Ohio History Journal

Ora et Labora:

Ora et Labora:

A German Methodist Utopia






IN ALL AGES men have toyed with plans for the regeneration of

the race, and a map of the world without utopias would be bleak

and uninteresting indeed.1

A new, unsettled land, like the United States, was especially ap-

pealing to utopian dreamers, and beginning with the colonial

period, scores of communitarian experiments flourished, for longer

or shorter periods, in America. Some were religious in origin and

used a communist pattern as the most practical way to hold their

group together. Others had no concern with religion, or were

even hostile to it, and concentrated on social and economic theory

to find the key to a better social order.

The great open spaces of the Mississippi Valley seemed ideal

for such experiments in communal living. Here there was plenty

of room, and if neighbors were not always hospitable, they were

generally tolerant. The majority of such American communities

were located in Trans-Appalachia, but other well-known settle-

ments could be found in the older East. The Shakers of New

England and Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance come immediately

to mind. Most of these experiments were of short duration; a few

persisted into the present century.

Among the millions of European immigrants who came to

America in the nineteenth century, attracted by its political freedom

and economic opportunity, there were some who dreamed of

establishing an entirely new social order. Among nearly every


* Carl Wittke is chairman of the department of history and dean of the graduate

school at Western Reserve University. He is also a member of the board of editors

of the Quarterly.

1 I am indebted to Lewis Beeson, executive secretary of the Michigan Historical

Commission, and Philip P. Mason, the commission's archivist, for help in preparing

this paper.




nationality group there were men and women intrigued by the

pattern of communal living. Some were motivated by strong relig-

ious faith, others were followers of theoreticians like Robert Owen,

Etienne Cabet, Wilhelm Weitling, and others. The American map

a century ago was dotted with short-lived utopias. One scholar

has listed 130 from 1663 to 1858, but his list is far from complete.2

One of the best-known immigrant settlements was that of the

German Rappists, who located first in Harmony, Indiana, and then

in Economy, Pennsylvania, on the banks of the Ohio, about eighteen

miles below Pittsburgh, in what is now part of Ambridge, Penn-

sylvania. The group was sufficiently well known by 1824 in Europe

to be satirized in Byron's Don Juan. At St. Nazianz, Wisconsin,

there was a Catholic communal society directed by a German priest

from Baden. The eccentric Wilhelm Keil, one of Wilhelm Nast's

early converts to German Methodism, established two communi-

ties, in Missouri and Oregon, in which he was "the Central Sun"

and his followers, "Princes of Light." The Bishop Hill community

in Illinois was the home of Swedish Jansenists. The Amana villages

of Iowa were settled by the German Community of True Inspira-

tion, and managed to retain their form of communism until the

1930's. The Icarians of Nauvoo, Illinois, were French disciples

of Etienne Cabet, author of Voyage en Icarie and True Christianity,

in which he tried to show that communism and the Christian

religion were not incompatible. Communia, Iowa, was Wilhelm

Weitling's foolhardy venture in social reconstruction. Ohio had

communistic settlements in Kendall, Yellow Springs, and other

localities. Of these, Zoar, in Tuscarawas County, was the most

successful. Established by the German followers of Joseph Baumler

as the "Society of Separatists of Zoar," it did not officially abandon

communism until 1898. The Garden, the Great House, and other

structures of the community are now state property administered

by the Ohio Historical Society.3

In a climate which tolerated such a variety of social and religious

experiments, it is not surprising that a band of German Metho-


2 Arthur E. Bestor, Jr., Backwoods Utopias (Philadelphia, 1950), 235-242.

3 For immigrant communist settlements, see Carl Wittke, We Who Built America:

The Saga of the Immigrant (New York, 1939), Chap. XII, on "Immigrant Utopias."


