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October 27, 1902



Fuller, Harlan, Brewer, Brown, White, Peckham, McKenna; Gray and Shiras took no part in the decision.

Author: Mckenna

[ 187 U.S. Page 15]

 MR. JUSTICE McKENNA, after making the foregoing statement, delivered the opinion of the court.

Two questions were submitted to the master: (1) Have the plaintiffs such a proprietary right or interest as would entitle them upon the dissolution of the society to share all its property or assets, or which entitles them to an accounting? (2) Has the society been dissolved by consent or by an abandonment of the purposes for which it was formed? A negative answer to either of the propositions determines the controversy against

[ 187 U.S. Page 16]

     petitioners, and both were so answered by the master and by the Circuit Court and the Circuit Court of Appeals. The case, therefore, seems not to be as broad or as complex as presented in the argument of counsel. The case is certainly clear from any disputes of fact, and we may dismiss from consideration the accusations against Duss, not only as to his motives in joining the society, but also as to his motives and acts as a member and officer of it. We are concerned alone with the legal aspect and consequences of his acts and those of his associates. They, however, pertain more particularly to the second proposition.

This is not the first time that the Harmony Society has been before the courts. Its history has been recited and its principles characterized and defined, not only by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, but by this court. Schriber v. Rapp, 5 Watts, 351; Baker et al. v. Nachtrieb, 19 How. 126; Speidel v. Henrici, 120 U.S. 377.

The society was formed by one George Rapp, who, with his son and others, came from the Kingdom of Wurtemberg to the United States in 1803 or 1804, and settled at Harmony, in Butler County, Pennsylvania. In 1814 the society moved to Posey County, Indiana, and later removed to Economy, Pennsylvania, its present abode, in 1825. Its members "were associated and combined by the common belief that the government of the patriarchal age, united to the community of property, adopted in the days of the Apostles, would conduce to promote their temporal and eternal happiness." 19 How. 126.

Their relations, principles of government, personal and property rights were provided for by written contracts executed respectively in 1805, 1821, 1827, 1836, 1847, 1890 and 1892. The present discussion is concerned with the first four.

By article 1 of the contract of 1805 each subscriber to that contract delivered up, renounced and remitted all of his or her property of every kind, "as a free gift or donation, for the benefit and use of the community," and bound himself, his heirs and descendants, "to make free renunciation thereof, and to leave the same at the disposal of the superintendents of the community," as if the subscriber "never had nor possessed it."

[ 187 U.S. Page 17]

     In article 2 they pledged obedience and submission to the society, and promised "to promote the good and interest of the community," and to that they pledged their children and families. But recognizing a possible weakness and inability to "stand to it in the community," they promised (article 3) never to demand any reward for themselves or children for "labor or services," and declared whatever they should do would be "as a voluntary service for our brethren." In consideration of this renunciation of property and dedication of labor and services, George Rapp and his associates promised to supply the subscribers to the contract with all the necessaries of life, not only in their "healthful days, but when they should become sick or unfit for labor." And if after a "short or long period" a member should die or otherwise depart from the community, "being the father or mother of a family," such family should "not be left widows and orphans but partakers of the same rights and maintenance."

Article 5 was as follows:

"And if the case should happen, as above stated, that one or more of the subscribers, after a short or long period, should break their promise, and could or would not submit to the laws and regulations of the church or community, and for that or any other cause would leave Harmony, George Rapp and his associates promise to refund him or them the value of his or their property, brought in without interest, in one, two or three annual installments, as the sum may be, large or small; and if one or more of them were poor and brought nothing into the community, they shall, provided they depart openly and orderly, receive a donation of money, according to his or their conduct while a member, or as he or their circumstances and necessities may require, which George Rapp and associates shall determine at his or their departure."

The society became the owner of about 7000 acres of land at Harmony, which on May 6, 1815, was conveyed by Frederick Rapp, as attorney in fact, to Abraham Ziegler for $100,000. That year, or in 1814, the society removed to Indiana. There a second agreement was entered into January 20, 1821. This agreement expressed, as that of 1805, the submission of the subscribers

[ 187 U.S. Page 18]

     to the society, the dedication of their service and labor, and contained the same promises of support.

