Talk of religious fervor in the United States often brings to mind the “burned-over district” in New York State. In the 1800s, religious zeal in New York State raged like wildfire. New York State was home to the Oneida Society which preached communal marriage, the Fox Sisters who popularized communicating with spirits, and the Mormons, whose founder Joseph Smith claimed that the angel Moroni led him to a series of buried golden plates that revealed an important prophecy.
In the 19th century, religious fervor in the United States wasn’t confined to New York State. Numerous utopian groups whose unconventional practices were frowned upon in Europe fled to the United States. One such group was the Rappites—otherwise known as the Harmonists. Reverend George Rapp and his followers left Germany in the early 1800s to build a utopian commune in the United States where members could live a chaste life. Harmonists remained celibate and participated in communal construction and agricultural projects. George Rapp and his followers firmly believed that their pious lifestyle would prepare them to witness the Second Coming of Christ.
The Harmonists initially settled in Pennsylvania, but ultimately migrated to Indiana because they were in search of rolling hills and fertile soil that would sustain a vineyard. Even though the Harmonists embraced pacifism, squabbling got the best of them when a sizable group of Harmonists accused George Rapp of being a domineering cult leader.
Eventually, George Rapp skipped town and an idealistic British businessman named Robert Owen took his place. Owen wanted to build a currency-free utopian society not rooted in religion that offered communal property and free education with an emphasis on logic, the humanities, and science. Owens’ Utopian vision fell flat when members of his commune began to abuse the commune’s credit system by secretly purchasing excess credits for housing, food, and other goods with cash on a thriving black market.
The town formerly occupied by the Harmonists and Robert Owen and his failed utopia is known as New Harmony. Located in southern Indiana, New Harmony remains a hotbed of mysticism and progressive ideas. Visitors can explore several unique landmarks, including a Roofless Church designed by architect Philip Johnson in the 1960s that features several captivating sculptures and a futuristic gazebo. Johnson stated that he designed an open-air church that spans an entire city block so that worshippers would feel like the only roof large enough to cover them was the vastness of the sky.
New Harmony is also home to a library and natural history museum stocked with rare books and curious mineral and animal specimens, artifacts, and art that is dedicated to “working men and their families.” Started by geologist William Maclure in 1838, the Working Men’s Institute initially had over 100 locations and strived to bridge the education gap between wealthy people and working people. The New Harmony location is the only branch of the Working Men’s Institute that is still operational. Visitors can browse the library’s stacks and explore the museum’s peculiar collection.
A dense shrub labyrinth with a stone Harmonist temple in the middle is one of New Harmony’s most captivating locales. The Harmonists believed that working their way through the labyrinth was a metaphor for overcoming life’s most oppressive struggles. Visitors can attempt to find their way to the center of the New Harmony Labyrinth via trial and error or they can proceed through a gate that leads to the Harmonist temple.
Visitors can take a walking tour of New Harmony which includes a guided tour of the austere communal cabins that the Harmonists called home. New Harmony is also home to a ghost tour that explores the town’s mystical history. If you’re in the mood to go sightseeing, you can rent a golf cart to cruise down a street lined with stately buildings constructed during New Harmony’s Robert Owen era. In the summer, New Harmony hosts a multi-day music festival that features classical, folk, and New Orleans-style music.
The United States has a long history of attracting idealistic people with unconventional ideas. New Harmony, Indiana is the ideal place to explore what an attempt to live a communal existence looks like. Chances are you will leave New Harmony thanking your lucky stars for your single family residence.