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George Rapp's Harmonists and their Utopia in Indiana

Until the end of the eighteenth century, the region that stretches from the Ohio to the northern Great Lakes was inhabited mainly by tribes of Algonquian Indians, the most significant being the Shawnee, Illinois and Miami. French explorers Jacques Marquette (1637-1675), Louis Jolliet (1645-1700) and René-Robert Cavelier de la Salle (1643-1687) were among the first Europeans to come into contact with these tribes in their home territory. After many voyages of discovery between 1673 and 1687, a growing number of trappers followed in their footsteps, enriching Quebec trading markets with furs and pelts of all kinds. As a result, toward 1731 François-Marie Bissot (better known as François Margane, lord of Vincennes, 1700-1736) commissioned a military fort to be built on the east bank of the Wabash. A few years later, this fort became the center of the first village of non-native Americans in Indiana. Under the directive of governor William Henry Harrison (1773-1841), future president of the United States, Vincennes became the official capital of the Indiana Territory from 1800 to 1813. Harrison put an end to the territorial aspirations of the native population by sending in troops to destroy their villages. He supervised the infamous Battle of Tippecanoe in November 1811 and two years later was responsible for the death of the last great Shawnee chief, Tecumseh (c. 1768-1813). It was during this time of war against Native Americans of the Indiana Territory that German spiritual leader George Rapp decided to build New Harmony. The Harmonists created their new community, starting in 1814, on the east bank of the Wabash River, fifty miles south of Vincennes and fifteen miles north of the confluence of the Wabash and Ohio Rivers. In 1825 Father Rapp sold the entire town to a utopian philosopher: the philanthropist and social reformer Robert Owen.

  • What were George Rapp's religious teachings?

  • Did Robert Owen rename Harmony into New Harmony?

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    Portrait of George Rapp, by Phineas Staunton, Jr.

    Portrait of George Rapp, by Phineas Staunton, Jr. (1836)

    Courtesy of the Old Economy Village Archives in Ambridge


    Old Harmony's 1809 warehouse, photograph by Don Pitzer

    Old Harmony's 1809 warehouse is now a museum.

    Photograph by Donald Pitzer

    George Rapp's Arrival in America

    George Rapp arrived in Philadelphia on October 7, 1803, accompanied by his son and two of his disciples. A year later the first Harmonist families joined them there, and before long they numbered five hundred. Rapp founded a village on the banks of the Connoquenessing Creek, naming the community Harmonie (German spelling). Rapp was strongly influenced by the writings of German mystic Jakob Böhme, author of the concept of "cosmic harmony." Böhme (1575-1624) postulated that, since Adam had been fashioned in the image of God, man originally possessed both masculine and feminine sides; only after Eve's creation were the sexes separated. This physical division, symbolized according to Böhme by Adam's fall from grace, was disastrous for the internal harmony of men and women, because it distanced them from divine perfection and kept mankind from resembling its Creator. However, by remaining chaste, one could return to this state of cosmic harmony and once again reflect the full beauty of God's image.

    Father Rapp did not merely popularize Böhme's teachings, he lived them. He and his wife decided to practice sexual abstinence following the birth of their last child in 1786. From 1807 onward, this way of living was required of all Pennsylvania Harmonists, who also had to agree to put in common all their possessions, thus conforming their religious practice to what was written in the Acts of the Apostles 2:42-47 and 4:32-37. They signed their first charter of association on February 15, 1805, transferring their property to the collectivity. Rapp preached the imminent return of Christ on earth. He considered Napoleon Bonaparte's ascendancy and the turbulent historic events of his era to be incontestable proof that the biblical prophecies about the Kingdom of God (notably in Daniel and the Book of Revelation) were coming to pass.

