About the Author(s)

Antonio Sanchez-Bayon Email symbol
Department of Applied Economics, Faculty of Legal and Social Sciences, King Juan Carlos University, Madrid, Spain

Estrella Trincado-Aznar symbol
Department of Applied Economics, Structure and History, Faculty of Economics, Complutense University of Madrid, Madrid, Spain

Francisco J. Sastre symbol
Francisco Javier Sastre-Segovia, ESIC Business and Marketing School, Madrid, Spain


Sanchez-Bayon, A., Trincado-Aznar, E. & Sastre, F.J., 2023, ‘American utopias in the 19th century: Religious versus ideological farms in the west of the United States’, HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 79(1), a7807. https://doi.org/10.4102/hts.v79i1.7807

Original Research

American utopias in the 19th century: Religious versus ideological farms in the west of the United States

Antonio Sanchez-Bayon, Estrella Trincado-Aznar, Francisco J. Sastre

Received: 02 June 2022; Accepted: 22 Aug. 2022; Published: 24 Jan. 2023

Copyright: © 2023. The Author(s). Licensee: AOSIS.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


This is a critical-hermeneutical and historical-comparative study on Political Economy, Economic History and Social Thought, applied to the American utopias in the 19th century and its role in the colonisation of the United States (US) west. This review is based on a heterodox economic approach, used in the disciplines of Religion and Economics. It gives a general view of religious and ideological utopias, as cooperative enterprises of intentional life in farms and workshop, making a comparative analysis of efficiency and sustainability. This study attempts to explain the colonial paradox of American utopias because the last established, with more inversion, they were the first to fall. This study shapes the development of the western territories, from the Quaker’s Holy Experiment framework and its support for the utopias experiments in the expansion to Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.

Contribution: This review offers a descriptive and explanatory study on the colonisation of the US west, under the hermeneutical turn from heterodox economic approaches, to deal with some current contradictions and anachronism in the mainstream view. Also, there is a systematisation of the American utopias, divided into religious and ideological experiments, with a comparison.

Keywords: the United States of America (US); religion & economics; anarcho-capitalism; Austrian School of Economics (Austrian Economics); new institutional approach; colonisation; communitarian farms; utopias.

Theoretical and methodological framework

The official version of the United States (US) History established by the critical historians’ generation (Hofstadter 1967, 1970; Hofstadter, Miller & Aaronet 1946; Lipset 1968; Wright Mills 1948) is under review by cultural historians of identity (Takaki 2002, 2008; Zinn 1980, 2004). To try to rebuild the former consensus, Huntington (2004) offers a revival of the American melting pot (Parrington 1927), but without much success although there was no current common ground (Fukuyama 2018; Lilla 2017; Sánchez-Bayón 2019a, 2019b). For this reason, this review goes back to US history of the 19th century, at the beginning of social history in the time of the construction of the country: it was the period of reconciliation after the Civil War, and the expansion to the west, to connect both coastlines of the United States of America. Then, there was a minimal state and entrepreneurship came from private initiatives, such as religious and ideological enterprises or anarcho-communist utopias (Berry 1992; Bestor 1950; Fogarty 1980, 1990). The originality of this study is based on: (1) the use of the primary sources of journalists who visited the utopias (Hinds 1878; Nordhoff 1875); (2) the analysis of efficiency and sustainability among the utopias, with an explanation about why some of them are still alive (religious enterprises, i.e. Amanitas and Whirlpool, Mormons and Marriott), and others collapsed in the first years (ideological enterprises, i.e. Icarians in Nauvoo, Owenites in New Harmony); (3) the application of mixed heterodox economic approaches, in the way of economic mainline (Boettke, Haeffele-Balch & Storr 2016).

To analyse the efficiency and sustainability of the American utopias, this study uses the following academic toolkit:

