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Flynn: A CONSERVATIVE HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN LEFT
the religious left
Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Utopian and collectivist ideas are as American as Plymouth Rock.
The Pilgrims, like America’s secular communists of the nineteenth century, hoped to build a city upon a hill. And like other sectarian groups that later found refuge in America, the Pilgrims attempted to build their utopia upon communist principles. In contrast to nineteenth-century American communists, sectarian and secular, and akin to most twentieth-century Europeans living under communists, the Pilgrims’ system was imposed on them from without. The edict to abolish private property and pool resources came from an unlikely source: Plymouth colony’s capitalist investors, who unwisely, and ironically, feared that the colonists’ private greed would eat away at investment profits. Under communism, which reigned in Plymouth colony from 1620 to 1623, Pilgrim bellies and investor wallets starved.
Historians look back and ascribe myriad causes for these lean years. But the man whom the Plymouth colonists elected as their governor more than thirty times emphasized the role communism played in the colony’s early woes. In Of Plymouth Plantation, William Bradford wrote:
For the young men, that were most able and fit for labour and service, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense. The strong, or man of parts, had no more in division of victuals and clothes than he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalized in labours and victuals, clothes, etc., with the meaner and younger sort, thought it some indignity and disrespect unto them. And for men’s wives to be commended to do service for other men, as dressing their meat, washing their clothes, etc., they deemed it a kind of slavery, neither could many husbands well brook it.1
Rather than “languish in misery,” Bradford parceled land to families for private use, which “made all hands very industrious.” An abundance of corn replaced an abundance of hunger pangs. “The women now went willingly in the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn; which before would allege weakness and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.”2
Bradford concluded: “The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato’s and other ancients applauded by some of later times; that the taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God.”3
Other religious exiles followed the Pilgrims to America. Many didn’t learn from Plymouth colony’s mistakes.
A recurring theme of socialists centered on schemes to play God. For Christian socialists, this involved charismatic figures claiming to be God, or at least God’s chosen earthly representative. For atheist socialists, this involved deposing God and putting man in his place. For who else but God could be so all-knowing as to plan from afar distribution of goods and jobs to all men?
Men submitted to intrusive schemes based on the loftiest of promises: heaven on earth. Sectarian communists undertook such endeavors to prepare for the end of the world; secular communists undertook such endeavors to embark upon the beginning of the world. With rhetoric that invoked both Genesis and Revelation, the religious and non-religious utopian dreamers displayed the intellectual debt owed to the Bible—even by ideologues who hated the Bible. Man, again and again, fell victim to the conceit of believing himself “wiser than God.”
The Dutch followers of Jean de Labadie awaited the eschaton in mid-Atlantic America in the 1680s. Escaping Holland as their founder escaped France, the Labadists lived communally and shared possessions. There existed a “check on all individuals so detailed that a record was kept of how many slices of bread and butter were consumed by each person at each meal,” Mark Holloway writes.4 The intrusions proved too burdensome to both the collective economy and the individual. By 1698, the Labadists had begun to divide their common land into private tracts.
Johann Jacob Zimmermann surmised that the world would end in 1694. To prepare for the union of heaven and earth, his followers left Rotterdam a day after Zimmermann’s death and made off to the forests of Pennsylvania. In the tradition of spiritual orders, the members of the “Woman in the Wilderness”—a name that alluded to the true church as a woman and to the book of Revelation’s prophecy of Armageddon arriving in the wilderness—were single-sex (all men), celibate, and uniformed. They also lived communally. Judgment Day failed to appear for humanity but came unexpectedly for Zimmermann’s immortal successor, Johannes Kelpius. Sect members then reexamined their ideas and slowly rejoined the world.
Conrad Beissel came to America in hopes of joining Woman in the Wilderness. Finding it gone, he secluded himself in a cave and eventually launched his own sectarian community, the Ephrata Society. Launched in 1732, Ephrata became the most enduring communist enterprise in American history, lasting in one form or another into the twentieth century. The Ephratans lived as destitute monks, forgoing possessions, sex, and individuality.
