Visions of Harmony

Millenarianism has a long history. The term derives from biblical prophecy. The Book of Revelation speaks of a thousand-year period between Christ’s Second Coming and the Last Judgment. During this period, known as the millennium, Christ Himself will reign over the Earth. In the days of the early Church, many Christians believed that Christ’s return was imminent, that the millennium was at hand. In the centuries since that time, this sense of intense expectation has waxed and waned, but there has never been a period entirely lacking in it. The promise of the millennium has nourished earthly hopes as well, as Norman Cohn has shown in his classic study The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (3rd ed. 1970). In contrast to the orthodox Christian emphasis on the afterlife and individual salvation, millenarian sects have typically sought perfection in this world and have seen salvation as collective; many such groups have formed communities in isolation from both the corrupt Church (as they regard it) and the unbelieving world.

Millenarian sects flourished in the nineteenth century, particularly in the United States, attracted by the vastness of the land and the relatively high degree of religious toleration. Some of these groups were millenarian in the strict sense of the term—that is, their way of life was based on biblical prophecy, however idiosyncratically interpreted. Others, such as the Fourierist phalansteries, were guided by freethinkers hostile to Christianity—for the most part deists or pantheists; explicit atheism was rare. Whatever their religious orientation, these latter groups shared the emphasis on community and the utopian vision characteristic of millenarianism.

Both of these strands are prominent in Visions of Harmony: A Study in Nineteenth-Century Millenarianism. Anne Taylor’s delightful book is narrative history at its best. The focus of her meticulously researched study is the utopian community of Harmony, on the Wabash River in Indiana. She recounts the founding of the community by a group of German immigrants and its eventual sale to the social reformer Robert Owen; Owen’s grandiose plans for the community, impossible to fulfill; and the aftermath of that failure. Those, however, are but the bare bones of Taylor’s narrative, which is peopled with all manner of striking characters and enlivened by curious events that a novelist might well covet but would hesitate to steal: They are too improbable for fiction. Taylor’s style, distinctively British, is direct, understated, and witty. She eschews theorizing, preferring to tell a story.

The story begins in Swabia, a province in southern Germany, late in the eighteenth century. In part 1 of her narrative, “The Prophet of Iptingen,” Taylor introduces George Rapp, born in 1757, the son of a farmer. Württemberg, the area of Swabia in which Rapp was reared, did not have enough work or enough arable land to support its populace. There was discontent in the entire region, where millenarian fervor traditionally was strong. Rapp, who became a journeyman weaver, was himself afflicted by a kind of unrest. After a decisive spiritual experience in his late twenties, he rapidly grew in stature as a lay preacher—and came into conflict with the Lutheran Church.

Rapp claimed to have experienced a special indwelling of Christ. He scorned the practices of the official Church and urged his followers to keep themselves separate. He preached that the Second Coming was imminent. In one important respect, his teaching was clearly heretical. Influenced by the writings of the seventeenth century mystic Jacob Boehme, Rapp believed that it was possible for himself and his followers to achieve the prelapsarian innocence of Adam in the Garden of Eden, and thus escape the consequences of Original Sin.

Rapp’s conflict with the Lutheran Church intensified in the first years of the new century. In 1803, he traveled to the United States, looking for a place to settle. In the following year, fourteen hundred of his followers, led by his son Frederick, made the arduous journey from Germany to western Pennsylvania, where Rapp founded his first...

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Listener. CXVIII, August 13, 1987, p. 19.

London Review of Books. IX, October 15, 1987, p. 17.