  • Austrian Economics began its trajectory with the Methodenstreit or dispute on the method (Hoppe 1995; Huerta de Soto 2000; Menger 1883; Mises 1929, 1933). It offers the Mises theorem on the economic impossibility of socialism (Mises 1922, 1929, 1933, 1944), reviewed by Hayek (1944, 1988) and extended to every institutionalisation of coactive and centralised interventionism, according to Hoppe (1989) and Huerta de Soto (1992). The corollary of the Mises theorem is the Buchanan–Tullock theorem (see next point). Other key idea is Hayek’s thesis on spontaneous order, favourable to social evolutionary institutions (Hayek 1952a, 1952b).
  • Anarcho-capitalist approach is based on the contributions of the American Individualist Anarchism, a philosophical movement with prestigious members such as Warren and Tucker (mutualists), Rev. Emerson and Thoreau (Transcendentalists), Rev. Greene (Unitarian and defender of free banking), Andrews and Heywood (abolitionists), Walker (philosopher of egoism) and many others, such as Lazarus, Robinson, Labadie, Byington and so on (Madison 1945; Martin 1953; McElroy 1981). This heritage is attended by Austrian Economics (Rothbard 1973; Veysey 1973) and Public choice (Tullock 1972, 1974). In the United States of America, the first anarchism tradition came from the religious movement that rejected the supremacy of the civil power over religion and defended the wall of separation between Church and State (i.e. Anabaptists, Baptists, Quakers; Pfeffer 1953; Stokes 1950). In the 19th century, philosophical anarchism began (i.e. American Individualist Anarchist), and finally political anarchism, close to socialism, emerged (Hillquit 1903; Noyes 1870). In epistemological terms, this trend is based on Rothbard axiom and the principle of the farm or homestead, related to the appropriation of land by their workers (Rothbard 1973). In methodological view, it follows the idea of freedom of research. Anarchism researchers reject formal positivism where a hypothesis must be confirmed, as they prefer to search for truth than to confirm it (Escohotado 2008–16; Feyerabend 1975).
  • New-institutional approach is part of the New Political Economy (NPE) (to correct the New Left Political Economy (NLPE) (Lindbeck 1971; Mermelstein 1970), which includes Law and Economics (L&E), Public Choice (PC), Constitutional Economics (CE), Cliometrics, Possibilism, etc. Law and Economics offers the Coase’s theorem on the firm and costs of transaction (Coase 1937, 1960). Public Choice proposes the Buchanan–Tullock’s theorem about interventionism, which means the end of political romanticism and the idea of a paternalistic state. There are many power games affecting all the decisions and, so, the effect is rent-seekers, crony capitalism, unfinished agenda, etc. (Buchanan & Tullock 1962). Constitutional Economics is based on Buchanan’s theorem about the relevance of the rules (Brennan & Buchanan 1985; Buchanan 1986, 1987, 1990). Cliometrics offers empirical remarks, such as Fogel’s studies of the real impact of technology in the development of the United States of America (railway industry was less than 2% of gross domestic product [GDP] in the 19th century, but, in contrast, the religious factor was more relevant (Fogel 1964, 2000; Fogel & Engerman 1974).

The state of the art differs from the usual (based on the review of current bibliography), given the novelty approaches and frameworks mix here (there were some sectorial incursions with this focus, related with the far west, such as Anderson and Hill 1979, 2004; Veysey 1973). This research started with a bibliometric study of the scientific production in Religion and Economics (see Figure 1) linked with the subject (West American colonisation), to draw up a thematic and journal map (see Figure 2). In this way, it was possible to select the main secondary sources for the study of the American utopias: colonies based on communal and cooperative enterprises (Bestor 1950; Cohen 1973; Fogarty 1980, 1990; Tyler 1944; Wooster 1924) and its later revival and revision (Berry 1992; Curl 2012; Friesen & Friesen 2004; Kephart 1998), completed with a multitude of encyclopaedic contributions and compilations on socio-religious life in the United States of America (Lippy & Williams 1998; Melton 1989; Menéndez 1976; Noonan & Gafney 2001; Olson & Djupe 2003; Smith & Jameson 1961). Subsequently, the revision has been refined, contrasting with primary sources such as the epistles or letters among the Owen Sr. and Jr. and Rapp (digitised by the Indiana Historical Society), with Cabet and Smith (digitised by the International Institute of Social History). Other contrasting sources have been the journalist publication of several travellers around the American utopias at that time, such as Noyes (1870), Nordhoff (1875), Hinds (1878, 1908) and Hillquit (1903).

FIGURE 1: Bibliometric study on religion and economics relations: (a) journals and (b) topics.

FIGURE 2: Utopias map of 19th century in the United States of America.

All those analysis tools have been incorporated to Religion and Economics (R&E), mixed with other tools from Cultural Studies: religious and frontier factor (awakenings and revivals cycles), denominalism, social gospel, American covenant theology, staple approach, utopias input method: arcadianism, anarchism, millennialism and moral reform programmes, et cetera.

