Pietist “Communism”: The Amana Colonies

A couple years ago our family went to southern Iowa for a reunion. Noticing that the nearest town was called Moravia, I decided to take a morning to drive around… and discovered several examples of Moravian, Brethren, and other Pietist groups that had settled in that part of America. That tour of “Pietist Iowa” ended up opening my part of the introduction to The Pietist Option.

Alas, that tour couldn’t include the most famous example of Pietism in the Upper Midwest, just over 100 miles northeast of Moravia: the Amana Colonies. But I finally had a chance to rectify that yesterday, during another family trip to Iowa.

For those unfamiliar… the Amana colonies were founded in 1855 by a group of German emigrants (the “Community of True Inspiration” — more on that title shortly), moving on from an initial settlement (Ebenezer) near Buffalo, New York. Split among seven small villages, the Amana settlers lived communally, with work, education, and even dining shared in common — an arrangement that lasted until 1932, when the Great Depression (and the lingering effects of an explosion that destroyed the uninsured mill) forced the residents to seek jobs and reorganize the Amana Society as a for-profit company. Amana now is a tourist destination, and Whirlpool now occupies the nearby refrigeration factory that took its name from the colonies.

I suspect that most tourists are drawn to Amana by the themes that started Bertha Shambaugh’s 1908 history of the colonies:

A bit of Europe in America, a voice out of the past on the world’s western frontier, this unique Community stands as the nearest approach in our day to the Utopian’s dream of a community of men and women living together in peace, plenty, and happiness, away from the world and its many distractions. But the communism of Amana is not a dream: it is a fact—an established order of life.

In this sense, I’d guess that the Amana Colonies inspire the same kind of interest as Amish Country. At least, that’s what our seven-year old daughter said: not just the clothing and German language, but the deeper commitments to peace, simplicity, and discipline reminded her of our visit last fall to Amish farms in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. (Like those Anabaptists, the people of Amana were pacifists who refused to swear oaths, which caused the recurring persecution that helped drive them to America in the 19th century.)

And just as most visitors to the Amish are only dimly aware that Christian faith inspired and sustains that community, I’d guess that few tourists in Amana are aware of (or all that interested) in its religious history. Shambaugh knew as much in 1908, as she continued her description of Amana’s “plain living”:

Of more significance, however, than the fact of communism at Amana is the deeper truth that, while standing at the head of successful communistic societies, the rise and development of the Community of True Inspiration were in no way inspired by the social philosophy of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Indeed, communism is only incidental to the life and thought of this Community: its chief concern is spiritual. Born of religious enthusiasm and disciplined by persecution, it has ever remained primarily a Church. And so the real Amana is Amana the Church — Amana the Community of True Inspiration.

While the “Great Change” of 1932 reshaped the economy of those villages, the Amana church remained largely intact. While present-day members of that congregation (we heard numbers ranging from 200 to 400) no longer worship the eleven times expected in the heyday of the Community, the unadorned church in Middle Amana holds two Sunday morning services that function much like they always have — albeit the more popular one is in English, while the early service continues in German. According to our guide at the church museum in Homestead, the service lasts little more than half an hour, is led by seven elders (four men, three women) rather than a pastor, and features prayer, Bible reading (at least part of with individuals trading verses), and a cappella singing.

Again Shambaugh’s observation holds up a century later: “…the Community of True Inspiration is foreign to its surroundings — so much so that the visitor is at once impressed with the fact that here is something different from the surrounding world.”

At least at its origin, that difference is the result of Pietism.

The Community of True Inspiration originated in 1714, where Eberhard Ludwig Gruber (a Lutheran pastor) and Johann Friedrich Rock (a pastor’s son) grew critical of the “utter hollowness and formality” of the state church and began to read the works of Philipp Spener. But they also read from Radical Pietism and earlier Mysticism, which convinced them that the same God who inspired the Holy Scriptures centuries earlier “will inspire His followers now as then.” Gruber and Rock taught the followers of their “New Spiritual Economy” that God endowed certain individuals as “instruments” (Werkzeuge) who received inspirations after meditating on Bible verses. Of the resulting “new word and testimony,” Gruber claimed that “Its truths are in common with the written word of the prophets and apostles,” with the Bible and newer testimonies “after the likeness of two sons and brothers, in which case the oldest son as the first-born has the preference before the younger son who was born after him, though they are both equal and children begotten of one and the same father.” While the faithful were instructed to “[f]ly from the society of women-kind as much as possible,” inspiration was not limited by sex: the last Werkzeug was a woman named Barbara Heinemann, whose 19th century testimonies are still read in Amana worship to this day.

At least in my limited reading of their history, however, the Inspirationists avoided some of the problems that tend to plague such Christian communities. I don’t know many such sects that regularly recite the Apostles’ Creed, and the community’s religious statements have strikingly little to say about the End Times. While the Community had charismatic leaders, any inspiration was investigated by a committee, which rejected those deemed to be false and required a response of “sincere submission and humiliation.” (Here too, women played a leading role: the first false testimony was condemned by Johanna Melchior in 1715.) Moreover, the “new spiritual economy” placed overwhelming emphasis on humility, obedience, and self-sacrifice. Christian Metz, the Werkzeug who served as the primary leader of the Colonies in New York and Iowa, warned that “self-love and a false desire of the soul” could tempt people to fake testimonies. Indeed, Shambaugh reported that the vast majority simply admonished hearers “to live a holier life.”

(Knowing that there’s been no such testimony since Heinemann died in 1883, I asked our church guide what would happen if a member of the present-day community came forward with a testimony. She thought a moment and said that the elders would have to verify it. But then she added that she didn’t think it would happen: “The world is too noisy,” she said. I didn’t have a chance to jot down verbatim notes, but she thought that the prevalence of media made it too hard for anyone in 21st century America to meditate deeply on Scripture.)

It’s in the Amana emphasis on and understanding of holy living that we can probably see the clearest Pietist legacy. Aside from their version of the Apostles’ Creed, Amana’s two main religious documents — “Twenty-Four Rules for True Godliness” and “Twenty-One Rules for the Examination of Our Daily Lives,” both received as testimonies by Gruber — say precious little about right belief and lots about right behavior. The converted life was a set-apart, disciplined life, made visible by the kinds of virtues that would have impressed my Swedish Pietist forebears: frugality, simplicity, honesty, temperance, and humility. (I also found myself thinking of the lingering German stereotype of the pietistic “Swabian housewife.”)

Of course, we can also see a typical Pietist pathology here as well. Wary of Lutheran formalism, Gruber may have warned Inspirationists not to “form a habit of anything of the external exercises and the duties committed to you” and instead to live out of deep-seated reverence to God. But they wouldn’t be the first Pietist group whose initial desire for a more authentic Christian life slid easily into austere legalism.

(While Gruber had studied theology at the University of Tübingen, the familiar Pietist danger of anti-intellectualism also pops up in Shambaugh’s history of Amana. She detected “Pietist ancestry” in the “aversion in the Community to mixing ‘philosophy and human science with divine wisdom” and quoted Heinemann’s correction of an elder with “a scientific turn of mind”: “It is not necessary that you should possess so great knowledge gained through pondering over the wonders and secrets of God.”)

In any case, I’m not sure that Amana’s Pietist history is well-known, even to residents. I chose our visit as the moment to debut a T-shirt that I’d discovered on Amazon; it’s simply emblazoned with the hashtag #Pietist. But while it got plenty of odd glances, no one made the connection out loud. Of course, another of Gruber’s rules was “to avoid all unnecessary words”…