ORA ET LABORA       131


dists should plan a "Christian colony," based on communitarian

organization and the Methodist Discipline. Though their settle-

ment was finally located in Michigan, it was the direct offshoot of

the German Methodist movement which had its cradle in Cincin-

nati and whose founder was Wilhelm Nast, a highly respected

citizen of the Queen City.

Nast was born in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1807. He was baptized

and confirmed a Lutheran, and like a number of his forebears,

seemed destined for the Lutheran ministry. He studied theology

and philosophy at the University of Tubingen, where Ferdinand

Christian Baur, the famous theologian, was one of his teachers.

David Strauss, a fellow-student, later published a Life of Jesus

which provoked violent controversy in theological circles by its

attempt to dispose of the myths of Christianity and its emphasis

on the divinity of humanity rather than on the concept of one God,

turned man.

As a student at Tubingen, Nast drifted into what he called "the

labyrinth of Pantheism," and imbibed "the nectar and ambrosia

of classical paganism." He became so deeply disturbed by his un-

successful attempt to reconcile the new rationalist theology with

the evangelical, pietistic experiences of his youth, that he finally

left Tubingen, abandoned his plans for the Lutheran ministry,

and came to the United States in 1828.

For a while Nast was a private tutor in Pennsylvania. Then he

went to West Point, to teach German and to look after the library

at the military academy. In 1834 he taught in the senior preparatory

department of Kenyon College, in Gambier, Ohio. It was while

attending a Methodist camp meeting in Knox County that he

achieved the joys of conversion and found peace for his troubled


In 1835 Nast was appointed by the Ohio Methodist Conference

as missionary to the Germans of Cincinnati at a salary of one hun-

dred dollars a year. The assignment proved extraordinarily difficult,

for Cincinnati Germans were either Lutherans, Catholics, or free-

thinkers, and regardless of their religious affiliation, practically all

of them regarded the puritanical Sabbatarianism of the Methodists

as an unwarranted invasion of their personal liberty. After a year



of heroic effort Nast succeeded in organizing a class of twelve

Methodists, but could point to only three actual conversions.

In 1836 Nast became a German Methodist circuit rider in Ohio,

covering a circuit of three hundred miles, with twenty-five preach-

ing stations which he was expected to visit at least once every five

weeks. The next year he returned to Cincinnati to begin regular

Methodist services in the German language. From his pioneering

efforts, and the handful of converts he made in the early years of

his ministry, the German Methodist Church developed by the end

of the century into a church of 63,000 members, organized in con-

gregations which extended from the Atlantic to the Pacific and

from Canada to Texas. The German Methodist Church established

a number of charitable and educational institutions, sponsored over

three hundred publications in the German language, and sent its

missionaries to Europe, Asia, and Latin America. Nast became the

first president of German Wallace College, in Berea, Ohio, and for

half a century edited Der Christliche Apologete, a German weekly,

printed in Cincinnati, which was both a religious paper and a

journal of general information for readers still unable to follow

the English language. The Apologete was the leading religious

journal of the German Methodists in the United States, and had

an appreciable circulation in Germany and Switzerland as well.

The story of the little German Methodist utopia in Michigan

with which this article is concerned is a minor fragment of the

history of an immigrant church of which Nast was the founder

and spiritual leader, and the account of the Michigan community

is reconstructed largely from the files of the Apologete. Nast neither

approved nor opposed the attempt to found a "Christian colony,"

but he gave it full coverage in his paper.

In July 1862 the Christliche Apologete began carrying notices

and letters describing plans for a Christian German Methodist

colony to be built on communitarian lines somewhere in Michigan.

The guiding spirit in this utopian venture was Emil Gottlob Baur.4


4 In Michigan, a Guide to the Wolverine State (New York, 1947), pp. 455-456,

there is a brief reference to Ora et Labora which gives the date of its founding as

1847, and the number of original members as 288. Both figures must be wrong.

