The Society was founded and led by Johann Georg Rapp (1757–1847) and his adopted son, Frederick (Reichert) Rapp (1775–1834), and lasted for 100 years – roughly from 1805 until 1905. Members of the society were sometimes called Harmonists, Harmonites, or Rappites. The Harmony Society is best known for its worldly successes, eventually building three successive communities, first at Harmony, Pennsylvania, then New Harmony, Indiana, finally settling in Economy (now Ambridge, Pennsylvania).
Johann Georg Rapp (November 1, 1757 – August 7, 1847) was the founder of the religious sect called Harmonists, Harmonites, Rappites, or the Harmony Society.
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. By 1798, Rapp and his group of followers had already begun to distance themselves from mainstream society. In the Lomersheimer Declaration, written in 1798, Rapp's followers refused to serve in the military or attend Lutheran schools. In 1803, when the government began to persecute Rapp's followers, he decided to move the entire group to the United States. 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 created and its members contracted to hold all property in common, to submit to spiritual and material leadership by Rapp and associates, and adopted the celibate lifestyle. Rapp let new comers into the society and once these members tried out the society for six months, they were accepted as permanent members. In 1814, the first town was sold 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. 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. 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.
In December 1804, Rapp and a party of two others contracted to purchase 3,000 acres (12 km²) of land for $10,000 in Butler County, Pennsylvania, and to this place there followed 140 families. There they built the town of Harmony. Their small community held houses, a church, a school, and workshops for different work places. George Rapp was recognized as the spiritual head of the society. Some of the followers began referring to Rapp as "father", for he represented one that they went to for discussions, confessions and other matters that went on in the society. The exigency of their condition (they had but little money) forced him to put their money into a common fund. On February 15, 1805, they formally organized the Harmony Society, placing all their goods in common. Frederick Reichert was elected to be the manager of its business, commerce, etc., and a board of elders was also elected, for the enforcement of the society's rules and regulations. The society grew and improved, and the population rose to around 800. In 1807, celibacy was advocated by most, and, although Rapp did not entirely bar it, this gradually became a custom — there were few births in later years. Also, there were few marriages after that. Rapp's son Johannes was married in 1807, and was the last one on record for 10 years. Believing that the Second Coming of Christ was in their future, the Harmonists gave up tobacco and advocated celibacy. Agreeably to Rapp's request, Frederick Reichert became Rapp's adopted son and took the former's name. Under Frederick's management the society prospered, but he soon wished for a location better suited to commercial purposes. The Harmonists had some troubles with neighboring people that were not part of the society. They also began having difficulties growing grapes for wine making. As a result, the Harmonites decided to sell their first settlement to a group of Mennonites for $100,000, and make a new life for themselves elsewhere.
The Harmony Society moved to Indiana in 1814, where it initially acquired 7,000 acres (28 km²) along the Wabash River in Posey Co. Here was built the town of New Harmony. The settlement entered into agriculture and manufacture on a larger scale, eventually acquiring around 30,000 acres (121 km²). In 1819, the Harmonites had many two story homes on the land, along with thriving shops and mills. During the two years of building New Harmony, many of the people fell sick from malaria. During this time the society lost about 120 people, and others fell ill until the conditions were improved and the swamps around the area were drained. Buildings that were constructed in New Harmony consisted of a church, a tavern, mills, and community homes. While the Harmonites were in Indiana, they had visitors from another communal religious society, the Shakers. The meeting consisted of a possible joining of the two societies. However, the religious differences between the two groups caused them not to join together, but members still remained close over the years. George Rapp's daughter and some others lived at the Shaker settlement in Kentucky for a time, and the Shakers helped a number of Harmonites learn the English language. Being in Indiana, the Harmonites were a great distance from the Eastern markets, and the trade in this location wasn't to their liking. They also had to deal with unfriendly neighbors (being Abolitionists in sentiment, disagreeable elements from Kentucky, only 15 miles (25 km) away, caused them much annoyance). In 1824, Frederick Rapp purchased a tract of 3,000 acres (12 km²) along the Ohio River, 18 miles (30 km) Northwest of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and soon they sold their land and buildings in Indiana to Robert Owen, the Welsh utopian thinker and social reformer, and to William Maclure for $150,000. The Harmony Society then returned to Pennsylvania.
The Harmonites named their last town Economy, after the spiritual notion of the Divine Economy. Here under the business acumen and efficient management of Frederick Rapp, they enjoyed such prosperity that by 1829 they dominated the trade and the markets of Pittsburgh and down the Ohio River. They were accused of being a monopoly, and it was advocated that the society be dissolved by the State. At this time the community was not neglectful of matters pertaining to art and culture. Frederick Rapp purchased and installed a museum, containing fine paintings and many curios and antiquities; they had a deer park, a floral park, and a maze, or labyrinth; they also had an orchestra, were fond of music, and gave much attention to its cultivation. In 1832 the society suffered a serious division. Of 750 members, 250 became alienated through the influence of Bernhard Müller (self-styled Count de Leon), who, with 40 followers (also at variance with the authorities in the old country), had come to Economy to affiliate with the society. Rapp and Leon could not agree; a separation and apportionment of the property were therefore agreed upon. This secession of one-third of the society, consisting mostly of the flower of young manhood and young womanhood who did not want to maintain the custom of celibacy, broke Frederick's heart. He died within two years. It resulted in a considerable fracturing of the community. Nevertheless, the society remained prosperous in business investments for many more years to come. After Frederick Rapp's death, in 1834, the business management passed successively into the hands of George Rapp, who died in 1847; R. L, Baker and Jacob Henrici, 1847-69; J. Henrici and Jonathan Lenz, 1869-92; J. S. Duss, 1892-1903; Susie C. Duss, 1903-06.
