13. Amana, The Shakers, St. Nazianz

Submitted by Ross Arctor on October 3, 2014

With the exception of the Hutterites, by far the most successful of the religious intentional communities has been Amana, the Community of True-Inspiration. Its roots go back as a distinct group to the seventeenth century. But its sources are to be found in the late medieval monasticism of the Rhineland and the Low Countries, the Béghards and Béguines. The Amana society was comprised of pentecostalists in the strict meaning of the word. They believed and still believe that the prophetic and apostolic inspiration of the Spirit of God continues to possess selected men and women and to inspire them with his word and will to act as messengers of divine teaching to the world.

The first Inspirationist groups came out of the Pietist movement in Lutheranism toward the end of the seventeenth century under the leadership of a noblewoman, Rosemunde Juliane of Asseberg, the first Inspired Instrument (Werkseuge), followed by Johann Wilhelm Peterson, a professor at Lüneberg, whose hymns and prophetic utterances are still used. The movement had died down for a few years and then was revived by Eberhard Ludwig Grüber and Johann Friedrich Rock who separated themselves from the Lutheran Church in 1714 and established, in the face of violent persecution, Inspirationist conventicles throughout the Rhineland, Switzerland, and the Low Countries. After their deaths no new Werkseug appeared for over fifty years.

In 1817 M. Kraussert of Strassburg was inspired but could not persist in the face of persecution and was succeeded by Barbara Heinemann, an illiterate peasant girl, and Christian Metz, a carpenter. Barbara Heinemann was expelled for having “too friendly an eye upon the young men,” returned, married, lost her inspiration for twenty-six years — regained it, and accompanied Christian Metz to America. After his death she was to be sole oracle until 1883 when she died at nearly the age of ninety. There has been no generally accepted Inspired Instrument since, but the divine utterances of all the Amana prophets have been recorded, beginning with Rosemunde Juliane, and are read in church and consulted as equal to the Bible for direction in every imaginable contingency.

Christian Metz gave the True Inspiration societies a strong, practical organization in congregations governed by elders, and established cooperative colonies which, although not fully communist, shared the profits of their small enterprises through a mutual fund from which anyone could borrow without interest. The colonies thrived, but they were continuously harassed because they refused to send their children to the public schools, to bear arms, to take oaths, or in any way cooperate with the worldly State. In 1842 they sent a committee to America which bought five thousand acres of the Seneca Indian reservation to which they added later another four thousand. In the next three years some eight hundred people came over, cleared the land, and built four villages, each with a store, church, school, and community enterprises, to which they later added two more villages in Canada.

They called all their villages Ebenezer — Upper, Middle, Low, and so forth — and themselves the Ebenezer Society — “Hitherto hath the Lord helped us” (I Samuel 7.12). They had not originally planned anything more extreme than a cooperative economy, but they found absolute communism the most efficient way of coping with the wilderness. Although the Indians had sold the land for ten dollars an acre, a high price in those days, they refused to evacuate it and caused the colonists considerable annoyance. Also the city of Buffalo was growing so rapidly that its outskirts were beginning to approach the colony. (The site is now well within the city of Buffalo.)

So in 1854 they decided to move out to what was then the frontier, where they could live untroubled in their own way. After considerable prospecting they bought what eventually became twenty-six thousand acres of land, twenty miles from Iowa City in one of the most beautiful and fertile sites along the banks of the Iowa River. Here they eventually established six villages which they named Amana (Glaub Treu, Believe Faithfully) and incorporated themselves as the Amana Society. All the details of this immigration were done under the direct inspiration of Christian Metz. Inspiration dictated the paragraphs of their charter, as it had dictated to Grüber their rule of life, and recorded inspiration took care of all the details of settlement, government, and economy. What eventually emerged was a community living under what they considered divinely revealed law, something like a combination of the Torah, the law books of the Old Testament, and the Rule of St. Benedict with all its commentaries.

