Religious History Sunday: Short-Lived Utopian Experiments

Throughout the 19th century several utopian communities popped up across America, but most lasted only a short time.

Harmony and New Harmony – New Harmony, Indiana

George Rapp, a German Evangelical Lutheran, fled persecution in his homeland and came to America seeking refuge.  His brand of religion was a strict Pietism which emphasized a deeply felt conversion to Christianity, personal communion with God and striving for perfection.  His followers in Germany numbered around 12,000 at one point according to a Yale Library web site called “America and the Utopian Dream”.

Rapp purchased land in Harmony, Indiana (and later in Economy, Pennsylvania) to begin his commune.  The community experienced financial difficulties, even to the point that Rapp considered abandoning his own community and joining the Shakers.  Eventually the group found a way to thrive and prosper (grain and whiskey trade).

At one point, commune members began to leave.  In 1829 another German (delusional according to the Yale site) sent out letters to various communes, including Rapp’s, declaring himself (Bernard Mueller) to be the Lion of Judah.  Rapp invited Mueller to Harmony and extolled to his congregation that Mueller was the Lion of Judah, the Second Coming.  Mueller moved on to the community in Economy but that didn’t go over so well.  As a result about one third of the Economy commune left.

In 1837 the economic panic caused Rapp to believe that the end of time must be near.  However, that proved incorrect and Rapp lived to be 89 years old, dying in 1847.  Under his bed was found a half million dollars in gold and silver for the remaining members of his commune to spar over.  The group of 288 decided they would take no more members in (guess they didn’t want to share!) and just wait out the Second Coming or die… and die they did as well as the Rapp movement.

New Harmony was different, however, in that it wasn’t based on religion but socialism and “rational ethics”.  The founder, Robert Owen, and his business partner, Jeremy Bentham, purchased the Harmony property from the Rappites.  Many of those who settled in the New Harmony commune were scholars and intellectuals.

Owen’s “beef” with society was the concept of private property, irrational systems of religion and marriage founded on private property and religion (ref. Yale web site cited above).  Owen instituted strict rules for the commune including curfews and residential inspections.  There were even fines for drunkenness and having children out of wedlock.  Owen also sought to indoctrinate children and avoid parental influence by introducing the concept of trade schools where children would receive a less than classical education.

After Owen purchased the property he left for a period of time, leaving behind his son William.  Upon his return, however, Robert Owen found chaos among the seven to eight hundred residents of New Harmony.  A “Constitution of Preliminary Society” was soon adopted which set forth the precepts of contributing to the community and social equality.  For instance, members could perform work for the community and receive credit at the town’s store.  However, if one didn’t want to contribute in that way, he could purchase credits at the store instead (in advance) – doesn’t that sound familiar?

new harmonyRobert Owen left again only to come back to find disgruntled members who had decided that the system of credits wasn’t working so well.  Eventually, Owen brought in reinforcements to help him firmly establish his socialist community.  In 1826, a new constitution was written, this time to try and enure happiness via equal rights and equal duties.

These were lofty ideals to aspire to but there were no clear guidelines for even general function of the community.  Later in 1826 groups began to splinter, which prompted another reorganization.  Work was to be divided into six categories each with its own superintendent.  Even with the reorganization, members continued to abandon the community.  By March of 1827 it was clear that Owen’s socialist experiment was a miserable failure.  He left New Harmony in June of 1827 and later died in 1858.

Fruitlands

Fruitlands was established in Harvard, Massachusetts in the 1840s.  Its founders were Charles Land and Amos Bronson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott’s father.  In May of 1843, Lane purchased the 90-acre property known as Wyman Farm.  The concepts and beliefs of Lane and Alcott stemmed from Transcendentalism, believing that experiencing spiritual renewal was linked to one’s physical well-being (obtained by abstaining from certain things, for instance).Amos_Bronson_AlcottThere were fourteen residents of Fruitlands, including the Lanes and Alcotts.  Residents did not eat anything of animal origin (strictly vegan), drank only water and bathed in cold water.  In addition, animal labor was not permitted.  By July of that year, the group had managed to plant about 10 acres of grain, vegetables and melons.

The members didn’t believe in owning personal property or participating in the general economy. Alcott was particularly averse to the concept of economy and trade.  Basically, they planned to just grow what they themselves needed and be content with that.  As it turned out, however, the work was not evenly distributed among the residents.  Many of them were intellectuals and perhaps spent more time philosophizing rather than the actual work that needed to be done to provide sustenance.

In the end, the Fruitlands “experiment” lasted only seven months.

Oneida

This community was founded in 1848 by John Humphrey Noyes.  Noyes had attended Yale Divinity School and his understanding of salvation became known as Perfectionism – in other words at the time of one’s conversion he or she would attain perfectionism (sinlessness).  That “understanding” cost him ordination at Yale.jhnoyesStraying even further in the early 1840s, Noyes founded a communistic group who lived by his teachings of Complex Marriage (polygamy), Mutual Criticism and Stirpiculture.  Complex Marriage is self-explanatory.  Mutual Criticism was a tenet which Noyes believed would improve one’s character traits.  General meetings were held in which everyone at the meeting was subject either to criticism from a committee or the community as a whole.

Stirpiculture was a form of eugenics or an attempt to create “perfect children”.  Members who wanted to become parents appeared before a committee where they were matched spiritually and morally (remember, polygamy and “free love” was encouraged).  This experiment produced almost 60 children, several of whom were fathered by Noyes himself.  When a child was weaned around the age of one, he or she would be transferred a children’s wing.  Parents were allowed to visit but any type of bonding was frowned upon.

Predictably the commune was accused of immorality, so by 1879 the practice of Complex Marriage was abolished.  Several members who had previously co-habitated were joined in traditional matrimony.

The community did thrive as far as participating in the general economy, although there were never more than about 300 members at any one time.  Beginning in 1877, the community began to manufacture silverware, eventually growing into the Oneida Limited silverware company.

The community experienced gradual decline and the last member died in 1950.  Today the Oneida Community Mansion House (which includes a museum) is a National Historic Landmark.

Discussion Topic:

Why do you think that most of these utopian communities had a socialist bent, or in the case of Oneida and New Harmony, outright socialism or communism?

Next Week: The Amana Colonies

Everyone have a great day — someday it will be history!

© Sharon Hall (History Depot), 2013.

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