October 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 6
Of New Harmony, Indiana, its celibates and reformers, and of certain new wrinkles in the pursuit of happiness
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.
Everything the W’fcrttembergers built at New Harmony was substantial and strong: four dormitories of brick, each large enough to house about sixty people, each with kitchens and community rooms; a fine house for Father Rapp and his family; two granaries of brick and stone; a water mill and dam; a textile mill; a dyehouse; two sawmills; a hemp and oil mill; two large distilleries; a brewery, in which the pump was operated by a large dog walking on a treadmill; and forty two-story brick and frame dwellings and eighty-six log dwellings, all with fences, stables, and gardens.
The buildings were a triumph of construction. The brick-and-stone granary, the dam, the dyehouse, part of Father Rapp’s house, a score of the other houses, and two of the dormitories are still standing after a century and a half. They were so firmly mortised and tenoned by square pegs driven into round holes that they could not sag or lean. The timbers were cut in standard sizes at a central sawmill and numbered with an adz, so that they were interchangeable, and by this convenient uniformity of materials the Harmonists pointed the way toward modern prefabrication.
By 1822, the Harmonists had all but created a paradise on the banks of the Wabash in advance of the millennium. A hundred and thirty new members had come from Württemberg in 1817 and joined the original group, signing away not only their property but also the right to claim any wages or compensation should they choose to quit the society. Delegates had gone back to Germany and returned with 20,000 gulden in inheritances due the emigrants. Flatboats were leaving regularly for New Orleans loaded to capacity with agricultural products and whiskey, which the Harmonists never drank, limiting themselves to the small rations of beer and wine that Father Rapp doled out to them; and the factories of the town were turning out about $100,000 worth of goods a year—woolens, silks, wagons, hats, rope, and leatherwork. The homes the workers lived in were a striking contrast to the Hoosier backwoodsmen’s pitiful, dark “logholes,” as one early traveller called the pioneers’ cabins; their streets were broad and clean, shaded by poplars and mulberries; the surrounding hillsides were covered with vineyards and orchards; and great flocks of Merino sheep grazed in their pastures.
They led a quiet, well-ordered life. Each morning they were wakened to the day’s labor by the mellow tones of French horns. After the community milk wagon had made its rounds, and the chickens—the only domestic creatures that refused to adapt to community ownership—had been fed, the workers marched singing to their allotted tasks in the fields and shops. At nine o’clock they paused for lunch, at noon for dinner, at four for Vesperbrot , and at sunset they came home for supper. Sometimes the band played while they worked in the fields, and in the shops fresh flowers decorated the workbenches. At night, the shepherds slept under the stars in a house on wheels known as Noah’s Ark, while in the village the slumbering Harmonists were secure in the knowledge that the watchman was crying the hours.
Perhaps it was the increase of the Harmonists’ leisure that brought an angel to Father Rapp in a dream in 1822. This angel gave him the specifications for a new church that would require great labor in the building. Rapp told his people about the dream, and the construction of the church began under his supervision. The material was brick, the plan cruciform. Transept and nave were each 120 feet long; twenty-eight columns of cherry, walnut, and sassafras supported the roof, each column hand-turned and polished from a single tree butt. Atop the church was a dome encircled by a railed balcony where the community band could play on summer evenings. Father Rapp’s adopted son Frederick, who was something of an artist as well as a shrewd businessman, carved and gilded a rose on the stone lintel of the main door. Today, this door and lintel, which are all that remain of the church, form the west entrance to New Harmony’s schoolhouse, built on the church site in 1913. The church, after being partially dismantled, was torn down about a hundred years ago and the bricks were used to build a wall around the Harmonists’ cemetery.
