B U R E A U   O F   P U B L I C   S E C R E T S


From Its Origins to the Twentieth Century


12. Early Communes in America

13. Amana, Shakers, St. Nazianz

14. Oneida


12. Early Communes in America

A seldom mentioned, but very important, chapter in the growth of religious communalism was the degeneration and decline of Roman Catholic monasticism and the consequent disappearance of many social services. There were more hospital beds, for instance, in many European cities at the beginning of the thirteenth century than there would be again until well into the twentieth, and what we now call “social work” was entirely a function of the medieval sisterhoods. With the Counter-Reformation a new kind of monasticism was established, dominated by militant, highly disciplined orders of clerics regular, like the Jesuits, who were outside the organic community in a way that the monks and friars had never been. They operated on it, rather than from within it, and there was no significant role, much less a determinative one, left for lay brothers or women.

This development was more or less conscious or deliberate. The papacy and the papal theologians had learned ever since the fourteenth century to distrust the great popular movements of lay monasticism and communal mysticism which had grown up especially in the Rhineland and the Lowlands and all too easily lapsed into heresy. To this day the Béghards and Béguines, the Brethren of the Common Life, Meister Eckhart, Jan Ruysbroeck, Henry Suso, Nicholas of Cusa, Thomas à Kempis, and Angelus Silesius are frowned on by the strictly orthodox; and though some have acquired the title of blessed, none has been declared a saint, and all of them have had at least some “theses” of their teachings condemned.

Almost all the pre-Reformation advocates of the return to the apostolic life, such as the Anabaptists and the Pietists, believed at least in the ideal of the devotional community — contemplative communism — at least for those of their members who felt a special calling, a religious vocation, to what was in reality a new and reformed monasticism. Since these groups led a harried life in the interstices of the cities, or for short periods under the defiant protection of some nobleman or noblewoman on an isolated country estate, and were subject to furious persecution by both Catholics and Protestants alike, it was exceedingly difficult for them to sustain community life for any length of time, even in those areas of Europe, like the lower Rhine, where they found most popular sympathy.

The earliest colonization of America offered even less opportunity for the establishment of community than did Europe. The Spanish and Portuguese colonies were subject to their own local Inquisition and even unfortunate Indians were occasionally burned alive for heresies of which they had never heard and could not possibly conceive. Persecution was not so violent in New France. Due to the ignorance of the ordinary colonists and the corrupt cynicism of the upper classes, dissent scarcely came into existence and dissenters deported from France seem to have vanished. The English colonies were no better than the Spanish. Virginia was strictly Anglican. Massachusetts was strictly Independent or Puritan and did not stop persecuting Quakers and divergent Protestants until well into the eighteenth century. Things were different in what are now the Middle Atlantic states, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, in the beginning settled by the Swedish and the more liberal Dutch, which had been explored by prospectors for the Quakers and similar sects. When Pennsylvania was given to William Penn in 1682 and opened for colonization with guarantees of absolute religious liberty, a strain of hope ran through all Pietist and Apostolic Europe. Penn traveled on the continent recruiting settlers and the largest immigration so far to what is now the United States began. The Quakers predominated. Eventually the majority of English Quakers migrated, but the Mennonites and Moravian Brethren came too, and a great variety of German Anabaptist sects, most of whom united in the New World as the German Baptist Brethren.

The first Communist colony was established by the followers of Jean de Labadie more or less independent of Penn’s settlement of Pennsylvania but under his influence and at exactly the same time. This was Bohemia Manor.

Labadie was born in 1610 at Bourg near Bordeaux and ordained a Jesuit priest; but his pastorate was in Switzerland, the Low Countries, London, where for a while his influence on the Separatist churches was quite extensive. His doctrines included community of goods, mystical marriage, millenarianism, celebration of the seventh-day Sabbath, and the setting aside of a celibate elite. Descartes was familiar with his ideas and if there is anything to the mysterious signature Rene Descartes R. + C., Labadie may have incorporated some of the ideas of the Rosicrucian Brotherhood assuming — which has been disputed — that such a group then existed. Persecuted by the authorities, Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Anglican, the sect moved its headquarters several times to Herford, Bremen, Altona, West Friesland where they survived with communities scattered through the Lowlands until well into the late eighteenth century. They first sent a colony to Surinam whose governor was a patron and possibly a member. He was murdered in 1688 and the colony removed to Bohemia Manor on the Chesapeake where the first of their settlers had already proceeded.

Bohemia Manor had been patronized by Augustin Herrman, a sympathetic landholder from Bohemia (whose son was a member) but who later repudiated the sect without being able to reclaim his property. The leader of the colony from 1683 was Peter Sluyter, who seems to have been a religious confidence man of the type that would bedevil religious communalism throughout its history in America. Sluyter died rich and dissolute in 1722. The colonists, over one hundred people, on the other hand, lived lives of the strictest poverty, chastity, and obedience. Men and women were separated for meals and worship. The day and much of the night was spent in hard labor, silent or chanted prayer, and meditation. Diet, clothing, all living conditions, were as ascetic as could be borne and all proceeds sent into a common fund controlled by Sluyter. Before his death the land was distributed and private property permitted, but all profits still went to the common fund and the community life remained just as onerous. Between 1727 and 1730 the colony broke up and during the next ten years the churches in Europe returned to the Dutch Reformed Church — and not, interestingly, to the Mennonites — where they engendered a widespread spiritual revival.

On trips through the Rhineland and the Lowlands, Penn invited all German Quakers, Mennonites, Anabaptists, and other Pietists to migrate to his new land. The first to go was a large contingent of German associates of the Society of Friends led by Francis Daniel Pastorius in 1683 to settle around what is now Germantown. They were shortly followed by a Mennonite and Schwenkfeldian immigration which included the apocalyptic, millenarian disciples of Johann Jakob Zimmermann, who died on the day his followers were to sail. Leadership was assumed by his first lieutenant Johannus Kelpius, an extraordinarily learned man, deeply read in philosophy, mysticism, and theology, both orthodox and occult, and an acknowledged Rosicrucian. Kelpius proved his powers by stilling the waves in a violent storm. The colonists debarked at Bohemia Landing and went on to the neighborhood of Germantown on June 24, 1694. According to Zimmermann the apocalypse was only three months away.

The colonists celebrated midsummer night with rites that were a strange mixture of occultism, paganism, and Pietist Christianity and soon set out about building the Tabernacle of the Woman in the Wilderness crowned by the rosy cross, to the astonishment of their simpler or more conventional neighbors.

The mystical number of forty colonists settled down in their forty-foot-square building to watch and pray and await the coming of the rebirth of the world. Kelpius set himself up as an anchorite in a nearby cave. The community of both men and women was strictly celibate and life was at least as ascetic as amongst the followers of de Labadie. They differed primarily in their much greater learning, even sophistication. In fact, it would be well into the nineteenth century before any religious communist colonies would recruit such cultivated people. They have been called superstitious, but indeed they were anything but. There is a vast difference between the superstitions of the illiterate and the occultism of the over-educated.

The tiny colony endured until 1748 and before that period its cultural influence on Pennsylvania was out of all proportion to its numbers. They produced the first book of hymns to be published in America, and many other examples of the earliest printing, including a study, with vocabulary, of the Lenni Lenape Indians — whom they believed to be one of the lost tribes of Israel — the first book of its kind to be done in English America. They taught school and were in great demand as skilled craftsmen and builders, even architects. Time was spent in hard labor, choral and solitary prayer, meditation, and, unlike other such groups, in the study of the classics of mysticism and occultism from Hermes Trismegistus to Meister Eckhart, Jakob Boehme, and the Kabbala. Curiously enough their interest in astrology and alchemy led them to chemical and physical experiments and to watching all night long through their telescopes for the signs of the Second Coming. A direct line stretches from them to the scientific activities of latter-day Philadelphia, made famous by the experiments of Benjamin Franklin.