Baur was not in the United States in 1847, and his own account gives the dates

for his colony as 1862 to 1868. Other evidence indicates that there were never

as many as 288 original members, although probably a larger number signified


ORA ET LABORA         133


Like Nast, Baur was a native of Wurttemberg; his father was a

Lutheran pastor, and the son had studied at the Lower Seminary in

Blaubeuren, and for a short time at the University of Tubingen,

where his uncle, Ferdinand Christian Baur, was a distinguished

member of the faculty.

Sometime after the German Revolution of 1848 Baur joined the

Atlantic migration to the United States, settled in Pittsburgh, and

became one of Nast's early converts to Methodism. Baur's sister

Bertha was for many years the director of the Cincinnati Conserv-

atory of Music. As a Methodist missionary Baur preached in Michi-

gan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. While active in the environs of

Pittsburgh, he became acquainted with the leaders of the Harmony

Society at Economy, Pennsylvania, and visited their prosperous

communist religious community many times. While at Canal Dover,

Ohio, he came to know the Zoar community of his fellow Wurttem-

bergers. He also made a study of the experiences of Brook Farm,

the community of New England Transcendentalists at West Rox-

bury, Massachusetts.

Baur apparently regarded Nast's Apologete as the best advertis-

ing medium for his plans. He addressed numerous communications

to its editor signed "the old backwoodsman." He apparently was

not concerned about the difficulties of launching a colony in the

midst of the Civil War, when the country's man power and eco-

nomic resources were strained to the utmost. Incidentally, it was

one of his eccentricities to consider himself as something of an

expert on military matters, and he wrote numerous letters to men

at the front, with learned references to past wars, and particularly

to some of the great military heroes of Germany.

With encouragement from Jakob Rothweiler, one of the early

stalwarts of German Methodism and a member of the first faculty

when Wallace College was organized in Berea, Ohio, Baur pro-

ceeded to arrange with the Michigan land office for the purchase


their intention to join the settlement than actually came to Michigan. Lela Puffer's

"Old Ora Labora Colony Rates High as Area's Leading Historical Spot," in The

Pigeon Progress (Pigeon, Michigan), June 17, 1949, erroneously gives the earlier

date 1847, and so does the article in Pioneer History of Huron County, Michigan

(1922), pp. 51-53, by Florence McKinnon Gwinn, entitled a "Community Experi-

ment." A brief note in Huron County Illustrated History (1932), p. 45, refers to

288 signers of the articles of agreement.




of 3,000 acres of swamp and wood land along Wild Fowl Bay,

in Michigan, under a complicated plan which included land grants

by the state in compensation for reclamation work and ditching

to be done by prospective settlers. Several preliminary constitutions

were drafted, and on July 21, 1862, the Apologete printed one of

these documents. Baur had grandiose dreams not only for his

"Christian German Agricultural and Benevolent Society of Ora et

Labora" (Pray and Work), also known as Der Christliche

Wohltatigkeitsverein (Christian Charitable Society), where mem-

bers could combine work with prayer, and live according to the

Methodist Church Discipline, but he also planned to build institu-

tions of learning for the diffusion of literary, scientific, and religious

information, and homes for the care of widows and orphans.

In Pittsburgh, Baur had come in contact with city slums and the

evil effects of industrialization upon the worker's health, and he

hoped to move as many German workers as possible into the sun-

shine and fresh air of a frontier community. The majority of the

recruits for his colony were artisans and laborers who had had

little or no experience with farming.

According to the constitution of July 1862, the Ora Labora com-

munity, as it was popularly known, was built upon the creed and

discipline of the Methodist Church. All frivolous amusements,

such as dancing, card playing, and theatricals, were prohibited,

but the growing of hops to make beer was permitted on the ground

that impure drinking water might bring fevers and disease. It

was also intended to have the community provide a place where

German family life and culture, and the German language could be

preserved. There were three types of membership--active, pro-

bationary, and honorary. The admission fee was five dollars, later

raised to twenty-five, and every member was supposed to serve a

probationary period of three months. Each participant invested

whatever capital he had in exchange for stock certificates with a

par value of twenty-five dollars. A joint stock company, with 4,000

authorized shares, was to be organized, with government of the

colony vested in a board of officers and directors, the latter chosen

on the basis of one for every ten members. Superimposed upon the

board of directors were seven trustees, elected for two year terms.


