Utopian imaginations

Dr. Kat Hill, Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History, Birkbeck, University of London
Dr. Simone Laqua-O’Donnell, Senior Lecturer in European History, University of Birmingham

In her memoir of her life in twentieth-century Ukraine in the Mennonite colony of Molotschna, Justina D. Neufeld (born 1930) expressed the sense of dislocation and displacement which often characterized diasporic belonging and the Mennonite experience of migration. She said that as a young girl growing up on the Steppe she never really felt like this was home, for her community spoke a different language and their pasts were rooted in the Netherlands. But alongside her sense of discomfort was also the idea of hope for a better future, for somewhere where they would feel at home. As she said, she always sensed they were pilgrims on a long journey which was not yet complete. “We had come from somewhere far away where people spoke our language, and we were hoping someday to leave this foreign land in which we now lived.”1

Altonau, Molotschna (1941), drawing by Johann Regehr.

This tension between here and there, present and future underpins what we might term utopian thinking and is prevalent in the imagination of many religious non-conformist groups. But why have communities turned to the idea of utopia? What was the significance of this idea? And how does it sit alongside other notions of idealized and hopeful ideations of place and time, such as the longing for a homeland in the diaspora or anticipations of heaven? These are questions which have come to feature in our research together, and this piece is an initial foray into answering these questions.

Utopia is imagined often as a place beyond reach, idealized, unachievable and fictional. Thomas More’s utopia was never imagined as a reality but as a dreamed-up land with tolerance of religious difference, no private property and a welfare state (although also slavery in a jarring reminder of the different world in which More lived).2 But for groups like the Mennonites it has been in constant touching distance and a tangible possibility in the here and now, not just a prospect in the afterlife. There may be similarities between utopia and heaven, but they also exist in different chronotopic frameworks. Utopia is distinct from the community of the faithful in heaven in that it is something which human hands can theoretically build, and it is also an ideal which exists in the temporal realm of human existence, not the sacred time of eternity. It is, therefore, a place believers can work towards rather than await in the afterlife.

If we understand Neufeld’s memoir in the context of utopia, however, it raises a series of interesting questions: Even though Mennonite communities often seem to believe a utopian future might be on the horizon and might become reachable through the plain lifestyle, when does utopia actually begin? And what is the role of human agency in its creation? Is it in the striving towards perfection perhaps? This constant striving for individual and communal perfection is essential to the community’s survival and has been an important dynamic in the migratory histories of the Mennonite diaspora and other similar groups. Scholars such as E.K. Francis and Leo Driedger have characterized the moments when Mennonites decided to migrate from Prussia to Russia, from Russia to Canada, as a search for utopia.3 But when is utopia actually achieved? Is it a place, an activity, or perhaps a time? Can it be found in the rural rhythm of an Old Order Mennonite’s workday? Does it have apocalyptic implications and is there any relationship between the New Jerusalem and utopia? These are some of the questions our research currently grapples with.

Utopias, of course, are also a form of critique of the modern world. By building the ‘city upon a hill’ or conforming to the romantic narrative of the withdrawn pastoral idyll,4 utopian groups comment on what is wrong with the world even when this is not explicitly their aim. There are many examples of utopian communities evolving from non-conformist Christian traditions that have built their vision of an ideal world in north America and beyond – branches of the Mennonite and Amish churches, the Shakers, the Amana colonies. This critique can take quite radical forms and often found its most provocative expression in the regulation of sexual relationships. Oneida was a utopian community founded by John Humphrey Noyes (1811-1886) in the mid-nineteenth century. The Oneida community practiced “complex marriage,” in which each man was married to each woman. Sexual relations followed a schedule and were recorded to assure no illicit favouritism occurred. Sexual intercourse fulfilled the threefold function to regulate pleasure and procreation as well as the creation of community. The radicalism of this set up not only lay in this practice of religious communistic love but also in the separation of sexual intercourse from procreation, which is of course highly controversial in Christian tradition.

