Peter Hoehnle had a personal reason for attending a recent national conference of the Communal Studies Association in Harmony and Ambridge.
His great-grandfather, Jacob Hoehnle, had been a recent immigrant from Germany when he worked as a hired laborer for the Harmony Society in the late 19th century.
He later sent for his parents and siblings to join him, and they, too, became employees of the communal society in what was then the village of Economy. Old Economy Village is now part of a national historic landmark district in Ambridge.
"They walked these streets," Mr. Hoehnle said of his ancestors. "I could be going right past the house where they lived." Members of the Hoehnle family lived in Economy from 1885 to 1892, when they relocated to Amana, Iowa, the site of another communal society.
Mr. Hoehnle, who grew up in Amana, is president of the Communal Studies Association. The theme for this year's meeting was "Transitions in Leadership," with dozens of speakers exploring how organizations change and how that change affects the survival of the organizations they founded.
Historic Harmony, which operates nine sites in the Harmonist society's first home in America, and the state Historical and Museum Commission's Old Economy Village, the society's third and last home, hosted the conference.
It drew about 100 people who heard talks on topics ranging from "The Self-Realization and Self-Actualization of Swami Kriyananda" to "Contemporary Kibbutz Leadership."
The Harmony Society was formed by Lutheran separatists from the former German duchy of Wuerttemberg who came to the United States under the leadership of George Rapp. Harmony, their first home, was established in Butler County in 1804. Members later moved to New Harmony, Ind., their second settlement, and then to the banks of the Ohio River in Beaver County.
Rapp believed that the second coming of Jesus wold happen during his lifetime.
The society he founded, however, continued for more than a half-century after his death in 1847, disbanding in 1905.
Joe White, a retired professor of history from the University of Pittsburgh, is writing a new history of the Harmony Society and its leaders.
"Rapp clearly was charismatic," Mr. White said of the sect's founder during an interview last week. Such figures have several attributes in common: "They tend to be authoritarian, they tend to have a demagogic side and they make promises to their followers that they never will be able to keep," he said.
Retired professor Donald E. Pitzer said communal societies have served as laboratories for exploring and experimenting with society and social change.
New Harmony, the Harmonists' second home, was sold to British industrialist Robert Owen, who, starting in 1825, sought to create a non-religion-based socialist community.
While the experiment soon faltered, Owen's belief in the importance of very early childhood education in forming character led him to open the country's first schools for children as young as age 2, Mr. Pitzer said.
Mr. Pitzer was the founder of the predecessor organization of the Communal Studies Association and was its executive director. He also served as president of the association's international offshoot.
Rapp's leadership style was also the topic of a talk by German scholar Hermann Ehmer, archivist for Baden Wuerttemberg.
In his talk on Friday afternoon, he drew parallels between the lives of Rapp and Michael Hahn, the leader of another German pietist movement. While the Harmonists broke from the Lutheran Church, followers of Hahn remained within the established religion, Mr. Ehmer said.
Following Hahn's death in 1819, leaders of his community arranged for the publication in 16 volumes of his sermons, letters and hymns. His modern-day followers continue to draw inspiration from his writings, Mr. Ehmer said.
"A charismatic leader may not be replaced in person, but he can be replaced by his writings," he said of Hahn.
Information about the Communal Studies Association, which was founded in 1974: www.communalstudies.org.
Len Barcousky: firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-772-0184. First Published October 10, 2013 1:35 AM