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The 2002 CESNUR International Conference

Minority Religions, Social Change, and Freedom of Conscience

Salt Lake City and Provo (Utah), June 20-23, 2002

Total freedom of conscience: what happens when there are no rules at all?

Timothy Miller, University of Kansas

Academic and popular discourse on freedom of conscience usually centers on the rights of individual believers to function as autonomous individuals and of private consensual organizations to operate freely. In the case of individuals, we explore and generally uphold their right to join unconventional religious movements and their right to maintain personal freedom, including the right to leave freely, while belonging to a movement. In the case of organizations, we examine their freedom to function in society, to pursue the "free exercise of religion," as the peculiarly American formulation of things has it.

Our custom, in other words, is to examine situations in which freedom is in danger of being limited. Rarely, however, do we examine situations in which freedom is actually unlimited. Just what happens when freedom is boundless? Does that not raise as many philosophical problems as the limitation of freedom?

My recent research has focused on groups that embrace communal living, so in this paper I will look at a few cases in which dedicated religious seekers founded spiritually-defined communities and then, in the spirit of open inquiry and perfect freedom, opened the doors and let all come as they would. Interestingly, several of these founders could fairly be characterized as charismatic leaders, a fact that tends to refute the precept that persons with such qualities are heavy-handed dictators. A tacit underlying precept in the founding of these communities was, typically, that high-minded persons pursuing truth and enlightenment would attract other high-minded persons pursuing truth and enlightenment, and the community that these exemplary enlightened souls would build would perfectly realize the highest human aspirations.

Reality, however, generally turned out to be something else. One can conclude from looking at the historical experiments in total freedom that such liberty usually brings severe problems to a community, both internally and externally. Internally, total freedom amounts to anarchy, a rather difficult condition on which to base a structured organization. And such an organizing principle has typically proved distinctly unpopular with a group’s neighbors, who have typically been put off, even outraged, over the unrestrained, or at least unpredictable, behavior that freedom produces, and have usually ended up even more vocally opposed to absolute freedom then they are to highly structured communities and movements.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, most religious movements affirming total freedom for members tend to be short-lived. A few, however, manage to make lack of structure work over a period of years or even decades. I will now turn to several case studies that provide insights on just what a commitment to total freedom can mean in practice. I will provide examples from both religious and secular intentional communities. [1] At the outset I want to make the disclaimer that this paper is completely anecdotal. I make no claim that the situations described here make a definitive statement about social truths regarding religious organizations and communities.

With that disclaimer, let me plunge in. One of the earliest communities to embrace total freedom was the Lord’s Farm of Woodcliff, New Jersey. The Lord’s Farm’s charismatic leader was Mason T. Huntsman, who, following a Christian conversion changed his name to Paul B. Mnason and became a revival preacher. His apparent claims to be the "New Christ" earned him a jail term in 1889 for impersonating the Savior; upon his release he went to live at the family farm of Mae and Herman Storms, and there a spiritual community began to take shape. Mnason welcomed his old followers and made new ones who settled on what was soon known as the Lord’s Farm, until the community reached a membership of as many as 40.

Mnason’s antinomian version of Christianity admitted to no doctrinal test and allowed no private property (although ownership of the real estate itself passed among Mnason and various members of the Storms family). Residence in the community was extended to any who would come, and soon it had more than its share of deadbeats and even criminals, although a contingent of productive members kept the community afloat. Soon the neighbors were scandalized by the unconventional lifestyle they saw in their midst; the standard story in the area was that the Lord’s Farmers regularly engaged in "Angel Dances," in which all participants allegedly disrobed and, standing in a circle, waved a blanket to toss away the devil.

