Communal Family

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16 Communal Family







Communal—Before 1960

Communal—After 1960

“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 communal lifestyle, while the Essene community at Qumran represents an attempt in the Jewish community at a communal alternative. There have been numerous scholarly attempts to tie the Qumran community directly to the founding of the Christian movement.

It was not until the fourth century c.e., however, that communalism became a major force in Western society, and interestingly enough, its form is the same as in the East— monasticism. Like the Christians, Jains in India and 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 thoroughgoing 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. The chastity rule offered an alternative to family life, the main distraction to community allegiance. In obedience to the abbot and in acceptance of the rules came a strong social system to replace the one ingrained from youth, as well as a discipline to enforce the new order.

The result was the success of the monastic movement, to which the church later responded by adopting certain 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 problem during the Middle Ages as the monastic communities became an adjunct to the power structures instead of an alternative.

Francis of Assisi (c. 1181–1226) raised the issue of poverty in monastic circles. Francis thought that sophistry had undermined the virtues of a life of poverty. While individually giving up all property, collectively the monasteries were rich, and even though the monks eschewed ownership, they could nevertheless use all the order’s wealth. In advocating a poverty of use, Francis threatened the more powerful monasteries and by implication the authority of the medieval church. In the face of this threat, the church hierarchy rejected Francis, burned his books, and forced a highly edited version of his rules on the Franciscan order. Later, various attempts were made to reverse the accumulation of wealth by the monasteries, but few understood the larger implications of the issue. The inability to reform the monasteries played into the hands of England’s King Henry VIII (r. 1509–1547), who plundered the monasteries in his territories during the Reformation Era.

A variety of communal experiments were tried before and after the Reformation, mostly as part of the radically militant wing of several reformist movements. The Taborites and Münsterites were typical. The Taborites arose after the execution of John Hus (c. 1373–1415), 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 to create a new social order separate from 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 began preaching the end-time and calling for all to flee to the mountaintops—that is, the five Taborite communities—for safety. The group’s success led them 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 characterized as anarcho-communism. There would be no authority figures, taxes, rents, or private property. Since it was to be a classless society, it would begin with 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 Münster by Bernard Rothmann (c. 1495–c.1535), Jan of Leiden (c. 1509–1536), and Jan Mathijs (d. 1534). These leaders imposed communalism on a 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 besieging the city. Jan of Leiden took over and imposed an exacting moral code. Artisans were commandeered and made community employees. Sexual mores were revised when Jan took advantage of the three-to-one ratio of women to men and declared polygamy the order of the day. Jan, himself, took 15 wives, and polygamy soon devolved 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 led to greater efforts by Catholic forces, which imposed an even stronger siege against Münster. Eventually, the Catholics starved the community to death, and Jan of Leiden was executed.

The experiences at Münster and Tabor were typical of medieval communal groups. Though Münster 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. When they gained power, they became the persecutors. The Taborite practice of the appropriation of the 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 were made, but only in the early 1800s did a new wave of communalism arise.


American communal history generally focuses on the early nineteenth century, the era of some of the country’s most important communal experiments. However, the significance of the communes founded after 1960 has been recognized, and American communal history is now seen as having progressed through three phases: (1) pre-1860, (2) 1860 to 1960, and (3) post–1960. The first phase began 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 (1771–1858) and Charles Fourier (1772–1837) to found communities crowned the first phase of communal life in America, and the quick demise of these communities 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 (1760–1825) are usually credited with formulating the first egalitarian reformist ideas, but the roots of Saint-Simon’s thought are deep in eighteenth-century philosophy. In the 1820s, followers of Saint-Simon began a community in France, which, after Saint-Simon’s death, was moved to Ménilmontant by its leader, Barthélemy Prosper Enfantin (1796–1864). In 1832 Enfantin was condemned for teaching free love, and communalism suffered a setback from which it never recovered in France.

Etienne Cabet (1788–1856), a French socialist writer, described 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, although one colony in Iowa survived until the end of the century.

