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The Associationists: Forging a Christian Socialism in Antebellum America

  • Carl J. Guarneri (a1)


In the early 1840s a wave of enthusiasm for the socialist theory of Charles Fourier swept through American reform circles. Excited utopians in New York, Boston, and elsewhere in the North divided their efforts between publicizing their version of Fourierism, called “Association,” and building model communities or “phalanxes” to illustrate it. While the history and sociology of their nearly three dozen short-lived communal experiments continue to attract scholarly attention, the Associationists' writings have been relatively neglected. Yet the expositions and arguments that won thousands of converts to Fourierism represent an innovation in American religious thought too important to be forgotten: the first extensive attempt to harness the powerful ideas and symbols of Christianity to the emerging worldview of secular socialism.



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1. There is no detailed account of the Associationist movement in all its phases. The best summary available is Bassett, T. D. Seymour, “The Secular Utopian Socialists,” in Socialism in American Life, ed. Egbert, Donald Drew and Persons, Stow, 2 vols.(Princeton, 1952), 1:155211. Surveys of the phalanxes begin with Noyes, John Humphrey, History of American Socialisms (Philadelphia, 1870); the pioneering scholarly work is Bestor, Arthur Jr, “American Phalanxes: A Study of Fourierist Socialism in the United States (With Special Reference to the Movement in Western New York)” (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 1938). In brief, the Associationists, following Fourier, believed that humanity progressed in stages from “Savagery” through the competitive “Civilization” of the nineteenth century to “Harmony,” which would arrive through the peaceful reorganization of society into cooperative phalanxes uniting approximately 1600 persons of all types and classes. The complex arrangements of Association would liberate the 12 stifled “passions” of human personality yet also ensure the order and equity lacking in individualistic, unplanned Civilization. For an extended analysis of Associationist doctrine, see Guarneri, Carl J., “Utopian Socialism and American Ideas: The Origins and Doctrines of American Fourierism, 1832–1848” (Ph.D. diss., Johns Hopkins University, 1979), pp. 130327.

2. See, for example, Bassett, “Secular Utopian Socialists”; and Bestor, Arthur, Backwoods Utopias: The Sectarian Origins and the Owenite Phase of Communitarian Socialism in America, 1663–1829, 2d ed. (Philadelphia, 1970), pp. 3738.

3. The classic works are Hopkins, Charles Howard, The Rise of the Social Gospel in American Protestantism, 1865–1915 (New Haven, 1940); and Dombrowski, James, The Early Days of Christian Socialism in America (New York, 1936).

4. The evolution of Ripley's and Channing's social Transcendentalism is documented in Perry, Miller, ed., The Transcendentalists: An Anthology (Cambridge, Mass., 1950), pp. 186188,213220, 251259, 294299, 429431. For Ripley's conversion to Fourierism, see Crowe, Charles, George Ripley, Transcendentalist and Utopian Socialist (Athens, Ga., 1967), pp.170183. On Cooke, see “A Personal Experience,” The Harbinger 5 (10 07 1847): 6567. On the Swedenborgians, see Block, Marguerite Beck, The New Church in the New World: A Study of Swedenborgianism in America (New York, 1932), pp. 153154; and Noyes, pp. 262–264. For Smolnikar's religious views, see “Peace-Union Settlement,” The Phalanx 1(1 04 1844): 100; and for Amringe's, Van, see his Nature and Revelation (New York, 1843).

5. Bestor, , Backwoods Utopias, pp. 131, 222. Harrison, J. F. C., Quest for the New Moral World: Robert Owen and the Owenites in Britain and America (New York, 1969), pp. 106108, on the other hand, notes the use of millennial rhetoric by Owen and a few of his American followers.

6. See Riasanovsky, Nicholas V., The Teaching of Charles Fourier (Berkeley and Los Angeles,1969), pp. 100105; and Bestor, Arthur Jr, “Albert Brisbane—Propagandist for Socialism in the 1840's,” New York History 28 (04 1947): 148.

