Utopias in America

Shaker barn, Enfield, New Hampshire by Jack Boucher, 1978.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, there were hundreds of communal utopian experiments in the United States. The Shakers alone founded around 20 settlements.

Amana Colony, Iowa

Brook Farm, Massachusetts

Oneida Community

The Rappites of Pennsylvania & Indiana

The Shakers

While great differences existed between the various utopian communities or colonies, each society shared a common bond in a vision of communal living in a utopian society. 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of people who are attempting to establish a new social pattern based upon a vision of the ideal society and who have withdrawn themselves from the community at large to embody that vision in experimental form.” These colonies can be composed of either religious or secular members, the former stressing a community life inspired by religion, while the latter may express the idealism of a utilitarian creed as means of establishing human happiness, with a belief in the cooperative way of life.

The more familiar non-monastic religious communal movements typical in Western society have generally originated from a deliberate attempt among various Christian sects to revive the structure of the primitive Christian community of first-century Jerusalem, which “held all things in common” (Acts 2.44; 4.32). This essay explores the origins and development of the Utopian idea and its arrival in the United States before giving examples of 19th-century utopian colonies and some organizations on their ultimate demise.

The ShakerRappite, and Amana experiments, as well as the Oneida Community and Brook Farm, find their origins in the European Protestant Reformation and the later Enlightenment.

The western idea of utopia originates in the ancient world, where legends of an earthly paradise lost to history (e.g. Eden in the Old Testament, the mythical Golden Age of Greek mythology), combined with the human desire to create, or recreate, an ideal society, helped form the utopian idea. The Greek philosopher Plato (427?-347 BC) 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 (1478-1535) had Plato’s Republic in mind when he wrote the 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.

The 19th-century utopian sects can trace their roots back to the Protestant Reformation. Following the early Christian communities, communal living developed largely within a monastic context, which was created by Saint Benedict of Nursia (480?-543?AD), who founded the Benedictine order. During the Middle Ages, communal life was led by several lay religious groups such as the Beghards and Brothers and Sisters of the Free Spirit. In allowing the sexes to live in the same community these societies differed from the earlier Catholic and Orthodox monasteries.

Life of Martin Luther and the heroes of the Reformation by H Bruchner

The Protestant Reformation, which originated with the teachings of Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-1564), changed western European societal attitudes about the nature of religion and work. One of Luther’s beliefs broke with the medieval conception of labor, which involved a hierarchy of professions, by stressing that all work was of equal spiritual dignity. Calvin’s doctrines stressed predestination, which stated that a person could not know for certain if they were among God’s Elect or the damned. Outwardly a person’s life and deeds, including hard work and success in worldly endeavors, was a sign of possible inclusion as one of the Elect. These theological ideals about work were stressed in the various American religious utopian societies. The Shakers, for example, believed in productive labor as a religious calling, and the Amana Inspirationists saw labor as productive and good, part of God’s plan of contributing to the community.

In the wars and general disorder following the establishment of Protestant sects in northern Europe, many peasants joined Anabaptist and millenarian groups, some of which, like the Hutterian Brethren, practiced communal ownership of property. To avoid persecution, several of these groups immigrated to America, where the idea of communal living developed and expanded. The first significant group was the Ephrata Community, established in 1732 in Pennsylvania. Much of this community was destroyed when Ephrata’s members cared for the injured soldiers following the Battle of Brandywine in 1777. Typhus set in, killing both soldiers and residents. By the end of the century, the cloister’s vitality was gone. It was not until the first half of the 19th century that a great expansion of communitarian experiments took place on American soil. Inexpensive and expansive land, unhampered by government regulations in a time when progress and optimism shaped people’s beliefs, created a fertile background for the establishment of utopian societies. Europe, in the early 19th century, was emerging from a long history of religious and dynastic wars, and America, in contrast, became a location where people could start over, the “New Eden” that beckoned colonists across the Atlantic Ocean.

The Great Awakening

The Great Awakening

The Great Awakening, a series of religious revivals that affected every part of English America in the first half of the eighteenth century, prepared the American soil for numerous religious sects. In addition to the religious revivals, new ideas on government and man’s role in society began with the Enlightenment, an 18th-century European philosophical movement characterized by rationalism and a strong skepticism and empiricism in social and political thought. These ideas found reception among the drafters of the American Constitution. Freedom of religion, guaranteed in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, attracted European groups who were persecuted in their own countries. Arriving in America, some of these colonists hoped to form Utopian societies, self-containing religious or secular communities, agrarian and largely communal in nature, far removed from the perceived vices found in the overcrowded cities. While numerous religious and secular utopian experiments dotted the American landscape, the Shakers, Rappites, the Perfectionists of the Oneida community the experiment at Brook Farm and the Amana Colony of the Inspirationists were among the most famous. Some exploration of their beliefs and history presents an example of how these utopian colonies functioned.

