Religion in North American Town Plans

Religion has played a vital role in the settling of many pre-industrial North American towns and cities. In fact, religion proved to be one of the main reasons Europeans broke their affiliation with the dictatorial and the monarchial rule in Europe and came to settle the Americas. Generally, these particular religious settlers incorporated town-planning ideas developed in Europe and translated them into their particular beliefs. However, some specific and influential settlers broke away from the norm in a progressive attempt to invent new societies in a new land based on accumulated knowledge.

John Reps, the pre-eminent American historian on town planning has this to say about those who strayed from the common ideals. “Almost from the beginning of settlement, America attracted a variety of reformers, utopians, and pariah religious sects. These dedicated… groups shunned existing cities with their temptations and distractions, preferring to create settlements in harmony with their religious, economic, or social convictions.” In this paper, I will analyze and compare the influence of two different religions in the settling of their respective towns. The first will be The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormons, and the second is the Church of the United Brethren, also known as the Moravians.

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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a Christian religion that came into existence during the early 19th-century American movement of religious revivalism called the Second Great Awakening. Officially, Joseph Smith, who is recognized as a prophet in modern Mormon teachings, founded the church in 1830 after he said that God had spoken to him. In that same year, he organized his first followers in New York. From that point on, as they marched westward, he experimented in building towns that revolved around “…order, unity, and community.” These values were viewed as supreme in the prophet’s ideal society, and these same values were at odds with values that were characteristic of many cities and towns already existing in America at that time. It is said that his aim was to realize the Christian commonwealth that had been the ideal of John Winthrop in Puritan New England. According to one account, Winthrop at one time had said to the colonists, “Wee must be knit together in this work as one man.” This one statement seems to provide the basis of Smith’s convictions when he set out to form new towns in hopes of turning people on to his religion.

The Law of Consecration and Stewardship was outlined by Joseph Smith in 1831, and marked the beginning of Mormon ‘communitarianism.’ This law “…was a prescription for transforming the highly individualistic economic order of Jacksonian America into a system characterized by economic equality, socialization of surplus incomes, freedom of enterprise, and group economic self-sufficiency.” Basically, what this meant was that all members of the church and hereafter, the community, would deed all of his/her property to the bishop of the church. On top of this, the community was to farm and cultivate the land together and share equally the crops. In turn, the bishop would appropriate these assets out based on the need of an individual or family residing within the community. Doctrines of the church such as these held a paralleled relationship to the planning of the towns.

By early 1831, Joseph Smith and his following had moved west to Kirtland, Ohio. Kirtland was an ideal spot for Americans seeking prosperity given its ripe location for trade as well as agriculture. The land in Ohio had richer soil than that found along the Atlantic coast, and the climate was much milder. A good reason for this can be attributed to Ohio’s gentle topography. This was beneficial to the Mormon people who relied on farming and trade. The location was in close proximity to both Lake Erie, which provided the transportation to the East, and the Ohio Canal, which connected to the Ohio River and hence the entire Mississippi River system. The Mormons however did not take full advantage of this beneficial location for settlement, as they left after only a short period of time.

Kirtland was a settlement where many firsts occurred in the Mormon religion, and it was a settlement that would aid Mormons in molding future settlements. The House of the Lord, also referred to as the Kirtland Temple, was the first major permanent structure for worship built by the Mormons, and it served as a pattern that was to be followed by future designs of churches in Mormon settlements. The temple served dual functions as a temple of education and as a temple of worship. Since it served two main functions within the community, and since it was seen as the most vital aspect of the religion, it was located accordingly: for all residents to view as the largest structure at the highest point in the town. Also, it had two floors that divided the different functions of the temple. The first floor was the floor of worship, while the second floor was used for education and studies.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the built temple was the fact that the builders had very little, if any architectural experience. The design plans for the church were handed down to the workers from Joseph Smith, who deemed the temple be built, not after the manner of the world, but “…after the manner which I shall show unto you.” Their motivation was not found in professional pride, but instead came through the belief that they were building a house where God could reside with them. This form of divine revelation was a strong belief of the Mormon religion, and it would be a divine revelation of Joseph Smith that initiated the Mormons decision to leave the Kirtland settlement and move further west to Jackson County, Missouri. Although Kirtland proved to be a successful plan, it was never intended as a permanent settling place for the religion. Instead, it was Joseph Smith’s vision received from God of the “City of Zion” that kept the new religion pleased but unsatisfied until they were able to establish themselves in Independence, Missouri.

In 1833, the plan of “the City of Zion” was being drawn up under the direction of Smith. Essentially Jackson County, Missouri was located in the center of the North American continent. To Smith, this was a vital aspect of the city plan, because it was his belief that from this settlement, the religion could radiate outward in all directions, preaching to others the essence of his newly formed church. This plan for the city to be centrally located in the continent reflected the religion’s fixation on the church as ‘the center.’ In a similar manner, the temple was located at the center of settlement planned for Independence, Missouri. From the center, the other public buildings of the city were immediately to the east and to the west of the temple, and the residential buildings and plots of land radiated outward to the periphery of the city.

