Introduction to the Hopedale Community
Adapted from the Foreword to the annotated edition of
Adin Ballou's History of the Hopedale Community
Few people are entirely satisfied with human society as they find it.
"If I ruled the world..." people often say, followed by a list of proposed reforms.
Most of us are content to ameliorate the world in a small way, working within the social system in which we find ourselves.
But in the middle of the nineteenth century a number of prophetic souls in the United States and elsewhere,
intoxicated by the increasing pace of reform in that age, decided to put their dreams into practical operation.
T he Hopedale Community was one such attempt to create "a new civilization radically higher than the old."
The prototype for this new civilization, was to be "a compact neighborhood or village of practical Christians, dwelling together by families in love and peace,
insuring to themselves the comforts of life by agricultural and mechanical industry, and devoting the entire residue of their
intellectual, moral, and physical resources to the Christianization and general welfare of the human race."1
Hopedale was founded in 1841, at the beginning of a decade famous for its numerous experiments in alternative forms of social organization.
These experiments invariably began with high ideals and higher expectations, and usually ended in bitter disappointment.
Hopedale, it would appear, was no exception.
After devoting nearly twenty years of his life to planning, organizing, and leading the Hopedale Community,
Adin Ballou concluded that the experience had been an "unfortunate venture," a "calamitous experiment," and a "disastrous failure."
Had the experiment succeeded, he lamented, Hopedale would have been "a guide and an inspiration" to future generations.
As it was, it would be remembered, if at all, as "a warning and an admonition to future explorers and laborers
in the field of social progress and reconstruction."
From Adin Ballou's day to the present, however, there have been people who have refused to accept this gloomy evaluation --
people who have found Hopedale to be a true guide and inspiration. One of these was the historian Edward K. Spann.
Originally intending to include Hopedale in a survey of American social experiments, he ended up writing a whole book on Hopedale.
In Spann's view, Hopedale was not only one of the most successful of the communitarian experiments of the nineteenth century,
but was "one of America's more successful attempts to create a community at peace with its God."2
The writers of Hopedale Reminiscences --
a collection of short memoirs by people who had been children and young adults in the Hopedale Community --
did not think of the Hopedale experiment as a failure. On the contrary, they felt blessed to have been part of it.
Ellen M. Patrick, who was eight years old when her family moved to Hopedale in 1850, described her sense that the Community's
beneficent influence was still at work in her life and in the wider world.
"Old Hopedale has passed, but not its influence," she wrote in 1910. "Who can trace the subtle influence linking the past and present, or measure the effect ... of
the consecration, prayers, and self-sacrificing devotion to the ideals of brotherhood of the founders of Hopedale?"3
Therefore, before writing off Hopedale as a hopeless failure or an impossible dream, consider what it accomplished during its fourteen years of existence.
It maintained a reasonable balance between private enterprise and the common good.
Throughout its lifetime, the community struggled to find the safe passage between "the Scylla of threatening Communism" and
"the Charybdis of selfish, unscrupulous, and hard-hearted Individualism." To be sure, it never achieved a perfect balance -- what society ever has?
In the course of its efforts to create an economic system that would be both just and generous, the community regularly made major adjustments
to its constitution and its industrial policy. These upheavals were costly: because of them the community suffered losses of membership,
particularly among its leaders. Nevertheless, the community's longevity was due in part to its flexibility, resilience, and willingness to learn from its mistakes.
Although it ultimately failed for economic reasons, it did not experience what we usually mean by economic failure.
It did not have its assets sold at auction for the benefit of its creditors, like the North American Phalanx,
nor did it leave its founder with a lifetime's worth of debts, like Brook Farm. Instead it was, as Spann described it,
"successful enough to assure its own failure" through a forced takeover by its own largest shareholders.4
It offered its members economic security and congenial employment.
Even during the most individualistic period of the community's history, the constitution included "a mutual guaranty between all its members
and a solemn pledge that they will never permit one of their number to suffer any serious evil for want of fairly compensated employment,
or the necessaries of life, when unable to earn them, or the decent education of children."
And employment at Hopedale was not just a matter of avoiding destitution, or even of freedom from exploitive working conditions.
Attention was given to providing each person not only with work, but with meaningful and congenial work -- even to the point of establishing new
industries in order to match the skills and experience of new residents, a practice which Ballou later criticized as a departure from rational economic planning.
Workers were given opportunities for on-the-job training, for retraining in new skills, and for trying new ventures in a safe environment.
The community was always trying innovative ways to increase both production and job satisfaction.
For example, the "Hopedale Commercial Exchange" was a kind of cooperative in which those with an aptitude for marketing handled sales and distribution for
artisans who were better at producing goods than at selling them.
