Chapter 16: Communal Family

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Chapter 16
Communal Family

Consult the "Contents" pages to locate the entries in Part III, the Directory Listings Sections, that comprise this family.

"The group of believers was one in mind and heart. No one said that any of his belongings were his own, but they all shared with one another everything they had." These verses from the Book of Acts 4:32 (along with statements in Acts 2) have inspired countless generations of Christians to forsake secular society and attempt to find a new style of living in communalism and the common life. Sources in pre-Christian society may have influenced early Christian practice. The ancient Cretes and Greeks adopted certain aspects of the communalist life style. The Essene community at Qumran represents an attempt in the Jewish community at a communal alternative.

It is not until the fourth century, however, that communalism becomes a real force in Western society, and interestingly enough, its form is the same as in the East–monasticism. Like the Christians, Buddhists, particularly in China, developed monastic communities as an attempt at authentic religious living in the face of a culture that was only nominally religious. For Western Christianity, the monastic ideal was a reaction to the establishment of Christianity as the state church, with mass conversions and baptisms that the monks said brought everybody into the church instead of making the church an assembly of true believers. Unlike the early church, which merely pooled its resources, monasticism presented a thorough-going communalism.

Inherent in the monk's life was the acceptance of an equality of life with the other brothers in the community. Poverty and the renunciation of the world were the prime means to this end. In the chastity rule an alternative to family life, a main distraction to community allegiance, was offered. In obedience to the abbot and in acceptance of the rules came the strong social system to replace the one ingrained from youth, as well as a discipline to enforce the new order.

The result was, of course, the success of the movement to which the church responded by accepting some monastic goals for its clergy, principally chastity. However, the very success of the movement had consequences that threatened the existence of the monastic communities. They became wealthy and their wealth became a part of the problem of the Middle Ages as they became an adjunct to the power structures instead of an alternative.

Francis of Assisi was the one who raised the issue of poverty in monastic circles. Sophistry had undermined the poverty ideal, thought Francis. While individually giving up all property, collectively the monasteries were rich and the monks (without individually owning anything) could nevertheless use all the order's wealth. Francis advocated a poverty of use, and this real poverty ideal raised an issue that threatened the medieval church. In the face of this threat, the church hierarchy rejected Francis, burned his books, and rewrote his rules for the order. After Francis, various attempts were made to reform the monasteries, but few, if any, understood the heart of the issue. The inability to reform the monasteries was a factor leading to Henry VIII's plundering of them during the Reformation Era.

In the pre-Reformation and Reformation eras, various communal experiments were tried, mostly as part of the radically militant wing of various reformist movements. Typical were the Taborites and Munsterites. The Taborites arose after the execution in 1415 of John Hus, the Czech reformer. Taborite communities developed on Bohemian hillsides and a conscious imitation of early Christian communalism was practiced. The most important of these communities, on a hill near Bechyne Castle, was named Mount Tabor. Tabor was to be the site of the second coming of Christ (Mark 14), and the group derived its own name from the new Mount Tabor. Anti-German, intensely nationalistic, anti-Roman Catholic, and biblicist, the Taborites were attempting a new social order outside that of Bohemia or even Western Europe. For this reason, they were themselves subject to persecution by both Roman Catholics and Hussites. In 1420, Martinek Hauska appeared, preaching the end-time and calling for all to flee to the mountaintops for safety. The mountaintops to which he referred were, of course, the five Taborite communities. The success led to a call for a holy war to exterminate sin and sinners and thus purify the land and bring in the millennium.

The millennium was to be characterized as an anarchocommunism. There would be no authority figures, taxes, rents, or private property. Since it was a classless society, it would begin by a massacre of the rich. Communal coffers were established. When these ran low, the Taborites "took from the enemies of God what God has given for his children" (i.e., they stole what they needed from any nearby non-Taborite). The Taborites, well supplied militarily, continued to exist for a generation, but were broken and splintered by war, messianic figures claiming to be Christ, doctrinal divergences and, primarily, an inability to produce the goods needed to survive. They eventually died out as a social experiment.