ORA ET LABORA       135


The project was initiated with twenty-eight applicants, and it was

a foregone conclusion that Baur, the promoter, would be the


The economic structure of the colony represented a compromise

between complete communal ownership and private enterprise.

Members were to be remunerated for their services to the com-

munity from the common store and in the form of additional

stock certificates, and all earnings derived from the sale of the

colony's products were to go into a common treasury. At the same

time, each member was to receive, as his individual property, two

cows, two pigs, two chickens, and a half-acre plot. He was ex-

pected to plant fruit trees and grape vines, and to work for the

community every day except Saturday and Sunday. On Saturday he

worked for himself. A day's work of ten hours was credited at the

rate of a dollar and a half a day. All members were expected to

arise at 5:00 A.M., when they were awakened by the blowing of

a horn, and attend devotions a half hour later. Breakfast was

served at 6:00, and the working day (in 1863) extended from

6:30 A.M., to noon, and from 1:00 to 6:00 P.M. At nine in the

evening there were religious services.

By the end of 1862 Baur had completed his inspection of the

terrain in Michigan, and a number of workers, employed at a dollar

and a half a day plus board, were cutting down trees and clearing

up the area to prepare for the settlers who were expected to arrive

soon. Lumber from the clearing operations was sold for telegraph

poles. Baur also planned to build a dock to take care of the colony's

anticipated commerce with the outside world. The site selected

was near East Saginaw, on the eastern side of Saginaw Bay, in

Huron County, between Caseville and Wild Fowl Bay, now known

as Bay Port, Michigan. The state land office had given its ap-

proval to the project, and Baur had persuaded the prosperous

Harmony Society in Pennsylvania to advance $20,000, secured by

a mortgage on the colony.5

With the preliminaries out of the way Baur returned to Ohio


5 In the 1870's the Harmony Society also loaned money to the Hutterites when

they established their religious community in South Dakota.




to stimulate additional support for his settlement. At a meeting in

Cleveland he described a community of 6,560 acres, much of the

additional acreage having been claimed or about to be claimed

under the homestead act. On December 6, 1862, Baur wrote Nast

from Canal Dover that he needed more workers for the winter to

prepare for the families who were coming in the spring, and Nast

promptly published his appeal in the Apologete. Baur promised to

send him the first bear skin from his new domain in payment for

his many favors.

The first settlers landed during a violent storm on Lake Huron.

Their first task was to drag enough stones from the bay to build

an "altar of dedication" for religious services. In 1863 ten houses

were completed and a cemetery was marked off for the burial of

the daughter of one of the members. Baur continued to stress that

the primary motive of the community was to do good and not to

make profits, and boasted that there would be no speculation at

Ora Labora. "The farmer does not have to pay profit to the store-

keeper," he wrote on February 2, 1863, "nor the shoemaker to the

tanner, nor the smithy to the farmer or the farmer to the smithy."

He proudly reported that the colony now had a post office, and

was to be known officially hereafter as "German Colony, Ora

Labora, P. O. Huron Co., Mich."

In the summer of 1863 the colony had a visit from the Rev.

Jakob Krehbiel, another pioneer of German Methodism, and Kreh-

biel reported his observations at length for the Apologete.6 He was

greatly impressed by the scenery as he came by steamer up Saginaw

Bay. He found the Union flag flying over Ora Labora, a com-

munity which at the time consisted of fourteen houses for twenty-

eight families. He also found much sandy soil, considerable marshy

land, and many mosquitoes. At a meeting of the settlers he dis-

covered that a minority wanted to dispense with a constitution al-

together and live only by the Methodist Discipline, but this pro-

posal was voted down on the ground that such an arrangement

would amount to coercion of conscience and discourage desirable

non-Methodists from joining the colony.

