12. Early Communes in America

Submitted by Ross Arctor on October 3, 2014

A seldom mentioned, but very important, chapter in the growth of religious communalism was the degeneration and decline of Roman Catholic monasticism and the consequent disappearance of many social services. There were more hospital beds, for instance, in many European cities at the beginning of the thirteenth century than there would be again until well into the twentieth, and what we now call “social work” was entirely a function of the medieval sisterhoods. With the Counter-Reformation a new kind of monasticism was established, dominated by militant, highly disciplined orders of clerics regular, like the Jesuits, who were outside the organic community in a way that the monks and friars had never been. They operated on it, rather than from within it, and there was no significant role, much less a determinative one, left for lay brothers or women.

This development was more or less conscious or deliberate. The papacy and the papal theologians had learned ever since the fourteenth century to distrust the great popular movements of lay monasticism and communal mysticism which had grown up especially in the Rhineland and the Lowlands and all too easily lapsed into heresy. To this day the Béghards and Béguines, the Brethren of the Common Life, Meister Eckhart, Jan Ruysbroeck, Henry Suso, Nicholas of Cusa, Thomas à Kempis, and Angelus Silesius are frowned on by the strictly orthodox; and though some have acquired the title of blessed, none has been declared a saint, and all of them have had at least some “theses” of their teachings condemned.

Almost all the pre-Reformation advocates of the return to the apostolic life, such as the Anabaptists and the Pietists, believed at least in the ideal of the devotional community — contemplative communism — at least for those of their members who felt a special calling, a religious vocation, to what was in reality a new and reformed monasticism. Since these groups led a harried life in the interstices of the cities, or for short periods under the defiant protection of some nobleman or noblewoman on an isolated country estate, and were subject to furious persecution by both Catholics and Protestants alike, it was exceedingly difficult for them to sustain community life for any length of time, even in those areas of Europe, like the lower Rhine, where they found most popular sympathy.

The earliest colonization of America offered even less opportunity for the establishment of community than did Europe. The Spanish and Portuguese colonies were subject to their own local Inquisition and even unfortunate Indians were occasionally burned alive for heresies of which they had never heard and could not possibly conceive. Persecution was not so violent in New France. Due to the ignorance of the ordinary colonists and the corrupt cynicism of the upper classes, dissent scarcely came into existence and dissenters deported from France seem to have vanished. The English colonies were no better than the Spanish. Virginia was strictly Anglican. Massachusetts was strictly Independent or Puritan and did not stop persecuting Quakers and divergent Protestants until well into the eighteenth century. Things were different in what are now the Middle Atlantic states, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, in the beginning settled by the Swedish and the more liberal Dutch, which had been explored by prospectors for the Quakers and similar sects. When Pennsylvania was given to William Penn in 1682 and opened for colonization with guarantees of absolute religious liberty, a strain of hope ran through all Pietist and Apostolic Europe. Penn traveled on the continent recruiting settlers and the largest immigration so far to what is now the United States began. The Quakers predominated. Eventually the majority of English Quakers migrated, but the Mennonites and Moravian Brethren came too, and a great variety of German Anabaptist sects, most of whom united in the New World as the German Baptist Brethren.

The first Communist colony was established by the followers of Jean de Labadie more or less independent of Penn’s settlement of Pennsylvania but under his influence and at exactly the same time. This was Bohemia Manor.

Labadie was born in 1610 at Bourg near Bordeaux and ordained a Jesuit priest; but his pastorate was in Switzerland, the Low Countries, London, where for a while his influence on the Separatist churches was quite extensive. His doctrines included community of goods, mystical marriage, millenarianism, celebration of the seventh-day Sabbath, and the setting aside of a celibate elite. Descartes was familiar with his ideas and if there is anything to the mysterious signature Rene Descartes R. + C., Labadie may have incorporated some of the ideas of the Rosicrucian Brotherhood assuming — which has been disputed — that such a group then existed. Persecuted by the authorities, Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Anglican, the sect moved its headquarters several times to Herford, Bremen, Altona, West Friesland where they survived with communities scattered through the Lowlands until well into the late eighteenth century. They first sent a colony to Surinam whose governor was a patron and possibly a member. He was murdered in 1688 and the colony removed to Bohemia Manor on the Chesapeake where the first of their settlers had already proceeded.