But the church was finished sooner than the angel and Father Rapp had planned, and Harmonist hands were once more idle. They continued to build dormitories and acquire land, but even so there was not enough work to keep them busy all the time. George Rapp and his associates decided to sell their little Zion on the Wabash, at a sacrifice if necessary, and begin another community elsewhere. They had other reasons for moving, too: New Harmony was a profitable agricultural colony, but they had visions of an industrial enterprise that would be more profitable in the East. The West was not altogether what they had expected. In 1825 they returned to Pennsylvania, where they continued to await the Second Coming until 1905. By that time there were only two of them left, and one of these, announcing that the vigil was over, became the executor of the vast fortune the Rappites had accumulated in their century of existence.
The man who bought New Harmony, lock, stock, and barrel, was Robert Owen, a British industrialist and reformer who had made a fortune in the textile business. His model community of textile workers at New Lanark, Scotland, was famous. Owen was a worldly idealist, and where Rapp waited for a Second Coming, Owen announced that he was bringing a social millennium to Indiana himself. At New Lanark he had established a school to reform the character of the working class and had long preached his doctrine that man is not responsible for his acts and can be saved from ignorance and poverty only by the improvement of his surroundings. Owen had little faith in the Lord and regarded all religions as “superstitions.” By 1825 his public attacks on them had lost for him much of his influence and popularity in the British Isles, and he was ready to seek fresh fields for his Utopian projects. When George Rapp’s agent in Scotland approached Owen as a prospective buyer of the town on the Wabash, the agent was so astonished by Owen’s immediate interest that he said to Owen’s son, “Does your father really think of giving up a position like this, with every comfort and luxury, and taking his family to the wild life of the Far West?” He did indeed: At New Harmony on Sunday, January 2, 1825, he personally closed the deal. Accounts of the price he paid vary from $50,000 to $190,000; whatever the figure, he got a bargain.
Robert Owen suffered all his life from an inability to stay on any job long enough to see it well done; he was always mistaking the word—his own word—for the deed. He had no more than signed the papers for New Harmony when he was off to Washington to tell America about his plans as if they were already a fait accompli . In two speeches before joint sessions of Congress, with the President of the United States and members of the Supreme Court in attendance, he exhibited a model of the town he planned to build at New Harmony. With only a hazy explanation of its governmental structure, he predicted the spread of communities like his all over the United States and a consequent release from ignorance and oppression such as mankind had never before witnessed. Immediately afterward, having set up no kind of organization in New Harmony whatsoever and with only his son William, just turned twenty-three, left there as his representative, he published a manifesto inviting any and all who dreamed of a socialist millennium to move to the town on the Wabash at once. The result was that by the time he returned to New Harmony three months later, about a thousand men and women had arrived before the last of the German Harmonists had moved out, and people were living there two and three families to the house.
Undismayed, Owen dedicated the Harmonists’ brick church to free thought and free speech, renaming it the Hall of New Harmony, and promptly made therein the first of the many speeches that were to be his substitute for action. “I am come to this country,” he announced, “to introduce an entire new state of society, to change it from an ignorant, selfish system to an enlightened social system which shall gradually unite all interests into one, and remove all causes for contests between individuals.” He then outlined, in general terms, a constitution for a Preliminary Society, pointing out that for a while he would keep the property in his own hands and the people must temporarily accept “a certain degree of pecuniary inequality.” Thenceforth, he said, there would be no social inequality. Three days later the community adopted his constitution.
This document was mostly preamble, establishing very little beyond the fact that “persons of color” were not to be included in the social equality, that the society was not answerable for its members’ debts, that those who did not want to work could buy credit at the community store by paying cash quarterly in advance, and that everyone must try to be “temperate, regular, and orderly” and set a good example for everybody else in order to achieve the goal of “universal happiness.” The actual government of the society was to be by a committee which Robert Owen would appoint, but neither its size nor its function was defined, unless the statement that it “would conduct the affairs of the society” can be regarded as a definition. As soon as the constitution was adopted, Owen appointed four members to the governing committee and allowed the society to elect three more “by ballot among themselves.” Then he was off again, to the East, to spread the news of New Harmony further, and to Scotland, to settle his financial affairs. This time he was gone seven months.
