An American utopia: The rise and fall of the Hopedale Community

By Alex MacDougall
BU News Service

HOPEDALE – Visiting the town of Hopedale today, located along the Blackstone River Valley in central Massachusetts, it looks like any other town you’d see in the area. You would never guess that it was the site of one of the most ambitious social experiments in American history.

Women and men had equal rights and everyone believed in the equality of all races. People worked jobs they liked and pursued creative interests, instead of dull and menial labor. They abstained from moral vices and instead practiced virtue.

Formerly a part of the neighboring town of Milford, the 258 acres of land that today make up the town of Hopedale were purchased by the adherents of a group following an ideology known as “Practical Christianity,” led by a preacher named Adin Ballou, who had left denomination after denomination for not being able to reconcile his radical beliefs.

Born in Cumberland, Rhode Island, in 1803, Ballou was brought up in a religious family and at age 18 began preaching in the town of Milford in a Universalist congregation. But he broke with the church over its belief in universal salvation without punishment. He was fired from the church and began preaching in the nearby town of Mendon.

During his time as a preacher, Ballou became caught up in the various causes that affected society at the time. These included abolitionism, women’s rights, early socialism and the temperance movement. Ballou adopted these causes, becoming a staunch abolitionist and championing equality between the sexes. While these views got him in trouble with the church establishment, he attracted a loyal group of followers.

“He began to become more and more popular with a certain group of people, who wanted to start a community to live up to these ideals and spread their message,” said Dan Malloy, a local historian and former schoolteacher who runs the website hope1842.com, which contains numerous archives on the history of Hopedale.  

Eventually, Ballou and group of around 28 followers (40 in total, including their children) founded the Hopedale Community, where members could put their newfound convictions to practice.

With the community, Ballou founded his own movement, Practical Christianity, which advocated for a way of living based on the writings of the New Testament. Influenced by the abolitionist movement, Ballou believed in the ideal of Christian non-resistance.  He thought that governments supported war, slavery and violence in general, and that this was contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ.

The constitution of the Hopedale Community states: “Especially do I hold myself bound by 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.”

While the community was inspired by socialist ideas emerging from 19th-century Europe, it wasn’t exactly how we think of socialism today. The community was founded as a joint-stock company, where every person received ownership of shares. People were allowed to own individual businesses, the profits of which would be reinvested in the community. People worked as soapmakers, printed notebooks and planted fruit trees, which would be sold at something like a farmer’s market. A bi-weekly newspaper called “Practical Christianity” was also distributed.

The most successful business was started by two brothers, Ebenezer and George Draper, from Uxbridge. They sold loom parts for textiles-making and invented a new type of spindle that reduced the cost and increased the quantity of  yarn production. The original building where they produced the loom parts, called “The Little Red Shop”, now serves as a historical museum for the town of Hopedale.

But the success of the Draper brothers would ultimately lead to the end of the community. While Ebenezer had joined at the beginning of the community and could be considered a “true believer,” George did not join until 13 years later and had a more business-driven mindset.  

“He realized that the shop that he had built was providing pretty much most of the funds for the community,” said Sue Ciaramicoli, volunteer curator at the Little Red Shop Museum. “So George, being the entrepreneur and capitalist, convinced his brother to withdraw their assets.”

When the town faced a financial crisis in 1856, the Draper brothers agreed to assume all of the town’s debts and bought out the shares of the other members of the community. After 14 years of living out their ideals, the Hopedale Community came to an end. Hopedale was incorporated as a town in 1886 and followed the standard rules of governance. The Drapers started their own company and a new factory was built for the production of textile looms, which would become the largest of its kind in the world until it too closed its doors in 1980.

The Hopedale Community wasn’t the only utopian experiment occurring in Massachusetts at the time. Around the same time, the community of Brook Farm, in West Roxbury, was established under similar ideals. Its members included the literary luminary Nathaniel Hawthorne. But while the Brook Farm experiment is more well-known due to its literary associations, the Hopedale Community lasted more than twice as long, a testament to the ideals and charisma of Ballou among his followers.

Ballou’s writings would also continue to inspire other thinkers, the most famous of which is the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, who was influenced by Ballou’s ideas of Christian non-resistance. In his book “The Kingdom of God Is Within You,” Tolstoy wrote that Ballou would be “in the future acknowledged as one of the great benefactors of mankind.” Tolstoy’s writings would go on to influence Gandhi, and later, Martin Luther King. In a sense, we have Ballou and the Hopedale Community to thank for that.

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