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American Refuge
The Impact of European Religious Societies on Immigration and Settlement Patterns in America
© 2005 Rickie Lazzerini
Page 3

Historical Review 3.1   

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German Separatists

     Three groups of German Separatists attempted colonization in America. German Separatists were individuals who formed groups that challenged the established Lutheran church in the German States, especially in the Kingdom of Württemberg. The first German Separatists to immigrate to the United States were the followers of George Rapp. Rapp was born in 1757 in Iptingen, Württemberg. By the time he was thirty years old he had become a radical Separatist preacher. As a young man he was inspired by the radical writings of Spener, Boheme, and Swedenborg, which greatly influenced his own philosophy. He believed in the individual's power of personal communication with God and the right to interpret the teachings of Jesus in your own way. He gathered a following in Iptingen, but his individualistic take on the Bible brought the group persecution from the established Lutheran church. Despite the opposition, Rapp continued to spread his ideology even though he was imprisoned numerous times. The constant harassment prompted the group to immigrate to the United States. In July of 1803, Rapp, his son John, and one other follower, boarded a boat for America. They arrived in Baltimore and began to search for suitable land in Pennsylvania and Maryland. Rapp decided on a 3,000 acre tract of land in Butler County, Pennsylvania and arranged for the migration of his followers. In July of 1804, 300 Rappites arrived in Pennsylvania. They were joined by 250 more a month later. By February of the following year their community in Butler County, named Harmony, was established. The colony was communal and celibacy was introduced in 1807.

     When the population became too great, the Rappites decided to move to a new location. They migrated to a 7,000 acre plot of land 70 miles north of the Wabash and Ohio River junction, where they had better access to river trade. Even with the readily accessible river, that location proved to be extremely isolated. They moved for the final time to Ohio, eighteen miles north of Pittsburgh, where they could easily market their goods and it was here that the group would enter into a period of economic prosperity. Over 700 people moved to the new location in Ohio, but the celibacy (which was retracted in the 1830s) crippled the growth of the colony. By 1862, the population had shrunk to 200. By the 1890s the population had decreased to the point that the commune was no longer functional.

     A number of Rappite offshoots began to spring up by former members and people who were inspired by the Rappite's communal society. The Society of United Germans was a Rappite offshoot established in Teutonia, Ohio. The society lasted from 1827-1831, ending when the leader, Peter Kauffman left the society. Sidney Rigdon, a Baptist preacher in Pittsburgh was inspired and impressed by the Rappites. He formed a commune in Kirtland, Ohio in 1827. This too would be short lived as Rigdon and his group would later converted to Mormonism when Joseph Smith moved to Kirtland in the early 1830s. Communities were started on the Ohio River, Louisiana, and Michigan as well, but none lasted beyond the Civil War. George Rapp and his followers found much success during their economic height, but could not keep the population high enough to maintain their religious-communal society into the new century.

     A second group of Separatists from Württemberg formed in the late 18th century. This movement was founded by Frederick Christoph Oetinger when he combined existing Separatist theory with the mystic teachings of Jacob Boheme. One of the central beliefs of Oetinger's sect was the prediction that the second coming of Christ would occur in 1836. Oetinger accumulated many followers, but was opposed by the established Lutheran Church. The group believed that everyone was created equal; therefore they did not acknowledge civil authority. They also did not serve in the military. Some members were celibate, and some were vegetarians. Like George Rapp and his followers, Oetinger and his group were persistently persecuted for their beliefs. Some followers were attacked and imprisoned. Migration became necessary for the group's survival. The decision to immigrate to the United States was heavily influenced by Barbara Gruberman. Gruberman moved to Württemberg from Switzerland where she was unwelcome because of her mystical beliefs and her practice of going into trances and receiving visions. In Germany she became a Separatist leader. The followers believed that her visions were from God and they made her their "mother." It was Gruberman who first introduced the group to the idea of immigration to America, but she died before they left.