The great weakness of the Woman in the Wilderness (their own name for themselves was “the Contented of the God Loving Soul”) was the shortfall of their prophesies beginning with Zimmermann himself who said that the millennium would come at the autumn equinox of 1694. The date passed and the Second Coming had not come. Also they believed they would never die. But Zimmermann died before they set out. The precociously brilliant Kelpius died at thirty-five in 1708 and the last leader, Conrad Matthaei, in 1748. By 1750 the community had been absorbed into the general society of Quakerism and German Pietism, on which it left traces which endure to this day.

In 1720 Conrad Beisel and three companions left Europe intending to join the Woman in the Wilderness. When they reached the colony they discovered that Kelpius was dead. Most of the members had left and those who remained were lost in contemplation while the Tabernacle fell into ruins around them. On the way to Ephrata the four men had stopped in Conestoga where Beisel was baptized by the German Baptist Brethren and soon rose to become assistant leader of their colony. Beisel was a Seventh-Day Baptist. After long discussion the Dunkards decided to continue celebrating Sunday so Beisel left with his followers to found, in 1735 on the Cocalico River, the colony of Ephrata, one of the most successful and longest lived intentional communities in the world.

At first the Ephratans were the most ascetic of the groups so far founded in America. Men and women lived together as celibates. They dressed in an adaptation of the Franciscan habit, alike for both men and women. The women’s hair was cut short and the men were tonsured but wore full beards, which they tugged vigorously in greeting one another. Food was extremely meager, mostly dry bread or porridge. They used no iron whatever and as little metal as possible; buildings and furniture were pegged, doweled, and mortised. Eating utensils were of wood and many cooking utensils of pottery. Like the Benedictines before them, they rose at midnight to sing matins, and again at five for a second service. Meals were held in silence while a lector read from the Bible. Communion was proceeded by washing each other’s feet. They each made a written confession of sins weekly which was read in choir by Beisel. Every clear night they took turns watching the heavens through their telescopes for signs of the Second Coming. At first they did not use horses but pulled their own ploughs and carts, carried their own freight, and walked wherever they went.

In spite of this vigorous asceticism they lived lives of considerable creativity, learning, and aesthetic satisfaction. Beisel wrote poetry and composed hymns of a singular beauty, as did some of the others. The musical idiom of the Ephratan hymns (which are still sung) is unmistakable. They produced many books in their peculiar scholarship, most of them printed by Christopher Sauer, including Sauer’s Bible, the first in German in America.

Almost immediately the colony began to prosper. Penn offered them an additional five thousand acres but they refused because such riches would distort their spiritual life. For a while after the arrival of the three Eckerlin brothers the colony added a number of industrial enterprises, milling and small manufacturing, which became so successful that the members revolted and expelled the Eckerlins. In the course of time branches of Ephrata were established around the British colonies. The monastic community dwindled and most of the members incorporated themselves into a regular church, the German Seventh-Day Baptists, which still exists. A small number of Ephratans have continued to practice a limited communism, and specially devoted members take care of the various buildings which have become historic monuments and teach others the choral art of Ephrata. In recent years there have been attempts on the part of the new communalists to revive the ancient Ephratan community but so far without much success.

Ironically the Harmonists or Rappites are remembered mostly as the predecessors of Robert Owen’s colony at New Harmony. The Owenites lasted in their pure form scarcely any time at all. New Harmony managed to commit most of the mistakes possible to an intentional community and ended in a series of financial disasters. The Rappites flourished, became exceedingly prosperous, and, although they are no longer communists, their descendants can still be found in or near the old communities.

George Rapp was born in Württemberg, son of a small vineyardist, probably in 1757. At the age of thirty he became a Separatist-Pietist preacher, and gradually accumulated around himself a small sect which was persecuted by Lutherans and Calvinists alike. In 1803 he went to Baltimore seeking refuge from persecution for his people and bought five thousand acres of still wild country in the Conoquenessing Valley north of Pittsburgh. In the following year over seventeen hundred men, women, and children were settled on the land and had organized the Harmony Society, at first as a cooperative, but almost immediately as a communist community. The men were mostly hard-working, practical farmers with considerable skills as builders and mechanics. In an extraordinarily short time, a little over two years, they had produced a flourishing, almost self-sufficient community. Each family was housed in its own home; there was a church, a school, a grist mill, a large community barn, carpenter and blacksmith shops, a saw mill, a cannery, a woolen mill, a distillery and wine cellar, and five hundred and fifty acres planted in wheat, rye, tobacco, hemp, flax, vineyards, and poppies for sweet oil. Grazing in the uncleared land were cattle, milch cows, pigs, horses, and the first merino sheep in America. Most of their whiskey and brandy they sold, but they drank light wine at each meal.

After ten years, when the colony had become rich and flourishing, they decided to move because the land was not suitable for the production of satisfactory wine and in addition lacked water communication with the outside world. They had already in 1807 adopted celibacy as a general rule although husbands, wives, and children continued to live together in separate family houses with so little strain that they have amazed everyone who has ever written of them. In later years they often adopted children.

In 1814 they bought thirty thousand acres in the Wabash Valley in Indiana and sold the first settlement for one hundred thousand dollars, a vast sum of money for those days, but probably no more than the value of the improvements on the land. By 1815 they had all moved to Indiana and a greatly improved village was rising around them. This was Harmony, later to become famous as Robert Owen’s colony. Once again they flourished. But in another ten years they decided that the site was malarial and the farmers around them were antagonistic. In 1824 they sold the town and twenty thousand acres to Robert Owen for a hundred and fifty thousand dollars and moved back to near Pittsburgh on the Ohio River and established a final settlement, the village of Economy, which endured until the beginning of the twentieth century.

In less than twenty-five years they had built three well-equipped towns and cleared many thousands of acres, a unique record not only for an intentional community but for any kind of settlement. The Rappites owed their success to the kind of people they were, skilled German, mostly Swabian, farmers, vineyardists, and mechanics, who were satisfied with what would have seemed to the intellectuals, as we would call them today, of the Woman in the Wilderness, a very low-pressure utopia. It needed only hard, skilled work for them to establish and preserve a community which satisfied them.

Father Rapp was a man of great charismatic power but he was also gifted with common sense. Belief in the imminence of the apocalypse and the Second Coming and the millenarian kingdom may seem cranky, even ignorant and vulgar, to most people today. But there was nothing very eccentric about such beliefs in the first half of the nineteenth century. It was quite possible to hold them and yet be considered intellectually respectable. And of course they were demonstrably the beliefs of the first generations of Christians and probably of Jesus himself. Furthermore, as Albert Schweitzer has demonstrated in our own day, an “eschatological ethic” is a remarkably effective rule of life — “live as though the world is going to come to an end in the next twenty-four hours.”

George Rapp provided the spiritual and moral leadership — the “father image” — and his adopted son, Frederick Rapp, was at least as effective as an organizer, administrator, and businessman before the Rappites ever left the Wabash. The younger Rapp had established outlets for the products of the community throughout the settled Mississippi drainage and had agents as far away as New Orleans. After George and Frederick Rapp had both died the colony was equally lucky in the trustees and administrators it chose.

As the numbers dwindled the Rappites closed down many of their small shops and invested largely in railroads and when the community finally dissolved it was still rich. Their efficiency is well shown by the success they made of silk and wine. In those days sericulture and viticulture bankrupted many an American farmer. For years the Rappites planted their steeper hillsides with mulberry trees, raised silk worms, and spun and wove and tailored their own garments of silk. They are certainly the only communists who habitually went clad in silk. When eventually sericulture became completely unprofitable and time-consuming they had the good sense to abandon it.