7. “Association… will produce so much, and so fill the world with wealth, that the question will be how to consume it all ” (Brisbane, Albert, Association; or A Concise Exposition of the Practical Part of Fourier's Social Science [New York, 1843], p. 35). For Brisbane's motivation, see Brisbane, Redelia, Albert Brisbane: A Mental Biography, with a Character Study (Boston, 1893), pp. 209210, 250.

8. Parke Godwin to Charles A. Dana, 14 February[1845], Bryant-Godwin Collection, New York Public Library; George Ripley to ?, [1843], quoted in Frothingham, Octavius Brooks, George Ripley (Boston, 1883), pp. 148149.

9. They were called spiritualists by James Kay, Jr., in a letter to John Sullivan Dwight, 2 March 1846, Dwight Papers, Boston Public Library.

10. Block, New Church.

11. [Emerson, Ralph Waldo and Brisbane, Albert], “Fourierism and the Socialists,” The Dial 3 (07 1842): 86; Channing, William H., The Present 1 (15 12 1843): 210. For a sampling of Associationist articles, see Noyes, pp. 541–550.

12. Channing, William H., “Fourier and Swedenborg,” The Present 1 (1 04 1844): 431; Godwin, Parke, A Popular View of the Doctrines of Charles Fourier (New York, 1844), p. 106.

13. James, Henry, Reply to New Jerusalem Magazine, The Harbinger 6 (18 12 1847): 5455. For the official New Church response, see Block, pp. 154–158.

14. Noyes, p. 550.

15. [Hempel, Charles J.], The True Organization of the New Church (New York, 1848).

16. This interpretation, first suggested by Swift, Lindsay, Brook Farm (New York, 1900), p. 135, has been developed by Crowe, Charles R., “‘This Unnatural Union of Phalansteries and Transcendentalists,’” Journal of the History of Ideas 20 (10-12 1959): 495502; and Thomas, John L., “Romantic Reform in America, 1815–1865,” American Quarterly 17 (Winter 1965): 656681.

17. [Channing, William H.], “Emerson's Phi Beta Kappa Oration,Boston Quarterly Review 1 (01 1838): 115; Greeley, Horace, Hints Toward Reforms (New York, 1850), pp. 386387; Ripley to Emerson, 9 November 1840, quoted in Frothingham, Ripley, p. 310.

18. See Leroux, Pierre, De l'Humanité (Paris, 1840); and Brownson, , “Leroux on Humanity,” Boston Quarterly Review 5 (07 1842): 257322. For explicit acknowledgment of Leroux'sinfluence, see W. H. Channing to Theodore Parker, 9 June 1842, reprinted in Frothingham, Octavius Brooks, Memoir of William Henry Channing (Boston, 1886), p. 174; and Godwin, , Popular View, p. 27n.

19. Brownson, on the other hand, eventually came to envision the Catholic church as “the realm of true solidarity” through which all humans shared divine grace. See Caponigri, A. Robert, “European Influences on the Thought of Orestes Brownson: Pierre Leroux and Vincenzo Gioberti,” in No Divided Allegiance: Essays in Brownson's Thought, ed. Leonard, Gilhooley (New York, 1980), p. 108. Brownson's route through Leroux's philosophy toward Catholicism can be traced in his Boston Quarterly Review articles of 1842, his Democratic Review articles of 1842–1843, and in Joseph, Gower and Richard, Leliaert, eds., The Brownson-Hecker Correspondence (Notre Dame, 1979), pp. 7678, 134135.

20. Dwight, John, “The Idea of a Divine Social Order,” The Harbinger 6 (1 04 1848): 170.

21. Codman, J. T., Brook Farm, Historic and Personal Memoirs (Boston, 1894), p. 227. Ripley, was quoted in “Celebration of Fourier's Birthday at Brook Farm,” The Phalanx 1 (3 05 1845): 336.

