- Describe the beliefs and practices of religious utopian groups of the antebellum era
Some reformers, focused more on social ills than the transgressions of the church, engaged in communal experiments designed to create a more stable and equitable society by reimagining social and economic relationships. Their ideas took many forms, from early socialist experiments (such as the Fourierists and the Owenites) to the dreams of the New England intellectual elite (such as Brook Farm). The Second Great Awakening also prompted many religious utopias, like those of the Rappites and Shakers. By any measure, the Mormons emerged as the most successful of these.
New Religious Communities
In addition to the divisions between evangelical and nonevangelical denominations wrought by the Second Great Awakening, the revivals and subsequent evangelical growth also revealed strains within the Methodist and Baptist churches. Each witnessed several schisms during the 1820s and 1830s as reformers advocated for a return to the practices and policies of an earlier generation. Many others left mainstream Protestantism altogether, opting instead to form their own churches. Some, like Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone, proposed a return to (or “restoration” of) New Testament Christianity, stripped of centuries of additional teachings and practices. Other restorationists built on the foundation laid by the evangelical churches to critique the Protestant mainstream and move beyond the accepted boundaries of contemporary Christian orthodoxy. Self-declared prophets claimed that God had called them to establish new churches and introduce new (or, in their understanding, restore lost) teachings, forms of worship, and even scripture.
Prior to 1815, in the years before the Industrial Revolution, most Americans lived on farms where they produced much of the foods and goods they used. This largely pre-capitalist culture centered on large family units whose members all lived in the same towns, counties, and parishes. Economic forces unleashed after 1815, however, forced more and more people to buy their food and goods in the thriving market economy, a shift that opened the door to a new way of life. These economic transformations generated various reactions; some people were nostalgic for what they viewed as simpler, earlier times, whereas others were willing to try new ways of living and working.
In the early nineteenth century, many experimental communities sprang up, created by men and women who hoped to recast American civilization so that greater equality and harmony would prevail. Indeed, some of these reformers envisioned the creation of alternative ways of living, where people could attain perfection both in human relations and in economic activity. The exact number of these societies is unknown because many of them were so short-lived, but the movement reached its apex during the 1840s.
Most of those attracted to utopian communities had been profoundly influenced by evangelical Protestantism, especially the Second Great Awakening. However, their experience of revivalism had left them wanting to further reform society. The communities they formed and joined adhered to various socialist ideas and were considered radical, because members wanted to create a new social order, not reform the old.
German Protestant migrants formed several pietistic societies: communities that stressed transformative individual religious experience or piety over religious rituals and formality. One of the earliest of these, the Ephrata Cloister in Pennsylvania, was founded by a charismatic leader named Conrad Beissel in the 1730s. By the antebellum era, it was the oldest communal experiment in the United States. Its members devoted themselves to spiritual contemplation and a disciplined work regime while they awaited the millennium. They wore homespun rather than buying cloth or premade clothing, and encouraged celibacy. Although the Ephrata Cloister remained small, it served as an early example of the type of community that antebellum reformers hoped to create.
In 1805, a second German religious society, led by George Rapp, took root in Pennsylvania with several hundred members called Rappites who encouraged celibacy and adhered to the socialist principle of holding all goods in common (as opposed to allowing individual ownership). They not only built the town of Harmony but also produced surplus goods to sell to the outside world. In 1815, the group sold its Pennsylvanian holdings and moved to Indiana, establishing New Harmony on a twenty-thousand-acre plot along the Wabash River. In 1825, members returned to Pennsylvania and established themselves in the town called Economy.
The Shakers provide another example of a community established with a religious mission. The Shakers started in England as an outgrowth of the Quaker religion in the middle of the eighteenth century. Ann Lee, a leader of the group in England, emigrated to New York in the 1770s, having experienced a profound religious awakening that convinced her that she was “mother in Christ.” She taught that God was both male and female; Jesus embodied the male side, while Mother Ann (as she came to be known by her followers) represented the female side. To Shakers in both England and the United States, Mother Ann represented the completion of divine revelation and the beginning of the millennium of heaven on earth.
