10 February 2020


Kathleen M. Fernandez. Zoar: The Story of an Intentional Community. Kent University Press, 2019.

A number of times recently Magonia has looked at books examining utopian ideas and communities. When I have reviewed any I have been influenced by Peter Rogerson's last article for Magonia, where he spoke of the 'dangers of purity', the manner in which the search for a pure ideal, has destroyed the humanism of those involved in it.
Although literary fantasies of pure societies have made for interesting and sometimes inspiring reading, they have also revealed the 'worm in the bud' which would ultimately destroy that ideal, and eventually lead either to the collapse of the society, or its descent into an authoritarian dystopia. Some of these I have reviewed HERE.

In the nineteenth century, and earlier, many such communities were set up by groups and individuals who fled to America after facing religious intolerance in Europe,. History soon reveals that these communities, as they settled, often developed their own persecuted groups, who were expelled and forced to set up newer settlements.

The origins of the Zoar settlement can be traced back to early nineteenth-century Germany, with the political and religious upheaval caused by the Napoleonic wars. In the Kingson of Wurttemberg the state religion was Lutheran - “State and Church rules intermingled, Church attendance was mandatory, all citizens were required to be baptized, schools were run by the Church, and citizens were forced to pay for a minister they could not choose”

Over time disillusionment with a Church that seemed to be concerned more with its secular role that with the spiritual welfare of its congregation led to the growth of a ‘Pietist’ movement, that laid greater emphasis on the individual worshiper’s direct personal relationship with God. This initially operated as a faction within the established Lutheran church, but increasingly found itself in opposition to it, with members forming ‘Separatist’ communities.

After a number of failed attempts to establish settled communities in Wurttemberg and other parts of Germany, which involved continual harassment and imprisonment by the secular authorities, one group of ‘Separatists’ gained permission to emigrate to America in 1817, where they found a welcome from the Quakers of Philadelphia, who helped them establish themselves in the new land.

One of the original emigrants was Joseph Baumler – later anglicised to ‘Bimeler’ - who bought a tract of land in Ohio, intended as an area for settlement. This caused a rift with the Quakers, who also began to find the ‘Separatists’ were not quite as similar to them in belief and practice as they had first thought. Under the guidance of Joseph Bimeler, they began to raise a new community on the land he had aquired, called Zoar, after the place in the Bible where Lot and his daughters fled after the destruction of Sodom.

The Separatists’ original goal was simply freedom of religion, and they had no distinctive plans for how their community should be organised. The idea of a communal form of living seems to have arisen gradually, partly as a result of the sharing of resources that was forced upon them by the harsh conditions they originally found, with a particularly harsh winter, and partly through contact with existing communalist groups such as the Harmonists, as well as a shared German identity.

The idea of a communal existence was formally established in a series of ‘Articles of Agreement’ which established such principles as “every member does hereby renounce all and every right of ownership of his . . . property and leaves the same to the free disposition of the directors of the Society . . .”

It is not hard to see that this, and other similar clauses giving the ‘Directors’ practically total control of all the property and all the ‘business transactions’ of the community might have been a recipe for corruption and even tyranny. Especially when most of the control was exercised by one man, Joseph Bimeler. However it seems that Bimeler was not only a shrewd manager of the Society’s property and finance, but also a man of remarkable probity, and the affairs of the Society seem to have been run efficiently and honestly until his death in 1853, and his influence continued after that.

One of the doctrinal differences which caused the Quakers to distance themselves from the Separatists was the latter’s insistence on celibacy. However it seems that this might have been an economic necessity as much as a religious edict, attempting to avoid the burden of new mouths to feed during the earliest years of the struggling settlement, as this seems to have been dropped later, when young people would become a resource rather than a burden.

Unlike many other dissenting communities in the USA at this time, the Separatists were only separate in religious matters, and in other respects were open to communication and commerce with other towns and settlements, particularly those with a German background. As Zoar grew it became a prosperous community, selling agricultural produce around the region, and establishing a wood mill, a print-shop, metal workshop and even a hotel and brewery. It was also instrumental in the construction of the Ohio and Erie Canal,with Society members digging a considerable length of it themselves, and establishing wharves for the distribution of agricultural and other goods.

Apart from a few specialist occupations, most of the general work in the community was directed centrally, the members would assemble in the centre of the town to be given their jobs for that day. This was determined by the Directors, and seems to have been generally accepted by the workforce. In later years outside labour was sometimes employed, and this was one of the factors that led to the eventual dissolution of the Society.

For a community which was established for religious reasons, religion seems to have played a remarkably small part in community life. There was a church building, and services were held their regularly, although attendance was almost universal it does not seem to have been compulsory. There were no formal religious ceremonies, even for weddings and funerals, and the services seemed to consist mainly of sermons by Bimeler, Bible readings and hymn singing. Religion, it was assumed was between the individual and God, and needed no third-party mediation.

Nor in later years was the lifestyle overly strict. There were festivals with singing and music, alcohol was permitted, mostly the locally produced beer, and the early prohibition on eating ‘swine’ was quietly dropped at some point. All in all, Zoar seemed to be a well run small community, with just one or two oddities – direction of labour, and largely communal living in dormitories and shared houses, as directed by Bimeler and the Trustees.

Inevitably compromises were forced on the Society from outside. The use of money was banned originally as goods were distributed equally to members by the Trustees, but when outside workers began to be employed it became inevitable that cash was used, but even then, half their wages were paid in credits for buying goods at the Society’s store. The strict rules of pacifism were stretched during the American Civil War, and several young men left to fight in the Union army. Most Society members were able to accept this, in view of the righteousness of the cause.

Using her extensive research into the still-extant records of the Society, and the memoirs of society members, Kathleen Fernandez has been able to build up a detailed picture of life in Zoar, and she gives us a vivid picture of the community, using their own words and records. What emerges is that Zoar is remarkable largely because it is so unremarkable. Unlike many other communitarian endeavours, in America and Europe, it did not descend into any form of extremism, nor did Bimeler’s strong leadership develop into any form of personality cult, Bimeler was a careful, honest administrator, rather than a religious leader. Anybody who wanted to leave the community was free to do so, although they would not be allowed to take any of the common property of the Society with them – a principle which was taken as far the US Supreme Court to establish.

Gradually the town of Zoar, a seemingly idyllic retreat from the world, started to become a tourist attraction. The hotel, originally built to accommodate passing traffic on the Ohio-Eyrie canal, lost its original purpose with the coming of the railroads which drew off its traffic. Rebuilt and extended it provided accommodation for the ever-growing numbers of visitors who just wanted to enjoy what was, even in the late nineteenth century, becoming the old-world charm of the town.

Increasingly young people were leaving the town, and more and more of the routine work was being undertaken by paid workers, not part of the communitarian system. Many Zoarites began to feel that they were being deprived of the ability to own goods and property in their own name, and the religious aspects of the community were less and less important. One visitor observed that most of the religious services were now done by rote – something that had led to the separation from the establishment Lutheran Church in Wurttemberg in the first place.

Eventually the community was formally disbanded, property being auctioned and sold off to residents and outsiders. The Zoar community ceased to exist as an entity in 1898, although many of the residents stayed on, now running their own businesses and owning their own homes. A local historian who visited the community around the time of its dissolution, reported how some of the new property owners felt when he spoke to the wife of the town’s baker, who now owned his own shop and had bought a horse and buggy for themselves “I shall never forget the tone of self satisfaction with which she promptly replied,. - ‘that is OURS – we bought it, isn’t it nice to have your own horse?’”

He continues: “This innate propensity for personal proprietorship is a factor in human nature that the advocates of universal communism fail to properly appreciate or consider”.

Was Zoar a success? It would be hard to deny that in most ways it was. It gave a small exiled community the opportunity to live without fear of harassment, and to practice their religion in the manner they saw fit. It provided a simple but comfortable level of existence in peaceful surroundings. In its early years at least it did have a great degree of ‘purity’ in the way in which it provided for all equally and in common. And even at the end of its formal existence it continued to provide for many of its inhabitants, but as a tourist attraction rather than as a working example of communal economy and living. Much of its success can be traced to the work of Joseph Bimeler, who led as more of an administrator than a prophet.

The town remains much as it was at the time of the Society, with many of the older buildings restored to their original state, and it is preserved by the Ohio Historical Society as an important historical site in the state's history. It is still a popular tourist destination.

So maybe Utopias can be made to work, for a good while at least, so long as they’re not too ‘pure’, and maybe if they have their own brewery! 
  • John Rimmer.

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