Born in Iptingen, Duchy of Württemberg, Germany, Rapp became inspired by the philosophies of Jakob Böhme, Philipp Jakob Spener, and Emanuel Swedenborg, among others. In the 1780s, George Rapp began preaching and soon started to gather a group of his own followers. His group officially split with the Lutheran Church in 1785 and was promptly banned from meeting. The persecution that Rapp and his followers experienced caused them to leave Germany and come to the United States in 1803. Rapp was a Pietist, and a number of his beliefs were shared by the Anabaptists, as well as groups such as the Shakers.
Rapp's religious beliefs and philosophy were the cement that held his community together both in Germany and in America – a Christian community and commune, which in America organized as the Harmony Society. The Harmony Society built three American towns, became rich, famous, and survived for 100 years – roughly from 1805 until 1905.
In 1791, George Rapp said, "I am a prophet, and I am called to be one" in front of the civil affairs official in Maulbronn, Germany, who promptly had him imprisoned for two days and threatened with exile if he did not cease preaching. To the great consternation of church and state authorities, this mere peasant from Iptingen had become the outspoken leader of several thousand Separatists in the southern German duchy of Württemberg. In 1798, Rapp and his group of followers had further distanced themselves from mainstream society. In the Lomersheimer Declaration, written in 1798, Rapp's followers refused to serve in the military or attend Lutheran schools. By 1802, the Separatists had grown in number to about 12,000 and the Württemberg government decided that they were a dangerous threat to social order. Rapp was summoned to Maulbronn for an interrogation and the government confiscated Separatist books. When released in 1803, Rapp told his followers to pool their assets and follow him on a journey for safety to the "land of Israel" in the United States, and soon over 800 people were living with him there.
The initial move scattered the followers and reduced Rapp's original group of 12,000 to many fewer persons. In 1804, Rapp was able to secure a large tract of land in Pennsylvania and started his first commune. This first commune, 'Harmonie', (Harmony), Butler County, Pennsylvania, soon grew to a population of about 800, and was highly profitable. At Harmony, the Harmony Society was formally organized on February 15, 1805, and its members contracted to hold all property in common and to submit to spiritual and material leadership by Rapp and associates. In 1807, celibacy was advocated as the preferred custom of the community in an attempt to purify themselves for the coming Millennium.
In 1814, the society sold their first town in Pennsylvania to Mennonites for 10 times the amount originally paid for the land, and the entire commune moved out west to Indiana where their new town was also known as Harmony. Ten years after the move to Indiana the commune moved again, this time it returned to Pennsylvania and named their town 'Ökonomie', Economy. The Indiana settlement was sold to Robert Owen, at which point it was renamed New Harmony, Indiana.
George Rapp lived out his remaining days in the town of Economy, Pennsylvania, until August 7, 1847, when he died at the age of 89.
Rapp was the son of Hans Adam Rapp (1720-71) and Rosine Berger. He had one brother, Adam, and three sisters, Marie Dorothea, Elise Dorothea, and Maria Barbara. George Rapp married Christine Benzinger in 1783 and the couple had two children, Johannes (1783-1812) and Rosine (1786-1849). Johannes, trained as a surveyor, died at age 29 in an industrial accident. His is the only name listed on a stone in the Harmonist cemetery in Harmony, Pennsylvania - the Harmonists did not mark their graves. The stone was donated by Non-Harmonists, and the Society accepted it reluctantly. The location of Johannes' grave within the cemetery is unknown. Johannes' daughter, Gertrude (1808-89), later became a minor American celebrity and organized the Society's silk production at Economy, Pennsylvania.
Rapp adopted Frederick Reichert (1775-1834), who organized the move of Rapp's followers from Württemberg to America in 1804. In America, Frederick was the business leader and public spokesman for the Harmony Society.
Rapp was tall, blue eyed, broad shouldered, with long hair and a patriarch's beard. He had a powerful voice, which matched his commanding presence. Rapp trained as a journeyman weaver and learned the art of wine making. Grapevines and wine were prominent in all three Harmonite towns.
Rapp and his followers, the Harmonites, believed Christ would return in their lifetime. The purpose of the community was to be worthy of Christ and prepare for his return. They were nonviolent pacifists, refused to serve in the military, and tried to live by George Rapp's philosophy and literal interpretations of the New Testament. After leaving Germany and coming to the United States, they first settled in (and built) the town of Harmony, Pennsylvania in 1804, and established the Harmony Society in 1805 as a religious commune. In 1807, celibacy was advocated as the preferred custom of the community in an attempt to purify themselves for the coming Millennium. Rapp believed that the events and wars going on in the world at the time were a confirmation of his views regarding the imminent Second Coming of Christ, and he also viewed Napoleon as the Antichrist. Rapp produced a book with his ideas and philosophy, Thoughts on the Destiny of Man, published in German in 1824 and in English a year later.
The Harmonites 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" (Acts 4:32-37) and practicing celibacy. They believed that the old ways of life on earth were coming to an end, and that a new perfect kingdom on earth was about to be realized.
Rapp and his group also practiced forms of Esoteric Christianity, Mysticism (Christian mysticism), and Rapp often spoke of the virgin spirit or Goddess named Sophia in his writings. Rapp was very influenced by the writings of Jakob Böhme, Philipp Jakob Spener, and Emanuel Swedenborg, among others. Also, in Economy, Pennsylvania, there are glass bottles and literature that seems to indicate that the group was interested in (and practiced) alchemy. Some other books that were found in the Harmony Society's library in Old Economy, Pennsylvania, include those by the following authors: Christoph Schütz, Gottfried Arnold, Justinus Kerner, Thomas Bromley, Jane Leade, Johann Scheible (Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses ), Paracelsus, and Georg von Welling (Opus Mago-Cabalisticum), among others.
The Harmonites tended to view unmarried celibate life as morally superior to marriage, based on Rapp's belief that God had originally created Adam as a "biune" (a human with no sexual organs). According to this view, when the female portion of Adam separated to form Eve, disharmony followed, but one could attempt to regain harmony through celibacy.
George Rapp's life was not without controversy and problems. Rapp and the Harmony Society were involved in protracted legal cases: many relating to the monetary claims by former Society member who did not feel properly compensated for their time and labor, other cases concerned the ownership and sale of property Society members left in Württemberg, and legal complications from fines and payments made to avoid militia service. Rapp was called a tyrant and Society members his slaves. During elections, the Society was seen as a monolithic voting block which caused political ill feelings and generated animosity against Rapp. He was accused of killing his son Johannes – who died in an industrial accident. Rapp predicted that on September 15, 1829, the three and one half years of the Sun Woman would end and Christ would begin his reign on earth. Dissension grew when Rapp's predictions went unfulfilled. Perhaps his greatest error was in 1831 when he accepted Bernhard Müller, who called himself Maximilian Count de Leon, the "Lion of Judah" as the man who would unite all true Christians. In the year that followed Rapp changed his mind, but one third of the Society members separated and joined with Müller in establishing a separate community, the New Philadelphian Congregation. After Rapp's death in 1847, a number of members left the group because of disappointment and disillusionment over the fact that his prophecies regarding the return of Jesus Christ in his lifetime were not fulfilled. His last words to his followers were, "If I did not so fully believe, that the Lord has designated me to place our society before His presence in the land of Canaan, I would consider this my last".
The Harmonite commune ultimately failed because the policy of celibacy prevented new members from within, and the majority of the outside world had no desire to give up so much to live in a commune. The society was formally dissolved in 1906.
Books and articles in German: