Utopia, Limited

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In the history of Utopias there is no other town in America quite like New Harmony, Indiana. Here, 150 years ago in a pioneer wilderness and within a span of a dozen years, groups of men and women put into practice not one but two of the major social concepts that flourished among American visionaries in the nineteenth century. First the town was the site of a religious community dedicated to the common ownership of property, and then it became the scene of Robert Owen’s most ambitious experiment in the achievement of human perfection. Here, on the banks of the Wabash, these two notions so deeply rooted in American idealism and development were demonstrated for all the world to see. The first, with a bizarre and added dedication to celibacy, paralleled devout communities like those of the Shakers; the other foreshadowed such freethinking ventures as Brook Farm and Oneida.

And all the world did see what was going on in New Harmony. European travellers made the journey through the forests to see the pious members of the first community at work, and after Robert Owen moved in with his Community of Equality, the number of visitors increased. Owen’s experiment was debated in Congress and studied with varying degrees of approval and disapproval by governments abroad. What is more, New Harmony remained a cultural center in America after its utopianism became a matter of history, with notable scientists and philosophers and at least one President of the United States among its guests. Today, artists and theologians from all over the world convene in the town from time to time because there are still people there who are convinced that the world can be made into a better place.

Called the Harmony Society, the first community venture was based, like those of the Shakers, on a belief in the imminent Second Coming of Christ, though no violent physical manifestations of spiritual ecstasy shook the stolid peasants who poled their boats up the Wabash from the Ohio in the spring of 1814. These German founders of New Harmony, some five or six hundred strong, came from Pennsylvania to the southwest corner of Indiana to await the millennium. Indiana was still a territory then, and the nearest town of any size was Vincennes, some forty miles upstream, with a population of 3,000; the rest was wilderness. Before the Harmonists came to Indiana, they had awaited the millennium for eleven years on the banks of Connoquenessing Creek, near Pittsburgh, after emigrating from W’fcrttemberg in 1803. But the Pennsylvania land was “too brocken & too cold for to raise Vine,” and vine-growing was the special skill they had brought from Germany, Their hearts had been set on an estate in the fertile Wabash Valley for a long time before they were able to buy 24,734 acres there from the government for $61,050.

The Harmonists’ spiritual leader, George Rapp, was fifty-six years old when he came to Indiana, six feet tall, robust, somewhat heavy-featured, blue-eyed, white-bearded, and strong of will. In Germany, he had been a Separatist, formally breaking away from the established Lutheran church in his thirtieth year and beginning to preach in his own house. Ultimately he became convinced that Christ would come again in his own lifetime. He remained so firmly convinced of this that, on the day of his death in his ninetieth year, he said, “If I did not believe that the Lord intended me to present my people to Him on the last day, I would think I was dying.”

Father Rapp thought that “the last day,” when Satan would be shut up in the bottomless pit and Christ would begin his reign of a thousand years on earth, was an event not simply to wait for but also to prepare for. He believed the Lord helps those who help themselves, but expects them to help each other as well. He persuaded his followers to surrender to him and his “associates” all their worldly goods and the products of their labors and to ask in return only meat, clothing, lodging, “and all such instruction in church and school as may be reasonably required.” By the time the Harmonists brought their religious communism to Indiana, it had made them rich. After they had paid for the Indiana land and before they sold their Pennsylvania holdings they still had $12,000 left on deposit in a Pittsburgh bank.

Shortly before they came to the Wabash country, the Harmonists began to practice celibacy, for which Father Rapp also found authorization in the Bible, not only from Saint Paul, who urged Christians to “abide,” but from Genesis, too. He interpreted the story of the Creation and of Adam’s fall as meaning that Adam was originally bisexual, capable of reproduction without assistance from a woman. Moreover, Rapp believed that if man abjured the sexual relationship, he would someday return to the pristine, bisexual, self-reproductive state in which God had first designed Adam.

Marriages in the Harmony Society were not dissolved when the rule of celibacy was adopted. Husbands and wives continued to live together, but were expected to “abide.” A few children were born in the years that followed, but only a very few. The parents were not banished or even punished, except by patriarchal and communal disapproval, which must have been hard enough to bear in such a small society. No new marriages were performed, of course, and among the first buildings the Harmonists began to construct in New Harmony, after they had finished their frame church, were separate dormitories for men and women.