Only once was the even tenor of their ways disturbed. A manifest rogue, Bernard Müller, who called himself Count Leon, wrote from Germany that he and his followers had been converted and wished to join the colony. When he arrived he turned out to be a military man and a wastrel who immediately tried to seize control of the finances. It took the nonviolent ascetic Rappites a little over a year to get rid of him and his followers whom they bought off with more than one hundred thousand dollars. One-third of the colony left with Müller and established a settlement ten miles away and in less than a year lost all their money; whereupon they attacked Economy with arms, but were driven off by a posse raised among the neighboring communities. Bernard Müller and a few of his people left for northern Louisiana, where he died of cholera.

The Count Leon episode was a godsend to Economy because it served to purge those who were not sincerely committed to the Rappite way of life. From then on to the end of the century no other serious factional disputes arose. To this day the descendants of the community still get together for anniversaries. Many of them still live in the neighborhood of Economy, and others near the industrial colony Economy founded at Beaver Falls. The church in Economy still stands and the Evangelical Lutheran congregation numbers several descendants of the Rappites. But it primarily enshrines the memory of Robert Owens’ unsuccessful community rather than Father Rapp’s eminently successful one which built most of the surviving buildings.

The group of Separatists from Württemberg who settled the village of Zoar in northeastern Ohio between thirty and forty miles south of Canton in 1817 were closely related to Rapp’s community. They were, however, more radical in their rejection of the dominant society. They did not vote. During the Civil War they remained pacifists. Although they permitted marriage within the group and lived in families, they were much more ascetic in life style. They were also possibly less well educated, and Joseph Bäumeler was much more of a spellbinder than George Rapp.

When they arrived in America the Separatists were not definitely committed to a communal way of life, but adopted it as the most efficient way of dealing with the wilderness. As long as they were communists they prospered with a woolen factory, two large flour mills, a saw mill, planing mills, machine shop, cannery, dyehouse, their own common store and general store for the surrounding farmers, a popular summer resort hotel, a wagon factory, a blacksmith’s, carpenter’s, tailor’s, dressmaker’s, and shoemaker’s shop, a cider mill, a brewery, and looms for weaving linen, as well as seven thousand acres of prime farm land in Ohio and a settlement in Iowa. Eventually their industries were to employ a considerable number of outsiders and some of their farms were let to sharecroppers. In 1874 there were three hundred members with property worth considerably more than a million dollars. The town of Zoar was noticeably rougher, cruder than any of the previous settlements with poor dwellings and plain community buildings and church. Bäumeler died in 1853 and the colony slowly declined. In 1898 they abandoned communism completely and almost immediately thereafter failed economically in all their enterprises. Little is left of Zoar today.

Although “Doctor” Keil had migrated to America from Prussia in 1835, Bethel and its daughter colony Aurora were the first intentional communities to be gathered in America. In Germany Keil had been a milliner with ambitions for the stage. He was self-educated in occult and mystical literature, Boehme, Paracelsus, and Cagliostro. In New York and Pittsburgh he flourished as a hypnotist, faith healer, and purveyor of mysterious elixirs and potions whose recipes he said he found in an ancient book written in human blood. He was converted to Methodism, made a melodramatic penance for his years as a charlatan and Hexendokter, and publicly burned his bloody pharmacopeia.

But Keil soon left Methodism and founded his own sect which disdained to call itself by any name, but which opposed all churches and denominations which had departed from the communal, apostolic life of the “true Christ,” the Central Sun. Keil remained a melodramatic actor to the end of his life, and the congregational worship of his group was far more hysterical than even the most extreme of his predecessors. Daily life in the commune was simple and unadorned, but Keil provided his congregation with many holidays and festivals, celebrated with food, drink, and dancing, to which all the surrounding settlers were welcome.

Keil’s first colony was founded in 1844 in Bethel, Shelby County, Missouri, then on the wild frontier, and included the remnants of Count Leon’s followers. In a fairly short time they had a well-equipped town and were farming four square miles of land. In 1855 Keil decided Missouri was filling up, and the colony moved to Willapa in what is now the state of Washington. The heavy rainfall and dense forest were too much for them, and they soon moved to the Willamette Valley in Oregon, where they deliberately avoided the more fertile plain and settled in the forest, so that they would have plenty of lumber to build their town. As the colony, called Aurora, prospered they were able to buy out the farmers on the plain. Bethel and Aurora repeated the history of the other communities as long as Keil was alive and they shared all things in common. They prospered and in fact became rich. After he died they divided the property and assets amongst themselves and soon disintegrated.

Aurora and Bethel represented another step down, except for their many festivals, in richness of life satisfaction. The communities were simply not well educated enough and were too self-satisfied to produce another leader like Keil. “Professor” Christopher Wolff was the leader of the second contingent to travel, in 1863, from Bethel to Aurora. He seems to have been a bookish man familiar with Cabet, Babeuf, Fourier, Proudhon, Wettling, and Marx. As such he only bewildered the rest of the colonists and never seems to have played an important role in Aurora. However, he is notable as the first person to appear in the history of religious communalism familiar with theoreticians of secular communism. It is curious to speculate on what his life must have been like, isolated amongst semi-literate peasants on the most remote frontier.

If the previous leaders of religious communalism in America were increasingly charismatic personalities, the founder of Bishop’s Hill, Eric Janson, was personally apocalyptic. He did not believe in the Second Coming of Christ. He believed himself to be Christ come again. The sect began quietly enough in Sweden under the leadership of Jonas Olson, who was a disciple of the first Methodist missionaries from Great Britain, as an association of Pietists who met in one another’s homes for preaching and devotions and Bible study, and who eventually came to call themselves Devotionalists. They were almost entirely confined to the province of Helsingland and were mostly peasants and self-employed mechanics and artisans. They went along quietly enough for seventeen years as a Pietist movement within the Church of Sweden.

In 1843 Jonas Olson gave lodgings for the weekend to a traveling dealer in flour. This was Eric Janson, who was thirty-four years old and who from the age of twenty-six had experienced a series of trances, illuminations, and messages, and who had already broken with the Lutheran Church. He seems to have been a man of violent personality and intense charisma. Outside observers in later years thought that he acted like a madman. His effect on Olson was revolutionary. He became the spiritual leader of the group, although Olson remained the practical manager, and he moved them steadily toward the most extreme form of Wesleyanism, a far more “pentecostal” religion than it is today. The established Church responded with relentless persecution and the Devotionalists were driven to becoming a separatist sect. Their conventicles were broken up and they were excommunicated and eventually arrested again and again. In retaliation they burned the theological and devotional works of orthodox Lutheranism in a great bonfire. Janson was arrested and released only due to the influence of the king. After his second bookburning he was arrested again; and after six arrests, a fugitive with a price on his head, he was forcibly freed by his followers and smuggled through the mountains to Norway, from whence he went to Copenhagen and finally New York. In July 1846 he arrived in Victoria, Knox County, Illinois, where he had already sent Olson to find a suitable location for the community.

By this time Janson had come to believe himself the Christ of the Second Coming, sent to redeem the true Church which had been in captivity since the Emperor Constantine, and to build the New Jerusalem in America’s green and pleasant land, from whence the millennial kingdom would spread throughout the earth. The sect in the meantime had become far more a movement of poor peasants and proletarians, at the best only semi-literate. Remarkably enough Janson nevertheless retained the loyalty of most of the original members who, one would have thought, were too well educated to accept his increasingly extravagant claims.

Olson and Janson bought a tract in Henry County, Illinois, about forty miles southeast of Rock Island, and named it Bishop’s Hill after Biskopskulla. Eleven hundred Jansonists gathered in Swedish ports to leave for America. One boatload was lost at sea, another wrecked off Newfoundland. Of the first boatload of immigrants to arrive in October 1846, many walked from New York to Illinois and all except the weaker women and children tramped one hundred miles from Chicago to Victoria in the beginning of winter. They continued to leave Sweden, which they believed an angry God was about to destroy once their saving remnant had left, until four hundred were settled in the first year at Bishop’s Hill.

