a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Empty promises of harmony

Old Economy Village museum is a tribute to a self-proclaimed prophet and a false dream of the second coming...

AMBRIDGE, Pa. – Members of an adventurous religious cult built themselves the largest second-floor room in the United States more than a century ago for communal dining. It measured 52 feet wide and 100 feet long, and boasted a barreled ceiling that stood without supporting columns, almost by a miracle. It was a fitting place in Southwestern Pennsylvania for special meals in anticipation of the return of Jesus Christ, something that was promised to them in the early 1800s by their charismatic leader, George Rapp.

Rapp brought his followers from Germany to a level bend along the Ohio River Valley in Beaver County in 1824, where they raised a sprawling industrial and agricultural community and toiled long hours spinning wool, grinding grain into flour and producing beer and wine. For their efforts in the new town of Economy, the so-called Harmonists received a modest, two-story brick house and all the supplies they needed to survive.

Rapp had earlier split from the Lutheran Church to find freedom from religious persecution and create a community of equality. His followers sought a simple life of piety and went as far as to take vows of chastity in 1807 to purify their souls since they believed Christ was about to walk through their front doors at any given moment.

But it appeared as if Rapp was the one doing the walking and talking. While his underlings enjoyed lives of simplicity, Rapp and his wife and adopted son lived in a 20-room mansion that rivaled those of the presidents of his time. The workers ate off of handmade pottery they turned from the red mud below their village while Rapp’s table was set with fine china and crystal. There was nothing to spare for a man whose beard and cone-shaped hat made him more resemble a garden gnome than a prophet.

At one point, he amassed $500,000 in his basement safe, which amounted to more money than was in the national treasury. Jesus never showed up for his appointment with the Harmonists, but Rapp continued to preach the second coming, and even repeated the message from his bedroom window in the hours before he died short of his 90th birthday.

The economic success didn’t come, though, without doubt of Rapp's rhetoric. More than a third of his hard-working Christians had already left the compound with another self-proclaimed prophet in 1832. Some 1,000 followers would leave in attempts to find harmony elsewhere. The ranks of those who remained dwindled because, well, few if any of the married couples were producing heirs to their utopia. By 1900, there were just six remaining members of one of America’s most prosperous religious communes and it dissolved five years later.

The trustees, after having invested well in railroads and coal, sold most of the land to a budding corporation that would become the American Bridge Co., and the town was renamed Ambridge. Meanwhile, the state took ownership of Rapp’s mansion and 16 other buildings in 1916 and turned them into a heritage museum.

Pennsylvania has been left with a fairly well maintained shrine to the Industrial Revolution, and a man who, by all indications, manipulated his flock to satisfy his ego. His collection includes such priceless artifacts as a reproduction of Benjamin West’s “Christ Healing the Sick in the Temple." But a leaking roof, like a festering wound under a damp cloud, has caused mold and forced the closing of one room to tourists. Something still stinks in the place. Really.


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