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Utopian Groups in the 1800's

Over the years many people have come to America in order to better their living conditions. But, some Americans felt that being in America was not enough, so they formed separate groups that were self-reliant and independent. Many of these groups developed in the 1800s and are known as Utopian communities, since they wanted to establish a Utopia on earth. The self-identity of these groups ranged widely, some Christian, some with their own unique form of religion, and some socio-economic. Some lasted several years, and at least two are still in existence. But don’t think it was a minor trend: over 100 of these communities formed in the 1700s to early 1900s. Quite a few of the Christian groups developed as a response to the Second Great Awakening and the religious changes it brought.

The communities generally discouraged frequent interaction with “outsiders.” In some cases members gave all their possessions to the group. When members decided to leave, some groups returned the belongings or investments or property, and in other cases not. In some communities members were allowed to keep their possessions. But all the communities strongly encouraged members to donate money, time, and energy to community projects.

One measure of belonging occurred when a community project was undertaken. Those who grumbled or complained were seen as damaging the well-being of the community and so were separated out. This could mean that the members left, or that they joined a different Utopian community, or even that they started/joined a breakaway group.

In some cases, the whole community moved. The Harmonists began in Pennsylvania, bought 30,000 acres in Indiana and moved the whole group (700 members) in 1814, then returned to Pennsylvania in 1825. And to show the connectedness of these groups, they sold the land in Indiana to another Utopian group, which itself failed after a couple of years.

Concerning family life, some groups practiced celibacy, most groups practiced one-man-one-woman marriages, one practiced one man-multiple wives, and one practiced complex marriages (every man is married to every woman).

Some of these groups lasted a very short time, as in a couple of years, and some lasted a long time. Typically the longevity of a group depended on the leadership structure. Each of these groups had a strong leader/founder, but the key was to develop strong leaders who could replace the main leader/founder; the shorter-lived ones did not.

The names of the groups varied from geographic-based to unusual: Aurora (Oregon, disbanded in 1883), Bishop Hill (Illinois, disbanded in 1861 after the death of the founder), Brook Farm (Massachusetts, disbanded in 1847), Christian Cooperatives (Tennessee, disbanded in early 1900s), Community of True Inspiration/Amana (Iowa, started in Germany in 1714, disbanded in late 1930s), Ephrata Cloister (Pennyslvania, last member died in 2008), Fruitlands (Massachusetts, begun 1843, disbanded 1844), Fountain Grove/Brotherhood of the New Life (California, disbanded shortly after founder left in 1892), Harmony Society (Pennsylvania-Indiana-Pennsylvania, disbanded in 1906), Icaria (Illinois, disbanded in 1898), Oneida (New York, disbanded in 1881 and eventually became the silverware manufacturer), Society of Separatists of Zoar (Ohio, disbanded in 1898), and Society of the Woman in the Wilderness. (Pennsylvania, named after the woman in Revelation 12:6; one of the earliest, formed in 1682, disbanded shortly after death of founder in 1708.)

Of all the communities founded in the 1800s, only two remain. One is very small and one is very large. The Shakers, as of 2010, had three members. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormons, has over 15 million members.

©2009, 2015 Mark Nickens