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  Religious Separatists in Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Ohio

Eberhard Fritz, Altshausen/Germany

Religious Separatists in Harmony, New Harmony, Economy, and Zoar, and Their Pietist Roots in Wuerttemberg

On September 29, 2006, this paper was given during a presentation at Presentation at Old Economy Village. The oral presentation style has been left unaltered.

I dedicate this presentation to the wonderful people I met who care for their country’s cultural heritage by volunteering at the museums at Harmony, Pennsylvania, Old Economy Village, Pennsylvania, and Zoar Village, Ohio. It is great to know that you appreciate my research on the Separatists in Wuerttemberg, and I am mightily impressed by your commitment.

Some deserve a special mention, in alphabetical order:
Sandy Carrol, Freedom, Pennsylvania; Jon Elsasser, Zoar, Ohio; John and Shelby Ruch, Zelienople, Pennsylvania
and all the wonderful people with whom I had the privilege to travel and show them the places where the Separatists were living two centuries ago.

I do sincerely hope that Zoar in Ohio will not be destroyed by being flooded. During the 19th century it was one of the most interesting places of social experiments in the United States. In our time of economical crisis it appears crucial to remember the great social ideas of the past. Therefore, the 200th anniversary of the founding of Zoar in 2017 should be a main event in the area!

As everybody here knows the community of Economy was founded in 1824 by Separatist leader George Rapp (1757-1847) for a community of several hundred people who wanted to live in accordance with their religious principles. It was the third of three consecutive settlements, the first being Harmony, Pennsylvania and the second one New Harmony, Indiana. The name Economy at first glance seems rather peculiar because we feel reminded of the economic field and of capitalism, something which seems hard to attribute to such a strict religious group. However, the name refers to the divine economy as described in the Bible. But on the other hand, perhaps subconsciously, the other meaning of the word economy also applied to the Harmony Society which by 1824 was so successful that many buildings of the new settlement could be commissioned. So the members of the Society did not have to erect the entire village like they had done on the two previous ones. Rapp and his family had managed very successfully to make the Harmony Society which they controlled completely a big-money enterprise. Contrary to their conservative religious attitudes the Harmonists used the most sophisticated technology of their age to improve their agriculture and their factories. The second very strict element within the Harmony Society was celibacy or a strict sexual abstinence even between married couples. I know no example where such a big group of men and women had been obliged to live such an ascetic life. Perhaps only Ephrata Cloister comes close but then brothers and sisters there were much more separated in everyday life than they were in Rapp’s communities.
The founding of Economy can also be understood as a sign of tensions within the Harmonist community. Over there in New Harmony, Indiana, many people were rather shocked when Rapp told them that he wanted to move again back to Pennsylvania. For ten years they had built a very neat and organized village on the Wabash in complete wilderness in the Indiana Territory. From all we know we can assume that this decade was really the glorious peak of the Harmony Society. Now it was very hard for the members of the Society to understand why they should leave New Harmony at a point when everything went so well. I think that Rapp’s stubborn decision basically disturbed the trusting of his followers in him as a leader. Of course they had no choice than to follow him. But if you read the documents from the Economy period you will feel that the era of an absolute trusting in Rapp was over. Even Professor Karl J.R. Arndt who published thousands of documents about Rapp and the Harmony Society said that Rapp became a tyrant at Economy, striving for absolute power over his followers. Mercilessly he excluded members who had broken his rules, and if someone wanted to leave the Society he or she was refunded as low as possible. Only a few years later the latent crisis broke out and erupted with the schism of the years 1831 and 1832.

