Sunday, January 25, 2009

USH7: Utopian Communities and New Religious Groups

Something else that isn't usually highlighted in mainstream history texts (at least the ones taught from in high school) is the upswelling of new ideas about spirituality and ways of living that occurred in the nineteenth century. In particular, various types of intentional community were tried: some religious and some secular, some long-lasting and some very short-lived, and a number of them referred to as 'utopian communities'.

Quite a few non-mainstream religious groups came to America during the colonial times, among them were the Quakers (mentioned already) and 'Anabaptist' groups such as the Amish, the Mennonites, and (later) the Hutterites. And, in 1774, an offshoot of the Quakers, the Shakers (originally called the 'Shaking Quakers') came to this country. All these groups are still around (although the Shakers have all but died out).

In 1803, the Harmony Society came to the United States from Germany. They had split off from the Lutherans, and in 1805, the Harmony Society was formally organized in the town they called Harmony, Pennsylvania. The Harmony Society formed a community where they put all their belongings in common, and later embraced celibacy. When they began having troubles with their neighbors they sold the settlement to some Mennonites and moved to Indiana where they founded a second town, which they called New Harmony. In 1824, after again having problems with neighbors, they sold New Harmony to Robert Owen and William Maclure (see below) and moved back to Pennsylvania, where they founded a third town which they called Economy. In 1832 the community divided, due to disagreements.

William Kephart points out that western New York in the 1820s was called the "burned-over district" because it 'burned-over' with religious enthusiasm. It may have been the most intense build-up of religious ideas and organizations in US history. "The Millerites proclaimed that the world was coming the end. Emanuel Swedenborg announced that he had communicated directly with God. Ann Lee's Shakers renounced sex and marriage, and formed a nearby settlement. Jamima Wilkinson, ruling by revelation, built her colony of Jerusalem. John Humphrey Noyes started the Oneida Community. The Fox sisters, claiming to have communicated with the dead, founded the modern spiritualist movement. All of this occurred in Western New York between, roughly, 1825 and 1850."

Kephart goes on to mention that out of all this also emerged the Mormons, founded by Joseph Smith in 1830. Due to persecution the Mormons moved from New York, to Ohio, and then Missouri, and then Illinois. They encountered severe harrassment in each state and in Illinois Joseph Smith was shot and killed. A new leader, Brigham Young, emerged and led them west past the Rockies, to the valley of the Great Salt Lake, where they settled, and which became their base for spreading around the world.

But religious groups weren't the only new communities being built. Robert Owens, an English 'utopian socialist', who had already tried a few experiments in socialism in Scotland, founded one of the first utopian communities in New Harmony, Indiana in 1825. As I mentioned above, he and William MacLure bought the village from the Harmony Society. It was a spectacular failure. A.J. Macdonald, writing in the 1840s, said, "Mr. Owen said that he wanted honesty of purpose, and he got dishonesty. He wanted temperance, and instead, he was continually troubled with the intemperate. He wanted industry, and he found idleness..." Peyton Richter points out that in spite of this, many of New Harmony's educational reforms were influential in American society.

In 1841, Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane tried a similar, but even less well thought out, experiment in community in Harvard, Massachusetts. Called Fruitlands, it lasted less than eight months. Alcott's daughter, writer Louisa May Alcott, wrote that "...the failure of an ideal, no matter how humane and noble, is harder for the world to forgive and forget than bank robbery or the grand swindles of corrupt politicians."

That same year, several miles away in West Roxbury, a Unitarian minister founded the Brooks Farm Institute. It began as a religious community, based on ideas from Unitarianism and Transcendentalism, but in 1845 it was transformed into a Phalanx (a utopian socialist community derived from the ideas of Charles Fourier). Unfortunately, in 1846, the unfinished main building caught fire and was destroyed. The community fell apart not too long after. Nathaniel Hawthorne, one of the members of the community, later wrote a novel, The Blithedale Romance, based on his experiences there.

A group of communities were founded on the principles in the book, Voyage to Icaria, written by French utopian socialist √Čtienne Cabet. The first attempt, by a group that read the book, was in Texas in 1848 and it lasted only three months. The second was by Cabet himself in Nauvoo, Illinois (a city founded by the Mormons), and it lasted eleven years, although the members threw Cabet out midway through. A third community, in Cheltenham, Missouri, lasted six years, and a fourth Icarian community, founded in 1852 in Corning, Iowa, made it through storm and schism until 1898 (although much of the younger members left in 1878 and eventually founded a California community called Icaria Speranza, which existed from 1881 to 1886). One of the key principles in the book was the idea of "to each according to his [sic] need, from each according to his capacity". Cabet described his social movement as 'communism'.

