Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Faith Like a River: A Program on Unitarian Universalist History for Adults

The Hopedale Community

In 1839, Adin Ballou, a radical minister who served both Universalist and Unitarian churches, was one of those who published the "Standard of Practical Christianity." The Standard read, in part:

We are Christians. Our creed is the New Testament. Our religion is love. Our only law is the will of God. Our grand object is the restoration of man, especially the most fallen and friendless. Our immediate concern is the promotion of useful knowledge, moral improvement, and Christian perfection... Therefore, we can make no earthly object our chief good, nor be governed by any motive but the love of Right, nor compromise duty with worldly convenience, nor seek the preservation of our property, our reputation, our personal liberty, or our life, by the sacrifice of Conscience. We cannot live merely to eat, drink, sleep, gratify our sensual appetites, dress, display ourselves, acquire property, and be accounted great in this world; but to do good.

Ballou's vision was the establishment of a community wherein all members would adopt and live out this Standard of Practical Christianity. In the spring of 1842 his vision was realized when the Hopedale Community was established on farmland just west of Milford, Massachusetts. By 1846, the community had grown to 70 residents with a dozen houses, a machine shop, and a sawmill. The Community even started a factory that manufactured components for weaving looms.

While the Standard of Practical Christianity called for withdrawal "from all interference with the governments of this world," Ballou hoped not to cut ties with the larger society. Instead, his idea was for Hopedale to stand as a beacon and model and to be the first of many such communities. The Hopedale Community was to embody Christian living and working for justice and peace. The vision included a rejection of the sovereignty of any human government; the Hopedale Community saw itself as beholden to God alone.

During the 14 years of Hopedale's existence its founders and members were committed to the improvement of the human mind and spirit. They were active in movements for abolition, for women's rights, for peace, and for temperance. Visitors to the community, including Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and Lucy Stone, spoke to large crowds about contemporary topics of social justice.

By 1852, the community had reached its peak population of approximately 200 and its land area had grown to 500 acres. The community had achieved its goal of becoming a village with its own school, chapel, post office, factory, and bank. Yet, Hopedale suffered from serious financial problems. In 1856 the majority shareholders, Ebenezer and George Draper, felt the community's debt was too large to be borne. They withdrew their support, about three quarters of the community's holdings, and the Fraternal Community of Hopedale was forced to close.

In his History of the Hopedale Community published in 1897, Adin Ballou wrote that the failure of the community went beyond its financial bankruptcy. Although he cited poor planning, lack of resources, and the rigidity and inflexibility of the founding Constitution as factors, he believed the community's primary failure was a moral one:

... the predominating cause of the failure of The Hopedale Community was a moral and spiritual, not a financial one—a deficiency among its members of those graces and powers of character which are requisite to the realization of the Christian ideal of human society, such as that enterprise was designed to represent and exemplify. In other and more general terms, the movement was too far ahead of and above the world, in its then existing or present state of advancement, to be practicable.

In her reminiscences, one-time resident Sarah Bradbury paints a more sympathetic picture of Hopedale's varied population:

The members were men and women drawn together by a common interest in the great principles of liberal and practical Christianity at a time when church doctrines were narrow. In addition to the vital principles of ultimate salvation for all, temperance, non-resistance, etc. each one brought some fad of his own—a belief in Spiritualism, or the vegetable diet. Some were non-shavers, and all, I think, were non-smokers. The fads, which were almost as dear to the hearts of their owners as the principles, were often discussed in public, and the free play of the various natures, grave and gay, matter of fact and mischievously humorous, made these meetings a "continuous performance" of vast entertainment. The argument was earnest on either side, and usually closed by each with the same emphatic utterance, "So it seems to me and I cannot see it otherwise!" Neither party convinced the other, but the war of words afforded a certain relief to strenuous natures who, as good-non-resistants could indulge in no other form of warfare.

These fond words seem a fitting tribute to an experiment in Utopian living that lasted for more than a decade and touched many lives. `