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Gay Amish Valhalla

The NYT today has a marvelous story on two gay eccentrics who, back in the 1970s, went back to the land in Pennsylvania to start a queer pseudo-Amish commune … but nobody came. They’re still there. Excerpts:

They were born Michael Colby and Donald Graves, but once there, on 63 acres in the Mahantongo Valley, a bowl of land in central Pennsylvania, they changed their names to Christian and Johannes Zinzendorf and called themselves the Harmonists, inspired by a splinter group of 18th-century Moravian brothers who believed in the spiritual values of an agrarian life.

Their ideals were lofty but simple: They would live off the land, farming with Colonial-era tools, along with a band of like-minded men dressed in homespun robes wielding scythes and pickaxes. They would sleep in atmospheric log cabins and other 18th-century structures that they had rescued from the area and that they began to reconstruct, painstakingly, brick by crumbling brick and log by log.

But what if you built a commune, and no one came?

It turns out it’s not so easy to cook up a utopia from scratch.

Before you say it, no, this is not what I mean by the Benedict Option. So don’t even start. Still, it’s a fascinating story about two crazy dreamers. More:

Johannes and Zephram met in the 1970s at a gay-consciousness-raising group in Salt Lake City, where both were attending college. They were each dabbling in various spiritual practices: Zephram was circling around the Wiccans, attracted by their earth-centered rituals, and Johannes was sampling Hinduism.

When you’re gay, Zephram pointed out, it is not always the case that traditional religions will welcome you. So alternatives beckon.

Salt Lake City was changing, they said; they could see their future mapped out there, and it was not an appealing one. “Successful urban gays, buying property, having cultural weekends in San Francisco,” Johannes said. “Save us.”

Inspired in part by the Mormons, they began to turn over the idea of starting an intentional community in a rural setting. But how to organize? What would be the guiding principal?

They toyed with creating a gay Scottish clan (Johannes is from Texas and Zephram from Maine, and both have Scottish forebears) or starting their own version of the Radical Faeries, a vaguely pagan, spiritually based queer counterculture movement from the mid-1970s.

They moved to Bethlehem, Pa., that hotbed of Moravian culture (crafts and agriculture, mostly), where Zephram worked as a teacher and Johannes as a reporter. There they learned of a curious local offshoot of a brotherhood started in Europe in the 18th century.

Its leader was the charismatic son of a patron of the Moravian Church, who believed in a spiritual communion through sex and agricultural practice. It was not a wildly popular concept 300 years ago, and contemporary rural Pennsylvania was perhaps not the best place to resurrect its tenets, even with the sex part edited out.

Read the whole thing. They’re old men now, and living alone on this huge property. I have such a soft spot for those visionaries — I would genuinely love to visit them and talk to them about living their dream — but find myself glad, somehow, that Uncle Chuckie was never able to afford the land to build a Cosimanian Orthodox commune. If he built it, I bet they would come. And Cthulhu would live in the farm pond.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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