May 15, 2006
An Ideal Society
By the time this rain lets up, the wild geraniums should be blooming in the Parklands. However, with
the miracles of modern technology, you don’t have to wait; you don’t even have to leave your computer.
You can see them here.
I guess death and destruction will always be popular topics. Two weeks ago I sent a link to a list of
Hopedale High alumni who had died in the last year, and another to a story on the Union Church fire.
According to the site statistics page, both of these were viewed about fifty times in the next day or so.
Since then I’ve added the list from the 2005 alumni newsletter.
Elaine has been in Texas for the last few days and I seem to have more spare time than usual. I used
some of it typing 6300 words about the Draper duplexes, from the National Register Nomination.
I thought the introduction to Spann’s Commune to Company Town was a good summary of the major
events of Hopedale history, especially the Community years. If you’d like to fill in the details, you could
read the book. It’s available at the Bancroft Library.
From Commune to Company Town
By Edward K. Spann
Hopedale, Massachusetts, is unique among American towns in that it was the site of two distinct
attempts to create an ideal society, each representing a distinct phase in American history. In its first
form, Hopedale ranks among the most successful communitarian experiments in pre-Marxian
socialism made by Americans in the nineteenth century. Begin in 1842 as a struggling religious
commune on a run-down farm, it developed into a thriving little village that won the attention of an
ambitious entrepreneur, George Draper. Recognizing Hopedale’s potential as an industrial site,
Draper was able in 1856 to seize control of it and to expand its industrial base until he and his sons
had created the nation’s dominant firm in the production of looms for the cotton textile industry.
Under the Drapers and their partners, Hopedale became a model company town that provided
benefits and a beneficial environment to its residents. During its peak years in the early twentieth
century, it seemed to be the long-desired way to establish harmony between labor and capital.
Hopedale’s earlier history calls attention to a special regional subculture that by the early nineteenth
century had appeared along the Blackstone River in south-central Massachusetts and northern
Rhode Island. This small world had its being in a local network of industrial villages that had sprung
up to exploit the waterpower of the Blackstone and its tributaries. Although embracing some diversity
of skill and ambition, these places were heavily dependent on the early textile industry. In a time of
depression in that industry, the Hopedale Community was founded by some of the more idealistic as
well as discontented inhabitants of the region, often craftsmen, petty businessmen, and other
members of the small-town middle class, who sought a new social life for themselves in the familiar
world of friends and families rather than on the far western frontier.
They drew their inspiration from the local religious community, specifically from Adin Ballou, who had
developed a compelling spiritual vision from his experiences in the Blackstone region. Unlike most of
Massachusetts, with its roots in Puritanism, this area had strong ties to the dissenting religion of
Roger Williams and Rhode Island. From that background and from his involvement in Garrisonian
abolitionism, Ballou developed his own social model based on what he believed was the one true
Christianity Jesus had taught to his disciples, and especially on the critical doctrine of nonresistance.
Convinced that God had, through Jesus, provided the principles for a truly good life to be achieved in
this world, Ballou and his fellow Practical Christians determined to create a brotherly society based
on the tenet that coercive force was not to be used against anyone, not even one’s worst enemy. This
belief could be found in various religious groups like the Shakers, but the Practical Christians who
founded Hopedale extended it in a more radical direction by attempting to demonstrate that it would
be possible for ordinary people to practice nonresistance without a sectarian isolation from general
Nonresistance, in this form, distinguished Hopedale from the rest of the world; in other respects the
community was representative of the society around it. It exemplified the social radicalism that arose
in response to early modernization, although its socialism was notably more flexible and pragmatic
than most. Avoiding a commitment to one specific social plan, it experimented with varying forms of
cooperative life, making itself a laboratory in which virtually every formula known to the times was put
to the test. And it reflected the great moral ferment that enlivened New England during the half-century
before the Civil War, a ferment associated with temperance, abolitionism, women’s rights,
millenarianism, spiritualism, education, and other strivings to remake the world.
The Hopedale Community was also an effort by members of a small-town middle class to reshape
small-town society so as to meet their cultural as well as economic needs, in the process protecting
themselves from the tempting but also chaotic and corrupt world of big cities. Essentially, they tried –
as many others were to try over the next century – to miniaturize the urban-industrial society
developing around them so as to incorporate modern advantages into a stable community they could
control. Toward this end, they often adapted practices common to the town developers of their day,
demonstrating that Christian socialists could also be boosters and promoters.
Hopedale was thus a highly interesting social and religious adventure in search of a better tomorrow,
an adventure inspired by perhaps the least adequately appreciated of the major socioreligious
thinkers of his times, Adin Ballou. Given Ballou’s central importance at Hopedale, it may seem that it
was his personal experiment, but this was only partly true. Even more than his better known
contemporary, John Humphrey Noyes, he was a less dominating, charismatic leader than a practical
visionary who led by rational persuasion and ruled by consensus, allowing for much active
participation by his followers – women as well as men – in decisions affecting their lives.
Basically, this book recounts the efforts made by one extraordinary man and a group of ordinary
people to work out the living details of a Christian socialism for themselves and, ultimately, for all
America. Beyond that, it is also a story that recapitulates the history of idealism, of an inspired society
successful enough to assure its own failure; and it is the story of how the religious devotion of some
helped to lay the foundations for the industrial wealth of others. Thus the history of Hopedale as godly
community and as company town is a history of a social adventure that has significance for all
seasons and ages.
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