Utopian Communities Webquest

"The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs. Embosomed for a season in nature…why should we grope among the dry bones of the past? The sun shines today also…There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship." --Ralph Waldo Emerson, The American Scholar

With this speech, given at Harvard, Ralph Waldo Emerson calls for a new national vision, based upon personal experience and the unique contact Americans have had with Nature and the frontier, and not from books or European examples. In some ways, the growth of Utopian communities in 18th and 19th century in America is reflected in the above sentiment.

Common Characteristics of these 19th Century Communities:
Most have a much higher degree of teamwork, sharing responsibilities and resources. Some communities are secular; others have a spiritual basis or are part of the alternative society, such as eco-friendly living. Commonly there is a focus on egalitarian values, voluntary simplicity and self-reliance.

TASK: Your task is to identify, within one of these utopian communities, these three essential Transcendentalist principles—Nature as Inspirations, individuality and self-reliance, and a preoccupation with the charismatic leader.
  1. First, answer the questions on your handout to discover more about your specific community.
  2. Next, complete the chart showing how your community connects with Transcendentalism.
  3. Finally, work with your partner to create a PowerPoint slide that will feature one Utopian community and how one of these Transcendental principles applies. For example, show how Nature is the inspiration for Brook Farm, or how Mother Ann Lee is a charismatic leader in the Shaker community.

Understanding the Connection between Utopian Communities and Transcendentalism
  • Nature as Inspiration: Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists believed that the fundamental truths of being and the universe can be grasped only through intuition in moments of mystic enthusiasm. Nature was the trigger for intuition and mystical enthusiasm because it was where a person could be easily acquainted with the hand of God.
  • Individuality and Self-Reliance: Emerson argued that the creative spirit must be committed to novelty and change. This ideal evolved into a philosophy of relentless perfectionism.
  • Transcendentalism began in 1848 as a protest against the general state of culture and society. In The American Scholar, a speech Emerson gave at Harvard, he declared literary independence in the United States and urged Americans to create a writing style all their own and free from Europe. In fact Emerson called upon Americans to reexamine all cultural legacies from Europe and create a new American culture and identity
  • Charismatic Leader: Emerson possessed a deep faith in human potential, believing that all beings were united through a shared universal soul joined in mystic enthusiasm. Like many Romantics, Emerson was fascinated by the visionary, the exceptional figure, such as the Minutemen, those embattled farmers who stood and “fired the shot heard round the world.” Likewise, many members of these Utopian communities came to view their charismatic leader as the embodiment of their collective religious experience, the best embodiment of their own mystical enthusiasm and relentless perfectionism.

Utopian Communities
Choose one of the following 18th century utopian communities and show how the above three principles can be found to be characteristic of that community in the chart provided. You can find the resources for this activity on the class website.
A. Brook Farm
B. Oneida Community (the Perfectionists)
C. The Rappites and Separatists
D. Robert Owen and The New Harmony Society
E. Zoar in Ohio
F. Amana Colony in Iowa
G. Ephrata Cloister in Pennsylvania

Nature: “As Thomas Cole maintained, if nature were untouched by the hand of man--as was much of the primeval American landscape in the early 19th century--then man could become more easily acquainted with the hand of God.”

Based on a webquest from CBC American Studies




Special Thanks to Ms. Whipple @ Austin High School for this webquest! :)