by Steve Mizrach

The Symbolic Invention of America-as-Utopia

Utopo-genesis: Introduction to America-as-Utopia

In the symbolic invention of America, Europe exercised some of its greatest powers of Utopian imagination. Some of the earliest so-called 'Christian communities' in America were attempts to realize the Utopian principle in America: these early communities were, as Mark Holloway puts it, attempts to realize Heaven on Earth[1]. It was believed that in America Europe could create the Utopia never realizable within the ossified and sterile traditions of its own lands. While there would be Utopian experiments in Europe - the Paris Commune, the Fourierist Phalanxes, etc. - it would only be in America that the great European divines would attempt to found their New Jerusalem with such idealism, zeal, and moral fervor. It is almost impossible to understand some of America's most enduring features - by this I mean what today America has come to mean, white Euro-Protestant North America - without studying these communities' peculiar qualities: relentless perfectionism, constant innovation, a cooperative spirit, and the search for spiritual and physical purity which stretches from the Puritan regime to aerobicizing at the gym. But, in reading the writings of the spiritual reformers who founded those communities, one finds a message that in 1950s America would have found little resonance: that communism is the most pious, natural, and proper state of mankind[2].

America as the Vehicle for Europe's Utopian Imagination

By "Utopian," I mean something other than the merely fantastic. Early in the 16th century, there were suppositions that what had been discovered by Colombus was Avalon, Atlantis, the Fountain of Youth, the Earthly Paradise, St. Brendan's isle, Antillia, Prester John's Kingdom, or the Isles of Hesperia. When it was recognized that what had been found was truly a new continent, the medieval mind of Europe surrendered its imaginary geographies, only to allow its modern significatory imagination to go to work in constructing Utopia where it had not been found. Thomas More would write his Utopia with a placid Carribean island in the background of his imagining; so too would Thomas a Campanella, with his City of the Sun , and Johann Valentin Andraea with his Christianopolis : lands more than mythical, almost tantalizingly realizable. Francis Bacon wrote his New Atlantis, suggesting that America was at once very old (heir to the traditions of the first civilization, Atlantis) and very new, a new "philosophic continent" within whose outlines lay modernity and freedom from the shackles of scholastic thought. Almost all these early 16th century Utopian writers saw America as a place where the regeneration of the age promised by the Rosicrucians[3] and other groups might come about, home to bold experiments in the investigation of nature and society. Some, like Bacon, saw it as more ammunition in the war of the moderns against the ancients, and Colombus as the empiricist pioneer par excellence , sailing for unknown lands of the unfathomed world.

This Utopianism would not fade during the Enlightenment, although perhaps its roots might change. As reports of the native Americans showed them (read: constructed them) to be everything Europe was not but wished it was - free of guile, deception, disingenuousness, and corruption - the myth of Rousseau's Noble Savage was born: innocent, docile, unfettered, with his simple regality enough to endure the complexities of life. Through the concept of the Rousseauian State of Nature and 'Primitive Communism,' the Savage who knew not property, warfare, strife, deceit, or arbitrary authority would "fire" the imagination of the philosophes such as Montaigne and Voltaire. The great Law of Peace created by the Iriquois League of Six Nations was seen as the apogee of the Noble Savage's work, and inspired many of the early inhabitants of the American colonies, especially William Penn's Quakers[4]. The colonists, while seeking to imitate the freedom and spontaneity of America's autochthons, proceeded to displace them from their lands at an amazing pace, a duality that has not been ignored by many of the Native Americans that have found their voice in 1992. (Do we not destroy our prototypes when we believe we have the finished model?)

Also, during the Enlightenment, sects such as the Scottish Rite Masons, Carbonari, and the Illuminati began to offer models of the ideal state which were seen to threaten both crown (monarchy) and cross (Church), "prince and pope." Some of these came out of Hermetic or Neoplatonic elements in the 'Rosicrucian' occult tradition of Europe, and many of the elements can be found even today in the symbols of the Republic, such as the Great Seal and its motto, "New Order of the Ages" (Novus Ordo Seclorum.) Few people realize how much of the symbolism on the dollar bill, from its many 13s down to the Eagle of Liberty, comes out of Masonic ritual, or how much of a role Free Masonry played in the French and American revolutions[5]. (Some commentators located the anticlerical roots of the Revolution in the Masonic promise to avenge the Templars. Did not one revolutionary cry out at one point, "Jacques de Molay, you are avenged!") America was seen by many of these secret societies as a place where their ideal state might meet its fruition, and their belief that America was a place with a unique destiny in regenerating the world is echoed in phrases such as "Light unto the nations", "Manifest Destiny," and "Philadelphia." (Brotherly Love: the 'Philadelphians' were a secret French sect to which many of the "founding fathers" had been initiated.)

