The Amana Colonies, a historic utopian society located in the rolling hills of Iowa’s River Valley, were established shortly before the Civil War by a group of German-speaking European settlers who belonged to a religious group known as the Community of True Inspiration. Here, they began a communal system of living in seven different villages, which encompassed over 20,000 acres of land.
These various villages originally consisted of 40 to 100 buildings, many of which continue to stand today. Among the colonies can be found dozens of buildings that are elegantly simple and reflect the distinctive architecture of communal Amana, a period which lasted from 1855 to 1932.
The first Community of True Inspiration 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 which emerged from Pietism.
J.F. Rock, a saddlemaker, and E.L. Gruber, a former Lutheran minister, believed that God still spoke through prophets as described in the Old Testament. The Community of True Inspiration was founded on this belief and the new prophets were called Werkzeuge, or instruments. The divine pronouncements through the Werkzeuge were recorded by scribes and printed in collected volumes.
The Inspirationist beliefs attracted many followers, and congregations were established throughout Germany and surrounding regions. Because Inspirationists declined to perform military duty, take state-required oaths, or send their children to church-run schools, the congregations were often in conflict with church and governmental authorities. Many members of the Community of True Inspiration were punished with fines, imprisonment and public beatings. Nevertheless, the Inspirationist movement flourished through the mid-18th century. However, by 1750, there were no longer any Werkzeuge and both Rock and Gruber were dead. The movement declined and faded in the midst of European wars and economic depression.
War and famine, compounded by sweeping social and economic changes, devastated Germany in the early 1800s. Farmers and craftspeople were affected by high rents, taxes and a new wave of industrialization. Many people, including a tailor named Michael Krausert, took comfort in religion. Krausert studied the words of J.F. Rock and received inspiration in 1817. This event revitalized the Inspirationist communities and attracted a new following. The Werkzeug Krausert was soon joined by two others, Barbara Heinemann and Christian Metz. Metz emerged as the guiding force of the community during its crucial years of growth and relocation to America.
During the 1820s and 1830s, Metz consolidated the community in the relatively liberal province of Hesse-Darmstadt in Germany. Congregations from Germany, Switzerland and Alsace moved to join the new communities in Hesse. The community leased large estates and castles within a few miles of each other. Both rich and poor lived together and shared in the social and economic life of the group. Although not communal, this arrangement helped to predispose the Inspirationists to the formal communal system which would be established in America and Amana.
The Move To America
By 1840 there were nearly 1000 members of the Community of True Inspiration, many living on the estates in Hesse. This growth took place in spite of persecution from German officials. The government, closely tied to the Lutheran church, viewed the Community’s theology as a political threat. Even in Hesse, Inspirationists were fined for their refusal to send children to state schools. Rising costs and several years of drought aggravated the conditions on the estates. Metz and other leaders realized that they must seek a new home for the Community in America.
In September, 1842 a committee led by Christian Metz traveled to America in search of land on which to relocate the Community of True Inspiration. They purchased a 5,000-acre site in western New York, near Buffalo, and by the end of 1843 nearly 350 Inspirationists had immigrated to the new settlement, which they named “Ebenezer,” meaning “hitherto hath the Lord helped us.”
From the start, in order to facilitate all members of the community to come to America and live together, all property in Ebenezer was held in common. The initial plan was that after some time, the land would be divided among the people according to their contribution of money and labor. However, leaders saw that the disparity in wealth, skills and age would make it difficult for all to purchase a portion of land and the community would fall apart as a result. Therefore; in 1846, a constitution was adopted which established a permanent communal system. Any debate on this was resolved when Metz spoke a divine pronouncement endorsing the communal system.
Ebenezer flourished. By 1854 the population reached 1,200 people. Six villages were established, each with mills, shops, homes, communal kitchens, schools and churches. To accommodate this growth, additional land was purchased, but, more was needed. However, the booming growth of nearby Buffalo put land prices at a premium. In addition, the community leaders perceived a threat from the economic development around them. It was felt that capitalist and worldly influences were bringing about a growing interest in materialism and threatened the spiritual focus of the Inspirationist community. The leadership decided it was time to move the community again – this time to the unsettled west.
After investigating sites in Kansas and Iowa, the True Inspirationists selected a location along the Iowa River Valley about 20 miles west of Iowa City, Iowa for the relocation of their community. This site offered extensive timberland, quarries for limestone and sandstone, and long stretches of prairie filled with rich, black soil. Construction of the first village began in the summer of 1855 and the new settlement was named “Amana,” meaning “believe faithfully.” Community members moved to Amana over the next ten years as they gradually sold parcels of the Ebenezer property. A new constitution was adopted as the Community of True Inspiration took on the legal identity of the Amana Society. This new constitution essentially retained the communal system which had been developed in Ebenezer.
All members of the community shared in its economic success. The community provided each family with a home and all necessities of life. No one received a cash income. Rather, everyone was given an annual purchase allowance at the general store where goods were priced at cost. Medical care was provided free by the community. In return, each person was expected to work and was assigned a job by the community Elders based on the needs of the community, as well as the talents of the individual. Nearly all women, starting at about age 14, worked in the communal kitchens and gardens. Women also tended to laundry, sewing and knitting and a few worked at the woolen mills. Men’s jobs were far more varied. Young men might learn to work in one of the many craft shops, in the mills, or on the farms. Some men were sent outside the community to be educated as doctors or pharmacists.