Amana had an ideally charismatic leadership — the Instruments were, when possessed, literally anointed by the Spirit of God and spoke with a divine authority surpassing that of hadith or Talmud, the sacred traditions of Muslims and Jews. From these oracular utterances there was no appeal. When not possessed, the Instruments sank back into their human role as practical administrators. Metz at least seems to have been as gifted an administrator as Father Rapp. Amana was so well organized, and eventually the charisma was so well distributed throughout the community, partly of course due to frequent consultation of the mass of written tradition, that it was able to survive the death of Metz, and then of Heinemann and the passing of Inspiration altogether.

Communism of both production and consumption was complete, although it soon became necessary to hire outside labor at peak seasons. Very early Amana developed a large variety of industries and crafts, so that the colony became almost self-sustaining. In addition, it produced a number of specialties, at first mostly textiles, for export with the return of a capital surplus — a very favorable “balance of trade.” With all of its industrial activities Amana remained solidly founded on agriculture, exporting large agricultural surpluses. The community functioned like a small capitalist nation, with a complete circulation of capital, profitable export, and a rising, rather than a falling, rate of profit.

Families lived separately in their own homes, but neighborhoods dined together in local dining halls and “kitchen houses.” The children were educated in community schools in both English and German. School lasted all day and all year, although the time was divided into periods of study of secular subjects and religion, trade apprentice work, and organized play. Women wore black bonnets, gray dresses, and a kerchief folded across shoulders and breasts. Men wore work clothes except for church.

Of all the successful colonies the Amana villages seem to have been least concerned with aesthetics: the houses were unpainted, the streets unpaved, and the villages had a generally disheveled air. The women compensated for all this by growing flower gardens. However, in the mid-century visitors remarked that the flowers were interspersed with vegetables. Commitment was reinforced by public confession and daily private examination of conscience. Jobs were commonly rotated and there were a considerable number of collective tasks involving the entire village from harvests to various working bees. Artistic expression except for the singing of hymns was discouraged and forbidden. Amana produced no famous bands, like Father Rapp’s colonists or semi-pagan festivals like William Keil’s, or the Mormons’ music, or architecture or “socials”; much less the ecstatic, emotional rituals of the Shakers.

Amana was a stolid, low-pressure utopia. Although the True Inspirationists had started off with a number of intellectuals and minor aristocrats in their ranks, by the time they had reached Iowa they had become a community dominated by simple, unimaginative German peasants and workers who found sufficient satisfaction in farming, working, and worshipping. Persisting in a life of as-simple-as-possible satisfactions, they grew rich. In 1933, a hundred years after coming to America, and almost two hundred and fifty years after the first beginnings of the movement in Germany, they returned to private enterprise, and set themselves up as a church and a business corporation. Forty years later Amana was one of the leading manufacturers of domestic utilities in the United States.

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The Shakers, who called themselves the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, or The Millennial Church, are usually considered the most successful of all the American religious communalists sects. They could as easily be described as a lay monastic movement, more akin to similar unorthodox groups known from the late Middle Ages but with roots that go back to the heretical cults of the beginning of the Christian era, not only in their rule of life but in their theology, both of which featured millenarianism, a divine avatar, convulsive group ecstasies, echolalia, and speaking with tongues. At least at first, with no knowledge of the ancient heterodox traditions, they managed to unite and revive most of them, and in addition they introduced what had hitherto been a non-Christian, in fact a non-Western, belief in possession by the dead. They anticipated modern spiritualism by several decades and their foundress was a shamaness of a primitive, Oriental type. Their compulsive ecstasies, which gave them their popular name, and their ritualized dancing and whirling can be traced back through a definite continuity to at least the fourteenth century. Strangely enough, and hardly remarked, these were common practices amongst both American Indians and Negro slaves. Robert Manning of Brunne in his Handlyng Sinne tells in “The Tale of the Kolbeck Dancers” the story of a classic episode in one of the dance manias of the later Middle Ages that swept like pandemics over Western Europe. Our popular term for chorea, St. Vitus’s Dance, survives from those times. Modern commentators have tended to attribute these medieval phenomena to ergotism — St. Anthony’s Fire — due to eating moldy rye, but their organized character would indicate a heretical religious base like the various flagellant movements. Although ergotism may have been a contributing factor, convulsionary ecstasies were common but unorganized amongst small heretical groups, ancestors of the Quakers, in England and the Low Countries in the sixteenth century, who were also reputed to practice community of goods and either celibacy or sexual orgies. Holy Jumpers and Rollers were found amongst the first conventicles of the Methodist revival, especially in Wales. Similar practices swept over France in the eighteenth century, both within and without the Roman Catholic Church, with their focus in Flanders and Brittany where the dancing manias of the Middle Ages had so often originated.