Controversies and arrests dogged the community. Then as now it is difficult to evaluate the stories about wild behavior, which were mainly promulgated by hostile neighbors. The freedom-loving Mnasonians, however, stuck to their guns and the community endured for over two decades. Mnason finally ended up living noncommunally in New York City. [2]

While the Lord’s Farm was causing controversy in New Jersey, a more staid but ultimately shorter-lived community was established in Georgia. The Christian Commonwealth Colony was founded in 1896 by a group of social gospel-era idealists who earnestly sought to put the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount into daily practice. The community, in fact, published a periodical called The Social Gospel that gave the larger movement its name; until that time this vein of reformist thought and action had generally been called "social Christianity" or "applied Christianity." Led by Congregational minister Ralph Albertson, a group of dedicated social Christians purchased a failing cotton plantation in southern Georgia.

The community’s manifesto pledged that membership would be open to all and that private property would not be permitted. As things turned out there wasn’t much material property of any value anyway; the farming and cottage industries of the community were terribly unproductive, to the point that real deprivation sometimes haunted the colony, as when Albertson’s young son died "of cold and starvation."[3] The lack of membership standards and rules attracted several deadbeats who contributed nothing, aggravating the community’s already sordid circumstances. Finally, some of the noncontributing members mounted what amounted to a direct assault on the community. They refused to work, which of course was permissible in the absence of rules. Apparently they wanted to be paid to leave, but the upstanding members refused to pay blackmail. Finally they went to the county seat and filed a petition to put the property into receivership. The judge ruled against them and, amazingly, the dissenters returned to the farm and continued to more trouble. Eventually the high-principled founders gave up on their ideals. They changed the bylaws to place limitations on membership and then called the sheriff to evict the deadbeats.

Some colony backers and members found this course of events absolutely contrary to the original intent of the colony, and by reneging on agreements to pay the mortgage payments brought the colony to final bankruptcy. In any event, typhoid had recently swept the colony, and even the most stalwart members were weak. The Christian Commonwealth, mercifully, was closed in the summer of 1900. [4]

Several decades later another community founded on religious principles and devoid of rules proved more enduring, if not more prosperous, although as with the Christian Commonwealth it had to bend its noncoercive principles at least slightly. Tolstoy Farm was one of the transitional communes that ushered in the huge wave of commune-building of the late 1960s. It was founded as a religious activist community somewhat akin to the Catholic Worker. The founders had been active not only in the Catholic Worker but in a small Connecticut-based group that protested the construction and deployment of nuclear submarines in the early 1960s. Basing their commitment on their Christian-oriented peace activism, and inspired especially by the works of Tolstoy and Gandhi, they settled on donated land west of Spokane, Washington, in 1963. From the beginning they adhered to the precept that they would have no rules; indeed, the only rule was that no one could be asked to leave, which, as they put it, insured that "we would have to work out our differences in the right way." [5] They lived in abject poverty, isolated in a canyon.

Word of the openness of Tolstoy brought dozens of settlers, many of whom only stayed during the summer months. By 1966 and 1967, as the countercultural communal mania was heating, up, the flow of visitors turned into a flood. The founding precepts of Christian conviction and activism were overshadowed by other social currents. The fact that there were no rules led to several rather important problems. No one, for example, could tell someone else not to grow marihuana, so some did grow it, and there were two major pot busts, in 1966 and 1972. No rules meant, for some, unrestricted sexual behavior, and Tolstoy experienced many conflicts and jealous rages over that. In the spring of 1968 the main communal house was burned to the ground, the fire apparently having been set by a resident who was described as "kind of off balance."[6] After that people had to fend for themselves, building various kinds of small personal structures-inevitably modest ones, because no bank would lend money to anyone who had anything to do with Tolstoy Farm.

But even at Tolstoy, where the commitment to total freedom ran deep, people had their limits. One day a resident shot up the house and threatened the lives of other members, and he was driven to the edge of the property and instructed never to return. Tolstoy’s one rule, that no one could be asked to leave, turned out not to be absolute. Despite the problems, however, Tolstoy continues its life nearly 40 years later and has settled into a peaceful routine.