During the Reformation, communalism emerged among the radical reformers. In 1534, the New Jerusalem was established at Munster by Bernard Rothmann, Jan of Leiden, and Jan Mathijs. The leaders imposed communalism on an essentially reluctant community. They began by collecting all the financial resources into the community treasure, effecting the change by making the surrender of money the test of true Christianity. Demands on food and shelter followed as the ideal became a disappearance of the distinction between thine and mine. Mathijs emerged as the ruling authority, but was killed in a scouting raid against the Catholic forces now besieging the city. Jan of Leiden took over and began the imposition of an exacting moral code. Artisans were commandeered and made community employees. The sexual mores were changed. Jan took advantage of the three-to-one ratio of women to men and declared polygamy the order of the day. Jan, himself, took fifteen wives, and the polygamy soon disintegrated into promiscuity.

After an early victory over the Catholic forces, Jan of Leiden proclaimed himself king of the world and instituted a wave of terror against community dissidents. The early victory of the reformers only led to greater efforts by the Catholic forces, who laid an even stronger siege to Munster. Eventually, they starved the community to death, and Jan of Leiden was executed.

The experiences at Munster and Tabor were typical in many ways of medieval communal groups. Though Munster was an extreme case, communalists associated with the Reformation tended to be militant in their approach to authority structures other than their own. Possibly related to their militancy was their own experience of having been persecuted, and a resulting short life span. When they gained power, they became the persecutors. The Taborite practice of the appropriation of property of noncommunalists was also widespread. The sexual reforms, mostly advocating polygamy, were common. With such models, it is no wonder that communalism did not experience another revival for several centuries. A few isolated attempts appeared, but only in the early 1800s did a new wave of communalism arise.

THE NINETEENTH CENTURY COMMUNAL SURGE. American communal history is generally focused upon the early nineteenth century, the era of some of the most important communal experiments. However, the significance of the communes founded after 1960 have been recognized, and communal history is now generally seen as having progressed through three phases:(1) prior to 1860; (2) from 1860 to 1960; and (3) since 1960. The first phase begins in the seventeenth century with the establishment of such groups as Plockhoy's Commonwealth in Delaware(1663), the Labadist Community in Maryland (1683), and the Society of the Woman in the Wilderness outside of Philadelphia(1694). Others were founded through the 1700s, and the rate of community formation increased dramatically in the late eighteenth century with the coming of the Shakers. The numerous attempts by the followers of Robert Owen (1820s) and Charles Fourier (1840s) to found communities crowned the first phase of communal life in America and their relatively quick demise ended it.

The nineteenth century burst of communalism grew out of the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century and the rise of intellectual concern with social order. The followers of Claude Henri Saint-Simon are usually accredited with the beginning of egalitarian reformist ideas, but roots to Saint-Simon's thought are deep in the trends of eighteenth century philosophy. In the 1820s, followers of Saint-Simon began a community, which, after Saint-Simon's death, was moved to Menilmontant by its leader, Enfantin. In 1832, Enfantin was condemned for teaching free love, and communalism suffered a setback from which it never recovered in France.

Among the French socialist writers was Etienne Cabet, who put his communalist ideals in an 1840 book, Voyage en Icarie. In 1848, he and some followers settled in Fanin County, Texas, but health problems forced them to Illinois, where they settled at Nauvoo, which had recently been abandoned by the Mormons. Branch colonies were established in Iowa and Missouri, but Cabet's death in 1856 was a nearly fatal blow. One colony in Iowa did survive until the end of the century.

More important for the eventual rise of communal groups were the ideas of Charles Fourier (1772–1837). Fourier saw the world organized in phalanxes (his name for a single community) in which communism would be practiced in both labor and production. A strong order would exist for discipline, and loyalty to the phalanx (a central idea) would replace national and family ties. Marriage would be regulated on a polyandric system, with women having many husbands. The vision of Fourier gripped the imagination of the Western world.

