Santa Cruz County History - Religion & Spirituality



Santa Cruz Spirituality: Spirit Fruit Society
by Paul Tutwiler

The Spirit Fruit Society was a utopian commune with a religious background. Founded in Ohio in 1899, it moved to Soquel, California in 1915 and remained there until it disbanded in 1930.

The group was incorporated under this name in Ohio, in 1901.

As for the Society's name, Jacob [Beilhart, the founder] believed that mankind remained in a spiritual state akin to the bud or blossom, that man's soul had not yet achieved the spiritual perfection analogous to full fruition, a quasi-biblical metaphor more common and perhaps less susceptible to ridicule a hundred years ago than it is today. (Murphy, Reluctant Radicals, p. 2)

The two authors of critical studies of this group noted below as sources concur that it cannot be conveniently placed in a single category. Although its religious traits gave the group the impetus and momentum to exist, its religious character was scarcely visible; although the members were attempting to live in a perfect society, they refrained from proposing themselves as a model for the reformation of an imperfect world. Merely to describe the group as a commune, however, dilutes the members' idealism and strength of character.

Sources of information

Although the society and its founder were not unknown to writers on utopianism, anarchism, and religious communalism, no extensive serious studies of it were published until the late 1980s. At that time two books appeared, Spirit Fruit, A gentle utopia by H. Roger Grant in 1988, and The Reluctant Radicals. Jacob L. Beilhart and The Spirit Fruit Society by James L. Murphy in 1989. Both authors cite primary sources, often the same ones, although rarely do they quote the same passages. Murphy was born and raised in northeastern Ohio, where the Spirit Fruit Society originated, and he explains that he was motivated in his research by local and personal interest, to which he applied his professional expertise as staff member first at the Ohio Historical Society and then at the Ohio State University Libraries. Grant, a professor of history at the University of Akron, wrote about the Spirit Fruit Society and other American utopian groups. Consequently Grant provides more bibliography and references regarding other utopias, and Murphy has more details about day-to-day activities. Murphy's text is considerably longer and incorporates much more from newspapers and from Jacob Beilhart's writings. Each has his own way of analyzing Jacob's spiritual development. Aside from their bibliographies, neither author mentions the other, but they must have known each other, and their books are — intentionally or not — complementary in content and spirit.

In writing about the Spirit Fruit Society's activities in Soquel both authors relied on information furnished by persons deeply involved in Santa Cruz County History. Sara Bunnett, Genealogist and Santa Cruz County Library Trustee, furnished James Murphy with information about the Society's two locations in Soquel and with photographs of them. Stanley Stevens, University of California Santa Cruz Librarian and Chair of the Publications Committee of the Santa Cruz County Historical Trust, provided Roger Grant with vital and property records and with maps of the Soquel area.

Very little remains of Jacob Beilhart's writings. Leroy Henry, himself a utopian who called himself Freedom Hill Henry after the commune he lived in near Burbank, California, became interested in Jacob and published some of Jacob's writings in several volumes. Two of these are listed in the online catalog of the University of California Santa Barbara: Jacob Beilhart: life and teachings and Love letters from Spirit to you.

Origin and general history

Born in 1867 to a farm family at Columbiana, Ohio (about 20 miles south of Youngstown), Jacob Beilhart was raised in a strongly religious environment and as a child considered himself Lutheran like his father. At the age of 17 Jacob went to work in his brother-in-law's harness shop in southern Ohio and the following year moved with his sister and brother-in-law to Ottawa, Kansas (a city about 50 miles southwest of Kansas City).

On a farm near Ottawa Jacob became acquainted with the Seventh Day Adventist Church, and soon became a zealous member of it. In 1887 he entered the recently founded Adventist institution, Healdsburg College in Healdsburg, California. (This college was closed in 1908 and incorporated into Pacific Union College in Angwin, about 40 miles away.) He acquired a preacher's license from the Adventist Church, and in April, 1888 he left California for visits in Kansas and Ohio. He preached in these two states, especially Kansas, until he decided he should direct his zeal to more practical goals. This led him in 1890 to Battle Creek, Michigan, where Dr. John Harvey Kellogg was operating the Battle Creek Sanitarium as an exercise in Adventist principles of health care. Here Jacob studied and practiced nursing, and he became close to Dr. Kellogg. Apparently in late 1891 or early 1892 Jacob left employment in the sanitarium because he had gone into the practice of faith healing, which was not among Dr. Kellogg's activities.

