Shaker Village, in Massachusetts, is one example of America's
many Utopian communities.
by Polly M. Rettig, Landmark Review Project, 1974
The Amana Colonies were one of many utopian colonies established on
American soil during the 18th and 19th centuries. There were hundreds
of communal utopian experiments in the early United States, and 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of the ideal society and who have withdrawn themselves from the community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, by definition, be composed of either religious or secular members,
the former stressing (in the western tradition) a community life inspired
by religion while the latter may express the idealism of a utilitarian
creed expedient to 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 nineteenth century utopian colonies
and some organizations on their ultimate demise. The Shaker, Rappite
and Amana experiments, as well as the Oneida community and Brook Farm,
find their origins in the European Protestant Reformation and the later
Origins of the Utopian Idea: 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 (Greek ou,
not + topos, a place) 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 Greek philosopher Plato (427?-347
BC) wrote the dialogue The Republic, which involved the
search for justice in construction of an ideal state.
Plato (resembling Leonardo
da Vinci) is a detail from Raffaello Sanzio's painting, "The
School of Athens" painted in 1510-11. Vatican Collection.
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 a 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 (now
a National Historic Landmark), 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 milieu 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.
More, lord chancellor of England under Henry VIII and author of
by Hans Holbein theYounger (1497?-1543): Sir Thomas More, Copyright
Frick Collection, New York
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 (for more information see The
Shakers) 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
(for more information see Shaker
Style). 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 (Harrodsburg, Kentucky), Canterbury
Shaker Village (Canterbury, New Hampshire), Mount
Lebanon Shaker Society (New Lebanon, New York) and Sabbathday
Lake Shaker Village (New Glochester, Maine), the latter is the sole
surviving Shaker community.
The 1827 Shaker Meetinghouse in Enfield Shakers Historic District,
by B. Clouette, courtesy of Connecticut Historical Commission, National
Brook Farm: 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
The Margaret Fuller Cottage at Brook Farm,
in Suffolk County, Massachusetts.
Photograph by Polly M. Rettig, Landmark
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: 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 whisky. 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 (now a National
Historic Landmark), 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.
View of Frederick Rapp House in Harmony
Historic District in Butler County, Pennsylvania.
Photograph by Stanley E. Whiting, Harmonist
& Historical Memorial Association, Harmony, Pennsylvania, National
The Oneida Community: 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, 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
being attainable in this life. His followers became known as Perfectionists.
However, Noyes's 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 the town of
Oneida, in Madison County, New York. At Oneida, 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 a 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 of 1881 when the Oneida community was
reconstituted as a joint stock corporation.
Oneida Community Mansion House, Madison
County, New York
Photograph courtesy of Oneida Ltd.
The Demise of the 19th-Century Utopian Colonies: 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 (see essays on Amana History). 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
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. Generally, most analysts of utopian experiments, from Charles
Nordhoff to Arthur Bestor, Jr., have found that religious utopian colonies
possessed a longer life then their secular counterparts.
Amana's past and future meet at the Amana General Store in
South Amana, now Fern Hill Gifts and Quilts
Photograph by Blanche H. Schroer, National