It is these three elements - Renaissance longing for a renewed Golden Age of harmony and plenty; Enlightenment longing for a return to the use of 'natural reason' best found in the American indigenes; and "Rosicrucian" longing for revenge against temporal and spiritual authority - that all confluenced in the 17th century, that time of the birth of the first Utopian communities in America, places of experiment for man's perennial quest to perfect and purify himself. Protestantism had revived the notion that Catholic teaching was some long, slacking adulteration of the 'pure' apostolic Christianity, and so in America many Utopian sects sought deliberate imitation of the primitive, apostolic Church. It was thought that the Christian communes would provide what modern man sought for, solace, peace, and brotherhood. Contrary to what some have suggested, the physical continent America - meaning its climactic, geographic, and demographic features - was far from paradisial, despite what Transcendentalist poets might say after the fact. We can only see the roots of American Utopianism in the invention of 'symbolic America' and the creation of America as a signifying entity.

The Nature of the Communities

Of course, the socialism of these early communities was the kind that Marx, rightly or wrongly, would deride as 'utopian,' suggesting that it was idealistic and impractical[6]. Rather than seeking to create an ideal government or reform the world, the Christian communists withdrew from the sinful, corrupt world to work their miracles in microcosm, hoping to imitate the elect state of affairs that existed among the Apostles, who were said to hold all things in common. Most of these communities saw themselves as islands of redemption in a world awash with temptation, sin, and avarice; the Elect could come and perfect themselves, if they were prepared to heed the Lord's call to chastity, poverty, simplicity, hard work, purity, and brotherly love. This is not to say that these Utopian experiments did nothing to contribute to social reform: many aided and abetted the abolitionist (anti-slavery), suffrage (women's rights), and nonresistance (conscientious objection to war) struggles, if indirectly. But, by and large, they held the view that, like the Fathers of the Church, a monastic, contemplative life apart from "Caesar" and the powers of the world (the State) was desirable.

The most interesting of these communities are the ones founded in the 17th and early 18th centuries. These are very different from the secular or Deist cooperatives of the 19th century, or the temporary cooperative agreements of the early Puritan settlers in Massachussetts. The ones that I am speaking of are the early communities known as the Woman in the Wilderness (founded by German Pietists in 1694), Irenia (founded by Moravians in 1695), Bohemia Manor (founded by the Labadists in 1683), the Ephrata Cloister (founded by Sabbatarians in 1732), Bethlehem (founded by Anabaptists in 1740), and Mount Lebanon (founded by the Shakers in 1787.) These communities all share certain salient features: they were all founded by sects considered apostate or heretical by the Lutheran or Calvinist Protestant Churches of Germany and central Europe; they were all founded in or around William Penn's Quaker "experiment of toleration" (what is today Pennsylvania); and each involved a migrant community who followed over a European charistmatic founder to inaugurate their experiment (i.e. they were not 'native' developments.)

The various religious sects involved in founding these Utopian communities established certain near-universal belief patterns. For one, they all held a special reverence for the Old Testament and were ardent Hebrophiles, many seeing themselves as the "New Israel" sited in the New World (among the Indians, who they considered the "old" or "fleshly" "lost tribes" of old Israel.) Because of this, many kept the Jewish sabbath or other aspects of Old Testament law. For another, they all rejected 'common' marriage, most replacing that institution either with celibacy or the taking of 'spiritual wives,' although some sects practiced 'complex' marriage, i.e., the sharing of women. Most were milleniarians or adventists who expected the Second Coming of Christ shortly after their arrival in the New World[7]. All the communities were 'quietist' or pacifist, refusing to pay taxes, vote, go to war, or hold any sort of elected office; they abstained from all worldly power and institutions. They also subscribed to the moral perfectionism that Weber called the Protestant Ethic, i.e. the idea that salvation here on Earth could only be vouchsafed through hard, laborious work. (Few accepted Calvinist predestination, although they believed that in forming their communities they 'assumed' the election and Grace of the Lord, becoming the 'saved'.) Most were also inspirationalists, manifesting the 'charismatic' or 'pentecostal' enthusiasmos of the Apostles (such as the turbulent shuddering of the Shakers); some were also antinomians who even felt that the Grace of the Divine negated all earthly and manmade laws.

All of these communities were founded on certain assumptions. Many of them believed Europe and the Christian Church had fallen into a period of irreversible decline, largely due to the distancing the 17th century Church had from the 'pure' apostolic Christianity of the 1st century. (Constantine and the Roman Church were said to have inaugurated this decline, by allowing the Church to hold property, exert temporal power, and establish hierarchies.) They felt that in the New World Christianity and the Christian "race" could be made regenerate, and purify itself once more, in expectation of the Second Coming of Christ. Most of these sects felt the Apocalypse described in the Book of Revelation would be coming soon, and that the Divine Judgement was imminent. Like Noah fleeing in his Ark, they felt they would be spared this judgement for their holiness and fidelity to the Law in their new land. Only in isolation from the fallen, sinful, irredeemable world could they become the elect of the Lord's salvation, they felt.

The Christian Communities as Counterculture[8]

In these ways, the early Christian Utopian communities were not all that different from other sectarian movements, such as the Mormons, Quakers, or Baptists. What did make them unusual were three features: the equal status they afforded women; the communal sharing of all property; and their eclecticism. In the Christian communes (especially those of the Shakers, who perceived the Divine as bisexual), women were often granted significant political and material equality, all those who worked had an equal share to the earnings of the community, and there were strict rules for the admittance of new members to the sect (very important, since many were celibate and had no "natural increase".) These features made them, as one commentator noted, a "counterculture" within early America itself, a counterpoint to the thrifty individualism and industry that characterized the new urban centres. They had many mystical elements: the structure of the Woman in the Wilderness was based on numerological considerations, with the mystic number 40 integral to both the construction of buildings and the population of the commune, and their ritual combined primitive Christianity with Rosicrucian and theosophical mysticism.

These sects of these communities were often at odds with many of the precepts of the established Protestant churches at the time. The Pietists felt that the Lutheran church had become too "papal" itself, and too focused on ecclesiasical hierarchy. The celebration of Sunday as the Sabbath, the practice of infant baptism, the denial of "inward illumination" or inspiration (and the charismatic 'gifts of the spirit' that followed), the relationship between Church and State, and the nature of the sacraments were often points of difficult contention. Most of these sects - Shakers, Moravians, Pietists, Labadists, Anabaptists, etc. - were radically democratic and took very seriously Luther's suggestion that "every man be a priest." Some of them so eschewed the use of force and coercion that even if a member was declared banished or expelled, they would not use force to make him to leave, although other methods (such as anathema) might be attempted. In many cases, they were on friendly terms with the indigenes of America - the Ephrata Cloister made one of the first attempts at providing a written translation of the Indians' language.

The parallels between the 1690s communities and the 1960s communes have attracted the attention of many authors. The renuniciation of legal marriage, the sharing of property, the rebellion against organized religion, the disaffection and alienation from the outside world, and the fierce opposition to war and the State, which was seen primarily as an agent of violence, are common features. But the hippies of the 1960s might be surprised at the practices of austerity, celibacy, and monasticism of those early communities: there was little dancing, singing, music-playing, artmaking, drugtaking, or lovemaking there. If transported 250 years into the future, the Ephrata communists might look askance at the hippies' eschewing of hard work and ethic of "if it feels good, do it." The common thread between these communes was Utopianism: a belief that paradise could be recreated in miniature, because people could be made regenerate if their environment was improved.

The Founders behind the American Experiments

The divines behind the creation of paradise in the New World were often a highly eclectic bunch- the mystic Johannes Kelpius, the poet and scholar Conrad Beissel, the magister Christoph Schegel, Jean de Labadie, and Mother Ann and the 'Universal Friend.' Many of these people were determined zealots and idealists; but almost all were highly educated. Kelpius was a graduate of mathematics in Altdorf University, and also an enthusiastic mystic and millenarian. Beissel was a baker who travelled in Pietist and inspirationist circles, and would study at Heidelberg University, a hotbed of 'Rosicrucian' activity. Schlegel was a Lutheran theologian who is known to have been an associate of Johann Valentin Andreae, the author of one or more Rosicrucian manifestoes[9]. Ann Lee (known as "Mother Ann" to the Shakers) came from the Camisards of France, a sect thought to descend from the Cathars persecuted during the Albigensian Crusade in 13th century France, and who believed the Messiah would come in the form of a woman. Jean de Labadie was a nobleman who was successively a Jesuit-trained Catholic priest, a Huguenot dissenting preacher, and a Separatist who came to start his own sect. Surprisingly, his Labadists looked at Surinam as a possibility before settling on Bohemia Manor in Pennsylvania.