Bohemia Manor had been patronized by Augustin Herrman, a sympathetic landholder from Bohemia (whose son was a member) but who later repudiated the sect without being able to reclaim his property. The leader of the colony from 1683 was Peter Sluyter, who seems to have been a religious confidence man of the type that would bedevil religious communalism throughout its history in America. Sluyter died rich and dissolute in 1722. The colonists, over one hundred people, on the other hand, lived lives of the strictest poverty, chastity, and obedience. Men and women were separated for meals and worship. The day and much of the night was spent in hard labor, silent or chanted prayer, and meditation. Diet, clothing, all living conditions, were as ascetic as could be borne and all proceeds sent into a common fund controlled by Sluyter. Before his death the land was distributed and private property permitted, but all profits still went to the common fund and the community life remained just as onerous. Between 1727 and 1730 the colony broke up and during the next ten years the churches in Europe returned to the Dutch Reformed Church — and not, interestingly, to the Mennonites — where they engendered a widespread spiritual revival.

On trips through the Rhineland and the Lowlands, Penn invited all German Quakers, Mennonites, Anabaptists, and other Pietists to migrate to his new land. The first to go was a large contingent of German associates of the Society of Friends led by Francis Daniel Pastorius in 1683 to settle around what is now Germantown. They were shortly followed by a Mennonite and Schwenkfeldian immigration which included the apocalyptic, millenarian disciples of Johann Jakob Zimmermann, who died on the day his followers were to sail. Leadership was assumed by his first lieutenant Johannus Kelpius, an extraordinarily learned man, deeply read in philosophy, mysticism, and theology, both orthodox and occult, and an acknowledged Rosicrucian. Kelpius proved his powers by stilling the waves in a violent storm. The colonists debarked at Bohemia Landing and went on to the neighborhood of Germantown on June 24, 1694. According to Zimmermann the apocalypse was only three months away.

The colonists celebrated midsummer night with rites that were a strange mixture of occultism, paganism, and Pietist Christianity and soon set out about building the Tabernacle of the Woman in the Wilderness crowned by the rosy cross, to the astonishment of their simpler or more conventional neighbors.

The mystical number of forty colonists settled down in their forty-foot-square building to watch and pray and await the coming of the rebirth of the world. Kelpius set himself up as an anchorite in a nearby cave. The community of both men and women was strictly celibate and life was at least as ascetic as amongst the followers of de Labadie. They differed primarily in their much greater learning, even sophistication. In fact, it would be well into the nineteenth century before any religious communist colonies would recruit such cultivated people. They have been called superstitious, but indeed they were anything but. There is a vast difference between the superstitions of the illiterate and the occultism of the over-educated.

The tiny colony endured until 1748 and before that period its cultural influence on Pennsylvania was out of all proportion to its numbers. They produced the first book of hymns to be published in America, and many other examples of the earliest printing, including a study, with vocabulary, of the Lenni Lenape Indians — whom they believed to be one of the lost tribes of Israel — the first book of its kind to be done in English America. They taught school and were in great demand as skilled craftsmen and builders, even architects. Time was spent in hard labor, choral and solitary prayer, meditation, and, unlike other such groups, in the study of the classics of mysticism and occultism from Hermes Trismegistus to Meister Eckhart, Jakob Boehme, and the Kabbala. Curiously enough their interest in astrology and alchemy led them to chemical and physical experiments and to watching all night long through their telescopes for the signs of the Second Coming. A direct line stretches from them to the scientific activities of latter-day Philadelphia, made famous by the experiments of Benjamin Franklin.

The great weakness of the Woman in the Wilderness (their own name for themselves was “the Contented of the God Loving Soul”) was the shortfall of their prophesies beginning with Zimmermann himself who said that the millennium would come at the autumn equinox of 1694. The date passed and the Second Coming had not come. Also they believed they would never die. But Zimmermann died before they set out. The precociously brilliant Kelpius died at thirty-five in 1708 and the last leader, Conrad Matthaei, in 1748. By 1750 the community had been absorbed into the general society of Quakerism and German Pietism, on which it left traces which endure to this day.

In 1720 Conrad Beisel and three companions left Europe intending to join the Woman in the Wilderness. When they reached the colony they discovered that Kelpius was dead. Most of the members had left and those who remained were lost in contemplation while the Tabernacle fell into ruins around them. On the way to Ephrata the four men had stopped in Conestoga where Beisel was baptized by the German Baptist Brethren and soon rose to become assistant leader of their colony. Beisel was a Seventh-Day Baptist. After long discussion the Dunkards decided to continue celebrating Sunday so Beisel left with his followers to found, in 1735 on the Cocalico River, the colony of Ephrata, one of the most successful and longest lived intentional communities in the world.

At first the Ephratans were the most ascetic of the groups so far founded in America. Men and women lived together as celibates. They dressed in an adaptation of the Franciscan habit, alike for both men and women. The women’s hair was cut short and the men were tonsured but wore full beards, which they tugged vigorously in greeting one another. Food was extremely meager, mostly dry bread or porridge. They used no iron whatever and as little metal as possible; buildings and furniture were pegged, doweled, and mortised. Eating utensils were of wood and many cooking utensils of pottery. Like the Benedictines before them, they rose at midnight to sing matins, and again at five for a second service. Meals were held in silence while a lector read from the Bible. Communion was proceeded by washing each other’s feet. They each made a written confession of sins weekly which was read in choir by Beisel. Every clear night they took turns watching the heavens through their telescopes for signs of the Second Coming. At first they did not use horses but pulled their own ploughs and carts, carried their own freight, and walked wherever they went.

In spite of this vigorous asceticism they lived lives of considerable creativity, learning, and aesthetic satisfaction. Beisel wrote poetry and composed hymns of a singular beauty, as did some of the others. The musical idiom of the Ephratan hymns (which are still sung) is unmistakable. They produced many books in their peculiar scholarship, most of them printed by Christopher Sauer, including Sauer’s Bible, the first in German in America.

Almost immediately the colony began to prosper. Penn offered them an additional five thousand acres but they refused because such riches would distort their spiritual life. For a while after the arrival of the three Eckerlin brothers the colony added a number of industrial enterprises, milling and small manufacturing, which became so successful that the members revolted and expelled the Eckerlins. In the course of time branches of Ephrata were established around the British colonies. The monastic community dwindled and most of the members incorporated themselves into a regular church, the German Seventh-Day Baptists, which still exists. A small number of Ephratans have continued to practice a limited communism, and specially devoted members take care of the various buildings which have become historic monuments and teach others the choral art of Ephrata. In recent years there have been attempts on the part of the new communalists to revive the ancient Ephratan community but so far without much success.

Ironically the Harmonists or Rappites are remembered mostly as the predecessors of Robert Owen’s colony at New Harmony. The Owenites lasted in their pure form scarcely any time at all. New Harmony managed to commit most of the mistakes possible to an intentional community and ended in a series of financial disasters. The Rappites flourished, became exceedingly prosperous, and, although they are no longer communists, their descendants can still be found in or near the old communities.

George Rapp was born in Württemberg, son of a small vineyardist, probably in 1757. At the age of thirty he became a Separatist-Pietist preacher, and gradually accumulated around himself a small sect which was persecuted by Lutherans and Calvinists alike. In 1803 he went to Baltimore seeking refuge from persecution for his people and bought five thousand acres of still wild country in the Conoquenessing Valley north of Pittsburgh. In the following year over seventeen hundred men, women, and children were settled on the land and had organized the Harmony Society, at first as a cooperative, but almost immediately as a communist community. The men were mostly hard-working, practical farmers with considerable skills as builders and mechanics. In an extraordinarily short time, a little over two years, they had produced a flourishing, almost self-sufficient community. Each family was housed in its own home; there was a church, a school, a grist mill, a large community barn, carpenter and blacksmith shops, a saw mill, a cannery, a woolen mill, a distillery and wine cellar, and five hundred and fifty acres planted in wheat, rye, tobacco, hemp, flax, vineyards, and poppies for sweet oil. Grazing in the uncleared land were cattle, milch cows, pigs, horses, and the first merino sheep in America. Most of their whiskey and brandy they sold, but they drank light wine at each meal.

