The Community: The Seed Bed of Society


IN New Mexico there are Pueblo Indian irrigation canals said to have been in use since before Columbus. The native historian of one of these Indian villages or pueblos repeated for me a part of the annals of his people. Twenty-two generations (more than four hundred years) after the pueblo was established, he said, word came from the East that strange men had appeared. Their faces were white as snow, and they lived in houses built on boats, and the boats had wings. Thus this compact village of a few hundred people had a record of continuous, organized community life in one location for about nine hundred years.

Over most of the world the village is an ancient institution, often with a history extending into the dim past, sometimes thousands of years, outlasting kingdoms and dynasties. Modern and ancient ways exist there side by side; and often contemporary informal democratic village government, well adapted to its purpose, differs little from that of the dawn of history.

The village has played a dominant part in the destinies of men. During the million years, more or less, which anthropologists ascribe to the life of mankind, so far as we know most of our ancestors lived in small groups of from a few dozen to a few hundred persons. Only when necessity compelled did they resort to isolated dwellings. The city and the separate farm home, so important in American life, have had a relatively small part in human affairs.

Cities have existed only during the past ten or twenty thousand years — for but one or two per cent of the life of the race — and many of them were but overgrown villages. During the Middle Ages most ‘cities’ of Europe were selfsustaining agricultural villages. Rome was then a town of about ten thousand, and for centuries scarcely a city in all Europe had a greater population.

Even today most city dwellers are children or grandchildren of rural people. When my grandfather was born only six American cities had as many as eight thousand inhabitants. Even now probably three quarters of the human race live in villages. There are estimated to be two million villages in Asia, while probably more than half of all Europeans are villagers.

Small communities are the sources of city populations. Large cities have such low birth rates that if their population were not renewed from outside they would almost disappear in four or five generations. Small communities greatly affect social leadership. A leader is a person of unusual native vigor, intelligence, or personality, who uses that superiority to give expression to the character he acquired from family and community. Great men may make history, but the kind of history they make is determined chiefly by their childhood environment. Napoleon as a boy on the faction-ridden, brigand-infested island of Corsica learned the local ways of intrigue, feud, and ambition. When he was well-nigh master of Europe, enthroning and dethroning kings, the ways of the Corsican village ruled his life. A similar story might be told of nearly every present-day European dictator.


The ancient village was not just a collection of families, each going its own way, as is so common in America. Except where blighted by war and conquest, it was a closely organized association of people who lived and worked together for common ends, with mutual good will, respect, and tolerance, sharing dangers and hopes. Since the members all knew each other intimately, dishonesty did not succeed. The villagers had common standards, a common background, a community of memory and association. They helped each other and shared the common lot, not as charity, but as the natural course of community life. That is what we mean by community. Ancient villages varied greatly, and not every one had all those characteristics. Yet by and large they justified this description, just as the family is properly referred to as a unit of unselfish coöperation, though not all families exemplify that trait.

Controlling factors of civilization are not art, business, science, government. These are its fruits. The roots of civilization are elemental traits —good will, neighborliness, fair play, courage, tolerance, open-minded inquiry, patience. A people rich in these qualities will develop a great civilization, with great art, science, industry, government. If the basic qualities fade, then, no matter how great the wealth, how brilliant the learning, how polished the culture, that civilization will crumble.

These finer underlying traits, which we recognize as the essence of civilization, are not inborn; neither are they best acquired in rough-and-tumble business or political life. They are learned in the intimate, friendly world of the family and the small community, usually by the time one is ten or twelve, and by unconscious imitation, as one learns the mother tongue. Only as such traits have opportunity to grow in the kindly, protective shelter of family and small community, where there is intimate acquaintance, and also mutual confidence, do they become vigorous and mature enough to survive. Unless supported by the surrounding community, the single family generally is too small a unit to maintain fine standards.

Growth of civilized traits has been very slow. Such attitudes as fair play, mutual confidence, and good will may have been thousands of years in development. Those from whom we learned them, be they parents, neighbors, teachers, or companions, did not originate them, but caught them from others, and so from time immemorial. If the social thread of community by which they are preserved and passed on should be broken, other thousands of years might be necessary for their renewal. The small community, along with the family, is the chief source, as well as the principal preserver and transmitter, of these finer threads of cultural inheritance.


The idea of inevitable progress — ‘onward and upward forever’ — has received many staggering shocks. ‘Survival of the fittest’ applies only to the ‘fittest under the particular existing conditions.’ In an uncivilized society a civilized man may be unfit. Christianity bears the name of a civilized man who died because of his unfitness, but who presented a pattern of excellence.