The discipline R&E comes from Church and State Studies in the 1970s (Pfeffer 1953; Sánchez-Bayón 2014a, 2014b; Stokes 1950; Wood 1961). During the cultural wars (Walsh 2000; Yarnold 1999, 2000), the discipline was divided into two sides: (1) the consensus line, with studies in ecumenical relations, denominalism and competition, etc., and (2) the critic line, with attention to minorities’ issues and discrimination, inequality, etc. Since globalisation, there was a revival of the discipline, but with another title: Economics of Religion (promoted by the Cultural Economics approach, with attention on its relations to growth and development, alternative modes of production, happiness management, etc.). There are several think-tanks in this discipline (i.e. Institute for the Study of Religion, Economics and Society at Chapman University, under the direction of Prof. Iannaccone and related to the Association for the Study of Religion, Economics and Culture, Penn State University, John Templeton Foundation, etc.). Currently, there is a recovery of the original name, with initiatives such Religion and Economics Collection in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, supported by Harvard and Oxford Universities and more than 50 specialised journals, that is unitalicise Journal of Economics, Management and Religion, the Journal of Economics, Theology and Religion, Journal of Markets and Morality and Faith and Economics. In Figure 1, a bibliometric study on religion-economics relations (topics and journals) is shown, and the complex web of academic links is made evident.

American utopias: Religious and ideological experiments

The American utopias or anarcho-capitalist experiences selected here were commercial enterprises to finance the corresponding community farms, in which not only the ownership of production goods is shared but also profits. In Figure 2, the map of these utopias in the 19th-century United States of America is depicted. Despite the fact that all of them coincide in being alternative socio-economic models to the state, and supposedly founded to achieve greater freedom, they nevertheless begin to fail in the property and entrepreneurial function because of the excesses of community centralisation and the tendency to polylogism and determinism (Mises 1957), which reduces the counterbalance of free-ownership and the entrepreneurial function. The first to show their dysfunctionality and entropy are the socialist utopias because of the aforementioned theorem of economic impossibility, but then they are followed by intentional communities of another type (i.e. brotherhoods, intellectual farms and farmers’ clubs), until reaching the religious community farms surviving only the autochthonous ones not for economic reasons, but for religious reasons. This same problem arises in other parts of the world, as it happened with the kibbutzim/kibbutz or Zionist community farms to build the State of Israel in 1909.

Systematisation of cases

The following clarifications must be made to set a demarcation criterion to select which cases should be dealt with within the coordinates of the study (spatial point: US West, from Pennsylvania to Ohio, Indiana and Illinois; temporal point: 19th century, during the second religious revival (or the Second Great Awakening) and between the First and Second Industrial Revolution in the United States; material point: commercial enterprises of community farms – the origin of the corporations – that contributed to the articulation of the country) and clarify the thesis of the article, the study and the viability of anarcho-capitalist experiences as an alternative social and economic model:

  • Movements, regardless of whether they are more or less religious or secular, must be based on the basic principles of anarcho-capitalism, such as respect for freedom and property, non-aggression and reciprocity, solidarity and communal pacts. These principles fit perfectly with the values of the Quaker, and, therefore this research starts from their Holy Experiment. The dissident and millenarian sects and the ideological utopias required to be colonised, the previous step of paying the fee for access to the land and the commitment to be productive.
  • The taxonomy established for the exposition and explanation of cases is based on the chronological order, their degree of notorious rootedness and the number of resources and factors of production they exploited (from larger experiments to smaller ones according to the use of traditional factors of production: land, available assets, labour, number of members of the community and capital, higher-order goods that were accumulated, together with the savings generated). In this sense, this article has followed the criteria of the professors of Political Economy of the time (such as John Cairnes), who recognised that the boom of the 19th-century communitarian experiments in the United States of America was, above all, because of European immigration without access to land in their countries of origin, together with the errors of employers and unions on the Atlantic coast (placing obstacles to employment), which made the entrepreneurial adventure of financing a communal farm in the west attractive (whose land price was affordable).
  • Another issue to take into consideration (which connects the previous ones) is that all the experiments coincide because their members seek greater freedom and prosperity and they resort to the use of time via ‘communitarian’ farms, which were not ‘communist’ in the later ideological sense (such as socialist). In any case, at least in the initial experiments, they would be ‘communists’ of a religious (i.e. communitarian) nature. They stress the existence of a life in common and maximum solidarity to ensure the subsistence of the sect, but taking into account that then each one was responsible for his own salvation). Moreover, this communitarianism was a forerunner of later cooperativism because not only the means of production but also the profits were shared.