For Mennonites, the wish to live their own idea of communal harmony has often manifested as the desire to be somewhere where they can be ‘the quiet in the land’, while the Amish have become famous for their simple way of life apart from the modern world. Whilst seen as ‘quaint’, or old-fashioned, the critique they offer of contemporary American culture does touch a nerve with wider society and goes some way in explaining the popularity of the Amish in wider society.5 Although the isolated and cutoff nature of Mennonite or Amish communities can mean that they are hard to maintain because new recruits are not necessarily welcome, they still attract an increasing number of those known as ‘seekers.’ Research has shown that these are particularly attracted to the stability offered by the plain lifestyle. It seems to offer a timeless utopia ‘reminiscent of America’s past, when small agrarian communities supported stable family relations, and religious and social customs provided the nation’s citizens with security and belonging.’6

These visions of Christian perfection have also been translated beyond their western contexts, clashing and mingling with other traditions. In 1972, former Buddhist monks in Owa, Japan formed a Hutterite colony with support from the Dariusleut Wilson Siding Colony near Lethbridge, Alberta. In a valley between low-lying hills about 165 km north of Tokyo, this group established their haven of communal living away from the urban demands of Japanese life.7 And there are many examples of utopian experiments beyond a western Christian framework. Auroville is an experimental utopian society in Viluppuram district in India founded by Mirra Alfassa (1878-1973) whose goal is human unity ‘above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities.’8 Whilst it is beyond our current research to investigate all these communities, they are examples of people who have stepped outside the contemporary world to critique of the world they live in in complex ways.

Conditions for utopia

Utopias need building, they need to be imagined as somewhere – even if that somewhere never comes to be. For Mennonites this has never been one specific place but rather a type of landscape or place which accommodates their idealisations. When Mennonites moved to the Central Chaco in the 1920s they were drawn to it because they mistakenly believed the landscape was a perfect grass farmland.9 Actually this dense jungle area, known as the Green Hell, was completely unsuitable for farming. Amongst many utopian groups, the idea of the ‘plain people’ has been crucial as has the value attributed to a simple, rural life, working the land. Kanter argues that a feature of utopian communities is the return to the land as a pathway to perfection.10 Many of the nineteenth-century American utopian communities sprang up when industrialization threatened patterns of life and the return to rural simplicity, by communities such as the Unitarians of Brook Farm in Massachusetts.

The construction of the utopian community exists in the social relationships between people – whether this is the emphasis on equality, Christian love, sharing of goods, or particular patterns of raising children, marrying or family structures. However, it is also reflected in the architecture and the layout of the communities which facilitate the communal lifestyle. The Shakers around Ann Lee (1736-1784) became widely known for the simplicity and functionality of their community layout and furniture designs. Larger communities also included dual spaces for men and women, emphasising their general striving for order and their celibate lifestyles.

Shaker Dwelling House, South Family, New Lebanon, by 1831. Undated photograph

Early modern Hutterites practiced communal living in the Bruderhof, with long buildings around a central common. The ground floor of larger buildings were workshops or spaces for communal living, whilst the top attics were living quarters for couples and their children.11 Mennonites settling in Ukraine in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, built villages along specific plans, family homesteads close to one another along a central street, and each with its own cemetery, schoolhouse, and administrative buildings. This sense of constructed perfection extends even to the dead. The Amana colonies designed cemeteries lined by pine trees, always facing east since they believed Christ would return from this direction, and individuals were buried by chronological order of death not by family group to emphasise equality. The whole community was united as one large family in death.12 The Moravian Brethren followed a similar principle.

The longing for utopia propels movement and migration but when communities do reach their utopia it remains unstable and in constant negotiation. The Oak Knoll Amish Mennonite Community are a community for whom some sense of a utopian present has been constructed by cutting themselves off from the modern world. Alarmed at rapid urbanization in California, in 1969 three families in Oak Knoll bought one thousand acres of land.13 To maintain this refuge from the modern world, however, they have a constant process of assessment and negotiation which decides which aspects of modern technology to allow into their “other world.” Threats can be internal as well external. What happens to utopia when the society begins to break down and the vision of perfection crumbles?

Utopian dilemmas

Religious utopian communities seem to look back to an older often imagined past which is, however, constantly being constructed. Does a utopia then look back or forward in time? Can utopias also exist in the past? A mirage of a golden past of perfection from which the contemporary world has declined often seems to fuel utopian ideals yet they also constantly look the future. Koselleck proposed the notion of the temporalization of utopia, as the faith in a future heaven and millenarian ideals declined and utopian ideals shifted to the secular world of now and the future.14 He argued that the ‘imagined perfection of the formerly spatial counterworld is temporalized.’

