Christian History Home > Issue 45 > Counter-Culture Christianity
A look at the radical utopian communities that sprang up across the early frontier.
The age of revivals and circuit riders saw the comet’s tail sweep across America and dazzle everyone with visions of glory. Europeans visiting the American wilderness and encountering a revival firsthand were convinced that Americans had gone mad. But the ecstasy was evident far beyond the shouts and jerks of the camp meetings.
In a letter to Thomas Carlyle in the Autumn of 1840, American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson tried to describe New England to his English friend: “We are all a little wild here with numberless projects of social reform. Not a reading man but has a draft of a new community in his waistcoat pocket.”
Revivals were the big story but not the whole story. Revivals whetted the country’s appetite for an immediate encounter with God. But here and there a visionary took to creating a Christian community where every detail of daily living could be ordered by God.
In the half-century before the Civil War, about 120 social experiments were founded, and a few dozen became celebrated, though temporary, successes: New York claimed the Oneida community; Ohio had its Zoar; the Shakers were in Kentucky; Brook Farm in Massachusetts; Amana in Iowa; and a black utopia, Nashoba, appeared in Tennessee.
These religious communities agreed to hold their property in common, just as the apostles had apparently done in early Judea. They insisted that God called for a distinctive people reflecting the kingdom of God in all essentials of economic and family life, an earthly model of life in the heavenly kingdom.
Let me illustrate with some of the best-known examples.
Perhaps the best-known of these religious communities today are the Shakers. Antique lovers everywhere treasure the graceful, simple lines of Shaker furniture and crafts. Less well known is the fact that Shakers were first Quakers.
The origins of the movement lie in eighteenth-century England where, under the leadership of Quakers Jane and James Wardley, enthusiasts began meeting to express vexation over their sins. Their outbursts gained them the label “Shaking Quakers.” They cried out warnings of Christ’s imminent second coming and predicted that cosmic catastrophes would soon fall on the wicked.
In 1770 one of the members, Ann Lee (1736–84), received a revelation that all human depravity was rooted in the sex act. This was Adam and Eve’s original sin. Mother Ann, as she was called, was the wife of a blacksmith and mother of four children, all of whom died in infancy. Her revelation made celibacy a hallmark of the Shaker movement. A later Shaker hymn expressed it well:
As lust conceived by the Fall
Hath more or less infected all;
So we believe ’tis only this
That keepeth souls from perfect bliss.
In 1774 Ann Lee led a band of eight from Manchester, England, to New York, where they settled in the wilderness a few miles north of Albany. During the final years of her life, Mother Ann performed miracles and received visions that convinced her followers she was Christ in his “second appearing.” Shaker services were marked by dancing, singing, speaking in tongues, bodily contortions, and even “spiritualists” who claimed to communicate with the dead.
In 1787, under the leadership of Joseph Meacham, a convert from the Free Will Baptists, a society was organized at Mount Lebanon. Soon eleven communities in New York and New England had adopted the Shaker way of life. A new period of growth followed the great Kentucky revival in 1805. New communities were soon prospering on the frontier, especially in Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky.
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