The land was ideal. Some of it was cultivated and the rest extended in unbroken prairie and a little woodland, but the accommodations were appalling — two long houses, four tents, a sod house, and twelve dugouts. The dugouts were used as dormitories, terribly overcrowded and with no proper sanitation. The mortality was frightful. In the first year they had very little food. One hundred and fourteen people died of cholera in a single fortnight. Yet they persisted in spite of the nightmare conditions. Colonists continued to arrive and slowly new buildings were built and more land was bought and cultivated.

At the end of the second year there were eight hundred settlers. They had their own grist mill and saw mill and were busy manufacturing adobe bricks. Eventually they would have a brick kiln and a pottery. They erected a four-story brick house, one hundred by forty-five feet, extended it another hundred feet, and then a large frame church. The first summer they harvested with scythes, the next year with cradles, the third year with reapers. All their methods improved at a similar rate. Already in 1847 they grew flax and manufactured over twelve thousand yards of linen and carpet matting. Sometimes the looms, worked by women and helped by children, were running night and day. When they closed out the linen business, except for home consumption, due to commercial competition, they had sold over one hundred and fifty thousand yards of material. Again and again they were attacked by cholera. No other colony of the time seems to have suffered so severely, and this is a good indication of the chronic lack of proper sanitation and general cleanliness. In these first years Jonas Olson seems to have played a less active role and Janson was both spiritual and economic leader. Everything was done under his direct supervision, and he represented the community in the markets of Chicago and St. Louis. At the same time he became more and more extreme in his prophetic, pentecostal behavior.

In 1848 the colony was visited by an adventurer, John Root, a Swede, recently discharged from the army of the Mexican War. A less likely person for such a colony is hard to imagine but he was welcomed by Janson and soon assumed the position of leadership, and married one of Janson’s cousins with the written agreement that if he ever left the colony she could remain if she wished. He spent his time hunting and roistering in the nearby town and was suspected of the murder of a Jewish peddler. Later he disappeared for several months while his wife gave birth to a child. When he returned, Root attempted to take his wife away against her will. Eventually he kidnapped her, but was caught by a mounted posse of Jansonists. He went to court and was given possession of his wife and took her to his sister in Chicago who notified the colony. Again a mounted posse set out and stationed some of their number in relays along the road to Chicago. Again she was rescued. With Root and his cronies in pursuit, she was rushed back one hundred and fifty miles to Bishop’s Hill, without a stop except to change horses. Root twice organized a mob who besieged the village and attempted to burn the buildings, but were driven off by an armed posse of settlers and neighboring farmers. Janson was brought to trial for kidnapping and keeping a wife from her husband in Cambridge, the county seat. As he left for court he had a premonition that he would never return. The day before he had preached his most powerful sermon, and in the evening distributed the Lord’s Supper. During the noon recess of the court Janson was standing by a courtroom window when Root appeared in the doorway, called his name, and shot him dead. It was the thirteenth day of May, 1850. The colony was less than four years old. Usually when so powerful a leader died the communist colonies, whether religious or secular, disintegrated or passed to individual ownership. The contrary was the case with Bishop’s Hill.

At the time of the murder, Jonas Olson was on his way to California, sent by Janson to dig for gold. He returned immediately to Bishop’s Hill, with the consent of the community, setting aside Janson’s son and heir, his guardian and his wife, and assumed leadership. Under the new charter the commune was administered by seven trustees under the leadership of Olson. For a while the community thrived. The village was cleaned up, the land more efficiently farmed, several small industries started, and contacts made with the Oneida Perfectionists, the Rappites, and the Shakers. Janson’s widow left and became a Shaker. In 1854 under their influence Olson decided the community would become celibate but continue to live in families, a move that led to resignations, expulsions, frustration, and factionalism among those who remained. As the country became more densely settled and penetrated by railroads and canals the society became fairly wealthy and one of the trustees — Olaf Johnson — took over its financial operations. By 1860 his speculations had brought it to the brink of bankruptcy. In 1861 the property was divided and the communist Bishop’s Hill ceased to exist. By 1879 the Johnsonites and anti-Johnsonites had sued one another into poverty and only three hundred inhabitants lingered on in the decaying village to the end of the century. A remarkable thing about the Bishop’s Hill community is that, although it did everything wrong from the very beginning, it survived and prospered until corrupted by free enterprise, which proved far more deadly for its existence as a community than ever did cholera.


13. Amana, The Shakers, St. Nazianz

With the exception of the Hutterites, by far the most successful of the religious intentional communities has been Amana, the Community of True-Inspiration. Its roots go back as a distinct group to the seventeenth century. But its sources are to be found in the late medieval monasticism of the Rhineland and the Low Countries, the Béghards and Béguines. The Amana society was comprised of pentecostalists in the strict meaning of the word. They believed and still believe that the prophetic and apostolic inspiration of the Spirit of God continues to possess selected men and women and to inspire them with his word and will to act as messengers of divine teaching to the world.

The first Inspirationist groups came out of the Pietist movement in Lutheranism toward the end of the seventeenth century under the leadership of a noblewoman, Rosemunde Juliane of Asseberg, the first Inspired Instrument (Werkseuge), followed by Johann Wilhelm Peterson, a professor at Lüneberg, whose hymns and prophetic utterances are still used. The movement had died down for a few years and then was revived by Eberhard Ludwig Grüber and Johann Friedrich Rock who separated themselves from the Lutheran Church in 1714 and established, in the face of violent persecution, Inspirationist conventicles throughout the Rhineland, Switzerland, and the Low Countries. After their deaths no new Werkseug appeared for over fifty years.

In 1817 M. Kraussert of Strassburg was inspired but could not persist in the face of persecution and was succeeded by Barbara Heinemann, an illiterate peasant girl, and Christian Metz, a carpenter. Barbara Heinemann was expelled for having “too friendly an eye upon the young men,” returned, married, lost her inspiration for twenty-six years — regained it, and accompanied Christian Metz to America. After his death she was to be sole oracle until 1883 when she died at nearly the age of ninety. There has been no generally accepted Inspired Instrument since, but the divine utterances of all the Amana prophets have been recorded, beginning with Rosemunde Juliane, and are read in church and consulted as equal to the Bible for direction in every imaginable contingency.

Christian Metz gave the True Inspiration societies a strong, practical organization in congregations governed by elders, and established cooperative colonies which, although not fully communist, shared the profits of their small enterprises through a mutual fund from which anyone could borrow without interest. The colonies thrived, but they were continuously harassed because they refused to send their children to the public schools, to bear arms, to take oaths, or in any way cooperate with the worldly State. In 1842 they sent a committee to America which bought five thousand acres of the Seneca Indian reservation to which they added later another four thousand. In the next three years some eight hundred people came over, cleared the land, and built four villages, each with a store, church, school, and community enterprises, to which they later added two more villages in Canada.

They called all their villages Ebenezer — Upper, Middle, Low, and so forth — and themselves the Ebenezer Society — “Hitherto hath the Lord helped us” (I Samuel 7.12). They had not originally planned anything more extreme than a cooperative economy, but they found absolute communism the most efficient way of coping with the wilderness. Although the Indians had sold the land for ten dollars an acre, a high price in those days, they refused to evacuate it and caused the colonists considerable annoyance. Also the city of Buffalo was growing so rapidly that its outskirts were beginning to approach the colony. (The site is now well within the city of Buffalo.)