In practice, men and women in Shaker communities were held as equals—a radical departure at the time—and women often outnumbered men. Equality extended to the possession of material goods as well; no one could hold private property. Shaker communities aimed for self-sufficiency, raising food and making all that was necessary, including furniture that emphasized excellent workmanship as a substitute for worldly pleasure.
The defining features of the Shakers were their spiritual mysticism and their prohibition of sexual intercourse, which they held as an example of a lesser spiritual life and a source of conflict between women and men. The Shakers grew their communities by adopting orphaned children, rather than having their own. Rapturous Shaker dances, for which the group was named, allowed for emotional release. The high point of the Shaker movement came in the 1830s, when about six thousand members populated communities in New England, New York, Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky.
Link to Learning
Learn more about the musical heritage of the Shakers, including the well-known song “Simple Gifts,” which has become part of American culture.
The Oneida Community
Another religious utopian experiment, the Oneida Community, began with the teachings of John Humphrey Noyes, a Vermonter who had graduated from Dartmouth, Andover Theological Seminary, and Yale. The Second Great Awakening had a powerful effect on him, and he came to believe in perfectionism, the idea that it is possible to be perfect and free of sin. Noyes claimed to have achieved this state of perfection in 1834.
Noyes applied his idea of perfection to relationships between men and women, earning notoriety for his unorthodox views on marriage and sexuality. Beginning in his hometown of Putney, Vermont, he began to advocate what he called “complex marriage:” a form of communal marriage in which women and men who had achieved perfection could engage in sexual intercourse without sin. Noyes also promoted “male continence,” whereby men would not ejaculate, thereby freeing women from pregnancy and the difficulty of determining paternity when they had many partners. Intercourse became fused with spiritual power among Noyes and his followers.
The concept of complex marriage scandalized the townspeople in Putney, so Noyes and his followers removed to Oneida, New York. Individuals who wanted to join the Oneida Community underwent a tough screening process to weed out those who had not reached a state of perfection, which Noyes believed promoted self-control above all. The goal was a balance between individuals in a community of love and respect. The perfectionist community Noyes envisioned ultimately dissolved in 1881, although the Oneida Community itself continues to this day.
The Latter-Day Saint Movement (Mormons)
The most successful religious utopian community to arise in the antebellum years was begun by Joseph Smith. Smith came from a large Vermont family that had not prospered in the new market economy and moved to the town of Palmyra, in the “burned over district” of western New York. Joseph Smith claimed that God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to him in a vision in a grove of trees near his boyhood home in upstate New York and commanded him to “join none of [the existing churches], for they are all wrong.” Subsequent visitations from angelic beings revealed to Smith the location of a buried record, purportedly containing the writings and histories of an ancient Christian civilization on the American continent. Smith claimed to have copied this record from the golden plates on which it was engraved and adapted it into the Book of Mormon in early 1830 and organized the Church of Christ (later renamed The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) a short time later. Smith presented himself as a prophet and aimed to recapture what he viewed as the purity of the primitive Christian church, which had been lost over the centuries.
Borrowing from the Methodists’ use of itinerant preachers without formal training, Smith dispatched early converts as missionaries to take the message of the Book of Mormon (in addition to the Bible, which they also held as sacred text) throughout the United States, across the ocean to England and Ireland, and eventually even farther abroad. He attracted a sizable number of followers on both sides of the Atlantic and commanded them to gather to a central place, where they collectively anticipated the imminent second coming of Christ.
Continued growth and near-constant opposition from both Protestant ministers and neighbors suspicious of their potential political power forced the Mormons to move several times, first from New York to Ohio, then to Missouri, and finally to Illinois, where they established a thriving community on the banks of the Mississippi River. In Nauvoo, as they called their city, Smith moved even further beyond the bounds of the Christian orthodoxy by continuing to pronounce additional revelations and introducing secret rites to be performed in Mormon temples. By the 1840s, Nauvoo boasted a population of thirty-thousand, making it the largest utopian community in the United States. Thanks to some important conversions to Mormonism among powerful citizens in Illinois, the Mormons had virtual autonomy in Nauvoo, which they used to create the largest armed force in the state.