The English-speaking world is convinced that extension of the Nazi or Communist program would result in a deterioration of life and society. Yet today is not the first time that more excellent human cultures have been threatened with submergence by crude violence of less excellent societies. During the very long periods when the prevailing type of social organization was the small community, a high degree and fine quality of social adjustment were achieved within the limits of the ancient village.

The age of force and strategy, of conquest, of empire, and of feudalism, swept over and submerged this ancient community life. The democratic equality, the good will and coöperativeness, of communities the world over were largely displaced by dictatorship and serfdom. Men’s minds were subjected to indoctrination and propaganda. The common man became the tool of his master, bound to the soil. Deceit, intrigue, and shrewdness — the spirit, of Machiavelli — often prevailed over simple honesty. Yet the ancient spirit of community was not killed. Nearly everywhere it survived in small groups and close to the soil, as the very life principle of society, without which society would disintegrate.

There were, it is true, serious limitations to that old community culture. Good will often did not extend to other communities; village life tended to be provincial; men were burdened by superstitions and taboos. The village was too small a unit to fulfill the destinies of human society. Yet that old village culture produced some of the finest qualities the race has known.

Many of the ideals which the Western world holds as most precious are survivals from the ancient community way of life. The burden of the Hebrew prophet’s message, good will and brotherhood, which flowered in Christian teaching, was not a new revelation, but a resurgence and extension of ancient community ways in the hills of Palestine. The democracy of Switzerland, which became a beacon light to the modern world, did not originate when men of the forest cantons tore down the baron’s castle six hundred and fifty years ago. Those Swiss communities were fighting to preserve their ancient democratic way of life, which in their mountain retreats never had succumbed to feudalism. Religious democracy, which has been a potent school for political democracy, has a similar history. The preReformation reformers, when they undertook to make their church government and their way of life conform to New Testament descriptions of early Christianity, were better able to do so because the primitive community life about them had much the same pattern. When we trace back democratically governed religious groups — the Mennonites, the Baptists in their Swiss and German origins, the Quakers, the Presbyterians, the Congregationalists — we generally find that they originated in areas where these early community ways still lived, close to the soil, areas such as the valleys of Switzerland, the Black Forest of Germany, and rural Holland, England, and Scotland. The primitive Christian society they undertook to copy was also the primitive community life of the Mediterranean regions which the early Christians continued in their own organization.

Today, as in the ancient past, the small community is the home, the refuge, the seed bed, of some of the finest qualities of civilization. But, just as the precious values of the ancient community were submerged and largely destroyed by empire and feudalism, so the present-day community with its invaluable cultural tradition is being dissolved, diluted, and submerged by modern technology, commercialism, mass production, and centralized government. Should that process not be checked, a great cultural tradition may be largely lost.


Statesmen and warriors seldom create issues. More often they seize upon those that are becoming dominant, and precariously hang on to them or ride them, guide or misguide them, through their later stages. There are few more alluring myths in all history than that social wrongs can be set right in one mighty effort directed by great organizing genius at the top. Neither the size and complexity of the task, nor the record of failure, has ended that romantic dream.

The evil results of this myth appear not only in the rise of an Alexander, a Napoleon, a Hitler, but also in competition for power and prominence the world over. The mass of people are influenced to hold in low regard the selfmastery of their own lives, and to focus attention on great programs initiated in centres of government and industry. How often have the seemingly colossal achievements of such programs crumbled away by subsidence of the foundations!

World events of today and tomorrow took their determining directions further back in the past than we realize; and the work of today, if in accord with fundamental realities, will come to full fruition further in the future than we supposed. When events are full grown, herculean effort may change them but slightly. How little change in the current of human affairs, except in spiritual disorganization and exhaustion, was made by the prodigious efforts of the First World War!

Yet very moderate powders, wisely used in harmony with the nature of things, may have profound effect on the more distant future. The free men in obscure Swiss valleys who kept alive the ancient tradition of democratic life may have had more enduring influence than the heads of the Holy Roman Empire. Excellence may be more significant than bigness.

Should people of serious purpose realize the extent to which the local community is the seed bed of civilization, the source of basic character and culture as well as the medium for their preservation and transmission, then, within their communities, they might be sowing the seeds and cultivating the growth of a better future. The slowness of this process may seem discouraging, yet to expect quicker results may be wishful dreaming — a common cause of cynical despair. One sees everywhere frustration and disillusionment of young people as they measure their small individual powers against vast world currents. Could they see clearly the process by which the future is made, they would have compelling reasons for a sense of significance and validity for their lives.

Great civilizations rise and fall, and when they fall it is to the level of the small rural communities. In England of the year 1500, a brilliant group of Oxford reformers seemed to usher in a new day of free, liberal thought. There was Erasmus, the counselor of kings; Thomas More, High Chancellor of England; Colet, leader of the group, and dean of St. Paul’s; and Lilly, head of St. Paul’s School. Yet in less than a generation their movement had faded away, almost as though it never had been. The great tradition of political and religious freedom survived in England largely because Wyclif, one of the greatest spirits England ever knew, had sent his Lollard preachers through the villages, arousing the old democratic community spirit as the essence of a new vision.

Many times in history urban civilizations have broken down, leaving society to rebuild, largely from the village level. Should there be a breakdown in the present social order, the small community is the seed bed from which a new order would have to grow. If it now deteriorates by neglect and by being robbed of its best quality, the new order will not be good.


Though the art and practice of community life are vital to social progress, yet during historic times the small community nearly always has been neglected. All rural America has been skimmed of its material wealth and of its human quality to feed the insatiable city. The small community has been despised as something to escape from to the larger better life of the city. The typical American farm village has become little more than a local market, and a location for church and school. The mining town has been drearier still — rows of shacks along the sides of a gully; and the usual factory town has been little better. It is an epitome of the old story of neglect and exploitation of the small community; the killing of the goose that lays the golden egg. Do we not have here one of the major causes of the slow progress of humanity in civilization ?

Too often the typical American small town or village no longer is a community, but only a small city, the citizens largely going their individual ways. This tendency to disappearance of the community in present-day life is a disturbing phenomenon of modern history. It constitutes an historic crisis.

The community need not disappear. The very changes which are destroying it have put into our hands means for re-creating it in a finer pattern. Seldom in modern times has the small community caught a glimpse of its possibilities. Today for the first time it can be abreast or ahead of the city in convenience of living. If we use the present time of social and economic transition as an opportunity, the disappearance of the old community need be no disaster. But there is little time to lose, for with its passing some fine cultural traditions are being broken; and, with human culture as with the human breed, if we have no children we cannot transmit our inheritance to grandchildren.

If many young people, searching for careers of significance and adventure, should see the small community as the place where basic human culture is preserved and transmitted, and should seek careers there, the results might be more important than the failure or success of any present political or economic movement, and enduring satisfactions along the way might be very real. Many rural callings provide economic footholds for such careers.

Suppose a man or woman, living in a small community, wishes to work for its development. What can he or she do? First it is necessary to get a clear vision of the new community as an all-round, well-proportioned society in which human relations are fine and sound and where all the elemental needs of men can be met, and of its place in the larger society of mankind. The poverty of the average small American town or village is not wholly due to shortcomings of economic and political systems. In large part it results from lack of such a vision.

There are many opportunities for community service. Much work is needed in community economics. Fine culture does not thrive best amid starvation or squalor. The community needs help to appraise its economic needs and resources, to plan through the years to achieve sound economic balance. There are unfilled needs for community services the supplying of which would provide community careers and make the community a more satisfactory place to live in. There are similar opportunities in vocational guidance, in recreation, in developing a community library, in musical and dramatic programs, in working out recognized community ethics and standards, in promoting community health, and in improving public administration.


America is waking to the meaning of the community, and to its present danger. During the last decade perhaps three hundred communities in the United States, about half of them in California, have established Community Councils. Each socially-minded organization in a community — such as the ParentTeachers Association, the Chamber of Commerce, the service clubs, the trades and labor council, the Y. M. C. A., the several churches, the juvenile court, and the school board — appoints one member to a central council. Through suitable committees this organization keeps in touch with all vital community interests, brings neglected issues to the attention of those responsible or to the public, or directly undertakes the necessary service. This new invention of democracy promises to be a powerful instrument for community welfare, though as yet its workings often are crude, superficial, and restricted.

Two or three years ago the Federal Farm Security Administration sent a man through Europe to discover ways to vitalize community life. On his return he stated that the neighborhood advisory councils of the Ohio Farm Bureau are a more promising development of community spirit than anything he found abroad. A dozen national organizations see small community interests as among their most vital concerns, and sociologists are studying the small community as never before.