So in 1854 they decided to move out to what was then the frontier, where they could live untroubled in their own way. After considerable prospecting they bought what eventually became twenty-six thousand acres of land, twenty miles from Iowa City in one of the most beautiful and fertile sites along the banks of the Iowa River. Here they eventually established six villages which they named Amana (Glaub Treu, Believe Faithfully) and incorporated themselves as the Amana Society. All the details of this immigration were done under the direct inspiration of Christian Metz. Inspiration dictated the paragraphs of their charter, as it had dictated to Grüber their rule of life, and recorded inspiration took care of all the details of settlement, government, and economy. What eventually emerged was a community living under what they considered divinely revealed law, something like a combination of the Torah, the law books of the Old Testament, and the Rule of St. Benedict with all its commentaries.

Amana had an ideally charismatic leadership — the Instruments were, when possessed, literally anointed by the Spirit of God and spoke with a divine authority surpassing that of hadith or Talmud, the sacred traditions of Muslims and Jews. From these oracular utterances there was no appeal. When not possessed, the Instruments sank back into their human role as practical administrators. Metz at least seems to have been as gifted an administrator as Father Rapp. Amana was so well organized, and eventually the charisma was so well distributed throughout the community, partly of course due to frequent consultation of the mass of written tradition, that it was able to survive the death of Metz, and then of Heinemann and the passing of Inspiration altogether.

Communism of both production and consumption was complete, although it soon became necessary to hire outside labor at peak seasons. Very early Amana developed a large variety of industries and crafts, so that the colony became almost self-sustaining. In addition, it produced a number of specialties, at first mostly textiles, for export with the return of a capital surplus — a very favorable “balance of trade.” With all of its industrial activities Amana remained solidly founded on agriculture, exporting large agricultural surpluses. The community functioned like a small capitalist nation, with a complete circulation of capital, profitable export, and a rising, rather than a falling, rate of profit.

Families lived separately in their own homes, but neighborhoods dined together in local dining halls and “kitchen houses.” The children were educated in community schools in both English and German. School lasted all day and all year, although the time was divided into periods of study of secular subjects and religion, trade apprentice work, and organized play. Women wore black bonnets, gray dresses, and a kerchief folded across shoulders and breasts. Men wore work clothes except for church.

Of all the successful colonies the Amana villages seem to have been least concerned with aesthetics: the houses were unpainted, the streets unpaved, and the villages had a generally disheveled air. The women compensated for all this by growing flower gardens. However, in the mid-century visitors remarked that the flowers were interspersed with vegetables. Commitment was reinforced by public confession and daily private examination of conscience. Jobs were commonly rotated and there were a considerable number of collective tasks involving the entire village from harvests to various working bees. Artistic expression except for the singing of hymns was discouraged and forbidden. Amana produced no famous bands, like Father Rapp’s colonists or semi-pagan festivals like William Keil’s, or the Mormons’ music, or architecture or “socials”; much less the ecstatic, emotional rituals of the Shakers.

Amana was a stolid, low-pressure utopia. Although the True Inspirationists had started off with a number of intellectuals and minor aristocrats in their ranks, by the time they had reached Iowa they had become a community dominated by simple, unimaginative German peasants and workers who found sufficient satisfaction in farming, working, and worshipping. Persisting in a life of as-simple-as-possible satisfactions, they grew rich. In 1933, a hundred years after coming to America, and almost two hundred and fifty years after the first beginnings of the movement in Germany, they returned to private enterprise, and set themselves up as a church and a business corporation. Forty years later Amana was one of the leading manufacturers of domestic utilities in the United States.

* * *

The Shakers, who called themselves the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, or The Millennial Church, are usually considered the most successful of all the American religious communalists sects. They could as easily be described as a lay monastic movement, more akin to similar unorthodox groups known from the late Middle Ages but with roots that go back to the heretical cults of the beginning of the Christian era, not only in their rule of life but in their theology, both of which featured millenarianism, a divine avatar, convulsive group ecstasies, echolalia, and speaking with tongues. At least at first, with no knowledge of the ancient heterodox traditions, they managed to unite and revive most of them, and in addition they introduced what had hitherto been a non-Christian, in fact a non-Western, belief in possession by the dead. They anticipated modern spiritualism by several decades and their foundress was a shamaness of a primitive, Oriental type. Their compulsive ecstasies, which gave them their popular name, and their ritualized dancing and whirling can be traced back through a definite continuity to at least the fourteenth century. Strangely enough, and hardly remarked, these were common practices amongst both American Indians and Negro slaves. Robert Manning of Brunne in his Handlyng Sinne tells in “The Tale of the Kolbeck Dancers” the story of a classic episode in one of the dance manias of the later Middle Ages that swept like pandemics over Western Europe. Our popular term for chorea, St. Vitus’s Dance, survives from those times. Modern commentators have tended to attribute these medieval phenomena to ergotism — St. Anthony’s Fire — due to eating moldy rye, but their organized character would indicate a heretical religious base like the various flagellant movements. Although ergotism may have been a contributing factor, convulsionary ecstasies were common but unorganized amongst small heretical groups, ancestors of the Quakers, in England and the Low Countries in the sixteenth century, who were also reputed to practice community of goods and either celibacy or sexual orgies. Holy Jumpers and Rollers were found amongst the first conventicles of the Methodist revival, especially in Wales. Similar practices swept over France in the eighteenth century, both within and without the Roman Catholic Church, with their focus in Flanders and Brittany where the dancing manias of the Middle Ages had so often originated.

Early in the eighteenth century a group of Quakers in Manchester, led by James and Jane Wardley, were converted to the doctrines of the French Prophets or Camisards of Dauphiné and Vivarals, who more or less systematized an inchoate movement. The Wardleys in turn converted Ann Lee, the twenty-two-year-old daughter of a Manchester blacksmith, who soon became the leader of the group. She was frequently imprisoned for jumping, shouting, dancing, disrobing, and blasphemy, and while in prison had a revelation that the millennium had in fact arrived, and that the time had come to gather the saved remnant out of the doomed world. It followed that the Second Coming too had already arrived and around 1770 her followers began to refer to her as “Ann the Word,” the incarnate Woman Christ, the female half of the eternal syzygy. (In Shaker theology, as it developed, all spiritual entities were male and female united in mystical union — the ancient Valentinian Gnostic doctrine.)

Ann Lee was married against her will to Abraham Standerin, whom the Shakers called “Stanley,” and bore him four children, all of whom died in infancy. She began to dictate extensive revelations and was finally “ordered” to take a select group of her followers to America — eight or ten people, mostly relatives, but including a moderately wealthy man, John Hocknell. For two years they supported themselves by common labor in and around New York.

In 1776 Hocknell bought a large tract of undeveloped land at Niskayuna in the township of Watervliet near Albany and the Shakers settled into their first colony. Watervliet and nearby New Lebanon were to remain the motherhouses of the society until its dissolution in the twentieth century. During the Revolutionary War they were subjected to mild persecution as pacifists and refusers of oaths, but were soon let alone by the authorities and neighbors. Considering their extraordinary behavior it is remarkable how little persecution the Shakers ever suffered. Unlike many pentecostal and millenarian sects, the Shakers were a peaceable people and had carried over from Quakerism the gift of the soft answer that turneth away wrath.

During the Revolutionary War other communities were established in New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut; and in 1784, when Mother Ann died, her little church was flourishing and gaining recruits at every revival. For three years they were led by James Whittaker. On his death he was succeeded by Joseph Meecham who was at least as richly endowed with the gift of revelation as Mother Ann; and by Lucy Wright, who shared the leadership and after Meecham’s death ruled alone for twenty-five years. Its rule, or rather its revelations, gave Shakerism its final form and its extraordinarily detailed regulation of community life.

