously becoming an object of great local civic pride. The Guidestone monoliths contain a series of ten “commandments” for distant human posterity, an inscription dedicated to the moral and material health of humanity in twelve languages—four ancient, eight modern—in the face of then-current issues such as overpopulation, nuclear holocaust, and environmental pollution. The real story behind these modern-day standing stones—primarily, who exactly commissioned and designed them—is cloaked in mystery and misdirection to the present day. This mystery was only intensified by the publication of a 48-page pamphlet (full document here) in 1981 by the granite company behind the Guidestones’ physical construction. The pamphlet combines a “how did they do it” explainer with interpretations of the Guidestones’ mysterious inscriptions. But The Georgia Guidestones booklet also lays bare some of the tensions between a rural Georgia community and the attention that this eccentric outsider art project-cum-social statement brought to the area.

The booklet was produced by the management of the local stoneworkers who created the physical stones, the Elberton Granite Finishing Company, Inc. On the very first page, in the booklet’s foreword, the company openly admits that the messages on the stones will prove “intriguing,” “provocative,” “significant,” and that “not everyone will agree with all of the succinct ‘guides’ which have been permanently inscribed… in these massive pieces of Elberton Granite.” How did this small town receive such a daunting and strange task? The booklet pens a narrative about Joe Fendley, president of the granite company, receiving a “neatly dressed” visitor on a June Friday in 1979, asking for the company to build him a monument. This visitor, named R. C. Christian, “represented a ‘small group of loyal Americans who believe in God… [who wished to] leave a message for future generations.'” When Christian backs up his words with the real American language—cold hard cash brought to the bank by Christian’s lawyer, banker, and “intermediary” Wyatt C. Martin—the locals, according to the pamphlet, realized that the project was no prank.

This origin narrative is—by design, one assumes—full of intentional mystery and symbolism. It also echoes two esoteric myths with deep roots in Western hermeticism and occult conspiracy. First, there is R.C. Christian’s name, which evokes the rich and centuries-old mythology surrounding Rosicrucianism, with its key founding documents detailing the occult journeys of a young magus named Christian Rosenkreuz (Rose Cross, R. C.). The tale of R.C. Christian’s mysterious arrival also echoes an American myth about a stranger named “the Professor” who was allegedly present among the Founding Fathers during the design of the American flag. This tale was first recorded in an 1890 book called Our Flag by Robert Allen Campbell and eventually given new life in 1940 by American esotericist Manly P. Hall. These two seemingly-disparate threads of American esotericism—the occult wisdom of secret societies and a sort of mystical American patriotism—intertwine freely throughout The Georgia Guidestones pamphlet, as the authorial voice continues to hammer home the message from the Foreword: that however bizarre, occult, and eerie the message of the Guidestones project might be, we are always assured that it is being directed by American patriots who believe in God.

The ten-part Guidestones message itself is explained directly by “the mysterious sponsors behind The Georgia Guidestones®” (whenever “The Georgia Guidestones” appears in the pamphlet, it is accompanied by a registered trademark symbol, which seems to betray the commercial intentions of the document quite clearly) in a five-page essay called “The Purpose.” The inscriptions call quite clearly for a radical population reduction (to a mere 500 million people worldwide; in 1980 the global population was already nearly 4.5 billion), for humanity to “guide reproduction wisely, improving fitness and diversity,” and for a universal human language and a new respect for nature. The sinister first pair of commandments have more than a whiff of old-fashioned American eugenics, which, along with the command for a universal language, would certainly raise alarm bells in socially-conservative late-1970s Georgia. In the very first paragraphs of “The Purpose,” the makers cite a need for “a global rule of reason” and “a rational world society,” two harbingers of the kind of one-world government that had long frightened postwar American arch-conservatives.

