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The Failed Attempts to Create Utopian Communities

Not many books on my “to read” list are 500 years old, but “Utopia” was on that list until I read it recently.

“Utopia” was a term coined by the author Thomas More for his book with that title published (in Latin) in 1516.

Many of you probably remember that More was a staunch Catholic who opposed King Henry VIII breaking away from Rome and declaring himself the head of the Church in England. Accordingly, in 1535, More was convicted of treason and beheaded.

A few of you also may remember that “A Man for All Seasons” was the movie that won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1966. That is a fine film about Thomas More, a fine man.

During the 17 semesters that I taught one of the required theology classes at Rockhurst University, a Jesuit school in Kansas City, Missouri, Thomas More was always a part of my lecture about the beginnings of the Church of England.

I would always tell my students how I admire More because he was a man of great integrity. It is hard to know what to make of his “Utopia,” though.

“Utopia,” from the Greek words meaning “no place” (“ou topos”), is said to be a pun on the Greek words meaning “good place” (“eu topos”).

The first definition of utopia in the online Merriam-Webster dictionary is “an imaginary and indefinitely remote place.” But when capitalized, it means “a place of ideal perfection, especially in laws, government and social conditions.”

The island of Utopia in More’s rather complex book was inhabited by people who lived quite differently than people in England – or in other parts of the world, for that matter.

It was a socialistic society where people lived with little interest in gold (and all that that represents) and with a high level of equality – and satisfaction.

Since the time of More’s intriguing novel, there have been several actual attempts to create a utopian community.

One such example was New Harmony, Indiana, which I mentioned in a recent column, where two groups sought to establish utopian communities.

Started by one idealistic group of German Lutheran Church Separatists in 1814, the whole town was sold 10 years later to Robert Owen, a wealthy Welshman.

The Wikipedia article about Owen says, “In 1824, Owen travelled to America to invest the bulk of his fortune in an experimental 1,000-member colony on the banks of Indiana’s Wabash River. … New Harmony was intended to be a Utopian society.”

Owen desired “to create a perfect society through free education and the abolition of social classes and personal wealth,” according to New Harmony’s official government site.

But guess what? It didn’t work.

In spite of all the grand plans and lofty ideals, they were unable to create a utopian society – and so has been the case of similar experiments throughout the last 500 years.

Pride, greed, sloth and other inherent human weaknesses (sins) seem to have doomed most (all?) attempts to create Utopia.

The best examples I know of utopian societies that have existed for any length of time are those which did not seek to form Utopia but rather simply to follow the example of Christians in the Book of Acts.

For example, the Bruderhof established in Germany in 1920, the Hutterites dating back to the early 16th century, and to some extent the Amish all seem to have been successful, at least to some degree, in creating utopian communities.

Those groups all have roots in the Swiss Anabaptist movement that began in 1525, just a few years after More wrote “Utopia” – and a movement he would have opposed.

Does More’s “Utopia,” or especially the groups I just mentioned, have anything to teach us today?

Most likely – if we just had the will to put the needs of all ahead of the privileges of the few.

Leroy Seat was a missionary to Japan from 1966-2004 and is both professor emeritus of Seinan Gakuin University and pastor emeritus of Fukuoka International Church. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, The View from this Seat, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @LKSeat.