The selected cases are shown chronologically (from the pioneers to the most recent ones) and according to the types of experiments or utopias (religious, secular and ideological experiences, each one with more than six kinds of subcategories: movements, farm projects, etc.).

Communal religious experiences: Dissident sects, perfectionists and millenarists

Applying these contributions to the historical interpretation of how all these influences arrived in the United States of America, extending via the Quaker Holy Experiment of Pennsylvania and attending to the initial systematisation of those who visited in person these communities and the vestiges of their settlements, the following classification and cases should be considered.

Transplanted traditions

The Religious Society of Friends or Quakers, still Christian, but without dogmas or hierarchies, was persecuted in Europe. For this reason it was among the first to arrive in the North American colonies but was expelled from New England and then dispersed to the Caribbean and the Middle provinces. To secure territory of their own, they acquired West Jersey in 1677. Their leader, Fox, travelled to America, later exploring and buying land in East Jersey in 1682. Meanwhile, King Charles II of England found that the more Quakers he punished, the more they converted, so he decided to get rid of the problem by paying off an old royal debt (incurred during the civil wars) to Admiral Penn, father of William Penn. So, in 1681 he granted the Penn family the possessions of New Castle and beyond (present-day Delaware and Pennsylvania), renaming the territory as Pennsylvania (in honour of the elder Penn). Then, more Quakers landed there (making the Penn family the largest private [not royal] landowners, with more than 45 000 square miles or 120 000 km2). In 1682, the Pennsylvania Frame of Government (which would inspire the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, with its Bill of Rights) was approved, setting in motion a whole utopia of liberties and participatory government, which was known as the Holy Experiment (because of its multi-denomination, respecting the confessions already established there). As the Quakers were very industrious (in only 6 months they had parcelled out more than 300 000 acres), they wanted to attract talent to their territory, opening the colonisation to other denominations, but the new citizens had to acquire at least 20 hectares (at a symbolic price of approximately one pound, but enough to end up buying a shipping company that would connect America and Europe). Therefore, constituting such an amount could be assumed with the family savings of the time, thus changing the rules of the game: mercantilism was abandoned, whereby only large companies could exploit the colonies on behalf of the King and thus also put an end to the infamous indentured servitude, to cover the journey there. In Pennsylvania they wanted free and enterprising people. Between the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century (with the Second Great Awakening), more than 10 new denominations arrived, initiating more than double of projects, putting into production several farms and soon also workshop cities (such as the one Rapp sold to Owen, see ideological enterprises).

Let us now look at some of the specific points to these denominations, which had in common the persecution they suffered, a perfectionist calling and a industrious character:

