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Communes(religion, spiritualism, and occult)
One of the most popular forms of the religious life, adopted by small groups throughout human history, is communal living. It has been particularly related to Christianity due to the element of communal life evident in the first generation of the church in Jerusalem as described in the biblical book of Acts. It was said of the first church that its members had all things in common and that they sold their possessions and divided their resources among each other as they had need (Acts 2:44–45). While the communal life tended to disappear as the church grew, especially as it became the religion of the masses, there were always a few who attempted to live by this apostolic ideal. In the post-Constantinian era, this ideal would give birth to a new monastic movement that saw thousands of men and women withdraw from mainstream society to live a communal life.
Within the monastic movement, the essence to communal living included the individual’s renunciation of private property (expressed in a vow of poverty) and the ownership of both the means of production and the fruits of work by the group as a whole. As monastic communities developed and different orders became owners ofconsiderable real estate and other possessions, a philosophical distinction was posed between the ownership of property and its use. Thus individuals who did not own anything were able, as members of a wealthy order, within the rules of the order, to live in many ways quite luxuriously.
Ordered religious communities were often founded by individuals who claimed extreme religious experiences that placed them outside the ordinary and/or who had extreme ways of expressing their religious commitments. Many founders were people known to converse with various spiritual entities, especially the Virgin Mary, Jesus, angels, or different saints. The different orders also became the haven for other individuals who possessed various paranormal abilities, such as levitation, bi-location, conversation with spiritual entities, or manifesting the stigmata. Life within an order both prevented the general public from viewing some of the more extreme behavior associated with some individuals and protected the members from an often reactionary or phenomena-seeking population.
Many members of ordered religious communities, such as Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches, have proven themselves great assets to their churches by demonstrating fulfilling selfless devotion by dedicating themselves to teaching, missionary activity, and the manifestation of Christian ideals and possibilities.
Protestants have generally eschewed the monastic ideal in favor of placing an emphasis on each Christian living the devoted life previously seen as possible only for those in religious orders. The first generation of Protestants who had taken monastic vows often made a point of renouncing the vows and adopting a secular life that included marriage, the possession of property, and the managing of a household. In the nineteenth century, a reaction to the growing emphasis on the individual in Western Protestant countries, especially the United States, led to a reactionary movement that saw the founding of hundreds of communal societies. While most were short-lived, a few became quite successful both in expressing a spectrum of communal ideals and surviving economically.
In the Protestant-dominated countries, the majority of communes have had a secular base. Reacting to forms of individualism that tended to destroy community and deny intimacy, communes practiced a lifestyle built around mutual work, shared meals, and attempts to bridge the gaps between the rich and poor. Those that lasted the longest have also adopted a common religious life, usually a form of free-church pietism without formal ties to any particular denomination. At the same time, some denominations experimented with the reintroduction of monasticism (Anglicans) and deaconess orders (Lutherans, Methodists).
Free from any denominational control, communes have been able to experiment with a variety of forms of organization (from the hierarchical to the ultra-democratic), patterns for religious living, and sexuality. The Shakers were among the most successful of the nineteenth-century communities. They chose to live a celibate life, developed distinct forms of architecture to embody that life (including, for example, separate doors for men and women), and put considerable energy in a variety of commercial enterprises. Other equally successful communal groups experimented with different forms of married life, including the complex marriage practiced by the Perfectionists at Oneida, New York, and the polygamy adopted by the Latter-day Saints. A few groups have tried forms of free love, but such communes have tended to be short-lived and rife with internal struggles. Most communes, however, such as the Hutterites, the most successful twentieth-century communal group, have continued traditional Christian teachings on sex and marriage, limiting sexual expression to monogamous married couples.
The number of communes expanded greatly in the twentieth century, especially during the 1960s, when they became one element in the hippie culture. Many communes were formed in the cities as a means of survival by street people,while at the same time, many more abandoned the city for the more “natural” idealistic life of the countryside. These communes were known for the new forms of spirituality they embodied. Many had come to find a new respect for religious experiences from their ingestion of various mood-altering drugs, especially LSD. Others had encountered one or more of the new Asian teachers who entered the country after the change of the immigration laws in 1965.
In the early 1970s, several years after the wave of commune-founding hit the hippie community, many members—wearied of drugs and tired of Eastern religions—turned to evangelical Christianity. The communes became the locus of a significant revival movement known as the Jesus People movement. From the Jesus People came a number of communally based new Christian groups, such as Jesus People USA, The Alamo Christian Foundation, and the controversial Children of God (now The Family International).
Scholars, even those who have studied communes extensively, have questioned the relevance of communes in the larger scheme of world events. Those who have followed a communal life have generally constituted a small minority of the religious community at any given moment. However, they have manifested an influence far beyond their numbers. As has been the case with the equally small peace churches, Christian communes have continually held the ideal of the unselfish life before the larger community, even while living separately from that community. Communes have also been a haven for those beset with strong religious experiences.
Communes exist almost invisibly in society. Most, like the very successful Hutterites, have chosen to live geographically apart. Most Hutterites live in North and South Dakota, and the great majority of Americans never see them apart from occasional television specials. Urban communes generally exist anonymously, its members choosing to assume a low profile among neighbors who might not understand the communal life.