After ten years, when the colony had become rich and flourishing, they decided to move because the land was not suitable for the production of satisfactory wine and in addition lacked water communication with the outside world. They had already in 1807 adopted celibacy as a general rule although husbands, wives, and children continued to live together in separate family houses with so little strain that they have amazed everyone who has ever written of them. In later years they often adopted children.

In 1814 they bought thirty thousand acres in the Wabash Valley in Indiana and sold the first settlement for one hundred thousand dollars, a vast sum of money for those days, but probably no more than the value of the improvements on the land. By 1815 they had all moved to Indiana and a greatly improved village was rising around them. This was Harmony, later to become famous as Robert Owen’s colony. Once again they flourished. But in another ten years they decided that the site was malarial and the farmers around them were antagonistic. In 1824 they sold the town and twenty thousand acres to Robert Owen for a hundred and fifty thousand dollars and moved back to near Pittsburgh on the Ohio River and established a final settlement, the village of Economy, which endured until the beginning of the twentieth century.

In less than twenty-five years they had built three well-equipped towns and cleared many thousands of acres, a unique record not only for an intentional community but for any kind of settlement. The Rappites owed their success to the kind of people they were, skilled German, mostly Swabian, farmers, vineyardists, and mechanics, who were satisfied with what would have seemed to the intellectuals, as we would call them today, of the Woman in the Wilderness, a very low-pressure utopia. It needed only hard, skilled work for them to establish and preserve a community which satisfied them.

Father Rapp was a man of great charismatic power but he was also gifted with common sense. Belief in the imminence of the apocalypse and the Second Coming and the millenarian kingdom may seem cranky, even ignorant and vulgar, to most people today. But there was nothing very eccentric about such beliefs in the first half of the nineteenth century. It was quite possible to hold them and yet be considered intellectually respectable. And of course they were demonstrably the beliefs of the first generations of Christians and probably of Jesus himself. Furthermore, as Albert Schweitzer has demonstrated in our own day, an “eschatological ethic” is a remarkably effective rule of life — “live as though the world is going to come to an end in the next twenty-four hours.”

George Rapp provided the spiritual and moral leadership — the “father image” — and his adopted son, Frederick Rapp, was at least as effective as an organizer, administrator, and businessman before the Rappites ever left the Wabash. The younger Rapp had established outlets for the products of the community throughout the settled Mississippi drainage and had agents as far away as New Orleans. After George and Frederick Rapp had both died the colony was equally lucky in the trustees and administrators it chose.

As the numbers dwindled the Rappites closed down many of their small shops and invested largely in railroads and when the community finally dissolved it was still rich. Their efficiency is well shown by the success they made of silk and wine. In those days sericulture and viticulture bankrupted many an American farmer. For years the Rappites planted their steeper hillsides with mulberry trees, raised silk worms, and spun and wove and tailored their own garments of silk. They are certainly the only communists who habitually went clad in silk. When eventually sericulture became completely unprofitable and time-consuming they had the good sense to abandon it.

Only once was the even tenor of their ways disturbed. A manifest rogue, Bernard Müller, who called himself Count Leon, wrote from Germany that he and his followers had been converted and wished to join the colony. When he arrived he turned out to be a military man and a wastrel who immediately tried to seize control of the finances. It took the nonviolent ascetic Rappites a little over a year to get rid of him and his followers whom they bought off with more than one hundred thousand dollars. One-third of the colony left with Müller and established a settlement ten miles away and in less than a year lost all their money; whereupon they attacked Economy with arms, but were driven off by a posse raised among the neighboring communities. Bernard Müller and a few of his people left for northern Louisiana, where he died of cholera.