But this model also raises problems. How does this fit with Anabaptist legacies? Is utopia something which exists on earth or in heaven or beyond earth, and how then is it to be constructed? Is this something the Mennonites and other Christian communities would agree with? Do they feel connected to the notion of utopia? Would they not strongly disagree that their lifestyle is utopian and even more so that their vision is? After all, they are already living a kind of utopia in the here and now and the utopia of the afterlife is a certainty for them, not a dream.


1. Justina D. Neufeld, A Family Torn Apart (Kitchener, 2003), 21–23.

2. Thomas More, Libellus Vere Aureus Nec Minus Salutaris quam Festivus (London, 1516); “Utopia”, trans. John P. Dolan, in James J. Greene and John P. Dolan, eds, The Essential Thomas More (New York, 1967).

3. E.K. Francis, In Search of Utopia: The Mennonites in Manitoba (Glenco, IL, 1955); Leo Driedger, Mennonite Identity in Conflict, Studies in Religion and Society 19 (Lewiston, NW, 1988), Harold J. Schultz, ‘Search for Utopia: The Exodus of Russian Mennonites to Canada, 1917-1927’, Journal of Church and State 11.3 (1969), 487–512.

4. John P. R. Eicher, Exiled Among Nations: German and Mennonite Mythologies in a Transnational Age (Cambridge, 2020), 22–23.

5. Dachang Cong, ‘The Roots of Amish Popularity in Contemporary U.S.A.’, Journal of American Culture, Volume 17.1 (1994), 59–66.

6. Cory Anderson, ‘Religious Seekers’ Attraction to the Plain Mennonites and Amish’, Review of Religious Research, 58.1 (2018), 125–147, here 142.

7. Hiroshi Tanaka Shimazaki, ‘The Emergence of Japanese Hutterites’, Japan Review 12 (2000), 145–164.

8. https://aviuk.org/about/introduction-to-auroville/.

9. Esther Breithoff, Conflict, Heritage and World-Making in the Chaco: War at the End of the Worlds? (London, 2020), 29, 37.

10. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Commitment and Community: Communes and Utopias in Sociological Perspective (Cambridge, MA: 1972), 8.

11. John A. Hostetler, Hutterite Society (Baltimore, 1997), 35.

12. Jonathan G. Andelson, ‘Amana Cemeteries as Embodiments of Religious and Social Beliefs’, Plains Anthropologist 62 (2017), 181–200.

13. Duncan Waite and Denise Crockett, ‘Whose Education? Reform, Culture, and an Amish Mennonite Community’, Theory Into Practice 36.2: Exploring the Margins: Lessons from Alternative Schools (1997),117–122; Denise Crockett, ‘Lessons from a Utopian Community: Is a Critical Examination of Technology Feasible, Possible, or Necessary?’, Scholar-Practitioner Quarterly 4.3 (2010), 256–269.

14. Gregory Claeys, ‘Utopia at Five Hundred: Some Reflections’, Utopian Studies 27. 3, SPECIAL ISSUE: On the Commemoration of the Five Hundredth Anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia—Part II (2016), 402–411; Richard Koselleck, The Practice of Conceptual History (Stanford, 2002), 85, 88.

1 thought on “Utopian imaginations

  1. There are certainly elements of revolutionary utopianism exhibited in the early anabaptist movements. To a large extent it is this utopian element that provides the implicit and explicit social criticism for which we admire these anabaptists. Unfortunately, that critical spirit very soon turns inward and morphs into criticism of each other rather than the social norms of the larger society. Among early anabaptists, this took on the utopianism of trying to create and maintain a ‘church without spot or wrinkle.’ This, I think, has to be seen in context of the extreme persecution the early anabaptists experienced ‘everywhere’, in which the exhibition of a ‘perfect’ church among them became something like a defensive move of self-vindication to shame their persecutors and prove them wrong (the lesson of the Dirk Willems story, pictured above, I heard so often as a child.) Analogous to a child who has experienced extreme physical abuse, who at least somewhat internalizes the abusers POV/judgment and reacts by developing extreme levels of scrupulous self-scrutiny, anabaptist churches pursuing this ‘nowhere’ vision of a church without spot or wrinkle carry within them a strong element of internal accusation and being their own persecutors. They are left with a constant struggle over who/what is spot and wrinkle, with precious little tolerance, forgiveness and acceptance of differences (grace!) among them.

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