22. Godwin, Parke, “A Letter to Joseph Mazzini on the Doctrines of Fourier,The Harbinger 4 (15 05 1847): 364; “Letter from Mr. Brisbane …,” Boston Quarterly Review 4 (October 1841): 501.

23. Among a large and growing number of studies, see especially the anthology edited by Gaustad, Edwin, The Rise of Adventism: Religion and Society in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America(New York, 1974); and the early survey by Smith, David E., “Millenarian Scholarship in America,” American Quarterly 17 (Summer 1965): 163186.

24. Dana, Charles, A Lecture on Association, in its Connection with Religion (Boston, 1844), especially pp. 30, 33.

25. Dwight, John, “Association the Body of Christianity,” The Harbinger 2 (21 02 1846): 175176.

26. The Phalanx 1 (20 04 1844): 104, 113.

27. Crowe, Charles, “Christian Socialism and the First Church of Humanity,” Church History 35 (03 1966): 9598. See also Dwight, Marianne, Letters from Brook Farm, 1844–1847, ed. Reed, Amy L. (Poughkeepsie, N.Y., 1928), p. 112; and “Celebration of Fourier's Birthday at Brook Farm,” pp. 336–337.

28. Crowe, , “Christian Socialism,” pp. 98103.

29. An earlier version of the section that follows appeared in Guarneri, Carl J., “Importing Fourierism to America,” Journal of the History of Ideas 43 (1012 1982): 586588.

30. Address before the Philadelphia Sunday School Union, quoted in Griffin, Clifford S., “Religious Benevolence as Social Control, 1815–1860,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 44 (1957): 439. See also M'Laren, Donald, Boa Constrictor, Or Fourier Association Self-Exposed as to its Principles and Aims (Rochester, N.Y., 1844), p. 24. For a liberal Protestant critique, see Clarke, James Freeman, “Fourierism,” Christian Examiner [Unitarian] 37 (07 1844): 7678.

31. M., R. H., “The Influence of Evil,” The Harbinger 6 (18 03 1848): 154. See also [Brownson, Orestes], “Church Unity and Social Amelioration,Brownson's Quarterly Review 1 (07 1844): 314316.

32. Brisbane, Albert, Social Destiny of Man; or, Association and Reorganization of Industry (Philadelphia, 1840), p. 243; idem, “The Religious Movement in Germany,” The Harbinger 2 (28 February 1846): 191.

33. Godwin, , Popular View, p. 17.

34. Godwin, Parke, “The Christian Examiner on the Doctrine of Fourier,The Phalanx 1 (24 08 1844): 251252; Dwight, John, “The American Review's Account of the Religious Union of Associationists,” The Harbinger 5 (19 06 1847): 30; idem, Reply to The Congregationalist, Daily Chronotype [Boston], 28 December 1849, p. 1.

35. Amringe, Van, Nature and Revelation, p. 7; Dana, Charles, Reply to Universalist Quarterly, The Phalanx 1 (3 05 1845): 328329.

36. On religion in the phalanxes,' see Noyes, pp. 260, 280–281, 291, 331, 363, 368, 393, 414–416, 439, 473. Dana, , Lecture, pp. 4041, gives a typical Associationist view of future religious institutions.

37. Godwin, , “Letter to Mazzini,” p. 366; “Social Reform,” The Harbinger 2 (28 03 1846): 250255; Godwin, Parke, “The Univercoelum,” The Harbinger 6 (26 02 1848): 133.

38. Godwin, Parke, “The Influence of Evil,” The Harbinger 6 (18 03 1848): 155.

39. Wilkinson to Henry James Sr., August 1846, quoted in Wilkinson, Clement John, James John Garth Wilkinson; A Memoir of His Life, With a Selection from his Letters (London, 1911), p. 55.

40. For Ripley's warning, see note 8 above. Noyes, pp. 646–654, gloomily reviews the causes of the phalanx failures.

The Associationists: Forging a Christian Socialism in Antebellum America

  • Carl J. Guarneri (a1)


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