One of the most famous of the open-land community experiments of the 1960s era was Morning Star Ranch, which was founded as a yoga ashram in 1966 and which met its demise under the treads of the county’s bulldozers. Lou Gottlieb, the bass player in the popular early-60s folk group known as the Limeliters, bought a tract of slightly over 30 acres in Sonoma County, about fifty miles north of San Francisco, and in 1966 opened it to anyone who would come, disdaining all rules and restrictions. For the first year or so Morning Star functioned as a religious retreat; Ramón Sender, the first resident, pursued his interest in sun yoga, and Ben Jacopetti did extensive Zen sitting. Together the residents meditated and read a great variety of classic spiritual texts and aimed at a path of spiritual ascent. When Swami A. C. Bhaktivedanta visited in April, 1967, he gave a spiritual talk about Krishna consciousness and made six converts on the spot. Gottlieb’s own spiritual quest eventually took him to India, where he found his guru and brought him back to California.

In the summer of 1967, however, the dam burst. Word spread among the Haight-Ashbury crowds gathered for the Summer of Love that what was known as a Digger farm was operating up north, and soon Morning Star had a population in the hundreds. Gottlieb still was adamant in refusing to impose rules, and a chaotic scene survived there, with ups and downs, for some seven years. Nudity was common and became, in a manner reminiscent of the Doukhobors, a tactic in confrontations with state power, when residents would disrobe at the arrival of police. Sanitation was woefully inadequate, with people relieving themselves all over the property. A group of degenerate drinkers settled into an area that became known as Wino Flats and spent their time harassing everyone else. Visiting gun-toting motorcycle gangs intensified the Wino Flats scene. Still Gottlieb stuck to his vision. To complaints of dangerous sanitary conditions he declared that "shitting in the garden" was nothing less than constitutionally protected free exercise of his religion, which was a pantheistic respect for nature.

Eventually the county sent in the bulldozers, four times in all. Eventually the residents moved on, in several cases to other, less magnetic, open-land experiments. By 1972 Morning Star had had all of its buildings leveled and all of its residents dispersed. Gottlieb never repented of his espousal of total freedom; he went to his grave in 1996 preaching the gospel of open land.

In a case similar to that of Morning Star, the bad also drove out the good at the Church of the Five Star Ranch in New Mexico, south of Taos. Founded in 1967, Five Star was a Christian community and retreat center, but that one that welcomed all comers and rejected rules. Word of the experiment circulated quickly, and soon the scene was dominated by parties and drugs. Some of the new residents took to stealing from the more stable members, and the denouement came when they stole the house’s woodstoves. The idealistic founders found themselves without food, money, and even heat, and when the cold mountain winter arrived, Five Star broke up.

All of these examples of total freedom were religious in nature, or at least religion-sympathetic, at the time of their founding. Where total freedom has been espoused, most communities have attracted low-lifes, become overwhelmed with problems, and eventually dissolved. By way of contrast, however, several secular communities have also espoused total freedom, and there the picture is more mixed. While some rule-free secular communities went the way of their religious cousins, a number of them survived for decades. Could it be that total freedom works best in the absence of religion?

Home Colony in Washington state lasted for many years and had a relatively harmonious existence until internal conflicts finally did emerge and bring things to and end. Home was founded in 1897 by a small group of west coast socialist-anarchists who had lived at a regimented socialist colony in the Puget Sound area known as Glennis and who wanted more freedom than they had experienced there. For a buy-in fee members were allowed to do as they pleased on two-acre plots, and they shared in the ownership of common land, a community center called Liberty Hall, a communal school, and cooperative stores.

The anarchists of Home seemed to do well enough for several years, and might have continued indefinitely had not some of them started up an anarchist paper called Discontent: Mother of Progress, in 1898. Conflicts with the outside world over radicalism at Home became an enduring theme. Still, for two decades the residents got along well, tolerating various mild eccentricities ranging from vegetarianism to prohibitionism. What finally proved intolerable, at least to a few members, was nude swimming. In a legal battle characterized as "the nudes vs. the prudes," the prudes filed criminal complaints. The resulting deep rift in the colony led directly to its demise in 1919, although some residents managed to live on for many years afterwards noncommunally.

