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Historical intentional communities

What we can learn from the past

By Jennifer Stern

, |

Historical intentional communities

What we can learn from the past

By Jennifer Stern

, |

6 min read

As we become more and more disillusioned with the inequity and unsustainability inherent in the way society is run, we sometimes dream of living in a utopia – a community in which everyone is respected equally, there is no poverty, and we live in harmony with the seasons and the rhythms of the planets.

It’s a great idea, and hardly a new one, as is evident from the many, many intentional communities that have sprung up (and often collapsed down) throughout history. So what can we learn from intentional communities of the past?

Values vs religion

Many of the intentional communities of the past were founded by religions, but not all. Some were founded by people with a shared vision, and no specific religion. And, of course, some were founded by people with a shared vision who just happened to (mostly) share a religion too.

The Beguines

In 13th-century Europe, urban women had pretty much two choices – get married or ‘get thee to a nunnery’. Of course, you could try to make it on your own in a milieu that was significantly less woman-friendly than today. Even better would be to get together with other single women, and create some kind of community. And thus was born the Beguines – a secular, but sort-of religious group of women who lived together in urban enclaves often made up of a number of separate houses. They were not affiliated to any religious order, but they did ‘good works’, took a personal (revocable) vow of chastity (at least ostensibly), and were (at least nominal) Christians. The latter was important in an era in which single women were often accused of witchcraft, and ‘heretics’ were routinely burnt at the stake. (Sadly, some Beguines did meet that fate, as single, independent women really were frowned upon in that era.) Probably the most important aspect of the Beguines was that they worked to support themselves – mostly in the textile industry, weaving and spinning. There were rich beguinages and poor beguinages, and even some that were more mixed. Because their vows (unlike those of nuns) were revocable, women were free to leave at any stage.

The Beguines were, unfortunately, still subject to persecution in parts of Europe, but they survived particularly well in the low countries – what are now Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. They continued to thrive (or at least do quite well) until the changing status of women made them redundant. In Belgium, for example, there were 600 Beguines in 1960, and the last one died in 2013.

Interestingly, there are newly emerging contemporary Beguine movements in Canada, Europe, the USA and Australia. Hmm … with our high level of gender-based violence, perhaps there’s scope for a revival in South Africa.


In the 16th century, the area near the mouth of the Delaware River was sparsely populated by the Delaware Native American community. Then a bunch of Brits, Swedes, Germans and Hollanders started muscling in, and by the turn of the 17th century, the settlers were making small but serious inroads into the territory of the Delaware. But, meantime, across the ocean in England, Charles II pulled a fast one in paying off a substantial debt owed to the father of William Penn by generously granting him a large tract of – at that stage relatively worthless, and (to Charles, anyway) free – land. Yup – that became Pennsylvania, and the year was 1681.

William Penn wasn’t having a great time in England anyway, as he and his fellow Quakers were subject to some serious persecution, so they boarded a ship, headed off to the ‘New World’ and founded the City of Brotherly Love – or Philadelphia ­– in 1682. As a response to the religious persecution they had experienced in England, the founders declared that religious tolerance was to be a guiding tenet for the new community – as was pacifism, of course. Philadelphia was also the site of the first protest against slavery in America (by white settlers in 1688), and the first place where slavery was abolished (in 1780).

Lancaster County, Pennsylvania

In the early 18th century, a number of Mennonites and Amish settled in Pennsylvania to escape persecution in Europe, and to further Penn’s experiment with religious tolerance. These, like Penn’s Philadelphia, were intentional communities but with a more defined shared tradition, religion and set of values. Many, the most extensive of which is Lancaster County, still remain. Lancaster County is home to the world’s largest Amish community of about 40,000 people. What’s interesting about this intentional community is not only its longevity, but also what it can teach us about balancing identity and tolerance – and, even more importantly, about sustainability. Their ability to maintain their culture demonstrates an incredible sense of purpose and determination, and the way they live in harmony with – but separate from – their less religious and more technologically inclined neighbours is a lesson in tolerance. The Amish are renowned for their rejection of the use of fossil fuels and electricity, but they are among the most successful and productive farmers in the USA. So there is much the renewable energy movement can learn from them.