The fact that they were charismatic and intelligent was not unusual. So were the founders of many of the 'open' communities in America, such as William Penn, Roger Williams, and John Smith. What was unusual was that they wanted to create a whole new reality in America, a counter-reality that was to be strikingly different from the world from which they came. The Pilgrims, Puritans, and other colonists might have escaped the persecutions of the Old World, but they did not reject wholesale its social systems and cultural elements in the way the founders of the closed Christian communities did. In the mystical poetry of Beissel, one can see a desire for a clean break with the Old World and its dens of corruption. Their idealism survived undaunted, despite the way many of their communities collapsed or dissolved. Within their closed circles would come charlatans, exploiters, and conmen, who saw ways to make the communes' public wealth into private gain. Because of this, some, like de Labadie, became strict, ruthless authoritarians, forced to dissolve their own systems of egalitarian decisionmaking and assume a strong hand in the guidance of their communities.

The personalities of the Utopian founders were very determined. Since many of their communities had short lives (many of the communalists would find swamps and deserts for their common lands, rather than the verdant fields they had been promised) and often disincorporated within one or two years, they would often lead a band of traditionalists to start over elsewhere. On those occasions where some dissidents within the community began holding property in private, they might take their followers and leave so as to "do it right this time." Upon their death, it was only rarely possible to find a successor who equalled them in determination and authority. Ephrata was fortunate to have Peter Miller to follow its Beissel, and for that reason survived for several generations. The greatest impact of these early Utopian founders may have been the way they shaped the ideas of some of the other American "founding fathers." William Penn, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams are known to have visited and been impressed by Ephrata and the wisdom of its leaders.

The traces of the early Christian communes are only faint today. They have left behind traces in material culture (Shaker furniture), literature (Ephrata appears in Byron's poetry), and local folklore. But, by and large, their place in social memory has been erased by more successful communal experiments in the 19th century such as Oneida, New Harmony, Icaria, and Brook Farm. These later communities were often established on a different basis - their founding ideas were universalism, unitarianism, deism, or outright agnosticism - and were more focused on practical, social considerations than on 'moral' ones: hence their longer physical and symbolic survival. The importance of the early communities is that they are the earliest expression of Europe's Utopian imagination, and hence perhaps most representative of its archetypal roots and unconscious influences. The writings of the founders of these communities would prefigure the speeches many later reformers, zealots, and prophets, ranging from Thoreau to Martin Luther King[10]. In many cases, they shaped American cultural life: the first volume of music and first printing press in America were made by the Pietists of the communes.

The Utopian Imagination at Work Today

Back in the 1970s when space had the American imagination enthralled, figures like Gerard K. O'Neill and Buckminster Fuller began to imagine the next wave of Utopian experiments. Their remarks appear in an amazing book released by And/Or Press and the New Dimensions Foundation in 1978[11]. These experiments would be attempted with the realization that, if heaven could not be realized on earth, perhaps it should be put where it belongs: in the heavens. O'Neill talks about space colonies in precisely these ways, as places where new Utopian experiments in self-governance and economic life can be attempted; and in an interview, when asked what type of men would settle in these colonies, he makes analogies to the people who sailed with Colombus or came with the Pilgrims to the New World. If America created one world, for O'Neill settling in space will be a new way to create a thousand more, and discover others: our next confrontation with alterity will be with other races that, unlike the native peoples of America, may not even resemble us at all. O'Neill sees it as axiomatic that America will lead this march into space, recognizing that the Utopian imagination that created it never found the complete fulfillment within its shores, and thus turns to the next unconquered frontier.

If O'Neill wants to build his high-tech space Utopias, his enthusiasm is perhaps exceeded only by Timothy Leary, the psychedelic priest who wants the human race to SMI2LE (Space migration, exponential intelligence, and life extension) by the 21st century[12]. Leary is notable for pointing out that "it will not be the bureaucrats, engineers, and technicians who settle out in space: instead it will be the 'heads'." In other words, today's counterculture, the drug-taking dharma bums, will be the ones to escape out into space, even as Europe's counterculture sought their own "head trip" in America with Ephrata and the Woman in the Wilderness. Leary sees a connection between the 'dropped out', 'freaked out' youth disaffected by the world of the 1970s, and the world-weary, alternative-cosmos-seeking "trippers" of the 1690s. And are not their California communes and "Jesus freak" tent-cities the first step in the recreation of Paradise, asks Leary? Leary even sees a eugenic spin to all this: the spacegoers will be the 'mutants' of our race, they of chemically enhanced intelligence and neuroatomic awareness, even as the Utopian pioneers of America were the advanced 'mutants' within the European body politic. And if Leary has not been explicit enough in his analogies, he adds, "The North American experiment is the greatest success in evolutionary (my emphasis) history. Each gene pool sends its seed west, as a form of self-selection... the Pilgrim mothers and fathers wanted a place to live out the collective kooky, freaky reality that they shared. Californians are a new species (my emphasis) evolving away from other Americans."