The Count Leon episode was a godsend to Economy because it served to purge those who were not sincerely committed to the Rappite way of life. From then on to the end of the century no other serious factional disputes arose. To this day the descendants of the community still get together for anniversaries. Many of them still live in the neighborhood of Economy, and others near the industrial colony Economy founded at Beaver Falls. The church in Economy still stands and the Evangelical Lutheran congregation numbers several descendants of the Rappites. But it primarily enshrines the memory of Robert Owens’ unsuccessful community rather than Father Rapp’s eminently successful one which built most of the surviving buildings.

The group of Separatists from Württemberg who settled the village of Zoar in northeastern Ohio between thirty and forty miles south of Canton in 1817 were closely related to Rapp’s community. They were, however, more radical in their rejection of the dominant society. They did not vote. During the Civil War they remained pacifists. Although they permitted marriage within the group and lived in families, they were much more ascetic in life style. They were also possibly less well educated, and Joseph Bäumeler was much more of a spellbinder than George Rapp.

When they arrived in America the Separatists were not definitely committed to a communal way of life, but adopted it as the most efficient way of dealing with the wilderness. As long as they were communists they prospered with a woolen factory, two large flour mills, a saw mill, planing mills, machine shop, cannery, dyehouse, their own common store and general store for the surrounding farmers, a popular summer resort hotel, a wagon factory, a blacksmith’s, carpenter’s, tailor’s, dressmaker’s, and shoemaker’s shop, a cider mill, a brewery, and looms for weaving linen, as well as seven thousand acres of prime farm land in Ohio and a settlement in Iowa. Eventually their industries were to employ a considerable number of outsiders and some of their farms were let to sharecroppers. In 1874 there were three hundred members with property worth considerably more than a million dollars. The town of Zoar was noticeably rougher, cruder than any of the previous settlements with poor dwellings and plain community buildings and church. Bäumeler died in 1853 and the colony slowly declined. In 1898 they abandoned communism completely and almost immediately thereafter failed economically in all their enterprises. Little is left of Zoar today.

Although “Doctor” Keil had migrated to America from Prussia in 1835, Bethel and its daughter colony Aurora were the first intentional communities to be gathered in America. In Germany Keil had been a milliner with ambitions for the stage. He was self-educated in occult and mystical literature, Boehme, Paracelsus, and Cagliostro. In New York and Pittsburgh he flourished as a hypnotist, faith healer, and purveyor of mysterious elixirs and potions whose recipes he said he found in an ancient book written in human blood. He was converted to Methodism, made a melodramatic penance for his years as a charlatan and Hexendokter, and publicly burned his bloody pharmacopeia.

But Keil soon left Methodism and founded his own sect which disdained to call itself by any name, but which opposed all churches and denominations which had departed from the communal, apostolic life of the “true Christ,” the Central Sun. Keil remained a melodramatic actor to the end of his life, and the congregational worship of his group was far more hysterical than even the most extreme of his predecessors. Daily life in the commune was simple and unadorned, but Keil provided his congregation with many holidays and festivals, celebrated with food, drink, and dancing, to which all the surrounding settlers were welcome.

Keil’s first colony was founded in 1844 in Bethel, Shelby County, Missouri, then on the wild frontier, and included the remnants of Count Leon’s followers. In a fairly short time they had a well-equipped town and were farming four square miles of land. In 1855 Keil decided Missouri was filling up, and the colony moved to Willapa in what is now the state of Washington. The heavy rainfall and dense forest were too much for them, and they soon moved to the Willamette Valley in Oregon, where they deliberately avoided the more fertile plain and settled in the forest, so that they would have plenty of lumber to build their town. As the colony, called Aurora, prospered they were able to buy out the farmers on the plain. Bethel and Aurora repeated the history of the other communities as long as Keil was alive and they shared all things in common. They prospered and in fact became rich. After he died they divided the property and assets amongst themselves and soon disintegrated.

