The urge to retreat from the larger world and build an ideal society in the wilderness is a perennial human impulse. From the Pilgrims to the Hippies, American history has periodically produced groups that try to create these utopian communities. Their efforts almost always end in disarray and conflict, but often very interesting things happen along the way.
So it was in New Harmony, Indiana, a charming little town on the bank of the Wabash River that has the unusual distinction of having been home to two of these pie-in-the-sky, utopian communities. Both have long disbanded, but something of their spirit remains in the appropriately named New Harmony.
The town was founded in 1814 by the Harmonie Society, a group of Pietists who had fled religious persecution in their native Germany to settle in Pennsylvania. After a decade in the East they wanted an even more remote location for their community and bought 20,000 acres of swampy land on what was then the sparsely populated frontier of the Indiana Territory. With typical German industriousness they went to work, draining the wetlands and building nearly 200 log and brick structures. Soon the self-sufficient community was producing highly prized textiles and other goods that were sold as far away as Europe.
While they were practical in their work habits, their theology was mighty peculiar. They believed that the Second Coming of Christ was due any day and required members to abstain from sex and give up tobacco (no record of which was harder). But the isolation of the area eventually weighed on them, and after ten years the entire town was put up for sale as the group made plans to return to Pennsylvania.
The next strange chapter in New Harmony history brings to mind the old adage attributed to Frederick of Prussia: “If I wished to punish a province,” he said, “I would have it governed by philosophers.”
In 1824, a wealthy, Welsh-born industrialist named Robert Owen bought the settlement to establish his own utopian society, which he called New Harmony. While the first group was Christian in its basic theology, Owen’s community was founded upon an equally passionate commitment to social equality, progressive education and scientific research. He believed that the three greatest evils in society were the institution of marriage, private property and the established church of his day. He also had strong views on education, believing that children should be taken from their parents at the age of two and put into school. New Harmony would be an ideal place to put these philosophical ideas to the test.
His partner in these efforts was William Maclure, who was both a wealthy businessman and a well-known geologist. Maclure’s scientific reputation helped lure internationally known scholars and educators to the new colony, including American naturalist Thomas Say; French naturalist Charles-Alexandre Lesueur; educators Joseph Neef, Phiquepal d’Arusmont, and Madame Marie Duclos Fretageot; Dutch geologist Gerard Troost; and Frances Wright, a Scots-born early feminist.
Picture it: this small town in the middle of nowhere became a cultured and intellectual haven with a progressive educational system, a lively scientific community, and frequent lectures, balls, and concerts. It’s really quite remarkable.
And then, inevitably, the entire enterprise failed, just two years after it began. Owen was a great theorizer but a poor planner, and the scientists and educators in the community turned out to be pretty clueless when it came to practical matters like growing crops. The settlement was also riven by personal conflicts between its members (one guesses that all those large egos tended to bump into each other in the small confines of the village).
Arguably the most abiding influence of Owen’s experimental community came through his children. His oldest son, Robert Dale, was a U.S. Representative who helped establish the Smithsonian Institution. His brother David Dale became the chief geologist for the U.S. government. Youngest son Richard was a professor of natural sciences at Indiana University and became the first president of Purdue University. Clearly they had learned something from their visionary father.
Even after Owen’s community disbanded, some members stayed on in New Harmony, helping shape the town in unusual ways. Scientific research continued to flourish here, particularly in the field of geology, and the town kept its strong support for the arts and education. And New Harmony has yet another spiritual connection, for the ashes of the renowned philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich are interred in Tillich Park on the edge of the historic district (maybe it’s something in the water here).
All of this history was on our minds as my husband and I wandered the tree-lined streets of New Harmony on a warm and sunny day in May. Near the river, we walked amid the re-built log buildings of the original settlement, delighting in its pocket gardens and flowering bushes. With just 915 residents, New Harmony is a still a quiet and peaceful corner of the world—when people give directions here, for example, they always begin by referencing the one blinking stoplight in the center of town.
The historic district is interspersed with newer structures and an abundance of public art. A modernist-style visitor center has won a number of architectural awards (though in my opinion it seems out of place in this quiet village). The Roofless Church was designed by architect Philip Johnson and built in 1960. It has an interior of grass, walls of brick, and an open space where the roof would normally be. Maintained by the Episcopal Diocese of Indiana, it’s a popular site for weddings and ceremonies.
But the most wonderful part of New Harmony are its two labyrinths (what is it about this place that they need to do everything twice?). A labyrinth, as you may know, is different from a maze. While a maze is designed to confuse, a labyrinth has a single, winding path to its center and is meant to mirror the inner pilgrimage of the soul. The original Harmonists built labyrinths in each of the towns they occupied. The one pictured below was re-created in 1939 from a design dating back to the early years of the colony. Made of hedges, its center has a small temple adorned with philosophical sayings, including “A harmonious and united society of man may be said to be a kingdom of God,” and “The golden treasure of this world to those who know how to preserve it, is Friendship.”
It’s the second labyrinth that impressed me the most. I’ve seen many labyrinths around the world, but I think this one is the most beautiful. Bordered on one side by tall trees and on the other by the Wabash River, it is made of polished marble, dappled by sunlight by day and moonlight at night. I walked it at dusk, serenaded by birds as twilight fell. As I slowly paced its twists and turns, I could see why this place—remote and serene, with air that somehow seems more rarefied than that of the larger world—has drawn dreamers and idealists for so many years. This is still a place for spiritual renewal.