The master found that "in 1825 the society removed from Indiana to Beaver County, Pennsylvania, where they purchased and settled upon a tract of land containing about 3000 acres, now known as 'Economy,' where they have since remained, and which has since become very valuable, and on which they have erected many buildings, including dwellings and factories of various kinds, and made many valuable improvements."

In 1827 another agreement was entered into, the preamble of which was as follows:

"Whereas by the favor of Divine Providence an association or community has been formed by George Rapp and many others upon the basis of Christian fellowship, the principles of which being faithfully derived from the sacred Scriptures, include the government of the patriarchal age, united to the community of property adopted in the days of the apostles, and wherein the single object sought is to approximate, so far as human imperfection will allow, to the fulfillment of the will of God by the exercise of those affections and the practice of those virtues which are essential to the happiness of man in time and throughout eternity.

"And whereas it is necessary to the good order and well being of said associations that the condition of membership should be clearly understood, and that the rights and privileges and duties of every individual therein should be so defined as to prevent mistake or disappointment on the one hand and contention or disagreement on the other."

This agreement was an amplification of that of 1805. Article 5 of the latter became article 6. This agreement was signed by 522 members of the association, and afterwards, and until February 14, 1836, was signed by 144 additional members. In 1832, dissensions having arisen, a large number of the members withdrew under the leadership of one Count De Leon. They received $110,000, and granted a release unto George Rapp and his associates of all of their right and title in any of the property "belonging to the society of George Rapp and his associates."

[ 187 U.S. Page 19]

     In 1836 another agreement was entered into revoking and annulling the sixth article of the agreement of 1827 -- fifth article of the agreement of 1805. The agreement recited the sixth article --

"And whereas the provisions of the said sixth article, though assented to at the time, manifestly depart from the great principle of a community of goods and may tend to foster and perpetuate a feeling of inequality at variance with the true spirit and objects of the association;

"And whereas the principle of restoration of property, besides its pernicious tendency, is one which cannot now be enforced with uniformity and fairness, inasmuch as the members of the association in the year 1816, under a solemn conviction of the truth of what is above recited, did destroy all record and memorial of the respective contributions up to that time;

"And whereas continued happiness and prosperity of the association, a more intimate knowledge of each other, have removed from the minds of all members the least apprehension of injustice and bad faith:

"Now, therefore, be it known by these presents that the undersigned, with a view to carry out fully the great principles of our union, and in consideration of the benefits to be derived therefrom, do hereby solemnly enter into covenants, and agree with each other as follows:

"1st. The said sixth article is entirely annulled and made void, as if it had never existed; all others remain in full force as heretofore.

"2d. All the property of the society, real, personal and mixed, in law or equity, and howsoever contributed or acquired, shall be deemed now and forever joint and indivisible stock. Each individual is to be considered to have finally and irrevocably parted with all his former contributions, whether in land, goods, money or labor; and the same rule shall apply to all future contributions whatever they may be.

"3d. Should any individual withdraw from the society, or depart this life, neither he in the one case nor his representatives in the other shall be entitled to demand an account of said

[ 187 U.S. Page 20]

     contributions, whether in land, goods, money or labor, or to claim anything from the society as matter of right. But it shall be left altogether to the discretion of the superintendent to decide whether any, and if any what, allowance shall be made to such member or his representatives as a donation."

The agreement was signed by all who were then members, and subsequently by thirty-three others.

Prior to his death, in 1834, Frederick Rapp, a member of the society, had been its business agent, and transacted its external affairs. After his death the members of the society (July 5, 1834) executed a power of attorney to George Rapp, constituting him such general agent, with power to appoint agents and substitutes under him. On the same day he appointed Romulus L. Baker and Jacob Henrici his substitutes. This power of attorney was signed by 402 members, and recited the death of Frederick Rapp, and the consequent necessity for the appointment of a new agent, so that the temporal affairs of the society would continue to be managed in a mode which had proved convenient and satisfactory, constituted George Rapp such agent with power of substitution, invested him with all necessary powers, including the receipt and the execution of conveyances of real and personal property. George Rapp disclaimed any greater interest in the then resources or future earnings of the society than other members.

