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Jun 12, 2017

Christian Non-Resistance and the Hopedale Community

Adin Ballou’s Hopedale Community was committed to proto-libertarian positions on the state’s use of violence and the individual’s responsibility not to participate in state violence.

The mid-nineteenth century saw the emergence of several notable attempts to create model communities, functional utopias set off from the main currents of society, built as an explicit challenge to social and cultural orthodoxies and suggesting the possibilities of social change by proving the immediate viability of various reforms. The architect of one such attempt was the radical minister Adin Ballou (April 23, 1803 – August 5, 1890), whose notion of “Practical Christianity” embraced a pacifism so thoroughgoing as to entail denunciation of and departure from existing governmental institutions. Eager to put his theories to the test, to inaugurate a Christian Republic upon their foundation, Ballou conceived of his Hopedale Community as an embodiment of what he called Christian Socialism (more on the use of the term “socialism” below). The story of Adin Ballou and the Hopedale settlement is of continuing relevance to the libertarian conversation in that it demonstrates the possibilities of peaceful and voluntary experiments in living. While few contemporary libertarians are likely to agree with Ballou’s substantive philosophical propositions, his attempts to apply them independently, outside the confines of the prevailing political and social order, deserved our attention.

Hopedale’s guiding document, the Constitution of the Fraternal Communion, set forth a vision of cooperative social harmony held together by Christian virtues and the salvation from which they flow. Its Declaration, to which each member of the Hopedale Community would subscribe, required the forswearing of general prurience, the use of or trafficking in “intoxicating liquors,” gambling, profanity, and “pernicious amusements,” among many others. Such a moralistic project does not, perhaps, appear particularly libertarian on its face; arranging social, political, and economic life around such a demanding shared faith seems stifling, overly concerned with policing the minutest details of personal life. In particular, Ballou monitored Hopedale’s sexual matters scrupulously, ever watchful for signs of the errant “sexual alliance.”1

Yet the Declaration, developed from the principles of non-resistance, also insisted that members of the Fraternal Communion refrain from service “in the army, navy, or militia of any nation, state, or chieftain,” from voting, holding office, or participating in politics generally, and even from bringing a lawsuit, however well justified. Any appeal to the power of government was just to authorize a “resort to physical violence,” morally impermissible to non-resistants like Ballou. This adamant belief in nonaggression, which makes no distinction between the actions of private persons and those of a government, clearly anticipates modern libertarianism. Non-resistants distinguished human government from divine government, the former commanding no obedience because the latter supersedes all human institutions and designs. To Ballou and other non-resistants, all governments were mere embodiments of the will of man to dominate, the use of “cunning and physical force” to usurp a power that only the divine could properly possess, the right to “exercise absolute authority over man.” Such a political system, which unjustly makes some men the masters of others, was necessarily an affront to “the kingdom and reign of Christ,” which can share authority with no human being or group of them. The central argument of the non-resistants is thus a radical libertarian one: it maintains that no earthly government has any real authority, that individuals are presumptively free, bound only by moral duties that have nothing to do with the edicts of governments, at least not necessarily. How, after all, could one ever justly assume the role of God as lawgiver? Thus, to the extent that man-made laws were out of step with God’s laws, the man-made laws were to give way.

Slavery was, to most Christian non-resistants, the most glaring example of this, and they became some of the most consistent and outspoken opponents of slavery. Once convinced of the iniquity of “the great national sin,” Ballou believed that he was, as he explains in his autobiography, “under solemn obligations as a teacher of religion to make open proclamation of my views and to do what in me lay to oppose and overthrow the monstrous wrong.” He became an associate of fellow non-resistant abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, the two basing their shared opposition to slavery on many of the same underlying philosophies. Still, during his visit to the Hopedale Community in the summer of 1862, Garrison, with characteristic boldness, did not shy from airing his several doctrinal disagreements with Ballou, touching questions such as the infallibility of Christ and the holiness of the Bible.2 These two leaders within the non-resistance movement would disagree similarly on questions of how practically to undermine slavery while remaining consistently on the nonviolence/non-resistance path.

Ballou’s project was of no less interest to other noteworthy prophets of social change, among them the utopian socialist Robert Owen. Owen, a similarly inspired reformer who had, decades earlier, ventured his own attempt at community experimentalism (in both Scotland and Indiana), visited Hopedale for two days’ time in November of 1845. Owen’s visit aroused great excitement in the denizens of Hopedale, whose periodical The Practical Christian hailed him as a fellow traveler—a remarkable and benevolent “terrestrial elysianist”—even as it took issue with his sanguine “hopes of speedily resolving this ignorant and wretched world into a Community Elysium.” Come the millennium would (in the Christian sense of the victory and perfect reign of God’s kingdom), but not so soon as imagined by the Pangloss, Owen. Ballou was furthermore repelled by Owen’s rather extreme determinism, derived from a materialistic worldview that allowed no room for a notion of individual responsibility or choice. To Owen, the environment determined the man and his qualities, for better or worse. In his own words, “The character of man is, without a single exception, always formed for him.” For Ballou, devoted to the idea that meaningful social change must begin the heart of the individual, from there growing outward into society at large, this was a profound error. Owen simply had the causal connections backwards.