The settlements were economically successful, producing many goods in a clothing factory, a sawmill, a tannery, and from their vineyards and distillery. They also produced high quality silk for garments. Rapp's granddaughter, Gertrude, began the silk production in Economy. This was planned in New Harmony, but fulfilled when they arrived at Economy. The Harmonites were industrious and utilized the latest technologies of the day in their factories. In Economy, the group aided the construction of the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad, established the Economy Savings Institution and the Economy Brick Works, and operated the Economy Oil Company, Economy Planing Mill, Economy Lumber Company, and eventually donated some land in Beaver Falls for the construction of Geneva College. The society exerted a major influence on the economic development of Western Pennsylvania. But since the group chose to adopt celibacy and the people in the group kept getting older, more work gradually had to be hired out.
The high-water mark of the society's prosperity was at the close of the administration of R. L. Baker in 1868; its wealth at that time being probably $2,000,000. By 1890, however, it was hopelessly in debt, on the verge of bankruptcy, with a depleted membership of aged people. The society was overwhelmed with litigation on the part of would-be heirs. J. S. Duss won the lawsuits and paid the society's indebtedness. The great strain which he had undergone undermining his health, he was forced to resign his trusteeship in 1903. There being but few members left, the remaining land and assets were sold under the leadership of Duss's wife, and the society was formally dissolved in 1906.
In 1916, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania acquired 6 acres (0.024 km²) and 17 buildings of Old Economy, which became the present-day historic site. Other parts of the society's land were acquired by the American Bridge Company to expand the town of Ambridge.
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. 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 Harmonites were Christian pietist separatists who split from the Lutheran Church in the late 18th century, and under the leadership of George Rapp left Württemberg, Germany, and came to the United States in 1803. Leaving due to the troubles they'd had in Europe, the group sought to establish a more perfect society in the American wilderness. 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. 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. In 1814, the society sold their first town in Pennsylvania to Mennonites and moved to New Harmony, Indiana, where they built their second town. Their Abolitionist sentiments caused some disagreements with those living South of that area. Then, at some point around 1824, they decided it was time to leave Indiana, and soon they sold New Harmony to Robert Owen and moved to their final settlement of Economy, Pennsylvania.
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.
They 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 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 did not come to pass. In March of 1832, a third of the group left and some began following a man named Bernhard Müller who claimed to be the Lion of Judah. Nevertheless, most of the group stayed and Rapp continued to lead them until he died on August 7, 1847. 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 Harmonites did not mark their graves with headstones or grave markers, because they thought it was unnecessary to do so. Today, their graveyards are fenced in grassy areas with signs posted nearby explaining this practice.
The Harmony Society's architecture reflected their Swabian German traditions, as well as the German-American styles that were being developed in America during the 19th century. In the early days of the society, many of the homes were initially log cabins, but by the time they reached Economy the homes were mostly two-story brick houses. New Harmony consisted of a lovely brick church. William Herbert, a visitor to New Harmony wrote this about their building of the church:
"These people exhibit considerable taste as well as boldness of design in some of their works. They are erecting a noble church, the roof of which is supported in the interior by a great number of stately columns, which have been turned from trees in their own forests. The kinds of wood made use of for this purpose are, I am informed, black walnut, cherry and sassafras. Nothing I think can exceed the grandeur of the joinery and the masonry and brickwork seem to be of the first order. The form of this church is that of a cross, the limbs being short and equal; and as the doors, which there are four, are placed at the end of the limbs, the interior of the building as seen from the entrance, has a most ample and spacious effect.... I could scarcely imagine myself to be in the woods of Indiana, on the borders of the Wabash, while pacing the long resounding aisles, and surveying the stately colonnades of this church."
In every home of the Harmony Society, there lived 4 to 6 people. Even when the house contained those that were married, they were recommended to live like brother and sister since there was a suggestion and custom of practicing celibacy. Those of the Society woke between 5 and 6 a.m. They ate breakfast and did their chores and work for the day. At the end of the day, members met for meetings and had a curfew of 9 p.m. On Sundays, the members respected the "Holy day" and did no work, but attended church services and singing groups.
Their style of dress reflected their Swabian German roots and traditions. Although the Harmonites typically wore plain clothing, they would wear their fine silk garments on Sundays and on other special occasions. The clothing did vary in color, but often carried the same designs. On a typical day, women wore ankle length dresses, while men wore pants with vests or coats and a hat.
The Harmonites were a prosperous agricultural and industrial people. They had many machines which helped them be successful in their trades. They even had steam-powered engines that ran the machines at some of their factories in Old Economy Village. They kept their machines up to date, and had many factories and mills.
Each member of the society had a job in a certain craft or trade. Most of the work done by men consisted of manual labor, while the women dealt more with textiles or agriculture. As Economy became more technologically developed, they began to hire others from outside the society. Especially when their numbers decreased because of the custom of celibacy, and as they eventually let fewer new members join. Although the Harmonites did seek work-oriented help from the outside, they were known as a community that supported themselves and kept their ways of living in their community and mainly exported goods, and tried to import as little as possible.
George Rapp had an eloquent style, which matched his commanding presence, and he was the personality that lead the group through all the different settlements. 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. However, many stayed in the group, and the Harmony Society went on to become an even more profitable business community that had many worldly financial successes under the leadership of R. L. Baker and Jacob Henrici. Over time the group became more protective of itself, didn't allow many new members, moved further from its religious foundation to a more business-oriented and pragmatic approach, and the custom of celibacy eventually drained it of its membership. The land and financial assets of the Harmony Society were sold off by the few remaining members under the leadership of John S. and his wife Susanna C. Duss by the year 1906. Today, many of the Society's remaining buildings are preserved and listed as National Historic Landmarks.