John Blake Temple
Dr. Rucker Am. Hist.
Early Cults in America
Although they date to the earliest days of U.S. history, Utopian communities that were created to perfect American society had begun appearing in the 1840s. By definition, a utopia is: “An imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect.”[i] Various groups challenged the traditional norms of American society. Their desire to create a perfect world often was in sharp contradiction to the world in which they lived, challenging older forms of living. These then often became cults: “A relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister.”[ii] It is sad, but often true that most utopian attempts have turned into outlandish cults. Robert Owen
The first American Utopias grew out of Robert Owens’s attempt to create a model town in New Lanark, Scotland. In the United States, Owen organized the New Harmony Community along the Wabash River in western Indiana in 1825. There the residents established a socialist community in which everyone was to share equally in labor and profit. Just months after the creation of a constitution in January 1826, the thousand residents at New Harmony divided and disintegrated into chaos. In 1825, Francis Wright established another Owenite community at Nashoba in Tennessee. Wright had hoped to demonstrate that free labor was more economical than slavery, but Nashoba attracted few settlers, and the community closed its doors within a year. Transcendentalists
Transcendentalists of the 1840s believed that the true path lay in the perfection of the individual, instead of reform of the larger society.[iii] The individualistic quality of Transcendentalism gave it a more spiritual than social quality, one that also influenced later Utopian movements. Many of the figures of transcendentalism embraced the liberating qualities of Individualism, making man free of the social, religious, and family restrictions of the past. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example, rejected the decaying Puritan lifestyle of New England's past in favor of the Romantic world of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. For transcendentalists, a higher reality lay behind that afforded by the senses; a reality in which people could understand truth and eternity. To reach that world, humankind had to transcend the concrete world of the senses in favor of a more mystical definition of nature. To escape the modern world, transcendentalists fled into model Utopian communities. The most important of these communities was Brook Farm, established in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, in 1841. Residents hoped to free themselves from the competition of the capitalist world so as to work as little as possible, all the while enjoying the fruits of high culture. Unlike their European counterparts, American transcendentalists embraced the quest for a higher moral law. Far from a simple rejection of American society, the creators of Brook Farm, chief among them George Ripley, a Unitarian minister from Boston, wanted to create an alternative to the capitalist state, to found a new "city on a hill." The life of the mind that the transcendentalists so valued was one of the most important components of life at Brook Farm. Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller all made regular visits. While the cultural life of Brook Farm blossomed, management of its practical matters quit. Ripley's decision to recruit more farmers over thinkers eventually alienated even Emerson. After a serious fire in 1846, the farm was sold in 1847 and the society dissolved. Not long after the failure of Brook Farm, another transcendentalist community was established at Fruit-lands, Massachusetts. The residents of Fruitland, originally organized in 1843 by Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane, rejected the market economy and chose a life of subsistence agriculture. But Fruitland attracted the eccentric more...
[iii] Halloway, Mark. Heavens on Earth: Utopian Communities in America, 1680–1880. New York: Dover, 1961
[iv] Kern, Louis. An Ordered Love: Sex Roles and Sexuality in Victorian Utopias. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981.
[v] Shi, David E. The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001.
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