As mentioned above, John Humphrey Noyes began the Oneida Community in the middle of New York state, in 1847. (That was the year Brook Farm collapsed, and Richter claims that Noyes saw Oneida as "a transmigration of Brook Farm".) Noyes had begun a religious and economic communal experiment in sharing (which came to be called 'Bible Communism') in Putney, Vermont. The town was a lot more conservative in 1847 than it is today and when it apparent that the 'Perfectionists' (as Noyes called his brand of religion) were sharing spouses as well as material goods, Noyes was arrested for adultery. He was released on bail and left for New York with his followers. At Oneida, the community thrived. They never had trouble finding members and had a steady stream of visitors (according to one account, on a day in July, 1863, there were "between fifteen hundred and two thousand" visitors). The community lasted until 1881--although it began falling apart in the 1870s. They practiced 'economic communism', 'Multiple Marriage' (also known as 'Complex Marriage'), and 'Mutual Criticism', and by many accounts, were one of the most happy and prosperous communities of the nineteenth century.

Also in 1847, a community was formed in Ohio by Josiah Warren, who had lived in New Harmony but rejected Owen's cooperative vision in favor of an individualist anarchist philosophy he called 'Mutualism'. The name of the new community was actually called "Utopia". It lasted through the 1860s.

Warren founded a second community on Long Island, New York, called "Modern Times" in 1851. This community also fell apart in the 1860s--apparently the Civil War was a factor in the dissolution of both communities.

Another religious community, Amana, was a group of communal villages in Iowa, founded in 1855 by a German religious group called the Community of True Inspiration, which had tried a similar experiment, called Ebenezer, in western New York state from 1843 to 1854. The community was able to retain a communal structure until 1932 and the Amana church continues to today. (Incidentally, although the Oneida community dissolved, their silverware business continues on, and, similarly, one of the businesses of the Amana community continued, and is now a division of Whirlpool.)

Finally, in 1895 an anarchist community was formed in Washington state, called Home Colony. It lasted twenty-four years. Emma Goldman and Marxist union organizer William Foster were frequent visitors. Home to "anarchists, communists, food faddists, freethinkers, nudists, and others...", legal problems, internal disagreements, and the conservative atmosphere of the early twentieth century led to its downfall.

As usual, I don't have the space to detail much about any of these groups or communities. For those wanting more information, Kephart's and Richter's books (and the articles on Wikipedia) give a lot more details. I just want to make it clear that intentional communities are not a twentieth century phenomena, and that a lot more happened in the nineteenth century than the Civil War and Robber Barons. The expansion of the United States (see my post of 1/17/09) might not have been a good thing for the Native Americans but it gave room for all sorts of groups to emerge. As should be clear in the stories above, many of these groups solved their problems with unfriendly neighbors by moving west. Maybe the true downfall of the Home Colony was that by the twentieth century, there was nowhere further west to move to. (They were on the Puget Sound--the only thing west of them was the ocean.)

Quote of the Day: "The one form of alternative family that has been acknowledged by historians--possibly because it's too obvious to ignore--has been the utopian community of the nineteenth century." - Karen Lindsey

William M. Kephart, Extraordinary Groups
Karen Lindsey, Friends as Family
Peyton E. Richter, UTOPIAS: Social Ideals and Communal Experiments
Wikipedia, many articles (especially the ones on Commune (intentional community) and List of anarchist communities, as well as articles on the individual communities and the individuals involved with them )


SoapBoxTech said...

Great post, and unfortunately...19th OR 20th century, many of those which died, did so upon reaching a population size which could no longer be governed by the communal ideologies upon which they were founded. Typically, this meant a failure to maintain balance between community labor needs and personal aspirations such as greater wealth or more free time for philosophical or scientific pursuits. This would seem to be more typical among the secular communities.

MoonRaven said...

Interesting observation. Do you have a guess as to about the size that it stops being possible to maintain community/individual balance? Can you give examples of where this happened? This is certainly something of interest to me.

Thanks for the comment.

SoapBoxTech said...

I think the Brook Farm collapse is a pretty good example. There was also a sustainable living research community in the 70's whose name escapes me at the moment, so its not of much help.

I have by no means done any real serious research by which to come up with a decent scientific hypothesis but I think "class" structures begin to appear in groups of a few hundred at least. My guess is there is a correlation between this and the amount and quality of land that said group is trying to share, sustainably or otherwise.

SoapBoxTech said...

You may know it, and it is a 20th century community (founded in the 60's I think), but Twin Oaks in Virginia remains successful and spawned some other nearby communities. Their population is around 100 human souls, which is around what I envision as well, or at least as a goal for the first 10-15 years.
Only Virginia is a hell of a lot more pleasant than NW Alberta for around 5 months of the year, I guess! I still think it will be a serious option for the working poor in cities very soon.

MoonRaven said...

Twin Oaks is one of the communities that I was thinking of when you made your comment about size. They've been going for over forty years and still look pretty strong.

(The other community that I was thinking of was Oneida which did fall apart after about thirty something years, but from my reading it seemed as though most participants had nothing but good things to say about it--and thirty years isn't bad for an intentional community lifetime... Five years is a cited average...)