Utopianism and Transcendentalism
Inquire: What Fueled the Many American Experiments in a Utopian Society in the 1800s?
Utopia: a place of ideal perfection especially in laws, government, and social conditions 1
Shangri-La, Heaven, Nirvana… the human spirit longs for a place of peace, perfection, and plenty. Numerous books have been written on the possibilities of a utopian society — many more on the nightmare of a dystopian society created by the effort to find utopia.
In the 1800s, Americans from various geographic, socioeconomic, and ethnic backgrounds saw an opportunity to create a new kind of society. Some were more successful than others, and though all were interesting experiments, none lasted past the Civil War.
Fueled by the new philosophy of Transcendentalism, America became a fertile ground of new thoughts, new ideas, and new social norms. Even new religions became a part of the story as Joseph Smith built the Mormon Church based on “tablets of gold.” There was change in the air, but threatening clouds created by sectionalism, slavery, and schism still wafted above this new Republic.
1“Utopia.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2018.
What influence did the Mormon Church, utopian societies, and transcendentalism have on the 1800s?
Watch: Missives, Murder, and Massacres
Read: Utopian Communities
“They say in heaven love comes first, We’ll make heaven a place on earth”
– “Heaven is a Place on Earth” *
In the 1800s, experimental communities began to pop up around America. These communities were created by reformers hoping for a better way of life; in fact, many envisioned alternative ways of living, in which human relations would reach perfection. The Utopian Movement, which strived to create perfect or ideal communities, reached its apex in the 1840s. However, there is no exact count of how many communities existed because all were short-lived.
Religious Utopian Communities
Most who joined utopian communities came from evangelical Protestant backgrounds. These new, religious utopian communities were considered radical because they created entirely new social orders, rather than reforming previous religious orders.
In 1805, a German religious society led by George Rapp took root in Pennsylvania. Several hundred members, called Rappites, engaged in celibacy and adhered to the socialist principle of common ownership, sharing all goods as property of the entire community (as opposed to individual ownership). The Rappites built the town “Harmony,” where they produced surplus goods to sell to the outside world. In 1815, the group sold its Pennsylvanian holdings and moved to Indiana, establishing a new Harmony on a 20,000-acre plot along the Wabash River. In 1825, members returned to Pennsylvania and established themselves in the town called “Economy.”
In the mid-18th century, the Shaker community arrived in New York as an offshoot of Quakerism in England. Shakers were led by Ann Lee, who claimed to be the “mother in Christ,” after having a profound religious awakening. Shaker teachings stated that God was both genders, with Jesus embodying the male side and Mother Ann embodying the female side.
In practice, men and women in Shaker communities were equals — a radical notion for the time — and women Shakers often outnumbered men. Equality extended to the possession of material goods as well, and no one was permitted to hold private property. Shaker communities aimed for self-sufficiency, raising food and making their own necessary goods. However, their most defining features were their spiritual mysticism and prohibition of sex, which they felt lessened one’s spiritual life and could create conflict between the genders.
In the 1830s, the Shaker movement reached about 6,000 members living in New England, New York, Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky.
The Oneida Community, a religious community based on John Humphrey Noyes’ teachings, began after Noyes was caught up in the Second Great Awakening. Noyes, who had graduated from Dartmouth, Andover Theological Seminary, and Yale, claimed that he had achieved a state of “perfection” in 1834. Noyes applied perfectionism — the idea that it is possible to be perfect and free of sin — to marriage and human sexuality, which was considered highly unconventional.
The Oneida Community felt sex and spiritual power were intrinsically tied. Some of Noyes’ views reflected this notion, including “complex marriage,” a form of communal marriage in which women and men who had achieved perfection could engage in sexual intercourse without sin. Additionally, Noyes promoted “male continence,” the practice of men not ejaculating during sexual intercourse, so as to avoid pregnancy (and issues around determining paternity, as Oneida Community members had multiple partners).
Noyes’ views scandalized the town where Noyes and his followers had gathered: Putney, Vermont. As a result, the community relocated to Oneida, New York where all new followers had to undergo a tough screening process to weed out those who had not reached perfection. The Oneida Community’s main goal was to create a balance between individuals and a community of love and respect. The perfectionist community Noyes envisioned ultimately dissolved in 1881, although the Oneida Community itself continues to this day.