Smith’s planning for the “City of Zion” was very particular and his plan contained quite a few exact number measures to be used in platting the city. Some of the particulars included that a plot should contain one square mile, with ten ten-acre squares each. With one thousand (1,000) house lots, the average family was to contain somewhere between fifteen (15) and twenty (20) people. As Reps notes, “Although the controversial doctrine of polygamy was not officially adopted until 1852, perhaps Smith had this already in mind when he devised the plan of his city.” Space was also a key element that can be found throughout the town plan. The streets of the town were wide and ran in a gridiron pattern throughout the town, while the residences in the town were pushed a good distance away from the streets. This made the town plan very efficient and systematic in nature.

While the town was still being laid out, converts continued to flock to both Independence and Kirtland, which continued to be occupied by some settlers of the Mormon faith. However, at the same time, local residents confronted the Mormons with threats and violence, triggered by fears of economic and political competition. Because of this violence, the Mormons were forced to flee to Illinois in 1839. Their city plan remained the same as they settled on the bank of the Mississippi River in a town that they called Nauvoo in Illinois.

Joseph Smith was murdered while his newly founded city of Nauvoo flourished under his design so much so that in the 1840s, it “…became the largest town in the state.” Because of Joseph Smith’s determination in the westward movement of his new found religion to the “City of Zion” in Independence, Missouri, John Reps considers him “…the most successful city builder of all the religious and utopian societies.”

The Moravian Church began in Bohemia before the Unitas Fratrum (another name given to the Moravian Church) migrated to form the town of Herrnut, Saxony in 1722. This is where the church stayed until the decision was made to travel to the Americas in 1734, where they landed in Georgia. An established settlement was never made in Georgia however, and in fact settlement of a town did not occur until they again migrated. This time they migrated north to Pennsylvania, where they began to establish a plan for a town named Bethlehem, in honor of the birthplace of Jesus Christ, that ran along the Lehigh River in eastern Pennsylvania. The land in this town was very good for harvesting crops, although the Moravians traditionally not a harvesting people. They specialized in industry, and in a fashion similar to that of the Mormons, they worked in an organization of the communal form, whereby the profits made from the mills and other crafts and industries were handed over to the public fund. From the public fund, the brethren in charge of the society appropriated them as they deemed necessary.

The Moravians were very particular and careful when developing their town plan much like Joseph Smith was in his planning of “The City of Zion.” The focal point of the town was the Gemein Haus which, according to Reps, was “designed as a community center, [but] also served as church, town hall, hospice, and church office.” However, as particular as they were in planning Bethlehem, they opted not to make it symmetrical (whether or not this was based on the topography, I could not find). They had communal housing that was similar to those found on modern day college campuses. On one side of the square in the center of town was the residency of the town’s single males, which included widowers. On the other side of the town square was the residency of the town’s single females, including widows. Attached to each one of these community-housing establishments was a boarding school.

Following the success of the Bethlehem town plan, Moravian town settlements were being formed with greater frequency from 1742 when Nazareth, Pennsylvania was settled, through 1766 when Salem, North Carolina was settled. According to Reps, the settling of Salem in 1766 was the most important of Moravian towns.

The land in the newly developed Salem was not very fertile. The land was sufficient for gardens, however it did not possess the qualities of the land in Bethlehem that allowed them to harvest more crops. But this was not as relevant to the Moravians as it may have been to the Mormons, because, as it is mentioned earlier, they were craftsmen by trade, not farmers. Therefore, even if the land were fertile, they would still probably depend on neighboring farmers.

The original plan for Salem, as it was platted by Christian Reuter, provided for a central Square, with “houses of the congregation grouped around it, and the streets radiating from it like spokes of a wheel.” However, Friedrich Marshall, who planned the town of Bethlehem, insisted to him in a letter that the town be closely knit socially, and that he consider this in developing the town plan.

Many similarities existed between the two different religions and the respective town plans. The people residing in the Mormon towns, and the people residing in the Moravian towns “all worked under general church direction in a communal form of organization.” All of the money and assets of families within the communities was given back to the church, so that it could be appropriated back out into the community. One common aspect that both religions shared was a fixation on the one major building as the town’s focus. In Kirtland, it was The House of the Lord, and in Bethlehem it was the Gemein Haus. However, there were also differences, not just in structure, that separated the two. The Gemein Haus served more purposes in the functioning of the town than did The House of the Lord. Another aspect that both types of communities shared was that “church doctrines and settlement forms were considered to be closely related,” in both religions’ settlements. Both religions designed towns for a limited population within a closed society. Yet another common aspect shared by the two religions in their town plans was the importance of recruitment into their religion and communities. While the Moravians set-up missions specifically to teach Indians about Christianity in an attempt to convert them to their faith, the Mormons took a less direct approach. They too wanted to recruit individuals into their new religious practice, however they counted on the location of the town plan in Missouri to enable this to occur.

One main difference that existed between the two groups can be found in the skills of the people. The Moravians were craftsmen and individuals of industries, whereas the Mormons were much more agricultural in nature. Although the earliest Moravian town of Bethlehem was designed for communal living in a college dormitory-style, the latter southern Moravian town of Salem was designed with families in their own separate houses. The early communal form used a very conservative approach to the town plan by strictly separating the single men from the single women, including widowers and widows. On the other hand, Mormon towns such as the one planned for Independence, Missouri provided a much more liberal dwelling setting – one that was designed to house families upwards of fifteen to twenty people large.

In the cities of today, individuals strive to be free to do their own thing, and avoid giving of themselves to benefit the community without incentive for the most part. In direct contrast, the communal aspect stressed by each of the aforementioned.

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Religion in North American Town Plans. (2018, Sep 03). Retrieved from