American Utopias

March 2, 2018

During the 18th and 19th Century there were hundreds of communal utopian experiments in the United States. The Shakers alone founded around 20 settlements. While great differences existed between them, each society shared the common bond of a vision of communal living. The definition of a utopian colony, according to Robert V. Hine, author of California's Utopian Colonies, "consists of a group of people who are attempting to establish a new social pattern, based upon a vision of an ideal society, who have withdrawn themselves from the community at large to embody that vision in experimental form." Taking either a religious or secular form, they sought a community inspired by religion, or the idealism of a utilitarian creed as the means of attaining human happiness, with a belief in a cooperative way of life.

 

Non-monastic religious communal movements originated in a deliberate attempt to revive the structure of the primitive Christian community of first-century Jerusalem, which "held all things in common" (Acts 2.44; 4.32). The Shaker, Rappite and Amana experiments, as well as the Oneida Community and Brook Farm, also found their origins in the European Protestant Reformation and the later Enlightenment.

 

"Describing a perfect political and social system on an imaginary island, the term "Utopia" has since entered the English language"

 

The Western idea of Utopia originates in the ancient world, from legends of an earthly paradise lost to history (e.g. Eden in the Old Testament, or the mythical Golden Age of Greek mythology). The Greek philosopher Plato postulated a human utopian society in his “Republic,” where he imagined the ideal Greek city-state, with communal living among the ruling class, perhaps based on the model of the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta. Certainly, the English statesman Sir Thomas More had Plato's Republic in mind when he wrote his book “Utopia’ in 1516. Describing a perfect political and social system on an imaginary island, the term "Utopia" has since entered the English language meaning any place, state, or situation of ideal perfection. Both the desire for an Edenic Utopia and an attempt to start over in "unspoiled" America merged in the minds of several religious and secular European groups and societies.

 

It was not until the first half of the 19th century that a great expansion of communitarian experiments took place on American soil. The new, inexpensive, and expansive nation, unhampered by government regulations at a time when progress and optimism shaped people's beliefs, provided a fertile environment. Europe, in the early 19th century, was emerging from a long history of religious and dynastic wars. In contrast, America became a place where people could start over, a "New Eden” beckoning colonists from across the Atlantic Ocean.

 Methodist Revival, Second Great Awakening by J. Maze Burbank

 

The Great Awakening, a series of religious revivals that affected every part of America in the first half of the Eighteenth Century, prepared the soil for numerous religious sects. Religious and secular utopian experiments dotted the American landscape:  the Shakers, the Rappites, the Perfectionists of the Oneida Community, the experiment at Brook Farm, and the Amana Colony of the Inspirationists were among the most famous.

 

The Shakers

The Shakers developed their own religious expression which included communal living, productive labor, celibacy, pacifism, equality of the sexes, and a ritual noted for its dancing and shaking. With 6,000 members before the Civil War, Shaker communities maintained economic autonomy while making items for outside commercial distribution. Intellectually, the Shakers were dissenters from the dominant values of American society and were associated with many of the reform movements of the 19th century, including feminism, pacifism, and abolitionism: an Enfield Shaker's diary, for example, records the visits of fugitive slaves, including Sojourner Truth. Their work was eventually redirected from agricultural production to handcrafts, including the making of chairs and furniture.

 

“The Ritual Dance of the Shakers,” Shaker Historical Society

 

The Rappites

The Harmony Society, also called the Rappites, shared certain beliefs with the Shakers. Named after their founder, Johann Georg Rapp, the Rappites immigrated from Württemburg, Germany to the United States in 1803 seeking religious freedom. Establishing a colony they called “Harmony” in Butler County, Pennsylvania, the Rappites held that the Bible was humanity's sole authority. They also practiced celibacy and led a communal life without individual possessions, and believed that establishing the harmony of male and female elements in humanity would result from their efforts. By 1814 the Society boasted 700 members, a town of about 130 houses, and numerous factories and processing plants. Their manufactured products, particularly textiles and woolens, gained a widespread reputation for excellence, as did their wines and whisky.

Harmony Society members receiving their allotment of wine.

 

The Amana Colony 

The Amana Colony was established by German-speaking European settlers who belonged to a religious group known as the Community of True Inspiration. Immigrating to America, they first settled near Buffalo. However, seeking more isolated surroundings, they moved to Iowa in 1856, where they lived a communal life until the mid-1930s. For 80 years, the Amana Colonies maintained an almost completely self-sufficient local economy, importing very little from outside the area. The colonists were able to achieve this independence and lifestyle by adhering to the specialized crafting and farming skills they had brought with them from Europe, passing them on from one generation to the next.

 

Amana Carpenters, Amana Heritage Society

 

 

The Oneida Community

The leader of the communal Oneida Community, John Humphreys Noyes, founded the New Haven Anti-Slavery society and the New Haven Free Church, where he preached his radical beliefs which laid great emphasis on the ideal of perfection being attainable in this life. His followers became known as Perfectionists. However, Noyes' belief in "complex marriage," marriage to the group as opposed to a single partner, alienated many of the townspeople. Noyes moved his community to Oneida, New York, where the group practiced Noyes’ "Bible Communism." They shared communal property, meals, and arrangements for the rearing and education of children, while working to manufacture brooms, shoes, and traps, as well as processing flour and milling lumber. In 1874 there were 270 members of the Oneida Community.

 

The Oneida Community, Oneida Community Collection at
Syracuse University Library

 

Brook Farm

Some of the secular utopian communities in the United States found inspiration from ideas and philosophies originating in Europe. Transcendentalism began as an idea developed by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant focusing on those aspects of man's nature transcending, or independent of, experience. In America, some Transcendentalists decided to put their theories about "plain living" into practice. Their experiment in communal living, The Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and Education, was established in the 1840s at West Roxbury, MA. Brook Farm became associated with distinguished literary and intellectual figures, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Margaret Fuller, as well as attracting carpenters, farmers, shoemakers and printers. The community provided to all members housing, fuel, wages, clothing, food, and schools. Nathaniel Hawthorne used his experiences at Brook Farm as the basis of his novel “The Blithedale Romance.” The Brook Farm experiment began with about 15 members and never included more than 120 persons at one time.

 

The Demise of the 19th-Century Utopian Colonies

At the end of the century, the great wave which founded the 19th-century religious and secular utopian communities had begun to subside. Some of these groups depended on the strength of their leaders. Those which survived into the 20th century had to alter their way of life significantly, as traditional rural life evolved alongside the industrial, economic, and scientific progress of the larger society. Overall, the conflict that many of these agrarian or small craft communities faced in an increasingly industrialized world may have contributed to their demise, as did external hostility manifested in the surrounding society, often seen in inflammatory newspaper articles attacking the unorthodox living arrangements of the utopian experiments.

 

- Anne Cattaneo

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