Secular Utopian Societies
Not all utopian communities were prompted by religion. Some utopian communities grew instead out of intellectual ideas, such as romanticism, with its emphasis on the importance of individualism over conformity.
One secular community, Brook Farm, formed in West Roxbury, Massachusetts. It was founded by George Ripley, a transcendentalist from Massachusetts. In the summer of 1841, Brook Farm gained support from Boston-area thinkers and writers, including many important transcendentalists. Brook Farm is best characterized as a community of intensely individualistic personalities who combined manual labor, such as the growing and harvesting of food, with intellectual pursuits. Followers opened a specialized liberal arts school and published The Harbinger, a weekly journal which was “Devoted to Social and Political Progress.”
Though Brook Farm never had more than 100 members, the community was well known because it was associated with thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne, as a founding member, included fictionalized accounts of his experiences at Brook Farm in his novel The Blithedale Romance. In 1846, a fire destroyed parts of Brook Farm which, along with other financial problems, led to the community’s demise in 1847.
Another community, the Owenites, replaced the Rappite community in Harmony, Indiana in 1825. In the town, renamed “New Harmony,” British industrialist Robert Owen put his ideas for a utopian society into practice. Owen’s goal was to create a more equitable world in the face of the changes brought about by industrialization. Owen had risen to prominence before he turned 30 by running cotton mills in New Lanark, Scotland, but became uneasy about worker conditions. Owen devoted his life and fortune instead to creating cooperative societies where workers could lead meaningful, fulfilled lives. Unlike the founders of many other utopian communities, Owen gained inspiration from faith in human reason to make the world better, rather than religion.
After only a few years in New Harmony, a series of bad decisions and infighting over issues like the elimination of private property led to the dissolution of the community. Yet, Owen’s ideas of cooperation and support inspired other Owenite communities in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain.
Charles Fourier, a French philosopher, inspired another utopian community when Arthur Brisbane popularized Fourier’s ideas in the United States. Fourier emphasized collective effort by groups of people, or associations. Members of associations would be housed together in large buildings, or phalanxes, which were communal living arrangements. Fourier’s followers published and lectured vigorously about his theories around a new science of living. Fourierists believed that labor was a type of capital and the more unpleasant a job was, the higher the wages should be. American Fourierists created approximately 28 communities between 1841 and 1858, but the movement had run its course in the United States by the late 1850s.
*Nowels, Rick and Shipley, Ellen; Heaven Is a Place on Earth (1987); Heaven on Earth – Belinda Carlisle, 1987; MCA Records
Reflect: A “Perfect” Society
Is perfection possible? Humans have searched for a perfect society, as evidenced by the utopian societies of the 1800s, Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto, Mao in China, and many more throughout history.
Expand: Transcendentalism - Going Beyond The Physical
Alongside the rise of both religious and secular utopian communities, a group of intellectuals, known as transcendentalists, advocated for direct knowledge of the self and and emphasized individualism. Transcendentalist writers and thinkers created a plethora of works, known as the American Renaissance.
Beginning in the 1820s, a new intellectual movement known as transcendentalism began to grow in the Northeast. Transcendentalists believed that if people went beyond the ordinary world, they could gain personal insights, appreciate a deeper reality, and attain an understanding of the world that surpassed rational, sensory experiences.
Transcendentalists were critical of mainstream American culture and rejected Jacksonian America’s age of mass democracy — what Tocqueville called the tyranny of majority — by arguing for individualism over conformity. European romanticism, a movement in literature and art that stressed emotion over reason, also influenced American transcendentalists, especially in celebrating the uniqueness of individual feelings.
Ralph Waldo Emerson emerged as the leading figure of the movement. Born in Boston in 1803, Emerson came from a religious family. After graduating from Harvard Divinity School in the 1820s, Emerson followed in his father’s footsteps and became a Unitarian minister. However, after his wife died in 1831, he left the clergy. While traveling in Europe in 1832, Emerson met leaders of the Romanticism Movement who exposed him to the importance of emotion over rationalism.
When Emerson returned home, he began lecturing about his romanticism-influenced ideas. In 1836, he published Nature, an essay arguing that humans can find their true spirituality in nature, rather than the everyday bustling working world of Jacksonian democracy and industrial transformation. In 1841, Emerson published his essay Self-Reliance, which urged readers to think for themselves and reject the mass conformity and mediocrity he believed had taken root in American life. Emerson demanded that his readers be true to themselves and reject the herd mentality.
