Thursday, December 10, 2009

Christian Communism in Oregon

Last weekend I journeyed to the Willamette Valley of Oregon for a weekend spent in the past. I stayed in Mt. Angel at the home of my lifelong best friend and we spent Friday evening pouring over her collection of elementary school class pictures. Hers have remained remarkably intact compared to mine. She always was more organized than me. Organization is something I struggle with constantly. Between the two of us and the younger brother of a classmate who happened to be on Facebook that night, we identified nearly every student and noted their names for posterity.

The next morning was frigid so we bundled up to go the short distance to downtown Mt. Angel for the Kristkndmarkt, an outdoor market of food, crafts, and fun in honor of the season. After purchasing pastry, bread and some handmade items we dropped our purchases at my friend’s house and headed to Hubbard, another rural Oregon town, and to Old Mother Hubbard’s Bazaar. There we found many Christmas gifts and treats. My favorite was the chocolate covered hazelnuts. I’m not sharing those. They sit on my dresser where I can have three or four each night.

From Hubbard we went a few miles to Aurora, one of the settings for the Jane Kirkpatrick trilogy we read this summer based on a real life Christian utopian community of the nineteenth century. Kirkpatrick’s novels are labeled as Christian literature, but I would beg to differ. Unlike other authors of that genre, Kirkpatrick does not beat you about the head with the Bible, but bases her stories on historical events relevant mostly to the Pacific Northwest. I became intrigued when my friend Nikki told me that the story began in Missouri and journeyed West to the banks of the Willapa, a body of water I know well on the East side of the Long Beach Peninsula which is my other home. I can well imagine how hard life in the wild woods of that part of the world.

Eventually the story moves to Oregon Territory where the Colony of Aurora was founded and where remnant buildings and houses remain today. The Utopian society of Aurora, Oregon was established by Dr. Keil as the site of what was to be his last communal settlement. Keil was a charismatic Prussian tailor and self-styled physician who began preaching soon after his arrival in the United States in 1831. He attracted a following for his fundamental Christian preaching which centered on the Golden Rule and his belief, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need. Although a Christian, Keil was influenced by the writings of Karl Marx.

Dr. Keil named the town Aurora Mills after his daughter and in recognition that it already possessed a saw and grist mill which Keil had purchased from the previous owners.

Nearly 600 people, almost all German and Swiss emigrants, established and lived in the Aurora Colony, a Christian communal society, from 1856 to 1883. Christian communal living in the Aurora Colony was carried out by individuals who were members of specific family groups, and this was notably unlike other Christian colonies that practiced

We toured the Colony Museum and visited two of the many antique shops that are housed in former colony homes and business before returning to the museum for our candlelight tour. The tour was not exactly what we expected. It was really a tour amidst a melodrama recounting the occasion of one of the rare marriages at the colony. Marriages were rare and some courtships lasted into the tens of years because of Dr. Keil’s stricture on celibacy which appears to have been good for the congregation, but not for him. I suspect that Dr. Keil had issues and as we all know these utopian communities rarely work out long term and those that demand celibacy are doomed to failure. We had hoped to see more of the home our heroine finally got, but had to be statisfied with ending the melodrama in her parlor.

The picture that Kirkpatrick paints of the Keil Community in all its incarnations isn’t romanticized. Emma Wagner Geisy, who was a real woman, grows from a rather silly young woman into a desperate one and ultimately into a very strong and balanced one, despite living in unusual circumstances. That’s why I liked the books. I enjoy reading about strong women.

Nikki bought a map of a walking tour of Aurora which we intend to do someday when the weather is more hospitable.

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