Review of The Kingdom of God Is At Hand: The Christian Commonwealth in Georgia, 1896-1901, by Theodore Kallman

10 Jan

This review originally appeared in the Fall, 2022 issue of Muscogiana

Thanks to the diligent research of San Joaquin Delta College (CA) history professor Theodore Kallman, the remarkable story of a little-known late nineteenth-century Christian colony which stood just a few miles east of Columbus, Georgia has at long last been written. His book on the subject of the forgotten community, The Kingdom of God is at Hand, was published last year by the University of Georgia Press. It will surely be of note to those interested in Columbus’s past if for no other reason than the novelty of the overlooked episode it chronicles.

As Kallman explains in the book, the community, known as Commonwealth, was one of several utopian Christian colonies established in the United States during the era. These enterprises were a part of a larger movement of reform-minded spiritualists who sought an alternative way of life to America’s capitalistic society. Believing mainstream churches were inadequately addressing modern social problems of the era caused by what they viewed as the selfishness and inequity associated with an unchecked capitalist economy, these Christian dissidents attempted to create their own communities based on principles of collective contribution. While each of these entities featured some differences in philosophical underpinning and approach, most shared some vision of creating a physical reflection of their understanding of the kingdom of God on earth by working, sharing, and distributing wealth equitably among residents. If it sounds a little like communism, it is because the founders of these colonies endorsed some of that political ideology’s tenets and believed that in sharing wealth rather than seeking individual financial gain, they might come closer to living as God had planned.

The community of Commonwealth stood between Columbus and the community of Upatoi on lands that are today largely located within Fort Benning. Organizers bought the property, the core of which was an old plantation home and fields, in 1896 after considering several locations across the country. Perhaps a sense of the type of agricultural community they hoped to create is revealed by the fact that, as related by Kallman, the founders attempted to have the land deeded to Jesus Christ upon their purchase. Since Jesus would not be paying the taxes, though, county officials convinced them this could not be done. Commonwealth organizers may have been high-minded in their motivations, but they proved practical in their approach to creating a sustainable agricultural community in Muscogee County and worked diligently to further its development.

About a year after its founding, the enclave claimed nearly one hundred residents drawn from across the country. They constructed their own housing, took their meals in a communal dining room, and in place of cash received food and shelter for their labor. Colonists planted thousands of fruit trees and berry plants, grew peanuts, sweet potatoes, and an assortment of other vegetables, built a school, and even established a towel mill which they planned to use as a major source of communal income. A printing press produced a few books in addition to a monthly newsletter, The Social Gospel, which at its peak was distributed to every state in the union and seventeen countries. None other than noted Russian author Leo Tolstoy encouraged the experiment in rural west Georgia and monitored its growth and development. Within a few years, however, a combination of factors brought about the demise of the colony—struggles in creating a stable economy, an epidemic of typhoid which drove several members to relocate, and no little internal dissension including a nasty court case over the expulsion of a disgruntled member. Commonwealth had ceased operation by 1901.

Kallman presents a straightforward chronological narrative of the colony in his book, taking readers inside day to day life there while helping them understand its philosophical foundations within the context of the larger national scene. Most readers of this journal will probably have less interest in Commonwealth’s place among similar institutions of the time than how it interacted with the citizens of Columbus, however. The city seemed genuinely intrigued with this novel social experiment, and accounts of activities at the colony regularly appeared in local papers. At one point colonists even staged a religious revival at Wildwood Park. Thoroughly researched, clearly written, and enlightening on a topic about which few captivated by this area’s history are likely to have any previous awareness, the book is a unique contribution to the historiography of the Columbus area.

JMB

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