Place  /  Dispatch

This Small Indiana Town is a Hotbed of Utopianism

New Harmony has attracted eccentric spiritual groups, social reformers, intellectuals, and artists.
Modern building on a grassy lawn
Library of Congress.

From the early 19th century until today, New Harmony has attracted people who go against society’s grain. First, religious separatists who dedicated their lives to God and preparations for the second coming of Christ, then secular reformers who believed a society based on equality and intellectual pursuits would lead to a better world for everyone. While these experimental communities failed, some of their utopian philosophies are still very much alive among New Harmony’s present-day artistic patrons.

But like many small towns, New Harmony is also experiencing depopulation. Flower came to the community not as a tourist, but to scout the area with the goal of recruiting performing artists to live and work there. The question remains: Can New Harmony thrive while retaining a connection to its utopian roots?


New Harmony’s story begins in Germany, with a religious group called the Harmony Society, or the Rappites. Led by Johann Georg Rapp, the Harmonists believed that the second coming of Christ would occur during their lifetimes. They practiced a branch of Christianity known as perfectionism—the same belief system that inspired the Oneida Community of John Humphrey Noyes—and aspired to lead a morally upstanding, sin-free life that would eventually grant them entry to Christ’s kingdom.

“The religious separatists who want to create a more perfect society, led by a charismatic leader, that’s the Rappites,” says Susannah Koerber, chief curator and research officer of the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites.

Seeking freedom from religious persecution in Lutheran Germany, the Harmonists arrived in Pennsylvania in 1803. They bought 3,000 acres of land outside of Pittsburgh and named their colony Harmony. In 1805, they established the Harmony Society by signing articles of association that formally established their group in the U.S. and outlined the community’s rules, like holding all property in common and guaranteeing a lifetime of care to members.

By 1814, the Harmonists grew to 700 members and had constructed 130 buildings, including factories, an inn, a tannery, a brewery, schools, a labyrinth, houses, and more. They were hardworking, industrious, and skilled in manufacturing, construction, and agriculture. Their textiles and woolens were highly sought-after goods. The Harmonists were also economically successful as a group.

“Even though the Rappites are separating themselves in society, they’re eager to learn new technology, new production techniques,” Koerber explains. “They’re interested in becoming self-sufficient, prosperous communities.”

While the Harmonists’ village was successful, outsiders were suspicious, so Rapp decided to relocate his group farther west—to 3,500 acres in southern Indiana alongside the Wabash River—where he had room to grow and his followers could live without hostile neighbors.