Failed and Fruitful Utopias

Because we recently relocated to the area, my husband Ben and I spent a lot of the past summer exploring areas in New England, traveling to New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Maine. It gave us a better sense of the region, but we sometimes just visited sites in our state. One day, when we had plans to meet friends at the Fruitlands Museum, Ben had to bow out, which was disappointing for us both. “Don’t worry,” I told him. “There are no shortages of failed utopias in Massachusetts. There will most definitely be other opportunities for you here.”

Like the fabled Fruitlands, some of these nineteenth-century utopias had the significant participation of American Transcendentalists, whose ideals were usually some combination of inspiring and infuriating for their neighbors. Fruitlands was a fairly short-lived experiment; it lasted only a matter of months, when it became clear that this farm in central Massachusetts could not remain self-sufficient through the winter.

Eventually Louisa May Alcott wrote a parody of her father’s farming project that became a book titled Transcendental Wild Oats: A Chapter from An Unwritten Romance. This thinly veiled autobiographical account of their family’s time at Fruitlands ends with her mother telling her father, “Don’t you think ‘Apple Slump’ would be a better name for it, dear!” Clearly the author thought so herself.


It’s easy to make utopian communities the subject of satire, but I think we ought to resist the temptation to do that too quickly. As my friends and I wandered the museum grounds, we saw how the beautiful site itself could inspire visions. A student I had met from the chaplaincy at Wellesley College was working at Fruitlands over the summer and it was surprisingly pleasant to see her there. She allowed how enjoyable it was to do any job in such a lovely spot.

As we toured the historic house where the Alcotts lived, the museum guide soon deduced that all of us in our group of three were Unitarian clergy. Within minutes, she was telling us a story of her involvement several years ago with a local church that had left her disillusioned with congregational life. These accounts are more commonly occurring than most of us generally care to admit and also quite informative. We suffer failures large and small.

Our faith communities lift up high ideals that we struggle to realize in our lives — that does not make those ideals false, though. The boldness of utopian communities (there were more than 100 of them across the U.S. in the 1800s) was that a group of people committed to living together according to unusual expectations of one another, expectations that were spiritual and social in equal measure. While these communities rarely survived long, they did introduce imaginative possibilities for communal life.

At Fruitlands, pioneering ideas formed around environmentalism, education, and gender equality; in time, these would become increasingly influential around America. Social reformers such as Henry David Thoreau — himself a close friend of Alcott — found inspiration in the experiments that the farm residents had attempted. Instead of being too unsparing of our appraisal of failed utopias, I wonder if we shouldn’t be more appreciative of all they ventured. They sensed so much potential to tap.

These days, most of us inhabiting faith communities find ourselves operating in an innovative mode — we are working with newer models of religious education, finding different ways to use media and technology, and adopting a fresh approach to the social actions we take on behalf of greater justice. Whether or not our experiments succeed, it matters that we are willing to run them. As one wag has observed, we tend to forget that Icarus flew for a little while before he fell.

At the turn of the calendar year, when our minds turn to New Year’s resolutions, we might start to feel some loftiness rising within ourselves; perhaps that merits our indulgence. We human beings tend to be future-forward creatures. In his compelling history Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism, Chris Jennings writes that “the tens of thousands of Americans who lived in these communities were not fools…. [these] utopians hoped to construct the perfect society in miniature and then lead by example — to pull, rather than push, the world toward perfection.” Of course they failed. After all, on this side of glory, where does perfection permanently reside?

Yet what I admire about those long-ago residents of Fruitlands and Hopedale and Brook Farm and the rest of the storied sites in this Commonwealth was that they dared to raise their eyes and tried to catch glimpses of glory in their own place and time. So I will resist joining in the snide jokes of cynics and remember that instead. They pulled us ahead. We don’t have count to the days of those utopias existence as failures, whether they spanned months or years. The days were distinctive ones, however many they numbered. Isn’t that what we all hope for in our own lives — days we ourselves can make distinct? There are far worse things we could be than heirs apparent of neighboring idealists.

