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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM

A Moderate Utopia

Noah Symynkywicz, June 6, 2010

            It is a privilege to be presenting my work to you today. As my father before me, I have a thirst for history that can only be satisfied through contemplation and seeking. For the past year or so, I have been on a fascinating journey learning about 19th century utopian communities in the United States. While at times the journey has been, for lack of a better term, boring, it has ultimately been a rewarding experience.


            I first started learning about utopian communities in my 19th Century Reform Movements seminar at Providence College. As other historians have defined them, utopian communities were societies founded by idealistic reformers who wanted to change the world around them. They were radical in that they disconnected themselves from the outside world, and attempted to make members adhere to their standards of morality. The common trend among utopian communities was to enter at least semi- isolated areas and form communalistic villages in which members lived. Utopians left mainstream society because they felt that it corrupted humans or promoted evil. For many of these reform minded individuals, the capitalistic structure of the United States during the late 18th and 19th centuries was a major problem. They felt as though it promoted greed and turned a man into a beast of labor. Many utopians created a communalistic system. In this communalistic system, wealth was shared among members. Groups like the Shakers shared wealth and enforced strict mores. What was permissible, and what was not permissible, was not a subject of debate. You either adhered to the standards of the commune or faced banishment. Utopians were perfectionists. They wanted every level of human life to become perfect, and this required total isolation from mainstream American society.


             While reading about various utopian communities, I stumbled upon Hopedale, which was founded by a group of Universalists. Remembering my roots within this parish, I was drawn in by this utopian community. I found that Hopedale and 19th century universalism has much to tell us today.


            Hopedale was founded as a manufacturing and agricultural community in 1842 by a group calling itself the Practical Christians. To speak of “practical” utopias might seem something of an oxymoron. The Practical Christians believed that in their attempt to attain a perfect society, they did not have to stray too far from nineteenth century conventions. While the members of Hopedale tried to reduce the competitive spirit of American capitalism, they also tried to create a moderate organization that balanced both personal responsibility and equality. Instead of embracing any form of “socialism,” or total “communalism” the members of Hopedale looked to a humane form of capitalism to guide them in their textile and agricultural pursuits.  Hopedale became a forum for debate and dialogue that was open to the reformist ideas of the nineteenth century. These debates touched upon matters of theology but also such topics as abolition. The members of Hopedale had a moderate perspective, as they wanted to reform American society, but they did not want to change it entirely.


            Even in 1855, Adin Ballou, the founder of the Universalist Hopedale, tried to distinguish Hopedale from his fellow utopias like the Shakers. He dedicated seventy pages of his tome Practical Christian Socialism to this end. While respectful of the Shakers and their system, Ballou thought that “the Shaker theocracy and spiritualistic hierarchy are too assumptive and dominating…They will probably remain a small, select and peculiar people.” For Ballou, reform minded communes needed to be open to mainstream American thought. Because of their isolation, Ballou argued that the Shaker system would “never be adopted and submitted to by large numbers of free minded, intelligent persons. It is too unnatural, ascetic, monotonous, artificial, arbitrary, ceremonial and fantastic,” he said.


            While Adin Ballou and the Practical Christians did want to reform American society, they did so in a relatively moderate fashion compared to other utopias. Being closer to mainstream thought was a better way to attract outsiders. Ballou did not want to alienate the outside world. While the Practical Christians stood against many principles of the mainstream, they also created a system that reconciled their Christian perfectionism and the outside world.  


            Adin Ballou, the man pictured on the front of your programs, was leader of the Hopedale experiment. He was born in 1803, near Cumberland Rhode Island. During the early stages of his life, he was a Universalist minister, but soon became disenchanted with the idea that all people were saved immediately upon death. He thought that there needed to be some form of responsibility in this world in order to attain salvation. Thus, he joined a group known as the Restorationist Association, which thought that while all souls were eventually saved, there had to be a way to keep humans accountable for their actions.