Mother Ann’s husband seems to have been an unregenerate rascal and in New York City he took to drink and ran off with another woman. Her children had died in early infancy after painful births. Thus the essence of Mother Ann’s revelation was her detestation of sexual intercourse, for which she substituted a cosmogony of spiritually united male and female beings, which she also described as bisexual with, as it were, male and female polarities. From the early days of the movement her followers were called to practice celibacy if unmarried, or the strictest chastity if they came into the sect already married. Mother Lee was the female incarnation of an eternal Christ of which the historic Jesus was the male, not the incarnate deity or the Second Person of the Holy Trinity but a primary emanation. Both celibacy and these semi-divine couples are common to many religions, Christian and pre-Christian, Persian, Manichaean, Gnostic, and Tantric, but celibacy was usually a privilege of the elect, the pure. Mother Ann made it mandatory for all her followers.

The necessities of colonization on the edge of the wilderness had led to the practice of cooperative enterprises verging on communism. Under the leadership of Meecham and Wright the strictest communism was introduced; and progressive revelations were embodied in laws which governed every detail of life, even as to which foot should get out of bed first. Men and women lived in the same large, dormitory-like buildings of a characteristically severe architecture, many of which still survive, but they were strictly separated with different staircases and entrances. They were forbidden to speak to one another except under the most pressing necessity or with the rare permission of the elders and eldresses. Each residential building constituted a “family.” There was complete equality of men and women in both administration and worship. Some Shaker villages contained four or five such families, self-governing and rather widely separated. Eventually Shaker villages were scattered from the Atlantic coast to Ohio and Kentucky and south to Florida.

Although the surviving documentation of the Shakers is far greater than that of any other communal sect it is difficult to discover exactly how the entire body was governed from the mother foundation in New Lebanon. After the middle of the nineteenth century certain differences began to develop. The villages in Maine, for instance, emphasized faith-healing. In others possession by the spirits of the dead, which originally took place in almost every evening service, had declined sharply and was beginning to be accompanied by a certain skepticism.

The early Shaker leaders possessed a remarkable instinct for rules and devices which would intensify commitment to the community and diffuse particular attachments. The neophyte made a detailed confession of every sin and fault before being accepted by the society and periodic confession was enjoined for even the most minor transgressions. Since life was so carefully ordered, many elderly Shakers at the end of the century told interviewers that they had been able to live for many years without sin.

Both men and women wore uniforms — the men wearing a broad hat and long blue coat, with hair cut off in front and long behind. The women wore voluminous dresses of dull colors with a kerchief across the breast and back, a light cap indoors, and a deep sunbonnet outdoors, and underneath hair cut short. In some families there was a strictly limited visitation. Small groups of men and women seated on opposite sides of the room under the governance of an elder and eldress were permitted a recreation of brief chatting which was carefully controlled to avoid all significant content. In some families men and women were paired, and the women functioned as a kind of soror mystica, to give each other spiritual guidance. Men and women worked at separate tasks, usually at separate buildings, and ate at separate tables in silence. Daily life was carried on with a minimum of speech, almost as great as in the strictest monastic orders. And like the Trappists, Shakers often communicated by simple sign language.

The Shaker buildings were famous for their extreme cleanliness and the stark simplicity of their furnishings, this at a time when ordinary furniture was more ornate than ever before or since. There were no carpets and only a few small rugs, and every morning the ladder-back chairs and little rag rugs were hung on pegs; and all the floors were cleaned and polished and the beds which had been stripped and the bedding aired by each person on arising were made up by a cleaning crew. In spite of this emphasis on outward sanitation several villages made no provision for baths whatever and some were struck by small epidemics of typhus, due of course to body lice.

No pictures or musical instruments were permitted until late in the decline of the society, no poetry from outside, no novels, not even history, which would bring in the long story of the evils of the world — the small libraries contained books of the strictest practicality, and only religious works which were closely akin to Shakerism, and the society’s own literature, which grew ever more extensive. Some families and many members of all families were vegetarians — pork, alcohol, even light wines, smoking tobacco (hopeless addicts were permitted to chew a little), and usually tea and coffee were all prohibited.

The days were spent in strict asceticism. After supper the evening worship was certainly the greatest ritualized collective discharge of libido of any American communalist sect, with parallels to be found only in the trial testimony of medieval heretics in the anti-heretical polemics of the orthodox, and in (probably imaginary) secret pagan religion, which modern occultists attribute to the witchcraft cult.

After hymns and brief sermons by one of the elders or eldresses, men and women lined up on opposite sides of the room and began a peculiar shuffling dance, accompanied with motions of the bent arms something like using a rolling pin (Parkinsonism), meanwhile chanting hymns, often in “strange tongues,” some of them traditional, others spontaneous. In some families and at some times the ranks of men and women would pass each other and everyone would embrace and kiss. Descriptions of these contacts by the participants always speak of them as accompanied by the most intense waves of love conceivable. Interestingly, no one, even in exposés by former Shakers, speaks of these embraces and presumably orgasms as having anything specific about them. The embracing couples focus the love of the community. As the evening wore on dancing in rank gave way to lines and ring dances and then to paired and single gyrations of the kind a later day would call jitterbugging.

Finally the spirits would possess one, two or three young women and speak through them. These spirits were commonly those of great historical figures — Napoleon, or Julius Caesar, or the heroes of the republic, like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, or most especially famous Indians. Often a whole tribe of Indian spirits would visit a Shaker meeting. As time went on the Shakers undertook regular missions amongst the dead, sending out their spirit converts to preach the Shaker gospel to all sorts of bygone people but especially to the American Indians, who if they had enjoyed few of the advantages of Christianity in their lifetimes, at least when dead were converted by the thousands and established their own Shaker communities in the spirit world. Spirit visitations of this sort always amazed flesh-and-blood visitors because the entire Shaker meeting seemed possessed with a collective hallucination and went through elaborate psychodramas, dancing and conversing with their guests, giving them imaginary food and drink, and listening to their inaudible music. Psychodrama is the only word we have for such activity because it is impossible to accept them as genuine hallucinations; and Shaker leaders often admitted to outsiders that they were really make-believe. Entertaining whole tribes of Indians was only a small part of it.

Shaker communities had annual rites and drank imaginary nectar from imaginary fountains and feasted on imaginary ambrosia while dressed in imaginary garments of blinding splendor. The resemblance of all this to Haitian vaudon (voodoo), the juju cults that survived on some slave plantations in the United States, and to the original religions of West Africa is certainly remarkable. No one has ever demonstrated any contact although fairly large numbers of freed Negroes were converted to Shakerism. On the other hand there are also resemblances to the cult practices of the Iroquois, neighbors of many early Shaker communities. Modern Spiritualism arose in the same neighborhood and it is disputed whether the first “spiritualistic” phenomena occurred amongst the Shakers or the self-professed spiritualists.

Since these performances occurred with greater or less intensity every night in most communities and culminated in periodic great festivals, it is not difficult to see the advantage they gave the Shakers over every other communalist movement. Twenty hours were spent in the strictest discipline, even sleep was governed by rules; but every evening each individual libido was poured out into the community. Then if ever a collective unconscious was made manifest. Love was dissolved in community. George Washington dancing with the sisters, quaffing ambrosia while Squanto played the fiddle — this may strike us as ridiculous, but such were the materials for orgiastic myth available to the Shakers. They made as much of them as the Greeks of Bacchus and Orpheus.

Like the Greeks before them the Shakers tamed the irrational and harnessed it to the rational community. Away from the meeting, life was lived with mathematical order. Although they renounced all art and decoration, their strictly functional architecture and furniture are amongst the most beautiful of their kind. They found it necessary to restrain the success of many of their industrial enterprises. They were the first in America to practice intensive agriculture. Eventually many Shaker communities raised only high-quality seeds and breeding stock for the market.

It is rather difficult on the surviving evidence to determine how the society was so efficiently governed. All officials, administrators, business representatives, and religious leaders were appointed from the top. They were subject to a minimum of control by community meetings, more perhaps by “revelations,” although revelation never played the consistent, determining role that it did at Amana. So autocratic a system of government, especially over small communities scattered from New Hampshire to Kentucky when much of the country was still wilderness, would be expected to result in factionalism and schism; yet in the case of the Shakers it did not. In both secular and religious governance the Society led an unusually untroubled life.