Early in the eighteenth century a group of Quakers in Manchester, led by James and Jane Wardley, were converted to the doctrines of the French Prophets or Camisards of Dauphiné and Vivarals, who more or less systematized an inchoate movement. The Wardleys in turn converted Ann Lee, the twenty-two-year-old daughter of a Manchester blacksmith, who soon became the leader of the group. She was frequently imprisoned for jumping, shouting, dancing, disrobing, and blasphemy, and while in prison had a revelation that the millennium had in fact arrived, and that the time had come to gather the saved remnant out of the doomed world. It followed that the Second Coming too had already arrived and around 1770 her followers began to refer to her as “Ann the Word,” the incarnate Woman Christ, the female half of the eternal syzygy. (In Shaker theology, as it developed, all spiritual entities were male and female united in mystical union — the ancient Valentinian Gnostic doctrine.)

Ann Lee was married against her will to Abraham Standerin, whom the Shakers called “Stanley,” and bore him four children, all of whom died in infancy. She began to dictate extensive revelations and was finally “ordered” to take a select group of her followers to America — eight or ten people, mostly relatives, but including a moderately wealthy man, John Hocknell. For two years they supported themselves by common labor in and around New York.

In 1776 Hocknell bought a large tract of undeveloped land at Niskayuna in the township of Watervliet near Albany and the Shakers settled into their first colony. Watervliet and nearby New Lebanon were to remain the motherhouses of the society until its dissolution in the twentieth century. During the Revolutionary War they were subjected to mild persecution as pacifists and refusers of oaths, but were soon let alone by the authorities and neighbors. Considering their extraordinary behavior it is remarkable how little persecution the Shakers ever suffered. Unlike many pentecostal and millenarian sects, the Shakers were a peaceable people and had carried over from Quakerism the gift of the soft answer that turneth away wrath.

During the Revolutionary War other communities were established in New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut; and in 1784, when Mother Ann died, her little church was flourishing and gaining recruits at every revival. For three years they were led by James Whittaker. On his death he was succeeded by Joseph Meecham who was at least as richly endowed with the gift of revelation as Mother Ann; and by Lucy Wright, who shared the leadership and after Meecham’s death ruled alone for twenty-five years. Its rule, or rather its revelations, gave Shakerism its final form and its extraordinarily detailed regulation of community life.

Mother Ann’s husband seems to have been an unregenerate rascal and in New York City he took to drink and ran off with another woman. Her children had died in early infancy after painful births. Thus the essence of Mother Ann’s revelation was her detestation of sexual intercourse, for which she substituted a cosmogony of spiritually united male and female beings, which she also described as bisexual with, as it were, male and female polarities. From the early days of the movement her followers were called to practice celibacy if unmarried, or the strictest chastity if they came into the sect already married. Mother Lee was the female incarnation of an eternal Christ of which the historic Jesus was the male, not the incarnate deity or the Second Person of the Holy Trinity but a primary emanation. Both celibacy and these semi-divine couples are common to many religions, Christian and pre-Christian, Persian, Manichaean, Gnostic, and Tantric, but celibacy was usually a privilege of the elect, the pure. Mother Ann made it mandatory for all her followers.

The necessities of colonization on the edge of the wilderness had led to the practice of cooperative enterprises verging on communism. Under the leadership of Meecham and Wright the strictest communism was introduced; and progressive revelations were embodied in laws which governed every detail of life, even as to which foot should get out of bed first. Men and women lived in the same large, dormitory-like buildings of a characteristically severe architecture, many of which still survive, but they were strictly separated with different staircases and entrances. They were forbidden to speak to one another except under the most pressing necessity or with the rare permission of the elders and eldresses. Each residential building constituted a “family.” There was complete equality of men and women in both administration and worship. Some Shaker villages contained four or five such families, self-governing and rather widely separated. Eventually Shaker villages were scattered from the Atlantic coast to Ohio and Kentucky and south to Florida.

