Utopian Movements

List of Major Utopian Movements in American History

In the first part of the 19th century, more than 100,000 individuals formed Utopian communities in an effort to create perfect societies. The idea of a perfect society intertwined with communalism can be traced back to Plato's Republic, the book of Acts in the New Testament, and the works of Sir Thomas More. The years 1820 to 1860 saw the heyday of this movement with the creation of numerous communities. Following is a look at the five major Utopian communities that were created.

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Mormons

Joseph Smith, Jr. - Religious leader and founder of Mormonism and the Latter Day Saint movement.
Joseph Smith, Jr. - Religious leader and founder of Mormonism and the Latter Day Saint movement. Public Domain

The Church of the Latter Day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church, was founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith. Smith claimed that God had led him to a new set of scriptures called the Book of Mormon. Further, Smith espoused polygamy as part of his utopian society. Smith and his followers were persecuted in Ohio and the midwest. In 1844, a mob murdered Smith and his brother Hyrum in Illinois. His follower named Brigham Young led the followers of Mormonism west and founded Utah. Utah became a state in 1896, only when the Mormons agreed to stop the practice of polygamy.

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Oneida Community

Mansion House Oneida Community
Mansion House Oneida Community. Public Domain
Begun by John Humphrey Noyes, this community was located in upstate New York. It came into being in 1848. The Oneida Community practiced communism. The group practiced what Noyes called "Complex Marriage," a form of free love where every man was married to every woman and vice versa. Exclusive attachments were forbidden. Further, birth control was practiced by a form of "Male Continence." While members could engage in sex, the man was forbidden to ejaculate. Finally, they practiced "Mutual Criticism" where they would each be subjected to criticism by the community, except for Noyes that is. The community fell apart when Noyes tried to hand off the leadership.

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The Shaker Movement

Shaker community going to dinner, each carrying their own Shaker chair. Mount Lebanon Community, New York State. From The Graphic, London, 1870.
Shaker community going to dinner, each carrying their own Shaker chair. Mount Lebanon Community, New York State. From The Graphic, London, 1870. Getty Images / Hulton Archive

This movement, also known as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing was located in several states and was very popular, include thousands of members at one point. It began in England in 1747 and was led by Ann Lee, also known as "Mother Ann." Lee moved with her followers to America in 1774, and the community quickly grew. Strict Shakers believed in absolute celibacy. Eventually, the numbers dwindled until the most recent figure is that there are three shakers left today. Today, you can learn about the past of the Shaker movement at locations like the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in Harrodsburg, Kentucky which has been turned into a living history museum. Furniture made in the Shaker style is also highly sought by many.

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New Harmony

New Harmony Community as Envisioned by Robert Owen
New Harmony Community as Envisioned by Robert Owen. Public Domain

This community numbered around 1,000 individuals in Indiana. In 1824, Robert Owen purchased land from another Utopian group called the Rappites, in New Harmony, Indiana. Owen believed that the best way to influence individual behavior was through the proper environment. He did not base his ideas on religion, believing it to be ridiculous, though he did espouse spiritualism later in his life. The group believed in communal living and progressive systems of education. They also believed in equality of the sexes. However, the community lasted less than three years, lacking strong central beliefs.

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Brook Farm

George Ripley, Founder of Brook Farm
George Ripley, Founder of Brook Farm. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, cph.3c10182.

This Utopian community was located in Massachusetts and could trace its ties to transcendentalism. It was founded by George Ripley in 1841. It espoused harmony with nature, communal living and hard work. Major transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson supported the community, but did not choose to join it. However, it collapsed in 1846 after a huge fire destroyed a large building that was uninsured. The Farm could not continue. Despite its short life, Brooks Farm was influential in fights for abolition, womens rights, and labor rights.