During the first month of his absence, the Preliminary Society ran well enough on the momentum of its first enthusiasm. In accordance with the program Owen left behind for them, the members danced on Tuesday nights in the Hall of New Harmony, the committee held a business meeting on Wednesday nights, there was a concert on Thursday nights, and on Sundays there were lectures in the Harmonists’ old frame church, which the newcomers called the Steeple House. “Here there are no brawling braggarts and intemperate idlers,” one Owenite wrote back home to his son. He described how well the postmaster lived with his wife and several sons on the $1.54 a week that he earned in credit at the community store by being not only postmaster but also a committeeman, superintendent of the farms, and a selling agent for the store. But by midsummer, discontent and dissension had set in. “The idle and industrious are neither of them satisfied,” one member wrote to a friend, “the one contending that they do enough for their allowance, the other thinking themselves entitled to more.” At the same time, this letter writer’s wife was telling her aunt in Pittsburgh, “The hogs have been our Lords and Masters this year in field and garden. We are now … without vegetables, except what we buy; and I believe we shall go without potatoes, turnips, or cabbages this winter, unless they are purchased.”
Her prediction came true, and by the time Owen returned in January, 1826, the society was in chaos and splinter groups were in the process of forming both within and on the periphery of the town. Owen, however, was so delighted by what he thought he saw that he announced the time had come, a year in advance of his original plan, for the formation of a permanent “Community of Equality.” Another constitution was drawn up, not greatly different from the first. In a short time the threatened splinter groups were a reality, one of them calling itself Feiba Peveli. Pledged to a scheme of nomenclature, devised by an English architect, in which letters were substituted for the numerals in latitudes and longitudes of places, the group suggests the eccentric spirit of Owen’s New Harmony. The architect proposed the renaming of Pittsburgh as Otfu Veitoup, New York as Otke Notive, and New Harmony itself as Ipba Venul.
It was at this point that William Maclure came on the New Harmony scene as Owen’s partner and a financial backer. Like Owen, Maclure was a wealthy man, a Scot who had accumulated a fortune in an English-American export business. Some twenty years before, he had made a geological survey of the United States, travelling alone, crossing and recrossing the country some fifty times. His primary interest in the New Harmony community was in its educational experiment, and he soon began to look upon his partner’s social theories with a jaundiced eye. Before the year was out, Maclure and Owen quarrelled and dissolved the partnership. But, happily for New Harmony, Maclure’s practical, levelheaded influence continued.
A remarkable craft had brought Maclure to New Harmony in January, 1826. A keelboat of his own purchasing, first named The Philanthropist but rechristened for posterity by Owen as The Boatload of Knowledge , it carried an astonishing intellectual cargo on one of the most hopeful and halting voyages in the history of the Ohio River. Among the boat’s passengers were Thomas Say, the American naturalist; Charles Alexandre Lesueur, the French naturalist; Madame Marie Duclos Fretageot, a schoolmistress from Paris via Philadelphia who was a disciple of the Swiss educational reformer, Pestalozzi; Robert Dale Owen, Robert Owen’s oldest son, the educator, pioneer champion of birth control, and crusader for women’s rights; and a score or more of teachers and pupils for the school system that was to make New Harmony famous in the history of American education.
In New Harmony, these people and others of equal renown who followed them wrangled deplorably over the nature of universal happiness and the proper pursuit of it. They were required by Owen to wear a ludicrous costume—white pantaloons buttoned over a boy’s jacket without a collar, compared by one observer to “a feather-bed tied in the middle.” But in spite of their inability to manage their everyday lives, there was a persistent charm and an initial enthusiasm for the New Moral World that Owen dreamed of. Most of the Owenites were not designed by nature or experience for the work they needed to do to keep the community going, but they tried at first to do their share of the harsher chores. Thomas Say developed such blisters that he could hardly shake hands with the Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach when the Duke visited the town. Robert Dale Owen spent a day sowing wheat and got a sore arm. After that, he lent a hand in the community bakery and spoiled the bread. Charles Alexandre Lesueur preferred zoological expeditions into the woods to teaching school. Plaiting his beard and tucking it into his waistcoat, he fled as often as possible with his three dogs—Penny, Snap, and Blucher—to collect specimens. One of these was a skunk, which his French biographer a hundred years later described as the first “pool-cat” ever to be sent alive to Europe. One elderly man, discouraged by the handicap of advanced age, marched about town carrying a twelve-foot iron rod every time there was a thunderstorm; he wanted to die, but thought it was God’s duty, not his, to do the job.