In most ways, the early sectarian communities bore no resemblance to the fantasies of leftists, past or present. In several crucial ways, however, Ephratans, Labadists, and other religious communists embodied the radical’s dream: they eschewed private property for collectivism, rejected traditional Western civilization, and envisioned earth becoming heaven.
These communities were not demonstrations to prove the tenets of socialism, but spiritual fortresses to protect inhabitants from the sinful world surrounding them. Their inhabitants were monastic rather than evangelistic. More concerned with their own salvation than humanity’s, sectarian communists built cities beyond rather than upon hills. Sectarian communists did not intend for their communities to serve as models for replication. Secular communists nevertheless saw them as such.
Such communities flourished in America thanks to the unique qualities of the new republic. In Europe, peculiar religious sects were unwelcome where there was unity of church and state, while centralized governments, rigid class structures, and a paucity of land made separation from society possible only by the drastic act of emigration. In contrast, America’s federalism allowed for a diversity of governments and a plethora of competing experiments. The unsettled frontier provided plenty of land to conduct experiments in communal living. Religious freedom promised that sects could go about their business unmolested by government. And the open-door policy invited those whose beliefs conflicted with the beliefs that governed their homelands.
Disaffected Europeans came through that open door. The Shakers came from England, the Harmonists and Zoarites from the German states, and the Jansonites from Sweden. A wave of secular communists followed the wave of sectarian communists—Icarians from France, the Modjeskans from Poland, Owenites from Great Britain. Ideas, unaccompanied by masses of people, immigrated, too. Fourierism was a system made in France but tested in America.
America’s first aliens were aliens twice over. Outsiders in their own countries for economic, religious, political, or myriad other reasons, misfits in Europe often came to America, where they found that they were misfits once again.
Jesus Christ came to America in 1774, and her name was Ann Lee. Like Jesus of Nazareth, Ann of Manchester came of humble (earthly) parentage. Neither fisherman nor carpenter, Lee did work in a cotton factory and as a cook in an infirmary (in which she was later committed). Lee never learned to read or write, so her life’s works were chronicled by her followers. She faced persecution—by the state in Britain, by the mob in America.
In jail, where many find Christ, Ann Lee found herself. Confined to a Manchester cell for two weeks, Lee discovered that she was the second coming of Jesus Christ. Lee additionally discovered that she did not like jail. So, at God’s request, she left England for America. Her followers, numbering eight, naturally followed. They settled in upstate New York, performing odd jobs, until a revival swept through the area in 1780. Lee preached. Mother Ann’s charisma, despite her strange doctrines, made converts. Inspired, she traveled and made more converts. A religious cult bloomed.
Ann Lee was the leader, but not the founder, of the Shakers. The Shakers were originally Quakers who took to ritualistic shaking, hence the redundancy “Shaking Quakers” or the amalgam “Shakers.” Their dancing and screaming disturbed the peace of cramped Manchester and later frightened the inhabitants of sparse New England towns into thinking that Indians were afoot. Ann, and other Shakers, spoke in tongues. Ann recalled how several ministers interrogating her “said that I spoke in seventy two different tongues, and that I spoke them more perfect than any in their knowledge were able to do.” These British men of the cloth evidently possessed good senses of humor, as they tried to goad Ann into teaching them the languages she spoke.5 In America, Ann took to randomly making accusations against strangers—“whore” being a favorite taunt. She accused one man of mating with beasts and charged one young woman with living “in whoredom with married men, young men, black men and boys.”6
There was a message amidst the madness. Lee waged war on marriage, demanding celibacy from her followers and cleaving wife from husband upon conversion. She condemned competing religions, going so far in Manchester as to disrupt a Church of England service. She and her flock lived communally, if nomadically, and shared all. If all of this wasn’t controversial enough to invite persecution from the riffraff, Ann preached pacifism in rural, Revolutionary-era America. The Shakers made no secret of their English origins, and Ann, a woman, claimed to be Christ. Mobs frequently beat the Shakers, with one pack of night riders absconding with Ann in a horse-drawn sleigh to engage upon her “acts of inhumanity and indecency which even savages would be ashamed of.”7
Jailed, beaten, committed, ridiculed, and nearly thrown overboard upon passage to America, Ann Lee died just sixteen years after recognizing herself as the second incarnation. Lee’s followers, like Christ’s, lived on after their messiah’s 1784 death. From New York and New England, they spread to Ohio, Kentucky, and points beyond. For Shakers, communism was an aspect of Christianity, not something larger. Hadn’t the apostles lived communally? It was in imitation of the early church that the Shakers wished to live after their messiah’s death. “The five most prominent practical principles of the Pentecost Church were,” according to the Shakers, “first, common property; second, a life of celibacy; third, non-resistance; fourth, a separate and distinct government; and, fifth, power over physical disease.”8 “If [converts] brought children into the community,” Mark Holloway informs, “they were separated from them, and might only see them privately once a year, in the presence of an elder, for a very brief interview.”9 The lifestyle and religion proved especially attractive to women, who greatly outnumbered men at Shaker communities.10 Mothers escaped child-rearing burdens. Old maids found shelter from a world that offered little in the way of opportunities for self-support and much in the way of stigma. And in contrast to nearly every other religion, a woman played a central role in the Shaker faith.