The Separatists and the Church of Wuerttemberg

First we have to ask: How could George Rapp - or Johann Georg Rapp as he was called in Wuerttemberg - rise to such an important Separatist leader? Under which circumstances did he grow up? From where was he influenced? I will begin by explaining some very fundamental facts about Pietism, particularly in Wuerttemberg.
To understand the Separatist movement it is very important that the Protestant Church of Wuerttemberg was organized as an institution which no subject of Wuerttemberg could escape. Every subject was an obligatory member of the church. After the Reformation which was introduced in Wuerttemberg in the years after 1534 the Protestant faith had been one of the basic elements of the State. All subjects of Wuerttemberg had obliged themselves in 1565 for them and all future generations to become Protestants. The reigning Dukes were not only Heads of State but also bishops of the Protestant church. Therefore if anyone separated from church he did not only break the church laws but also the State laws, and he or she was persecuted by church and state authorities. Every adult Christian was obliged to receive the Holy Communion regularly, and the pastors had to write down those who attended in a special register. If someone stayed away from the communion several times without an obvious cause the pastor had to inquire and if he suspected the person of separatism he had to report him to the higher authorities. Most people were so used to those basic principles that it was no problem for them.
But in the decades after the Thirty Years War a new religious movement named Pietism influenced many Protestant territories in Europe. In 1675 the pastor Philipp Jakob Spener at Frankfurt publisehd a samll book ‘Pia desideria’ which means ‘Devout wishes’. There he not only proposed a reform of the studies in theology based on a personal conversion of the students towards a Christian life. He also had the idea of laymen meeting after services to read the bible and other religious books, to sing and to pray in order to strengthen their Christian faith.
That idea spread rapidly, and everywhere those Pietist meetings were founded. As Spener was tightly related with people in Wuerttemberg his principles were immediately discussed there. But not everyone was so happy about them. Up till then the Protestant church had told people about religious matters exclusively according with their principles. Now if people met independently without a pastor there was always the danger of separation from the official church. The reason for that is simple: You meet your fellows in an intimate group, you sing and pray, and soon you will find that you are much more devout than most of the others who call themself Christians. Actually Pietism in Wuerttemberg split from the beginning because there were people who thought that a true Christian life could not be lived within the official church. We must not forget that the 17th century was an era of war and the danger of war. From 1618 through 1715 war and crisis were relevant for people in Southwest Germany and those fears encouraged a devout religious life.
But how were the Pietist meetings organized? Someone in a certain town or village invited people to meet in his living room. People who came sang and prayed, someone read from the Bible or from a religious book, and finally the meeting was closed with a song and a prayer. Later on, when those meetings became more organized, men and women sat separated from each other. There was a table where some leading ‘brothers’ sat in front of the assembly. Someone read from the Bible or from a book and then all men who felt they had something to say were called and made a statement about the passage that had just been read. Generally the songs sung in the meetings were rather melancholic because they emphasized the sinful character of man and the necessity for conversion.
The authorities were so uneasy about the Pietist meetings that they issued a decree in 1743 with some rules under which those assemblies were permitted:

  • No more than 15 persons were allowed to meet, separated into males and females.
  • The local pastor should supervise the meetings regularly and see if there were any tendencies towards Separatism.
  • Nightly meetings were prohibited.
  • No one was allowed to attend assemblies out of his hometown.