    In 1813, however, Christ's Thousand-Year Reign, which was to commence with God's physical interference in human affairs, had obviously not begun. Waiting for Christ's Advent, the Harmonists had created their own paradise on earth; a prosperous commune where nothing was lacking. Rapp believed that their lives were too easy, and he feared this endangered their spirituality. The Harmonist leader decided to act and found land in the southernmost point of Indiana. This second village would also be called Harmonie, even though the inhabitants regularly referred to it as Neu Harmonie.

    Quoted from B. R. Rinsma, Eyewitness to Utopia: Scientific Conquest and Communal Settlement in C.-A. Lesueur's Sketches of the Frontier, 50-51.

    From New Harmony to Economy

    The Harmonist sect is a prime example of early-nineteenth-century millennial fervor where apocalyptic prophecy spurred believers to take action. Owen often referred to the Harmonists to illustrate his theories. The Harmonists took up residence in the United States starting in 1803, living in the self-built villages of Harmony, Pennsylvania, from 1804 to 1813, and New Harmony, Indiana, from August 1814 till the spring of 1825. By the beginning of 1815 the entire congregation had moved to the banks of the Wabash, but in 1817 and 1818 they faced an influx of immigrants from Württemberg (Germany) who did not want to follow the strict rules of Father Rapp regarding sexual abstinence, marriage and children. "Christian perfection" (i.e. prohibition of sexual intercourse) was very unpopular with them, and this created tension in the community.

    Several marriages had to be conducted between 1818 and 1821, and Rapp felt his theocratic powers were at stake. He therefore decreed that the new arrivals would not be entitled to any share of the community treasury if they departed. The sect had become very wealthy, notably through the collaboration with other communes, in particular the Shakers of West Union, north of Vincennes. When the Harmonists could not manufacture certain products themselves, they procured them from another cooperative village rather than having to deal with secular businesses.

    After building New Harmony, where leisure and cultural activities became increasingly important, Rapp decided yet again to move. He sold New Harmony to Robert Owen in 1825 and founded Economy on the Ohio River in Beaver County, fifteen miles north of Pittsburgh. The name Economy alluded to the new world order where an economy of divine origin would prevent all forms of injustice and waste. The name also reflected the growing Harmonist emphasis on the success of their business enterprises. Silk production became primary and even gained a national reputation.

    Quoted from Rinsma, Eyewitness to Utopia, 202.

    The Harmonists' Community of Property

    From 1807 onward, all Harmonists had to agree to put in common their possessions, thus conforming their religious practice to what was written in the Acts of the Apostles 2:42-47 and 4:32-37. They signed their first charter of association on February 15, 1805, transferring their property to the collectivity. The Harmonists' economic system was based on shared ownership of the means of production. In addition to the Bible and the writings of Böhme, Rapp gleaned some of his ideas from the work of German social reformer Johann Valentin Andreae (1586-1654), whose principal book Christianopolis, published in Latin in 1619 and in German in 1741, described an imaginary Christian republic where apostolic communism was put into practice. Rapp applied Andreae's precepts to his own society, teaching that God's intention had always been for man to live in a commune where ownership of goods was shared. According to Rapp, Adam's sin symbolized selfish individual property, a terrible miscarriage of the Creator's lofty design.

    Did Robert Owen Rename Harmony
    into New Harmony?

    Based on the research of Karl Arndt, Josephine Elliott clarified the history of the town's name. Some scholars advance that New Harmony had originally been called Harmonie by the Harmonists and renamed New Harmony by Robert Owen. This is not true. Harmonie was the name of the first Harmonist settlement in Pennsylvania, and the Harmonists gave the same name to their second settlement in Indiana. However, in their correspondence, the adjective Neu was added to Harmonie as early as 1814. Consequently, even before Robert Owen became owner of the community, Donald Macdonald, in his travel journal, spoke of "New Harmony" as well as the "Town of Harmony" and "Harmony," which confirms that in 1824 both names coexisted. Owen's utopians also used the names "Harmony" and "New Harmony" indifferently after 1825. The community officially became New Harmony when the United States Post Office registered it under this name on May 19, 1830.