            In deliberating over their beliefs, the Practical Christians ultimately agreed to establish a community. In 1841, the Practical Christians established the Constitution of the Fraternal Community and bought a large track of land in an area known as “The Dale” near Milford, Massachusetts.  A farmhouse stood there in which twenty-five adults and twenty-five children started living. People later called the farmhouse the “Old House.” Conditions were, needless to say, crowded. But this quickly changed.


            After about a year of living in such communal conditions, the community decided to adopt strategy of separate housing. Beginning with George Stacey in 1842, members of the Hopedale community started building new housing near the Old House. The Practical Christians’ housing arrangement contrasts to the Shakers, where everyone slept in one housing unit, men separated from women. Hopedale was also different from Oneida where all adults shared space in one house. Soon, living arrangements at Hopedale became more conventional. While some of the poorer members lived in the “Old House,” most members constructed small separate abodes. A sense of private land arose—a much different phenomenon than that at the Shaker communes or at Oneida. By 1843, Ballou and about a dozen other families had their own homes.


            Ballou wrote in the Practical Christian, Hopedale’s newspaper, in 1842: “he who has produced food, or raiment, or any other good thing by such industry, has a natural right of property in such production. That he who can produce the necessities and comforts of life and yet will not, has no right to consume the fruits of another's industry.” Here, Ballou affirmed the principle of free enterprise: that the more one worked the more one received. But there were differences with the outside world. Wages were “uniform”; meaning that no matter what one’s occupation, one earned similar wages at the end of the day. For Ballou, the type of work should not determine earnings. Rather, how much one worked determined how much one made. The Practical Christians condemned the unfair stratification found in mainstream society. As Universalists, the Practical Christians wanted to reform society and create equality among their members.  But the very use of the word “wages” indicated that the community did not want to give into total communalism in which everyone shared all property.


            The leadership in Hopedale was also open to members traveling in and out of the community. The Practical Christians encouraged members to explore Massachusetts and be an active part of outside reform meetings, including the Worcester women’s rights convention in 1851. Members and nonmembers traveled in or out freely, which also distinguished Hopedale from some of its contemporary utopias which advocated for almost total isolation.


            Sexual mores and marriage in Hopedale were no different from those in mainstream American culture. While the Shakers advocated for complete celibacy and the members of Oneida took part in “complex-marriages,” the people of Hopedale took a more conventional attitude toward sex. Ballou stated that partners needed to have a “tolerable knowledge of human physiology which treats of the sexual peculiarities, functions, relationships and necessities, as existing in both male and female.” The Practical Christians thought that sex had to be enlightened. Both husband and wife needed to know how sex operated for the other. Ballou thought that sexual intercourse could strengthen a marriage. However, the members of Hopedale insisted that sexuality remain in marriage and not violate the “dictates of pure chastity.” The Practical Christians educated members on sexuality, but this education reinforced a moderate morality by 19th century standards.


            In 1853, the Practical Christians shunned a couple for having sexual relations outside of marriage. The couple continued having their affair, and professed to believe in the tenets of “free-love.” The couple had “brought so much scandal” to Hopedale that the couple decided to leave. After the couple left Hopedale, they decided to join a free-love commune called Modern Times, a community, ironically, much like Oneida. Overall, the sexual mores of Hopedale did not differ from those of nineteenth American society.


            The religious services at Hopedale contained an extensive array of ideas and values. As a child during the 1840s, William Draper recalled that “Sunday meetings were unusual and sometimes very interesting. There were… five regular preachers taking turns; and the pulpit was also frequently occupied by eminent men from abroad including unordained reformers.” The Practical Christians opened the way for modern reform to enter into religious life at Hopedale. As reform-minded Universalists, the Practical Christians combined secular ideas into their religious service. Draper continued: “among [these reformers] I distinctly remember William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, [and] Steven Foster. I have been told that Anna Dickinson made her first speech in the Hopedale pulpit.” Most of the reformers that Draper mentioned were abolitionists or liberal thinkers. These men and women helped to create a reformist environment at Hopedale that focused on the problems of the outside world. While their fellow utopians tried to isolate themselves from the outside world, the Practical Christians welcomed outside thought, even in their services.