    But soon it turned out that almost no meeting could be held according with these rules, Some groups were so small that it seemed nonsense to establish two separate meetings for men and women. The Separatists never paid any attention to the orders of the decree. They not only met at night but also they travelled frequently all over the country and abroad.
    During the 19th century, when the meetings grew and were accepted by the authorities (because most of the Separatists had emigrated) the harmonium became the typical instrument of the Pietist meetings. There is an old story that a young man came home and told his parents that he had just met a girl from another village which he intended to marry but whom the parents did not know. When he was asked about the girl’s family he replied ‘Oh, they’ve got a harmonium!’. The parents immediately understood what he meant.
    Now the Separatist meetings were different from the Pietist assemblies. I will attribute those who remained loyal to church as Pietists and the others as Separatists but please keep in mind that its only two branches of the same movement. The Separatists always were only a tiny minority because not many people were willing or capable to oppose the general social values which led to persecution and disadvantages. But they regarded themselves as the ‘true Christians’ amongst the mass of habitual Christians who did not behave according to their faith. While the church was organized in local parishes and people were expected to stay in their home parish the Separatists believed in an invisible church of the ‘true Christians’. Therefore, from the upcoming of Radical Pietism in the late 17th century there was a transnational Separatist movement, breaking all the boundaries. That made it difficult for the authorities to cope with the Separatists.
    These people got their energy to oppose the church and the state from their belief that they would be rewarded by the Lord. Therefore they sang happy songs during their meetings because they were looking forward to the joys of eternal heavenly pleasure. We must imagine that in the church services the Protestant hymns were sung in a very high tone and in very slow speed, accompanied by the organ if there was one in the particular church. The Pietists tended to sing rather earnest songs because they emphasized the sinful nature of mankind and the need of man to converse. But the Separatists felt themselves as redeemed Christians. There was one group during the 18th century who believed that the ‘true Christian’ could not commit sins anymore at all. Therefore they took secular melodies like dancing tunes and folk songs and wrote some religious lyrics to them. During the meetings those songs were accompanied by instruments like guitar, fiddle, cithern or clarinet which were usually played by dance bands. If you know the old Hank Williams song ‘I saw the light’ as opposed to slower hymns (for example ‘Where could I go’, starting with the lines ‘Living below this old sinful world, hardly a comfort can afford’) you get the idea: ‘I wandered so aimless, my life filled with sin, I wouldn’t let my dear saviour in. Now I’m so happy, no sorrow inside. Praise the Lord, I saw the light!’ This could well have been one of the Separatist songs because of the happy lyrics and the dance melody. It was those songs which attracted many people to attend a Separatist meeting, some of which actually separated from church. The authorities were angry about those spectacular hymns because in the smaller villages they could be heard far and wide. A pastor wrote in 1796: ‘They sing all kinds of songs, from the old hymnbook and from other books..., but they sing them mainly on secular melodies which sound really good because their singing is excellent and they like to accompany it with the cithern. Some weak and sensible women were appealed by those songs to attend a meeting where they were awakened and became passionate members of the Separatist group. For example they sing a church hymn ‘Befiehl du deine Wege’ on the melody of an old lovesong ‘Once I loved Ismene’.