One of the people who adopted Fourier's vision was George Ripley. His concerns were laid down in a lengthy letter to Ralph Emerson on November 9, 1840. Ripley looked for a place where a natural union between intellectual pursuits and labor could be achieved by combining the two. He proposed to do this on a tract of land that would be a farm, garden, and college, all in one. This adventure, thought Ripley, would yield industry without drudgery and equality without vulgarity. It would do away with the evils of capitalism and competition. Each family would retain some private property, thus allowing individuality to continue. About ten to twelve families would start the experiment, which would grow slowly. The adults would be paid interest on their investment and wages for their labor. There would be no great wealth but a comfortable living.

Government would be by consensus expressed in open meetings. On September 29, 1841, the Articles of Association for Brook Farm were drawn up after the members spent a summer near West Roxbury, Massachusetts. The Articles called for full support of children to age ten and their education until age twenty. The youth would work for half wages and, at twenty, would decide to stay as a full member or leave without obligation to the community. Income would come to the community through a boarding school and a farm. Later, printing and manufacturing would be added.

Problems arose in the community, however; an internal critique identified several sources of the friction. There was a lack of well-planned operating procedures. The only real community experience was eating together when there should have been more sharing on other levels. No common religious life existed. No confrontation with the basic problem of divided love had been made.

After making this critique, the members revived their interest in Fourier's ideas. Albert Brisbane, an ardent disciple of Fourier, joined Brook Farm, and it was on its way to becoming a successful phalange. Population increased and a house (phalanstery) was begun. But before it could become self-sufficient, a smallpox epidemic took a heavy toll on its members, some of whom died, and some of whom fled. A fire destroyed the phalanstery. In November 1846, Brook Farm was declared a failure and the project ended.

More successful was the phalanx at Hopedale, Massachusetts. Begun in 1841, it prospered for 11 years under the able guidance of Adin Ballou, a Unitarian and Spiritualist. Altogether, 175 people lived at Hopedale. Its success was built upon Ballou's strong leadership and a strict moral and behavioral code. Religious freedom was allowed. The project failed, however, after Ballou withdrew as leader.

Communities drawing on the enthusiasm of the French philosophers, but based more directly on Religious deals (mainly New Testament) also flourished in the nineteenth century. Of significance were the Rappites, German separatists who migrated to Pennsylvania in the early 1800s. In 1803–04, they settled in Butler County, Pennsylvania, and in 1805, promulgated their Articles of Agreement. They were German pietists and millennialists. They were led by George Rapp, who was given almost complete control over the community. Regulation of sexual life began in 1807 when the community became celibate. Equality was a high ideal and a uniform dress was adopted. A community graveyard without markers was also used. In 1814, the group migrated en masse up the Wabash River from Evansville to New Harmony, Indiana.

Here they established one of the most successful communities in American history. In 1818, the final break with the past was made when all property records, hence all claims by individuals on the community's property, were destroyed by vote of the community. The Rappites became known for their innovations. They were the first to develop prefabricated houses, many of which still stand. They diversified their economy and became, in a short time, entirely self-sufficient. They made wagons, distilled whiskey, cultivated silk, and had an early printing center for the Wabash Valley. Success threatened their faith, so in 1824, they sold the property and returned to Pennsylvania. They built a new town, Economy, near Pittsburgh.

The beginning of the end came in the late 1820s when Father Rapp, without consulting the community, published a second set of Articles of Agreement. While these articles merely stated in writing what was happening in practice, discontent at Rapp's impertinence arose. To counter the dissatisfaction, Rapp began to emphasize the nearness of the second coming of Christ in his sermons and to propose a group journey to meet him in the Holy Land. The apocalypticism was rewarded in 1832 by the appearance in Economy of "Count Leon," a professed returned Christ and the anointed of God. He took approximately 250 of the Rappites with him when he left. The "Count Leon" incident was followed by disagreement on celibacy and Rapp's paternal control. Rapp was subsequently forced to modify his articles.

In 1834, Father Rapp's adopted son, who had been the financial genius of the community, died. With his passing much of the community's financial success passed also. In 1847, Father Rapp died, and without his unitive personality, the community disintegrated. Both New Harmony and Economy are only tourist spots today.