Thaba Bosiu

Between about 1815 and 1840, the Lifaqane or Mfecane was a time of chaos. Rampaging Zulu impies destroyed communities, stole cattle, burned crops, and killed or captured people who failed to escape. Those who survived formed a rag-tag cohort of starving refugees, many of whom turned to banditry and/or cannibalism.

While all this was happening, a minor chief of the Bakoena clan, Moshoeshoe, tried a different tactic. Rather than running, or facing the carnage head on, he proactively scouted out a place where he and his community could be safe from the marauding hordes. They found an easily defended plateau they called Thaba Bosiu (Mountain of the Night), and the whole clan trekked there en masse. It was a hard journey fraught with danger, and not everyone made it. One casualty was Moshoeshoe’s grandfather Peet, who was captured and eaten by cannibals. Once settled, Moshoeshoe did something quite unusual – he stated that anyone who came in peace could join them. And many wandering desperados did – including the cannibals who had eaten Peet. And it was this community – born out of desperation but sustained through an astonishing humanity – that ultimately became the Basotho nation and the country of Lesotho.

Koreshan State Park

Not to be confused with the 20th century copycat Branch Davidians of the Waco siege in Texas, the (original) Koreshans were a religious sect led by Cyrus T Reed, who was (evidently) a reincarnation of Jesus. Anyhow, in 1893 they started construction on what would become a genuinely successful, productive, peaceful and equitable community in Florida near Fort Myers. They farmed, made bricks, had leather working, a blacksmith shop and a printing press, and were totally self-sufficient. It’s a beautiful place. I visited in 1988 and – in the museum – I saw a fantastic (literally fantastic) painting of how the Koreshans envisaged their community in the year 2000. But, in 1988, there were no people living there.

They’d got a whole lot of things right, and managed to build a (mostly) sustainable community that actually worked. Only problem, really, was that one of the tenets of their religion was celibacy. Not celibacy before marriage – total celibacy, which does not really make for a sustainable society. So, yes, they didn’t grow to a community of the biblically magical number of 144,000 by the year 2000. The last childless virgin Koreshan died in 1983. (Oh – they also believed the earth was a hollow sphere, and we live on the inside, but that’s another story.)

The People’s Temple Agricultural Project

Marketed as a picture-perfect socialist utopia, this was intended to be a ‘model community’ that was ‘dedicated to […] socialism, total economic and racial and social equality.’ Hmm, sounds all good and great, and the ‘developer’ managed to persuade the Guyana government to lease them 1,200 hectares virtually for free, and also allowed them duty-free imports of essential equipment, like tractors, tools, weapons (naturally) and – of course – a significant quantity of cyanide. Yes, the People’s Temple Agricultural Project was more familiarly known as Jonestown, best known for the mass murder of 909 people by poison on 18 November 1978. Not that much of a utopia, as it turned out.

Success vs failure

By what criteria do you measure the success of an intentional community? Longevity? Legacy? Media coverage? There’s no right answer. The Beguines lasted from the 13th century to the mid-20th century, and are being revived in the 21st – albeit in geographically dispersed locations. Philadelphia is most definitely still standing, but it’s a far cry from William Penn’s vision. I think, by any criteria, Lancashire County must be counted a success. The descendants of the founders are living the lives their ancestors worked for. They are prosperous and happy, and (unless you count curious camera-toting tourists) are living free from persecution. Thaba Bosiu, too, could be considered a success, and it has even retained Moshoeshoe’s openness. During the apartheid era, Lesotho sheltered many freedom struggle exiles, either permanently or as they were moving through en route to a more remote exile. And Jonestown? Definitely a media success, and a cautionary illustration for any wide-eyed potential cultist.

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