Amana Colony

Amana Colonies Heritage Museum, by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

The Amana Colony in Iowa was established by German-speaking European settlers who belonged to a religious group known as the Community of True Inspiration, which traces its origins to Himbach, Germany in 1714. Community founders J.F. Rock (1678-1749) and E.L. Gruber (1665-1728) were among many Europeans seeking a more meaningful religious experience than they felt the established churches provided. Like many others, Rock and Gruber maintained that the Lutheran Church had become bogged down in intellectual debate and formalized worship and thus neglected the spiritual needs of the congregation. An increasing desire to return to the basics of Christianity gained popularity in the doctrines articulated by this movement, known as Pietism. For Pietists, religion was a personal experience with an emphasis on sincere humility and earnest study of the Bible. The Community of True Inspiration was one of several groups that emerged from Pietism.

Immigrating to America, they first settled in New York 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 occupations that they had brought with them from Europe and passing their skills from one generation to the next. See More Here.

Shakers by James E. Irving, 1870.

The Shakers

Formally known as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Coming, the Shakers developed their own religious expression which included communal living, productive labor, celibacy, pacifism, the equality of the sexes, and a ritual noted for its dancing and shaking. A significant portion of Shakerism was founded by “Mother” Ann Lee, in England in 1758. Ann Lee and some followers arrived in America in 1774. Ann Lee died in 1784, but Shaker colonies spread to newer communities. Containing 6,000 members before the Civil War, these 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.

Round Stone Barn, Hancock Shaker Village, Massachusetts, courtesy Wikipedia

The Enfield Shakers Historic District, in Enfield, Connecticut, and the Hancock Shaker Village, in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, stand as two noteworthy examples of Shaker communities. The community at Enfield, which began in the 1780s, peaked from 1830 to 1860. In 1860 there were 146 Shakers in Enfield, living in same-sex housing, working in its garden-seed industry. The Enfield Shakers Historic District, containing 15 buildings, has been recognized by the National Register of Historic Places for its significance in reflecting the social values and communal lifestyle of the Shakers. The Hancock Shaker Village was considered the center of Shaker authority in America from 1787 until 1947 and is today designated as a National Historic Landmark. Four other Shaker Village have also been designated as National Historic Landmarks: Shakertown at Pleasant Hill Historic District in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, Canterbury Shaker Village in Canterbury, New Hampshire, Mount Lebanon Shaker Society in New Lebanon, New York, and Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in New Gloucester, Maine. The latter is the sole surviving Shaker community.

Brook Farm

The Print Shop, constructed in about 1890, is the last remaining historic building at Brook Farm. The building is not associated with the Transcendentalist utopian community that briefly flourished on the property in the mid-19th century. It was built by the Lutheran Church, which operated the Martin Luther Orphan’s Home on the property from 1871 to 1944. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

The Print Shop, constructed in about 1890, is the last remaining historic building at Brook Farm. The building is not associated with the Transcendentalist utopian community that briefly flourished on the property in the mid-19th century. It was built by the Lutheran Church, which operated the Martin Luther Orphan’s Home on the property from 1871 to 1944. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Some of the secular utopian communities in the United States found inspiration from ideas and philosophies originating in Europe. Transcendentalism began as a term developed by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) embodying those aspects of man’s nature transcending, or independent of, experience. Taking root in America, Transcendentalism created a cultural renaissance in New England during 1830-45 and received its chief American expression in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s individualistic doctrine of self-reliance. Some Transcendentalists decided to put their theories about “plain living” into practice.

This experiment in communal living was established at West Roxbury, Massachusetts, on some 200 acres of land from 1841 to 1847. The Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and Education became better known than many other communal experiments due to the distinguished literary and intellectual figures associated with it. The Brook Farm Institute was organized and directed by George Ripley, a former Unitarian minister and later literary critic for the New York Tribune. Others connected with the project were Charles A. Dana and Nathaniel Hawthorne (both shareholders), Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, William Henry Channing, John S. Dwight, and Sophia Dana Ripley, a woman of wide culture and academic experience.

Brook Farm attracted not only intellectuals but also carpenters, farmers, shoemakers, and printers. The community provided to all members, their children and family dependents, housing, fuel, wages, clothing, and food. There was an infant school, a primary school and college preparatory course covering six years.

The 1846 fire disaster which burned the newly financed Phalanstery building, combined with further financial troubles, including Hawthorne’s suit against Ripley and Dana to recover his investment in the project, brought about the end of the Brook Farm community the following year. The Brook Farm site is now recognized as a National Historic Landmark although only a small cottage on the property is definitely known to have been occupied by the Brook Farm community. 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 contained more than 120 persons at one time.