  • Dunkers (also called German Baptist Brethren or Church of the Brethren) refer to Central European immigrants from religious minorities such as some Anabaptists, part of the Amish, etc., dissidents from Catholicism, Lutheranism and Reformism. They founded their first community farm in Pennsylvania (with the women’s buildings separated from the men’s buildings), called the Ephrata Community or Cloister in 1732, which was registered as a joint-stock company since 1812 and nowadays declared as a state cultural heritage. It was followed by the Snowhill Community (1800) and many others and from these communities they spread successfully towards the west.
  • Shakers or the jumpers – so called for their ceremonials – which actually constituted as a society unit of believers in the second coming of Christ. They arrived in Pennsylvania in the 1780s and were nicknamed the quaking Quakers by their ritual dances. They were also the most egalitarian between men and women (with a proactive role for women), highlighting the foundational work of communities of Jane Wardley, Mother Ann Lee or Mother Lucy Wright (who ran orphanages and shelters at the time). In the 19th century there were about 4000 believers distributed in more than 20 main communities and many other small-family communities. They were tremendously industrious (and inventors of utensils) because they considered that work redeemed them and improved them as people. Nowadays, their settlements have also been declared part of the state’s cultural heritage or converted into museums.
  • Rappitas (named after its founder, Johann Georg Rapp, although the official name was Society of Harmony) was a split from Lutheranism and persecuted for this reason in Europe. They arrived in the United States of America in 1803 because the Quaker shipping company took pity on them and financed their trip given their very poor situation. They moved the headquarters of their society to Pennsylvania in 1805 (lasting until 1905). As a pietistic group, it had many similarities with those previously mentioned, so coexistence was easy. This group recomposed itself in two years’ time, grew to 400 members and began to make its speciality: the foundation of workshop-cities, such as Harmony I (in Pennsylvania), Harmony II (in Indiana), New Harmony (also in Indiana and sold to Owen for $135 000 when the land had cost him not even $300, so that he could try his experiment of utopian socialism), Economy (actually Old Economy Village, in Pennsylvania, characteristic for its furnaces and where Rapp died).
  • Amanitas, whose denomination comes from the biblical book Song of Songs and means to keep honest, and its official denomination was the Society of Amana, like the Rappites, were much persecuted in Germany, arriving in Pennsylvania because of the charity and compassion of the Quakers, who not only defrayed their trip, but also gave them almost $20 so that they could start their journey. Their industriousness and thrift proved even more formidable than that of the other sects, as they were fewer and had come under worse conditions. In a couple of decades they had accumulated a patrimony of nearly a million dollars. As they knew how to adapt to industrial capitalism, their project continued, something that other communities did not manage to do, giving way to Amana Refrigeration Inc. and later Whirlpool Corporation.
  • Religious communal society (known by its members by their communes: Aurorites and Bethelians) had as a founder, a young Prussian Lutheran, William Keil, who emigrated to America and settled his family in Pennsylvania. He participated in the New Harmony experiment (both with the Rappitas and Owen, until its dissolution), and then went on to found his own communes: Bethel (Missouri) and Aurora (Oregon). His society combined Lutheran, Pietistic and Methodist elements, fused and based on the golden rule (or reciprocity): treat your neighbour as you wish to be treated. Keil was known for his enthusiasm and for being a healer. He died in 1873 and the society was dissolved in 1883.
Autochthonous superventions

This section deals with the experiments of the new sects, which, as a result of the Second Great Religious Awakening, are moving from being mainline churches or hierarchical churches of European origin to become evangelical churches or autochthonous community churches, until reaching very singular expressions and almost outside Christianity (by secularising it and transforming it in their own way), such as the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, scientific Christians, Scientologists, etc. In these cases we are no longer dealing with pietistic movements, in which industriousness and thrift as signs of predestination for salvation take precedence, but with enthusiastic groups, oriented towards the community and its solidarity, with very striking social experiments for the time (i.e. complex marriages or polygamy):

  • Perfectionist Christians is an evangelical branch based on the Presbyterianism of its founder (Rev. Finney), combined with Methodism (in vogue with the Second Great Awakening) and which seeks sanctification through a life dedicated to love. Noyes (considered as an American utopian proto-socialist), influenced by Finney, studied theology, and became a preacher, although his license was revoked when he declared himself perfect and sinless in 1834). Because of his great charisma, he managed to convince hundreds of people to join his Society of Free Love and its several communities: (1) Putney Community (Vermont, 1836) begins as a Bible school, but given the persecution of the authorities (arresting Noyes several times), finally had to move to New York; (2) Oneida Community (New York, 1848–1881) is the most important and best known of all, becoming the epicentre for the rest of the communities; (3) Communities of Wallingford (Connecticut), Brooklyn (New York), Newark (New Jersey), Cambridge and Putney (Vermont) and the community of Niagara Falls (in Ontario, Canada), where Noyes finally fled to avoid further arrests. This communal social experiment grew to some 300 members, who supported themselves through thriving industries (i.e. silk thread production, animal traps, leather handbags, palm leaf hats, fruit and vegetable cultivation and, above all, silverware).
  • Society of Universal Friends had as a founder a Quaker from Rhode Island, Jemima Wilkinson, who claimed to have suffered a serious illness in 1776, eventually dying and resurrecting as a genderless evangelical recalled Gore or the public universal friend. He referred to himself in a non-binary manner and dressed in an androgynous manner. Taking advantage of the Revolutionary War and with the help of his brothers, he preached the end times, claimed the end of slavery and defended free will. He managed to have a hundred followers, founding two settlements: (1) Gore, the Friend (in New York, in 1790 and by 1792 he had 25 families and a farm); (2) Jerusalem (also in New York and where the Friend’s Home, now part of the state cultural patrimony, still stands). The founder died in 1819, but his communities continued until the 1860s.
  • Christian Restorationists and Jehovah’s Witnesses are also important. The restorationists seek to return to the origins of Christianity, and many of them, in addition, are millenarianists, defending the transformation of the world and the Second Coming. From among the restorationists, the Bible students’ movement was founded in 1870 by Charles Taze Russell, who also founded the Watchtower Tract Society of Zion/Zion (Jerusalem), arose in Pennsylvania. Thus, they began a lucrative business of distributing religious literature, which, upon Russell’s death, was spun off. Joseph Franklin Rutherford retained control of the society, re-founding it in 1931 (to differentiate it from other Bible study groups) and renaming it Jehovah’s Witnesses. Currently, it has almost nine million adherents involved in evangelisation and because of donations and religious literature, it is one of the richest corporations in New York, turning over some $950 million a year.
  • Mormons (officially, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) is a sort of syncretism, which unites Christianity (of an evangelical restorationist nature) with other religions (including pre-Columbian and Egyptian hermetic religions). Its denomination (Mormon) comes from its scriptures, the Book of Mormon, who was a Nephite prophet and later angel who appeared to the founder, Joseph Smith, to show him the book so that he could translate it. Smith began preaching in the 1820s in New York, as a restorationist, and since the 1930s, as a Mormon. In their mission to establish the kingdom of God on earth, the Mormons carried out several foundations: (1) attempted settlements and expulsion with persecution (because of misgivings about their polygamy and other practices that scandalised at the time): Palmyra (New York), Kirtland (Ohio), New Jerusalem or City of Zion (Missouri); (2) Purchase of the city of Commerce (Illinois), renaming it Nauvoo (there was peace and prosperity until Smith was killed by a mob in 1844). During this period, the Mormons had a relationship with Cabet’s Icarists. (3) Under the direction of Brigham Young they went to Utah (as a promised land) and they founded Salt Lake City, to date.

