About Religious Liberty: Chapter 5 Communal System to Private Enterprise

Continuing from the previous chapter “Communes or Cults?” one group of pietists from Germany followed the teachings of Ludwig Gruber and Johann Friedrich Rock, who believed that God spoke directly to his people through individuals.  Divine guidance was provided through a specially endowed person called a Werkzeuge (instrument), who presented inspired testimonies to the people. The Werkzeuge was the ordained leader of the community.

During the early 1700s, Gruber and Rock traveled throughout Germany and Switzerland, forming small congregations of followers and a church known as The Church of the True Inspiration or The Community of True Inspiration.  Like many other separatists and pietists, True Inspirationists refused to go along with the doctrine of the Lutheran Church and would not perform military service for the government.  Although they were persecuted throughout the century, True Inspirationists managed to maintain their community into the 1800s when they were led by Barbara Heinemann, a young servant girl, and Christian Metz, a carpenter.  Both were endowed with what followers called the miraculous gift of Inspiration, but Barbara Heinemann apparently lost her calling when she married in 1823. Werkzeuge Christian Metz then took over as leader.

By 1842, continued persecution forced Metz to seek another home for Inspirationists.  Metz with three of his followers traveled to the United States and bought 5,000 acres of land in the Seneca Indian Reservation near Buffalo, New York.  Not long afterward more than 800 Inspirationists sailed from Germany to their new home, establishing the Ebenezer Community.  The congregation did not originally plan a communal system, but some of the members could not afford to buy land, so a constitution was adopted in which community members shared property and businesses.

As the community grew, more land was needed, and leaders went to the Midwest, choosing 18,000 acres in the Iowa River valley, where Metz and the True Inspirationists built a village in 1855.  The site was chosen because of the availability of building materials (stone and timber), good farmland and water supply, and isolated enough to be a peaceful haven from the outside world.  Church members believe the name of the village was given to them through an inspired testimony, commanding the people to call their village Amana, which means to remain true and comes from the Song of Solomon.

After the initial village was built, five others followed: Middle Amana, High Amana, West Amana, South Amana, and East Amana plus a later village called Homestead.  The latter village was purchased because it was the site of a railroad station and a shipping point for the Amana farm produce and manufactured products.  Today the seven villages are collectively known as the Amana Colonies and comprise about 26,000 acres.

Each of the Amana villages maintained the communal system, and Christian Metz led the entire Community of True Inspiration until his death in 1867.  No Werkzeuge appeared after that until Barbara Heinemann was reinstated into the community.  She once more “fell into Inspiration” and directed the thirteen trustees who managed internal and business matters of the Society.  Since Werkzeuge Heinemann’s death in 1883, however, there have been no further inspirations.  Nevertheless, the Amana Church Society still includes readings from a book of inspired testimonies in services.

The seven villages remained under a truly communal system for eighty-seven years.  Similar to the Rappites, each member of the Community of the True Inspiration was “duty bound to hand over his or her personal and real property to the Trustees for the common fund.”  A member was then entitled to “free board and dwelling” plus support and care during sickness and old age.  Those who left the Society, “either by their own choice or by expulsion” were repaid any money put into the common fund plus interest.

Each village kept its own books and managed its own affairs, but sent all accounts to the Society’s headquarters in Old Amana to determine profit and loss.  If a village suffered from hard times, there was usually a surplus in other villages to make up losses.  Although all houses were part of the communal property, each family lived in a separate home.  Every member of the community also received an allowance from the common fund for clothing and other personal needs, thus satisfying “that desire of every human heart to have something of its very own.  Indeed, the separatism of the Amana home, though not in accord with the principles of complete communism,” was said to have been an important factor in the success of the Community of True Inspiration for so many years. The Amana communal society lasted longer than most established communes in the United States, but several factors contributed to its decline.  One was an open youth rebellion beginning in the late 1920s.  According to historian Lawrence Rettig, the rebellion came about because many young people had “learned about the ways of the world from their contact with tourists and from increasing trips to the outside.”  Young people wanted to live like other Americans.  They pressured to play baseball, a forbidden sport, and to reduce the number of religious services–eleven each week–that they were required to attend.  They also rebelled against work assignments made by the elders, who offered no choice in jobs.  Some revolted against rules banning “worldly,” or modern, conveniences, such as electricity.

Style of dress was a major concern to rebellious young women, and one Amana teenager aired her views to a reporter for the Kansas City Star:

We are sick and tired of this ‘old fogeyism’ that masquerades as religion.  It isn’t religion, it’s darned foolishness.  When bobbed hair and short skirts came in, many of us girls in Amana wanted to follow the fashions and dress like all the other young women of the towns around us.  But no.  We were told that short skirts and short hair were sinful….

The old fogies threatened to expel us if we broke away from those hateful styles, but there were too many of us….They can’t tell us younger women that a woman’s morality and Christianity depends on the way she wears her hair.  We can go barelegged and wear bathing suits and still be Christians.  It’s not the way you dress, it’s what’s in your heart that decides whether you are a Christian or not.

The deepening economic depression in the United States had a major effect on the Amana Colonies also, forcing leaders to reorganize and give up the communal system.  It was a time that today is still known as the “Great Change.”  A profit-sharing corporation was set up, ending the church’s management of businesses.  Members of the community purchased their own homes, maintained their own properties, worked for wages or became business proprietors, and dealt with all other aspects of private ownership.

The transition from communal life to private enterprise was not easy.  For example, there were not enough jobs for everyone who needed to work for wages to support themselves. “Under the old system there had simply been too many cobblers, basket makers, tailors, carpet weavers, saw mills, and dairies for the corporation to support profitably.  Many had to be abolished,” wrote historian Rettig.  “Those without jobs were encouraged to go into business for themselves…however, few were willing to take the risks involved.” Instead, they found jobs in nearby towns.

In spite of the frustrations and numerous problems associated with reorganization, the transition to private enterprise was accomplished by 1932.  Today, the Amana Colonies are designated a national historic landmark and are a major tourist attraction.  But the Amana Church Society still exists, and although membership has dwindled over the years to about 400, those who remain part of the congregation also “remain faithful” according to the literal meaning of Amana.



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