Aurora and Bethel represented another step down, except for their many festivals, in richness of life satisfaction. The communities were simply not well educated enough and were too self-satisfied to produce another leader like Keil. “Professor” Christopher Wolff was the leader of the second contingent to travel, in 1863, from Bethel to Aurora. He seems to have been a bookish man familiar with Cabet, Babeuf, Fourier, Proudhon, Wettling, and Marx. As such he only bewildered the rest of the colonists and never seems to have played an important role in Aurora. However, he is notable as the first person to appear in the history of religious communalism familiar with theoreticians of secular communism. It is curious to speculate on what his life must have been like, isolated amongst semi-literate peasants on the most remote frontier.

If the previous leaders of religious communalism in America were increasingly charismatic personalities, the founder of Bishop’s Hill, Eric Janson, was personally apocalyptic. He did not believe in the Second Coming of Christ. He believed himself to be Christ come again. The sect began quietly enough in Sweden under the leadership of Jonas Olson, who was a disciple of the first Methodist missionaries from Great Britain, as an association of Pietists who met in one another’s homes for preaching and devotions and Bible study, and who eventually came to call themselves Devotionalists. They were almost entirely confined to the province of Helsingland and were mostly peasants and self-employed mechanics and artisans. They went along quietly enough for seventeen years as a Pietist movement within the Church of Sweden.

In 1843 Jonas Olson gave lodgings for the weekend to a traveling dealer in flour. This was Eric Janson, who was thirty-four years old and who from the age of twenty-six had experienced a series of trances, illuminations, and messages, and who had already broken with the Lutheran Church. He seems to have been a man of violent personality and intense charisma. Outside observers in later years thought that he acted like a madman. His effect on Olson was revolutionary. He became the spiritual leader of the group, although Olson remained the practical manager, and he moved them steadily toward the most extreme form of Wesleyanism, a far more “pentecostal” religion than it is today. The established Church responded with relentless persecution and the Devotionalists were driven to becoming a separatist sect. Their conventicles were broken up and they were excommunicated and eventually arrested again and again. In retaliation they burned the theological and devotional works of orthodox Lutheranism in a great bonfire. Janson was arrested and released only due to the influence of the king. After his second bookburning he was arrested again; and after six arrests, a fugitive with a price on his head, he was forcibly freed by his followers and smuggled through the mountains to Norway, from whence he went to Copenhagen and finally New York. In July 1846 he arrived in Victoria, Knox County, Illinois, where he had already sent Olson to find a suitable location for the community.

By this time Janson had come to believe himself the Christ of the Second Coming, sent to redeem the true Church which had been in captivity since the Emperor Constantine, and to build the New Jerusalem in America’s green and pleasant land, from whence the millennial kingdom would spread throughout the earth. The sect in the meantime had become far more a movement of poor peasants and proletarians, at the best only semi-literate. Remarkably enough Janson nevertheless retained the loyalty of most of the original members who, one would have thought, were too well educated to accept his increasingly extravagant claims.

Olson and Janson bought a tract in Henry County, Illinois, about forty miles southeast of Rock Island, and named it Bishop’s Hill after Biskopskulla. Eleven hundred Jansonists gathered in Swedish ports to leave for America. One boatload was lost at sea, another wrecked off Newfoundland. Of the first boatload of immigrants to arrive in October 1846, many walked from New York to Illinois and all except the weaker women and children tramped one hundred miles from Chicago to Victoria in the beginning of winter. They continued to leave Sweden, which they believed an angry God was about to destroy once their saving remnant had left, until four hundred were settled in the first year at Bishop’s Hill.

The land was ideal. Some of it was cultivated and the rest extended in unbroken prairie and a little woodland, but the accommodations were appalling — two long houses, four tents, a sod house, and twelve dugouts. The dugouts were used as dormitories, terribly overcrowded and with no proper sanitation. The mortality was frightful. In the first year they had very little food. One hundred and fourteen people died of cholera in a single fortnight. Yet they persisted in spite of the nightmare conditions. Colonists continued to arrive and slowly new buildings were built and more land was bought and cultivated.