Experiences of American civil religion: Social laboratories

This section is very complex, based on American Civil Religion-ACR (Bellah 1970, 1975). It is a topic related to the secularisation of Christianity in America, to reinforce its constitutionalism. ACR allows the integration of a diverse group of people, with respect to the traditional confession in local communities, and, at the same time, all are American citizens. This article offers some of the experiences which helps to understand the secularisation process:

  • Unitarists: They seek the union of Protestant churches, especially the incipient evangelical ones, as an element of autochthonous integration, giving rise to intellectual communities in Ivy League universities, where they are strong at the time (in the 1790s and 1800s).
  • Transcendentalists: This is an indigenous current of thought, which gives rise to intellectual communes such as Brook Farm and Fruitlands.
  • Pragmatists and intentional and fraternal communities: Properly American, they include social experiments such as Social Freedom Community, Hopedale Community (Practical Christianity), Skaneateles and Prairie Home Community (Society for Universal Inquiry), Brotherhood of the new life, Colonies of Anaheim (California)-Vineland (New Jersey)-Silkville (Kansas), New York Experiments.

Utopian ideological experiments

As a result of the greater American secularisation and the problem of management of immigrant multitudes, the ideological question, with its nationalist, socialist and mixed variants, is finally present in the United States of America. As in the previous case, only a preview of the contents can be offered for now:

