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.

Shaking Quakers

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.

The Shakers continued to reject sex, as well as the sacraments and the inspiration of the Bible, but Meacham brought order to the wild worship of the early gatherings. The communities soon gained a reputation for their industry and accumulated wealth. At the height of their influence, Shakers numbered about 6,000 members. Today, only a few believers remain at Sabbathday Lake, Maine, and Canterbury, New Hampshire.

Amana Inspiration

Seven villages nestled in the Iowa farmlands a few miles from bustling Interstate 80 contain quaint two-story, gabled houses and bright gardens of flox and marigolds—vivid reminders of the faith, industry, and pride that once nurtured the Amana community.

The correct name for these villages was the Community of True Inspiration. Many visitors in the woolen mills there today think that Amana is connected somehow with Amish folk, probably because of the similarity of the popular names. But there is no connection beyond their German origins.

The first settlers in the Amana colonies had gathered initially at various places in the German Rhineland before deciding to migrate to America. They were a pietistic fellowship under the leadership of Christian Metz and Barbara Heinemann. When the fellowship first arrived in 1843, they founded a community called Ebenezer near Buffalo, New York. They gradually moved to east-central Iowa, where they established and maintained their cluster of villages. In all about 1,800 persons sought to live out their Inspirationist message, as formulated originally in 1714 by Eberhard Gruber and Johann Rock.

The villages were committed to working out their salvation “through the redeeming grace of Jesus Christ, in self-denial, in the obedience to our faith, and in the demonstration of our faithfulness in the inward and outward service of the Community.” Metz provided strong leadership until his death in 1867, when Heinemann became the leader. A prosperous woolens industry provided a secure economic base for the communities.

Succeeding generations found it hard to maintain the simple piety of the founders. Financial problems mounted until a special committee proposed a drastic overhaul of the community. In 1932 spiritual and temporal concerns were separated, and the Amana industries became a joint-stock cooperative. This individual ownership of the industries proved an economic boon and helps to explain the international reputation of Amana refrigerators and microwave ovens.

The religious community, the Amana Church Society, continues today with about 1,200 members. They hold simple meetings in the village chapels, during which they read the writings of their Inspirationist founders.

Not So Harmonious

Another group rooted in this German pietist tradition was called the Rappites. They were named after the Lutheran dissident and millennialist George Rapp (1757–1847). With about 600 followers, Rapp arrived in the United States in 1804. The group chose to settle in Pennsylvania. They called their community Harmony, but their beliefs centered in a strict doctrine of purity and the imminent arrival of the millennium. Members considered themselves the righteous remnant that would be judged pure and holy when the Lord returned to judge all peoples. Rapp ruled the community as a virtual dictator.

In 1815 the group moved to a new Harmony, on the banks of the Wabash in southern Indiana. Ten years later, they moved again, back to Ohio where they established their “permanent” home at Economy, not far from Pittsburgh.

But by this time, members were becoming dissatisfied with Rapp’s authoritarian leadership. In 1832, after an internal rebellion, about one-third of the community defected. Rapp and the community survived, though weakened. Rapp died 15 years later, and the community dissolved completely in 1905.

Forced Idealism

In 1817, after years of religious harassment, Joseph Bimeler led about 300 Quaker-like pietists from Germany to their American home in Zoar, Ohio. They become known as the Zoar Separatists. They hoped to live a simple life of devotion to God. Poverty, however, rather than ideals, forced the community to adopt a policy of common ownership of property. Economic relief came to Zoar only when the regional economy improved as a result of westward expansion of the nation.

Like several other groups, notably the Shakers, the Zoarites adopted the practice of celibacy. When the community was forced to come to terms with human nature and allow children, they raised their young communally; they wanted to elevate devotion to the community over that given to biological families.

Bimeler, the community leader, just like Rapp, held a privileged position within the village and chose early on to marry and live in an elegant home. When he died in 1853, the community survived for a time, but devotion to families remained a source of conflicts within the community until it finally dissolved in 1898.

Charismatic Leaders

The panorama of these early American utopian experiments can be painted in much wider strokes. The history might include, for example, the Mormons, who emerged in New York, Ohio, and Illinois in the 1830s and 1840s. They shared many of the traits of communitarians: for a time they shared property; they fervently expected Christ’s second coming; they had their own “special revelation.” They also had a charismatic leader in Joseph Smith (1805–44).

In that, they give us a clue as to what might unite all these diverse experiments. Though each community had a unique origin and personality, each was the lengthened shadow of some charismatic leader or self-conscious innovator. The leader’s vision of utopia created the community, and his or her firm will imposed order. And in most cases, when the charismatic leader passed on, the community drifted toward death.

Bruce L. Shelley is senior professor of church history at Denver Seminary. He is author of many books, including All the Saints Adore Thee: Insight from Christian Classics (Baker, 1994). He is an editorial advisor to Christian History.