Henry Nash Smith begins Virgin Land with the question: "What is an American?". When we think about utopian communities, they often appear to be outside the realm of our national ex perience, somehow alien in their emphasis on communal life to the American model of rugged individualism.

However, American utopian communities emerge from a series of impulses that are deeply ingrained in the American psyche. America is at its roots a utopian community. Three of the original American colonies still reflect this status in their state names: the Commonwealths of Massachusetts, Virginia and Pennsylvania. We can look to the Puritans, and more specifically to William Bradford and John Winthrop for the articulation of many of the ideas that form the basis of our cultural consciousness, including the ideas that provide the model for America's utopian communities.

Winthrop and Bradford joined together the idea of the utopian pastoral, long popular in European thought, and the Hebrew narrative of the search for the Promised Land. In their self-conscious attempt to explain their own experience, the Puritans united f orever the ideas of a special destiny for the American people based in a Covenant with God to found an ideal society that provided an example to a corrupt world and the location of that society in the wild, western expanse of the American continent.

In the now famous sermon A Modell of Christian Charity, which he delivered in 1630 aboard the ship Arabella as the Puritans sailed for the New World, Winthrop detailed for the Puritans the rules of conduct that he felt would best serve t he new community they were about to establish. In so doing, he established the model that would serve later American utopian communities. Beside articulating specific principles, the sermon also established two other parts of the model, the importance o f an authoritarian leader, and a strictly interpreted and extensive set of rules.

In establishing the American myth, Winthrop expounded four points in the sermon that serve as the ideological connections both between the American ideal and American utopian communities and between the communities themselves, even those communities that seem to operate under entirely different principles. First, Winthrop wrote: "Thus stands the cause betweene God and vs, wee are entered into Covenant with him for this worke...", meaning that the community would be an ideal one, established in a covenant with God and that this Covenant reflected the acceptance of the community members a belief that it is God who has determined the fundamental moral laws, and also created a special elect to carry out his commandments.

Second, in the sentence that is perhaps at the crux of the American myth of the West, Winthrop stated: "...for wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty vpon a Hill, the eies of all people are vppon us;" Here Winthrop established that the community, by accepting this Covenant with God, took on the responsibility of fulfilling God's plan, and in doing so, providing an example to the world of righteous living.

Third, Winthrop established that the society would be communal in nature in his statement: "...wee ought to account ourselves knitt together by this bond of loue, and live in the excercise of it...".

Finally, in the very act of separating themselves from the European continent, Winthrop determined that it was not enough for the Puritans to provide an example within society, but that the members of this community had to remove themselves from the corru pt society of which they had been a part, and go in search of a place in which they could build this moral community of God. It is here that the Biblical utopia of the Promised Land dovetails with the European idea of the pastoral to create the American myth of the West as articulated by Henry Nash Smith.

The 18th, 19th and 20th century utopian communities established in the United States echo this model established by the Puritans in the 17th century. They embrace the powerful myths of America and Americans and apply them to their own communities on a sm all scale both as establishing principles and as their goals.

It is also important to remember that the intellectual construct of the Puritans was taking place in response changing social conditions in Britain that were making it difficult for individuals to understand their place in that society. Winthrop and the rest of the Puritans were looking for stories that would allowed them to understand their own experiences. by placing themselves within narratives that they understood and were familiar with they were making their own lives intelligible. This is crucial because the American utopian communities will use the precedent established by the Puritans in their own responses to the social changes taking place around them.

Because they are so individual, it can be difficult to see American utopian communities as a single phenomena. Four American utopian communities are profiled here. They are the Shakers, who grew to populate several communities, New Harmony, Oneida and C elebration. They range in time from the late 18th century to the present. In some ways, they are drastically different from one another. However, there are important similarities between them, and American utopian communities in general. And these si milarities have their basis in the model provided by America's first settlers, a model that established some of the central myths of our nation culture and which therefore places utopian communities at the heart of the American experien ce.

The Shakers

New Harmony



Works Consulted


Created by Kathleen M. Hogan as part of the Univeristy of Virginia's American Studies hypertext project on Henry Nash Smith's Virgin Land .