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Harmony Society: A Utopian Community

The Harmony Society or the Rappites: A Utopian Community


The Harmony Society, also called the Rappites, were founded in the 1780s by Johann Georg Rapp (1757 – 1847) and his adopted son, Frederick (1775 – 1834). Holding Anabaptist beIiefs that were rejected by the Lutheran church, the Rappites immigrated from Württemburg, Germany to the United States in 1803, seeking religious freedom. With the purchase of 3,000 acres in in Butler County, Pennsylvania, a colony called Harmony was established. Here, the Rappites held that the Bible was humanity’s sole authority.

On February 15, 1805, the settlers at Harmony, Pennsylvania, signed articles of association to formally establish the Harmony Society in the United States. In this document, Society members agreed to hold all property in a common fund, including working capital of $23,000 to purchase land, livestock, tools, and other goods needed to establish their town. The agreement gave the Society legal status in the United States and protected it from dissolution. Members contributed all of their possessions, pledged cooperation in promoting the interests of the group, and agreed to accept no pay for their services. In return, the members would receive care as long as they lived with the group. Under this agreement, if a member left the Society, their funds would be returned without interest or, if they had not contributed to the Society’s treasury, they would receive a small monetary gift.

The Community: At Harmony, George Rapp, also known as Father Rapp, was recognized as the spiritual head of the Society, the one that they went to for discussions, confessions, and other matters. Rapp’s adopted son, Frederick, managed the Society’s business and commercial affairs. The Society was a religious congregation who submitted to submit to spiritual and material leadership under Rapp and his associates and worked together for the common good of all its members. Believing that the Second Coming of Christ would occur during their lifetimes, the Harmonists contented to live simply under a strict religious doctrine, gave up tobacco, and advocated celibacy. They believed that the harmony of male and female elements in humanity would be re-established by their efforts.

Rapp let newcomers into the Society and, after a trial period, usually about a year, they were accepted as permanent members. While new members continued to arrive, including immigrants from Germany, others found the Harmonists’ religious life too difficult and left the group. In addition, during a period of religious zeal in 1807 and 1808, most, but not all, of the Harmonists adopted the practice of celibacy and there were also few marriages among the members. Rapp’s son, Johannes, was married in 1807; and it was the last marriage on record until 1817. Although Rapp did not entirely bar sex initially, it gradually became a custom and there were few births in later years.

View of Frederick Rapp House in Harmony Historic District in Butler County, Pennsylvania. Photograph by Stanley E. Whiting, Harmonist & Historical Memorial Association, Harmony, Pennsylvania, National Register collection
View of Frederick Rapp House in Harmony Historic District in Butler County, Pennsylvania.
Photograph by Stanley E. Whiting, Harmonist & Historical Memorial Association, Harmony, Pennsylvania, National Register collection

Under the guidance of Frederick Rapp, George Rapp’s adopted son, the economy of Harmony grew from one of subsistence agriculture to gradual diversified manufacturing. In 1811 Harmony’s population rose to around 800 persons involved in farming and various trades. Although profit was not a primary goal, their finances improved and the enterprise was profitable, but not sufficient to carry out their planned expansions. Within a few years of their arrival, the Harmonist community included an inn, a tannery, warehouses, a brewery, several mills, stables, and barns, a church/meetinghouse, a school, additional dwellings for members, a labyrinth, and workshops for different trades. In addition, more land was cleared for vineyards and crops. The Harmonists also produced yarn and cloth.

By 1814 the Society boasted 700 members, a town of about 130 brick, frame, and log houses, and numerous factories and processing plants. Their manufactured products, particularly textiles and woolens, gained a widespread reputation for excellence, as did their wines and whisky.

Several factors led to the Harmonists’ decision to leave Butler County. Because the area’s climate was not suitable, they had difficulties growing grapes for wine. In addition, as westward migration brought new settlers to the county, making it less isolated, the Harmonists began having troubles with neighbors who were not part of the Society. Butler County’s growing population and rising land prices made it difficult for the Society to expand, causing the group’s leaders to look for more land elsewhere. Once land had been located that offered a better climate and room to expand, the group began plans to move. In 1814 the Harmonites sold their first settlement to Abraham Ziegler, a Mennonite, for $100,000 and moved west to make a new life for themselves in the Indiana Territory.

After selling all their holdings they moved to a new location on the Wabash River in Indiana. Here again they built a prosperous community, New Harmony (now a National Historic Landmark), only to sell it to Robert Owen, a social reformer from New Lanark, Scotland, and his financial partner, William Maclure, in 1825. The Harmonists next returned to Pennsylvania and built their final home at Economy (now called Old Economy and recognized as a National Historic Landmark), in Ambridge on the Ohio River. The Harmonists reached their peak of prosperity in 1866, but the practice of celibacy and several schisms thinned the Society’s ranks, and the community was finally dissolved in 1905. The surviving buildings of the first settlement in Harmony, with their sturdy, simple brick dwellings, the Great House with its arched wine cellar, and the imposing cemetery and original town plan are today a National Historic Landmark named the Harmony Historic District.

For further reading:

Harmony Society collection, 1838 – 1935 (2006). RBM 1589, Special Collections Library, Pennsylvania State University.

John M. Tate, Jr. Collection of Notes, Pictures and Documents relating to the Harmony Society, 1806-1930 . DAR.1946.02. Digital Collections. University of Pittsburgh.

Set Apart: Religious Communities in PennsylvaniaExplore


National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior:

Harmony Society collection, 1838 – 1935, finding aid, (2006). RBM 1589, Special Collections Library, Pennsylvania State University.

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: