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Odd Wisconsin Archive

When the Rapture Failed in 1844

Perhaps the most successful Utopian community in Wisconsin was born in the wake of a failed doomsday prediction. This was "The Community," a religious colony in Germania, Marquette Co., which lasted more than 50 years and spanned three generations.

It began in Groton, Massachusetts, during the 1840s when its leader, Benjamin Hall (1796-1879), was inspired by the teachings of William Miller (1782-1849). Miller used Biblical prophecies and arithmetical calculations to predict the second coming of Christ in 1844.

Before Miller's prediction failed, a group of families and single adults tried to create God's paradise on earth west of Boston, to be ready for the Second Coming. They coalesced near one another in the town of Groton, where they worshiped daily under the leadership of Benjamin Hall. Not far away were the communes of Brook Farm, Fruitlands, and Hopedale, where other idealists tried to realize their dreams apart from mainstream society.

When Hall and his little band realized that Christ had not come, they seem to have assumed that their own calculations were at fault rather than the prophecy. They set about purifying and organizing their lives so they would be ready whenever he did happen to come. This involved daily prayer and meditation, as well as support for the anti-slavery cause and opposition to the exploitation of factory workers.

In the spring of 1860, nearly the entire Community emigrated from Massachusetts to the township of Germania, in Marquette Co., Wisconsin, far from worldly temptations. They set up a commune where they could work, live, and pray together. A central building housed the worship space and lodging for unmarried members, and separate farms were established nearby for families. Roads were laid out, and a school was erected.

Although most property was legally owned by individuals, members could only prosper through close cooperation with one another, and every member worked according to his or her abilities in The Community's mill, stores, hotel, fields, and shops. Unmarried women, who in mainstream society were typically forced into domestic service or supported by their families, earned their own wages in Community businesses.

What really held them together, of course, was their shared religious belief. They held worship services every evening and on Sundays, believed in living a pure spiritual life in this world, and tried to be ready at any moment to be called to the next one. The Community did not recruit new members, nor ally itself with the formal branches of Millerism such as the Seventh Day Adventists or with any other religious authority. They went quietly about their business according to Micah 6:8 -- "to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."

After Hall's death in 1879, The Community began to wane, and many young people moved off its farms to work or be educated in other towns. The Community lasted well into the 1890's and supported three generations of believers. Its historian said, accurately, "In the history of American communes, this record is almost unheard of."

Today, nearly all The Community's buildings, like its members, have disappeared beneath the soil of Marquette Co., and its graveyard remains the only monument to its vision. You can read more about it in a short memoir, "Looking Backward," that appeared in the Montello Express on January 23, 1931.

Its complete story, with many photos, was told by Peggy Sands in "Till the end of time: awaiting the millennium in Wisconsin" in the Wisconsin Magazine of History (vol. 83, number 1; autumn 1999).

:: Posted in Curiosities on May 20, 2011
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