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Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017 12:10 am

It’s hard to build heaven in Illinois

Utopian Communities of Illinois – Heaven on the Prairie, by Randall J. Soland 2017, 141 pages
Can one ever really form a true utopia – and will it actually survive?

Randall J. Soland of Springfield explores six utopias formed in Illinois between 1839 and 1942, in an interesting, well-researched book, Utopian Communities of Illinois – Heaven on the Prairie. Six groups of people attempted their own “heaven on the prairie”: the Nauvoo Mormons, Nauvoo Icarians, Bishop Hill Janssonists, Lick Creek/Loami Fourierists, Pullman employees and Zion Dowietes.

Divided into a chapter for each of the six, Soland provides the backgrounds and ideologies of the leaders, key events and the fates about each commune, and travel information of existing sites to see. Black and white photos of existing structures add to the book’s overall appeal.

The Nauvoo “utopia” (1839-1846) was settled by the Mormons, led by Joseph Smith. Believing in economic equality, self-sufficiency and church tithing, the Mormons rose to 12,000 residents, making Nauvoo the state’s second largest city in 1856. The political Whigs and Democrats sought their support. Eventually, the Mormons were forced out of the area, due to the practice of polygamy, Smith’s excessive power and his murder. Others fled to Salt Lake City, Utah. Today, with a mere 118 residents, Nauvoo attracts thousands to see the many restored buildings.

The Icarians established their own utopia at Nauvoo (1849-1860). They were followers of Frenchman Etienne Cabet, author of the 1840s Travels in Icaria (Icar rules utopia, Icaria). Over 1,200 people shared living and eating arrangements and shunned salaries. Children lived in the schoolhouses, only seeing families on Sundays. After Cabet traveled to France to answer fraud charges, he returned to find the commune in disarray – lax rules, alcoholism among many and social strata setting in. Eventually the groups split off, moving into other areas. The largest group settled in Corning, Iowa, in a community that lasted 46 years.

Bishop Hill (1846-1862) established a religious community led by a Swede, Eric Jansson. By 1854, the population was 1,000. But early years saw deaths due to severe winters, lack of food and desertion. The Janssonists believed in twice-daily religious services, an elementary education and celibacy. When Jansson was murdered in 1850, the villagers decided to dissolve the community. Today, Bishop Hill is listed as a National Historic landmark and hosts the annual Midwest Folk Festival, helped by the 104 residents, direct descendants of the first settlers.

Lick Creek near Loami (1845-1848), headed by minister Theopholis Sweet, attracted people into Fourierism, founded by Charles Fourier of France. Fourier believed in shared work, women’s equality and education, but shunned banking and finance. A few families established the communal living, but later, when another group joined them, food supplies were insufficient to share among so many and caused many to break off on their own.

George Pullman, president of Pullman Car Co., started a community for his employees (1881-1889). They built 1,300 buildings and lived under strict rules. With no right to own one’s home, forced to sign rent checks back to Pullman and tired of harsh rules, the workers formed the American Railway Union. A strike in 1894 led to violence, deaths, militia intervention and union dissolution. Pullman died in 1897; the area was annexed into Chicago. Now, it’s a designated National Monument and an Illinois state historical site.

The Zion Dowietes, (1901-1942), was led by John Dowie who claimed he could heal people and opened “healing homes.” Dowie attracted followers to Zion, with its huge church and lace-producing plant. His continual arrests (over 100), misuse of money, and death in 1907, put Wilbur Voliva in charge. With Voliva’s hostile temperament and preaching that the world was flat and would end in 1923 (which he revised many times), followers abandoned the church.

Soland concludes his fascinating book with a look at the various similarities and differences of the six communes. Whether religious or secular, political or not, one similarity is obvious – for only a short time were these utopias able to create a “heaven on the prairie.”

Cinda Klickna of Rochester recently retired as president of the Illinois Education Association.


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