In 1791, in the village of Maulbronn in what is today Germany, 34-year old Johann Georg Rapp was on trial. The civil affairs official charged him with subverting the teachings of the Lutheran Church, and threatened him with expulsion if he continued to preach. Defiantly, Rapp testified before the official that "I am a prophet and am called to be one!" and after a brief imprisonment, continued to preach. By 1803, the movement was spreading through the neighboring towns, gaining several thousand followers. Rappites refused to serve in the military or attend Lutheran schools, and represented a threat to the social order of the day. Rapp’s followers were part of a larger Pietist movement that challenged the orthodoxy of the continuously finding fault with his native Lutheran Church.
Facing intense persecution in his native land, George Rapp looked to migrate to America. Initially, Rapp had found available land in what is today Columbiana County Ohio, and appealed to President Jefferson for a petition. Jefferson received him, but claimed only Congress could fulfill such a request, which later was denied. Continuing through the summer, with two companions, he scouted out and purchased 5000 acres of land in Western Pennsylvania for the establishment of a new settlement. “God has prepared a little place for us" Rapp wrote back to his followers, where "they want you to think and believe what you wish." According to Rapp’s belief this land was where they would prepare for the Second Coming of Christ and the “end of days”. The next summer in 1804, 300 followers sold all their possessions and sailed to Baltimore, and with about 260 others arriving from port in Philadelphia travelled to Northwestern Pennsylvania where they founded the town of Harmonie (original spelling), and became known as Harmonists.
They resided and worshipped in Harmony for the next ten years. Rapp taught that Jesus had commanded a community of goods.Their society became based on a biblical passage found in Acts 2:44: “And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that aught of the things he possess was his own, but they had all things in common.” In accordance with this in 1805, the Harmonists signed the Articles of Association granting all their property including land, livestock, tools, capital and other goods into a common fund controlled by Rapp and his associates. Celibacy was encouraged in order to be pure for the Second Coming, but did not become formal in practice until 1807. If one was already married when entering the Society, the former husband and wife would live as brother and sister. “Father” Rapp preached self-sufficiency to the Harmonists, instructing them to clear their own land and plant productive crops and vineyards. They also started many economic enterprises including an inn, tannery, warehouses, brewery, several mills, stables, and barns, a church/meetinghouse, a school, additional dwellings for members, a labyrinth, and workshops for different trades. In 1811, it was reported that the group had at least 800 members and was thriving.
Visitors reported that they found the Harmonists generous and happy, singing as they carried on with their work. In 1809, traveller Robert Stubbs toured the settlement and found the Harmonists harvesting crops in the fields north of the town. He also visited the new meetinghouse, which also created ample space for thousands of bushels of grain. In 1811, Briton John Melish visited the Harmonists and wrote extensively about his time spent in the Society in the pamphlet Travels in the United States of America. He wrote about every aspect of the settlement including the intriguing labyrinth. “The labyrinth represents the difficulty of arriving at harmony. The temple is rough in the exterior, showing that, at a distance it has no allurements but it is smooth and visible within, to show the beauty of harmony once attained.” The reports by these two men circulated widely, making this small settlement internationally famous. Even English poet Lord Byron wrote about the Society in a stanza of his poem Don Juan.
Trouble, however, began to emerge in this seeming paradise. The soil and climate of the region was unsuitable for grape vineyards.. Additionally, as Butler County’s population grew, the Harmonists were less isolated and more prone to troubles with their neighbors.Rising land prices in the county also became an issue. Trying to resolve these dilemmas, Rapp sold the land of the Harmonists to a Mennonite (Abraham Ziegler) for $100,000 and moved to the recently acquired Indiana Territory on the banks of the Wabash River. They christened their settlement Harmony, where they again remained for ten years. According to Rapp, it was for commercial reasons again why they made the move. The Society’s progress at trading was hampered by the far-away location of the eastern markets. Although, it could also be said that the previous argument in dealing with troublesome neighbors could be true once again. They sold their property to an Englishman named Robert Owen for $150,000 and moved back to Western Pennsylvania. This time they settled in Beaver County in a town they named Economy. They lived there until the early 20th century until their last few members died out. There are currently no remaining Harmonists today, however Old Economy Village is a living museum in Ambridge which replicates the life the Harmonists would have lived. Ambridge is now where in the past Economy was located.