The new nation and its frontier offered fertile soil for social experimentation. Separation of church and state meant one religious body could not exercise control. The frontier was so large and unsettled that social experiments could exist without intervention. Freedom exists in America, freedom to try new things.
Revival and Christianity's growth promoted reform. Needed reform did not occur rapidly enough for some. As a result, a few began to think American society was naturally twisted. Only dramatic changes could produce the utopian results idealists envisioned. The frontier provided the natural place where possible alternatives could be tried out on the frontier where no one could touch them.
This material looks at two very different forms of radical change tried during the early 1800s.
I. Communitarian Experiments
A few social visionaries experimented with religious socialism, others with secular socialism. Robert Owen, a Welshman, provides one of the more interesting examples. Owen came from a Christian home and he believed his early heritage contributed much good to his character's development. In adulthood, however, Owen rejected Christianity as patently false. In his 1829 debate with Alexander Campbell, Owen tried to prove:
Owen blamed religion for all of society's ills.
Owen also knew from firsthand experience English industrialism with all its social ills. He inherited a textile manufacturing firm from his father. By observation he concluded the industrial revolution dehumanized men. Determined to improve conditions through social experimentation, Owen envisioned a communal society which improved the human condition rather than degrading it. Since the United States offered a more promising field for such experimentation, he came here and purchased the entire village and surrounding countryside at New Harmony, Indiana.
After his purchase, he began gathering a community numbering several thousand. Owens's initial success caused him to predict he would soon empty Cincinnati. Europeans, hearing about New Harmony, came to Indiana searching for intellectual and moral freedom. Antagonisms soon arose between New Harmony's residents and the "native" Americans. Community morals degenerated so bad that New Harmony soon went into a tailspin leading to its demise. New Harmony still exists, a small town witnessing to one experiment's failure.
Charles Fourier (1772-1837) led a second communitarian experiment. A French socialist, Fourier began several socialist societies here in the United States. Fourier wanted to remove all of society's constraints and "start over." He tried to organize jobs in series determined by economics. These series then organized in alliances formed a Phalanx. When taken together, these structures would meet an entire community's economic needs. The agreeability of the job determined its pay. If the job "honored the community" the worker received honor but this did not necessarily imply financial reward. Fourier tried to eliminate all conflict thus harmonizing the universe. He expected his experiment to bring about societal and individual perfection. Fourier's communities numbered about 1,600 in communes of 5,000 acres. He began, but did not complete, an experiment at Brooke Farm. Fourier also promoted women's emancipation, marriage's abolition and complex sexual freedom.
John Humphrey Noyes (1811-1886) offers the last communitarian example. Noyes is a product of western revival. He studied theology at one time, a study which led him to conclude the millennium had arrived. His version of the millennium expressed itself in man's spiritual change, a spiritual change which allowed perfection. Noyes set out to establish a community "set on a hill." He hoped to create a sinless community. He felt the only way to end individual exploitation was to totally change society.
Noyes established Oneida, New York, as a communal society where everyone utilized their skills for everyone's benefit. All shared equally in its fruits as well. Oneida's fame came from silverware they produced for sale.
Noyes also established a system to free individuals from other types of exploitation. He tried a kind of sexual communism called "complex marriage." In Noyes' "complex marriage" everyone married everyone else. The community shared sexual partners freely although Noyes, himself, approved all coitus and who would bear children. He based his decisions on the candidate's spirituality and societal commitment. Perhaps this grew out of the fact that Noyes' wife suffered two miscarriages damaging her health. Noyes' guilt led him to try to meet sexual needs but also control those who bore children. The practical result, however, led to a society where sexuality ran out of control. The only birth control practiced was "coitus interruptus," a most ineffective method.
Social pressure caused Oneida to abandon their "complex marriage" in 1877. The community then fell apart in 1879 and reorganized as a joint stock company. As such it survived another 50 years.
Romanticism provides a second type of social experimentation. Romanticism also came out of the period's revivalism and blended revivalism's excitement with European intellectualism. Romanticism is an emotional attachment to the past. It presents itself through the idealizing of a previous "golden age." Those involved in the 1800s preferred a dignified worship and stately church buildings. Let me illustrate three different romantic groups.
The transcendentalists grow out of the Unitarian movement. Most transcendentalists attended Harvard and were highly intelligent and articulate men. Among them you'll find Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Theodore Parker.
George Ripley began the first transcendentalist experiment at Brooke farm. Ripley believed individuals held the key to solving all social ills. He envisioned a community where all labor had equal dignity and a provided each inhabitant with a creative environment where all may interact. He wanted the laborers to teach artists to respect physical labor and artists to teach art appreciation to the laborer. He organized Brooke Farm as a joint stock company. He attracted about 80 people, mostly writers who were transcendentalists, to the farm. Few laborers showed much interest. This forced the intellectuals to work hard physically. The writers and artists soon objected to such labor because the it stifled their creativity. At that point, the experiment degenerated leading Ripley to admit his failure. The experiment lives on in Thoreau's work Walden Pond.
Transcendentalism's religious principles included an insistence of divine imminence, dependence on intuitive perception of truth, and the rejection of all external authority. Transcendentalists believed the Unitarians were sterile and devoid of emotional sentiments. Emerson left the Unitarians because the Lord's Supper became meaningless to him. He then developed a highly pantheistic concept which he called the "Oversoul". In other words, Emerson saw God in everything.
Romanticism also infected the German Reformed Churches in America. Called the Mercersburg Theology, Philip Schaff (1819-1893) and John Nevin (1803-1886) represent this group. Schaff and Nevin taught at Mercersburg Theological Seminary, a school operated by the German Reformed Church. Schaff and Nevin felt the church needed a deeper sense of its historic development. They believed Christians must feel that the church possesses an "ongoing thread" which can be seen in both its past and its present. Sidney Ahlstrom says Roman Catholicism influenced American Protestantism at this point. Those who accepted the "Mercersburg Theology" wanted a feeling of tradition and continuity which they believed could only be experienced in "high church" liturgy and tradition.
Nevin, a Presbyterian, broke with Princeton Theology at three points: its unawareness of historical development, its individualistic view of the church, and its Zwinglian sacramental view. Schaff left Mercersburg in 1870 to join Union Theological Seminary's faculty. His influence remained strong in the field of church history.
Romanticism also permeated Episcopalianism. After the American Revolution, revivalism and evangelicalism made a major impact upon the Episcopalian church. American bishops wanted outreach and evangelism. The bishops in New England, Ohio, and Illinois, in particular, led in evangelistic efforts. Alongside this evangelical interest John Henry Hobart (1775-1830), the bishop of New York, promoted romanticism. Hobart insisted on a high church liturgy and a return to Catholic tradition. In England, the Oxford Movement promoted the same ends. Many English Anglicans ultimately converted to Catholicism. J.H. Newman, a leading Anglican clergyman, led the way. Today Catholics organize Newman Clubs on college and university campuses to reach Protestants. Significantly, the same thing happened in America.
Religious romanticism reacted against Protestant orthodoxy. Communal experiments also reacted to Protestant orthodoxy, but they also reacted to social ills. There are still other alternatives open to early Americans.
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