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A wry view of life for the world-weary

Tag Archives: utopian communities

A Better Life – Part Nine

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The Ephrata Cloister

We have already seen how the religious oppression in Central Europe and the haven of religious tolerance offered by Pennsylvania encouraged groups of pietists to cross the Atlantic. The Ephrata Cloister was another such group, founded in 1732 by Johann Conrad Beissel at Ephrata on the banks of Cocalico Creek in what is now Lancaster County in Pennsylvania.

The only way to achieve the highest form of spiritual attainment was through the practice of celibacy, Beissel thought, and so the community, called the Camp of the Solitary, was split into two with a convent called the Sister House and a monastery called the Brother House. Adherents wore a habit styled on that of the Capuchins. Clearly, celibacy poses a threat to the long-term viability of any community but Beissel had worked that one out. Close by there was another community consisting of families, a married order of householders. As well as new celibate recruits these families provided the lifeblood of the community.

The whole Ephrata community abstained from eating meat which they regarded as being spiritually undesirable, other than when they celebrated communion when they tasted the flesh of lamb. Life was simple and austere, spent working, principally tending crops and light industrial work, particularly carpentry and papermaking, and praying and contemplating. Beissel conducted religious services every Saturday and they would last for many hours.

Those in the Sister and Brother houses slept on wooden benches no more than 15 inches wide – a passion killer if there ever was one – and with a wooden block for a pillow. They went to bed at 9 o’clock and slept for three hours before spending a couple of hours on the lookout for the Second Coming before retiring to bed for another three hours, rising at five. They ate just one small meal a day.

At its height the Ephrata community consisted of some 80 celibate men and women and a further 200 in the married congregation and it occupied some 250 acres of land. The community had a positive outlook on life and treated their neighbours, the land and the environment with respect. Music, as often was the way with these communities, played an important part in their life and Beissel developed his own system of composition, using a predetermined sequence of master notes and servant notes to develop harmony, a forerunner of serialism. A glass trumpet was found on the site in 1998, minus a mouthpiece, so it is not clear whether it had ever been blown.

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The community boasted the second German printing press in the American colonies and the quality of their printed documents with stunning hand illuminations, called Fraktur, was widely acclaimed. They also published the largest American book at the time, the whopping Martyrs Mirror which charted the deaths of Christian martyrs from the time of Christ until 1660. They were also famed for the quality of their calligraphy.

Alas, Beissel shuffled off this mortal coil in 1768 and the loss of their charismatic leader coupled with the disruption caused by the Revolutionary War – there is archaeological evidence that the Cloisters were used as a hospital – meant that numbers took a dive and the monastic side of the community was quietly shelved. The last celibate member died in 1813 and in the following year the Society was incorporated as the German Seventh Day Baptist Church. The last surviving resident of the Ephrata Cloister, Marie Kachel Bucher,  died on 27th July 2008 at the grand old age of 98. The cloisters are now a museum.

A Better Life – Part Five

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The Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and Education (1841 – 1847)

This utopian commune was located in a 175 acre farm in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, and was the brain child of a former Unitarian minister, George Ripley, and his wife, Sarah. They were enamoured with Transcendentalism which held, inter alia, that people are at their best when they are truly self-reliant and independent. The underlying objective of the commune was to create a society where the intellectual and the manual worker could co-exist. Each member could choose to do whatever work suited them best and they would all be paid at the same rate, a dollar a day, even women, a radical concept at the time.

To finance the venture Brook Farm was established as a joint stock company. Shares were sold at $500 a time with the promise of 5% of the profits and a vote. Initially, there were 10 investors but over time this rose to 32. In all, there were some 70 or 80 members of the commune at its peak only those who could afford to buy shares were full members. The commune generated money by selling agricultural produce and handmade clothing but its real money-spinner was the school, run by Mrs Ripley.

Nathaniel Hawthorne was a fully paid up member but it seemed he never really signed up to the underlying principles of the movement, rather seeing it as an investment opportunity. He resigned from the farm on 17th October 1842, commenting, “even my Custom House experience was not such a thraldom and weariness; my mind and heart were freer…Thank God, my soul is not utterly buried under a dung-heap”. Nonetheless, the commune seemed to make some headway in realising the founders’ lofty ambitions, even though there was an imbalance between intellectuals and people who would roll their sleeves up.

The seeds of the commune’s demise were sown when it adopted some of the ideas of the French Socialist, Charles Fourier, who espoused a more communal approach to living. This caused a schism and some of the disillusioned members left. In 1844 the commune sunk all its available funds into constructing a large central building, known as the Phalanstery, big enough to accommodate 14 families and included a large assembly hall. This drain on available funds meant that a system of what were euphemistically called retrenchments aka cuts were introduced and meat, coffee, tea and butter were no longer served at the table. Members could have meat but they had to pay extra for it.

In November 1845 smallpox broke out and although no one died, 26 Brook Farmers were infected. Ripley, meanwhile, was holding off the creditors, agreeing with suppliers and shareholders a write-off of $7,000. Further disaster struck on 3rd March 1846 when fire swept through the Phalanstery, completely destroying it. Naturally, it was uninsured and for Ripley this was pretty much the last straw. He moved out in May 1846 and others slowly followed suit. One described the slow disintegration as like apple petals slowly drifting to the ground. The whole experience was “dreamy and unreal”.

On its dissolution, Brook Farm had accumulated debts of $17,445. Ripley took it all personally, telling a friend, “I can now understand how a man would feel if he could attend his own funeral”. Fair play to him, though, he took a job at the New York Tribune and thirteen years later had paid off the debt.

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Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance, published in 1852, is a novel set in a utopian community which shares some of the features of Brook Farm. The only thing standing on the site from the time of the commune is a rather splendid wooden print house.