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Vist to Harmony

William Hebert. A Visit to the Colony of Harmony, in Indiana. London, 1825.

Hebert’s visit occurred in 1822 when he criticized the Harmonists’ aggressive trading as uncouth and unchristian. “The excessive sprit of trade is their greatest deficit.” He cites the Shakers as an example of a community who support themselves without undignified and overzealous attention to finances. Nonetheless, writes Herbert, the Harmonists “have made the barren wilderness to smile.”

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George Rapp (1757-1845) was a German Evangelical Lutheran who came to America to escape persecution for his unique brand of Pietism, a strain of Christianity that called for heartfelt conversion from sin, personal communication with God, and the pursuit of perfection. At its height in Germany, Rapp’s following numbered about 12,000 people, although his commune never exceeded 800 members.

Rapp’s view of America was not unlike that of the German Communitarians who had come before him – America was the land of millennial promise—and Rapp also compared his commune to the woman in the wilderness from Revelation. He founded his communes in Harmony, Indiana, and later, in Economy, Pennsylvania on the principles of millennialism, chastity, and community of goods.

Life at Harmony was strict and difficult. Financial hardship made Rapp consider merging with a local Shaker group in 1816, but soon the commune developed a thriving agricultural economy trading grain and whiskey. After moving to Pennsylvania, the Rappites began dealing in oil and, ultimately, venture capital.

Over time, Rapp grew inconsistent and hypocritical in his decision making, causing several members to leave, until he made his 1st apocalyptic prophecy: on September 15, 1829, the three and one half years of the Sun Woman would end and the Christ would begin his reign on earth. In an extraordinary coincidence, a delusional German named Bernard Mueller had sent out letters to several communes in America about a month before declaring himself the Lion in Judah – the Second Coming – and his letter reached Rapp just in time to save his experiment at Harmony. Mueller was invited to Harmony, where Rapp preached that he was the Second Coming and the Great Alchemist. In 1831, Mueller arrived in Economy, but it became quickly apparent that he was not the man Rapp said he was. The community was so disgusted with Rapp that over a third left to start several notable communes.

The economic panic of 1837 and the doomsday-prophecy of William Miller (see The Great Disappointment) convinced Rapp that, once again, the end was near. Rapp’s faith proved premature and the “despot” died in 1847 at 89 years, leaving half a million dollars in gold and silver hidden under his bed, and a wealthy group of 288 members who, after reworking the government into a system of elders, pledged not to take any new members (most of whom were joining because of the economic success). They would await the Second Coming or die. Their ultimatum would ultimately destroy the Rappite movement.