(20MIN READ) Zach Whitworth offers a case study of the New Odessa Colony (1882–1887) of southern Oregon, USA. While described as the most successful commune of the Russian-Jewish Am Olam movement, New Odessa gained a reputation for its strange engagement with Auguste Comte’s (1798–1857) Religion of Humanity. This doctrine centered on a piousness for positivism was brought to the commune via the charismatic William Frey (1839–1888). Zach’s research shows how Frey’s leadership, defined by strict codes of asceticism and productivity, likely created a rift among the members of the colony, which led to its dissolution.

In the immediate wake of the assassination of Alexander II in early 1881, waves of antisemitic violence crashed through the Russian Empire. This became the main impetus for the founding of the Jewish Am Olam1 movement in Odessa, a primarily socialist group consisting of young students and intellectuals determined to liberate the Jewish people through the formation of a just social order. Whereas socialist Zionists would found the kibbutzim in Palestine, the Am Olamites opted to settle in the United States, dispersing into 26 different colonies established during the 1880s. After the hundreds of members landed in New York City and set up headquarters in late 1881, one group of Am Olamites secured some initial financial support from local Jewish sponsors and a plot of land out West as well as a connection for paid work. They journeyed to the forests of southern Oregon, founding the community of New Odessa in 1882 near what is today the rural town of Glendale.

    For a time, living and working in the new environment was difficult but joyous, sustained by a spirit of utopian cooperation aimed at the realization of a just world. But it would not last. The isolation from urban cultural centers had taken its toll on the members, who were separated from both larger Jewish and intellectual communities. Residents trickled out. The library—their most treasured possession—was decimated by a sudden fire, likely hastening their sorrowful departure. None remained in the Pacific Northwest, with most reportedly resettling in New York City. By 1887, the commune was disbanded, officially as a result of bankruptcy—the only measurable cause.

    According to historian Helen Blumenthal, who compiled a comprehensive chronology of New Odessa nearly a century later in her 1975 thesis, the details of the commune’s dissolution are somewhat foggy. “It is difficult to know what exactly went wrong” she explains, “as there is little written evidence.”2 As such, the conclusions reasoned by 20th century historians tend to be highly speculative. Blumenthal and others before her note that a split within the group began to form around 1884 and had nearly crystallized by 1885, but the significance of this division is missing from their accounts. Avrahm Yarmolinsky, who wrote a chapter on the commune a decade before Blumenthal, suggests the group’s communistic principles had become confused with “eating from the same plate and sleeping in the same bedroom,” and individualistic attitudes had eventually emerged.3 A 1928 article by Gabriel Davidson and Edward A. Goodwin, based on some colonists’ testimonies, explains that the bankruptcy was actually a non-issue: the colonists’ landlord had offered to extend their payment by fifteen years, and a number of Jewish businessmen up in Portland were willing to provide the colonists financial aid. Davidson and Goodwin show that, contrary to the fates of other communes of the era, which collapsed under debts, crop shortages, material scarcity, infighting, or social disdain, New Odessa faced none of these issues and could have continued if the colonists had wanted to.4 It is clear that New Odessa suffered an ideological disaster, and the standard premise that the colonists chose to disperse due to spiritual isolation and intellectual stagnation is inadequate. The end of New Odessa remains in question.

    As testified by Robert Rosenbluth, the son of former colonists Anutta Glanz and Selig Rosenbluth, the split was drawn along lines of action versus discussion, of the “doers” versus the “talkers.” The former were said to have been headed by Rosenbluth’s parents and Paul Kaplan, who later became organizers of Cuban and Russian revolutionaries in New York City, while the latter were identified as followers of William Frey, a charismatic Russian (and one of the only non-Jews) who had gained a profound influence over the operations of New Odessa.5

Yarmolinsky’s 1965 biography of Frey, A Russian’s American Dream, provides vital insight into his ideology and leadership role at New Odessa, sourced mainly from Frey’s own journaling and letters of correspondence as well as others’ firsthand accounts of the man. Frey was a former Russian nobleman who had descended from high-ranking professional soldiers but rebelled against his family and gave up his financial means. He had been a revolutionary in his younger years, but in the face of existential crisis he turned more deeply to religion—specifically, the Religion of Humanity—while keeping his communism intact. Though Frey gave up on the revolutionary models of utopian socialism in his adulthood, he still considered himself a radical who hoped to bring about a better world. He encountered the Am Olamites in New York City, where he had been aiding and proselytizing Russian-Jewish immigrants. As he was versed in both Russian and English and had experience in organizing communes, the future founders of New Odessa invited him to be their guide.

    Frey was initially reluctant to settle at the colony due to his harsh character—his unfaltering convictions, sense of righteousness, and rigid lifestyle—but he was eventually convinced of the colony’s merit and joined it in its second year. Frey’s enthusiasm for the project, however, did not preclude his sharp criticism of the colonists. He described the colonists as unfit for sustaining the commune, nihilistic, self-interested, and individualistic. To Frey, life in his early days at New Odessa was “utter hell, something incompatible with the demands of elementary morality.”6 His opinion was that, without proper guidance (such as his), the commune was destined for failure. The only way to avoid it, he wrote in 1882, was the adoption of “a common religious faith,” and for Frey, the most expedient means of adopting such a faith was

    Frey’s vision for New Odessa was practically monastic, characterized by intense asceticism and disciplined routine. Under his direction, meals were meager, labor was long, and all remaining moments were regimented by relentless ritual. As a visitor to the commune described,

    Frey’s idea of happiness [was] to eat two meals a day of crackers and raw fruit, to touch no kind of stimulant, to do all work between meals, so as to be free after to study, the evenings in his community to be devoted to study and moral and social evaluation, in which all should join.8

    The colonists were unused to the toil determined by Frey. Daily chores began at 6 o’clock in the morning, and evenings concluded with academic studies or debate at 7 o’clock. Most of this nighttime study focused on mathematics, following Frey’s numbers-oriented creed, as well as English. All other time was filled with his sermons and prayers. As Frey insisted only two meals were necessary, there was no break during the day for lunch. He was strictly vegetarian and coerced the others to be so as well, going so far as to refuse to sit at the table with anyone eating meat. Even with an abundance of animals to hunt in the area, meat was only rarely consumed by the colonists.

Despite his originally low opinion of the colonists, Frey believed “New Odessa had witnessed a miracle,” transforming under his leadership from a collective of self-centered “individualists” into an earnestly religious and committed community. Though the colonists deferred to him out of respect and admiration, Frey's belief in his authority was only partly justified. A handful had honestly subscribed to Frey’s ideal lifestyle, but most others only paid him lip service and had no real interest in living accordingly.9 By Yarmolinksy’s account, as Frey’s delegation of monotonous labor went on, some of the colonists shirked their responsibilities and grew resentful. Many had come to dislike Frey's piety, and avoided his speeches and seminars. Sunday meetings became unpleasant and unproductive.10

    Thus the division manifested. The more revolutionary colonists gradually gravitated around the leadership of the Am Olamite Paul Kaplan, who attempted to mediate the disputes and find grounds for compromise with Frey.11 Refusing to amend his principles, Frey, along with 15 colonists he had converted to the Religion of Humanity, finally left New Odessa in 1885, though reportedly without animosity and with the sincere sorrow of the entire community.12 Kaplan, who was held in high regard by all, went to lengths to keep the group together, and New Odessa carried on for another two years. After the Rosenbluths—who were founding members—left in 1886, questions of the commune’s longevity grew more serious, and the last of the group opted to throw in the towel by 1887. New Odessa was officially bankrupt, but its conclusion was more a side-effect of the social and ideological issues the colony faced, rather than the immediate cause of its disbandment.

    Frey’s faith, the Religion of Humanity, was conceived by the French philosopher and founding figure of modern sociology, Auguste Comte (1798–1857). Frey, a formerly devout Christian turned secular communist, had converted to this doctrine after several failed attempts at building communes in the United States, which had left him and his family destitute. He had latched onto Comte’s Religion of Humanity for its emphasis on discipline and moral coercion under the guidance of a High Priest and its substitution of Humanity in place of God as the subject of worship, depicting Humanity as the Supreme Being.13 Following Comte’s writings, Frey saw this religion as “the natural outgrowth and legal heir” of Christianity, and to that degree it generated in him the same ecstatic feelings he once experienced in the image of Christ.14 Even after he abandoned Christianity, Frey's evangelical spirit persisted, believing that the purpose of social experiments conducted in communes was to “rear the new Messiah.”15

    At the heart of the Religion of Humanity lay positivism, the moral philosophy first developed by Comte, which held that all authentic knowledge was observable and measurable in the material world. The social sciences to this day take inspiration from positivist philosophy, drawing concepts from the physical sciences and fixing on empirical, calculable data. It has frequently been recognized by scholars as the standard ideology of the modern state since the late 18th century, emerging from the Enlightenment and the wake of the French Revolution as one of the most widely impactful philosophies of the 19th century and the years since.16 17

A major contribution of positivism to the evolution of the modern state was its notion of “social debt.” Comte portrayed the individual as a debtor with “unlimited obligations to society.” Anthropologist David Graeber points out in his book Debt: The First 5,000 Years how this eventually became a common view among social reformers and socialist politicians in Europe and elsewhere over the course of the 19th century. Positivist politics held that everyone was indebted to the society that created them, with the state acting as the administrator of this “existential debt” owed to our fellow people.18 This was the basis for altruism, another term coined by Comte, which presented selflessness as a virtue of the utmost importance.

    However, the order of the state translated altruism sharply into self-sacrifice, a negation of the individual in service of the ruling political system and moral order. Where human society was reconfigured as the Supreme Being, the state was its Church. Where human society was conflated with the state, the state itself appeared as the Supreme Being. Positivism thus legitimized the state—which claimed a virtual monopoly of society—as the entity to which one owed their life.

    Understanding the logic of positivism broadly and its concentrated emanation in the more practical Religion of Humanity specifically, Frey’s presence at New Odessa was in essence the persistence of the present, that is, the existing orders of domination. His objectives, after Comte, were directly declared in opposition to revolutionary action. Revolution, in Frey’s outlook, was a “terrible social disease.” Contrary to any socialist sentiments of struggle concentrated on class conflict, he asserted how

    The mission of the Religion of Humanity is not to arouse one class of society against the other, but to establish a harmonious collaboration between the grand subdivisions of humanity.19

    The Religion of Humanity, articulated by Frey, could thus still be considered utopian, even communistic, but markedly anti-revolutionary. Following positivism's sole focus on the material and observable, the utopia he imagined—the only one he could imagine with such a philosophy—was effectively an extension of the existing hierarchical order of the world, which only needed to be perfected, contrary to the typical understanding of utopia as an existence that can’t yet be seen. Religion, in his view, was the means to enforce and reinforce this attitude.

Friedrich Engels defined Saint-Simon, Owen, and Fourier as “the three great Utopians,” who shared a common desire to emancipate all of humanity at once and usher in an eternal kingdom of justice.20 Whereas Fourier and Owen rejected existing systems, Saint-Simon strived to reform them.21 Saint-Simon’s utopia was something of an egalitarian hierarchy, in which industrial development and science would foster the union of humanity, replacing old theocratic orders. The masses would be essentially “equal” in relation to one another, but only as subjects of an elite sovereign class. Saint-Simon adapted the old orders as a “New Christianity,” translating the passion for Christ into a mystical enchantment of worldly labor and production, dominated no longer by popes but managerial technocrats.22

    The relationship between Comte and Saint-Simon was not incidental. Saint-Simon once employed Comte as his secretary and mentored him closely. Comte’s own religious arrangement of his positivist philosophy was sourced directly from Saint-Simon, though he replaced much of Saint-Simon’s mysticism with extreme seriousness and installed a more blatantly priestly authority at the summit of its social strata.23 Taking after Saint-Simon’s “New Christianity,” which was ruled by artists, the Religion of Humanity was formulated as a “New Catholicism” ruled by scientific specialists.24 It included “its own catechism, liturgy, sacraments, and theology,” worshiping the idea of Society as the “True Great Being.”25

    For Frey, the Religion of Humanity’s continuation of the rubric of the Church made it the heir to Christianity. It retained all of the basic elements of the orthodoxy while displacing its theology—Catholicism sans Christ. The husk left over was merely a framework of authoritarianism, of agnostic theocracy.  

