The Technicolor Amish: Cult or Counterculture

The Farm is an intentional community in Lewis County, Tennessee,
based on principles of nonviolence and respect for the Earth.

Led by a ‘hippie’ prophet, Stephen Gaskin, the group is rapidly expanding and already has twenty related communities in this country, and about half that number overseas.  The Farm is inhabited by ‘hippies,’ as the people describe themselves, who are seeking a different lifestyle from American society in general.  Describing itself as an “international spiritual community,” the group is owned and operated solely by its members.

Journalists have referred to this community as the “communards’ commune” and in even mere glowing terms, “something on the order of a small independent country.”  In 1980, the Farm includes such advanced facilities as a recording studio, a canning and freezing plant, a medical laboratory, and an FM radio station.

Stephen Gaskin is in essence the prototype of a flower-children-done-good.  Ingrid Greller describes him as “a lay preacher committed to practicing an ideal of nurturance and brotherhood.”  Although one source claims that Gaskin was once a Marine, most bibliographic information begins with his professor days at San Francisco University.  There, experimenting with the Tarot, I Ching, yoga, Zen, fairy tales, esp, and science fiction, Gaskin formulated a religious philosophy that attracted over two thousand followers a week at his quickly famous ‘Monday Night Classes.’

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Gaskin formulated a religious philosophy that attracted over 2,000
followers a week at his quickly famous ‘Monday Night Classes.’

At the close of the 1960’s, Gaskin and his supporters took to buses to spread the word of this wholistic hippie lifestyle.   Organizing a flotilla of about sixty buses, 270 people left San Francisco in what appeared to be “a motorized version of the Mormon trek.”  After one year of evangelical travel, the caravan under Gaskin’s leadership rested in Summerville, Tennessee where it purchased one thousand acres of farm land.

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At the close of the 1960’s, 270 people left San Francisco in what appeared to be
“a motorized version of the Mormon trek”
to the mountains of Tennessee.

The members at the Farm are basically “longhair pacifist, non-violent types,” who in the words of Rothchild, “share an eerie unity between them.”  These ‘flower children,’ lauded by Kate Wenner of the New York Times as “supremely industrial and disciplined,” dedicate themselves to work in building a totally unselfish and compassionate culture in which others may seek refuge from mainstream Civilization.  As ‘spiritual revolutionaries,’ these pioneering youth are not so much trying to create a new society as to bring this country hack to it early heritage.

Wenner believes that they are accomplishing this goal, and states “it appears that these ‘hippies’ have become more American than Americans.”  ‘It is interesting to note that this back-to-our-roots movement began only a few years before the liberal yet nationally unpopular “Come Home America” campaign at George McGovern.  Although this ideology has yet to influence the country at large, it has indeed taken strung roots in the clay soil at Tennessee.

Often left-wing movements wander so far afield as to connect with the opposite side.  This is partially the case on the Farm.  Dedicated to the development of nuclear families, Gaskin’s followers believe in absolute adherence to marriage and tolerate no sexual promiscuity.  In many aspects Farm parents are straight-laced in a way reminiscent of the 19th Century.  According to Rothchild, pre-marital relations are strongly discouraged and extra-marital sex is anathema.”

Wenner likewise comments that divorce is nearly nonexistent and that homosexuality is unheard at the Farm.  Similar to Catholicism in the absolute, Farm people are discouraged from using contraceptives.  The Farm considers its most important crop its children, and they are raised with special care.  Abortion is looked up on by the Farmers as especially misguided, and they have become famous for their offer to non- Farm members to give birth to their children at the commune as opposed to having an abortion.  Farm midwives state that they will raise these children under no obligation to their mothers, and even return them to their mothers upon request.

To achieve a new society the ideals at the Farm must be continued.  Thus, the hope for the future lies not with the original settlers, but with their offspring.  These children, says children’s expert Greller, ere “Part Two at the Farm’s dreams.”  In 1979 there were over six hundred kids living on the Farm, each living with his or her own Family.  As for Stephen Gaskin is concerned, there cannot be too many children living at the commune.  The children at the Farm are raised according to the community’s standards.  Although not treated permissively, the young ‘hippies’ enjoy “a state not found in the rest at our society.”  Rather than underling, they are treated on an equal basis by their parents.  Calling them by their first names, the children view their parents more as friends than superiors.  Newsweek has reoffered to the children at America’s communes as “illiterate, ignored and unprepared.” But this derogatory description does not apply well to the kids at the Farm.