Among those attracted to Emerson’s ideas was his friend Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau emphasized nature’s role as a gateway to greater individualism, a main tenant of transcendentalism. In 1848, Thoreau lectured that individuals must stand up to governmental injustices, a topic he chose because of his opposition to the Mexican-American War and slavery. In 1849, he published Civil Disobedience, and urged readers to reject an immoral government. In 1854, he published Walden; Or, Life in the Woods, a book about the two years he spent living in a small cabin on Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau lived there as an experiment in living separate from his conformist neighbors.
Margaret Fuller also came to prominence as a leading transcendentalist and advocate for women’s equality. Fuller was a friend of Emerson, Thoreau, and other intellectuals of the day. Though she could not attend Harvard, as it was a male-only institution for undergraduate students until 1973, she was later granted library access because of her towering intellect. In 1840, she became the editor of The Dial, a transcendentalist journal, and later became a book reviewer for the New York Tribune newspaper. In 1850, she tragically died in a shipwreck off Fire Island, New York.
Walt Whitman, another contributor in the Transcendentalist Movement, published 12 poems in 1855 entitled Leaves of Grass, which celebrated the subjective experience of the individual.
Critics, including other famous writers and thinkers, attacked transcendentalists’ focus on rampant individualism and expressed the destructive consequences of compulsive human behavior. Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick emphasized how individual obsession could lead to peril, as in the case of Captain Ahab’s single-minded quest to kill a white whale which had destroyed his original ship and caused him to lose one of his legs. Edgar Allan Poe — a popular author, critic, and poet — decried, “the so-called poetry of the so-called transcendentalists.” Suffice to say, underlying tension existed between individualism and conformity in American life.
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- Question 1 of 3
Transcendentalists believed that individualism was more important than conformity.CorrectIncorrect
- Question 2 of 3
An Utopian society is a community that is ideal or perfect.CorrectIncorrect
- Question 3 of 3
______________was an incident in which a group of Mormons attacked and killed the adults of the Baker-Fancher wagon train.CorrectIncorrect
Additional Resources and Readings
A video describing the life and ideas of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and his transition to transcendentalism
Source: The School of Life
A video describing the life and ideas of Thoreau, and how his friendship with Emerson led to his ideas surrounding transcendentalism and civil disobedience
Source: The School of Life
A video focusing on a variety of 19th century reforms, including the rise of utopian communities in America (including Mormonism, Shakers, and Brook Farms).
Source: Crash Course Series
- Brook Farma secular, utopian community known for combining manual labor with intellectual pursuits, that attracted a number of transcendentalist thinkers
- Fourieristsa secular, utopian community that believed labor was a type of capital and wages should be based on how pleasant a job is to do
- Meadows Massacre1857 incident in which a group of Mormons attacked and killed the adults of the Baker-Fancher wagon train after President Buchanan sent a military force to quell the “Mormon Rebellion”
- Mormonsfollowers of Joseph Smith’s Church of Latter-Day Saints
- Oneida Communitya religious, utopian community that believed sex and spiritual power were intrinsically tied, leading to some controversial practices like complex marriage
- Owenitea series of secular, utopian, cooperative societies where workers could lead meaningful, fulfilled lives, based on faith in human reason to make the world better
- polygamypractice of a husband having more than one wife at a time or vice versa (Mormons only practiced polygamy for men)
- Rappitesa religious, utopian community that believed in common ownership and built the town “Harmony,” where they produced surplus goods to sell to the outside world
- Shakersa religious, utopian community that believed God was both genders, with Jesus embodying the male side and “Mother Ann” embodying the female side
- transcendentalisman intellectual movement that advocated for direct knowledge of the self and emphasized individualism
- utopian societya community or society possessing highly desirable or perfect qualities
License and Citations
Authored and curated by Jay Reynolds for The TEL Library. CC BY NC SA 4.0
Video and Activity authored by the TEL Library. CC BY SA 4.0
|Title page of a 1830 copy of The Book of Mormon||Joseph Smith Jr.||Wikimedia Commons||Public Domain|
|Walden Thoreau||Unknown||Wikimedia Commons||Public Domain|
|Wave Tree Mirroring Water||mikegi||Pixabay||CC 0|
|Nathaniel Hawthorne||Charles Osgood||Wikimedia Commons||Public Domain|
|A group of Shakers||Unknown||Wikimedia Commons||Public Domain|