Shakers Rappites

Shakers, Rappites & Zoarites Essay, Research Paper

From the late seventeenth century to the mid-nineteenth century, America emerged as the primary setting for the establishment of various utopian communities. These communities were generally founded by individuals who were courageous enough to ignore accepted patterns of behaviour and willingly endure hardship and censure for the sake of ideas and ideals which they considered as true. Included among these cooperative colonies were the societies of Shakers, Rappites and Zoarites. All three communities saw their beginnings in foreign countries and because of religious persecution were forced to immigrate to the United States. The Shakers were the first communistic society to arrive in America and in some regards they also enjoyed the greatest success. They flourished in numbers and prosperity for well over one hundred years until their eventual decline. The Rappites and the Zoarites were “Separatists” from the established church in Germany who had come to America in search of religious and civil liberties. The Rappites were highly industrious and fortuitous in their business pursuits, while the Zoarites struggled initially but eventually saw their goals come to fruition under the tutelage of a great leader. These three societies were based upon firmly incorporated religious beliefs and doctrines that ensured their well being and longevity. The Shakers, the Rappites and the Zoarites all existed within the sphere of their own unique traditions and social customs, business techniques and objectives, systems of government, and religious creeds and practices.

At Manchester, in England,

This blessed fire began,

And like a flame in stubble,

From house to house it ran:

A few at first receiv’d it,

And did their lusts forsake;

And soon their inward power

Brought on a mighty shake.

-Millenial Praise, 1813

During the mid-seventeenth century a society known as the French Prophets entered England. They issued “warnings of God’s wrath, persuasions to repentance, and prophecies of the near approach of the end of all things.” Here their views were embraced by James and Jane Wardley, “members of the Society of Friends, or Quakers,” who eventually formed a small society in Manchester. The Wardley’s gradually gained a committed following, including a woman named Ann Lee and her parents. “These people suffered persecution from the ungodly, and some of them were even cast into prison, on account of certain unusual and violent manifestations of religious fervour, which caused them to receive the name of ‘Shaking Quakers.’” It was while she herself was imprisoned that Ann Lee claimed to have received word from God outlining the spiritual route that one must take to achieve true salvation. “She declared that in her dwelt the word of Christ” and from that point on she was acknowledged and revered by the Shakers as ‘Mother Ann,’ the second messiah. In 1773 Mother Ann was instructed through a specific revelation to assemble all those within the society and move to America. Here “the colonies would gain their independence and liberty of conscience would be secured to all people, whereby they would be able to worship God without hinderance or molestation.” It took to two years from their arrival in the United States for the society of Shakers to establish their first settlement. Then, in 1780, Ann Lee moved to their permanent settlement at New Lebanon, where a great many religious revivalists embraced the rigid doctrines of the Shaker faith:

Near Albany they settled,

And waited for a while,

Until a mighty shaking

Made all the desert smile.

At length a gentle whisper,

The tidings did convey,

And many flock’d to Mother,

To learn the living way.

-Millenial Praise, 1813

Mother Ann died in 1787 and was succeeded as leader of the ministry by James Whittaker, who oversaw the building of the first Shaker house of worship. Whittaker died two years later and was replaced by Joseph Meacham, whose keen organizational skills dictated the future success of the church. It was he who “established the first eleven Shaker societies on a basis of independent community of property. He also drew up the laws and principles upon which they were governed by a central Ministry; and he codified their theology.”

Although the religious beliefs of the Shakers were based on Christianity, their unique interpretations are of great interest. “They accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament as the true record of the revelation of God to man. And they appeal to them for all the proofs of the divinity of their great fundamental doctrines of the duality of God’s nature as male and female, and the second appearing of Christ in the person of Ann Lee.” The Shakers adhered to the doctrine and practice of the Pentecostal Church, which they deemed as possessing the ‘right’ principles of Christianity. They said: “The five most prominent practical principles of the Pentecost Church, were, first, common property; second, a life of celibacy; third, non-resistance, fourth, a separate and distinct government; and fifth, power over physical disease.” They successfully attained all but the last of these parameters. No member of the Shaker Church was permitted to be absent from worship meetings, which cemented the religious strength of the society. Finally, they advocated such virtues as: “honesty and integrity in all words and dealings; humanity and kindness to a friend and foe; diligence in business; prudence, temperance, economy, and frugality, but not parsimony; to keep clear of debt; suitable education of children; a united interest in all things, which means community of goods; suitable employment for all; and a provision for all in sickness infirmity, and old age.”