Others add their emphasis to this point. "Edmund G. Brown, Jr." talks about closed systems and the psychological impact of the closing of the frontier on America, and how logical it is that California's aerospace industry will leads us into the next one. (This is Jerry Brown, returned from Zen meditation, but before his incarnation as a populist presidential candidate.) Buckminster Fuller talks about the explorers of the Age of Discovery as the first World men, and the explorers of the Space Age as completing their realization by seeing the Whole Earth from space, unconnected, without borders. Many others see the problems of "Limits to Growth" - pollution, overpopulation, the energy crisis, world hunger - as just like the "parochial" problems that they claim some Portuguese and Italians invoked to hinder Colombus from his journey. Once out in space, we can solve (or escape?) them all. Those who do not want to make the evolutionary leap into space migration are implicitly linked to the 'naysayers' and 'doubters' who did not trust Colombus. The point here is not to dismiss the links, but to see the reasons why these connections between 1492 Spain and 1992 America are being made. The Utopian imagination of Europe lives on, and space offers it the next sphere of experimentation.

I say "Europe," because some of the greatest doubters of the promise of space are the African-Americans, Latin Americans, and Native Americans of 1992- the "Other America" - who wonder aloud why the great nation which plans to settle on the moon cannot feed its people right here on Earth. The problems which threaten our planet - environmental destruction, atomic warfare, economic collapse - and force the Europeans to look for the next one to move onto - many of the "other America" see as the results of the Euro-Americans' own handiwork. Some see the fetish of technology- the technology that will supposedly bring us out into space and fix our planetary ills - at the very root of these problems. The Utopian imagination is doublesided. The same ideal that brought the alternative-reality-seekers, rebels, troublemakers, heretics, and "mutants" of Europe over here to found paradise also led many of them to hewn down its "sinful" wilderness, to destroy its "Satanic" indigenes, and develop a xenophobic ethic which saw sin in the hearts of all men, and often brought about purges, like of the witches of Salem. Is not the perfectionism of the Utopians still alive, as thousands of Americans starve and poison themselves each year to attain an impossibly perfect body? Are the flesh and spirit still not at war in our debates over pornography, etc.? If there is a conclusion to be drawn, it is that the relentless quest for Utopia may not find itself in any spatial geography, whether it be new continents or outer space; perhaps it is in the geography of the human heart.


  1. See Holloway, Heavens on Earth: Utopian Communities in America 1680-1880.
  2. From Yaacov Oved, Two Hundred Years of American Communes.
  3. The Rosicrucians, or Brethren of the Rosy Cross, were a secret fraternity that claimed foundation in 1413 but made their public 'appearance' in 1603 with a series of manifestoes attacking the church, the monarchs, and existing institutions. They proposed an extension of knowledge which is not altogether unlike the later Enlightenment, hence Frances A. Yates' book The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, where she documents their role in the formation of the English Royal Society.
  4. See Jack Weatherford, Indian Givers.
  5. See Michael Baigent and Leigh, The Temple and the Lodge.
  6. Marx and Engels discuss the 'failure' of religious communistic societies in many of their works, especially The Holy Family.
  7. Although it should be pointed out that some were postmillenarians, believing that the Second Coming had already happened and they were living in the Kingdom of Heaven. The notion was that entering the commune was equal to entrance to the New Jerusalem.
  8. I borrow this notion from E.G. Alderfer, The Ephrata Commune: An Early American Counterculture.
  9. See Manly Palmer Hall, The Rosicrucians and Magister Christoph Schegel: The Hermetic Roots of America.
  10. This is made fairly clear in Cooney and Michalowski, The Power of the People: Active Nonviolence in the History of America.
  11. This book, entitled Worlds Beyond, edited by Larry Geis and Fabrice Florin, explores the social, political, and technological aspects of space colonization. It is particularly interesting due to the continual references to 1492, Colombus, and America.
  12. This is best expressed in Leary's books Neuropolitique and Info-Psychology.
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