Education is stressed in the community to uphold the values at the l960’s.  In 1979 over two hundred children were enrolled in the Farm School, a combination of a grade school and a vocational institute housed in a little one-room schoolhouse.  Education on the Farm is mandatory for all children up to the age fourteen, covers regular and technical subjects as well as Farm ideology, and is officially accredited by the State at Tennessee.  Unlike most Tennessee schools, there is a high teacher/student ratio; there is also a teacher’s aide present for every two or three students.  Gaskin summarized the school’s philosophy in 1974 when he wrote that its purpose was not to “educate them to same abstract standard,” but rather to “introduce them to our lifestyle.”  The school allows many at the older students to apprentice themselves to the commune’s various work crews, and most students join such crews permanently upon completion at the eighth grade.

Hard work combined with compassion as the mainstay at Farm philosophy.  Gaskin states that it is primarily the philosophical assumptions at the group that lead them to such an earthy lifestyle.  Philosophy is equated with religion, as Gaskin maintains that both are systems used to describe the same universe.  Adjectives such as communitarian, naturalistic, universal, theistic, humanistic, unitarian, and social/socialistic each describe various aspects of Farm ideology.  Like the Baha’i Faith of Eastern tradition, the Farm seems to accept and unity many at the world’s greatest beliefs.

Members of this commune often quote American Indian Chief Seattle, that humanity is at the earth and must be one with the earth.  In short, that all being is connected; that the world itself – the sky, people, trees – all are a single unity.  This definition by coincidence closely parallels the meaning at the word “catholic.”  Eastern thought is also present to some degree in the Farm’s belief of relativity; universal truth exists, they believe, but it is difficult to perceive it in comparison to that which is relative.  Thus, God the Absolute clearly exists, but in ways contusing to humanity.  It is this Universal Truth, however, that Gaskin incorporates in his definition of religion.  According to Gaskin, only that which is compassionate and promotes the “fundamental duality at all people” is religious.

The Farm is its own religion, yet as mentioned, accepts a wide array at other belief systems.  “One of the religions we believe in is Mahayana Buddhism,” Gaskin states, due to its belief that enlightenment must he shared and not squandered.  As most ‘liberal religionists,’ Gaskin combines universal terminology and this equates such concepts and realities as Holy Spirit, Earth and Humanity.  On the Farm both Buddha and Jesus are considered “the prince at the Bodhisattvas.”  Other holy personages deemed important t include Moses, Krishna, Ioraster, and Francis of Assisi.

Ritual is import on the Farm, and Sunday morning services lead by Gaskin now replaces this San Francisco Monday Night Classes.  Birth is likewise considered a sacrament, which helps explain the Farm people’s objection of abortion.  Marijuana smoking similarly shares religious significance.  Gaskin also importance and spirituality in one’s hair and considers it a ‘Holy Symbol.’

This rise of cults particularly threatens the Farm, as people on the outside are all too quick to presuppose demonic influences and likewise lump all alternative religious communities together under this satanic power.

Gaskin is firm in his beliefs that religion should never be retailed; it must remain exclusively of expense.  A religion, the Farm leader believes, must be free to all to us sacred.  “It’s not this chant you chant, it’s not this name you name God: lt’s how you live” that is religion.  It is therefore possible to distinguish between “true” and “pseudo” religions.  “If you ain’t a real church,” be believes, “everyone will know it.”  Essentially, Gaskin espouses a modified Hindu philosophical viewpoint that states there is only one perfect and absolute religion, of which all man-made religions are an attempt to follow.  However, Gaskin admits, many pretend to follow this absolute search of power.

Specifically, Gaskin objects to this Unification Church, although must cults in general alienate him.  “Folks are always coming on to me about the latest thing, that if you just stand on your head for half, count from four hundred and seventy-seven backwards, stick your tongue up your left nostril, you’re going to achieve transcendence.”  Gaskin dismisses many of the new religious ideas as “superstitious, money scamming power gambles.”  Peoples at the Farm particularly object to the damage done to parents by many of the cults.  According to one critical member, cults cause devotees to literally “turn their parents inside out- abracadabracazap!”

