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Uncovering the 'Utopian Experiment' of the Harmonists and Their Church

2021 Harmonist Church USI-2.jpg
University of Southern Indiana
USI students conduct the excavation in 2021, of the former Harmonist Church location. The Church was built in 1816.

The Harmonists settled what would become present-day New Harmony before Indiana’s statehood. They were seeking a religious, communal utopia

Harmonists church talk flyer.jpg
New Harmony State Historic Site
New Harmony State Historic Site
“Uncovering the Harmonist Church” is at Thrall’s Opera House in New Harmony on December 17 from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. Central Time, for $5 per person.

On-air intro:
The ‘Harmonists’ were seeking a religious … communal utopia in what would eventually become New Harmony. An excavation of their church built in 1816 … yielded clues to their unique lifestyle and beliefs. as WNIN’s Tim Jagielo tells us … you can learn more at a lecture from the leader of the excavation … on Saturday.

An excavation was conducted in 2021 by the University of Southern Indiana (USI), which was led by Associate Professor Michael Strezewski. He said they unearthed many items including pottery and even some unique forms of currency.

“Probably one of the most interesting things are like a merchant token,” he said. “It's like a coin that was made for credit at the Harmonist store. So if you got change back, I could give you this credit token, and you could redeem it at the store.”

2021 Harmonist Church USI-3.jpg
University of Southern Indiana
University of Southern Indiana
A mercantile token excavated from the site of the former Harmonist Church.

New Harmony State Historic Site Coordinator Jess McPherson said the Harmonists came from Germany at the turn of the 19th century for greater religious freedom.

“They built up a town within 10 years, mostly of pretty impressive brick buildings, including pretty sizable Church, which is no longer with us,” she said. “But that is the excavation site that we'll be talking about this weekend.”

Strezewski is delivering a lecture on Saturday. “Uncovering the Harmonist Church” is at Thrall’s Opera House in New Harmony on December 17 from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. Central Time, for $5 per person.

Strezewski will have some of these items at the lecture to show. McPherson says such events are good for learning about the areas’ quirky history. For example, the Harmonists were celibate, and built their city around communal ideals.

“They were kind of a weird bunch,” McPherson said. “Very unusual in their religious practices, which is why they were so looked down upon in Germany. So I just think it's fascinating to learn about why these people have different points of views and their outlooks on the world.”

While Strezewski has published his findings officially, this is the first public lecture about the excavation, which he said was actually quite difficult.

“Because there was a lot of disturbance on the site from various episodes of construction,” he said. “You've got things being built and then torn down. And then another thing is built in another thing is torn down.”

They found remnants of a variety of buildings at that spot including a school, a shed and a horse burial spot.

The Harmonists were the first of two well-documented utopian "experiments" in that area. Strezewski said archaeology can tell you things about their unique life that documents from that time cannot.

“… especially with regards to the little nitty gritty details of what being around at that time was all about,” he said. “Most of the documents are very business-related sorts of things like receipts and purchases and what have you.”

While the Harmonists have been gone for nearly 200 years McPherson said learning unique local history is important.

“If you can kind of look back and understand how you got there from where you're coming from. I always think society is going to be better off that way.”

2021 Harmonist Church USI-1.jpg
University of Southern Indiana
Examples of pottery fragments found at the excavation