Although the surviving documentation of the Shakers is far greater than that of any other communal sect it is difficult to discover exactly how the entire body was governed from the mother foundation in New Lebanon. After the middle of the nineteenth century certain differences began to develop. The villages in Maine, for instance, emphasized faith-healing. In others possession by the spirits of the dead, which originally took place in almost every evening service, had declined sharply and was beginning to be accompanied by a certain skepticism.

The early Shaker leaders possessed a remarkable instinct for rules and devices which would intensify commitment to the community and diffuse particular attachments. The neophyte made a detailed confession of every sin and fault before being accepted by the society and periodic confession was enjoined for even the most minor transgressions. Since life was so carefully ordered, many elderly Shakers at the end of the century told interviewers that they had been able to live for many years without sin.

Both men and women wore uniforms — the men wearing a broad hat and long blue coat, with hair cut off in front and long behind. The women wore voluminous dresses of dull colors with a kerchief across the breast and back, a light cap indoors, and a deep sunbonnet outdoors, and underneath hair cut short. In some families there was a strictly limited visitation. Small groups of men and women seated on opposite sides of the room under the governance of an elder and eldress were permitted a recreation of brief chatting which was carefully controlled to avoid all significant content. In some families men and women were paired, and the women functioned as a kind of soror mystica, to give each other spiritual guidance. Men and women worked at separate tasks, usually at separate buildings, and ate at separate tables in silence. Daily life was carried on with a minimum of speech, almost as great as in the strictest monastic orders. And like the Trappists, Shakers often communicated by simple sign language.

The Shaker buildings were famous for their extreme cleanliness and the stark simplicity of their furnishings, this at a time when ordinary furniture was more ornate than ever before or since. There were no carpets and only a few small rugs, and every morning the ladder-back chairs and little rag rugs were hung on pegs; and all the floors were cleaned and polished and the beds which had been stripped and the bedding aired by each person on arising were made up by a cleaning crew. In spite of this emphasis on outward sanitation several villages made no provision for baths whatever and some were struck by small epidemics of typhus, due of course to body lice.

No pictures or musical instruments were permitted until late in the decline of the society, no poetry from outside, no novels, not even history, which would bring in the long story of the evils of the world — the small libraries contained books of the strictest practicality, and only religious works which were closely akin to Shakerism, and the society’s own literature, which grew ever more extensive. Some families and many members of all families were vegetarians — pork, alcohol, even light wines, smoking tobacco (hopeless addicts were permitted to chew a little), and usually tea and coffee were all prohibited.

The days were spent in strict asceticism. After supper the evening worship was certainly the greatest ritualized collective discharge of libido of any American communalist sect, with parallels to be found only in the trial testimony of medieval heretics in the anti-heretical polemics of the orthodox, and in (probably imaginary) secret pagan religion, which modern occultists attribute to the witchcraft cult.

After hymns and brief sermons by one of the elders or eldresses, men and women lined up on opposite sides of the room and began a peculiar shuffling dance, accompanied with motions of the bent arms something like using a rolling pin (Parkinsonism), meanwhile chanting hymns, often in “strange tongues,” some of them traditional, others spontaneous. In some families and at some times the ranks of men and women would pass each other and everyone would embrace and kiss. Descriptions of these contacts by the participants always speak of them as accompanied by the most intense waves of love conceivable. Interestingly, no one, even in exposés by former Shakers, speaks of these embraces and presumably orgasms as having anything specific about them. The embracing couples focus the love of the community. As the evening wore on dancing in rank gave way to lines and ring dances and then to paired and single gyrations of the kind a later day would call jitterbugging.