All through the middle years of the nineteenth century, under the leadership of Frederick W. Evans, who before his conversion had been a secular reformer and communalist, the society flourished, reaching at one time to more than six thousand members in twenty villages. Celibacy, which had been a most important factor in their strength, eventually proved their undoing. Their doctrines were too barbarous to be etherealized by a more literate and sophisticated generation or to draw converts from the class of people otherwise attracted to Shakerism; and so they could not replenish themselves. Married converts brought their children into the society with them and every Shaker village was amongst other things a free orphanage which raised unwanted children at no expense to the State. The children were raised as Shakers but most of them left as soon as they were employable elsewhere. By the middle of the twentieth century the society, which for many years had consisted of less than a hundred aged people, was to all intents and purposes extinct. The great revival of communalism which began after the Second World War focused new interest on the Shakers and there recently have been attempts to revive the society.

* * *

With the example of medieval religious orders, of monks, nuns, and associated lay people living in community before them, one would expect that at the height of the communalist movement in the first half of the nineteenth century there would have appeared Roman Catholic communist villages both in Europe and the United States; but there are very few examples, and indeed it is difficult to find out anything about them. Primarily this is due to the extremely reactionary character of the Church in the nineteenth century. Anything suggesting the preaching of community of goods was condemned as heresy, one which was an even graver threat to the wealth and power of the Church than it was to theological orthodoxy. A widespread movement for return to the apostolic life might have had devastating effects on the Church of the nineteenth century. In America the Church was more orthodox than the popes, and after the Irish Potato Famine and the troubles in south Germany the American church was founded on largely illiterate or semi-literate congregations of recent immigrants. Since most of the early historians of the communist societies in America were millenarian Protestants or secular socialists, they were anticlerical on principle, and therefore often ignored the existence of the one Catholic communalist settlement in the country.

In 1854 Ambrosius Oschwald, a Catholic priest, led a band of colonists from the hills of Baden and the Black Forest to Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, some hundred miles north of Milwaukee. They purchased some thirty-eight hundred acres of dense wilderness at three dollars and a half an acre and set about clearing the land and building two convents for celibate men and women and a village of family dwellings for married people. They called themselves the St. Nazianz Colony after St. Gregory of Nazianzus, the fourth-century theologian who led the return of the Eastern Church from Arianism to strict orthodoxy, and who was the founder of the so-called Cappadocian school of theologian-philosophers who are responsible for the lingering influence of the apostolic life and the mystical doctrine of the divination of man in Eastern Orthodoxy. St. Gregory held an archbishopric for only a short time and retired early from the conflicts of ecclesiastical politics to his own extensive estate where he established a mixed community of monks, nuns, and lay people about which we know little. The historians of communalism give no evidence of knowing who the patron saint of the colony was, or why he was chosen, but it is of the greatest significance that he was the favorite father of the Church of many of the great mystics of the Rhineland and south Germany. For such were the spiritual ancestors of the pre-Reformation Pietist movements out of which came, however indirectly, almost all the religious communist sects of America — as well as, for instance, the Tolstoyan movement.

The St. Nazianz Colony flourished as long as Father Oschwald was alive. The land was fruitful and produced surpluses for the market. The members manufactured almost all their own necessities: food, clothing, tools, furniture, again with an exportable surplus. The celibate members lived under a rule similar to the Third Order Regular of St. Francis, the married members as fully dedicated Third Order Seculars. All took part in the daily liturgy of the Church. The community was essentially governed by the sacraments. Confession and penance were sufficient to ensure order and holy communion to preserve commitment. Not unlike the Shakers they were held together by cult, by ritual that had its sources in practices that went back before the time of civilization and sprang from the deepest layers of the human mind. Father Oschwald and an ephorate of twelve members saw to the administration of the material affairs and moral welfare of the community and their decisions were subject to review by meetings of the whole. The community seems to have functioned with singularly little friction.

On the death of Father Oschwald, it was discovered that the property, which had all been held in his name, could not be left by his will to the colony because it was not a corporation. Thus the members incorporated as a Roman Catholic religious society and each member sued the estate for his share due to past services and then returned it to the new corporation. They continued for another generation under a board of trustees, wearing the simple peasant dress of the eighteenth-century Black Forest, their lives governed by the sacraments, the liturgy, the rites of passage, and the rites of the year, but toward the end of the century they began to die out. Like the Shakers, they had adopted orphan children but few of these remained with the community after they grew up. The village of St. Nazianz still exists, but of all the successful religious colonies in the United States it is by far the least known.

There was another, apparently very similar group near Milwaukee, called Nojashing, led by Fathers Anthony Keppler and Matthias Steiger, who came from Bavaria in 1847. They both died four years later, but the colony endured to the end of the century. At this time it became an order of sisters. Some significance should probably be attached to the fact that these two ventures found their homes in Wisconsin, where the Roman Catholic Church — and the Anglican as well — were far more radical than elsewhere in the United States and where schismatic groups like the Polish National Church, the Old Catholics, and others found a home. The very “advanced” Anglo-Catholic Bishop Griswold of Fond du Lac often spoke wistfully of his hope that the revival of the mixed order of St. Gilbert of Sempringham would take place in his diocese, but it never did. Thus the colony of St. Nazianz remained the only successful attempt to transport to America the kind of communist society made famous by the Jesuit communes in Paraguay.


14. Oneida

Millenarianism, chiliasm, pentecostalism — we are inclined to think of these terms as applying to movements in a religious underworld of theological proletarians, of semi-literate people — in fact, much like the early Christians. John Humphrey Noyes, born in 1811 in Brattleboro, Vermont, the founder of the Oneida Community, and a sect known as the Perfectionists, was a graduate of Dartmouth who turned first to the study of law and then to theology at Andover and later at Yale. Under the influence of the revivalist movement he underwent an experience of spiritual conversion and came to believe that it was possible for men not only to be saved but to become perfect — or perfected — in this life. Intensive Bible study accompanied with much meditation and prayer convinced him that this end could be achieved best by a literal following of the apostolic life.

In 1834 Noyes returned to Putney, Vermont, where his father was a banker, married the granddaughter of a congressman, and slowly gathered about himself a group of persons, at first mostly his close family, who followed him not only in belief but in undergoing the same experiences and convictions, and in spending their time in Bible study and prayer. In the course of ten years the little group of perfectionists worked out the main body of their doctrines, and gained a few converts and correspondents throughout New England and New York. In 1846 they began to live together holding all things in common. At this point they aroused the wrath of the citizens of Putney and were driven out of town.

In 1848 the Perfectionists purchased forty acres and a poor house near Oneida in northern New York, and in the next couple of years established branches in Brooklyn and Wallingford, Connecticut. At Oneida the land was poor, the buildings were tumbling down. At first there were fewer than a hundred people, who were able to bring comparatively little money to the founding of the community. However, they soon got the land under production, added more acreage, and were able to feed themselves, whereupon they embarked upon a carefully planned program of small-scale diversified industrial development. They sold farm crop and cattle, put up fruits, vegetables, jellies, and jams, made furniture, raised and wove silk and wool, made traveling bags and matchboxes, and ran a saw mill and blacksmith shop. In the latter they began to make, at first by hand, traps of their own invention and this eventually became the most profitable of their manufacturing enterprises, before they took up the silversmithing which as a private corporation still continues.