And that woman, after her death, occasionally reappeared at nightly gatherings to deliver food and drink to believing Shakers, who also caught ghostly visions of Beelzebub, Indian tribes, and Arabs far from home. But such visions grew foggier as death, celibacy, and insulation subtracted from their ranks, which had peaked at about five thousand. While the first coming of Christ now claims more than two billion adherents, the second coming claims less than a dozen people in two New England states.
Though the Shaker religion failed to inspire waves of converts, the Shaker way of life inspired waves of imitators. The Shaker embrace of a proto-feminism, pacifism, and egalitarianism; the group’s rebellion against marriage, the family, and all post-first-century Christianity; and, especially, its communities serving as proof that communism wasn’t mere theory—all generated interest in Ann Lee’s religion far beyond what a small cult normally warrants.
In 1804, the Harmonists (as they called themselves) or the Rappites (as others called them) followed George Rapp to America. Father Rapp’s six-hundred-plus flock settled outside of Pittsburgh the next year. In 1814, Rapp sought sunnier skies and greener pastures for the group’s vineyards, so they packed up and moved to the banks of the Wabash in southwestern Indiana. Finding scorching summers, freezing winters, and malaria, the Harmonists departed the misnamed Harmony, Indiana, but not before their leader could play a crucial role in the founding of the state.11 They returned to the Pittsburgh area in 1825 and established the town of Economy.
After siring four children, Rapp forbade his followers from engaging in sex. The Harmonists grew tobacco but their leader forbade its use. Amidst this puritan atmosphere, an English visitor noted, “during the whole time I was at Harmonie I never saw one of them laugh.”12 The Rappites lived humbly, save Father Rapp, who dwelled in a large and ornate home. Rapp’s “word was law on every subject,” wrote William Hinds, a historian of and participant in communist communities.13 Rapp’s followers held the same godly view of Rapp as Rapp held of himself. Appearing as if he had stepped out of the pages of the Old Testament, the leader had a ZZ Top–like beard (sans mustache), solemn countenance, and simple dress that reminded followers that there walked the genuine article. So worshipful were the Harmonists of Father Rapp that in 1805 they deeded all of their earthly possessions to him.14 In return, Father Rapp agreed to supply “all the necessaries of life, as clothing, meat, drink, lodging,” and should any Harmonists “become sick, infirm, or otherwise unfit for labor,” Harmony’s patriarch would provide security, “medicine, care, attendance, and consolation.”15
The Harmonists prepared for the end of the world. It didn’t come. But the end came for Father Rapp in 1847, and nearly six decades later for the community he started.
The Germans of the Society of Separatists of Zoar emigrated from the same area as Father Rapp’s Harmonists. Like the Shakers and Rappites, their migration had as much to do with conditions in Europe as with conditions in America. In Württemberg, the Separatists played Martin Luther to the established Lutheran Church. They were Protestant Protestants. “[W]e reject all intervention of priests or preachers,” they proclaimed to local authorities. “We cannot send our children into the schools of Babylon. . . . We cannot serve the state as soldiers, because a Christian cannot murder his enemy, much less his friend.”16 They found Europe’s intolerance intolerable, and they migrated en masse to the open spaces of the American heartland.