The Rappites

Remaining Rappite buildings in New Harmony, Indiana, by Kathy Weiser-Alexander

The Harmony Society, also called the Rappites, was similar to the Shakers in certain beliefs. 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 in Butler County, Pennsylvania, called Harmony, the Rappites held that the Bible was humanity’s sole authority. They also advanced celibacy and lead a communal life without individual possessions, and believed that the harmony of male and female elements in humanity would be reestablished by their efforts. Under the guidance of Frederick Rapp, George Rapp’s adopted son, the economy of Harmony grew from one of subsistence agriculture to gradually diversified manufacturing.

By 1814 the Society boasted 700 members, a town of about 130 brick, frame, and log 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 whiskey.

The Harmony Society soon outgrew its markets, and after selling all their holdings to a Mennonite group for $100,000 they moved to a new location on the Wabash River in Indiana. Here again, they built a prosperous community, New Harmony, only to sell it to Robert Owen, a social reformer from New Lanark, Scotland, and his financial partner, William Maclure, in 1825. The Harmonists next returned to Pennsylvania and built their final home at Economy (now called Old Economy and recognized as a National Historic Landmark), in Ambridge on the Ohio River. The Harmonists reached their peak of prosperity in 1866, but, the practice of celibacy and several schisms thinned the Society’s ranks, and the community was finally dissolved in 1905. The surviving buildings of the first settlement in Harmony, with their sturdy, simple brick dwellings, the Great House with its arched wine cellar, and the imposing cemetery and original town plan are today a National Historic Landmark named the Harmony Historic District.

The Oneida Community

Oneida Community Mansion House

The founder and leader of the communal Oneida Community, John Humphreys Noyes, was born in Brattleboro, Vermont, in 1811. Noyes joined the Andover Theological Seminary in November 1831. Transferring to Yale Theological College at New Haven, Connecticut, he became involved with the nascent abolitionist movement.

In 1833 he founded the New Haven Anti-Slavery society and the New Haven Free Church, where he preached his radical belief which laid great emphasis on the ideal of perfection is attainable in this life. His followers became known as Perfectionists. However, Noyes’ belief in “complex marriage” alienated many of the townspeople in Putney, New York, where he was living, and he left in 1847. Perfectionists practicing “complex marriage” considered themselves married to the group, not a single partner. Noyes moved his community to Oneida, New York, where the group practiced “Bible Communism.”

The skills of the artisan members were channeled into broom manufacturing, shoe manufacturing, flour processing, lumber milling, and trap manufacturing. The Perfectionists in Oneida held communal property, meals, and arrangements for the rearing and education of children. They built the Oneida Community Mansion House, a rambling U-shaped, brick, Victorian building that began housing the community in the early 1850s. The Oneida Community Mansion House is now listed as a National Historic Landmark. In 1874 there were 270 members of the Oneida Community. Misunderstanding of the community, allied with traditional points of view, inspired an 1879 meeting of ministers in Syracuse, New York, to condemn the settlement. Eventual unrest hit Noyes’ followers, and Noyes fled to Canada on June 29 1879. “Complex marriage” ended two days later. The experiment in their communal utopia ended in January 1881 when the Oneida community was reconstituted as a joint-stock corporation.

The Demise of the 19th-Century Utopian Colonies

Zoar Village, Ohio courtesy Ohio History Connection

Zoar Village, Ohio courtesy Ohio History Connection

Numerous religious and social communal groups developed in the nineteenth century. By the end of the century even Theosophical colonies, based off Madame Blavatasky’s merging of eastern and western mysticism, had cropped up in such places as Point Loma and Temple Home, near San Diego, California. Other groups included the Zoarites in Ohio, the Moravians of North Carolina, and the followers of German-born Wilhelm Keil, a Methodist minister heavily influenced by the pietist movement, who founded colonies in Bethel, Missouri, and Aurora, Oregon. Yet of all these utopian groups only the Amana Inspirationists developed and built a network of seven villages set in an agricultural region. They managed to survive by modifying their system into two distinct organizations, one secular and one spiritual. The Inspirationists of Amana founded their communities with an agricultural basis as did other communal groups in the United States. Both men and women labored, although in Amana, women’s work did not include trades and the ministry as it did in the Shaker communities.

While the 20th century witnessed further experiments in communal living, the great wave which founded the 19th-century religious and secular utopian communities had begun to subside. Some of the 19th-century groups were established and 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 due to the industrial, economic, and scientific progress in the larger society. General causes relating to the demise of these utopian colonies have to be explained individually, as each utopian community faced different circumstances. 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 larger, surrounding society, often seen in inflammatory newspaper articles attacking the utopian experiments.

Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated January 2021.

Also See:

American History

Destinations in America

Immigration to the United States

Puritans of New England

Source: National Park Service