The settlers lived in blockhouses arranged in two straight rows


6 July 13, 1863.


ORA ET LABORA       137


and providing shelter for about a hundred persons. Each family

ate at its own table but received provisions from the common

store on credit. Fruits and vegetables were scarce. The community

owned a number of cows, but the nearest market for butter and

eggs was fourteen miles away, and the major part of the colony's

income still came from lumbering, and not farming. Krehbiel con-

cluded his visit in a burst of optimism. "What Herrnhut was for

the brethren" (Moravians), he wrote, "and Kornthal for the

pietists [of Wurttemberg] Ora Labora will be for the German


Despite Krehbiel's rosy forecasts, serious trouble already had

developed within the colony, and between the members and their

president. Some of the original subscribers had neglected to pay

the first installment on their stock purchase. The potentially profi-

table Saginaw market was thirty-five miles away, a not incon-

siderable distance for hauling lumber and stones from the quarries

over rough roads. It proved difficult to drain the swamp land, and

the colony always suffered from the lack of fluid capital. Baur

wanted to buy a machine for sawing lumber, but could not raise

the necessary five thousand dollars to buy it and transport it from

Chicago. The same lack of capital delayed the erection of proper

buildings to house the colony's tannery and mills. Creditors refused

to accept stock certificates in lieu of cash. Baur also complained

that the colony had to pay exorbitant prices for supplies, and

heavy freight charges whenever the settlers had products to sell.

More basic, however, was the growing controversy over what were

private and what were communal interests. Baur commented un-

happily, "Saturday was devoted to the individual interest. There

was lively and enthusiastic work done on that day." At other times,

however, production fell off sharply, and members wasted many

hours discussing colony affairs when they were supposed to be

working for the common good. Finally, there was constant friction

between craftsmen and farmers, and men who arrived with their

families often found it difficult to adjust to frontier conditions.

On July 27, 1863, the Apologete announced a wild scheme which

Baur had concocted to sell ten thousand "city lots" to non-mem-

bers. A month later he tried to float a loan, offering in exchange




certificates with a face value of two hundred dollars, bearing in-

terest at six percent for five years, and guaranteed by mortgages

on 160-acre plots of land. Baur insisted the investment would be

"safer than the banks," but investors were unwilling to take the

risk. Differences developed over policy, and more specifically,

over Baur's leadership, and Krehbiel and Wilhelm Ahrens, a

German Methodist minister from Indianapolis who had supported

Baur at the outset, now questioned his business methods. In 1863

Ahrens wrote the Apologete that "he would not advise anyone to go

[to Ora Labora] unless he felt God had called him."

As the number of workmen in the colony declined because

original settlers returned to the cities, Baur offered to sell more

stock to outsiders, but without success. Before the end of 1863

the Michigan land office refused to do further business with the

society as such, and would deal only in individual allotments to

individual settlers. In January 1864 Baur still insisted that his

community of 110 people was solvent and prosperous, but he

admitted that he badly needed more skilled craftsmen, as well as

a professional hunter, trapper, and fisherman,7 and he continued

to hope to attract capital and workers from outside the colony. The

draft law of the Civil War added to his labor problem by taking

the younger men into the service, and the colony was without

funds to hire substitutes for them.

In 1865 the colony clerk reported stock certificates outstanding

in the amount of $17,878, of which non-members held $7,223.50.