    The rising of Johann Georg Rapp

    From 1785 on the Separatist movement reached a new peak when Johann Georg Rapp, a linen weaver, separated from church with his wife Christine and soon became the most prominent leader in Wuerttemberg. He had been born on November 1, 1757 at the village of Iptingen which is not far from the capital Stuttgart but is situated very remote from that city in a deep valley. The family was one of the poorest in the village, and they were heavily in debts. Even if you visit Iptingen today you will feel the remote geographic situation because you leave the highway from Stuttgart to Karlsruhe and find yourself on narrow streets driving through little villages. When you come to think the world will soon be ending there’s Iptingen. It has a big church which looks like a castle on a hill. Some years ago Rapp’s original house was tore down so there is only an empty field but he could see the church from his window.
    Rapp could not have risen to such an important leader if he had not married Christine Benzinger who came from a wealthy family in the neighbor village of Friolzheim. She brought thrice as much fortunes as Rapp when they married, and luckily she brought cash because she sold properties at her home village. By this marriage Rapp now belonged to the quite wealthy class in Iptingen. He attended the Pietist meetings but soon got in quarrels with other Pietists which led him to separate from church. The other leading Separatist was Christian Hoernle, a wealthy farmer, but soon it became clear that Rapp possessed more charisma and became the undisputed leader. However, Christian Hoernle stayed loyal to Rapp and was one of his closest followers from the beginning. Very soon the Separatists caused sensation in the village because they held their meetings during the services, worked on Sundays and did everything to gain attention. For example, when they assembled in Hoernle’s cottage in the vineyards they went there in a procession, demonstratively displaying their Separatist books. And on Sundays when Rapp was preaching during the meetings in his house masses of people from near and far came to Iptingen. The Separatists had to host them, and the fellow Separatists were quartered according to military standards.
    It is quite astonishing how mildly Rapp and his followers were treated by the authorities. After the first hearing in February 1785 there was no reaction whatsoever for one and a half years. Then they behaved vey tolerant because they feared creating martyrs if they treated the Separatists too harshly. In those circumstances the Separatist movement grew almost undisturbed. We must be aware that a Catholic Duke reigned over a Protestant country and formally was bishop of the state church. But Duke Karl Eugen had been forced to transfer his ecclesiastical rights to a body called Church Council which consisted of members of the most distinguished families. If the Church Council had punisehd Rapp and his followers severely they would have strengthened the Duke’s position, something which they tried to avoid by all means. Moreover, the Separatists were eager to fulfill their duties as citizens in an exemplary matter. Contrary to their fellow citizens they paid their taxes in time and served their socage themselves. Other people commissioned their wives and children to appear for the socage and paid their taxes after repeated admonition. Now if the authorities tried to punish the Separatists they were told that it was a shame if honest Christians were persecuted while the negligent citizens could go on in their usual manner. And when Rapp actually was arrested in the tower of Maulbronn a whole group of furious followers went there and asked to be arrested as well because they all agreed with him. The Separatist groups at Iptingen, Oelbronn and Lomersheim wrote their own declarations of faith and sent them to the authorities.
    But towards the end of the century it became clear that the era of tolerance would soon be over. When Wuerttemberg was endangered by war the military laws were tightened, and all the young men who were drawn had to become soldiers. Now the Separatists resisted military service, and when some young men were casted by lots as recruits they refused to appear for the military exercise. This time the authorities remained very strict and expatriated four of the young men. Certainly that was a shock for Rapp and his followers and an omen of upcoming events. Although those young men were readmitted after some months it became clear that times were changing. In 1797 Duke Friedrich II succeeded to the throne, a younger, energetic man. He was not willing to tolerate religious groups who opposed the state and the church, and immediately the pressure on Rapp and the Separatists grew considerably. Therefore a possible emigration was discussed within the Separatist movement. Rapp decided to emigrate to Louisiana because he admired the French consul and latter emperor Napoleon. But when Louisiana was sold to the United States in 1803 he changed his mind and chose to go to Pennsylvania. In July 1803 Rapp left for America with only a few men in order to find a place to settle. He was offered an area in Ohio, just near the spot where later Zoar was situated but finally he bought some land over in Harmony, probably because of the near city of Pittsburgh. The first two years in a strange country changed George Rapp’s character completely. He missed the admiration of his followers and felt lonely, almost depressive at times. When his followers arrived in 1804 and 1805 they were surprised that their leader had become rather harsh compared to his personality back in Wuerttemberg where his pastoral skills had won the hearts of the people. Some of Rapp’s closest friends were so disappointed that they separated from him and tried to establish their own communities, none of which was very successful.