The Farm stresses in its literature that all youth should attempt to communicate with their parents, and even it rejected, they should keen en trying.  As Gaskin puts it, “don’t held no grudges on your parents.”  Hidden in his book entitled Hey, Beatnik, Gaskin made the equivalent of “Joey Smith, call your mother!”

Another threat faced by the Farm in terms of the growing criticism at cults is the possibility that tax-exemptions might he revoked across the board.  Although this seems un-likely, it reflects the Farm’s appreciation of their status.  “People like Sun Moon and Hubbard,” says Gaskin, “have been abusing the non-profit system so badly…” Asked by a reporter if these cults were “true” religions, Gaskin replied, “in a pig’s ear they are!”

Although not explicitly Christian, if at all, the Farm people rely on Biblical passage to defend their lifestyle to critics.  Acts 2:44-45 state, “and all that believed were together, and had all things in common; and sold their possessions and goods and parted them to ell men, as every men had need.”  The Farm is often criticized as it expects its members to donate their property and cash upon joining the community.  Although this is the standard of most communes, it still places the Farm in s negative light in the eyes of most critics, and seems to contradict Gaskin’s clause of “free” religion mentioned previously.  -However, this step can he defined as essential for the Farm, as it assures the commune of a member’s dedication and commitment.  Although the Farm is open to travelers for limited but generous periods of time, it wishes to limit membership to these when intend to stay.  These members that need goods not available in the Farm Free Store are given money by the Farm Bank to purchase what they require as long es they return the change.  The Farm is in this way truly socialist.

Many cults and sects share an apocalyptic world view; the Farm is no exception.  Gaskin, sole spokesperson for the commune, commented during his early years that “this is the time the world is breaking down in the way Marshal McLuhan predicted, and in one of his first books he declared that “neater civilizations then this one have come and gone.”  Recently he wrote that the American empire has already fallen, but society is so introverted that it has yet to notice.  In general the Farm views itself as an island within this sunken empire; it was created to act as a lifeboat for anyone willing to ‘work hard and be compassionate.”  America is looked upon as in the middle of darkness.  “The religion of this country has become the state, and nationalism is a materialistic religion, and a materialistic religion is what you can call the dark arts,” Geskin stated even before the Watergate Scandal broke into American homes via the TV.  Although the Farm has televisions, they restrict their use end insist that the volume be turned down during commercials.  Gaskin appreciates documentaries and shows such as “60 Minutes,” but he resents the capitalistic manipulation of TV personalities, “the defacto high priests of American culture.”

The Farm is not only sacred to its believers, but also to the U.S. Government; the IRS technically classifies the commune as a ‘monastery.’  Gaskin believes it to be more of a “Holy Monument” to humanity.  Perhaps it is such positive endorsements that attract more than fifty people daily to the Farm.  Comments seem as “our place is the first home I’ve ever had since l let my father’s home” occur all too frequently.  Rothchild himself admits that, “even if you haven’t been zapped by the Farm, the sheer numbers of its population are mind boggling.”  Local neighbors appreciate the commune members, as the ‘Flower children’ have come to admire them.  Gaskin states simply, “we love our neighbors, they’re good to us.”  The Farm works extensively with the outside community, and is essentially seeking to learn from them.  Similar to the Fox Fire program in Georgia, Farm members attempt to learn ancient ways from the county’s older citizens.  The Farm is even involved with several joint-ownership projects with townspeople, such as in a saw mill operation.

Reporter Wenner marvels at the level in which the Farm has interested itself with the local community.  According to her, “local Tennessee neighbors who once would have called them “drug-crazed hippies” now refer to them affectionately as “longhairs.”  The San Francisco hippies were not the first to seek alternative realities community in Tennessee, however; the Amish and Mennonites arrived several decades before to break ground for such groups.  These communal sects achieved respectable states in the county, thus making it easier For the Farm to the created.  Farm members enjoy thinking of their neighbors, and laughingly admit that the locals refer to them as ‘Technicolor Amish.’  According to Gaskin, “there’s just a lot of old tobacco-chewing Tennessee hillbillies that we’re down-home with than some longhairs.”  Although the local residents might not be vegetarians themselves, and although they probably consume alcohol and smoke tobacco, they respect the marijuana toking, soy been consuming Farmers.

