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Bishop Hill

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Do you suppose there is something in the American air that turns our visionaries bi-focal? While English gurus sell all that they have, dress their followers in white, and climb a hill to await the second coming, our Utopianists have always kept one hand on the plow, turning a dollar or two between prayers. The Shakers danced themselves into a celibate religious frenzy, but they weren't above inventing the idea of mail order and selling seed in packages.

That same air must have affected our own communal society fifty miles south of here. In 1846, the Swedish prophet, Eric Jansen, fleeing persecution at home, brought 400 followers to the Illinois prairie along the Edwards River. Here they founded a settlement called Bishop Hill where Jansen could carry out his God-given task of restoring true Christianity to the earth. Many followers believed Jansen himself was the second coming of Christ. Jansen roused his followers at five each morning for devotions. He began the training of missionaries to spread his message throughout the world.

Meanwhile, there was work to be done; no time for white robes. After a winter living in sod huts and dugouts in the side of a ravine, the colonists emerged to build a cross-shaped tabernacle that could hold a thousand worshippers. Working together in an absolute division of labor, with eighteen-hour workdays the norm, the Swedes broke 350 acres of prairie the first year, built gristmills and sawmills, grew their own flax and linen, and shortly had 5,000 acres of rich Illinois soil under cultivation. Their communal ways led to the construction of the first brick apartment buildings in the United States.

The Bishop Hill colonists soon had fifteen thousand gold dollars circulating in Henry County, where previous trade had only been by barter.

Then, in 1850, Eric Jansen was murdered, and a subsequent financial panic in Illinois wrecked the finances. What might have been a great metropolis, the world-wide headquarters of Jansenism, is only a historical reminder of our strange American blend of faith and works.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.