COMMUNALISM IN AMERICA: THE SECOND PHASE. There was a noticeable decline in the formation of new communal societies from the mid-1840s to the beginning of the Civil War. The hiatus in community formation, which continued for almost a decade after the war, was broken by the migration of the Hutterites, a people who share a religious background (including a commitment to pacifism) with the Russian Mennonites. In 1874, reacting to the introduction of compulsory military service in Russia, they migrated to the United States. The first three colonies, containing approximately 400 people, were founded in South Dakota. The colonies multiplied until again faced with military service during World War I. In a relatively short time they moved to Canada and spread across the prairie. In 1934, they began a second and this time successful attempt to colonize South Dakota. As of the mid-1980s, they had more than 300 colonies across the western part of Canada and in the western U.S. states bordering Canada. The Hutterites alone have founded more communities than all of the communal groups before them combined. They remain today as the single most successful communal group, past or present.

As the Hutterite communal thrust was gaining strength, a second more secular communal push emerged that was rooted in the utopian visions of Edward Bellamy. In 1887, Bellamy's novel Looking Backward, 1000–1887 projected a vision of economic equality to be reached in the foreseeable future. It sold 200,000 copies by 1890 and led to the formation of Nationalist Clubs in 28 states. During the 1890s Bellamy's novel, at times combined with various degrees of Marxist thought, inspired a variety of new communal experiments, including a group of colonies in the Puget Sound area of Washington. Endorsed by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the founder of the Theosophical Society, the book also led to the formation of several explicitly Theosophical communities during the early twentieth century.

After World War I the number of new communities continued to grow out of most diverse theoretical constructions. They included Jewish Socialists, occultists, Mormons, orthodox Christians, anarchists, and radical Marxists. Even without counting the Hutterites, more communities were begun in the second phase of American communal life (1860–1960) than in the two centuries of the first phase.

COMMUNALISM IN AMERICA: THE THIRD PHASE. The third phase of communal growth in America started in the 1960s as part of the larger counter culture, or hippie, movement. Beginning in the summer of 1967, a number of young adults flocked to California in search of a cultural alternative to the middle class life in which they had been raised. Labeled "flower children" because of their habit of giving flowers to people they encountered on the street, they soon became distinguished by their use of psychedelic drugs. In both Los Angeles and San Francisco, economic necessity led them to adopt communalism, and as communalism grew, they made the discovery of the new quality it added to their lives. After the media, time, and drugs destroyed the hippie communities in the urban areas, many of the former hippies headed for rural America and launched a back-to-the-land movement. Others scattered through the cities and formed various kinds of urban cooperatives. The impulse remained strong through the 1970s but began to wane in the 1980s. Of the hundreds of communities formed, however, a number (mostly religious) have survived to take their place in communal history.

One new set of the recent communities shared the common roots of the hippie and the Jesus People, the Christian evangelical movement that emerged among the hippies. Numerous Christian communes, Jesus People U.S.A. of Chicago being possibly the most successful, sprang up. They were joined by occult New Age communities that combined hippie values with New Age visions of communes astransforming agents in society. A most successful secular communal experiment is Twin Oaks, a Virginia community built on the principles of behaviorist psychologist B. F. Skinner. The scholarly interest in communalism also spawned the Communal Studies Association (PO Box 122, Amana, IA 52203) and the Communal Studies Center at the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville.

THE MARKS OF A SUCCESSFUL COMMUNITY. Of the many communities begun in America since 1800, only a few have survived any length of time. That is, only a few have survived long enough for a child born in the commune to become an adult member. From those that have survived and from a study of the demises of those that failed, some characteristics of successful and unsuccessful communities emerge. As a beginning, it might be noted that sex and close interpersonal relations are rarely the cause of a community's failure. These two items often bring discontent and a change of membership, but in only the rarest of cases do they lead to a total breakup of the community. Even Plato, in the Republic, recognized the necessity of a strong order in sexual relations. He proposed a community of wives. It is characteristic of communities either at the beginning or soon thereafter (sex is a question that does not wait long to be asked) to organize personal relationships in a social pattern. The human organism has proved adaptable to a seemingly infinite variety of patterns, from monogamy, to polygamy and polyandry, to free love of both traditional and Oneida varieties, to group marriage (which might include homosexual attachments), and to chastity, the most popular regulation. The particular form is not important; that sex be regulated is important.