Home was only one of several communal settlements in Washington state in the turn-of-the-century era. Another equally dedicated to total freedom was Freeland, organized on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound in late 1899. Central to the project was a cooperative store that paid dividends to its members; the idea was that the colonists could use their dividends to pay for their shares of the land. They also operated a community boat, a necessity given the colony’s geographical location. Group cohesion was further abetted by a colony newspaper, a school, and a variety of educational and social organizations. Freeland never did have any discernible closing date; the lots were deeded to the residents, and over time it evolved into the conventional small town it is today.

In the latter days of Home another anarchist colony was opened on the east coast, near Stelton, New Jersey. The Ferrer Colony, named after a recently executed Spanish anarchist, was founded by a group of New York activists in 1915. As at Home, residents built their own homes but retained some common land and activities, in this case most notably the Ferrer Modern School, which became a noted experiment in unstructured education. Although there was predictably some friction among members, especially strife between anarchist and Communist factions, they managed to live together peacefully enough until, during World War II, the federal government established Camp Kilmer right next to the colony. The social environment of the previously rural area changed radically, and the anarchists bailed out.

The pattern continued throughout the twentieth century. Quarry Hill, in Vermont, provides a good mid-century example. In 1946 the newlyweds Irving Fiske and Barbara Hall Fiske bought a farm near Rochester, Vermont, and immediately began inviting friends to visit and build their own homes there. Without any real planning, a community of free artists soon developed. It was in effect something like a hippie commune a couple of decades before the arrival of the hippies, and in the 1960s the real hippies came in droves, creating all kinds of idiosyncratic homes in an "unintentional community," as members have long characterized it. Only zoning and land-use laws stopped the influx; today between 50 and 100 residents live the free life with only a single rule, that there will be no violence toward children.

With the coming of the 1960s counterculture there was a mighty surge of communal settlements that sought to exist without rules of any kind. The first, after Tolstoy Farm, was Drop City, in southern Colorado, where three artists bought six acres and began building colorful and utterly eccentric domes. There were never any rules; people moved in, built more domes, and lived for at least a few years in joyous confusion in a style that inspired hundreds of later hippie communes across the country. The founders departed in disgust before too long, but Drop City continued in its anarchistic way until its final demise in 1973.

Although one could not conclusively argue that religious groups with no rules do not long survive, while similar secular groups do, one might speculate that religion and freedom do have inherent contradictory values. While it is easy to affirm freedom OF religion, or free choice in selecting one’s religion, it may be harder to establish freedom WITHIN religion. Religion by its nature involves rules and limits and boundaries. Hierarchies of some kind seem to be inherent to the genre. Although many religious organizations are democratic, even then their members do draw up rules and often have behavioral expectations for members.

Total spiritual freedom does seem to be a bright shining ideal-after all, what could be more attractive that the pursuit of ultimate truth, wherever that pursuit might lead? But once groups and organizations are introduced into the equation, something changes. Religious movements need some kind of sense of direction to be movements at all, and thus are fated not to do well without standards and, often, leaders.

We who study new religious movements have long focused on the rights of individuals in potentially restrictive or repressive circumstances. Total freedom represents a different kind of situation, however. It may be as problematic as repression. At least, however, it seems to be a lot more fun.



[1] The majority of these groups have been accorded brief historical sketches in my works on twentieth-century American communalism, The Quest for Utopia in Twentieth-Century America (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1998) and The 60s Communes (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1999). [back]

[2] The most complete single work on and balanced appraisal of the Lord’s Farm is David Steven Cohen, "The ‘Angel Dancers’: The Folklore of Religious Communitarianism," New Jersey History 95 (Spring, 1977): 5-20. [back]

[3] Frances Davis, A Fearful Innocence (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1981), 17. [back]

[4] Ralph Albertson, "The Christian Commonwealth in Georgia," 1945; Dombrowski. [back]

[5] Personal communication from Huw "Piper" Williams, September 11, 1990. [back]

[6] Personal communication from Williams, September 11, 1990. [back]

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