A group of separatists, eventually known as Zoarites, established the small community of Zoar in Tuscarawas County. These separatists were originally from an area of Germany known as Wurttemberg. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, they had separated from the official German religion, the Lutheran Church. Separatists faced severe persecution in Wurttemberg, including confiscation of their properties and imprisonment. The group’s leader, Joseph Bimeler (or sometimes spelled Joseph Bäumeler), decided to bring the Separatists to the United States.
When the separatists arrived in Philadelphia, they had few resources. The Quakers (Society of Friends) in Philadelphia helped the separatists to find jobs and eventually loaned them the money to buy land in eastern Ohio. Several members of the group traveled west to the land in the fall of 1817 and began to construct the community’s first buildings. Ultimately, the rest of the separatists, approximately two hundred in all, arrived at Zoar in the spring of 1818. The separatists chose to name their town Zoar after the Biblical account of Lot, who escaped to Zoar from Sodom in the book of Genesis.
The community of Zoar was not originally organized as a commune, but its residents had a difficult time surviving in 1818 and early 1819. As a result, on April 19, 1819, the group formed the Society of Separatists of Zoar. Each person donated his or her property to the community as a whole. In exchange for their work, the society would provide for them. Both men and women signed the original document creating the society. Women had equal access to political leadership and had the right to vote in elections. Women also were not prohibited from holding office in the society, although no women were ever elected to these positions. Additional modifications to the society’s organization were made in 1824 and a constitution established in 1833.
In the decades following the establishment of the Zoar commune, the separatists experienced economic prosperity. The community was almost entirely self-sufficient and sold any surpluses to the outside world. In addition to agriculture, Zoar residents also worked in a number of industries, including flour mills, textiles, a tin shop, cooper, wagon maker, two iron foundries, and several stores. The society also made money by contracting to build a seven-mile stretch of the Ohio and Erie Canal. The canal crossed over Zoar’s property, and the society owned several canal boats. The canal traffic also brought other people into the community, who bought Zoar residents’ goods. By the second half of the nineteenth century, the community was quite prosperous.
The Zoarites held a number of important fundamental beliefs. They were pacifists and refused to participate in war, one of the reasons that they had been persecuted back in Europe. They did not observe traditional religious sacraments such as baptism or marriage. If a couple wished to get married, they would just present themselves before witnesses. There was no formal ceremony or celebration. The Zoarites did not observe any holidays.
Beginning in 1822, the community briefly experimented with a period of celibacy, as there was concern that the population might grow too rapidly for Zoar’s economic resources. Ultimately, celibacy was abandoned in 1830. Zoar’s children did not experience the same kind of family life that children do today. For many years, children between the ages of three and fourteen lived in separate nurseries from their families so that their mothers could continue to work in the community. Children went to school but were also expected to work for the society from a young age. The types of work that Zoarite children did, however, was really not much different than any child living on a farm would have done during this time period. Everyone had to do his or her part to make sure that the society survived.
Joseph Bimeler died in 1853. Even though Zoar was still economically prosperous, the members’ commitment to the society’s original goals began to deteriorate in the second half of the nineteenth century. Over time, many of the original residents died. The younger generation did not have memories of the persecution back in Europe or the society’s early struggles in Ohio. The outside world influenced the Zoarites more and more, as strangers traveled to Zoar and stayed in the town’s hotel. In 1898, the remaining members decided to dissolve the society, and its property was divided among the Zoarites. It was an end to the communistic experience at Zoar. Throughout the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, Zoar has continued to exist as a small town in rural eastern Ohio. Today, the Ohio History Connection operates a portion of the town as a historic site. A number of the Zoarite buildings are restored and are open to the public.