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Utopian Communities History in America, the New Eden in Society: Puritans, Swedish Immigrants, to Modern Dreamers

Don has worked in newspaper writing, business writing, and technical writing.

Oneida Community Home Building

public domain

public domain

Amana Sign

GNU License free documentation. Photo by Asterton

GNU License free documentation. Photo by Asterton

John Humphrey Noyes

public domain

public domain

Utopian Communities

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.

Amana Colonies

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.

Oneida Community

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


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

Comments

Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on December 22, 2015:

I'm wondering of the existence of the fabled city of 'El Dorado' has any grain of truth. If gold was available in prolific abundance then they must have put it to good use. As many explorers did not discover it then we must relegate the legend to fantasy.

Don A. Hoglund (author) from Wisconsin Rapids on July 03, 2015:

RJ, Glad you learned something new here. My Political Science professor in college had a special interest in these communities. He felt that we could learn something about "leadership" from them. Thanks for commenting.

Reynold Jay from Saginaw, Michigan on July 02, 2015:

I guess I learned something new, Don. I had never heard of the entire concept although aware of Amish and such, never thought of any of this as being an attempt at Utopian living. I imagine for the most part ( like those you write here) that it all comes crashing down in the end. Well done and fascinating.

Don A. Hoglund (author) from Wisconsin Rapids on March 03, 2015:

aesta1, back in the 1960's there was a lot of experimenting with communal living and communes started by hippies and others etc. Some worked out and others didn't. Historically they have had some sort of religious motivations. Thank you for reading my hub and commenting.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on March 03, 2015:

When I was younger, my friends and I dreamt of establishing what you would call utopian communities. Two of them did it and are now very successful. I just lacked courage then.

Don A. Hoglund (author) from Wisconsin Rapids on September 01, 2014:

stuf4kids, I think much of the inspiration for utopian communities is the Biblical description of the Garden of Eden. the term "New Eden" hass been used a lot in America. However, communism and some other philosophies have had a more political and economic basis.Thank you for commenting.

Amanda Littlejohn on September 01, 2014:

Fascinating insight into utopian communitarian societies.

I have always been drawn to the basic principles of living in common but to date have not been convinced by any one model. Interesting that these movements are largely inspired by radical religious beliefs, rather than political and economic concerns.

Thanks for this. Very interesting!

Don A. Hoglund (author) from Wisconsin Rapids on June 25, 2014:

limpet, The situation you describe seems to be quite typical of Utopian communities. Thank you for the information.

Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on June 18, 2014:

There were also other attempts to create a worker's paradise in the Americas. In the 1890's a boat with some 290 souls landed in Uraguay from Australia and proceeded upriver to establish Nuavo Londres in Paraguay. Idealistic at first however some returned home whilst others blended into the local population.

Don A. Hoglund (author) from Wisconsin Rapids on July 13, 2011:

Thanks for commenting.So many of these were doomed to failure from the beginning since they were based on unrealistic understanding of human nature.

Anaya M. Baker from North Carolina on July 12, 2011:

Read your hub with interest. I used to leave relatively near the old Oneida colony. One of my friends somehow got it in her head that the community was not only still in existence, but that they gave tours of the facilities. We spent two or three hours driving to an address that didn't exist, found nothing, and went home. All this in the days before internet of course!

Don A. Hoglund (author) from Wisconsin Rapids on April 14, 2011:

I'm glad you enjoyed it.Thanks for reading it and commenting.

francisid on April 14, 2011:

a very nice hub and a very interesting read.thanks for sharing your insights.every group,every country,every people,is considered to be important and should always consider themselves important.that's how they would be able to live on.

Don A. Hoglund (author) from Wisconsin Rapids on December 18, 2010:

I apprecite the complement.Thanks for commenting.

justmesuzanne from Texas on December 18, 2010:

You always come up with such fascinating ideas for HUBS! Thanks! :)

Don A. Hoglund (author) from Wisconsin Rapids on September 11, 2010:

I have never really looked into the historical relationship between the Utopians and the Indians.Thanks for commenting.

nobozo on September 10, 2010:

Mormons, while a utopian group at the start, were anything but collegial with the tribes they encountered in Utah. Slaughter is a historical fact and it was reciprocated by natives as well. Utopias were the white response to their dysfunctional societies but tribal life was never a utopia either.

Don A. Hoglund (author) from Wisconsin Rapids on March 24, 2010:

Protestantism covers a variety of opinions and attitudes.I am not an expert on the subject but I would guess the Evangelical side would not form Utopian communities. On the other wide there are religions like the Amish who withdraw from the world (or try to) so as not to be corrupted by it.Thanks for your comments.

Coolmon2009 from Texas, USA on March 24, 2010:

Interesting and thought provoking article; I found this part of it most interesting:

"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."

I had always thought about the Protestant faith as one that goes into the world to spread the Gospel. Didn't know they had this mind set in the 17th century. Thank you for this article.

Don A. Hoglund (author) from Wisconsin Rapids on February 02, 2010:

Wannabwestern

Your comments are always appreciated. The Mormons were also one of the Utopian communities both in Illinois and Utah.I believe they got along with the Indians, but I was not really delving into that aspect of History here.

Carolyn Augustine from Iowa on February 01, 2010:

This is a topic that interested me greatly when I was exploring the roots of Mormonism in college at BYU, where they have an excellent collection of tomes about the Utopian movements of the Eastern U.S.

The period between 1790 and 1850 is such a study in contrasts! Amazing that so many people trying to make the perfect society could try to do so on the same country's soil, while as other commenter's have said, creating a hellish dystopia for the Native Americans. You always offer interesting reading!

Don A. Hoglund (author) from Wisconsin Rapids on January 15, 2010:

Freelancewriterva,

Thanks for commenting.I'm not sure I really approve of Utopian dreams, but I do find them interesting.

Don A. Hoglund (author) from Wisconsin Rapids on January 15, 2010:

Freelancewriterva,

Thanks for commenting.I'm not sure I really approve of Utopian dreams, but I do find them interesting.

freelancewriterva on January 15, 2010:

Excellent hubpage. This is one of humanity's dream that will never go away. Keep it alive.

Don A. Hoglund (author) from Wisconsin Rapids on December 05, 2009:

Peggy W

Thanks for reading and your comment on the graphics. I've got enough background in using graphics. My problem was more in the legalities of copyrights.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on December 05, 2009:

Very interesting article! Although I was familiar with some of these mentioned groups, you educated me on others. Your graphics are excellent. You are a quick study in how to make an attractive looking hub!

Don A. Hoglund (author) from Wisconsin Rapids on December 02, 2009:

Thanks for reading.

Kinghorn on December 02, 2009:

Prof Noble was honored in the last U of M magazine. I think he just died.

Kinghorn on December 02, 2009:

See Harpers's Magazine Dec. 09 for affecting photos and commentary in "Ghosts of Wounded Knee".

Don A. Hoglund (author) from Wisconsin Rapids on December 02, 2009:

Sara Garrett

Thanks for the comments. Indians are an interesting topic.

Sarra Garrett on December 02, 2009:

Absolutely, I was commenting on greatAmerican actually. I enjoyed your hub and you nailed it on the head. People came here to find their Utopia and/or to create their own.

Don A. Hoglund (author) from Wisconsin Rapids on December 01, 2009:

Sara Garrett

Thanks for joining the discussion.The Indian state of affairs is a bit more than this hub was meant for.The Indians I've known were not raised on the reservation, and are not into traditions. Again there is not just one answer.

Sarra Garrett on December 01, 2009:

Great Article. That's what America was founded on immigration. As far as the Native Americans go, I have to agree they got the short end of the stick. In the 60's the US government built houses for the American Indians on their reservations.....most were burned to the ground and only skeletal remnants of them remain scattered throughout the reservations. Sad how the Native Americans were forced to live only on certain parts of their land. However, it is wonderful the way they keep their traditions alive passing their knowledge down to the younger generations.

Yattahey

Don A. Hoglund (author) from Wisconsin Rapids on December 01, 2009:

greatAmerican

I think relations between Indians and "whites" has been greatly oversimplified by Hollywood, propagandists etc.Relationships were not all one way or the other. As far as Utopians go, the Mormons were something of a Utopian group also and, as I understand it they were quite interested in such things as the Idians "ghost dance" culture.

Vrajavala

Thanks for reading and commenting.

vrajavala from Port St. Lucie on December 01, 2009:

nice hub.

greatAmerican on December 01, 2009:

Someone wins someone has to lose,,, you said

America which was colonized by seekers of a new Eden.

Do you suppose the Native Americans might have considered this land a Utopia before European invaders decided to 'change' it? One mans Utopia becomes another mans Hell!