Common wealth?

IN 1899 members of the Woman’s Commonwealth of Belton, Texas, took their considerable fortune (approximately $200,000) and retired to the Washington, DC, area to pursue cultural interests. But it had been far different at the start. 

In the 1860s, the commonwealth’s founders had left their comfortable middle-class lives, and often their husbands, to form a self-sufficient, celibate community of members who received direct revelations from God under the leadership of Holiness Methodist visionary Martha McWhirter. Eventually, though, they became focused as much on economic as on spiritual matters. In this they were not unique, but merely reflective of the climate of self-indulgence characteristic of the Gilded Age. 

Living in harmony or economy?

The main reasons communal societies, Christian or otherwise, moved to or developed in the United States were twofold: a belief that the United States was a blank slate on which new ways of organizing society could be tried, and the availability in the United States of relatively inexpensive land. 

Almost all of these societies were founded by people who could afford to buy land. In spite of the efforts of many to promote simple living, members tended to gravitate toward middle-class lifestyles. The need to support the community by producing goods to sell often exacerbated this problem. Some groups moved toward using the goods they produced and became more like their middle-class customers. 

For example, the followers of German Pietist George Rapp formed the Harmonist Society in Pennsylvania in 1805 after moving from Germany. Possibly due to the poverty of many early members whose property had been confiscated by the German government, Harmonists enthusiastically established a strong economic base, pooling their resources to buy supplies, equipment, and seed. 

In 1814 the group relocated to the banks of the Wabash River in Indiana and Illinois. They soon became prominent merchants, operating a granary and stores in several locations. To increase financial stability, Rapp gradually changed membership rules to make it more difficult, and eventually impossible, for members to recover their property if they left.

Between 1814 and 1824, Harmonists traded with 22 states and 10 foreign countries, producing whiskey, leather goods, rope, pottery, and agricultural commodities. They were a major economic and political power in Indiana. In 1824 they returned to Pennsylvania, ostensibly for religious reasons, but primarily to be closer to their more profitable eastern markets. Their new community was named “Economy,” and it flourished until the last original members of the society died in 1890. 

Calendars and refrigerators

To retain economically productive members, communal societies often struggled to provide personally meaningful work, even if it did not actually meet community needs. For instance, the Wesleyan-Holiness Burning Bush community of Waukesha, Wisconsin, decided to scale back production of its popular Scripture Text Calendar because the leadership thought that the production and sale of the calendar, while profitable, drained too many resources from the community. 

Frank Messenger left the community and formed his own company to produce the calendar, taking several of the colony’s skilled printers with him. Messenger again became a successful businessman, and the calendar, known to many as the “funeral home calendar” because it has been widely distributed by funeral homes for generations, is still produced. 

A similar problem faced the Amana (Iowa) Colony, a communal German Pietist group that began in Germany in 1714. The members decided to hold property in common when they moved to America in 1842, and the colony flourished for nearly 90 years, producing everything it needed. 

But as time passed, members found the requirements of communal living burdensome. In 1932 members voted to separate the communal and economic aspects of the community. In 1934 two members of the colony formed the corporation that today says “Amana” to most Americans—Amana Refrigeration. 

When communal groups practiced celibacy, they did not increase in number through children being born to members. Thus economic needs often required inclusion of new members whose values conflicted with those of the community. 

Following their founder Mother Ann Lee’s belief that perfection would be achieved by separation from the corrupt world, the Shakers established celibate colonies in remote parts of several states including Kentucky, Maine, and New York. But the necessary reliance on converts often had negative effects on the Shakers. Young converts usually joined with little property, some even seeking the economic security the Shakers offered. Thus, the need for an economic base required ties to the outside world, with the community selling products ranging from seeds to a wheel-driven washing machine. 

Soon social welfare reforms of Victorian England and the Progressive Era in the United States resulted in fewer needy converts. And many Shakers who had joined as children left when old enough to support themselves. Unable to maintain themselves economically, the Shakers began closing colonies in 1875. The last colony at Sabbathday Lake, Maine, had three members as of 2012. The Shakers are now remembered for their songs, their recipes, and the seed crates, boxes, and furniture so prized by antique collectors.

Some groups sought creative ways to retain spiritual and economic stability. The St. Nazianz Association, a dissident Roman Catholic community founded in Germany in 1854, attempted to combine a monastic-style community with a village of families. But when its founder, Father Ambrose Oschwald, died in 1873, the new leadership transferred ownership of property to individual families, and within five years St. Nazianz lost its communal character.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, charismatic African American preacher Father Divine, who regarded himself as Christ reborn, founded the collective Peace Mission. His controversial movement drew followers into over a hundred communities nationwide before declining in the prosperity following World War II. The mission’s emphasis on racial justice and integration also had a strong economic component, as members formed numerous cooperative businesses. 

The interracial Christian community Koinonia Farm succeeded where others had failed. Founded in the 1940s, by the 1960s it became known for its efforts to provide adequate housing for rural Georgians, while providing jobs for its members making and distributing pecan and peanut products. Koinonia eventually spawned the highly successful independent charity Habitat for Humanity; it also still makes and sells pecans and peanuts and welcomes outside visitors to experience communal life. 

Farmers with cell phones

The need to adopt technological innovations—rail transportation, the telegraph, and later the telephone—to produce and market goods forced many communal societies to become increasingly part of the cash economy. For some this brought unwelcome influences from the secular world; for others this proved to be an advantage.

Founded in sixteenth-century Europe and relocating to North America in the nineteenth century, the Hutterian Brotherhood, or Hutterites, one of many Anabaptist communal groups, is probably the world’s most successful communal society. 

Hutterite communities are economically successful and self-sufficient. They have enthusiastically adopted modern technology and are major purchasers of sophisticated agricultural equipment. Cell phones and the Internet are even making their way into individual Hutterite homes. 

Overall, economic necessity has forced communal groups to develop means of financial support that require them to interact with the wider society. For most it has contributed to the weakening of the spiritual and cultural ties on which the communities were initially based. 

Does this mean that these groups are necessarily failures? As Dolores Hayden suggests in her book Seven American Utopias, a group may be counted a success if its “practices remain provocative even after the group itself has disbanded.” This is certainly true of many communal societies that still excite interest and even imitation in the twenty-first century. CH

By Gari-Anne Patzwald

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #104 in 2013]

Gari-Anne Patzwald is technical services librarian at Tabor College and the author of Waiting for Elijah: A History of the Megiddo Mission.
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