Through hard work and clean living, George Rapp promised his followers the keys to the kingdom of heaven.
Arriving in June 1814, they toiled tirelessly, turning trees into lumber and clay from the banks of the Wabash River into bricks with which to build Harmonie, a commune of nearly 800 devoutly religious souls.
To please God, they abstained from sex. But the greatly anticipated second coming of Christ never came.
Following a particular Bible passage from Revelation, Rapp and his flock left southwest Indiana in 1824, selling the town site and its 180 buildings to Robert Owen, who changed the name to New Harmony. A progressive and secular Scotsman, Owen based his communal concept not on religious ideology but on education for the masses.
Both Owen and Rapp were trying to create a utopian society. By scholarly standards, both failed. Still, fast-forwarding 200 years, visitors often get a unique vibe that's a bit difficult to describe.
"They'll say, 'I got a feeling when I drove into town. Time stood still. Pressure was suspended,'" said Connie Weinzapfel, director of Historic New Harmony. "I hear that all the time."
"They say the veil between heaven and earth is very thin here," added Linda Warrum, a Town Council member who doubles as a tour guide. "You can't see it and you can't touch it, but you can feel it."
Even people who pooh-pooh such concepts are likely to have an affinity for this town, whose population still hovers around 800. With a bevy of bicentennial celebrations planned, this summer is an ideal time to visit New Harmony, where roughly 30 of the original buildings remain. Many can be visited on organized tours, while others, including the Epple and Lauple houses, provide uncommon lodging opportunities.
Walking tours begin at the Atheneum visitor center, a marvel of modern architecture considerately sited a couple of blocks away from the historic structures. Another good way to explore is by golf cart. Weinzapfel enthusiastically encourages visitors to get out of their cars and onto the carts. In fact, she's among about 120 locals who use such vehicles on a regular basis.
"It changes your whole dynamic of how you interact with people," she said.
Regardless of how you get around, the Harmonist Labyrinth on the south edge of town is an important stop.
Made of concentric circles of privet hedge, the labyrinth replicates one planted in the early 1800s.
"It symbolized life's journey (was) not easy," said Amanda Bryden, who manages the property as a state historic site.
It takes about an hour to reach the small stone temple in the center. Those in a hurry can use wooden gates that provide shortcuts. Inside the temple, built as a place of meditation, several Harmonie Society quotations are shared.
"We endure and suffer, labor and toil, sow and reap, with and for each other."
Inside the David Lenz House, built in about 1820, visitors can see the comfortable yet simple conditions in which Harmonists lived not as husbands, wives and children but as "brothers and sisters."
"They were millennialists. They thought they were the chosen people," Weinzapfel explained. "They were trying to perfect themselves for the second coming of Christ, when they would be taken to the New Jerusalem."
Neither of the two Harmonist churches remains. In the center of town, on the site at which both stood, is Church Park. Visitors enter via a replica of the Door of Promise, through which Rapp's believers entered a large brick house of worship.
Their strict interpretation of the Bible went out the proverbial window with the arrival of Robert Owen and his followers, many of whom traveled down the Ohio River and then up the Wabash aboard a flatboat known as the Boatload of Knowledge. They erected four large dormitories in which all single people 14 and older lived.
Two of the four structures remain. The three-story Community House No. 2 contains exhibits and artifacts detailing life during Rapp's and Owen's experiments to take life to a higher plane.