Jacob soon became associated with C. W. Post, a consummate entrepreneur, who had come to the sanitarium for treatment, but was cured, as he believed, by a faith healer (not Jacob). By 1892 Post had founded La Vita, a health care sanitarium of his own in Battle Creek, and made Jacob an associate in operating it. In this period both Post and Beilhart became familiar with Christian Science, and although they repudiated it as a set of doctrines, they retained sympathy with its view of the illusoriness of illness. The roasted cereal beverage Postum was born in Battle Creek at this time, and C. W. went on to become a millionaire, whereas Jacob separated from him and left Battle Creek in 1896.

At this point occurs the most outstanding difference between Grant and Murphy's accounts. Both sources agree that while in Kansas Jacob married Lou Blow, a girl who had been born in Ohio four months after him, and they agree that Lou was with Jacob in his travels and adventures from the time of their marriage in February, 1887 until some time in 1900. They also concur that Lou bore two children while married to Jacob, but, according to an orally transmitted family account cited only by Murphy, these were really the children of C. W. Post, and when Jacob learned the truth about this, in 1896, he ordered Post out of his house and he and Lou soon left Battle Creek together.

From 1896 until late 1904 Jacob was in his home area of Ohio. This was the period in which the Spirit Fruit Society was born, and 1899 was the key year in which he instituted communal living, in Lisbon, Ohio, and began publishing a newsletter entitled Spirit Fruit. About fifteen people joined Jacob as stable members of the commune on a farm property he bought outside Lisbon. Here they worked the farm and published Spirit Fruit and Jacob's second "newspaper," Spirit's Voice. Although many people visited, some of these staying for a while or visiting regularly, Jacob made no effort at that time or ever to recruit members, and he did refuse to admit to membership persons he did not think fit for it. The group did not beg and it did not bother the neighbors, but its mysteriousness, its perceived possible link with anarchic societies, which were objects of hysterical fear at the time, and its dubious views on marriage, as evidenced by the birth of two illegitimate children in it during this period, brought townspeople, local clergy, and newspapers to view it as a threat to the accepted way of life. It became more difficult to live under public censure, and in 1904 Jacob bought a farm property in Ingleside, Illinois (close to the present village of Long Lake), 45 miles northwest of Chicago. Shortly before that Jacob had established a house in the heart of Chicago and had gathered a few followers there. Although the Chicago base was not formally organized as a commune, it gave Jacob a useful beginning point in Illinois.

The dozen or so members who moved from Lisbon to Ingleside plus about three new ones built with their own hands a large and solid cement block structure, carried on their activities as before, and were better accepted by the local residents than they had been in Ohio. The equilibrium of the group was strong enough that it might have gone on indefinitely, but in November, 1908 Jacob suddenly took sick and on the 28th he died, apparently of peritonitis. With Jacob also died the two publications and all representation of the society to the outside world. For the rest of its existence the remaining members of the group shared their spiritual life and lived and worked together in an astounding harmony. Only their work, however, produced income, and it was not sufficient to maintain their large building and property in Illinois.

Local history

By 1911 the members had decided to sell and move to California, but it was not until 1914 that they arrived in Los Gatos, where they rented a property, and 1915 that they bought in Soquel 80 acres, which they called Hilltop Ranch. The property lay on the top of a knoll which was reached by going seven tenths of a mile from Soquel Drive up Soquel San Jose Road, turning left across from the north line of the Soquel Cemetery at a road now called Hilltop Road, going straight for three tenths of a mile and then curving to the right around the knoll and entering from the far side of it. This land was a portion of the former Dakan Ranch. In the Mexican days in California the Rancho Arroyo de Rodeo included the Hilltop Ranch parcel and much more. The parcel passed to John Daubenbiss, (1889 Hatch Map of Santa Cruz County) and then to Thomas B. Dakan. (1906 Punnett Map of Santa Cruz County)

