Utopias in America

The Rappites

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

The Harmony Society, also called the Rappites, were 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 gradual 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 which 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 2019

Also See:

American History

Destinations in America

Immigration to the United States

Puritans of New England

Source: National Park Service

 

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