But it is in American communities themselves that some of the most encouraging developments are taking place. Many country ministers are helping to build up their communities in health, housing, and income, and especially in neighborly community spirit. The people of an Ohio village of five hundred, together with surrounding farmers, found community coöperation so interesting that in ten years theirs has become a pioneer in American community life. In a Nevada desert town of two thousand a community council is coördinating a wide variety of social projects. A farm village of thirty-five hundred in Oklahoma has made itself into a live, progressive community, not through formal organizations, but by meeting its various problems as friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens. In a thousand towns and villages, individuals and small groups are doing what they can to make their communities interesting and productive. Perhaps in the case of the small community it has been darkest just before dawn.

Among interesting American communities are those that have a continuous tradition from ancient pre-feudal democratic communities of Europe. At Valdese, North Carolina, is a community of Waldensians, that long-persecuted brotherhood of primitive, democratically governed Christians who for nearly a thousand years have had a precarious survival in the high southern Alps. Tricked into buying some of the most worthless clay hills in North Carolina, by simple honesty, coöperation, and hard work they turned the barren hills into such an area of productiveness that they are now greatly outnumbered by people who have come to their community to share their stable prosperity.

Mennonite communities in America continue the ancient tradition of political and religious democracy from Swiss and Dutch villages. After four hundred years of tenacious adherence to the democratic community ways of their fathers, they display a vigorous spirit of neighborliness and coöperation, which finds numberless expressions in informal friendly services as well as in formal coöperatives for life, fire, and storm insurance, for administration of orphans’ estates, for banks and trust companies, for community elevators and stores, for registered breeding stock, and in various other ways.

New England town government was a lineal descendant of close-to-the-soil political and religious democracy of England, Holland, and Switzerland. A curious offshoot of New England is Mormonism. Followers of Vermont-born Joseph Smith took New England democratic community tradition, and in the West, somewhat removed from machineage compulsions, developed organized rural community living to a higher level than most of America has known.

In the Tennessee mountains a group of Swiss farmers, from Alpine communities that never had succumbed to feudalism, established a settlement seventy years ago, on land so poor that it was largely abandoned. Through intelligent, neighborly coöperation, after the manner of old Swiss democratic communities, they turned this into the most productive tract in the region. After three generations the community spirit still thrives, vigorous and strong enough to hold many of the best young people.


The community must achieve a common view of a total way of life, and a common discipline. Only to the extent that it does so is it actually a community. That way of life must grow by the democratic process of voluntary general agreement. It will be influenced by leadership, both local and general, by knowledge of what other communities have done, by literature, art, science, and religion, and by everyday experience. Never will a community be united on everything, yet it must be aware of the standards on which it is substantially united, and which its members can be expected to support. In the ancient community the common way of life was fully understood, deeply entrenched, and generally observed; so questions arose only in marginal cases. The flux of modern life has largely erased these common values from the community mind. They must be reëstablished by conscious, intelligent, critical search, and by example and teaching.

Community well-being requires a spirit of open, full, free inquiry, with no organization or sect claiming supreme merit, authority, or revelation, or plotting to capture community loyalty for its peculiar doctrines. Many an American community has had its unity disrupted by the strategy of political or religious ideologies, some claiming to be sole repositories of truth. A real community can emerge only when there is sincere recognition of the fact that ultimate truth or wisdom is not given to any sect or class or organization, but that all alike should be open-minded seekers.

The new community can be something new under the sun. It can recover the precious qualities of the old, the fellow feeling, acquaintance, good will, mutual respect, the planning and working together for common ends. But it need not lose the contributions of the new day. It can escape the narrowness and provincialism of the old village. It must have clearinghouses for the exchange of ideas and experience.

The new community will not try to monopolize the whole life of its members, as did the ancient village. While it endeavors to satisfy those cravings for common purpose and united neighborly effort which modern life neglects, its members will use many other forms of association — national societies, tradeunions, churches, universities, nationwide industries, and the national government. While coöperating heartily with various federal agencies, it will firmly maintain its individuality and autonomy, and will not be swallowed up in grasping, characterless uniformity of farflung, centralized government bureaucracy. The community, if it is wise and vigorous, need not be eclipsed, but can be richer, sounder, finer, for its contacts with the wide world. For thousands of young people who seek a way to leave their imprint on their own and on future times, there is room to take part in such adventures. But neither that vision nor general interest in it will come suddenly. It must be slowly won.

For the preservation and transmission of the fundamentals of civilization, vigorous, wholesome community life is imperative. Unless many people live and work in the intimate relationships of community life, there never can emerge a truly unified nation, or a community of mankind. If I do not love my neighbor whom I know, how can I love the human race, which is but an abstraction? If I have not learned to work with a few people, how can I be effective with many?