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

Brook Farm

The Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and Education of West Roxbury, Massachusetts (1841-1847) was the idea and creation of Unitarian minister and Transcendentalist George Ripley. After serving the Purchase Street Church in Boston, Ripley became discontented with a society that did not live fully by Christian values. He believed an intentional community could more closely embody the Transcendentalist ideals of principled living, a spiritual union between physical labor and healthy intellectual development, and individual freedom.

In 1840, the year before the founding of Brook Farm, Ripley wrote to friend and fellow Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson that he hoped the community would foster "a more natural union between intellectual and manual labor than now exists." Ripley planned to accomplish this by providing everyone with work, according to their tastes and talents, as well as the fruits of their labor. The goal, as Ripley wrote, was: do away with the necessity of menial services, by opening the benefits of education and the profits of labor to all; and thus to prepare a society of liberal, intelligent, and cultivated person, whose relations with each other would permit a more simple and wholesome life, than can now be led amidst the pressures of our competitive institutions.

While Ripley felt strongly about removing class distinctions, this paragraph seems to suggest he meant to remove them by "elevating" all to the educated class. However, Ripley felt strongly that all work was valuable and uplifting to the one who performed it. A Brook Farm resident, Georgiana Brice Kirby, remembered:

At the farm Mr. Ripley said, as illustrating the spirit prevailing there, that Wm. A., a young farmer from New Hampshire, and recently an employee of Theodore Parker's, was going into Boston the next day, and that nothing would give him, Mr. R., more pleasure than to black his boots before he left. This was not intended as an insinuation that this member's boots were in a bad state most of the time, but that Mr. R. had reached a point in brotherly love which had swept the class feeling entirely away. Such facts were almost incredible!

Life at Brook Farm began in a common farmhouse known as the Hive. Soon the community was able to add buildings, including a factory, a greenhouse and a school. A separate residence was built for the Ripleys, but the Hive continued on as the main dormitory. Although the community was initially founded on the principles of Transcendental Christianity, in 1845 it was reorganized to more closely conform to the work of French social scientist Charles Fourier (FOR-ee-ay) whose intentional communities, called phalanxes, were meant to create a perfect economic and social climate for happiness and harmonious living.

Life at Brook Farm was characterized by early rising, wholesome living, and hard work—ten hours a day in summer and eight in winter. Still, personal improvement was much prized and recreational pursuits were seen as a way of expanding one's intellectual, cultural, and spiritual horizons. Ripley and his wife, Sophia, entertained nightly at their home, the Eyrie, with musical evenings, parties, tableaux vivants, and poetry readings. This, along with the members' enjoyment of entertainments such as cards and dancing, led the more austere Bronson Alcott of the Fruitlands Utopian community to scorn Brook Farm as "an endless picnic." Although Brook Farm did not become the enduring model for society George Ripley had envisioned, it did succeed for a time—six years, while Fruitlands lasted only seven months.

Membership at Brook Farm guaranteed an equal opportunity of education and labor, but the right to vote in the affairs of the community was based on property ownership. Shares, each costing 500 dollars, offered a vote and 5 percent interest, but no other claim on the farm's production.

During its time, Brook Farm drew the interest, support or involvement of some of the most famous literary and social figures of the day including Elizabeth Peabody, Theodore Parker, Orestes Brownson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and even Adin Ballou before the founding of his own community, Hopedale. Margaret Fuller was such a regular visitor that a cottage was named after her. Nathaniel Hawthorne lived at Brook Farm from April through November 1841 and remained a trustee for an additional year. Although Hawthorne eventually sued (unsuccessfully) for the return of his 1,500 dollar investment, ten years after leaving Brook Farm he wrote fondly of the community in the preface to his novel The Blithedale Romance based on his experiences there.

The community suffered from a lack of funding almost from the beginning, but in 1846 the situation became insurmountable. While the community celebrated completion of the new central residence, the Phalanstery, the building caught fire and burned to the ground. Without insurance, the loss was more than the fragile finances could bear. The community all but closed in 1846 and was officially disbanded in August of 1847.