Neither did Ballou share Owen’s communitarian hostility toward individual private property. Indeed most of the Hopedale Community’s members opposed “the idea of a communistic arrangement” of perfect or near-perfect material equality,3 preferring instead a system of private property and organizing the community as a joint-stock company (most shares of which were held by a handful of close associates of Ballou). Differences notwithstanding, the shared belief “in the absolute practicability of Non-resistance” sufficed to endear Owen to Hopedale’s Christian pioneers. Ballou, in his own words “a decided Associationist,” held that the gospel of Christ did not damn private property in and of itself—that more important than the legal particulars of property’s shape is the enduring moral obligation to serve the poor and needy. For Ballou, then, (and for Hopedale as a matter of course,) the preservation of private property, owned on the level of the individual, was not necessarily antithetical to the idea or goal of socialism. Seymour R. Kesten, an expert on “utopian episodes” (and the author of a book bearing that title), advises the contemporary student of projects such as Hopedale to avoid the hazards so often associated with an overemphasis on “the sidetracks that inevitably open up with imprecise but potentially charged terms.” Instead, Kesten sees “social reorganization” as the proper object of study, shifting focus to the more specific “defined idea” of attempting to catalyze “a fundamental change in society by creating ideal colonies” to become the subjects of emulation. Because words like socialism and communism did not carry the connotations over 150 years ago that they do today, overreliance on their powers of illumination will tend to obscure more than it enlightens.

The community at Hopedale is remarkable also as an early home of women’s rights, even if, as historian Deirdre Corcoran Stam points out, most of the community’s “women lived fairly traditional lives.” Hopedale’s women stood, in theory, on equal legal footing with men, free to hold property and elected office within the community, and to avail themselves of all other rights associated with full membership in the Hopedale Community. In the accounting of community contributions, nursing infants, for example, was treated as on par with the manual labor hours of men, credited against the requisite eight donated hours per week. Hopedale became the site of speeches by many of the day’s foremost champions of women’s rights, many of whom were themselves women. One such outstanding figure was Abby Price, “the most prominent woman to hold Community office and the leading spokeswoman for feminism in Hopedale.”4 Price was a fixture in the anti-slavery and non-resistance movements and a leader in their various membership organizations. As literary scholar Sherry Ceniza observes, writing on Price’s long tenure in various reform-minded causes, “[b]ecause she lived at Hopedale, she had opportunities most other women of her time never even dreamed of.”5 Price is an unsung hero in the history of women’s right and feminism; though not as well-known as some of the other early theoreticians and advocates for women’s rights and “co-equality,” she was among the speakers at the First National Women’s Rights Convention, held in October of 1850, in Worcester, Massachusetts, a town not far from Hopedale. Price, whom Ballou called “a sort of poet-laureate to the [Hopedale] Community,” would go on to befriend one of American history’s most renowned poets, Walt Whitman, her neighbor in Brooklyn. Ceniza argues that Price’s influence is evident in Whitman’s hostility toward “[p]rescribed boundary lines,” his work suggesting a world of new possibilities for women in society.

The libertarian threads running through the history of the Hopedale Community are many. Despite its strict Christian moral prejudices, today so glaringly outdated, its application of non-resistance principles led it to positions that were, by any measure, radically anti-slavery and pro-women, forecasting within its town borders enlightened, liberal positions—many of which would not be reflected in public policy for several decades (if indeed they are fully reflected today). For that reason, today’s libertarians should see Ballou and his ardent mission as a part of their heritage, an illustration of voluntary cooperation based on shared principles.


  1. Deirdre Corcoran Stam, “The Role of Women in Hopedale, a Nineteenth-Century Universalist-Unitarian Utopian Community in South-Central Massachusetts,” American Communal Societies Quarterly, volume 7, number 3, July 2013.
  2. See, for example, Dan McKanan’s Identifying the Image of God: Radical Christians and Nonviolent Power in the Antebellum United States, recounting Garrison’s visit to Hopedale (page 234, note 44).
  3. Images of America: Hopedale
  4. Stam.
  5. Sherry Ceniza. “Walt Whitman and Abby Price.” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 7 (Fall 1989).