Finally the spirits would possess one, two or three young women and speak through them. These spirits were commonly those of great historical figures — Napoleon, or Julius Caesar, or the heroes of the republic, like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, or most especially famous Indians. Often a whole tribe of Indian spirits would visit a Shaker meeting. As time went on the Shakers undertook regular missions amongst the dead, sending out their spirit converts to preach the Shaker gospel to all sorts of bygone people but especially to the American Indians, who if they had enjoyed few of the advantages of Christianity in their lifetimes, at least when dead were converted by the thousands and established their own Shaker communities in the spirit world. Spirit visitations of this sort always amazed flesh-and-blood visitors because the entire Shaker meeting seemed possessed with a collective hallucination and went through elaborate psychodramas, dancing and conversing with their guests, giving them imaginary food and drink, and listening to their inaudible music. Psychodrama is the only word we have for such activity because it is impossible to accept them as genuine hallucinations; and Shaker leaders often admitted to outsiders that they were really make-believe. Entertaining whole tribes of Indians was only a small part of it.

Shaker communities had annual rites and drank imaginary nectar from imaginary fountains and feasted on imaginary ambrosia while dressed in imaginary garments of blinding splendor. The resemblance of all this to Haitian vaudon (voodoo), the juju cults that survived on some slave plantations in the United States, and to the original religions of West Africa is certainly remarkable. No one has ever demonstrated any contact although fairly large numbers of freed Negroes were converted to Shakerism. On the other hand there are also resemblances to the cult practices of the Iroquois, neighbors of many early Shaker communities. Modern Spiritualism arose in the same neighborhood and it is disputed whether the first “spiritualistic” phenomena occurred amongst the Shakers or the self-professed spiritualists.

Since these performances occurred with greater or less intensity every night in most communities and culminated in periodic great festivals, it is not difficult to see the advantage they gave the Shakers over every other communalist movement. Twenty hours were spent in the strictest discipline, even sleep was governed by rules; but every evening each individual libido was poured out into the community. Then if ever a collective unconscious was made manifest. Love was dissolved in community. George Washington dancing with the sisters, quaffing ambrosia while Squanto played the fiddle — this may strike us as ridiculous, but such were the materials for orgiastic myth available to the Shakers. They made as much of them as the Greeks of Bacchus and Orpheus.

Like the Greeks before them the Shakers tamed the irrational and harnessed it to the rational community. Away from the meeting, life was lived with mathematical order. Although they renounced all art and decoration, their strictly functional architecture and furniture are amongst the most beautiful of their kind. They found it necessary to restrain the success of many of their industrial enterprises. They were the first in America to practice intensive agriculture. Eventually many Shaker communities raised only high-quality seeds and breeding stock for the market.

It is rather difficult on the surviving evidence to determine how the society was so efficiently governed. All officials, administrators, business representatives, and religious leaders were appointed from the top. They were subject to a minimum of control by community meetings, more perhaps by “revelations,” although revelation never played the consistent, determining role that it did at Amana. So autocratic a system of government, especially over small communities scattered from New Hampshire to Kentucky when much of the country was still wilderness, would be expected to result in factionalism and schism; yet in the case of the Shakers it did not. In both secular and religious governance the Society led an unusually untroubled life.

All through the middle years of the nineteenth century, under the leadership of Frederick W. Evans, who before his conversion had been a secular reformer and communalist, the society flourished, reaching at one time to more than six thousand members in twenty villages. Celibacy, which had been a most important factor in their strength, eventually proved their undoing. Their doctrines were too barbarous to be etherealized by a more literate and sophisticated generation or to draw converts from the class of people otherwise attracted to Shakerism; and so they could not replenish themselves. Married converts brought their children into the society with them and every Shaker village was amongst other things a free orphanage which raised unwanted children at no expense to the State. The children were raised as Shakers but most of them left as soon as they were employable elsewhere. By the middle of the twentieth century the society, which for many years had consisted of less than a hundred aged people, was to all intents and purposes extinct. The great revival of communalism which began after the Second World War focused new interest on the Shakers and there recently have been attempts to revive the society.