Meanwhile, everybody read and thought and wrote and wrote and talked and talked and talked, when they were not attending lectures in the Steeple House or dancing the night away in the Hall of New Harmony. Lovers wandered in the mystic labyrinth that the Harmonists had designed with tailored hedgerows and a small temple at the center and which the Owenites allowed to grow into a jungle. Picnickers gathered in the neglected vineyards and boating parties drifted on the river. A duel was fought in the Harmonist cemetery, but with no casualties, and two women engaged in fisticuffs in front of Community House No. 4 without serious damage to either. Single gentlemen complained that their socks were stolen from community-house washlines, and Madame Fretageot told the Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, in German, that Mr. Owen’s democracy was harmful to the manners of the young. A group of dissenters built a coffin and would have buried “Owenism” if the coffin had not been smashed by unidentified persons the night before the funeral. It is little wonder that the Harmonists’ factories stood idle, the Harmonist mill wheels no longer turned, the Harmonist fences broke down.
Owen’s experiment at New Harmony lasted altogether about two years and ended in chaos, but with Owen and Maclure still owning most of the property. Owen tried to save his dream by frequent reorganizations and, toward the last, by offering land for lease or sale to anyone who would attempt to establish a community according to his design. On July 4, 1826, once more mistaking the word for the deed, he sought to free the community of all its troubles by making a “Declaration of Mental Independence.” On this date, the fiftieth anniversary of American political independence, he announced, “I have calmly and deliberately determined upon this eventful and auspicious occasion, to break asunder the remaining mental bonds which for so many ages have grievously afflicted our nature and, by so doing, to give forever FULL FREEDOM TO THE HUMAN MIND .” Less than a year later, he delivered two successive farewell addresses in New Harmony, on May 26 and 27, 1827. Thereafter, deeding his property over to his sons, he left the community to its own devices and took off in pursuit of a new dream: he would ask the government of Mexico to give him Coahuila and Texas for his next “experiment.” Owen died in 1858, at the age of eighty-seven, a spiritualist claiming to be on familiar terms with Napoleon, Shakespeare, and Benjamin Franklin.
Where George Rapp, believing that the “last day” was at hand, built New Harmony as if it were going to endure forever, Robert Owen, convinced that a new world was just beginning, erected nothing permanent. What one sees of old New Harmony today is the work of the Germans; there is not a single visible structure left that was created in Owenite days. And yet, with all the monuments to the Germans’ industry, it is difficult to determine what went on in their minds and spirits as they worked, while the stamp of the Owenites’ intellectual independence and cultural aspirations has shaped the history of the town throughout the intervening years and is still apparent. Owen was not a practical reformer, but he was a prophet and a catalytic agent among other dreamers.
Specifically, Owen shaped New Harmony’s future by the remarkable group of people he brought to Indiana, many of whom remained, and by leaving behind four remarkable sons and one remarkable daughter, who became the town’s “First Family.” The people of New Harmony today like to speak of the period immediately following Owen’s community days as the Golden Age. Certainly the town remained for a long time as lively and exciting a place to live in as it was when Robert Owen was proclaiming his miracles of Mental Independence and the New Moral World.
