As the Amana Colonies demonstrate, religious intentional communities tend to outlast their secular counterparts, but not all are so successful. Over the decades, a number of religious groups have built communities in with varying degrees of longevity. Many dissolved or integrated into the general population but others survive in some form to this day.
Latter Day Saints: Preparation, Essenes, and More
As the Latter Day Saints blazed the Mormon Trail from Nauvoo, Illinois to Salt Lake City, Utah in 1846 and 1847, they left their mark on Iowa. Both Brigham Young’s followers and groups splitting from the majority built settlements here, and ex-Mormons established an intentional community as recently as 1988.
The first notable Mormon settlement in Iowa was Zarahemla (c. 1839), a small community across the river from Nauvoo, near modern day Montrose. Some Mormons claim an ancient city of the same name, described in the Book of Mormon, was located here, but there is relatively little evidence that the village was much more than an extension of Nauvoo.
One major community was established during the trek west, at Garden Grove in Decatur County. There was a proposed Fourierist phalanx of the same name proposed for the county, this appears to be completely coincidental. Garden Grove was home to around 600 Latter Day Saints in the winter of 1846-47, but by 1852 they had sold the land and moved on to Utah.
The longer-lasting Mormon settlements in Iowa were, by and large, splinter groups. Alpheus Cutler led one such cluster, the Cutlerites, to establish a community called Manti near modern-day Shenandoah in southwest Iowa. A small congregation of Cutlerites still practices in Independence, Missouri.
In 1870, Joseph Smith III led the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS) to establish Lamoni, Iowa, not far from the location of Garden Grove and, coincidentally, the secular utopian community of New Buda. The community was the RLDS Church headquarters until 1880 and is home to the RLDS-affiliated Graceland University. Today, the Reorganized Church is known as the Community of Christ.
The most storied Latter Day Saint settlement in Iowa was Preparation, founded by a splinter group that left the Mormon wagon train in 1853 under the leadership of Charles B. Thompson. Thompson went by the name Father Ephraim and claimed a spirit named “Baneemy” directed him. He gathered more than 50 families and brought them to Monona County to found Preparation and begin schooling in “preparation for the life beyond.” The group also established the county’s first newspaper.
Thompson soon claimed that Baneemy had directed the colonists to turn over their land and possessions to him. By 1858, however, followers began to doubt Thompson’s inspiration and attempted to lynch him when he refused to return their deeds. He escaped but the community was disillusioned, and some settlers returned to the main Mormon Church in Utah. The town grew somewhat in the following years, but eventually faded until the last stockyard closed its doors in 1946. The area is now part of Preparation Canyon State Park.
One final community of ex-Mormons was built in Iowa in the 20th century. Ron Livingston, a former minister, founded the Brotherhood of Christ Church, also called the Essenes, in 1988 on 240 acres near Lamoni. Like Joseph Smith, Livingston claimed he received divine inspiration from reading inscribed tablets. The Essenes –named after an ancient Jewish sect described in the Dead Sea Scrolls – live by the First Commandment (“I am the Lord they God”) in a low-technology community outside worldly distractions. They hold all property communally, grow their own food, build their homes from natural materials, and declare themselves separate from society. The community has harsh rules, including reduced meal portions as punishment for using slang. Several former Essenes have accused Livingston of maintaining control over the group through fear and manipulation and the group has sometimes taken legal action in response to reports about its activities. The Essene community appears to persist in some form, although it is difficult to find current information about their activities from external sources.
Anabaptists: Amish and Mennonite Communities
Two branches of the Anabaptist church have developed communities in Iowa: the Amish and the Mennonites. While these groups would likely reject from the utopian description, they live by their own traditions and hold strong beliefs that distinguish them from society as a whole.
Their history begins with the 16th-Century Radical Reformation period in Germany and Switzerland. Early Anabaptists faced persecution over their practice of believer baptism: that baptism should occur when individuals are old enough to testify belief and request baptism. Many Anabaptists came to America, and groups of Amish, Mennonites, and Hutterites (a third branch not widely found in Iowa) are spread across the US and Canada. Those in Iowa came in a mid-1800s migration wave, and their settlements have continued to grow over time.
Iowa’s best known Anabaptist group is the Amish, who comprise around 7,000 people across 20 communities. They commit to a simple life, plain dress, and pacifism. They worship in their homes rather than in meetinghouses and are known for shunning modern technology and society. In Amish-populated areas, it’s common to see their horse-drawn buggies alongside cars on county roads.