At the end of the second year there were eight hundred settlers. They had their own grist mill and saw mill and were busy manufacturing adobe bricks. Eventually they would have a brick kiln and a pottery. They erected a four-story brick house, one hundred by forty-five feet, extended it another hundred feet, and then a large frame church. The first summer they harvested with scythes, the next year with cradles, the third year with reapers. All their methods improved at a similar rate. Already in 1847 they grew flax and manufactured over twelve thousand yards of linen and carpet matting. Sometimes the looms, worked by women and helped by children, were running night and day. When they closed out the linen business, except for home consumption, due to commercial competition, they had sold over one hundred and fifty thousand yards of material. Again and again they were attacked by cholera. No other colony of the time seems to have suffered so severely, and this is a good indication of the chronic lack of proper sanitation and general cleanliness. In these first years Jonas Olson seems to have played a less active role and Janson was both spiritual and economic leader. Everything was done under his direct supervision, and he represented the community in the markets of Chicago and St. Louis. At the same time he became more and more extreme in his prophetic, pentecostal behavior.

In 1848 the colony was visited by an adventurer, John Root, a Swede, recently discharged from the army of the Mexican War. A less likely person for such a colony is hard to imagine but he was welcomed by Janson and soon assumed the position of leadership, and married one of Janson’s cousins with the written agreement that if he ever left the colony she could remain if she wished. He spent his time hunting and roistering in the nearby town and was suspected of the murder of a Jewish peddler. Later he disappeared for several months while his wife gave birth to a child. When he returned, Root attempted to take his wife away against her will. Eventually he kidnapped her, but was caught by a mounted posse of Jansonists. He went to court and was given possession of his wife and took her to his sister in Chicago who notified the colony. Again a mounted posse set out and stationed some of their number in relays along the road to Chicago. Again she was rescued. With Root and his cronies in pursuit, she was rushed back one hundred and fifty miles to Bishop’s Hill, without a stop except to change horses. Root twice organized a mob who besieged the village and attempted to burn the buildings, but were driven off by an armed posse of settlers and neighboring farmers. Janson was brought to trial for kidnapping and keeping a wife from her husband in Cambridge, the county seat. As he left for court he had a premonition that he would never return. The day before he had preached his most powerful sermon, and in the evening distributed the Lord’s Supper. During the noon recess of the court Janson was standing by a courtroom window when Root appeared in the doorway, called his name, and shot him dead. It was the thirteenth day of May, 1850. The colony was less than four years old. Usually when so powerful a leader died the communist colonies, whether religious or secular, disintegrated or passed to individual ownership. The contrary was the case with Bishop’s Hill.

At the time of the murder, Jonas Olson was on his way to California, sent by Janson to dig for gold. He returned immediately to Bishop’s Hill, with the consent of the community, setting aside Janson’s son and heir, his guardian and his wife, and assumed leadership. Under the new charter the commune was administered by seven trustees under the leadership of Olson. For a while the community thrived. The village was cleaned up, the land more efficiently farmed, several small industries started, and contacts made with the Oneida Perfectionists, the Rappites, and the Shakers. Janson’s widow left and became a Shaker. In 1854 under their influence Olson decided the community would become celibate but continue to live in families, a move that led to resignations, expulsions, frustration, and factionalism among those who remained. As the country became more densely settled and penetrated by railroads and canals the society became fairly wealthy and one of the trustees — Olaf Johnson — took over its financial operations. By 1860 his speculations had brought it to the brink of bankruptcy. In 1861 the property was divided and the communist Bishop’s Hill ceased to exist. By 1879 the Johnsonites and anti-Johnsonites had sued one another into poverty and only three hundred inhabitants lingered on in the decaying village to the end of the century. A remarkable thing about the Bishop’s Hill community is that, although it did everything wrong from the very beginning, it survived and prospered until corrupted by free enterprise, which proved far more deadly for its existence as a community than ever did cholera.