After Owen’s departure, Maclure became New Harmony’s first citizen and major patron. He did more for the community in outright gifts and, through his agents, gave it more guidance than did the man whose name is more often associated with its history. Under Maclure’s direction, New Harmony had the first free public-school system in America for boys and girls alike and the first trade school, supported by his generosity until finally the state of Indiana adopted a school system supported by taxation. Through Maclure’s generosity also, the Workingmen’s Institute was founded, a society of mutual self-improvement for the common man; and largely because of his spirit New Harmony’s public library today remains remarkable for a town of its size—a large three-story brick building housing 18,000 volumes for a population of 1,121.
When Robert Owen first came to New Harmony, he purchased a new Stansbury press in Cincinnati and had it shipped to the town on the Wabash. On this press the New Harmony Gazette was published regularly every week from 1825 until 1828, edited first by William Owen and Robert Jennings and later by Robert Dale Owen and Frances Wright, the feminist, who finally took the journal to New York City and renamed it the Free Enquirer .
Maclure sent a press from New Orleans in 1827 for the use of students in his School of Industry, and on it was printed the first issue of his Disseminator of Useful Knowledge , a bimonthly that, for the better part of a decade, was the official organ of the town. It had two mottoes: “Ignorance is the fruitful cause of human misery,” and later, “He who does his best, however little, is always to be distinguished from him who does nothing.” In time, the Disseminator ’s press produced a number of books in New Harmony, among them Maclure’s Opinions on Various Subjects , in three volumes; schoolbooks for use in Mexico; Michaux’s North American Sylva ; and Thomas Say’s American Conchology . Mrs. Say and Charles Alexandre Lesueur drew the sixty-eight illustrations for this beautiful book. The coloring was done by pupils in the New Harmony schools.
The inspiration of William Maclure and Gerard Troost, the Dutch geologist, and the presence in New Harmony of Maclure’s large geological collection are indirectly responsible for the town’s being the headquarters of the United States Geological Survey from 1839 until 1856. When young David Dale Owen joined his father in the community, he had already abandoned the career of an artist and was contemplating the practice of medicine, but the sight of physical suffering was so painful to him that he abandoned it and turned to a study of Maclure’s collections. Ultimately he was appointed United States geologist. The “laboratory” he built on Church Street in 1858 remains today one of the most distinguished and interesting houses in New Harmony and is the home of Kenneth Dale Owen, great-great-grandson of the reformer. David Dale in turn inspired his younger brother, Richard, to become a geologist, and he was for a while his brother’s assistant. After distinguishing himself in the Civil War, Richard became a professor of natural history at Indiana University and later was chosen as the first president of Purdue, but he always maintained his residence in New Harmony and spent the last eleven years of his life there in retirement, dying in 1890. These two men were, in large part, responsible for the visits of many famous scientists to New Harmony, including John James Audubon, Sir Charles Lyell, and Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied, who brought with him the young Swiss painter Carl Bodmer (see “Carl Bodmer’s Unspoiled West,” in the April, 1963, A MERICAN H ERITAGE ).
The oldest Owen son, Robert Dale Owen, was in and out of New Harmony all his life, sometimes maintaining a home there, sometimes paying his sister and brothers long visits. In the 1840*5 he served two terms in Congress as a representative from southern Indiana and, while in Washington, wrote and introduced the bill that created the Smithsonian Institution. From New Harmony, he wrote the letter to President Lincoln that is said to have persuaded him to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Owen died at Lake George, New York, in 1877, but sixty years later his remains were brought back to New Harmony.
Robert Owen’s niece, Constance Fauntleroy, organized the Minerva Society, a women’s literary club, in New Harmony. Cousin Robert Dale wrote its constitution. Before that, in 1825, Frances Wright had gathered a Female Social Society about herself in New Harmony; so whichever of these is “the first women’s club in America,” New Harmony can claim it.
The tradition of the theatre was perhaps the longest lasting in New Harmony’s story and was started by another Owen son, William, who founded the Thespian Society in 1828. The Thespians used the Hall of New Harmony as their first theatre and, after that, the upstairs ballroom of Community House No. i. On one occasion Charles Alexandre Lesueur designed magpies that soared down out of the flies and stole objects from the stage in such realistic fashion that backwoodsmen in the audience informed the actors of the birds’ mischief. Lesueur’s beautiful backdrops would have been ornaments to New York productions, for he was a first-rate artist as well as naturalist. The scenery he made for William Tell was used over and over for fifty years.
