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  • Zoar: The Story of an Intentional Community by Kathleen M. Fernandez
  • Samuel J. Richards
Kathleen M. Fernandez. Zoar: The Story of an Intentional Community. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2019. 312 pp. ISBN: 9781606353745 (cloth), $29.95.

Between 2005 and 2013, the Ohio village of Zoar was threatened by flooding from the 1937 levee built to protect it. The National Trust for Historic Preservation placed Zoar on its list of most endangered historic places and published two goals in the summer of 2012. It sought to prevent catastrophic flooding, relocation, or demolition of the village and to raise public awareness of its significance. The trust achieved its first goal. Zoar: The Story of an Intentional Community by Kathleen M. Fernandez now accomplishes the second.

Fernandez's study of the German Pietist mystics who built Zoar is one of admiration. During her time as site curator, from 1975 to 2004, Fernandez developed a rich and unparalleled familiarity with the Zoarite story. She also cultivated enduring relationships with multiple experts, including German academics, whose contributions are evident throughout her book. Fernandez is undoubtedly the best historian to author the first book-length study of diese Gütergemeinschaft (this communal society). Zoar is a well-organized introduction to the establishment of a utopian society that existed along the Ohio and Erie Canal and Tuscarawas River for three generations, between 1817 and 1898. It effectively blends narrative, analysis, primary sources, illustrations, and a peppering of German to create a useful and accessible resource for scholars and history buffs alike.

The study is organized chronologically, with chapters between ten and fifteen pages in length addressing themes such as leadership, governance, and theology. Fernandez begins by ably contextualizing the beliefs of dissenters within the German Reformation, examining the influence of Jakob Böhme (1575–1624) and describing how the sect aggressively promoted egalitarianism in Würtemberg. Their refusal to doff caps and [End Page 93] use of du (the informal you) in place of Sie proved especially aggravating to officials who imprisoned them. Though this may seem strange to Americans today, the reader should pause to consider that even now German demands clear distinctions between friends and colleagues. Public use of du between German chancellor Angela Merkel and Bavarian premier Horst Seehofer attracted commentary in 2018. Eighteenth-century Zoarites, then known as Separatists, undoubtedly subverted the Germanic sense of order.

Zoar chronicles the 1817 arrival of these Separatists in Philadelphia, where they depended on Quaker sponsors. In this section chronicling their arrival in the United States, Fernandez incorporates long quotations that enhance her study with primary sources not easily accessed elsewhere. Zoar is both a history and a useful primary source reader. Additionally, she examines the relationships formed among Quakers, Harmonists, and the Separatists. For instance, readers are left pondering whether Separatists took advantage of Quaker aid or whether Quaker financiers attempted to control them.

Fernandez's rejection of simplistic conclusions when evidence leaves doubt is a strength of her study. Instead, she routinely provides multiple plausible explanations. Similarly, she reports the emergence of Joseph M. Bäumler (Bimeler) as undisputed leader while acknowledging that surviving evidence cannot explain how he did so. Another strength of Zoar is its documentation of Zoarite adaptation. This includes adjusting to emergent industry and tourism in eastern Ohio as well as the Zoarites' adoption of communal ownership after an especially gruelling winter.

Bäumler led the Zoarites when they set out for Ohio. He amassed authority in a way that leads one to question whether Zoar was ever truly egalitarian. Fernandez, however, emphasizes the talented businessman and compelling preacher who viewed the Bible as allegory and articulated die Wiedergeburt (rebirth) as a slow and sometimes painful redirection of one's life. Yet, as temporal leader he alone held title to the commune's land, and Zoarite business was conducted in his name for decades, a point of contention in court cases.

Fernandez traces lawsuits filed by the disillusioned Zoarites called Widerwärtige (despicable, disgusting), a descriptor with propagandistic qualities used by the commune. The most prominent was Goesele et al. v. Bimeler et al., which resulted in a precedent-setting 1852 US Supreme Court decision (55 U...


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