What is an intentional community? (pt. 1)

As I mentioned in my previous post Dancing Rabbit (DR) is styled as an ecovillage, which falls under the larger umbrella term of being an intentional community (IC) defined here as a group of people who congregate for a common purpose and live in close geographic proximity to achieve this goal.  ICs can be religious, political, utopian, economic, and many or all of the above.  The US has a long and complex history of these sorts of arrangements, and it’s impossible to understand the significance of what an ecovillage is without knowing at least some of that history.  This is the first in a series of posts that addresses that history, which I describe using the metaphor of “wave” as each successive style of IC rises and falls in importance.

There are, I posit, four waves of Intentional Community building that have occurred in US history: 

  1. Early history to 1845 – Utopian communities, mostly religious, in tandem with early settlement of the United States and focused on right living based on biblical principles
  2. 1820s to 1930s – Religious revivalism and the rise of socialism lead to secular right living experiments
  3. 1960s-1970s – Countercultural movements and cultural strain lead to psycho-social communal association
  4. 1990s-present – Environmentalism and the increasing importance of identity-based “new” social movements lead to community-based forms of resistance to neoliberal capitalist culture

In American history, the early Massachusetts Bay Colony and Plymouth Colony as precursors to later IC formation - the trough of the wave in this metaphor.  They shared the common purpose of “right” living and built homogenous settlements in the pursuit of that life style.  The story commonly told to schoolchildren is one of British oppression of minority religions that were forced to migrate in order to find sanctuary for their highly orthodox practices.  While generally true, the social lives they created in forming new colonies has often been ignored in favor of stories about meeting the Natives who showed them how to grow corn and squash to survive the winter.  That aspect should not be the important one!  It only serves to further the narrative of peaceful European explorers who had the goal of meeting and learning from these strangers.  Nothing could be further from the truth for Puritan settlers who quite forcefully desired to segregate themselves from all other cultures who they saw as living flawed, unpious lives - including the Plymouth settlers who were the ones to sup with the Massasoit Indians in what became known as the first Thanksgiving.  Two books provide us with some account of the more important role puritanical religious settlements played in us history: “Wayward Puritans” by sociologist Kai Erickson and “The Wordy Shipmates” by historian Sarah Vowell.

For patterns we have that first of our Savior who, out of his good will in obedience to his father, becoming a part of this body and being knit with it in the bond of love, found such a native sensitivity of our infirmities and sorrows as he willingly yielded himself to death to ease the infirmities of the rest of his body, and so healed their sorrows...The like we shall find in the histories of the church, in all ages; the sweet sympathy of affections which was in the members of this body one towards another; their cheerfulness in serving and suffering together; how liberal they were without repining, harborers without grudging, and helpful without reproaching; and all from hence, because they had fervent love amongst them; which only makes the practice of mercy constant and easy.

- John Winthrop, from his sermon A Model of Christian Charity"

Both books (among scores of others) paint a picture of highly regulated life directed under a traditional religious figure.  Life was lived with purpose - the purpose of attaining a closer relationship with the Christian God.  Idleness was sin, as was greed.  Their “recreational” activities consisted heavily of writing, something Vowell points out as the reason why we have such good records of that time period.  Moreover, daily life was strictly regulated  under the aegis of a specific interpretation of the Christian Bible.  Right and wrong, and even daily routines, were highly prescribed among early white religious settlements in North America.  The quote from Winthrop above, who was one of the most prolific writers of the time, demonstrates this ethic.  Suffering was not suffering in the same right when done together, and became transcendental for those who shared it in building a colony as a duty to the Christian God.  Those folks chose to build a life together with a common purpose, much in the same way that ICs are built today.  

Erickson clues us in to this level of homogeneity by profiling some of the crises faced in the Massachussets Bay Colony.  One, termed the Anitonmian Crisis, was born out of a disagreement in theological interpretation so esoteric it would be unreconizable as a point of difference by most people who identify as Christian.  Another was the Quaker invasion, in which one, then a few more, Quakers landed in arriving ships at the Bay Colony with the intention of staying.  Like the Antinomian divide, there was little real difference between Quakers and the Puritans already living there.  But, the prospect of heterogenetity in both cases threatened their concept of “right” living and the reactions were swift and severe: the woman responsible for the stoking the Antionmian Crisis was expelled, and many of the Quakers saw limbs cut off before being forced out at as well.  This reached a fevered pitch in the Salem Witch Trials, Erickson notes, which was in a major part due to the recent revocation of the Bay Colonists exlusive jurisdiction to the area by the Crown and the increasing presence of people from other faiths migrating the territory.  Their way of “right” living under attack, the Puritans lashed out in an attempt to maintain group integrity.


A Hutterite Chior                Source: Wikimedia Commons

Religious communities are, and pretty much always have been, the most popular form of intentional community in the US, though few have such a sordidly violent story.  Shaker communities are perhaps the most famous of these after the early Pilgrims, though modern-day religious communities such as Kashi, in Florida, still attempt to build a common existence through spiritual exploration.  The most widespread of these today are the Hutterites, which share German heritage with the Mennonites and Amish, but with slightly different social norms among their communities (for example, they are allowed to wear patterened and colorful clothing).  The community typically contains a cottage industry and chores are a common responsibility rather than a household-level one. There are almost 500 Hutterite settlements, or colonies as they call them, and an estimated 42,000 of them in North America.  Among them, the common thread is a focus on "right” living akin to the early Massachussetts Bay settlers, whether it be from the Christian Bible or another relgious text.  The Amish are typically not considered intentional communities  because they don’t typically share in a cottage industry and their chores are a household-level responsbility.  While there is a common intention among those who identify as Amish, geographic clustering is more a byproduct of their attempts to isolate from the modern world  - or “English” in their parlance - than an exercise in building common social infrastructure.

If you wan to determine whether or not a specific community is an intentional community, you should draw meaning from both of the constituent words.  Cults are not religious ICs because the purpose is that of their leader’s rather than the group.  Religious congretations are not inherently ICs because they are not always in close geographic proximity.  Even when they are, the governance of everyday life does not always radiate from the church in to its consitutents’ lives.  The church is a place where one “goes to” be in community, where in an IC one is always in the community until they leave.

Bearing that in mind, there are many reasons a group of people act deliberately and intentionally to cluster themselves for a common goal. In the next post of this series I will address the second wave, those of secular “right” living communities that occured in tandem with the rise of socialism in the West.

Zach Rubin, 2018