More important for the eventual rise of communal groups were the ideas of Charles Fourier. Fourier envisaged the world as organized in phalanxes (his name for a single community) in which communism would be practiced in both labor and production. A strong order would be needed 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 communalism was George Ripley (1802–1880). His concerns were detailed in a lengthy letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) on November 9, 1840. Ripley desired 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 10 and their education until age 20. The youth would work for half wages and, at 20, 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, including a lack of well-planned operating procedures. In addition, the only communal experience was shared meals, when there should have been sharing on other levels. No common religious life existed, and 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. When Albert Brisbane (1809– 1890), an ardent disciple of Fourier, joined Brook Farm, it was well on its way to becoming a successful phalanx. 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. Then, 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 (1803–1890), a Unitarian and Spiritualist. Altogether, 175 people lived at Hopedale. Its success was built upon Ballou’s strong leadership and the community’s strict moral and behavioral code, which allowed religious freedom. The project failed, however, after Ballou withdrew as leader.

Communities drawing on the enthusiasm of the French philosophers, but based more directly on religious ideals (mainly derived from the New Testament) also flourished in the nineteenth century. Of significance were the Rappites, German separatists, pietists, and millennialists who migrated to Pennsylvania in the early 1800s. In 1803 to 1804, the Rappites settled in Butler County, Pennsylvania, and in 1805 they promulgated their Articles of Agreement. They were led by George Rapp (1757–1847), 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 to New Harmony, Indiana.

Here they established one of the most successful communes 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 ran a printing center. Success threatened their faith, so in 1824, they sold the property and returned to Pennsylvania, where they built a new town, Economy, near Pittsburgh.

The beginning of the end came in the late 1820s when 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,” who professed to be the returned Christ and the

Communal Family Chronology
1663Plockhoy Community formed in rural Delaware.
c.1690German pietist Conrad Beissel immigrates to America and joins with the German Baptist Brethren.
1714Founding of the Community of True Inspiration in Germany. It would later relocate to the state of Iowa and build the community at Amana.
1732Conrad Beissel moves to Ephrata, where he establishes a communal experiment emphasizing celibacy, mysticism, and separation from the world’s evil influences.
1787First Shaker community is founded at New Lebanon, New York.
1794Shakers found community at Sabbath Lake, Maine.
1805Under the promulgation of its Articles of Agreement, German Protestants under the leadership of George Rapp found Harmony, Pennsylvania, a utopian community.
1814The Rappists purchase 30,000 acres of land in Indiana and found New Harmony.
1825Rappists return to Pennsylvania and found Economy, 20 miles from Pittsburgh.
1850Eric Jansen, founder of the Bishop Hill community, is shot by a disgruntled ex-member.
1851Mountain Cove, a Spiritualist community, is founded in California by Thomas Lake Harris.
1874Rejecting demands to serve in the Russian military, Hutterites begin to migrate to North America.
1888Edward Belamy issues utopian communal novel, Looking Backward 2000–1887.
 Cyrus Teed, an exponent of cellular cosmology, a belief that the earth’s surface is concave and we live inside a sphere, founds the Koreshan Unity.
1914As World War I begins, Hutterites leave America for Canada.
1931A judge in New York who sentenced Father Divine dies of an unexpected heart attack shortly thereafter.
1932Reorganization and secularization of the Amana colonies.
1942Father Divine relocates headquarters of his Peace Mission Movement to Philadelphia.
1946Church of the Brotherhood forms in Washington, D.C.
1954Bruderhof Communities open first settlement in the United States in Rifton, New York.
1956Some Mennonites found the Reba Place Fellowship in Evanston, Illinois.
1957The Ecumenical Institute forms in Chicago. It is an outgrowth of the 1954 meeting of the World Council of Churches in Evanston, Illinois.
1958Two former member of the WFLK Fountain of the World explode a bomb at the group’s administrative building in an attempt to kill the leader, Krishna Venta.
1968Love Israel founds the Church of Jesus Christ of Armageddon in Seattle, Washington.
1971Stephen Gaskin and three other members of The Farm, located in Summertown, Tennessee, are arrested for manufacture of marijuana. Their plea that they use marijuana for religious purposes does not prevent their conviction and internment for several months in 1974.
1974Most of the members of the Children of God (now known as the Family International) abandon the United States for the world mission field.
1975The National Historic Communal Societies Association (now the Communal Studies Association) founded.
1976The Federation of Egalitarian Communities is founded at an assembly held at the East Wind Community in Missouri.
1984The Twelve Tribes Community (aka the Northeast Kingdom Community) is disrupted by a government raid after a member of the group makes false claims that child abuse is happening within the community.
1989Synonon, a controversial community made up primarily of reformed drug addicts, dissolves after three decades of life together.
1990Jesus People USA, one of the most successful Jesus People communes, affiliates with the Evangelical Covenant Church.
1991Kerista, an experiment in polyfidelity (the creation of family units with multiple male and female sexual partners) dissolves after two decades.
1993–96The Family faces a set of government raids and subsequent legal proceeding growing out of widespread accusation that extensive sexual child abuse had occurred.
 The legal issues are finally resolved, but a high level of tension remains with ex-members.
2005Celebration of 200th anniversary of the organization of the Harmony Society by Rappite colonists at Harmony, Pennsylvania.
2006150 anniversary of the establishment of the Aurora Colony in Oregon by William Keil.