The language of “The Purpose” echoes much of the discourse in the 1970s about a New Age arriving, and asserts that humanity is finally ready for such an advancement: “Human reason is now awakening to its strength.” This concept of a planet mature enough to usher in a one-world government, thanks to achievements in reason and science, is a common narrative element in much of Cold War UFO lore. The specter of nuclear annihilation hovers over “The Purpose” as the main threat to humanity’s advancement; “The Purpose” clearly implies that the Guidestones’ message offers “alternatives to Armageddon.” Building a resilient time capsule for the future, one that could survive both the aeons and the possibility of nuclear or climate catastrophe, was evidently a major consideration in the physical design and construction of the Guidestones (echoing the work that would be done in think tanks in the next decade to design monuments to protect nuclear waste from future generations’ curiosity).

“The Purpose” spends nearly two pages defending its population control policy from common political, cultural, and religious objections. Concerns about overpopulation were very timely in the 1970s: the the Club of Rome‘s report The Limits to Growth was published in 1972, and a constant theme throughout popular culture and media throughout the 1970s was an overpopulated and underfed future. The makers of the Guidestones propose that reproduction and parenting be “regulated”: “The wishes of human couples are important, but not paramount.” Coincidental in 1979 with the Georgia Guidestones project was the introduction of the People’s Republic of China’s “one-child policy,” which follows the hopes of “The Purpose” that “every national government develop immediately a considered ‘Population Policy’,” which would “take precedence over other problems, even those relating to national defense.” Later on within the booklet, an “independent” interpretation of the Guidestones’ message is provided by one Dr. Francis Merchant, a local Elberton citizen and English Ph.D. who died after the erection of the monuments but before the publication of the booklet. His assessments are more matter-of-fact than those of “The Purpose,” but take into consideration the cultural and political changes that would be necessary to live up to the aspirations of the Guidestones (along with dropping a tantalizingly Masonic reference or two: deeming God to be “the Great Architect,” for example).

Throughout The Georgia Guidestones, it’s unclear how much of all these varying explanations and interpretations are merely good old-fashioned carnival kayfabe meant to intrigue visitors and collect tourist dollars. A perhaps uncharitable reading of the booklet would be that the entire cast of characters who take credit for different elements of the Guidestones project—Fendley, Martin, and Merchant, among others—were themselves R.C. Christian. The images of Fendley’s laborers working on giant slabs of Georgia granite throughout the pamphlet make it clear that the project was an enormous physical undertaking for the workers involved (and yet it was all completed in a little under nine months, if the story in The Georgia Guidestones is true). The booklet tells a story about one of the crew hearing “strange music and disjointed voices” while working on the inscriptions: more kayfabe perhaps, but also telling in that the makers of the Guidestones didn’t want the project’s mystical aura to stop at the money-and-idea men at the top. Again, a cynical reading of all the attention given to the actual quarry personnel, granite craftspeople, construction workers, and other expert laborers depicted in this booklet would be that Fendley wanted The Georgia Guidestones to act as a long-form advertisement for his company and for the granite industry of northeast Georgia at large. But with every photo offering a candid glimpse of the work and workers involved, the reader gains an appreciation for the fact that a large part of this tiny Georgia community was deeply involved in this project, a folly driven by seemingly mysterious fringe concerns, but one which touched almost everyone in the Elberton area. As with other weird municipal art projects elsewhere in 1970s America, Elberton seemed to embrace their Guidestones purely as quirky roadside attraction, another quintessentially 20th century American cultural tradition.

The Guidestone sponsors and Christian “himself” each directly lament the fact that ancient monuments like Stonehenge offer no concrete message to the modern world, that the true motivation for their construction and use, aside from their obvious calendrical and astronomical purposes, is unknown to us. With the purportedly “complete” picture of the process of making this monument, from conception to execution, The Georgia Guidestones booklet offers a vital gloss on the stones’ pure physical presence and their encoded message. It also offers a portrait of a small rural community in 20th century America at the end of arguably the nation’s Weirdest decade, a decade where issues of global survival met with the parochial concerns of post-industrial labor and production, filtered through a prism of the esoteric mysticism at the center of the entire American experiment.

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