  • Nationalists: There are two lines of research on this issue. On the one hand, to verify whether most of the evangelical communities that emerged after the Second Great Awakening (since 1790), being autochthonous, have a certain North-American or patriotic nationalist component (as opposed to the mainline churches, which have a foreign origin, responding to foreign leaders, as in the Anglican case). On the other hand, other immigrant communities with State Church maintain this nationalism with their metropolis and hence the tendency to isolation, to keep their original traditions, as in the cases of Danish Socialist Colony (in Kansas), German Reformed Colonies (in Texas), Bishop Hill Colony (of Swedes in Illinois) or Am Olam (with Jewish agricultural communities all over the country – as a forerunner of the kibbutz). Another line would be that of the Georgist movement (because of its inspirer, Henry George and his work Progress and Poverty of 1879), but given its relations with socialism, perhaps it must go to the mixed block.
  • Socialists: There were many communities of utopian socialist inspiration in the second half of the 19th century. They can be classified as follows:
    • Icarists: Denomination by the work Journey to Icaria (1839) of the Frenchman E. Cabet (with egalitarian approaches from masonic view), who moved to the United States of America in 1848, to help to promote Icarist communities in other regions, such as Louisiana, Texas, Iowa, Missouri, California, etc. In the West, Nauvoo (in Illinois) stands out for being a shared project with the Mormons (until the lynching of Smith and Young’s decision to immigrate to Utah).
    • Owenians: They receive their name from their inspiration, the paradoxical industrialist and utopian socialist R. Owen (he was the first to generalise the term ‘socialist’, in 1827, to refer to his project of a new society with opportunities for all). He had the support of Dale (Chief Executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland and his father-in-law) and Bentham, to finance the New Lanark project (a large factory, with social innovations, such as a nursery), intending to repeat it and extend it to a whole city in New Harmony (Indiana). The project failed because of not having selected well the workers (he hired almost a thousand unqualified workers); having left his son in charge that surrounded himself with intellectuals without practical experience with many difficulties in obtaining more financing (especially, because of the economic situation at the time), etc. The fact is that Owen lost four-fifths of his fortune, while the four New Harmony newspapers (financed by him) accused him of being a speculator (for not having risked 100% of his patrimony). Rapp recalled how sad he was when he returned to New Harmony to complete the economic transaction, and in less than two years, the city had been left to deteriorate: ‘they hadn’t even re-roofed it’, he lamented. Based on the postulates of Owenite utopian socialism, there were other experiments: (1) Oberlin Colony in Ohio (1833–1843), led by J.J. Shipherd (and eight families); (2) Kristeen Community in Indiana (1845–1847), led by C. Mowland, who had ties with the Oberlin Colony. Mowland, who had links with the Universal Search Society (see the next point); (3) Fruit Hills in Ohio (1845–1852), led by the anarchist O.S. Murray, who had links with the Kristeen community, etc.
    • Fourierists: The reception of the postulates of the French utopian socialism (or rather, mutualist) gave rise to the constitution of the American Fourier Society with its network of communities or phalansteries (in English phalanx or phalanges). The following are worth mentioning (following the order of Noyes and Nordhoff): Trumbull phalanx, Ohio phalanx, Clermont phalanx, Integral phalanx, Alphadelphia phalanx, Clarkson phalanx, Sodus Bay phalanx, Grange phalanx, Wisconsin phalanx, North American phalanx, etc. Even, other minor and independent experiments may be mentioned, such as Spring Farm Colony (in Wisconsin, 1846–1848).
    • Fabien’s: Allusion is made to underground socialism in universities, mass media, think-tanks and public administration, which in the case of the United States began via Christian socialism, more specifically, by agents such as the Rev. W.D. Porter Bliss, in the 1890s, who carried out some attempt at communal experience. Subsequently, its development was limited to the academic and administrative sphere, with the formation of the American Fabien movement, as well as the multiplicity of Fabien societies at the universities (i.e. Harvard Fabien Society with members such as Stuart Chase, who helped design the New Deal).
  • Mixed: Those experiences that intermingle both ideologies (such as Georgism, vide infra), or directly that sort of miscellaneous, where spiritualist and free love movements, such as the Nashoba communes (in Tennessee, 1825–1828, led by F. Wright), Free Lovers at Davis House (in Ohio, 1854–1858, led by F. Barry), etc., are taken into account. Even sui generis cases may be mentioned, such as Sylvania Association, Yellow Springs Community, Seven Epitaphs, Marlboro Association, Northampton Association, etc. The openly declared case of libertarian socialism, the case of the New Philadelphia Colony is worth mentioning (in Pennsylvania, 1832–1833, led by B. Müller). Also worth mentioning are the Grangers or local corporations of small rural landowners and Masons; even the cases of vegetarian living communities, such as Octagon City (Kansas) or Shalam Colony (New Mexico).


According to this systematisation, in the colonisation of the American west, there were the following utopias or socio-economic experiences (essays of way of life and improvement in production and welfare):

  • Religious enterprises: Most of them started in the Holy Experiment expansion to the West (the colonisation of Ohio and Indiana) during the Second Religious Awakening until the Second Industrial Revolution (1790–1880). There were 10 types of renewal movements transplanted from Europe, with experiences of several families, growing in farms and workshop towns of thousands of people. The most relevant cases were the Rappitas and Amanitas because they came to America with a Quakers’ grant and because of their labour effort and capitalist ethics, they were very successful, moving from communal and cooperative societies to corporations. Also, there were native renewal movements (six types), very successful too, such as Jehovah witness and Mormons.
  • Secular experiments: Most of them started in 1840s, with many intellectuals and a short life (less than a year each utopia). The Mises’ theorem offers a common explanation based on the wrong idea of total planning without market principles. They expended their private capital (no more than a hundred members and some donors), with the ruin of their members.
  • Ideological utopias: Most of them started in 1840s until 1860s, and there was a revival during the Great Recession in the Pacific coast. There were nationalist communities (six types), socialist utopias (six types) and mix cases (six types too). The largest experiments (in workers and capital used) were the socialist, with a sustainability of less than four years. The Mises’ theorem helps to explain the bankruptcy because of the coactive and centralised planning.