As it says on the front of one of the Farm buses: “Out to Save the World.”  This may be construed as the group’s long range objective.  To achieve this end, the commune is heavily involved in social action projects.  The 1980 Farm Report affirms a universal means, and states, “there is a necessity for revolution…  a revolution (that) is about making changes.”  As Gaskin has said, “there ain’t nobody to pick it up but you, and if we don’t pick it up, it ain’t going to get picked up.”  The Farm believes that heaven on earth is possible, end they are heavily involved in its creation.

In addition to supporting the anti-nuclear Project Greenpeace, the Farm has created its own equivalent of the Peace Corps.  Modeled somewhat after the American Friends Service Committee, the Farm Founded this nonprofit international development corporation in 1974.  -The philosophy of this organization, known es ‘Plenty,’ is that there exists enough food and energy already, but that it is unevenly distributed.  The aim of Plenty is to help spread this wealth send to the poor in the world.  Associated with the United Nations, the Farm’s international relief end development enemy is involved with projects in Guatemala, Lesotho, the Bronx, Haiti, and the Black Hills Reservation.  Plenty is currently else involved with the Canadian International Developent Agency.  The primary emphasis of Plenty is the development of soy bean production in the Third World.  The Farm is else attempting to introduce economically feasible solar heating systems in cooler countries.  Long range goals for the Farm’s social outreach program includes the establishment and generation of orphanages and foster homes.  This plan to assist children throughout the world clearly benefits the Farm’s hope of universal expansion; likewise it provides larger commune members in general to further spread the Farm’s lifestyle.

The Farm seems to have already created heaven on earth, at least for its numbers, but this is not to say that it has existed for almost a decade without criticism.  Many people outside the commune have questioned Stephen Gaskin’s absolute sovereignty ever his followers.  As New York Times’ reporter Kate Wenner points out, it is ironic that “the same people who once stood firmly and loudly against any absolute authority…  now expect Stephen Gaskin as their unquestioned and unchallenged leader.”  Dolores Hayden, in her histories perspective on communes entitled The Architectures of Communitarian Socialism: 1790 – 1975, comments that Gaskin hopes “to have as much power as the Shakers or the Inspirationalists to control (his) membership.”  Rothchild pointed out after his visit in 1975 that the Farm is perhaps the most tightly controlled culture in the world due to the influence of its leader.  He believes that the Farm people have simply “blown their minds on Gaskin.”

Wenner, describing Gaskin as “unabashedly egocentric,” states that he is at the same time both the Farm’s “greatest strength and greatest weakness.”  The head farmer defended himself against such criticism’s early as 1974, maintaining, “I’m a teacher, not a leader.  If you lose a leader you’re leaderless and lost, but if you lose a teacher there’s a chance he might have taught you something and you can navigate on your own.  Only his death will tell which way gaskin was, teacher or leader, but its seems that his ideas are so firmly entrenched that the farm could reasonably be expected to survive even if he did not.

Luce_Rick_012
My brother Rick in 1975 joined The Farm for a summer.
He then on went on to get two masters in I.T. and moved
to Austin Texas as a programer in articial intelligence.

My bother Richard Livingston Luce, better known as “Rick,” spent a summer on The Farm in the late 1970’s and inspired me to write about the project.  Rick passed away in 2001.

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The Farm’s founder Stephen Gaskin continues to thrive.

2010 Update. In 2000, Stephen Gaskin was a Green Party presidential primary candidate on a platform which included campaign finance reform, universal health care, and decriminalization of marijuana.  He is the author of over a dozen books, a teacher, a musician (drummer), a semantic rapper, a public speaker, a political activist, and a philanthropic organizer.  The Farm now has approximately 175 residents.  Plenty International continues to thrive.  So does Stephen Gaskin.

About Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens

View all posts by Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens
Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens
Jim Luce (www.lucefoundation.org) writes and speaks on Thought Leaders and Global Citizens. Bringing 26 years management experience within both investment banking and the non-profit sector, Jim has worked for Daiwa Bank, Merrill Lynch, a spin-off of Lazard Freres, and two not-for profit organizations and a foundation he founded. As Founder & CEO of Orphans International Worldwide (www.oiww.org), he is working with a strong network of committed professionals to build interfaith, interracial, Internet-connected orphanages in Haiti and Indonesia, and creating a new, family-care model for orphans in Sri Lanka and Tanzania.

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