The state’s first and largest Amish community was founded in 1846 near modern-day Kalona in Washington and Johnson counties. The Kalona Amish are known for dairy farming and are relatively progressive in their technology use. The community allows propane gas, power lawn mowers, rototillers, and tractors, though only with metal wheels.
Hazleton, in Buchanan County, is home to an Amish community founded in 1914 by Kalona Amish seeking to preserve conservative standards. Even by Amish standards, the group’s use of technology is severely limited, excluding even flush toilets.
The Hazleton community was at the center of a landmark religious freedom case regarding a school district merger in the 1960s. The Amish were convinced to vote for the union, but then were because their schools lacked certified teachers. The merged district attempted to bus Amish children to public schools. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that he Amish were entitled to an exemption from the law.
The Amish community at Bloomfield, in Davis County, was founded in 1971. The Amish here are known for their entrepreneurial spirit, selling furniture, rugs, baked goods, and more. Much like residents of the Amanas, some Amish willingly participate in the wider economy while keeping their personal and religious lives separate.
Many smaller Amish settlements are scattered around the state, including in Van Buren, Delaware, and Mitchell counties. Other settlements have gone defunct or converted to the Mennonite denomination.
The relationship between the Mennonites and the Amish is somewhat circular. The Amish church split from the Mennonites in the 17th century, but the two sects maintain close relationships and many individual Amish communities have returned to Mennonite teachings. The two broadly overlap but have noticeably different comfort with modern technology. Like the Amish, Mennonites generally live and dress simply, but also permit electricity, telephones, and other modern conveniences. Their practices vary widely. Some are near to Amish conservatism while others display no obvious indicators of their faith. Unlike the Amish, Mennonites practice meetinghouse worship.
Iowa Mennonites can be found in many of the same places as the Amish. Many run businesses, including the Dutchman’s Store and Milton Creamery in Van Buren County. The Dutchman’s Store also markets clothing and cloth to local Amish.
Swedenborgians at Jasper Kolonie
Swedenborgianism, also known as the New Church or the Church of New Jerusalem, follows the teachings of scientist-turned-mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), who claimed to have seen and taken detailed notes about the nature of heaven and hell. Swedenborgianism attempts to reconcile spirituality with science, and preaches that living the best life you can, by whatever your beliefs, will grant acceptance into heaven. Followers profess the existence of a single God in Jesus and the importance of following his commandments of faith and charity. They also ardently opposed slavery.
The belief originated in England in the late 1700s and was brought to the United States by missionaries, including John Chapman, also known as Johnny Appleseed. In the mid-1800s, a number of German immigrants in St. Louis broke from Lutheranism to follow Swedenborg’s teachings. One such group came to Iowa in 1851 and established the Jasper Colony (or Kolonie) in Iowa County.
The settlement was only a few miles north of the Amana Colonies’ future location. Some descendants of the communities have intermarried. Like Amana, Jasper began as a communal society and preached pacifism. At its start, the colony had a communal kitchen and dining hall but rejected communalism only a few years after its founding.
The congregation declined in the 20th century and is no longer considered active, but the 1880 church building (the only Swedenborgian church in the state) still hosts annual statewide reunions and special services.
Sources and Further Reading
- Journal of History by the RLDS Board of Publication (Book, 1908)
- “Preparation Canyon State Park” from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources
- Brotherhood of Christ Church
- “Iowa Essenes Live as Ancient Jewish Cult of 2 Millenia Ago” by David Briggs (In Tulsa World, Dec. 8th, 1992)
- “ISU settles lawsuit over thesis about commune” by Thomas R. O’Donnell (In The Des Moines Register, May 2nd, 1993)
- “Iowa’s Amish and Mennonite Communities” from Travel Iowa
- “Iowa Amish” from Amish America
- “What’s the difference between Amish and Mennonites?” from Amish America
- “Swedenborgianism and the Frontier” by Charles Arthur Hawley (In Church History, 1937)
- The Swedenborgian Church of North America
- Lenox Township Church of the New Jerusalem by James E. Jacobsen (National Register of Historic Places application, 1983)
- Iowa Stories: Communal Societies in Iowa by Peter Hoehnle (Recorded Webinar)
Special thanks to Dr. Peter Hoehnle, former President of the Communal Studies Association, for his help throughout the development of this article.