    The Separatists of Rottenacker and their circle

    Meanwhile in Wuerttemberg a new Separatist group had taken the leading role within the movement. When Rapp was still living there some inhabitants of the village of Rottenacker had separated from church. Rottenacker was in the South of the Duchy of Wuerttemberg on the border of the Danube river. The Separatists there were influenced by a Swiss woman who disappeared mysteriously after some time. They managed to get in touch with Rapp, but he was too busy preparing his emigration. Now when the leader had left for America the Separatists from Rottenacker became the leading Separatist party, winning followers in some villages from all over Wuerttemberg. They were completely different from Rapp who had always emphasized the religious elements of Separatism, while the groups around Rottenacker also took political action from the start. Not only did they refuse to attend services or the Holy communion and held their children back from school but they also refused categorically military service and criticized the Duke and his administration. They did not hesitate to call the Duke a pharaoh (comparing themselves with Israel suppressed by the Egyptians) and the District Officer at Blaubeuren a ‘black dragon’. Later on the most fanatic Separatists wore some stars on their clothes which was immediately forbidden by the authorities because it reminded the officials too much of the orders the Duke and the leading men at the court used to wear.
    Duke Friedrich II who gained enormous power and much land when he became Elector in 1803 tried to suppress any opposition violently and regarded the Separatists as state enemies. When the Separatists from Rottenacker and from other villages were not willing to obey the church and state laws the Elector sent soldiers to Rottenacker, to Dettingen unter Teck and to Horrheim. At Rottenacker, the most eager Separatists were arrested and questioned by the District Officer of Blaubeuren. When they remained stubborn in their religious principles the Elector ordered them to be arrested on the Fortress of Asperg, not far away from the capital Stuttgart. There they were condemned to work on the Royal estates and for example helped to refurbish the castle of Monrepos. During the night they had to alter a quadrangular lake near the castle into a seapark according to the fashion of the day, which meant they had to dig a big hole and erect artificial islands. It was very hard work but the Separatists got in touch with some people from the neighborhood who were so impressed by their religious fervor that they also separated from church. I found the names of about 60 men imprisoned on the Fortress. Originally they had been condemmned to a certain time of arrest but the King ordered his officials to examine the Separatists before their release. If they did not agree to obey the laws they should be kept on the Fortress. Therefore some men stayed there for twenty years!
    Back home the women of the Separatists had to do all the work in order to sustain their family. Even if some fellows came to help the women were responsible for the economy. Most of them were as convinced of the Separatist principles as their men so it was impossible for the authorities to suppress Separatism. But the arrests on the Fortress certainly showed some effect because after 1809 the Separatists stopped to provoke the authorities in order to avoid further arrests. Some of them bought a big house near the church and lived together in a community of goods.
    The Separatists of Rottenacker were different from those around Rapp because no authoritative leader arose to lead them. This not only meant that they were not as tightly organized as Rapp’s followers but they also did not develop a systematic religious philosophy. Therefore the movement tended to be more chaotic than the well-organized followers of Rapp. That became appearent when Wuerttemberg sufferred a severe crisis in the years of 1816 and 1817. Due to strong rain all year the harvest was completely spoiled, and many people were starving. The Pietists and Separatists saw these bad times as an omen for the Second Coming of Christ as described in St. John’s Apocalypse. When the Czar of Russia offered land in the extreme South of his country those Pietists saw it as a divine grace because they wanted to expect Christ from nearer than Wuerttemberg. As Palestine belonged to the Osman Empire the mountains in Southern Russia were as close as they could get. Some of the Separatists from Rottenacker sailed with masses of other emigrants down the Danube. They had hoped that God would see them through all the dangers of the journey but got bitterly disappointed. About half of the travelers died on the voyage. Some Separatists from Rottenacker and its circle also went to Russia. A group of others, however, decided to emigrate to America. Their leader was Johann Michael Bäumler, a pipemaker from the city of Ulm. In 1817 they arrived in the United States. George Rapp offered them to come to New Harmony but the newly arrived emigrants refused. Perhaps they had heard about his very strict principles, and as many of them had suffered severely on the Fortress they probably were not willing to obey another rigid leader. Instead, the entire group went to Ohio where they bought land and built houses. They named their community Zoar after the little village in the story of the Old Testament which had been protected by God at the burning down of Sodom and Gomorrha.
    But Michael J. Bimelers position was never as strong as Rapp’s in his communities. Because of small financial resources the settles also founded a Society and despite serious doubts they decided to abolish any private property. During the first years they also lived in sexual abstinence but they gave it up when their community’s financial situation stabilized. Contrary to Rapp Bimeler always was confronted with growing families who followed their own interests. Although Zoar was never as successful economically as the Harmonist communities the system of common goods worked over a period of many decades.
    Both communities came to an end around the same time. At Zoar, a new generation was no more willing to live in a community of goods because the religious motivation had vanished. So the Zoar Society had to be dissolved in 1898. As no children were born in the Harmonist Society the members grew older and died so in the 1890s there were only very few old people alive. A man named John Duss took the opportunity and became a member of the Harmony Society, taking over the control over all the money. He spent a lot of it organizing tours for his orchestra all across the United States. And he gave money for the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. But over in Germany relatives of the Harmonists sued Duss so the Society ended in endless lawsuits where those German family members did not have any success.
    As a Separatist leader Johann Georg Rapp relied on the tradition of Radical Pietism which had developed for an entire century. Ideas of the equality of Christians and of a community which was based on common religious principles and therefore knew no geographic barriers made Radical Pietism a very effective international movement despite its status as a minority. At the same time Rapp took that tradition further with own ideas and his own personality not only to new heights but also to an apex which no one could have imagined before.

    Copyright 2006/2012 by Eberhard Fritz, Altshausen
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