Among the most influential of the patterns of sexual conduct in American religious groups is the complex marriage system developed by the Oneida community. The group was formed in Putney, Vermont, in the early 1840s, and moved to Oneida, New York, in the mid-1840s. The community endured for a generation, dissolving in 1880. The Oneida community's sexual mores were established by John Humphrey Noyes, the founder of the community. Early in his career Noyes began to preach against monogamy as an exclusive attachment that limited love. As a first step in developing his new system Noyes discovered what he called male continence, the practice of intercourse without the male reaching climax. (This practice was widespread among Tibetan Buddhists, and was called karezza.) By using this technique, numerous pregnancies could be avoided. Thus men of the Oneida community could cohabit with a number of women without giving the community the burden of many new members. As finally worked out, cohabitation within the Oneida community was regulated by a system of ascending fellowship. In this system, those seen as more perfect (the older members) tended to have sexual encounters with the younger members. All encounters were arranged by a third party, and records were kept to prevent any exclusive relationships from developing.

A study of the history of many communes that have died out indicates five main reasons for their failure. First, communities founded for shallow reasons (for example, by persons merely wanting to escape their former lives) do not survive. Poor planning by those inexperienced in meeting the total needs of people is a prime cause of failure, particularly now, when so many communalists were raised in the city in complete ignorance of rural life. Anarchy, a lack of order, is another cause. Production of items (food, money, shelter, restrooms, etc.) necessary to survival becomes everyone's job but no one's responsibility. A common time for communes to dissolve is immediately following the first snow. Hostility from the surrounding community has been a strong force in disrupting communal existence. This hostility comes as a reaction to the different styles of life and the often deviant (from the local surrounding community) moral standards of communalists. Refusal to allow Oneida's sexual mores to prevail was a significant factor in its eventual demise. Hostility in New Mexico has all but destroyed many communes there. The final factor in communal disruption is success. Communes, if successful in reaching their original goals, financial or otherwise, will pose new goals often drawn from the surrounding world. Thus, keeping the communal ideal before the group is a continuing function. Communities in Zion, Illinois; Amana, Iowa; and New Harmony, Indiana; all suffered from success.

The successful commune (i.e., one that survives) will have several of the following characteristics, no one of which is sufficient in itself. The presence of a strong leader has been noted in many surviving communes. She/he supplies the unity and authority, and functions somewhat as a patriarchal figure. His/her power may be drawn from psychic, oratorical, or intellectual abilities, or just from personality. Such present-day communes as the Ananda Cooperative Community of Kriyananda, the One World Family of Allen Noonan, and the Farm of Stephen are good examples. In the absence of a strong leader, a strong system of social control and behavior can function in his/her stead. This system, which may be formal or informal, must regulate enough of the life of the community for the necessities of life to be provided and a quality of life sustained. Many communes survive the death of their founders by adopting such a system based on the founders' teachings. Economic self-sufficiency is vital to a community's existence. Parasites can exist only for a couple of years. Removal from the outside world, in its most effective form geographically, is an early necessity. The establishment of a commune means changing habits and mores ingrained since childhood. It is best accomplished in a period of isolation, without old distractions. It can be done by a careful regulation of the possessions and material resources used by the community. After establishment, a careful check on new ideas must be made, and those destructive to the community's life countered.

The basic problem for communal groups is always, then, living as a subculture in a dominant culture that is often hostile and that always aims at assimilation and uniformity. Just as eternal vigilance is the price of freedom, eternal confrontation is the price of continued communal life.