The issue of celibacy was met with many justifications amongst the members of the Millennial Church. “We Shakers are upstairs above the rudimental state of men, which is the generative.” “As to the world, let it solemnize its marriages and ‘direct its churches to wink at the worse than brutish lusts exercised behind them, we nevertheless declare the flesh to be an abomination in the sight of God.” However, as will soon be further elaborated upon, the Shaker societies existed within smaller family groups that included both men and women living in close quarters of one another. ” Such an arrangement of living gave rise to the most elaborate precautions. The Millennial Laws dictated that members of the opposite sex were not to be alone together, they could not shake hands and they were forbidden from passing each other on the stairs. Such limitations ensured the livelihood of the Church and its beliefs.

The governing body of the Millennial Church was comprised of the Ministry, who had supreme control, the office of the Elders, and the Deacons or Trustees. “The Ministry at Lebanon consisted of four persons, two men and two women, who had equal authority in temporal and spiritual matters.” They “must be blameless characters, faithful, honest and upright, clothed with the spirit of meekness and humility, gifted with wisdom and understanding, and of great experience in the things of God. These members were segregated from the rest of the community in order to assert their authority and maintain their position of leadership. This is exemplified in the Millennial Laws, which state that: “The Ministry may in no wise blend in common with the rest of the people; they may not work under the same roof, live in the same house, nor eat at the same table.” These ‘Laws’ assert that those who are called Elders are the heads of the body that constitutes the Church of God. It was the job of the Elders to oversee, teach and contribute to the overall good of all the families placed under their care. The Deacons or Trustees were responsible for the domestic concerns of the family in which they resided and it was their duty to perform all business transactions, either within the world, or within other Shaker families and societies. This hierarchy was important in maintaining order within Shaker communities and ensuring the members’ adherence to the strict rules and regulations of the Millennial doctrine.

A Shaker society consisted of three classes: the novitiate, the junior and the senior class. “The first include[d] those who, by faith, [come] into a degree of relation to the Society, but who [chose] to live in their own families and manage their own temporal concerns.” The junior class consisted of those members entering the Society, who had no family, and retained possession of their own private property. The third class “constitutes what is called the church order or church relation.” They enter into the church after long deliberation, as their membership in this class is non-retractable. All new members of the Shaker Church are expected to settle all debts before entrance is granted and they must also confess all their sins. “By so doing they find justification and acceptance with God, and receive that power by which they become dead indeed unto sin, and alive unto God, through Jesus Christ, and are enabled to follow his example, and walk even as he walked.” Community of property being one of the leading principles of the Millennial Church, “it is an established principle of faith in the Church, that all who are received as members thereof do freely, and voluntarily, of their own deliberate choice, dedicate, devote, and consecrate themselves, with all they possess, to the service of God forever.” These covenants were ‘fair and honourable;’ and it is noted that within the first sixty years of the establishment of the Church, there was never a legal claim brought to court regarding the recovery of property presented to the community.

All members, except the Elders, who were forbidden to by the Millennial Laws, took part in the day to day labours of the community. “Agriculture and horticulture were the foundations of all the communes or families.” The Shakers also took part in the cultivation of garden seeds for sale to the world. They had their own dairies and tanneries. They also pursued the manufacture of small-scale products such as, brooms, mats, woodenware and medicinal remedies. “All labour for the general good, and all enjoy the material comforts of life in great abundance.”

“The system of instruction is the same as that pursued in our vast common schools; and all the children in the [Shaker] community are supplied with a thorough common English education.” The Millennial Laws outline that boys and girls are to be educated separately and at different times of the year, the former in the winter and the latter in the summer. “Spelling, reading, writing, composition, English grammar, arithmetic, mensuration, the science of agriculture, agricultural chemistry, a small portion of history and geography, architecture, moral science, good manners and true religion, are sufficient as general studies for children among believers.” The ‘laws’ further state that the study of physic, pharmacy, anatomy, surgery, law, or chemistry is only permissible to those appointed by the Ministry. Phrenology, mythology and mesmerism were forbidden study for all within the Shaker communities. “Isolated as they are from the world around them, taking no part in elections or other public affairs, they are alive to all its passing events; and I found them generally familiar with the social, religious, and political topics of the day.”

