Utopian Communities History in America, the New Eden in Society: Puritans, Swedish Immigrants, to Modern Dreamers
Oneida Community Home Building
John Humphrey Noyes
My college Political Science professor had a special interest in the study of Utopian Communities and he seems to have, at least, left me with a curiosity about them.
The idea of an ideal community has been around for a long time. The roots go back to Plato, Thomas More and Francis bacon. They all imagined their own versions of a perfect world.
However, my interest is somewhat confined to America which was colonized by seekers of a new Eden. One of the major themes in American culture is the concept of a new Eden. Not all Utopian communities are based on religion but a lot of them are, although often unusual religions. Some I think were based on immigrant myths of the New World being a land of easy riches—to a tenant farmer it might not have taken much to look like riches.
During the rush for gold and silver temporary towns sometimes sprung up instantly. Most became ghost towns.
America itself represented the New Eden. Some European philosophers romanticized not only the land but also the native inhabitants. The Indians, in their minds, became the mythological Nobel Savage to fit a mythical land.
The Pilgrims and others came with the attitude of being a new chosen people. Many of the colonies were started by religious groups looking for a place to practice their beliefs without interference. There was a desire to go back to what was viewed as an ideal community of the early Christians with a concept of sharing everything equally. They overlooked, I think, that the early Christians didn’t always find that worked out so well in practice. The late Thomas Merton, Trappist Monk and popular religious writer, in later life concluded that communism only works out in small groups like monasteries.
In the 17th Century in America Protestant groups made a deliberate attempt to imitate the primitive, apostolic church. They thought that Christian communes would provide the solace, peace and brotherhood they were seeking. Rather than wanting to convert the world, they wanted to withdraw from the world. They were also outside the mainstream of Christian belief and considered heretics by other and possibly by each other. Some of these 17th Century communities were “Women of the Wilderness” founded by German Pietists in 1694; “Irenia” founded by Moravians in 1695; “Bethlehem” founded by Anabaptists in 1740; and “Mount Lebanon” founded by Shakers in 1787. They had a few things in common. They were all apostate or heretical by the lights of the Protestant Churches, they were all founded near William Penn’s Quaker “experiment of toleration.” All were migrant populations with a Charismatic leader.
They held similar beliefs such as reverence for the Old Testament and followers of Hebrews, seeing themselves as the “New Israel. Many kept the Jewish Sabbath. The rejected ‘common marriage’ some practiced “complex marriage” which involved sharing spouses. Most were millenarians or Adventists who expected the second coming of Christ to come soon. They were quietists or pacifists refusing to pay taxes, vote, go to war or hold office. Some were Charisma tics or Pentecostals.
In the 1960’s “hippies” started communes and have been compared to the ideals of these early communities. However, the hippies would not like the austerity, and monasticism of these early Christians.
Bishop Hill, Illinois
This is one of the places I am familiar with. When I lived in Illinois we often went to events at Bishop Hill. It is a restored historical site and has several of the original buildings. It seems to be the outlet for Swedish American imports and have holiday celebrations.
Swedish immigrants affiliated with the pietist movement led by Erik Janssen founded the village in 1846. In Sweden he preached against the Lutheran church and held the doctrine that the faithful have no sin. He became more radical and lost some of his support. He was forced to leave the country. Bishop Hill was his “New Jerusalem.” Between 1846 and 1856 1400 colonists left Sweden and settled in Bishop Hill. They had a bad time for the first year but things improved after the first winter.
In 1850 a former colonist named John Root assassinated Jansson. The colony was run after that by a group of trustees. Later one of the trustees made some bad investments and Bishop Hill went into financial ruin.
A few descendents of the original colonist, I believe, still live there. But it is no longer a religious colony. The buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The one other place that I have actually visited
I have visited the Amana Colonies a few times over the years and it is an interesting place. Some of the restaurants there had family style meals that serve far more than I can eat. At the time I was first there it never occurred to me to split the meal or ask to take some home, although I think we could have eaten for a week off the leftovers. I haven’t been there for several years now so I cannot speak for the current situation.
Amana were established over 150 years ago and is located in Iowa. The historical buildings have been preserved. If you go there you probably will not find too much of the original Amish and Mennonite lifestyle that might have been there some time ago. The Amana refrigeration is a Mennonite enterprise. Although not too much of the religious aspect still exists it is an interesting place to see for the buildings and displays.
John Humphrey Noyes in 1848 In Oneida, New York founded this community. They believed that Jesus Christ had returned in the year 70.n Therefore they felt they could bring about the Millennial kingdom and be free of sin and perfect in this world.
They practiced Communalism , complex marriage, mutual criticism and ascending Fellowship. There were other communities along the same lines scattered throughout the eastern states. Noyes was threatened with arrest for his unorthodox sexual practices. The communitylasted until 1878 and was dissolved in 1881. The Oneida silverware company is what is left of Oneida, although there are still some buildings preserved.
Brook farm was a secular utopian community most noteworthy because of the intellectual and literary figures involved with it. Some “Transcendentalists” started Brook Farm as an experiment in simple living. It was established in West Roxbury, Massachusetts on about 200 acres and lasted from 1841-1847.
The Brook farm Institute was organized and directed by George Ripley, a former Unitarian minister and literary critic. Other participants included Charles A. Dana, Nathaniel Hawthorn, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Margaret Fuller William Henry Channing.
As I recall from college discussions there was a problem that these people were prone to work at their writing and not the farm work. It eventually closed because of financial problems.
The Brook farm site is recognized as a National Historic Landmark.
Other Utopian Communities:
The Rappites, the Shakers, the Perfectionist, the Harmonists, the Perfectionists, Zoarites, Koreshan State Historic Site, Historic Rugby.
. Whatever the sources the search for a New Eden seems to be a part of American Culture. I’m sure it will continue in some form or other.
The Mormons places such as Nauvoo and Salt Lake City could be included as Utopian communities but unlike most of the others the Mormons prospered and don't quite fit the pattern.
© 2009 Don A. Hoglund