The local theatre was a permanent attraction that brought people to New Harmony from miles around and drew outstanding actors, including the Joe Jeffersons and the Goldens, who made New Harmony their home and the headquarters for their travelling troupe. Showboats, in their heyday, tied up at the New Harmony wharf and the Thespians themselves at one point briefly tried the river life. Union Hall, the theatre they built for themselves by remodelling Community House No. 4, still stands on Church Street, owing half its fame to the fact that it was built almost 150 years ago by George Rapp’s Harmonists. The words “Opera House” are inscribed over its door, and the outlines of the old stage are still visible inside.
By 1900, most of the famous citizens of New Harmony had either died or departed, but many of their kin and the descendants of other Owenites still lived in the village—Fretageots, Elliotts, Fords, Coopers, Schnees, Pelhams, Fauntleroys, and others. These people, residing in the old Harmonist houses, carried on the social and intellectual traditions of the past and talked about the “Owenites” and “Rappites” as if they were contemporaries. They made lively use of the library of the Workingmen’s Institute, supported an annual lecture program in a new and handsome auditorium, revived the women’s club, and knew how to entertain a former President of the United States, William Howard Taft, when he came to help them celebrate their centennial in 1914.
By the 1920’s, however, New Harmony, like most small towns in America, began to suffer from the prosperity and magnetism of the cities, and in the 1930’s the Depression dealt a blow that was only partially tempered by the discovery of oil in Posey County, in which New Harmony is situated. Many of the town’s children went off to college in those years and did not return; and the automobile, the metropolitan movie palaces, radio and then television, city banks and city supermarkets destroyed the old community life for those who were left behind. By the 1950*3 the town had become a derelict, too far from any city to become a suburb, too near to have a life of its own. The children who passed in and out of the schoolhouse door that Frederick Rapp had made for Father Rapp’s church in 1822 were still told about their remarkable past, but they no longer felt that they were a part of it.
But now, in the i goo’s, after several decades of decay and despair, New Harmony is once more awake. The revival of its cultural life is modern and different from anything in its past, and yet by that very difference it is in the New Harmony tradition. The wife of Kenneth Dale Owen has come up from Texas with a new dream for New Harmony. She has bought and refurbished some of the old Harmonist houses and buildings, even moving them to different locations when it suits her convenience. Setting up a trust, she has erected a “Roofless Church” of vast proportions, designed by Philip Johnson, and adorned it with a bronze madonna by Jacques Lipchitz. At the edge of the Wabash River bottoms, where tall corn grows, she has created a small park and named it for Paul Tillich; in June of 1963, she imported Dr. Tillich himself to dedicate its “Cave of the New Being.” To ensure a continuity of this new culture when she was not on the scene, she employed for a while a clergyman in residence to act as her agent, and she houses aspiring poets and artists in her various properties to work at their crafts in a kind of creative seclusion. Still more recently, the townspeople themselves have formed an organization to supervise their own cultural life.
Nearly a century and a half ago, a farmer who came into New Harmony to stare at the Owenites and try to figure out what they were up to was quoted as saying, as he scratched his head and spat in bewilderment, “I thinks and thinks about it.” Today’s visitors in the little town on the Wabash—Posey County farmers and American and European tourists alike—have new food for thought as they watch the solemn ceremonies and gay festivities of the “foreigners” gathered by the town’s new benefactress from the worlds of art, music, religion, and philosophy. The conclusions they draw may vary, but there can be no doubt that angels’ wings are once more aflutter in the balmy southern Indiana air. The celestial presence plagues a few of the townspeople, who protest that they would prefer to be left alone with the quieter and less disturbing echoes of past visitations, but New Harmony is once more prospering and, in one sense at least, being saved.