A wry view of life for the world-weary

A Better Life – Part Six


The Harmony Society

There was a time when the United States was a place of haven for groups of refugees, fleeing from oppression and persecution.  Beneficiaries of this benevolence were a pietist band led by George Rapp who found themselves in hot waters in their native south-west Germany. Putting personal piety above formal displays of religious observance they believed that a child should only be baptised when it was old enough to make its own mind up, confirmation for children was unnecessary and rites such as confession and communion need only occur on a handful of occasions in the year. They refused military service and preferred to teach their children at home. The Lutheran authorities wanted rid of them.

So in late 1804, Rapp and some 400 followers arrived in the States and were able to secure a tract of land in Butler County in Pennsylvania. On 15th February 1805 the Harmony Society was officially constituted, the members pledging to hold all property in a common fund and raising working capital of $23,000. A member would give all their goods and chattels to the society and accept no wages for their work. The quid pro quo was that they would receive care as long as they were members. If they decided that enough was enough, they would get their money back, albeit without interest.

The Harmonists lived a simple life, convinced that Christ would return during their lifetimes, eschewing and practising celibacy – always a mistake for a community, I think, as it made recruiting further members essential for its continued survival. New recruits continued to arrive and after a year’s trial, they would be accepted as members. Before long, the community rose to about 800 in number.  Dress was simple, reflecting their German roots, although they wore fine clothing on Sundays and highdays.

The early years were dogged by disagreements and financial crises – the name of the community, Harmony, may have been inapt – but they worked through it and turned a profit from making yarn and wine. But the climate was not ideal for their crops and increasing disputes with their neighbours led them to decamp in 1814 to Indiana to the second Harmony settlement. Malaria nearly wiped out the community but in time they had established a thriving community with 150 log cabins, taverns, shops and mills. Again, though, they had trouble with their neighbours, this time on the thorny subject of slavery – the Harmonists were abolitionists (natch) – and in 1824 they sold up and moved back to Pennsylvania.

Their third settlement, Economy, consisted of 1,000 acres by the river Ohio and was much better situated for manufacturing and trade. They had woollen and cotton mills, a steam operated grain mill and a wine press, also pioneering the manufacture of silk in the States. In their social time may of the Harmonists were accomplished musicians and music played an important part in their life. Celibacy, however, was the elephant in the room and in 1832 many of the younger members, a third of the community, seceded. This meant that the Harmonists were increasingly reliant upon hired labour.

As the century progressed the Harmonists got involved in oil drilling and the expansion of the American railroad. At their height in the 1860s they had assets of around $2m but by the 1890s the impact of celibacy, restrictive membership practices and lawsuits from former members and their offspring left them on the verge of bankruptcy. Their trustee, John S Duss, settled the outstanding debts but with only a few members left, the remaining assets were sold raising $1.2m and the society dissolved in 1905.


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