Teach PA History
Daily Life in Pennsylvania's Historic Cloistered Religious Communities
Background Information for Teachers

There were more than one hundred utopian communities created in the United States during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. That is, perhaps, not surprising when you consider that America was viewed as the New World, separate and distinct from the Old World. In this new democratic nation religious and political dissidents hoped to find a better way of living and worshiping. Their individualistic approach to communal living ranged from celibacy to group marriages, from private ownership to common ownership. Most existed for only a short time with the homegrown Church of the Latter-Day Saints being the best-known exception. In the case of the Mormons, their continued existence, however, was accompanied by a repudiation of a central belief, polygamy.

America represented fertile ground for the growth of a communal movement because of the comparative lack of traditions or an entrenched hierarchy of authority. In this country there was openness to social innovation that was lacking in Europe. The communal movement represents a strand of American history that is little understood or appreciated. A historian of the this movement, Paul S. Boyer stated that, "From the days of the Puritans to the latest California commune, the impulse to form highly cohesive communities knit together by a common ideology and a shared vision of social harmony has been a constant in American history."

William Penn's "Holy Experiment" and America, in general, beckoned to religious dissenters. Germanic immigrants came to America in three waves. The late seventeenth century migrants settled in the Philadelphia area while the eighteenth century dissidents traveled to south central Pennsylvania; and then beyond. By the nineteenth century most Germanic dissidents went further inland to the Mid-West. In the Informational Handout you will read about those who came to establish religious communities in Pennsylvania in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: German Pietists (the Ephrata Cloister and the Snowhill Community); reform-minded Lutherans (Harmony Society) and the Moravians (Bethlehem).
Information in the backgrounder was taken from: Henry B. Parkes, American Communities, pp. V.-VIII, and Donald E. Pitzer, ed. American Communal Utopias, p. xi.

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