Much of the stock represented certificates in payment of work done

for the colony and not actual dollars invested. By March 1865

Baur was under attack on several counts, and he felt it necessary

to write Nast to refute the lie that officers of the colony were buy-

ing up stock certificates at ridiculously low figures, and that he

himself had cheated the colony out of a thousand dollars, and had

used colony funds to hire a substitute when his name was drawn

in the draft. But Baur was not yet ready to abandon his dream of

utopia. He laid out five hundred town lots, 132 by 165 feet, which

he tried in vain to sell for fifty dollars each; he made new plans

7 Christliche Apologete, January 4, 1864.


ORA ET LABORA       139


for small factories, and he wrote Nast to propose that a German

Methodist orphanage be established in the colony, rather than in

Berea, Ohio, and promised a 640-acre plot for a building program.

He fought to preserve his community because "the honor of Christ

and the Christian religion was at stake"; he hoped God would

provide a good business manager to bail the colony out of its

financial troubles and enable him to retire from the management,

and he contrasted the strong Methodist faith of Ora Labora with

the widely advertised German town of Egg Harbor City, New

Jersey, "where it is forbidden to proclaim the word of God."8

By this time it was obvious that the colony was doomed. The

controversies between Baur and his critics became so acrimonious

that in 1866 Nast refused to print any further communications

about the colony in the Apologete. One of the last reports on the

colony was that of a newspaper man on the Huron County News

who visited the community in 1865. He found a group of about 30

families and 140 individuals, of whom 73 were children under

fourteen, and only 36 were qualified voters. Of the 3,000 acres

of colony land originally acquired, only about 160 acres had been

cleared, but the colony also owned an island of 180 acres in Wild

Fowl Bay on which the settlers tried to grow grapes. Nearly

every family had a cow, pigs, chickens, and geese, and the colony

still operated a saw mill, flour mill, a tannery, and a small shop to

manufacture shingles.9 Before the close of 1866 Baur and two of

his fellow officers withdrew from the community.

As in the case of other communitarian settlements, the compli-

cated legal steps by which property at Ora Labora passed from a

communal to a private basis would require the examination of

scores of court records. The final dissolution, according to Baur,

came in 1868. Act 429 of the public acts of Michigan for 1867

shows that considerable land was patented to Baur on November

12, 1867, and that, acting as trustee for the society, he was en-

gaged in settling its debts. When the colony officially disbanded,


8 For Egg Harbor City, see Dieter Cunz, "Egg Harbor City: New Germany in

New Jersey," in Twenty-ninth Report, Society for the History of the Germans in

Maryland (Baltimore, 1956), 9-30.

9 Christliche Apologete, August 21, 1865.




the Michigan legislature granted homesteads of forty acres to all

of the settlers who had contributed a year's labor on public im-

provements, especially digging drainage ditches, eighty acres for

two years' labor, and a similar amount for service in the Union

army. On January 2, 1869, Baur, as trustee, gave a mortgage to

Jacob Henrici and Jonathan Lenz of the Harmony Society of

Pennsylvania, which held a mortgage of $20,000 on Baur's colony.

The new mortgage presumably superseded the older one, and was

made out on all the land donated to the colony by the state of

Michigan, with the exception of the individually held city lots.

The amount of the mortgage was $4,500, and as late as 1871

Baur was still busy raising this amount through foreclosure pro-

ceedings, and quit claims from the colonists. Apparently this is

the total amount which the Harmonists received for their invest-

ment in a sister communal society.

Ora Labora disintegrated, in financial confusion and controversy,

as its communal property was converted into private holdings.

Baur moved to Ann Arbor, to teach German in the high school,

and enjoy gardening and fruit growing, and to act as secretary of

the county horticultural society and the state pomological society.

He was one of the leaders in Michigan of the movement to

abolish capital punishment. He died in 1894, and was buried with

the rites of the Episcopal Church, of which he had become a mem-

ber. Today there is little left to mark the spot of the German

Methodist utopian dream on Wild Fowl Bay, except a few gnarled

fruit trees, rotting timber, piles of stones, and faint traces in the

sandy soil of what once were village streets. A few descendants of

the original settlers still live in the vicinity.