     The group's first migration was not to America, but to the southern border of Württemberg under the protection of King Frederick. However, they were forced to leave in 1816. In 1817, 300 followers left Europe for Philadelphia. They stayed with the Quakers, who were essential in arranging their passage to America and aiding in their settlement once they arrived. With a loan from the Quakers, the group bought 5,500 acres of land in Tuscarawas County, Ohio, and named their new community Zoar. The community had a rough start, finding difficulty raising money. They found themselves working for neighboring farms to support their families. It was not the group's intent to live communally, but during these hard times they often found themselves helping each other in a mannerism akin to a communal society. They also realized that communal living would prevent the society's dispersion while looking for jobs, keeping the community more tightly knit. The community voted in communism in 1819. Celibacy was introduced in 1822, but it only lasted until 1830, when the leader of the community, Joseph Bimeler, got married and subsequently recalled the celibacy rule. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 greatly aided their commerce and allowed their community to flourish during the 19th century. They exported their surplus products and opened a brewery and a hotel, further increasing their income. Some beer was sold at the hotel, but much of the beer was consumed internally.

     The community of Zoar began to decline in the late 19th century due to a combination of economic hardship, decline of religious faith, and increased individualism. Young members had a difficult time living communally while the outside world enjoyed the individuality of capitalism. Religious vigor was also weaker in the younger followers, leading to the eventual dissolution of the community in 1898. The land was disbursed among the remaining 222 members, and the community officially ended on December 7, 1900.

     In 1842, a third wave of German Separatists from Württemberg came to the United States. These Separatists, called the Community of True Inspiration, or the Inspirationists, originated in 1714 as a protest to the ritualism of the established Lutheran Church. They believed in biblical prophecy, were pacifists, did not take oaths, and refused to send their children to Lutheran schools. These beliefs and acts of defiance targeted the group for persecution. They left Württemberg for Hessen, a more tolerant German state. They prospered there until drought and hostile neighbors forced them to migrate again, this time to America.

     Nearly 5,000 acres of former Seneca Indian land was purchased in New York for the Inspirationists. In 1844, over 300 Inspirationists arrived in New York, and 4,000 more acres were bought. The population of the colony, which they named Ebenezer, increased to 800 by 1845. In the beginning, individual members obtained property rights, causing an imbalance of wealth in the community. Leaders soon realized that the financial disparity between group members would eventually put a strain on the community, so they converted it into a communal society. Their communism was not absolute, it was a system of mutual sharing where land, buildings, machinery, and livestock were common, and household items and tools were personal. Ebenezer consisted of four communities on 8,000 acres of land. Middle Ebenezer (now Gardenville), and Lower Ebenezer were the largest villages, whileUpper and New Ebenezer were smaller. The movement also sprouted in Canada where two communities, Canada Ebenezer and Kenneberg, were set up in Welland County, Ontario.

     After about ten years in New York they began to feel the pressure of the outside world infiltrating the community. Buffalo was becoming a large city, and there was a threat of the railroad encroaching on their villages. They decided to move west to a more rural location in Iowa. They found a tract of land along the Iowa River, twenty miles west of Iowa City. The residents of Ebenezer gradually moved to the new location, which they named Amana. By 1859, 1,200 Inspirationists were settled in Amana. Upper and Lower Ebenezer were vacant by 1861, and all of the residents of Ebenezer had moved to Amana by 1864. Amana consisted of seven villages; Amana, East Amana, Middle Amana, West Amana, South Amana, High Amana, and Homestead. These villages became known as the Amana Colonies and still exist today. They survived throughout the 19th century as a quiet, secluded communal society, but the 20th century brought changes. The outside world began to infiltrate the colonies; some young men were drafted into the army and English replaced German in everyday speech. The Great Depression left the colonies on the brink of bankruptcy. They decided to reorganize the community by liberalizing themselves from communism. Members worked for pay, factories became corporations, and community kitchens were abolished. They abandoned the social institution they had adopted nearly one hundred years before in order to save their colonies. The religious conviction of the Inspirationists held the community together. Today, the Amana Society, Inc. continues to own and operate 26,000 acres of land. The most famous of the Society's products is the Amana Refrigeration, Inc., which is a leader in refrigerator production. The Society's land was not divided after the end of communism, so the colonies continue to reflect their communal heritage. The Amana Society represents a successful attempt at group immigration and religious freedom. By adapting with American society as a whole, the Inspirationists found a way to keep their society, culture, religion, and heritage alive.

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By Rickie Lazzerini
Kindred Trails Worldwide Genealogy Resources

BA History
University of California, Santa Barbara

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© 2005 Rickie Lazzerini, All Rights Reserved
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