Who doesn’t want to live in a better place? We dream of a better house in a better location with better conveniences, in better communities in better world – you know. just. better. British author James Hilton describes Shangri-La as a mystical, harmonious valley which resembles the ancient Tibetan Buddhist’s Shambhala. Utopia, paradise, heaven (on earth), Eden, Garden of Eden (present age), Shangri-La, Elysium; idyll, nirvana, God’s country, Elysian Fields, Valhalla, Avalon – it goes by many different names but the essential idea is the same. Wikipedia says utopia is …
“… a community or society possessing highly desirable or near perfect qualities. The word was coined by Sir Thomas More in Greek for his 1516 book Utopia (in Latin), describing a fictional island society in the Atlantic Ocean. The term has been used to describe both intentional communities that attempt to create an ideal society, and imagined societies portrayed in fiction. It has spawned other concepts, most prominently dystopia.
There have been many utopian experiments carried out in fairly recent history – many of them religious in nature. Settlements such as the Shakers. The Shakers, or the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearance, represent one of the most successful utopian communities in American history. The Shakers were founded in England in 1770 by “Mother” Ann Lee who claimed to have had visions from God. “According to Lee’s visions, the Shakers were to live by four basic tenets. First, they must live communally. Second, they must be celibate. Third, they must regularly confess their sins. And fourth, they must separate themselves from the outside world. They believed that if they rigorously followed these tenets, they would be able to achieve perfection.”2 They built the first of the Shaker communities in America in Western New York State from which eventually eighteen came into being, stretching from Kentucky to Maine.
Another experiment in utopianism was that of Robert Owen who was the mind behind New Harmony, IN. New Harmony had begun in 1814 by a group of followers of the self-proclaimed prophet, George Rapp. Rapp had broken with the Lutheran Church in Germany and had led his followers to America where they first began a settlement in Butler County, PA in 1804. “The Harmonites, (or Rappites, Rapp’s followers, mr), … were Millennialists, in that they believed Jesus Christ was coming to earth in their lifetime to help usher in a thousand-year kingdom of peace on earth. This is perhaps why they believed that people should try to make themselves “pure” and “perfect”, and share things with others while willingly living in communal “harmony”…3
Owen came to this country from England in 1824 and after visiting with the Shakers and the Rappites, purchased the town of Harmony (now New Harmony, Indiana) in 1825 for a sum of $135,000. He immediately began advertising for occupants for the 800 places that were available. Owen believed that the community (Owen’s concept pictured above) would serve as the model for the “New Moral World” communities that would follow New Harmony and eventually transform world society according to enlightenment principles. Progressive experiments in education, communal living and science were attempted, and Owen brought to New Harmony some of the most progressive European educators and scientists.”4 “The underlying factor (in Owen’s purchase of Harmony) was his deep commitment to the belief that it would be the seed for other communities, all of which would eventually lead to the new society he envisioned. All else was secondary thereto.”5
Journalist Larry Witham in his history of preaching in America6 includes Alexander Campbell, the most prominent and influential of the early Stone-Campbell Restoration figures, in a list of preachers whose vision and works were of the utopian sort. Campbell was very much a product of his age – the Age of Enlightenment, so this is not surprising. It is hardly odd that Campbell crossed paths in Cincinnati April 13-21, 1829 in a debate with the same Robert Owen who was behind the utopian venture at Harmony, IN. The debate wasn’t about their views of the future world, but upon evidences for the Christian faith. In fact, their views of the future of the world were strikingly similar. They differed somewhat on how humanity would get to their expected perfect place as Owen was a skeptic, but in substance they were very much the same in their hopes for humanity. Given that the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, was that of extreme optimism for human perfectibility, this is not surprising. The hope to transform world society according to enlightenment principles was rife in this age. It was what was behind the utopian dreams outlined above and others as well.
For Campbell, in the heyday of Restoration Movement the world was getting better; scriptures were being spread; science, education, agriculture, commerce, and nature all were combining to bring on a better day. A new political, moral, and religious revolution was fast advancing.”And do not all these operations indicate that much … will certainly be done to bless the human race, without the aid of a new dispensation?” In short, a new American epoch was bringing about the culmination of the Reformation, fevering to a high pitch an early utopia in which Christ shall reign in spirit and truth.7 This hope in some form was common to all modernistic enlightenment thinkers of every stripe.
Beginning in 1843, however, Campbell began to subdue his eschatological interests. Was it because it was becoming more and more evident that the hopes and dreams he had cherished early on in the Restoration Movement were not coming to fruition? He seemed to diminish his writing on the subject, although as late as 1856 he continued to affirm that the Bible affords God’s people grounds to believe that the church will arrive at a state of prosperity that it has never before enjoyed. It may be in the second millennium of recorded Christian history, but it shall continue for at least a thousand years. The Jews will convert to Jesus as the Christ, genuine
Christianity will spread throughout the world, and Christ will reign spiritually in glory. When he addressed the baccalaureate class at Bethany College in 1858, he proclaimed that they were “standing upon the experience of 5,862 years, lacking only 138 years of the Millennial Age.”8
According to Campbell’s estimate, the Millenial Age when the perfect rule of Christ would be ushered in would have been 19 years ago in 1996. His hope for the church to be restored to it’s original state of unity was, at the time of this hopeful statement, already beginning to crumble as the Restoration churches were by that time squabbling over what constituted the essentials for that to occur. Along with the widening cracks appearing in what was supposed to be the monolithic structure of the “restored” church came the gradual demise of the millenial hope as well.
Ninety years before his supposed date of the inauguration of the age to come, the Churches of Christ were declared by another prominent leader, David Lipscomb, to be a separate entity from the main body of the Restoration. Fifty years or so later the definitive division between the Disciples of Christ and the independent Christian Churches took place. The utopian Restoration dream was, by that time, no more than a shattered dream so far as Campbell’s hopes were concerned.
To be continued…
6 Utopias and Utopians: An Historical Dictionary of Attempts to Make the World, HarperOne; Reprint edition (July 1, 2008)
7 Dan G. Danner, The Millennium in the Restoration Movement; Leaven, Volume 7, Issue 4, Restoration Themes