Protestant Communalism in the Trans-Atlantic World, 1650-1850

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Editor(s): 
Philip Lockley
Christianities in the Trans-Atlantic World
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , May
     2017.
     230 pages.
     $99.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781137484864.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Over the last several decades quite a bit has been written about early American settlement communes, groups with roots in Europe that flourished in the new world. One underlying assumption has often been that the distinctive conditions of the new land in its years of early expansion (cheap land, religious freedom, isolated locales that could insulate a group from its critics) were key factors in the immigrant communes’ success. Protestant Communalism in the Trans-Atlantic World turns that assumption on its head, exploring in considerable detail the Europeanness of the communal experiments. More than any work heretofore, this one limns not just the American development of the communes but also their European origins and continuing links with Europe and European influence (through new recruits who came over from Europe, for example).

Following an introduction, in chapter 2, editor Philip Lockley provides an excellent overview of immigrant colonies during the time period in question. Then we turn to chapters on some of the most visible of the communes: Ephrata, the Shakers, the Harmony Society, the Community of True Inspiration (Eben-Ezer and the Amana Colonies), and the Mormons. Lockley finishes the volume with a chapter on the influence of these early communities on American and European secular socialism in the nineteenth century.

The book succeeds in large part because of its roster of authors. Jeff Bach, Christian Goodwillie, Hermann Ehmer, Peter Hoehnle, and Matthew Grow and Bradley Kime are all top experts on Ephrata, the Shakers, the Harmonists, the Inspirationists, and the Mormons respectively. Lockley is easily their equal in his chapters that bookend the volume. The chapters are meticulously researched and skillfully written. For readers like me, who are familiar with the American side of the story but less so with the its European origins and development, the book is a valuable resource and not merely a retelling of well-known narratives.

There is something of an anomaly in the book in its inclusion of a chapter on the Mormons. All of the other chapters fit the time frame of the book properly, with American founding dates ranging from 1732 to 1843. The Mormons, founded in the United States and having different kinds of connections to Europe than the other communities had, present a story unlike those of the others. The interest of their founder, Joseph Smith, Jr., in communitarian activities seems to have begun in 1831, with the conversion of an existing communal group to the Latter Day Saint faith. With that, some cooperative projects were initiated, but those projects were more like mutual-aid societies than like the villages of Shakers and Harmonists and their kin. The more seriously communal undertakings in the LDS church all date to after 1850. And the chapter  on Mormonism does not recognize the LDS-based communalism that did precede that cutoff date. After the murder of founder Smith in 1844 there was a leadership struggle, and several would-be heads of the churc—James Strang, Alpheus Cutler, Lyman Wight, and others—started their own LDS churches entirely separate from the larger one that came to be headed by Brigham Young. In several cases their adherents took up communal living, typically founding their own villages. One might argue that those groups at least deserve mention as early attempts to put the communitarian ideas of Joseph Smith into practice.

One might wish other early American communities could have received the same expert treatment that the ones treated in this volume did. Full chapters on the Zoar Separatists, the Moravians, the Labadists, and the Woman in the Wilderness, among others, would be welcome. But authors and editors must set boundaries, and what is included here is excellent scholarship, skillfully presented. All in all, Protestant Communalism in the Trans-Atlantic World does an admirable job.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Timothy Miller is professor of religious studies at the University of Kansas.

Date of Review: 
September 19, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Philip Lockley has taught history and theology at the University of Oxford, where he has been British Academy postdoctoral fellow in the faculty of theology and religion, and college lecturer in theology, Trinity College, Oxford.

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