In 1874 the full members at Oneida and Wallingford (Brooklyn had been moved to Oneida) numbered two hundred and nineteen adults, about twenty per cent more women than men, sixty-four children, and about two hundred and seventy hired farm laborers, fruitpickers, and workers in the shops, including thirty-five women and girls in the silk mill at Wallingford; and in addition to this they employed a considerable number of domestic servants. In 1873 they had sold over three hundred thousand dollars worth of produce and manufactures. In other words, in twenty-five years the Oneida colonists had become modestly rich, were able to employ help on a ratio of more than one employee to one adult colonist, and to live lives with a higher level of satisfaction both materially, culturally, and spiritually than any other religious colony. Oneida seems to have been a thoroughly enjoyable place to live. This remarkable success was probably due to the high quality of the colonists themselves and especially to their leader, a man of truly exceptional intelligence and will, the product of the best education of his time, who believed in not asking anyone to do anything he could not do himself and so worked as farmer, blacksmith, administrator, cattle-breeder, and, at one time or another, in all the other enterprises of the community.

Viewed from the perspective of late twentieth-century secular culture, thoroughly skeptical of science as well as religion, John Humphrey Noyes may seem to be a crank. Of course, anyone who belonged to a communalist group by definition was something of a crank. But it should be remembered that in the first half of the nineteenth century the foundation of education and learning and life philosophy was still for most people, however cultivated, the Bible, especially in America. The founding fathers may have been radical intellectuals, and amongst them there may have been a few rationalists and deists, but the majority of educated Americans, particularly after the reaction against the French Revolution, were devout Christians. Noyes was a devout Christian, but he was also a radical and rationalist Christian who, in his little study group in Vermont, set about trying to discover exactly what the word of God meant. If the New Testament was approached in this way, with a mind consciously shorn of preconception, it seemed obvious that apostolic Christianity was millenarian, chiliastic, pentecostal — and communalist.

Oneida was in many ways a mirror image of the Shaker communities, with methods of building group commitment which might seem to have been direct contraries to Shaker practices. Most famous was Oneida’s special form of group marriage. Everyone was available to everyone else, but the actual pairing of couples was under the guidance of the community, ultimately it would seem of Noyes himself, and the unions were usually relatively short-lived. Coupled with this group sex (“complex marriage”) was Noyes’s special discovery of “male continence.” Men were expected to control themselves in sexual intercourse until the woman had one or more orgasms and then withdraw, apparently without ejaculation. This sounds like a nerve-wracking custom but in fact, as has been demonstrated by various erotic yogic practices, it is quite possible for a man to train himself to separate orgasm from ejaculation. The functions are controlled by two different sets of nerves. Also in some of Noyes’s writing on the subject he seems to be talking in a very occult manner about oral sex. The significant thing is that the entire community practiced birth control by withdrawal and was committed to the sexual pleasure of women — most extraordinary notions for the mid-nineteenth century. Noyes continuously stresses his, one is tempted to say, “startling discovery” that the sexual act has two functions, procreation and pleasure — the greatest pleasure in life. Sometimes behind his rather cryptic language he seems to have stumbled on a kind of Tantrism, the erotic mysticism of the sexual trance.

As the colony matured Noyes, who as we have seen was a successful cattle-breeder, introduced the idea of controlled eugenic breeding, which he called stirpiculture. Only those people who were judged to be the best breeding stock with physical and mental qualities which, if developed genetically through the generations would produce a superior race, were allowed to have children. Noyes and a special committee, after long observation in the community, picked them out and instructed them to mate, whatever their previous unions may have been. Today such practices have become identified with extreme reaction, but perhaps the future will decide that one of the greatest evils of Nazism was discrediting eugenics. Once, after it was popularized by Noyes, eugenic reform was a common belief and hope of almost all social radicals.

Noyes was a food mystic too, and most of the people in the community were vegetarians. Only two meals a day were served. They drank tea and coffee, but no alcohol, and used no tobacco. They believed that disease was a kind of sin and treated it with a combination of self and group criticism and faith healing — ideas which resemble Samuel Butler’s and George Bernard Shaw’s, whom Noyes probably influenced. They seem to have been about as successful as the orthodox medicine of their day. Instead of private confession before admission to the community, and after any serious sin later, as practiced by the Shakers, Oneida used a form of group criticism which went on as the occasion offered throughout life. There is a certain resemblance to the group criticism practiced by present-day Synanon with the vast difference that in Oneida this was done with gentleness, consideration, and respect for the individual.

The change in the public temper of the United States is well indicated by the dominant society’s reaction to Oneida. The strongest objections were not to communalism or political radicalism but to the colony’s strange customs — complex marriage, stirpiculture, the equality of women, and, not least, the manner of dress. Men were attired plainly but conventionally. Women wore short hair, skirts to the knee, long trousers, and a good deal less underwear than was common in those days of corsets, corset covers, many petticoats, ruffled pantaloons, and bustles. Visitors found what seems to us extremely modest dress most exciting. But the Oneidans were also amongst the most advanced political radicals of their time. There exists a letter to William Lloyd Garrison from Noyes which he called his Declaration of Independence from the United States and its collective responsibility for slavery. Insofar as the community paid attention to worldly politics it uniformly took what we would consider the most radical position on every issue of the day.

Throughout the daily life of the community in every department, in every activity, the member encountered built-in checks, controls, and short-circuits designed to prevent, abort, or cure every vestige of acquisitiveness and selfishness. After weaning, the children were raised in nurseries by specialists, both male and female, and early played at work or worked alongside their elders as children do in primitive societies. They were usually permitted some time each day with their parents. All toys were held in common and from then on, all but articles of the most personal use, including “clothing to wear outside,” was drawn from and returned to a common wardrobe.

Government was by a vast array of interlocking committees, which were permitted considerable initiative, subject always to the meeting of the whole community; and if a division did occur, the decision, as with the Quakers, was postponed until unanimity could be reached. Oneida shared with the Society of Friends two ideas that seem rather commonplace but which are really quite startling and are held by hardly any other Christian, or for that matter, secular group. First was that it is indeed possible and not really terribly difficult to be good (their official name was the Perfectionists). Second, they believed there can exist scarcely any social emergencies where consensus need be sacrificed to decisiveness. Agreement was more important than disagreement.

Noyes’s specifically theological ideas were not too unusual for a time of religious eccentricity. He believed in the authority of the Bible, but beyond it, in the ultimate authority of the Spirit of Truth, which, like the Quakers and their Inner Light, could be turned to by every man. He believed that God was dual, male and female. The Second Coming of Christ had already occurred at the time of the fall of the temple. We are now living after the apocalypse but before the imminent spiritual transformation of the world that would usher in the open rule of the kingdom of heaven. Complex marriage was not just a social technique for a communalist society — it was the method by which the spiritual union of the sexes which had been broken by the fall of Adam and Eve would be restored and mankind would once again be a divinized syzygy reflecting the Godhead. Death would be overcome and man would return to eternity.

As we read Noyes today it is easy to see through his dated, biblical language to the working of a powerful mind. He was the only religious communalist leader who was a radical intellectual, and he continuously stressed Oneida’s as it were apostolic succession from Brook Farm, certainly the most far-out intellectual highbrow activity of its day, which dissolved the month Oneida was founded.

As Noyes grew old and the new generation of colonists grew up, as usual there was more and more objection to details of the colonists’ life. In 1879, worn out by attacks from both within and without, Noyes wrote a letter proposing the abandonment of complex marriage, and the general meeting approved the proposal with only one negative vote. From then on, bit by bit, practice by practice, the colony rapidly disintegrated, and the miscellaneous property was distributed. In 1881 Oneida became a joint-stock company engaged primarily in the manufacture of silverware and so continues to this day. The former colonist stockholders, if they kept their stock, grew rich, but the business became a capitalist enterprise, and very far from being a workers’ democracy.

Copyright 1974. Reproduced  by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

[Next chapters]

[Communalism contents and index]



Bureau of Public Secrets, PO Box 1044, Berkeley CA 94701, USA
  www.bopsecrets.org   knabb@bopsecrets.org