The Zoarites settled in eastern Ohio with no intent to live communally. The uncertainty of life on the newly settled frontier, and the number of elderly Zoarites, dictated a change in plans. They came to America to worship freely, but quickly decided to live under group coercion. “All inequalities and distinctions of rank and fortune shall be abolished from amongst us,” their 1833 constitution declared, “that we may live as brethren and sisters of one common family.”17
Entered into pragmatically, communism soon took on religious connotations. As one Zoarite explained, “In heaven there is only Communism; and why should it not be our aim to prepare ourselves in this world for the society we are sure to enter there? If we can get rid of our wilfulness and selfishness here there is so much done for heaven.”18
But what were the earthly advantages of collective living? “All distinctions of rich and poor are abolished,” Zoarites told Hinds in 1876. “The members have no care except for their own spiritual culture. Communism provides for the sick, the weak, the unfortunate, all alike, which makes their life comparatively easy and pleasant. In case of great loss by fire or flood or other cause, the burden which would be ruinous to one is easily borne by the many. Charity and genuine love to one another, which are the foundations of true Christianity, can be more readily cultivated and practiced in Communism than in common, isolated society. Finally, a Community is the best place in which to get rid of selfishness, wilfulness, and bad habits and vices generally; for we are subject to the constant surveillance and reproof of others, which, rightly taken, will go far toward preparing us for the large Community above.”19
Whatever wonders communism did for the community above, it did little for the Zoarite community here on earth. “The little town of Zoar, though founded fifty-six years ago, has yet no foot pavements,” Charles Nordhoff wrote upon visiting the community in 1874; “it remains without regularity of design; the houses are for the most part in need of paint; and there is about the place a general air of neglect and lack of order, a shabbiness.”20 Twenty-four years later, the communists decided to no longer be communists. The 222 Zoarites went their separate ways. William Hinds returned to Zoar in 1900 and found, to his obvious dismay, that “individualism was rampant.”21 “Yes,” Zoar’s former schoolteacher told Hinds, “every one can do as he pleases, like all the world.”22
We see flashes of twentieth-century Bolshevik communism in nineteenth-century Christian communism. We see charismatic dictators and communities of Big Brothers. We see centrally planned economies, the belief in man’s perfectibility, and the imminence of heaven on earth. But we also see elements missing from twentieth-century Bolshevism. We see, most conspicuously, Bibles, churches, and references to Jesus Christ instead of Karl Marx, or Vladimir Lenin, or Joseph Stalin. Less obvious, but not less important, we see breakaways. Christian communism was voluntary. Communists could and did secede from the communes. Thousands of Americans used their freedom to associate for the purpose of rejecting freedom. If life under communism didn’t suit them, no Checkpoint Charlie stopped them, no Siberia awaited them. They just left.
The relationship between today’s irreligious Left and yesterday’s religious Left is lineal. Christian communitarians attacked the established churches, the institution of marriage, and private property. They embraced proto-feminism, pacifism, it-takes-a-village child rearing, and numerous objectives that subordinated the individual to the group. That they did so in the name of Christianity is less important than the fact that they did so.
Still more direct is the line from America’s sectarian communists to America’s secular communists. The intellectuals who established utopias in America’s heartland during the nineteenth century gained inspira- tion from the religious communitarians who preceded them. The transition from sectarian to secular was immediate in the case of the Rappites and the Owenites. In 1824, British socialist Robert Owen—whose followers coined the term “socialism”—purchased Harmony, Indiana, from Father George Rapp.23 He renamed it New Harmony and embarked upon the most famous experiment in communal living in American history.
“George Rapp founded New Harmony, Indiana, with the intention of awaiting the millennium there,” Indiana University professor William Wilson observed. “Robert Owen came to town believing he brought the millennium with him.”24