George Rapp was the founder of the society, and continued to be its head or superintendent, and to rule and govern it until his death in 1847. After his death another agreement was executed (August 12, 1847). It was signed by 280 members. The agreement recited the death of Rapp, and expressed the necessity "to the good order and well being of the association that some plan should be agreed upon to regulate its future affairs, promote its general welfare and preserve and maintain it upon its original basis;" it also announced to all immediately concerned that the surviving and remaining members of the Harmony Society, each covenanted with all the others thereof, and with those who should thereafter become members, "to solemnly recognize, re-establish and continue the articles of our

[ 187 U.S. Page 21]

     association (the sixth section excepted), entered into at Economy on the 9th day of March, A.D. 1827."

This agreement created a board of elders of nine members to conduct the internal affairs of the society, and a board of trustees of two members to conduct its external affairs. The trustees disclaimed any greater personal interest in the property of the society than other members.

These agreements, the master found, "are the agreements and documents under which, or some of which, the plaintiffs claim the right to share in the property and assets of the society as heirs of former members." And as to the relations of the plaintiffs to the society the master found as follows:

"1st. That none of the plaintiffs were ever members of the society.

"2d. That all of those members of the society through whom Christian Schwartz claims as their heir, signed the agreements of 1836 and 1874, and continued members until their death.

"3d. That Antony Koterba claims as heir of his father, Joseph Koterba, and his half-brother, Andreas Koterba; that Joseph Koterba joined in the organization of the society, and also signed the agreement of 1827, and afterwards, in 1827, withdrew from the society; and that Andreas Koterba signed the agreements of 1827, 1836 and 1847, and died a member of the society.

"4th. That the grandparents of David Strohaker, viz., Christian Strohaker and wife, and Matthias Rief and wife, joined the society in 1805, and all remained members until their death -- all dying between 1820 and 1825, except Mrs. Rief, who died between 1830 and 1836. That his father, Christopher Strohaker, signed the agreement of 1827, and withdrew from the society in 1827. That his aunt, Catharina Strohaker, signed the agreements of 1827, 1836 and 1847, and continued a member of the society until her death.

"5th. That Lawrence Scheel and Jacob Scheel, ancestors of Allen and G. L. Shale, joined the society in 1805; that Lawrence withdrew in 1824 or 1826; that Jacob Scheel signed the agreement in 1827 and died a member, about 1837.

[ 187 U.S. Page 22]

     "6th. That none of the parties through whom the plaintiffs claim contributed any money or property to the society."

He divided the persons from whom the plaintiffs claim as follows:

"First. Those withdrawn from the society before the execution of the agreement of 1836.

"Second. Those dying in the society before that time.

"Third. Those who died members of the society after having joined in the agreements of 1836 and 1847."

Manifestly the plaintiffs cannot have other rights than their ancestors, and the rights of the latter depend upon the agreements they signed. The agreements we have recited. The signers of them certainly strove to express their meaning clearly, and, whenever occasion arose, declared their understanding, aims and purposes, and always substantially in the same way.

The cardinal principle of the society was self-abnegation. It was manifested not only by submission to a religious head, but by a community instead of individual ownership of property, and the dedication of their labor to the society. The possibility of some member or members not being able to "stand to it," to use the expressive phrase of the agreements, was contemplated, and provision was made for that event. But a very significant difference was made between a performance of service and the contribution of property. For the former it was covenanted by the members no reward should be demanded for themselves or their children or those belonging to them. As to the latter, George Rapp and his associates promised to refund the value of the property brought in without interest, in one, two or three annual installments, as the same might be large or small. It was, however, provided, as to those who "were poor and brought nothing to the community," that they should receive, if they departed openly and orderly, "a donation in ...

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