Since the early days of American history, so-called utopian communities have been a defining feature of our cultural landscape. Photographer Joel Sternfeld has captured 60 of them in his new book, "Sweet Earth". A common theme in these societies is harmony with nature, and many also boast noteworthy eco-friendly features. In this series of stories, we'll visit North Carolina, New Mexico, Massachusetts, Illinois, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Tennessee, and learn about their founders’ visions.

New Elm Springs Colony in Ethan, S.D. (July 2005)

In 1516, Thomas More published Utopia. A year later, Martin Luther nailed ninety-five theses to a church door in Wittenberg. And in 1525 at a meeting in Zurich, the early Anabaptists repudiated infant baptism in favor of “true Christian” adult baptism. Among this most radical wing of the Protestant Reformation were the Hutterites, a sect which took its name from Jacob Hutter, an early leader. They believed strongly in pacifism, communal ownership of all goods and the separation of church and state.

For the next century, under the protection of Moravian nobles, the Hutterites grew prosperous and their numbers swelled to perhaps thirty thousand. But the sect, which throughout its history has been persecuted for its distinctive beliefs, was expelled from Moravia in 1622. After a century and a half of migration, they began to settle in Russia with a promise of exemption from military duty. When this privilege was withdrawn in 1871 they left, and a few years later settled in South Dakota.

Despite the hardships of their early years on the prairie, the Hutterites’ numbers grew steadily until World War I. As pacifists, their young men resisted service but, with no conscientious objector laws in place, draft-eligible males were arrested. When two of them were tortured to death while in custody, the Hutterites hastily moved to Canada, under another promise of exemption from active duty.

During the dark days of the Great Depression, the state of South Dakota was in desperate need of tax revenue, and the highly successful Hutterites, whose colonies refused any form of state aid, were invited to reoccupy their former lands. Today, forty thousand Hutterites can be found throughout the western United States and Canada, where their remarkably successful communities adopt whatever modern technology they find useful, and live according to beliefs first embraced in 1525.

This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in February 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

Also in this series

Slices of heaven: South Dakota
Joel Sternfeld's photographs of American utopias.