    One indication of some of the colonists’ ideological inclinations can be found in a 1965 statement from Robert Rosenbluth, who wrote that his parents named him after the utopian socialist Robert Owen.26 This honoring of Owen suggests that, at the very least, he was a person of intrigue within the commune.

    Owen has been deemed a precursory thinker in the lineage of anarchism.27 Instead of reforming the existing order of state rule, as Saint-Simon proposed, Owen hoped to carve out new forms of autonomous organization within the existing order, along the lines of the anarchist project to build “a new world in the shell of the old.” Though the Owenites were historically against clerical rule and organized religion, the foundations of Owen’s planned communities, such as the famed New Lanark and New Harmony, stemmed from his spiritualism. This included his application of ideas from the work of the eccentric Christian theologian, Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), who not only believed the Second Coming of Christ had already occurred (and had been revealed to him personally) but that humanity would transform from a physical into a spiritual being, with the millennium of Christ’s reign occurring internally.28

Despite his seemingly heretical ideology, Owen was a technocrat with a distaste for democracy and self-emancipation, and, although it lacked a formal religious structure, his authoritarian mindset recalled those of Saint-Simon and Comte. Owen’s socialism was situated in a top-down hierarchy, with everyday activities of the population controlled by an elite minority, so-called experts in human affairs.29 If the New Odessa colonists did indeed take after Owen, such technocratic thought may have informed their invitation of the charismatic William Frey, who they believed to be an expert in building communes, to lead them. It may also have proven to be their downfall. Even as a resistance to religion, drawn from Owenism, sharply contested the theological element of Frey’s priestly character, his authoritarianism remained permissible. But perhaps their leanings were more anarchistic, in which case the welcoming of Frey could be chocked up to naivety, and the authoritarianism as a whole would have been repudiated. What can be supposed is the set of tensions that resulted in New Odessa finally coming apart at its seams.

    Rosenbluth’s distinction of the “doers” versus “talkers” generates a useful template for grasping the two factions that coalesced and shattered the unity of the group. In one sense, this was a division between committed revolutionaries who sided with Kaplan and those who had been swayed by the anti-revolutionary Frey. His anti-revolutionary position represented the world the colonists had fled from in the first place, exaggerating a moral order derived from the theocracies of Europe.

    Blumenthal writes that the members who stayed after Frey’s departure in 1885 also faced a split in practice. Those who still clung to a revolutionary spirit worked to keep the commune afloat, but others began to neglect the daily labor.30 One might find an accusatory tone in Blumenthal’s historiography suggesting laziness and the decline of a work ethic brought New Odessa at last to its end, but the extent to which this was the case is unclear. If there is material truth to this claim, it was precisely Frey’s rigorous work ethic that would have driven some of the colonists to reject work altogether in reaction. Frey’s departure alone could not compensate for the infection he had already spread within the commune—as he had planned from the beginning, his desire was to teach the revolutionaries a lesson. “The very failure of the experiment,” Frey believed, “would teach the best among them that one must build on the firm foundation of a common religious faith.”31 It was his sole mission to put a stop to their revolution, and in this he perhaps succeeded.


1︎︎︎ In Hebrew, Am Olam means “Eternal People.”