The Mormon community in Nauvoo grew rapidly, partially because of their missionary work in Europe, which brought new European-Mormon immigrants to the U.S. Smith also received further revelations there, including one doctrine that allowed male church leaders to practice polygamy, which he based on the Old Testament practice of polygamy. Most controversially, Smith and a select group of his most loyal followers began taking multiple wives (Smith himself married at least thirty women).
In 1844, the residents of Illinois because upset with Mormon practices like theocracy, polygamy, and the suppression of local newspapers. Joseph Smith and his brother were arrested for “inciting a riot” and subsequently lynched by an angry mob. The resulting succession crisis divided the church into several smaller denominations, with the largest group following Brigham Young.
Mormon polygamy was not publicly acknowledged and openly practiced until 1852 when the Mormons had moved yet again, this time to the protective confines of the intermountain west on the shores of the Great Salt Lake. However, rumors of the taboo practice circulated almost immediately after its quiet introduction and partially motivated the angry mob that eventually murdered the Mormon prophet in the summer of 1844. Smith’s advisor, Brigham Young, then assumed leadership of the group, which he led to a permanent home in what is now Salt Lake City, Utah.
Mormons in Utah
The Mormons tried to rebuild Zion outside the confines of American society, establishing a cooperative farming community in the Utah desert. Missionaries in Europe, Latin America, and the South Pacific sent over 70,000 converts to Zion between 1847 and 1877. In 1849, residents called a constitutional convention to create the State of Deseret, of which Brigham Young was elected governor. Deseret was never recognized by the federal government and was dissolved in 1851 when the Utah Territory was established. However, Brigham Young remained as the governor of the Utah Territory until 1858.
The large Mormon presence in Utah meant that the church and its members wielded significant influence in politics, particularly after 1890 when the church president issued a declaration suspending the practice of plural marriage. This engendered warmer relationships between the LDS Church and the federal government, as well as the non-Mormon residents of Utah, and led the church to begin excommunicating members who still practiced plural marriage. These proponents of plural marriage founded their own fundamentalist Mormon sect, which continues to practice polygamy today, even though it was a felony in Utah up until 2020.
Today, the mainstream LDS Church boasts a worldwide membership of nearly 17 million, with 2,000,000 of those living in Utah (about 60% of Utah’s total population). The Mormon faith is sometimes called the “uniquely American religion,” because it was the first new faith to crop up in the United States during the 19th century.
How were the reform communities of the antebellum era treated by the general population?
fundamentalist: the practice of strict, literal interpretation of religious scriptures
Mormons: the nickname commonly given to practitioners of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, based on their belief in the Book of Mormon, among other scripture
Oneida Community: a perfectionist religious community in New York, they practiced communal ownership, “complex marriage,” male sexual continence, and believed that the Second Coming of Christ had already happened, so they could establish the Kingdom of God themselves on Earth
pietistic: the stressing of stressed transformative individual religious experience or piety over religious rituals and formality
polygamy: the practice of one man marrying multiple wives
Rappites: also called the Harmony Society, the Rappites moved from Germany to Pennsylvania and practiced communal ownership, celibacy, nonviolent pacifism, and believed they could make themselves “pure and perfect” for the Second Coming of Christ
Shakers: a religious sect that emphasized communal living and celibacy
socialist: in the non-political sense, socialism is the idea that all resources should be shared so that no person goes without basic needs like food, housing, etc.
utopian: meaning an ideal, peaceful, perfect society in which there are no problems like violence, hunger, or poverty
- Sarah Pruitt. “Why the Mormons Settled in Utah.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, June 15, 2018. https://www.history.com/news/why-the-mormons-settled-in-utah. ↵
- “Polygamy and the Church: A History.” PBS. Public Broadcasting Service. Accessed August 24, 2021. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/mormons-polygamy/#:~:text=Today%2C%20fundamentalists%20who%20continue%20to,marriage%20and%20excommunicates%20its%20practitioners. ↵
- Joseph Wilkinson. “Polygamy Now Officially Decriminalized in Utah.” nydailynews.com. New York Daily News, May 13, 2020. https://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/ny-polygamy-utah-decriminalized-20200513-64vq5ptw4bf6bi2fkijpfrpchu-story.html. ↵