Ohio History Museum Center
Old Economy Village
Phineas Staunton. George Rapp.
1835. National Archives.
Inside the Feast House
Economy Church (now a Lutheran Congregation)
Ambridge, Pennsylvania, looks like your typical industrial town along the Ohio River. About half an hour drive northwest of Pittsburgh, if you just passed through, there is nothing obvious about its remarkable history. Within its borders is the remains Economy, which was founded by the Harmony Society in 1825. It’s now an historical site known as Old Economy Village.
To trace the Harmony Society’s roots and why it built Economy, it’s first necessary to travel back in time to 1757 to the town of Iptingen in the Duchy of Württemberg, which is now a part of modern Germany. Here was born Johannes Georg Rapp. The son of a grape grower and farmer, he was educated in the town’s school and trained as a vine dresser and linen weaver. During his twenties while suffering from a prolonged illness, he spent his time reading the Bible that inspired a religious awakening in him.
He embraced Radical Pietism, not something the Lutheran Church to which he belonged taught. Pietism focused on inner spiritualism, charity, and mysticism, much of it based on the Book of Revelation. Its practitioners had little interest in traditional rituals and sacraments and believed the end of the world was near. Those who embraced Pietism were anabaptists, meaning they practiced adult baptism. Adherents of Pietism usually read the Berlenberg Bible, a work written in German filled with commentary that provided guidance for adherents of this theology.
Upon getting well, Rapp began preaching his new-found beliefs, drawing in quite a few followers. One was Frederick Reichert, a painter and stone mason who Rapp formally adopted as his son. (Rapp also had three natural children with his wife Christina Benzinger.) Rapp founded the Harmony Society in 1785, and in 1787 started a formal congregation that he claimed attracted ten thousand people. Unfortunately for him, religious freedom didn’t exist in Württemberg. The Lutheran Church investigated and tried him several times. At one of the trials he declared, “I am a prophet and called to be one.”
Briefly imprisoned, upon his release he was told stop preaching, but he didn’t. He looked to relocate to a different country, and after considering a few places, settled upon the United States. In 1803, he and a few others went to America, the rest following the next year. Rapp Americanized his name to George Rapp. Many Harmonists Anglicized their names as well, but despite this nod to their new homeland, nearly all of them only spoke the Swabian dialect of German and never learned English.
Rapp bought land in Pennsylvania’s Butler County where he and about 500 followers began building a farming community in 1805. This they named Harmony after the Pietist term harmonie, which, according to the book Old Economy Village, was “to live in peace and harmony with oneself, one’s fellow man, and one’s God.” Those who belonged to Harmony Society were pacifists.
They were also communists long before Marx published Communist Manifesto, which brought a more political meaning to the term. In 1805, the Harmonists gave all their property to the Society, which would in turn provide for all their needs. To make it legal and binding, they signed the “Articles of Association of the Harmony Society.” This was secular rather than religious document.