Adin Ballou: Practical utopian
by Christopher L. Walton
Adin Ballou (1803–1890) spent a lifetime trying to build a community modeled in every difficult particular on the Sermon on the Mount. He even succeeded for a while. In an era marked by radical reform movements and utopian communal experiments, Ballou’s Hopedale Community stands out for its longevity and for its distinctive form of Christian socialism, which Ballou called “practical Christianity.”
Ballou became a minister in Rhode Island in 1821, serving a Christian Connexion church. His sect, like many at the time, hearkened back to the “pure” Christianity of the first century. They rejected the Trinity, making them evangelical Unitarians of a sort; they also believed that God simply annihilates the souls of the damned. Ballou began debating with Universalists (including his distant cousin Hosea Ballou), who held that every soul will be saved—and became a Universalist minister himself in 1823.
In 1831 he broke with the main body of Universalists, arguing that some souls would be punished prior to their ultimate “restoration,” and lost his pulpit. He then served a Unitarian church from 1831 to 1842.
In the late 1830s, Ballou embraced “nonresistance,” believing Christians must always “turn the other cheek” (see Matthew 5:39). He and several friends decided to base their lives on this idea. Social progress, they believed, would happen only through the conversion of individuals to the gospel of nonresistance. In 1839 they pledged themselves to a “Standard of Practical Christianity”; it was a comprehensive and demanding ideal (see “Voices from the Past,” right). They rejected military service, lawsuits, politics, taxes, even voting. Finding the Standard hard to live in isolation, in 1841 the “practical Christians” established Hopedale, a utopian village in Milford, Massachusetts.
After ten years the village had 200 inhabitants, thirty-one homes, and several businesses. Women participated fully in its civic life. But the experiment came to an end because of too few converts and a fiscal crisis. In 1860, the society was reestablished as a Practical Christian church. Nonresistance was unpopular during the Civil War; by 1861 only thirty-eight members remained.
Hopedale remains a charming New England town. The Hopedale Unitarian Church is heir to Ballou’s religious society—though membership today is much less arduous. His spiritual legacy, however, lives on among contemporary nonresisters. And through the Russian novelist and idealist Leo Tolstoy, who corresponded with Ballou in 1889 and described Ballou’s philosophy in The Kingdom of God Is within You, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. drew inspiration for their active nonviolence campaigns.
Voices from the Past
"I believe in the religion of Jesus Christ, as he taught and exemplified it, according to the Scriptures of the New Testament. I acknowledge myself a bounden subject of all its moral obligations. Especially do I hold myself bound by all its holy requirements: Never, under any pretext whatsoever, to kill, assault, beat, torture, enslave, rob, oppress, persecute, defraud; corrupt, slander, revile, injure, envy or hate any human being—even my worst enemy; never, in any manner, to violate the dictates of pure chastity; never to take or administer an oath; never to manufacture, buy, sell, deal out, or use any intoxicating liquor as a beverage; never to serve in the army, navy, or militia of any nation, state, or chieftain; never to bring an action at law, hold office, vote, join a legal posse, petition a legislature, or ask governmental interposition, in any case involving a final authorized resort to physical violence; never to indulge self-will, bigotry, love of preeminence, covetousness, deceit, profanity, idleness, or an unruly tongue; never to participate in lotteries, games of chance, betting, or pernicious amusements; never to resent reproof, or justify myself in a known wrong; never to aid, abet, or approve others in any thing sinful; but, through divine assistance, always to recommend and promote, with my entire influence, the holiness and happiness of all mankind."
The Standard of Practical Christianity (1841), the covenant of Adin Ballou’s Hopedale Community.