    Quoted from Rinsma, Eyewitness to Utopia, 53, 389n47.


    New Harmony's log cabins, photograph by Ritsert Rinsma

    New Harmony's log cabins

    Photograph by Ritsert Rinsma

    The Schism of 1832

    Father Rapp announced that the period of three-and- a-half times of the "woman clothed with the sun," [Lutheran translation] of Revelation 12:1-14, would end on September 15, 1829, ushering in Christ's Millennium. Nothing happened that day, and the congregation was despondent. Rapp's credibility was at its lowest point when he received a letter from Germany announcing the arrival of the Messiah, reincarnated in a man called Bernhard Müller, the illegitimate son of Baron Dalberg of Aschaffenburg. Müller took on the titles of "Count de Léon" and the "Lion of Judah." When he arrived at Economy on October 18, 1831, Rapp proudly introduced him to the faithful, for Müller also asserted that he had found the Philosopher's Stone. Soon he became too popular for Rapp, who concluded, in early 1832, that the young man was in fact not a reincarnation of Christ. Consequently, Rapp asked Müller to leave and handed him a bill for food and lodging. In the spring of that year, the community split up when two hundred fifty-six Harmonists, out of a total of seven hundred seventy-one, chose to follow the Count de Léon and headed to nearby Phillipsburg (currently Monaca, Beaver County) to found the New Philadelphia Society. Harmonist historian Karl Arndt declared that although the Harmony Society lasted for another seventy-four years, the schism of 1832 marked the beginning of its decline.

    Maclure and Lesueur's Visit to Economy

    William Maclure and Charles-Alexandre Lesueur visited Economy at an early stage in its development. George Rapp received them in a temporary dwelling, a frame house with a balcony and a porch. There is no trace of any of their discussions, but on occasion the Harmonist leader would talk about the difficulties the sect had encountered while building Harmony, New Harmony and Economy, and how Divine Providence had allowed him to overcome all the problems. In the evening, he would invite his guests to listen to music. Rapp's granddaughter Gertrude played the piano to perfection and often accompanied a choir of young sisters singing religious hymns. Lesueur and Maclure might even have enjoyed a concert by Christopher Müller's fourteen-person orchestra on the evening of December 9, 1825. The next day Lesueur drew a panoramic view of the southwestern and northwestern parts of the town from the intersection of Merchant and Fourteenth Streets, where the Harmonist tavern was located. In a letter dated December 29, 1825, Maclure imparted his positive impression to their Quaker friend Reuben Haines in Philadelphia:

    "I'm much pleased with the comparison of the great mass of Labor on this side and yours of the Aligany [sic] and am astonished at the superiority to anything you have in the Eastern states. It is the first time I have witnessed anything like real independence and freedom arising out of a state of equality in practice. […] In coming here we stopped a day at the town of Economy built by the antient [sic] constructors of Harmony and were delighted to find the immense advantages of physical union where the one-half of the Bipeds were not occupied as in the individual system in counteracting and ruining the work of the other; [delighted also] to find a large town for the lodging of 7 or 800, a large tavern for the accommodation of 30 strangers, pallaces [sic] for Rap[p] and his family, a large woolen & cotton manufactory, dye houses && drove by a steam engine, all started into existence in less than 12 months by the union and Harmony of more physical interest. For the poor Germans, tho[ugh] much improved, do not understand the effect of a moral stimulant or the superior enjoyment of intellectual or moral gratification. It is a happy aug[u]r of what can be done when all the moral, intellectual & physical powers are united in a harmonious cooperation for the diffusion of the greatest quantum of Happiness humanity is cappable [sic] of enjoying."

    Quoted from Rinsma, Eyewitness to Utopia, 209, 212-13.




    Old Economy Village industrial quarter, photograph by Ritsert Rinsma

    Economy's industrial quarter

    Photograph by Ritsert Rinsma

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