Two Hundred Silent Nights

Two hundred years ago, an associate pastor met his friend the church organist after their Christmas Eve services had ended, right outside by the Nativity scene, where the pastor played his guitar and the organist joined him in singing a duet the two of them had written especially for the occasion. So their song “Silent Night” is now celebrating its bicentennial. By most accounts, it is the best-known Christmas carol on earth. This year, more than two billion people sing it in roughly 300 language and dialects. It is highlight of our own Lessons and Carols service each year; it’s the song we sing once the overhead lights go down and our candles flicker in the dark. “All is calm,” we intone, “all is bright.” In that instant, we believe all is.

Together we are singing a lullaby to Jesus at his birth, a “holy infant, so tender and mild” held in his mother’s arms. We cannot deny the appeal of Madonna and Child this holiday, the reverence we all feel for that amazing moment of birth. The junior pastor who authored “Silent Night”, Joseph Mohr, originally penned the lyrics at a famous pilgrimage site in Austria, a Basilica dedicated to Mary. He was recent graduate from seminary where he might never have been admitted. Mohr was born out of wedlock to a poor mother and a soldier who deserted his military post. He was born in what were then considered shameful circumstances; only a special dispensation granted him permission to prepare for the priesthood. But he needed that melody composed by a friend to sing his tribute to “love’s pure light” to the public.

Most of Mohr’s ministry was to the marginalized of his time. His mountainous region had suffered horribly in the Napoleonic wars and afterwards been subjected to fire and famine alike. As a young priest, he served small faith communities on the verge of despair, often in menial roles at remote outposts. He tried to instill hope in the people and had modest success in that, much to the annoyance of his church superiors. One senior priest complained that Mohr had a penchant for singing “uplifting songs”, which somehow seemed to offend his pious sensibilities.

Such critiques might help to explain why Mohr sang with his friend Franz Gruber after the Christmas Eve service, and not during it. As one music critic notes, “the song… makes it possible to hope for and believe in a better life here on earth again”, which is clearly a scandalous proposition in some quarters. Perhaps these are even quarters close to you, around where you live now.

When Mohr died after honorable clerical service that included important social advocacy for the children around the Alps – he built them schools, and established scholarships fund for those born to unwed mothers – the whole of his estate consisted of a worn guitar. Indeed, it was his one and only guitar, the same one he used to play “Silent Night” with Gruber in 1818. Today it sits in a museum, a prized historic artifact.

The popularity of “Silent Night” is now a global phenomenon. “It’s a simple lullaby… said to express tenderness and a beautiful sense of melancholy,” one musicologist explains. “The song is neither liturgical nor stern; it is a love song to a newly born child. It is a song of peace, filled with spirituality, which crosses barriers.… It belongs to all… those in the world who have good intentions.” In 2011, UNECSO affirmed its contemplative melody as an Intangible Cultural Heritage, one that now holds “status as a world peace song” and has a distinct musical legacy.

While Mohr and Gruber’s was not included in a Salzburg songbook until nearly 50 years after its holiday premiere, it had already gained multinational acclaim. It appeared in a Boston score, for instance, as early as 1842. But in the international arena, it is best known as for featuring prominently in the Christmas Eve truce of 1914 along the Western Front. At that point, more than a million soldiers has been killed or wounded in World War I. For a 50 mile stretch near Flanders, though, the firing ceased as troops began to observe Christmas. They lit trees outside their trenches and started to sing carols including “Silent Night”, in a host of languages. They all committed the crime of fraternization while they harmonized. The brought a “heavenly peace”, briefly but believably, to earth that holiday season.

Sometimes in our Candlelight service, the carols themselves contain the greatest lessons. Silent Night has beautifully captured the enduring spirit of this holiday for centuries now: hope is insistent; it breaks in on our despair, wherever it weighs heaviest on the world or in our history. Christmas communicates this revolutionary proposition that a compassionate God is intimately concerned with our broken human condition and even labors within it.

Regarding the Nativity on a cold winter night, Mohr spied “the dawn of redeeming grace.” Redeeming grace! Treasure those words, and ponder them in your own hearts — what do they mean to you? What do they mean tonight? What will they mean tomorrow, or in days to come, or in the next year? Imagine — Love, newborn, come entirely to life.