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The Harmonial Vegetarian Society was an experiment in communal living in Benton County, along the lines of the famed Oneida Community of New York, whose members practiced a strict vegetarian diet and shared all property in common. Though it was in existence for only four years, it has the distinction of being the only utopian commune in nineteenth-century Arkansas.
Historical records regarding the Harmonial Vegetarian Society are sketchy at best. The community started in about 1857 when Dr. James E. Spencer, a Connecticut physician, moved to Arkansas and purchased a large tract of land in Benton County. He named this land Harmony Springs and settled a group of vegetarian “Reform Christians” on his property later that year. This group, for which Spencer served as a spokesperson, seems to have held beliefs similar to those of the Oneida Community—namely, an emphasis on humankind’s ability to achieve illumination and perfection on earth through works rather than faith. They set aside no specific day for worship; thus, they were all accused of breaking the Sabbath in April 1859 and later convicted. A history of the area put out by Goodspeed Publishing Company in 1889 asserts that the society also renounced marriage and instead chose mates by lots, though there is no direct evidence of this.
It is unknown how large the community was at its apex, but thirty-eight members of the group responded to the 1860 census. In the spring of 1859, the vegetarians began building a large mansion to house the Harmonial Healing Institute, which, Spencer announced, would make available to people the “Hydro-Electrical system of medical application.” In a July 27, 1859, letter to the Arkansas True Democrat, Spencer also announced the opening of a post office at Harmony Springs. The society began publishing a monthly paper, the Theocrat, in August 1859. By the fall of the next year, the group was formally chartered as the Harmonial Vegetarian Society and bought the original acreage and a separate parcel of land from Spencer for $6,000.
Soon after receiving this payment, Spencer exited the state with what is only described as a female companion—perhaps his wife or someone else—thus depriving the society’s Harmonial Healing Institute, from which the group anticipated a steady stream of revenue, of its only physician. Several other residents left soon thereafter. By May 2, 1861, those who remained authorized two of the trustees to sell all the lands owned by the group. However, the real deathblow to the community came later that year when Brigadier General Nicholas Bartlett Pearce commandeered the society’s lands for a Confederate training camp. On the basis of certain letters, Kim Allen Scott and Robert Myers speculate that society members might actually have been arrested and later released, but their exact fate remains unknown.
For additional information:The History of Benton, Washington, Carroll, Madison, Crawford, Franklin, and Sebastian Counties, Arkansas. Chicago: Goodspeed Pub. Co., 1889.
Rudolph, E. L. “Another Discordant Harmony.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 3 (Autumn 1944): 211–216.
Scott, Kim Allen, and Robert Myers. “The Extinct ‘Grass Eaters’ of Benton County: A Reconstructed History of the Harmonial Vegetarian Society.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 50 (Summer 1991): 140–157.
Guy LancasterEncyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture
Last Updated 4/14/2008
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