Abstract: Communal Capitalism in Early America: George Rapp’s Harmony Society

Joseph P. Slaughter

Abstract

The historiography of Early American capitalism and business has traditionally stressed the Market Revolution’s transformative effects on American life.  The story of how it entrenched capitalist values and networks into the fabric of the nation usually focuses on merchants, financiers, credit flows, commodities, and consumer culture, but omits an important alternative vision of capitalism and business that figured prominently in the early nineteenth century:  “communal capitalism.”

Many religious groups in early America practiced communal capitalism:  Moravians, Shakers, Zoarites, and Mormons to name just a few.  Yet the list usually omits perhaps the most prominent of these utopian, religious communes – the Harmony Society.  Founded by George Rapp in Western Pennsylvania in 1805, the Harmony Society established a communal capitalist order in an attempt to replicate the first century followers of Christ.  Unlike modern-day Amish, however, Harmonists embraced industry, technology, and the market economy.  In many ways, the Society functioned as an early nineteenth century corporation, as exemplified by its business moniker “Rapp and Associates.”  Ultimately, the Harmony Society offered an alternative to the emerging capitalist order and helps historians reinterpret the narrative of business and capitalism in Early America.