Communitarian Movements and Utopian Communities

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Early America provided enough freedom and geographical space to allow communitarian movements and utopian communities to experiment with alternative social constructions. The communitarian impulse existed in America at least from 1663, when a group of Dutch Mennonites led by Peter Cornelius Plockhoy (c. 1600–c. 1674) founded Plockhoy's Commonwealth on the Delaware River. These communities represented responses to social, cultural, and religious concerns. Whereas most Americans chose to respond in ways that preserved a strong sense of individualism, for others a communitarian response offered more hope. Of those opting for the latter, however, many did not remain permanently within their chosen groups, and most movements could not sustain themselves for long periods of time. Although every group formulated their own responses to societal issues, they all resorted to the utopian community as the mechanism for bringing about reform. Religion, especially among groups founded in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, played a major part in the various groups' motivations and actions. Anabaptism and Radical Pietism were particularly influential, and millenarian tendencies often manifested themselves. In Backwoods Utopias (1950), the historian Arthur Eugene Bestor Jr. aptly defined each group as "a small society, voluntarily separated from the world, striving after perfection in its institutions, sharing many things in common, and relying upon imitation for the spread of its system—such was the sectarian community" (Bestor, p. 7). Among the most significant of these early American communitarian groups were the Ephrata Cloister; the Shakers; and the Rappites, or Harmonists.

ephrata cloister

The Ephrata Cloister was the most noted communitarian group during the colonial period. Founded by Conrad Beissel (1691–1768) after he separated from a Pennsylvania Dunker congregation in 1728, Ephrata was a Protestant movement characterized by celibacy, mysticism, and the observance of Saturday as the Sabbath. After choosing a site located about ten miles northeast of what later became Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Beissel organized the community around celibacy, which he considered to be the true sign of a believer. While only celibate men and women were considered full members, married couples could join as "householders." Members had to surrender their private property, although householders could retain their farms. The community was known for its mystical poetry and hymns; printing and publishing businesses; and masterful, hand-decorated illuminated manuscripts. It reached its peak in the mid-eighteenth century with about 350 members and also gave birth to sister societies. After the Battle of Brandywine (11 September 1777), Ephrata served as the hospital for about five hundred troops under George Washington. Typhoid broke out, killing about one-third of the membership, and the community was never able to rebound. It ceased to exist in 1814, when the final four members incorporated themselves into the Seventh Day German Baptist Church.

Communitarian societies like Ephrata did not exist in isolation, but interacted with other groups. In 1720 Beissel had planned to join a group led by Johannes Kelpius (1673–1708) called the Society of the Woman in the Wilderness (also known as the Contented of the God-Loving Soul or Chapter of Perfection). Anticipating the inauguration of the divine millennial kingdom, the group gathered in the wilderness of America and settled near Germantown, Pennsylvania. By the time Beissel planned to join them, however, the community had disbanded. The following year, Beissel visited the Labadist colony at Bohemia Manor in Maryland. Followers of the teachings of a former Roman Catholic priest, Jean de Labadie (1610–1674), who had converted to Protestantism, the members lived an ascetic life. Nonmembers often confused them with Quakers. In the 1740s Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700–1760), leader of the Moravian movement, attempted to unite the various religious groups in Pennsylvania in a spirit of ecumenism. Members of Ephrata participated briefly in these efforts, and Zinzendorf visited them. Beissel, however, would not cooperate, and the relationship between the two groups turned hostile.


The Shakers, founded by and based on the teachings of Ann Lee (1736–1784), constituted a group that has existed since the late eighteenth century (although only a few members remained in the early years of the twenty-first century). Believing "Mother Ann" to be the female manifestation of the Christ (just as Jesus was the male manifestation), the group formed celibate communities throughout the nation and developed religious services characterized by rhythmic dancing. They initially suffered great persecution, being driven from many towns, but eventually their membership grew to several thousand. Shaker members came from a diverse cross-section of the nation. Like the Ephrata Cloister, the Shakers had contact with other communitarian groups, in particular the Rappites or Harmonists, a celibate group founded by George Rapp (1757–1847).

harmony society and new harmony

Reacting against what he considered corrupt practices of the Lutheran Church and persecution by officials in the German duchy of Württemberg, George Rapp led a group of Separatists to the United States, the new Israel, in 1804. Forming the Harmony Society, the group adopted celibacy, abandoned private property, developed a thriving farm community, and awaited the arrival of the millennium. In 1814 the group moved from Pennsylvania to Indiana and developed one of the largest towns in the state, called New Harmony. In 1824, however, Rapp returned to Pennsylvania, and founded a settlement located near Pittsburgh called Economy, a name reflecting the new order Rappites believed would be ushered in by the millennium. Rapp sold New Harmony to Robert Owen (1771–1858), who attempted to build there a secular utopian community based on reason, gender equality, communal ownership of property, social and economic equality, fair treatment of workers, and the elimination of organized religion (although Owen embraced religious freedom). It failed, however, within a few years. Owen later influenced Frances Wright (1795–1852), who in 1825 established a short-lived community based on racial equality at Nashoba, Tennessee (near Memphis).

Communitarian groups, while typically small in numbers, illustrate the great diversity within early American culture. They also reflect dissatisfaction with gender roles, established religion, and economic injustice. The freedom offered by life in the United States enticed these groups to leave the persecution of Europe, but ironically they often encountered similar responses in the new country. Still, they usually managed to carve out communities, often after several moves, with nonmembers commonly appreciating the value of the goods produced by these communities. Typically located on the fringes of mainstream society, communitarian groups did more than merely challenge early American values. They modeled alternative ways of organizing American society.

See alsoMillennialism; Moravians; Pietists; Shakers .


Bach, Jeff. Voices of the Turtledoves: The Sacred World of Ephrata. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003.

Bestor, Arthur Eugene, Jr. Backwoods Utopias: The Sectarian and Owenite Phases of Communitarian Socialism in America: 1663–1829. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1950.

Pitzer, Donald E. America's Communal Utopias. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Sutton, Robert P. Communal Utopias and the American Experience: Religious Communities, 1732–2000. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2003.

——. Communal Utopias and the American Experience: Secular Communities, 1824–2000. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2004.

Taylor, Anne. Visions of Harmony: A Study of Nineteenth-Century Millenarianism. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.

Scott M. Langston

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Communitarian Movements and Utopian Communities

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Communitarian Movements and Utopian Communities