anointed of God. He took approximately 250 of the Rappites with him when he left. The Count Leon incident was followed by disagreement over the celibacy issue and Rapp’s paternal control. Rapp was subsequently forced to modify his articles.

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


There was a noticeable decline in the formation of new communal societies from the mid-1840s to the beginning of the Civil War (1861–1865). 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 they were again faced with military service during World War I (1914–1918). 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 the country’s single most successful communal group, past or present.

As the Hutterite communal thrust was gaining strength, a second more secular communal movement emerged that was rooted in the utopian visions of Edward Bellamy (1850– 1898). Bellamy’s novel Looking Backward, 2000–1887 (1888) projected a vision of economic equality to be reached in the 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 (1831– 1891), 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 diverse theoretical constructions. These communities were home to Jewish socialists, occultists, Mormons, orthodox Christians, anarchists, and radical Marxists, among others. 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.


The third phase of communal growth in America started in the 1960s as part of the larger counterculture or the 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 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 group of communities had roots in the hippie culture and the Jesus People movement, the Christian evangelical movement that emerged among the hippies. Numerous Christian communes, Jesus People U.S.A. of Chicago being the most successful, sprang up. They were joined by esoteric New Age communities that combined hippie values with New Age visions of communes as transforming agents in society. A successful secular communal experiment took place in Twin Oaks, a Virginia community built on the principles of behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner (1904–1990). The scholarly interest in communalism also spawned the Communal Studies Association based in Amana, Iowa, and the Center for Communal Studies at the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville.


Of the many communities begun in America since 1800, only a few survived any length of time—that is, long enough for a child born in the commune to become an adult member. From those that survived and from a study of the demise of those that failed, some characteristics of successful and unsuccessful communities emerge. Sex and close interpersonal relations are rarely the cause of a community’s failure. These two factors often bring discontent and a change of membership, but in only rare 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 such communities to organize personal relationships into some type of social pattern at their founding or shortly thereafter. The human organism has proved adaptable to a seemingly infinite variety of patterns, from monogamy, to polygamy and polyandry, to free love, to group marriage (which might include homosexual attachments), and to chastity, the most common regulation. The particular form is not important; what is important is that sex be regulated.

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 more than a generation, dissolving in 1880. The Oneida community’s sexual mores were established by John Humphrey Noyes (1811–1886), 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 viewpoint of the 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 or he supplies the unity and authority, and functions somewhat as a matriarchal or patriarchal figure. The leader’s 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 (b. 1926), 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 or 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 fall of Marxism in the former U.S.S.R. occasioned a reexamination of communalism in the 1990s by the growing number of scholars of communal life. This development has coincided with a de-emphasis on 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.


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. The association publishes the journal Communal Societies. 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 J. Gordon Melton American Religions Collection at the Davidson Library at the University of California-Santa Barbara.

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