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With the example of medieval religious orders, of monks, nuns, and associated lay people living in community before them, one would expect that at the height of the communalist movement in the first half of the nineteenth century there would have appeared Roman Catholic communist villages both in Europe and the United States; but there are very few examples, and indeed it is difficult to find out anything about them. Primarily this is due to the extremely reactionary character of the Church in the nineteenth century. Anything suggesting the preaching of community of goods was condemned as heresy, one which was an even graver threat to the wealth and power of the Church than it was to theological orthodoxy. A widespread movement for return to the apostolic life might have had devastating effects on the Church of the nineteenth century. In America the Church was more orthodox than the popes, and after the Irish Potato Famine and the troubles in south Germany the American church was founded on largely illiterate or semi-literate congregations of recent immigrants. Since most of the early historians of the communist societies in America were millenarian Protestants or secular socialists, they were anticlerical on principle, and therefore often ignored the existence of the one Catholic communalist settlement in the country.

In 1854 Ambrosius Oschwald, a Catholic priest, led a band of colonists from the hills of Baden and the Black Forest to Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, some hundred miles north of Milwaukee. They purchased some thirty-eight hundred acres of dense wilderness at three dollars and a half an acre and set about clearing the land and building two convents for celibate men and women and a village of family dwellings for married people. They called themselves the St. Nazianz Colony after St. Gregory of Nazianzus, the fourth-century theologian who led the return of the Eastern Church from Arianism to strict orthodoxy, and who was the founder of the so-called Cappadocian school of theologian-philosophers who are responsible for the lingering influence of the apostolic life and the mystical doctrine of the divination of man in Eastern Orthodoxy. St. Gregory held an archbishopric for only a short time and retired early from the conflicts of ecclesiastical politics to his own extensive estate where he established a mixed community of monks, nuns, and lay people about which we know little. The historians of communalism give no evidence of knowing who the patron saint of the colony was, or why he was chosen, but it is of the greatest significance that he was the favorite father of the Church of many of the great mystics of the Rhineland and south Germany. For such were the spiritual ancestors of the pre-Reformation Pietist movements out of which came, however indirectly, almost all the religious communist sects of America — as well as, for instance, the Tolstoyan movement.

The St. Nazianz Colony flourished as long as Father Oschwald was alive. The land was fruitful and produced surpluses for the market. The members manufactured almost all their own necessities: food, clothing, tools, furniture, again with an exportable surplus. The celibate members lived under a rule similar to the Third Order Regular of St. Francis, the married members as fully dedicated Third Order Seculars. All took part in the daily liturgy of the Church. The community was essentially governed by the sacraments. Confession and penance were sufficient to ensure order and holy communion to preserve commitment. Not unlike the Shakers they were held together by cult, by ritual that had its sources in practices that went back before the time of civilization and sprang from the deepest layers of the human mind. Father Oschwald and an ephorate of twelve members saw to the administration of the material affairs and moral welfare of the community and their decisions were subject to review by meetings of the whole. The community seems to have functioned with singularly little friction.

On the death of Father Oschwald, it was discovered that the property, which had all been held in his name, could not be left by his will to the colony because it was not a corporation. Thus the members incorporated as a Roman Catholic religious society and each member sued the estate for his share due to past services and then returned it to the new corporation. They continued for another generation under a board of trustees, wearing the simple peasant dress of the eighteenth-century Black Forest, their lives governed by the sacraments, the liturgy, the rites of passage, and the rites of the year, but toward the end of the century they began to die out. Like the Shakers, they had adopted orphan children but few of these remained with the community after they grew up. The village of St. Nazianz still exists, but of all the successful religious colonies in the United States it is by far the least known.

There was another, apparently very similar group near Milwaukee, called Nojashing, led by Fathers Anthony Keppler and Matthias Steiger, who came from Bavaria in 1847. They both died four years later, but the colony endured to the end of the century. At this time it became an order of sisters. Some significance should probably be attached to the fact that these two ventures found their homes in Wisconsin, where the Roman Catholic Church — and the Anglican as well — were far more radical than elsewhere in the United States and where schismatic groups like the Polish National Church, the Old Catholics, and others found a home. The very “advanced” Anglo-Catholic Bishop Griswold of Fond du Lac often spoke wistfully of his hope that the revival of the mixed order of St. Gilbert of Sempringham would take place in his diocese, but it never did. Thus the colony of St. Nazianz remained the only successful attempt to transport to America the kind of communist society made famous by the Jesuit communes in Paraguay.