2︎︎︎ Blumenthal, p. 75

3︎︎︎ Yarmolinsky, p. 105

4︎︎︎ Davidson and Goodwin, pp. 84-85

5︎︎︎ Rosenbluth, “Correspondence”

6︎︎︎ Yarmolinsky, p. 104

7︎︎︎ Yarmolinsky, pp. 99-104

8︎︎︎ ibid., p. 105

9︎︎︎ Rosenberg, “Great Fears, Great Hopes”

10︎︎︎ Yarmolinsky, p. 105

11︎︎︎ Davidson and Goodwin, p. 86

12︎︎︎ Davidson and Goodwin, p. 84

13︎︎︎ Yarmolinsky, p. 109

14︎︎︎ ibid., pp. 91-94

15︎︎︎ ibid., p. 52

16︎︎︎ Löwy, p. 7

17︎︎︎ Kropotkin, pp. 7-8

18︎︎︎ Graeber, p. 70

19︎︎︎ Yarmolinsky, p. 95

20︎︎︎ Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific

21︎︎︎ Lagalisse, pp. 57-58

22︎︎︎ McCarraher, p. 56

23︎︎︎ “Friedrich Engels to Ferdinand Tönnes In Kiel”

24︎︎︎ Graeber, “The Twilight of Vanguardism,” p. 306

25︎︎︎ McCarraher, p. 56

26︎︎︎ Robert Owen (1771–1858) was a Welsh industrialist known for his advocacy for workers and collectivist social experiments based around textile mills. His philosophy was notably influential on the development of labor unions and cooperatives.

27︎︎︎ Lagalisse, p. 57, see also Kropotkin, p. 267

28︎︎︎ Lagalisse, pp. 57-58

29︎︎︎ Leopold, p. 621

30︎︎︎ Blumenthal, p. 70

31︎︎︎ Yarmolinsky, p. 99


Blumenthal, Helen E. New Odessa, 1882-1887: United We Stand, Divided We Fall. 1 Oct. 1975, Accessed 22 May 2021.

Davidson, Gabriel, and Edward A. Goodwin. A Unique Agricultural Colony. The Reflex, May 1928, pp. 80–86.

Engels, Frederick. Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. Marxists Internet Archive, 1880,

Engels, Friedrich. Friedrich Engels to Ferdinand Tönnies in Kiel. Marxists Internet Archive, 24 Jan. 1895, Accessed 27 June 2022.

Graeber, David. Debt: The First 5,000 Years. 2011. New York, Melville House, 2014.

Graeber, David. “The Twilight of Vanguardism.” Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire, Oakland, AK Press, 2007.

Kropotkin, Peter. Ethics: Origin and Development. translated by Louis S. Friedland and Joseph R. Piroshnikoff, Montréal, Black Rose Books, 1992.

Lagalisse, Erica. Occult Features of Anarchism: With Attention to the Conspiracy of Kings and the Conspiracy of the Peoples. Oakland, PM Press, 2019.

Leopold, David. Education and Utopia: Robert Owen and Charles Fourier. Oxford Review of Education, vol. 37, no. 5, Oct. 2011, pp. 619–635, Accessed 27 May 2022.

Löwy, Michael. Redemption and Utopia: Jewish Libertarian Thought in Central Europe. 1988. translated by Hope Heaney, London, Verso, 2017.

McCarraher, Eugene. The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2019.

Rosenberg, Karen Karin. Great Fears, Great Hopes: A Jewish Agricultural Settlement in 19th Century Oregon. Jewish Currents, 8 Feb. 2016, Accessed 24 Aug. 2022.

Rosenbluth, Robert. “Correspondence.” Received by George B. Abdill, 14 Aug. 1965.

Yarmolinsky, Avrahm. A Russian’s American Dream: A Memoir on William Frey. Lawrence, The University of Kansas Press, 1965.


Zach Whitworth hails from the Umpqua Valley of the Pacific Northwest.

Early research for this piece was supported by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust and the aid of archive staff at the Douglas County Museum of Natural & Cultural History in Roseburg, Oregon. The project remains unfinished.

Utopian Thinking in the dark times – Season 2: Autumn/Winter 2022 – Research Capsule by Neo-Metabolism – Editors: Georgia Kareola, Lynn Gommes, Oskar Johanson – Contributors: Damian Borovsky, Olly Bromham, Camila Chebez, Shreya De Souza, Torben Koerschkes, Max Kuwertz, Christopher Michael, Liminal Vision, Zach Whitworth, Rue Yi – Paintings: Eric L. Chen – Design: Clint Soren, dolor~puritan, Ghikhan – Published: October 2022