Social action gave members a sense of meaning and purpose.
Hopedale offered its members a comfortable life, but, as Ballou was quick to point out, "it was not our chief ambition or desire to earn and save money
for our own necessity, comfort, enrichment, or exaltation."
The community's members found satisfaction in the feeling that they were living for something beyond their own comfort and well-being.
As abolitionists, they not only raised money for the antislavery cause, but sheltered fugitive slaves, at some risk to themselves.
As part of their commitment to the temperance cause, they offered "care, protection, and uplifting influence [to] the broken-down victims of the inebriating bowl."
They extended their charity even to a burglar who came to rob them.5
Even the children, Sarah E. Bradbury wrote in Hopedale Reminiscences, shared the feeling of being part of "a chosen band."
When Hopedale relinquished its special mission, however, "the charm dissolved -- life became commonplace."6
It was a laboratory for the development of Christian Non-Resistance.
The community adhered faithfully to its policy of loving its neighbors, no matter how troublesome.
Hopedale gave Ballou a chance to work out and test the theories that would later influence Leo Tolstoy and, through him, the great twentieth-century
apostles of nonviolent resistance.
Ballou himself described Hopedale in terms that do not at all suggest a disastrous failure.
Here is his summing-up of the Community's material circumstances:
The members, probationers, and dependents of the Community were able to secure ... a comfortable home, means of subsistence,
and an adequate supply for all the material needs of themselves and families; with money besides for intellectual, moral, and religious culture
and for benevolent uses, while most of them realized an increase of individual property; the whole of such increase amounting to $80,000.00;
or an average of about $2,000.00 for every household in our membership.
And here is his description of its moral state:
The Community was composed of not simply a busy, thrifty, self-subsisting class of people, but one eminently large-hearted and benevolent,
their frequent and generous donations and their open-handed, ungrudging hospitality testifying to their enterprise, practicality, and power of production ...
Taking all things into account, it may be reasonably questioned whether any equal population in the country of corresponding pecuniary means gave,
during the period of our Community's existence, a tithe of what we did for religious, philanthropic, and reformatory purposes and objects.
Why, then, did Ballou consider Hopedale to have been such a dismal failure? To a large extent, the problem seems to have been one of unrealistic expectations.
Ballou believed that "the kingdom of righteousness, brotherhood, unity, peace, which is the kingdom of heaven, was at hand,"
and that Hopedale was the divinely appointed "Bethlehem of salvation to the glorious social future."
It was initially called "Fraternal Community No. 1," because "if one such Community could be established, the number might be indefinitely multiplied
till at length the kingdoms of this world should be absorbed in the glorious kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ."7
While it is not surprising that the community failed to achieve these cosmic goals, that hardly makes it a "disastrous failure."
If Hopedale had really been just one of its era's many failed experiments, you would not now be reading these words. Ballou's experiment would be
no more than a historical curiosity, worth perhaps a few pages in a catalog such as John Humphrey Noyes's History of American Socialisms.
But Hopedale was more than that. It was one of a very small number of "colonies of social reoranization"8
that succeeded in giving its members a good life, leaving almost all of them better off than they would have been without it,
and, in the process, doing some good in the world around it.
Hopedale was not perfect. It was a human institution, populated by human beings.
There was conflict. There was disappointment. There was sickness and death. There were errors of judgment.
There was temptation, and sometimes people yielded to it.
It did not last forever -- nothing does --- but it lasted for almost a generation, a significant portion of the lives of many of its members.
It lived well and died with dignity, much loved and sadly lamented.
-- Lynn Gordon Hughes
All quotations not otherwise identified are from Adin Ballou, History of the Hopedale
1. "Communities," Practical Christian, 15 September 1840; quoted in History of the Hopedale
2. Edward K. Spann, Hopedale: From Commune to Company Town, 1840-1920 (Columbus, OH:
Ohio State University Press, 1992), xi, 17.~
3. Ellen M. Patrick, "Our Community School and its Teacher," in Hopedale Reminiscences: Childhood Memories of the Hopedale Community and the Hopedale Home School
(Providence: Blackstone Editions, 2006), 33.~
4. Spann, Hopedale, xiii.~
5. Susan Thwing Whitney, "The Burglary," in Hopedale Reminiscences, 31-32..~
6. Sarah E. Bradbury, "Community Life as Seen by One of the 'Young People,'" in Hopedale Reminiscences, 12.
7. "Communities," quoted in History of the Hopedale Community, 16.~
8. This useful category was proposed by Seymour R. Kesten in Utopian Episodes: Daily Life in
Experimental Colonies Dedicated to Changing the World (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1993), 5.