View from Nauvoo from across the Mississippi River

Library of Congress


Community Ideal

Visiting the sites of two 19th-century utopian experiments in the American Midwest.
[Editor’s Note: Over the course of 2022 and 2023, New American History Executive Director Ed Ayers is visiting places where significant history happened, and exploring what has happened to that history since. He is focusing on the decades between 1800 and 1860, filing dispatches about the stories being told at sites both famous and forgotten. This is the 14th installment in the series.]

In the 1820s, the wealthy Welsh mill-owner Robert Owen spoke before Congress and won the endorsement of past U.S. presidents as he prepared to launch an ideal community on the frontier of Indiana. It was called New Harmony, and it was structured around values of gender equality, shared labor, and innovative education. Fifteen years later, the charismatic Prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith, established a safe haven for his growing community on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River. Smith’s city of Nauvoo in Illinois grew faster than an upstart rival to the north — a place called Chicago — but in 1844 Smith was killed by a mob outraged by his introduction of polygamy into the doctrines and practices of the church.

Today, New Harmony and Nauvoo are barely visible on maps. But at the time of their inception, both places embodied visions of an America far different from what was taking shape around them. While other Americans celebrated private ambition and competition, New Harmony celebrated shared labor and common purpose. While others promoted religious diversity, Nauvoo was based on a prophetic vision of exclusive eternal salvation that included the symbolic baptism of ancestors and the “sealing” of women to elders of the church. In their time, both communities attracted great attention.

Arriving in New Harmony in a downpour, Abby and I found our way to Community Building №2, where tours began. Drenched, we were the only visitors. A young man, recently graduated from a local college with a degree in archaeology, led us on a tour of the large building, first constructed in the 1820s by German immigrants in pursuit of a religious vision in a place they called Harmonie. They had come to America more than a decade earlier to create an ideal community in preparation for the imminent return of Jesus Christ. The group, known as Rappites, had flourished in western Pennsylvania but moved to the banks of the Wabash River to escape persecution from neighbors suspicious of their unorthodox beliefs. Skilled furniture makers, the Rappites found that the forests of southwestern Indiana provided limitless supplies of wood for chairs, benches, and tables. Others in the community wove fine cloth, ground meal, brewed beer, and produced large crops.

In Harmonie, the Rappites erected more than 175 buildings in just a few years, including large dormitories and communal kitchens. They sang and played music as they worked in the fields, and planted elaborate labyrinths of native trees and plants to signify the circuitous search for truth. They stopped bearing children in anticipation of the coming Millennium, focusing instead on earning money to travel to Jerusalem for Christ’s arrival. Though they flourished in Harmonie and shipped boatloads of goods down the Wabash and Ohio Rivers to the Mississippi and on to New Orleans, the Rappites grew dissatisfied with their isolation from markets. Their leaders decided they would return to Pennsylvania to build yet another new community — named Economy — near Pittsburgh.

Robert Owen, a self-made textile manufacturer in Scotland who showed an unfashionable concern for the people who worked for him, sold his successful factories to pay $250,000 — an enormous sum — for the Rappites’ ready-built community on the American frontier. Owen expected to find the freedom to try new ideas in the United States. He welcomed all who would endorse the principles of shared labor, free speech, and equality between men and women. He allied himself with men who believed in secular education based on experiment rather than on dogma. He welcomed scientists to collect and catalog the plants and animals of the region. Some made the trip from Pittsburgh in a river vessel Owen referred to as a “boat load of knowledge” that carried “more learning than ever was contained in a boat.”

Panel at Historic New Harmony’s Atheneum [Image: Abby Ayers]

Owen’s dreams did not long survive. He later admitted that he had not selected residents of New Harmony wisely or with care. Unlike the Rappites, the residents of New Harmony did not embody a set of coordinated skills nor a commitment to shared purpose. Owen spent much of his time away from the community, spreading his vision of universal progress rather than overseeing the place in which he had invested so much. New arrivals to Owen’s community began to leave almost as soon as they arrived, tempted by the rich farmland and booming towns surrounding them. The community went bankrupt, sold off in pieces.

New Harmony’s enduring legacy, it turned out, was carried by an early partner of Owen’s, William Maclure. Maclure traveled to New Harmony in the boat of knowledge, The Philanthropist. Maclure, a Scotsman, had moved to the United States as a teenager and flourished. In New Harmony, he envisioned building a Working Men’s Institute, where those who labored during the day could in the evenings improve themselves with books, paintings, and practical inquiry. Maclure’s example spread throughout the Midwest, inspiring more than a hundred other institutes. In New Harmony, the Institute remains an impressive structure, a monument to the ideals of adult education. The second floor of the building is a light-filled space where skeletons and shells of specimens, gathered long ago, rest in glass cases, carefully labeled for the edification of all with the curiosity to learn. Volunteers sustain the Institute’s programs in New Harmony.