Twelve of the society's earliest members made the new start in Soquel. The two children born back in Ohio to a member, not those born to Jacob's wife, were also with them, quite grown by now. As before, no effort was made to attract new members, although at least three men did join for a while. Several of the people who had belonged in the past remained attached to the society and helped it financially from time to time. Once again the members constructed a substantial building, although this one was much smaller than the Illinois "castle" (as some called it). The group lived in peace with their Soquel neighbors, but they were older now and several of the original members left (all on good terms). By 1928 there were six left, and they were forced financially to let go of the ranch and move to a house close to the center of Soquel Village. This house still existed in 1989, although the Hilltop Ranch building was burned down in a 1981 training exercise of the Soquel Fire Department. In 1930 Virginia Moore, who had been the leader of the society since the death of Jacob, died at the age of 50, the remaining members disbanded and went their respective ways, and the Spirit Fruit Society passed away quietly.

Tenets, worldview, agenda

As he progressed from Lutheranism to Seventh Day Adventism to Christian Science Jacob Beilhart synthesized his beliefs into something he himself called amorphous. It was amorphous, however, only to the extent that it was not a dogmatic syncretism which could be expressed in many unequivocal propositions. Jacob was not a learned man and clearly had almost no accurate information about Hinduism, Buddhism, or even historic anti-dogmatic currents in Christianity, although it is suggested that some of his ideas came by way of Theosophy, which was in its formative stage at the time. "Strictly speaking this is not a religion. We came here because we became dissatisfied with the frivolities and faddisms of what people call religion .... We do not preach, we practice," said Jacob in an interview for the Waukegan Sun, May, 1905. (quoted in Murphy, p. 129) Nevertheless, his message of selflessness and faith in a universal, unifying spirit was in the tradition of that mystical distillation of religion which appears spontaneously in the most disparate of dogmatic traditions. In the 1901 papers of incorporation of the Spirit Fruit Society Jacob places the organization in its religious framework:

Art. 1. ... there is one Universal Spirit, which pervades all things, and acts out thro' nature, the various qualities which compose it.

This Universal Spirit is impersonal in its essence....

Art. 3. ... man is the highest external expression in this manifestation of Universal Spirit. That physically and mentally, he is the most complex in his organization, and therefore capable to express a larger amount of Universal Spirit.

That man, when considered as he will be, when finally perfected, is a complete expression of Universal Spirit.

But as yet, man is simply an undeveloped 'plant' which has not manifested the final fruit, which he is to produce...

Art. 4. ... man in his present stage of unfoldment is selfish, emotional, and religious by nature...

Art. 9. ... when one, by experiences passes through the various stages of unfoldment, they [sic] reach a nature in them which desire to cease their efforts to take to themselves anything, or exclude others from it. They desire to unite with others who have reached the same plane, and follow the desire to help their follow mortals. They learn that the real joy in life is not to receive by effort put forth to obtain for themselves and exclude others, but rather that the amount of their joy consists in the amount of joy they can produce for others... (as quoted by Grant, p. 41)

The last thing Jacob wanted to do was tell others what they should do: he was at times exasperatingly pliable and willing to accept what came. He became a leader by virtue of his charismatic qualities: he was handsome, articulate, and inflamed with the power of his convictions. Besides this, however, he had an enormous capacity for hard work, mental and physical. Thus, in an historical period when religious utopian societies were rather common, he had all the elements needed for the formation of a small, stable group. The greatest challenge during his lifetime was his totally non-dogmatic view of marriage, which he acknowledged but thought unnecessary among people who were in love, and more troublesome than it was worth, particularly because it forced women to be subservient. (It was this, more than anything else, which perturbed the people of Ohio.)

That the group should remain together after losing its inspiring leader has to be attributed to two factors, the force of its simple and unifying view of itself, and the extraordinary people who had gathered around Jacob in the beginning. They were truly selfless, persevering in their love for one another, and unbelievably hard working. Grant, in particular, points out that Spirit Fruit, although small, was a long-lived utopian group. Thirty-one years, it seems, is a long time in utopia.


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