“By 1830 the Shaker Church had reached its peak, upon which it rested during the whole second quarter of the century.” They had founded eighteen societies, from the East Coast of the United States as far west as Kentucky, with a membership of over five thousand people. “They transact their secular concerns with much probity and uprightness; and thought they have suffered reproach from their singularity of life and manners, they have become a proverb for industry, justice and benevolence.”

The Rappites were a communistic society founded by a German-born immigrant to America, George Rapp. He had become dissatisfied with the lifeless condition of the Lutheran Church in Germany and consequently “began to preach to a small congregation of friends and family in his own house on Sundays.” Rapp and his followers were condemned by the Church and were subject to many “forms of persecution which helped them to grow form a mere house party to a substantial body of three hundred families.” In 1803, Rapp sailed to America with the intention of finding land where “he and his followers might settle and pursue their religious life without fear” of reprimand. Eventually he purchased five thousand acres of land near Pittsburgh and welcomed over seven hundred and fifty of his adherents to their new home. This new settlement would come to known as the Harmony Society.

“Discovering that they included among their members many who were too old, too infirm, or too poor to be able to maintain themselves, the Society resolved to adopt communism.” “We do hereby give, grant, and forever convey to George Rapp and his associates all our property, real personal, and mixed, whether it be lands and tenements, goods and chattels, money or debts due to us for the benefit and use of the said association or community.” A somewhat gratuitous provision was outlined in the original agreement and constitution of the Harmonists. “Every member who should withdraw from the society was entitled to whatever property he brought in, and it, or its value, thereof was to be refunded to him.” If the church member had been poor upon his entrance into the society, he was allotted a small provision to be given as a donation upon his departure. “It was a principle with Rapp that the society should, as far as possible, produce and make everything it used.” Thus, the Harmonists became incredibly industrious within their settlement. They built, log houses, a church, a school, a mill, a barn and some workshops. As well, they grew most of their own food, along with planting a vineyard and building a distillery. William Alfred Hinds noted that: “it was most apparent that they were a healthy, well-fed, well-clothed, happy people.”

At the outset of the settlement the Rappites still held sacred the dominion of marriage. However, in 1807, “a deep religious fervour pervaded the society” and they agreed to conform to the state of celibacy. “Some members withdrew from the community when celibacy was adopted; but for those who remained no precautions were taken, no rules were made; strength of religious conviction was considered to be— and apparently was— sufficient.” This was true to such a degree that, husbands and wives remained together, living under the same roof, partaking in a life of celibacy. When asked if he considered the celibate life to be healthful, one member of the society replied: “Decidedly so; almost all our people have lived to a hale old age. Father Rapp himself died at ninety.” At this time, the colonists of Harmony also gave up tobacco.

In 1825, the Rappites moved to their new and final home at Economy. “I think it is probable, from what I have heard from the older members, that when they were comfortably settled at Economy, the Harmony Society was for some years in its most flourishing condition.” After the death of George Rapp, the society established an office composed of two trustees and seven elders, “to perform all the duties and assume all the authority which Father Rapp had relinquished with his life.” Frederick Rapp, George’s adopted son, played an integral part in the success of this settlement. “He was the architect and beautifier, and the business manager of the society.” It has been noted that “without George Rapp there would have been no Rappite community; without Frederick, their taste for music and art would never have been cultivated; their villages lacking in al that went to make them beautiful and attractive, they would never have received the application of being the most wealthy Communistic society on earth.”

“The prominent religious feature of the Rappites was the salvation of their souls.” They followed closely the word of the bible and looked forward to the second appearance of Jesus Christ on earth. They made no assertions as a distinct religious sect, but they did consider a community of goods as a fundamental feature to a complete happiness in the blessings of God. “Father Rapp taught humility, simplicity in living, self sacrifice, love to your neighbour, regular and persevering industry, prayer and self-examination.” “They have three annual festivals: the Anniversary, the Harvest Home, and the Lord’s Supper, which are celebrated by the singing of songs, feasting and speaking.” The Rappites also celebrated Easter and Christmas in concordance with the Christian faith. As with the Shakers, admission into the membership of the Harmony Society was contingent upon the confession of one’s sins.

The general life in a Rappite community was similar to that of Shaker societies in the nineteenth century. Men and women lived together in households of four to eight people. Children were given a proper elementary education in both English and German and then they were taught trades so as to ensure their self-sufficiency in the world. One Harmonist stated that: “As each labours for all, and as the interest of one is the interest of all, there is no occasion for selfishness, and no room for waste. We were brought up to be economical; to waste is a sin; we live simply; and each has enough, all that he can eat and wear, and no man can use more than that.” When questioned about the longevity of their society, considering their lack of ability to regenerate themselves, the Harmonists were confident. “The Lord will show us a way. We have not trusted him in vain so far; we trust him still. He will give us a sign.”

“In the month of August, 1817, fourteen years after the advent of George Rapp with his communistic band of followers in America, Joseph Baumeler, a German, landed in Philadelphia.” Accompanying him were a few followers, from Germany, “that veritable hot-bed of religious radicalisms.” Not unlike the Harmonists, the Zoarites were separatists from the established church who were uniting against the lack of faith in their own country’s followers of Christ. “Their refusal to send their children to the schools—which were controlled by the clergy—and to allow their young men to serve as soldiers, brought upon them persecution from both the secular and ecclesiastical authorities, resulting in flogging, imprisonment and fines.” “To the end that they might enjoy full freedom to worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences, untrammeled by Church or State, decided them to seek new habitations in a strange country.” A settlement was established in the Ohio Valley where “an arrangement was soon reached in which those of the more well-to-do among the number were to assist those of no means whatever in getting started in their new homes, by furnishing stock and tool son credit.” The Zoar community saw many struggles in its first years of existence and consequently, Joseph Baumeler was faced with a state of emergency. He decided that a communism of property was the only way to save their community. “They must hold together and form an association of power in the community, the strong sustaining the weak and the children in the families cared for and educated until they should become useful members of society.” “As soon as we adopted community of goods we began to prosper.” The Zoarites set up shops, kept cattle, farmed laboriously, established blacksmith’s, carpenter’s and joiner’s shops and opened a woolen factory, several mills and a brewery. As of the spring of eighteen seventy-four, they had three hundred members and their property was worth well over one million dollars.

The members of the community at Zoar believed in the Bible and were devout Trinitarians, believing in the God, the Father, Jesus Christ, the Son and in the Holy Ghost. They decried all ceremonies and, as is stated in their Principles of Separatists, they separated from all ecclesiastical connections, because true Christian life requires no sectarianism. “The religious ordinances of the Zoarites stand out in singular contrast to those of the Shakers and Harmonists.” They held very few meetings, and those that were held on Sundays were very poorly attended. “Celibacy was enjoined upon all for a time, but more as a matter of policy than from religious principle, this feature of their institution being abolished after a duration of about fifteen years.” The main reason for the change from celibacy to marriage was to ensure the perpetuation of communistic believers in their society.

The Community of Zoar was divided into two classes. “The probationary members and children constituted the first class, while the second class consisted of all those who had donated their possessions to the Community, and hereby endowed themselves with the right of suffrage in the society, and eligibility to office.” The members of the first class signed an agreement stating that: “for the furtherance of their spiritual and temporal welfare and happiness, they bind themselves to labour, obey, and execute all the orders of the trustees and their successors and to use all their industry and skill in behalf of the exclusive benefit of the said Separatist Society of Zoar.” “The constitution of the society provides for the election of all officers by a full vote of all the members; also for the annual election of one trustee, who shall hold office for the term of three years.”

The Zoar community experienced much dissidence, especially amongst its youth in the latter days of its existence. “They fell into the fashion and ways of the world, and would not brook the restraints that religious Communism required.” In his article, Edson states that: “the ordinances of the Zoar community are few and weak and I am forced to admit that I saw there few signs of superior culture, and that many a village of the same size in our Northern states surpass it in enterprise, and in facilities for educational development.” Such weaknesses in the Zoarite government and ordinances led to the decline of the community and its eventual disappearance in 1898, just eighty one years after its inception.

For over two hundred years the United States provided the framework for the establishment of various communistic societies. Religious adherents fleeing their countries of origin in order to find civil liberty and freedom of worship founded these societies. Three notable communities of this sort were the Shakers, the Rappites and the Zoarites. The Shakers saw their beginnings in England and through an established set of rigid doctrines came to be the longest lasting and most successful communistic society in America. The Rappites were a group of religious dissenters within the German Lutheran Church who fled their homelands after repeated persecution. Here, they founded flourishing communities and emerged as the wealthiest society of their type on U.S. soil. The Zoarites also came from Germany, where they experienced a denial of their civil and religious privileges. In the United States they founded a community that although admirable in its pursuits of the common good, floundered amidst internal dissention. All three of these communistic societies were enviable in their distinctions as true believers in charity and restraint and are to be admired for their selfless wills and Utopian ideals.


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