Exhibits at the Working Men’s Institute [Image: Abby Ayers]

The young man who served as our guide in New Harmony told us that virtually no one who visits the town today knows much about its origins or evolution. Many visitors are drawn instead by a striking structure known as the Roofless Church. It is an inspiring, open-air sanctuary and garden, devoted to all religions, designed by the famous architect Philip Johnson in 1960 for a descendant of Robert Owen, and now a popular site for weddings. Abby and I admired the Roofless Church and then visited the Labyrinth, where privet hedges have replaced the dogwoods and flowers of the original. We enjoyed a beer brewed from the recipes of the Rappites at a small restaurant adjacent to Community Building №2, where people once imagined an America quite unlike the one that grew so rapidly around them.

New Harmony’s Cathedral Labyrinth, 1965 [Indiana State Library and Historical Bureau]

Nauvoo, Illinois, about 300 miles away, contrasts in almost every way with New Harmony. Instead of a cozy town of shops and gardens, Nauvoo is large and largely empty. Its straight streets and scattered neat houses, many of them rebuilt in recent years, are intended to look as they did in the early 1840s, when Nauvoo promised a safe and prosperous haven for Latter-day Saints fleeing persecution in Missouri.

Nauvoo, Illinois [Image: Abby Ayers]

The brochures, programs, tours, and signs in Nauvoo are oriented to members of the LDS church. Interpreters are dressed in period costumes to demonstrate crafts and embody specific figures from the era. We enjoyed a spirited program of young men singing songs about the Mormon experience in Nauvoo. They were excellent singers, their jokes appropriate for all ages. Some of the scriptural references weren’t familiar to us, but the rest of the audience, arrayed on benches under a tree, seemed to understand and appreciate the allusions. Their presentation was light-hearted, presenting a prayer in the form of a barbershop quartet.

Nauvoo singers [Image: Abby Ayers]

The wholesome atmosphere of Nauvoo helps lighten the burden of Smith’s martyrdom. Walking the grid of streets separated by expanses of grass, it was possible to imagine Smith’s vision of an ideal religious community. The imagined city promised not only the world’s salvation but also local political and economic power. Neighbors and government leaders in the state saw danger in the community’s concentrated votes and financial might under Smith’s prophetic leadership. Smith, hearing the threats and warnings from outsiders, projected hope to his followers, but he worried that his people would not be able to remain in Nauvoo, that other Americans would not tolerate such a powerful place in their midst.

A large statue erected in 2003 depicts two young men on horseback speaking to one another before “The Prophet’s Last Ride.” The plaque on the base explains the statue’s meaning:

On the morning of June 24, 1844, Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum left their families, homes, and fellow Saints for the last time. Traveling on horseback, they paused on this bluff. Joseph looked admiringly at the unfinished temple and the city of Nauvoo and declared: “This is the loveliest place and the best people under the heavens; little do they know the trials that await them.” Joseph and Hyrum continued on to Carthage, Illinois, where they faced legal charges and eventual death at the hands of a mob.

The Smith brothers were killed by men in blackface shooting into the jail where they were being held, supposedly for their own safety.

“The Prophet’s Last Ride” statue, Nauvoo, IL [Image: Abby Ayers]

Before his murder, Smith had already begun to speak of building a new city beyond the border of the United States, far to the west, where the people of his church might finally be safe. Upon Smith’s death, Brigham Young and other elders began a fabled migration that would take them to the Great Salt Lake and then to destinations around the world. Visitors to Nauvoo can visit replicas of the shops where blacksmiths and carpenters built the wagons for the journey, walk the road on which the Saints departed Nauvoo, and read signs that bear the words of worry and hope men and women recorded in their diaries and letters.

Both New Harmony and Nauvoo testify to a time when the script of American history remained unwritten. New Harmony embodied a secular vision that placed its faith in science, education, and cooperation. The plan did not come to fruition, ironically, because its founders did not employ those tools to build a strong practical foundation. The memory of New Harmony faded because the community left no one to sustain the founders’ vision.

Nauvoo, by contrast, was abandoned because it succeeded too well, and because it threatened those who did not belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The collaborative labor of the Saints launched, in just a few years, an impressive city where none had been before. Unified by a shared faith and a charismatic leader, the residents of Nauvoo promised to build a site that would attract people from around the world. With their leader assassinated, though, and the power of vigilantes and of the government arrayed against them, the men, women, and children of the community left their nascent city behind. Today, it has become a shrine, a place to remember the trials of the founding generation of a church that has grown into a global presence.