About Religious Liberty: Chapter 4 Communes or Cults?

Throughout U.S. history religious groups have established settlements based on varied beliefs and customs, but most have shared similar characteristics.

They have

* been motivated or led by a person of religious or idealistic zeal;

* required members to live by group rules and regulations;

* attempted to isolate themselves from the rest of the world;

* rejected private property and competition as a basis for the economy;

* stressed collective, or cooperative, production and consumption of goods, from food to manufactured items;

* attempted to eliminate bureaucracy, or a political structure with high and low status, and create a classless society, with each person having equal position;

* tried to create a society based on justice;

* believed a paradise on earth could be achieved.

Today communities with such characteristics would probably be labeled cults because their members conform to group life and, like cultists, appear to lose their individuality and live by the rules of an authority figure.

Religious communal groups were common from the late 1700s through the 1800 in North America.  Early Christians tried to live by the principles of sharing and caring for one another. They held their property in common and whatever was produced was divided equally among members of the community. They rejected a civil authority or government that enforces laws as opposed to obeying religious laws.

Roman Catholic religious orders were among the early groups to transport their communal life to the United States. Other religious communities were more prominent and grew in number during the 1800s, particularly with the huge influx of immigrants, some of whom were fleeing religious persecution and were searching for an ideal lifestyle–a utopia, a heaven on earth, a promised land, a Zion (or sacred homeland).  They based their communities on ideals that could be applied on a small scale–usually with groups ranging from a little more than one hundred to perhaps several thousand people. The founders and followers of such communities often attempted to isolate themselves from the rest of world, but they hoped the larger society would emulate their way of life.

Some of the earliest communal groups in North America were religious sects from Europe, people who left established churches. Many were known as “Separatists,” because they separated from the established Lutheran Church.  They were also known as pietists, part of a religious movement that opposed the Lutheran Church’s formal sacraments and dogmatic theology. In brief, pietists believed in an evangelical religion of the heart rather than a religion of intellect. Their religion was an emotional experience often described as a personal connection with God.

A number of pietists left Germany during the 1700s and 1800s to live in comparative freedom in America. The Anabaptists (rebaptizers), who were unrelated to Baptist sects, were considered the most extreme. They opposed infant baptism and believed that devout Christians should be baptized voluntarily as adults, a radical concept at the time.  Anabaptists also immigrated from Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic), Switzerland, and the Netherlands.

These German-speaking people opposed government restrictions on individuals, refused to pay taxes, and would not fight in wars.  They believed that God directly guided their behavior and religious practices and would not submit to any religious authority. As a result, established churches, along with government officials, tried to crush them.  They were often imprisoned, publicly flogged, and tortured.

In the mid-1800s, the Hutterian Brethren, or Hutterites, established several communes in what became the states of North and South Dakota, Minnesota, and Montana.  But during World War I, the Hutterites were severely mistreated in the United States and some were imprisoned and brutalized because of their pacifist stance. Consequently, many moved to Canada, where colonies still survive.

In the Hutterite tradition, a colony is comprised of about 120 people.  When that number is surpassed, the colony divides into another “daughter” group.  Hutterites live by a fairly rigid structure that has been passed on for generations with men working in the fields and workshops and women gardening and cooking.  Like many Plain People, Hutterites believe that all members of the colony should submit to the will of the community, with men submitting to God and women subservient to men. In short, men assume the leadership roles and vote on community matters such as determining the budget and selecting the farm bosses–the men who will oversee hog, poultry, and dairy production and the women who will be head gardener, head cook, or head seamstress.

Food preparation and mealtime reflect Hutterite community spirit. An entire colony or community, with the exception of children 14 years old and under, gathers in a communal building for meals.  The youngest children–up to age 2 1/2–eat in their family apartments.  Those from 2 1/2 to five years old are served meals in the kindergarten building.  Children between five and fourteen take meals in a separate room in the communal kitchen building.

One group of German religious dissenters began an experiment in southern Indiana.  Known as Harmonie, a settlement was founded by George Rapp and his adopted son, Frederick, who had emigrated from Wurttemberg (or Württemberg), Germany, in 1803.

In Germany, Rapp was an avid biblical scholar. He differed with the Lutheran Church and began to preach his own doctrines based on New Testament concepts. Revered as a prophet and saint, Rapp brought together a congregation of three hundred families.

About 900 people followed Rapp to the United States, although after arriving, some Wurttemberg immigrants broke away from the Rappite congregation and followed another leader.  At least 600 people joined Rapp in setting up a colony in Pennsylvania. Members of the community agreed that all their cash and property would be used for the benefit of the community. They promised “to submit to the laws of the community, to show a ready obedience to the superintendents, to give the labor of their hands for the good of the community, and to hold their children to do the same.”  In turn George Rapp and his associates promised all members a “secular and religious education” and to provide them “all the necessaries of life, to support them and their widows and children alike in sickness, health, and old age.”  If a member left the community, his money was “refunded to him without interest.”  If he had made no capital investment, the money awarded to him was determined by his conduct.

The original community quickly prospered, with a sawmill, tannery, and storehouse filled with surplus grain, which was used to produce whisky. Although members were forbidden to drink alcohol, the Rappites became famous for their distillery. Along with strict temperance rules, tobacco was also banned in the community.

Rapp also forbid members to marry, except for those who were already married before joining the group.  People were required to practice celibacy, just one of the many sacrifices they were expected to make in order to prepare for what Rapp believed would be the Second Coming of Christ within their lifetime.  Married couples lived in homes, but single men and women lived in separate dormitories.

Within a few years, the community was producing so much surplus grain and cloth from their woolen mill that they had to find markets for their goods.  But the colony was twelve miles from a navigable river, which was a distinct disadvantage. In 1813, the Rappites decided to search for another site, choosing a tract of government land along with several adjacent farms–a total of about 30,000 acres–located near the mouth of the Wabash River on the Indiana-Illinois border.  By 1815, they had sold their Pennsylvania property and improvements for only $100,000 and had founded the village of Harmonie.

If it were not for accounts of travelers, little would be known about the Rappite community. None of the 1,000 original members left written records.  But visitors often wrote about the thriving community and its leader.

Father Rapp, as he was called, maintained tight control of Harmonie. He presided over all religious services and demanded that each evening anyone who had sinned during the day should come to him and confess his transgression.

He was said to be a commanding presence at six feet tall with “a patriarchal beard and stately walk.”  He also played on the superstitions of many members, frequently saying he had received heavenly visions regarding the affairs of the community. It was rumored for years (and the story still persists) that he built a tunnel from his cellar to the grain storage area and went through this passage to give the impression that he had mysteriously come from underground, baffling workmen, perhaps leading them to believe that their labors were constantly being observed.  It is also said that Father Rapp entered his pulpit through a tunnel leading to the church porch from his house just across the road.

The thrift and industry of the Rappites not only brought prosperity but also created jealousy among people in neighboring communities, according to reports from visitors.  At the same time, Rapp feared prosperity would affect his followers, forcing them to lose sight of their initial goals. These may have been factors in Rapp’s decision within ten years after founding Harmonie to sell the village and move back to Pennsylvania where the Rappites settled a third town called Economy.  The Rappites continued to prosper there but apparently sought no new members. Their communal way of life soon vanished after the death of Rapp at the age of ninety.

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