The comparison between the utopias’ experiences offers the following results, which explain the colonial paradox: curiously, the first communities to become extinct were the most recent to be established, it means, the ideological enterprises. They were the worst adapted to the evolution of events, in addition to seeking a greater centralisation of power via charismatic leaders or ideological loans (thus, with less respect for freedom, property and private initiative). Consequently, the fulfilment of the theorem of the impossibility of socialism can be affirmed, with the ideological utopias falling first, followed by the secular experiments of ACR and, finally, the confessional ones (with the exception of the very laborious Amanitas). The latter were sustained more by social gospel and social plus, thus compensating for productive efforts that were not economically rewarded. However, with the advanced secularisation of the 20th century, the effect of the religious factor was diminished, even its social sphere (until globalisation, when a great revival took place).

As a comparative corollary, among all the experiences, it has already been said that the traditional religious utopias (the dissident and perfectionist sects) were the most productive, among other things, because of their positive and redeeming vision of work and business (even reviving the entrepreneurial function, as in the cases of the Rappitas and the Amanitas). Unlike the rest of the American farmers, who were satisfied with a production of autarky (more or less reproducing their resources), the aforementioned sects tended towards growth and diversification (the farm was followed by sawmills, mills, looms, dyeing, carpentry, ovens, printing presses, etc.), in addition to taking care of savings, so that they could afford greater investments, multiplying their capital. The problem came with the adaptation to industrial capitalism and the obstacles of the federal nation-state, which did not want alternative models that violated its normalisation.

Finally, in the American foundational evolution, taking into account the multi-relationship between economy, law, politics and religion, the 17th century was that of mercantilism sponsored by royal houses (openly in the Southern Plantations and covertly in the travel servitude contracts in New England). The 18th century was the beginning of commercial capitalism, especially towards the interior of the continent, but it was also convulsive because there were many wars (i.e. Indian Wars, War of Independence, etc.). The 19th century witnessed the emergence of commercial capitalism, especially in the colonisation of the west, while the Atlantic coast and its surroundings were immersed in a tension between the emerging Nordic industrial model and the mercantilist vestige of the South, ending in the Civil War. In reality, social transformations are taking place on both Atlantic shores, but the difference is that in Europe they are more violent and ideological (Rothbard 1975–1979), while in America, because of the confessions, it was more peaceful, as can be seen in the Progressive Era at the end of the 19th century.

Focusing the attention on the American experiments in the 19th century, it is possible to diagnose the causes of their extinction, the concurrence of a variety of circumstances and assumptions: (1) the realisation of their objective, that is, to help colonise the west and integrate the country; (2) the realisation of the theorem of the impossibility of socialism (so that those communities that remained more centralised and without due respect for property and private initiative, were the first to become extinct); (3) the pressures of the standardising model of the federal nation-state (which did not want alternative models, and therefore marginalised them, until their extinction and reconversion of their settlements into part of the state cultural patrimony); (4) the effects of the Second Industrial and Technological Revolution, which gave way to industrial capitalism (thus overcoming the commercial capitalism of the first sector, in which these communities stood out – with the exception of the Amanitas and their Whirlpool).


The authors acknowledge the research group, GESCE, and the educational innovation group, GID-TICTAC CCEESS, at the King Juan Carlos University. They also thank the Henry Hazlitt Doctoral Center at the Francisco Marroquín University, the research group HOS at the Miguel de Cervantes European University and the research group TRANS-REAL LAB at the University of Valladolid.

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no financial or personal relationships that may have inappropriately influenced them in writing this article.

Authors’ contributions

A.S-B. conceptualised and wrote the article, reviewed by E.T.A. and supported by F.J.S.

Ethical considerations

This article followed all ethical standards for research without direct contact with human or animal subjects.

Funding information

This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

Data availability

Data sharing is not applicable to this article as no new data were created or analysed in this study.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any affiliated agency of the authors.


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