Sunday, November 1, 2015

Zoar's Society of Separatists: Equal in Life and Death

The village of Zoar lies in Tuscarawas County, Ohio, about half-way between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, on a branch of the railroad which connects these two points. It is situated on the bank of the Tuscarawas Creek, which affords at this point valuable water-power. The place is irregularly built, and contains fewer houses than a village of the same number of inhabitants usually has; but the dwellings are mostly quite large, and each accommodates several families. There is a commodious brick church, a large and well-fitted brick schoolhouse, an extensive country tavern or hotel, and a multitude of sheds and barns. There are, besides, several mills and factories; and in the middle of the village a somewhat elaborate, large, square house, which was the residence of the founder and head of the society until his death, and is now used in part as a storehouse.

Zoar is the home of a communistic society who call themselves "Separatists," and who founded the village in 1817, and have here become quite wealthy. They originated in W├╝rtemberg, and, like the Harmony Society, the Inspirationists, and others, were dissenters from the Established Church. The Separatists of southern Germany were equivalent to what in New England are called "Come Outers"—protestants against the prevailing religious faith, or, as they would say, lack of faith.

These German "Come Outers" were for the most part mystics, who had read the writings of Jacob Boehm, Gerhard Terstegen, and Jung Stilling; they cherished different religious or doctrinal beliefs, were stigmatized as fanatics, but were usually, I judge, simple-hearted, pious people, desirous to lead a more spiritual life than they found in the churches.

Taken from The Communistic Societies of the United States by Charles Nordhoff
(Read more here)


The community of equals which existed in Zoar from 1817 to 1898 came to be because of a rebellion against the Lutheran church in Germany. The Separatists who came to Zoar found truth in the works of a man named Jakob Bohme. Bohme was a mystic, meaning that he believed that each human being had the capability to communicate with God on a personal level, outside of and independent of the church and its minsters. A quote from Bohme's work The Way to Christ summarizes his beliefs perfectly:

For he that will say, I have a Will, and would willingly do Good, but the earthly Flesh which I carry about me, keepeth me back, so that I cannot; yet I shall be saved by Grace, for the Merits of Christ. I comfort myself with his Merit and Sufferings; who will receive me of mere Grace, without any Merits of my own, and forgive me my Sins. Such a one, I say, is like a Man that knoweth what Food is good for his Health, yet will not eat of it, but eateth Poison instead thereof, from whence Sickness and Death, will certainly follow. 

What this passage points out is that a belief in Christ is not enough for a Christian. Humans have the power to realize they have fallen from God's grace, and they can show their struggle against evil through the deeds they do and choices they make. This belief was very different from most German Protestants who believed in the concept of sola fide (Latin for "by faith alone). This concept tells its followers that they have fallen from Christ and nothing they do can save them. Their only salvation is through belief. One could be a model citizen under this belief, but unless they had complete faith in Christ, they were damned. The German Separatists saw value in their deeds and counted them as part of their salvation. Their rejection of sola fide led the Separatists to:

  1. Reject baptism and confirmation (Being a mystic, one had a personal relationship with God that no church or clergy could give to you; it had to be undertaken personally, through personal prayer and your own works and deeds) 
  2. Practice pacifism (Killing or fighting another human being was a deed that showed you were against God's Word ; to reject killing was to show that you were personally fighting against the evil and sin brought into the world by Eve) 
  3. Celebrate no religious holiday, other then the Sabbath (Simplicity was a hallmark of the Separatist's beliefs, and removing holidays that weren't directly laid out in the Bible from their repertoire allowed for more focus on God) 

These beliefs led to years of hardship, physical abuse, and uncertainty for the Separatists. When they finally came to settle along the Tuscarawas River in 1817, they became a communal settlement purely through circumstance. As individuals, the roughly 200 settlers could not afford to make a living. They decided to make a community of goods in order to survive. This decision and their choosing of Joseph Bimeler, a charismatic orator and teacher, as their leader, probably saved the community. Every person in the community was an equal, and everyone worked to serve everyone else, and was taken care of by the community in turn. A bakery made loaves of fresh bread for every man, woman, and child. Sugar, cloth, and other goods were passed out according to need. Crops were grown and distributed evenly. The Separatists truly believed in the importance of their daily work in the eyes of God, and made sure that they lived as equals and cared for each other with a spirit of kindness, charity, and forgiveness. This equality they grew to rely on and take solace in extended beyond this life. 

When death came for one of the Separatists, the earliest settlers wanted to be as equal in death as they were in life. Zoar Cemetery, which is a short drive from the present day village, has an expanse of seemingly unused burial ground. No headstones or decor of any kind mark this space as being the resting place for any person, but the first to be buried in the cemetery decided to forego any kind of marker. These simple people rest peacefully, all equally decorated by the autumn leaves that have begun to fall. 

Zoar Cemetery: Here, in what has been described as "God's Acre", is the final resting place of the members of the Society of Separatists of Zoar (1817-1898) as well as today's descendants and residents. The early Zoarites' simple religion forbade headstones, believing all were equal in death. These early burials, including fifty who perished in an 1834 cholera epidemic, are to your left. The headstone of Zoar leader Joseph Bimeler was erected later

In the 1860s, the Separatists began using wooden markers, now deteriorated, and eventually limestone and marble memorials. The early graves were laid in chronological order, not in family plots. Three additions in 1900, 1925, and 1996 have enlarged the cemetery. The road, which formerly followed the shore of nearby Zoar Lake, was changed to its present location in 1925. 

However, the outside world made its way into the community. When the Civil War broke out, young men from the community wanted to fight. They had never known the Germany where their parents and grandparents had seen bitter religious persecution, and could not understand why their parents were heartbroken by their willingness to fight for their country. As more and more of the outside world crept in, the worldly beliefs that were taking a stronger hold in the community began to be reflected in the use of burial markers. The earliest markers were made of wood, and impermanent, but even this small change was evidence of a changing of beliefs in the community (Joseph Bimeler had died in 1853, a decade before the wooden markers went into use. So, it can be said that a lot of the religious zeal of the community died with him).

The grave of Joseph Bimeler. The headstone was erected long after his death. Would he have appreciated having such a huge stone marking his burial place?

An example of one of the several remaining wooden headstone, with no etchings or markings of any kind still visible

Another wooden gravestone

As the 19th century wore on, wooden headstones turn into simple stone markers adorned with both 5 and 8-pointed stars. In Christianity, the 5-pointed star is symbolic of the nativity and the star that marked Christ's birth. The 8-pointed star is symbolic of regeneration and baptism, which could be viewed as a departure from the Separatists initial rejection of baptism.

A 5 and 8-pointed star on a headstone

Another 8-pointed star

Another 5-pointed star

By 1898, the communal nature of the village had fallen apart, and everyone voted to have property and wealth dispersed into private ownership. Today, many of the buildings serve as part of the Zoar Village Historic Memorial and Museum. There are also shops and private residences that house around 75 people in the village. I visited on a rainy fall evening, and it was still beautiful and full of the energy of those who settled it. Zoar has actually been threatened by a failing levee, and if the levee fails, the village will flood. The history that would be compromised and destroyed with the neglect of the levee is frightening, and I encourage you to read this and inform yourself on the subject: