Visions of Paradise:

Cults & Communes in the Old America

This course provides a writing-intensive introduction to the early American history of communal religious utopias or what we often call “cults.” More than a hundred years before the late-twentieth-century cult scare—that is, before Scientology and the Moonies, “brainwashing” and “de-programming,” mass marriages and mass suicides—new communal religious movements led by charismatic leaders sought to remake the world by living apart from it. In the early- and mid-nineteenth century, the Americans in these movements sought refuge from what they saw as a chaotic and broken world. In their new communal utopias, they banished sin, spoke directly with the divine presence, and reconfigured the economic, religious, and sexual norms that governed the early republic. This course investigates two of these key movements—a nomadic group of apocalyptic seekers called the Pilgrims (no, not those Pilgrims) and the Oneida Community, a perfectionist commune whose sexual mores scandalized polite society. The course provides students with the historical and conceptual tools to understand American religious diversity and challenges them to master writing techniques that will prove essential to their intellectual and professional success in the years ahead. It’s going to be a great month—one filled with hard work, challenging discussions, and rewarding insights about this country’s confusing, disturbing, revealing, and thrilling religious past.