Utopianism in America spans the history of the nation, beginning with New England Puritanism and later the Shakers, Mormons, and lesser successful groups.
The attempt at establishing a closed community of like-minded believers dates back to the Puritan experience in New England. Over the course of American history, numerous groups, both large and small, have sought to create a Utopian community, separate from the “world’s people,” as the Shakers might say. Some of the societies endured for many years before succumbing to outside forces. Others, like the Mormons, evolved into major faith denominations. Those Utopian communities that survived did so only because they successfully adapted themselves to a life of co-existence while remaining true to the dynamics that created them. Others, however, were not as successful.
Utopian Aspirations in the Puritan Godly Communities
Puritans saw themselves as distinctly different from their neighbors. They were John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill,” taken from the Gospel of Matthew in the fifth chapter. Seeing themselves as God’s chosen and the “New Israel,” their theocratic faith community lived without compromise or tolerance of other beliefs. In 1628, they sent Thomas Morton back to England and closed his estate, Merry Mount, because of immoral activities taking place there, including having sexual relations with Indians.
By the end of the century, however, non-Puritan influences surrounded the community and it had lost the initial zealousness. Internal dissent by Puritans like John Williams and Anne Hutchinson had fractured the solidarity of believers. In 1692, fearful that the devil was about to make war on their community, Puritans denounced and hung their neighbors in the celebrated witch trials. The City on a Hill had been breached by evil from within.
The Shaker Communities Endure for Many Generations
Mother Ann Lee brought her fledgling Shaker community to America at the end of the 18th Century. Pursuing “authentic” Christianity, Shaker communities grew, drawing thousands to their simple lifestyle and communal living. Converts were drawn to the Shakers for many reasons, chief of which was a spiritual experience. Shakerism, however, also offered a step out of the world with its often chaotic economic and social fluctuations.
Shakers believed in celibacy and the community expanded only because entire families converted. Shakers also accepted orphans. Shakers were not opposed to marriage, in fact they blessed it. But the Shaker life was a special gift to fulfill a divine mission. Shakers declined during the latter years of the 19th Century as demand for their hand-made products decreased, replaced by industrialization and new methods of mass production.
The Mormon Quest for a Utopian Community
From the first days of the Mormon experience in Palmyra, New York, members of Joseph Smith’s “Latter Day Saints” were persecuted. With every newly established community, the persecution heightened. Like the Shakers, Mormons were communal. Following the murder of Smith by intolerant neighbors, Brigham Young led the faithful to Utah, establishing the Deseret Kingdom.
After the Mexican American War, however, the western territories came under the jurisdiction of the United States government. The Mormon community was again threatened. The Latter Day saints succeeded, however, because they adapted to outside influences without compromising their beliefs. Additionally, Mormon theology evolved with the times as the church, for example, repudiated plural marriage. Today, Mormons hold high political office and are viewed as a community with strong families and moral lifestyles.
Utopian Communities that Failed to Survive
Early 19th Century America saw many social experiments like the Oneida community, Robert Owen’s “secular socialism,” and even Transcendentalists seeking to emulate Thoreau’s Walden Pond experience. Several of these communities were based on non-traditional religious and pseudo-religious beliefs. Because many of these smaller communities were driven by charismatic leaders, they eventually failed after the leaders died or were discredited.
Utopian communities formed, historically, during times of social upheaval. The Great Depression produced such communities and during the turbulent Vietnam War period, disenchanted young people joined communes like the Children of God, as well as more structured communities. Some followed Eastern religions like the Hare Krishnas, who managed several retreat communities in the U.S. Once the times changed, however, the appeal of Utopian communities waned. The desire to flee a complicated world may still be a prime motive for those seeking simplicity and security. If the precedents of history remain true, Utopianism may reappear in the future.