The explosion of communes in the 1960s seemed to many a fresh and unique flowering of the counter-cultural revolution that spread over America during that decade, but to more astute observers it was part of an older and continuing American tradition. That tradition had its roots in the Puritan and utopian notion of establishing a "city on a hill" where the covenanted saints might live in peace and harmony, in a socialist tradition that emphasized the need for "cooperative commonwealths" that could cultivate land for the common good rather than capitalist gain, and in a "seeker" tradition that emphasized the values of inner peace and tranquillity within the sheltered walls of a community.
Veterans who returned from World War II seeking a contemplative alternative to war and materialism found it within the walls of Trappist and Cistercian monasteries, and by rejecting the vita activa for the vita contemplativa, these veterans foreshadowed the 1960s' rejection of materialism and its embrace of communal values, both secular and religious.
The sharpest departure from prior patterns was the emergence of a significant number of Eastern-oriented communes that represented a rejection of Western religious alternatives and an embrace of mystical or transcendental teachings. The Ananda Cooperative Village, founded in 1967 in Nevada City, California, is emblematic of this tendency. The community was founded by Swami Kriyananda and followed the outlines established by an earlier swami, Paramahansa Yogananda, author of Autobiography of a Yogi, who asserted that "self-realization" colonies would form the basis for a better, more humane world. From 1948 onward Kriyananda was a disciple of Yogananda and lived in ashrams in India and the United States. In 1962 Kriyananda was dismissed as vice president of the Self-Realization Fellowship for urging reforms, and in 1967 he bought a twenty-four-acre site in Nevada City that attracted the attention of the poets Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg. Between 1968 and 1970 Kriyananda purchased additional parcels of land and established a meditation retreat. Members were required to pay an initial membership fee, and businesses were established on the site (an incense factory and a print shop). The seventy-two-acre retreat welcomed visitors, but had at its core believers who were expected to lead celibate lives, to cultivate their spiritual awareness by meditation and Yoga, and to follow the precepts of an ascetic life laid down by Swami Kriyananda. Numerous other "retreat" communes were established, such as the Lama Foundation near Taos, New Mexico, and the elaborate West Virginia home of the Society for Krishna Consciousness, better known as the "Hare Krishnas."
Several groups started as churches, then moved into intense communal phases. The Church Universal and Triumphant drew on the "I Am" movement, theosophy, and the esoteric tradition of past masters to emerge as a New Age religion under the guidance of Elizabeth Prophet, who engineered a series of moves that brought the group in 1981 to Montana, where they established a retreat on a twenty-four-thousand-acre site. The Children of God began as part of the Jesus Movement of the 1960s and blossomed under the leadership of David "Mo" Berg, who introduced free love as an element in the evangelical Christian mix and established communes across the world. In 1977 they became known as the Children of God. Often in trouble with the law because of their practices, the group abandoned free love in 1994 after Berg's death, began to emphasize a social agenda, and returned to a more traditional evangelical lifestyle.
One form of commune that emerged in the 1960s combined the charismatic, the apocalyptic, and the political. A notorious example was the Peoples' Temple, which grew out of a Christian Assembly of God Church in Indianapolis in 1957. Its leader was James Jones, an ordained Disciples of Christ minister, who announced to his congregation in 1966 that a nuclear holocaust would take place in 1967 and that the People's Temple should relocate to northern California. In 1970 Jones purchased churches in San Francisco and Los Angeles and his ministry became increasingly social and militant. He gained a following among inner-city blacks and radical whites and had an estimated five thousand followers in several locations. In 1977 nine hundred members of the church moved to Guyana to establish an interracial colony, Jonestown, on twenty-seven thousand acres leased from the Guyanese government. The members lived in primitive dwellings and tried to eke out a living as Jones became increasingly paranoid and sadistic. An investigation by an American congressman, Leo Ryan, triggered not only Ryan's murder but also the mass suicide of more than nine hundred members, including Jones. The colony was an outgrowth of Jones's messianic pretensions and a radical social agenda that sought to overthrow "racism, sexism, and ageism" and that mirrored certain assumptions prevalent in the 1960s about a radical transformation of society. Jonestown was a highly regimented "top-down" commune that was in sharp contrast to several anarchist colonies and decentralized groups, such as Sunrise Hill (1966) in Massachusetts, modeled along the lines suggested by decentralist critic Ralph Borsodi, though certain features, such as free love and group meditation, would hardly have met with Borsodi's approval. Drop City was an artists' commune founded in 1965 in Trinidad, Colorado, by Kansas and Colorado artists who saw themselves as harbingers of a new artistic age based on psychedelic drugs, Eastern mysticism, and avantgarde art. They traveled around the country promoting light shows and "Droppings" (their name for a "total environment media mix"), and in 1967 sponsored the "Drop City Joy Festival," which brought thousands of hippies onto their six-acre site. In 1973 the property was sold and the residents were evicted from their geodesic domes.
Just as Jonestown was an extreme example of a mixture of radical politics and religion, an offshoot of Seventh-Day Adventists, the Branch Davidians, represented the tendency of Protestant bodies to splinter and for communelike organizations to grow under the leadership of young, inspired leaders. Led by David Koresh and located at Waco, Texas, the Branch Davidians were one wing of a splinter group that emerged in the 1950s and for the next thirty years engaged in ideological sniping with the mainstream Adventists and other millennialist groups. In 1981 a young Adventist, Vernon Howell, emerged as a leader of the Branch Davidians and wrested control from Ben Roden. In 1987, after an armed confrontation with Roden's followers, Howell took control of the Davidian headquarters at Waco and began his reign as the leader under the name David Koresh, the Persian name for Cyrus the king. Koresh began an aggressive campaign to evangelize among Adventists, emphasized an "end of time" theology, and shifted the sect toward a more communal lifestyle that emphasized Koresh's prophetic leadership, the establishment of a core of dedicated followers, and the creation of "a new lineage of God's children from his own seed," according to two scholars. Bible study sessions led by Koresh strengthened his authority to interpret Adventists texts. As the result of a dispute with a local child protection agency the Branch Davidians barricaded themselves in their compound and engaged in combat with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF). During the initial confrontation four BATF agents and six Branch Davidians were killed, and a protracted standoff between federal authorities and the Branch Davidians ensued. In April 1993, agents stormed the compound, there was a resulting fire, and seventy-four Branch Davidians died. Federal agents believed that the fire had been started by Koresh, but Davidian supporters argued that the cause lay with the federal officers. The deaths of David Koresh, James Jones, and their followers highlighted the volatile nature of religious and charismatic communes in this period and tended to overshadow the development of settled groups, such as the Christian group Reba Place in Evanston, Illinois; the interracial Koinona Farm in Georgia; and the Shiloh House in Oregon, dedicated to an evangelical community and the continuation of the monastic tradition of Trappist orders.
See alsoAnti-Cult Movement; Belonging, Religious; Branch Davidians; Celibacy; Church Universal and Triumphant; Cult; Cult Awareness Network; Jesus Movement; Jones, Jim; Koresh, David; Meditation; New Age Spirituality; New Religious Movements; People's Temple; Religious Communities; Yoga.
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"Communes." Contemporary American Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 23, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/legal-and-political-magazines/communes
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