            Ballou collected various hymns from the Hopedale movement and combined them into the Hopedale Hymnal in 1850. The hymnal articulated the religious affiliation of the people of Hopedale, and also revealed their commitment to social reform and egalitarianism. While the hymnal contained a wide array of ideas, some of its poems reflected universalist beliefs; Others were concerned with more secular ideals. One, called simply “Hymn #253” read as follows:


            All men are equal in their birth


            All heirs to the earth and skies…


            Tis man alone who difference sees


            And speaks of high and low.


            The hymn expressed the Universalist emphasis on and social equality. The Universalists believed that only humans—not God—judged and condemned others.

            By 1854, Hopedale had become a home to advocates of many different reform movements, including the rights of women, opposition to slavery, advocacy of temperance and non-resistance. All of these reform movements impacted the culture of Hopedale.


            One member of the Hopedale community, Abby Price, illustrated the type of reformer who joined the Practical Christians at Hopedale. Price joined the community in 1842, and was an active member of the New England Non-Resistance Society. She served as a spokesperson for women’s rights. She gave speeches and “even persuaded a few members to join in her beliefs.” Even within more liberal denominations like Universalism, women’s rights remained a controversial topic. Many utopians like the Shakers ignored or condemned these movements because they undermined Shaker morality. Hopedale was open to a full discussion of women’s rights. Price expressed “general satisfaction” with the political rights that the community had given women. But Hopedale did not give her everything she wanted: she wanted a “combined household… in which men took part in the household labor.” Much like mainstream society, Hopedale enacted reforms on the basis on reason and moderation, and discarded more radical ideas, like men should wash dishes.


            Hopedale hosted a speech by Sojourner Truth in 1854 as the question of slavery rose to the fore again with the passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Hopedale did not isolate itself from the controversies of society; rather, it attempted to face those questions from its own utopian perspective. The community became a meeting place for abolitionists, as well as a place where some escaped slaves would go after fleeing north. In one case, during the early 1850s, Ballou allowed a freed “colored girl” to live in the community and go to school. But in another instance, Ballou rejected a colored boy from entering the community because “there was already an overabundance of boys [in Hopedale].” Only imperfectly did Hopedale and Ballou apply their principles of equality.


            But in spite of its good intentions, the Hopedale project failed. In 1856, in the midst of a severe recession which left many of the members of Hopedale in debt, Ebenezer Draper took control of the community by buying a majority of its stocks. Ebenezer Draper was not a cold-hearted capitalist. He had believed in Practical Christianity and Hopedale’s system for many years, and still had some concern for its philosophy. His brother George, however, had no care for Practical Christianity at all. He persuaded Ebenezer that he could make a very high profit by buying up the Hopedale community. Draper agreed to pay off the community’s debts, but in return Hopedale would no longer be considered the Fraternal Community; it instead became an ordinary industrial company town. Structurally, the governance of the community changed little, but without the oversight of Ballou and the Practical Christians, many distinctive elements of life in Hopedale, including the reform meetings, came to a halt. Instead, control of the town went to the Draper brothers, whose goals were more financial than educational and religious.


            Only within a utopian setting could the reforms promoted at Hopedale have ever existed at all. But ultimately, Hopedale attempted something that could not be done within society. Yet throughout their entire experiment, the Practical Christians kept their connections with mainstream society and the real world it represented. Unlike most utopians, the Practical Christians were not running away from convention; rather, they chose to deal directly with it. American society did not allow Ballou and his companions to craft their pragmatic system fully, the formation of a “utopia” became the only way to realize something of those ideals. Hopedale became a place of experimentation and adaptation, rather than a place of a monolithic creed.  Between the evils of industrial society and the extremes of dogmatic utopias, the Practical Christians sought a middle way, and fostered a more moderate vision of what the good society could become.


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