THE DEMISE OF THE SOVIET UNION. The fall of Marxism in the former U.S.S.R. has spurred the re-examination of communalism by the growing number of scholars of communal life. This new look has coincided with a de-emphasis on questions of measuring the "success" of communes and a refocus of attention on the role of communalism as a stage in the ongoing development of communities, and of communal living as a choice for one phase of an individual's life. In this light communes can be seen as temporary structures that cease to exist as they succeed in reaching the particular goal or goals of their founders. They serve their purpose for the people involved, who then move on to another social organization. Frequently, at the economic level, communal structures provide a bridge for people to enter mainstream society. On the social level, communities teach people to live with others with a new degree of intimacy, which prepares them to participate in a nuclear family. A developmental approach to understanding communalism allows new standards by which to judge communal experiments.

Sources–The Communal Family

The study of communal groups and life in North America is focused and nurtured by the Communal Studies Association, PO Box 122, Amana, IA 52203. Archives and other materials concerning communes may be found at the Center for Communal Studies, University of Southern Indiana, Evansville, IN 47712, and in the American religions Collection at the Davidson Library at the University of California–Santa Barabra. The association publishes the annual journal, Communal Studies.

General Sources

Communities Directory: A Guide to Cooperative Living. Rutledge, MO: Fellowship for Intentional Community, 2000. 456 pp.

Dare, Philip, ed. American Communes to 1860: A Bibliography. New York: Garland Publishing, 1990.

Fogarty, Robert S. American Utopianism. Itaska, IL: F. E. Peacock Publishers, 1972. 175 pp.

Kanter, Rosebeth Moss. Commitment and Community. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972. 303 pp.

Melton, J. Gordon, and Robin Martin. A Bibliography of American Communalism. Evanston, IL: Institute for the Study of American Religion, n.d. 23 pp.

Mercer, John. Communes. Dorchester, Dorset: Prism Press, 1984. 152 pp.

Metcalf, Bill. Shared Visions, Shared Lives: Communal Living Around the Globe. Foray, Scotland: Findhorn Press, 1995. 192 pp.

Miller, Timothy. The 60's Communes: Hippies and Beyond (Peace and Conflict Resolution). Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000. 576 pp.

——. American Communes, 1860–1960: A Bibliography. New York: Garland Publishing, 1990. 583 pp.

Muncy, Raymond Lee. Sex and Marriage in Utopian Communities. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973. 275 pp.

The 1990/91 Directory of Intentional Communities: A Guide to Cooperative Living. Evansville, IN: Fellowship for Intentional Community/ Stelle, IL: Communities Publications, Cooperative, 1990. 312 pp.

Oved, Yaacov. Two Hundred Years of American Communes. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1993. 500 pp.

Pitzer, Donald E. America's Communal Utopias. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. 537 pp.

Rexroth, Kenneth. Communalism: From Its Origins to the Twentieth Century. New York: Seabury Press, 1974. 316 pp.

Richter, Peyton E. Utopias, Social Ideals and Communal Experiments. Boston: Holbrook Press, 1971. 321 pp.

Communes in America Prior to 1860

Bester, Arthur. Backwoods Utopias. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1970. 330 pp.

Lockwood, George B. The Harmony Movement. New York: Dover Publications, 1971. 404 pp.

Mandelker, Ira L. Religion, Society and Utopia in Nineteenth-Century America. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984. 181 pp.

Sachse, Julius F. The German Pietists of Provincial Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: The Author, 1895. 504 pp.

Wisby, Herbert A., Jr. Pioneer Prophetess. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1964. 232 pp.

Communes in America 1860–1960

Hine, Robert. California's Utopian Communities. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966. 209 pp.

Kagan, Paul. New World Utopias. New York: Penguin Books, 1975. 191 pp.

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Communes in Americafter 1960

Berger, Bennett M. The Survival of a Counterculture. Berkeley; University of California Press, 1981. 264 pp.

Fitzgerald, George R. Communes, Their Goals, Hopes, Problems. New York: Paulist Press, 1971. 214 pp.

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Houriet, Robert. Getting Back Together. New York: Avon, 1971. 408 pp.

McLaughlin, Corrine, and Gordon Davidson. Builders of the Dawn: Community Lifestyle in a Changing World. Shutesbuty, MA: Sirius Publishing, 1986. 372 pp.

Mellis, Charles J. Committed Communities. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1976. 138 pp.

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Chapter 16: Communal Family

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Chapter 16: Communal Family