During the 18th and 19th centuries, there were hundreds of communal utopian experiments in the United States. The Shakers alone founded around 20 settlements. 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of people who are attempting to establish a new social pattern based upon a vision of the ideal society and who have withdrawn themselves from the community at large to embody that vision in experimental form.”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 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.
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, 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.