Forty-two years ago, my wife and I began looking around the east coast of this country, searching for a circumstance where we could settle to take up a community service for our fellow man. We traveled about from city to city, seeking anthroposophists who might be of like mind. One of the centers where anthroposophy was being cultivated and a community process seemed to be unfolding was at the Threefold Farm, now the Threefold Community in Chestnut Ridge, formerly Spring Valley, New York. Our concern was for a community, but also one where anthroposophy played a central role. With yearly summer school sessions for anthroposophy since 1929, a farm, a growing school and interest in the arts, Threefold was the place we chose to move to in 1959.
For some time prior to our search, I had been interested in the threefolding of the social process. A member of my family, Margaret Deussen, had taken part in the social activities arising out of anthroposophy in the twenties, in Germany. She had worked for one of the first anthroposophi- cal physicians in Stuttgart, Dr. Otto Palmer, who was vitally concerned about the threefold effort. In Stuttgart, there was, beginning with the late teens, an effort to unfold the impulse of the Threefold Commonwealth. The economic association came to be called the Der Kommende Tag (the coming day), but this effort failed even during Rudolf Steiner’s life time. In the family circumstance, I often heard about the trials and tribulations of this social, economic effort. As soon as 1 began to look into anthroposophy in my late teens, there I immediately met with the mighty indications for social activity that could unfold in a threefold process. The threefold work for social structuring, for the furtherance of a social organism, was but one of the ways in which anthroposophy could flow over into life in a very practical way. It was obvious that anthroposophy had been given to mankind so that one did not have to retreat from life to pursue a spiritual path.
My home experiences supported my basic concern for social processes. This interest in the social life was supported further by experiences in the educational field at Oberlin College. There my wife and I met, and there we found great concerns for specific social problems such as the poor, the minorities, women, freedom from government and the like. Something from the very core of the work of John Frederick Oberlin appeared to be alive for us. The community building efforts of this man, the community building efforts of Oberlin in the Steinthal, appeared to be alive there at Oberlin College over a hundred and fifty years later. Rudolf Steiner has spoken to this work of Oberlin, and its import can be gleaned from the following quote.
“In Steinthal, near Strassburg, Oberlin lived… This Oberlin was an unusual personality, and he had strange effect upon people. He was clairvoyant—I can allude to this only briefly—and after he had lost his wife comparatively early, he was able to live with her individuality in a communion as real as with a living person. Day by day he made notes of what was happening in the world where his wife now dwelt; he also marked this on a map of the heavens and showed it to the people who gathered around him, so that actually a whole community shared in the life Oberlin was leading with his deceased wife. Such a thing is strangely out of place at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries; but if you take what I have said into consideration, you will grasp what it portends. Things such as were revealed to Oberlin are among the most significant in this domain in modem times.”
This quote points to an area of spiritual life and social life which Rudolf Steiner has discussed on numerous occasions. He has often revealed that the dead play a very essential role in social life. During the time of the first World War, Rudolf Steiner again and again stressed that it is the dead who were important in the events of that war. He went on to tell that it was and is the dead who are essential actors in our social processes and their activity needs to be recognized in order to appreciate social life. In Oberlin’s case, it was his relation with his wife which resulted in the forming of significant social and community impulses in the region of the Steinthal in the Vosges Mountains near the French-German border. Rudolf Steiner pointed out that those who came together in this community at that time would, in a later life, go out into the world to serve this world.
What is possible to see is how the work and impulse of this man, Oberlin, has gone out into the world and some of the consequences are very significant. He was the first to introduce the kindergarten into the educational activity in the western world for example. The appreciation of psychology in education is another. Oberlin devised a method for appreciating the psychological make up of his parishioners, as he was a Protestant minister with five congregations in the valley of the Steinthal. Today, Oberlin College, a leading college in the United States with an educational outreach now in China, Korea, Thailand, Japan and India, points to a far reaching impulse which has arisen from the work of this man in a small village in Europe. Later, a manual home weaving industry in the Kentucky hills of America, the Churchill Weavers, was founded as a result of the home based industrial activity of the Steinthal introduced by Oberlin at the end of the eighteenth century. Mahatma Gandhi turned to Churchill of the Churchill weavers to help inaugurate the home weaving activity which came to play such a role in India during his time. The deeds of a single man, in a small obscure community in Europe, has within a period short of two hundred years gone out into the world, even before those souls would seem to have had a chance to reincarnate. There lived a significant impulse in the life of this human being who had a living relation with the living dead.
There is another interesting indication from Rudolf Steiner about this man. In speaking about karma, Rudolf Steiner tells that with Goethe and Oberlin he comes to deal with future karma. He further tells that most of the karma studies that he gave were given to enlighten past karma. He suggests that only with these two did he take up what he had hoped yet to take up and could not with his early death. Oberlin’s life and work, his relation to the dead, the birthing of community process and vocational life, all sound a note for the future.
It is perhaps also of the deepest significance that Rudolf Steiner speaks of Oberlin in the cycle entitled Occult History. These lectures were given December 27, 1910—January 1, 1911. It is just in these lectures that Rudolf Steiner indicates his own line of spiritual heredity. He traces history back to the time of the Assyrian culture 3000 B.C. It is with this time and this culture that he comes to associate his own destiny by speaking to the Legend of Gilgamesh. Only in our day is this line of his own unfolding beginning to be taken up seriously.
Thus with social concerns alive in my own family and experiences at Oberlin College, where I met my wife who had been bom in Oberlin in China (Taiku, China), an educational institution that had grown out of the work of Oberlin College, the two of us with a young son decided to settle in Spring Valley at the Threefold Farm (Community). Our backgrounds and searches led us to an anthroposophical social circumstance, led us to the Threefold.
The idea of threefolding the social process was a real concern for us, as it was for others at the Threefold at that time of our search. Ralph Courtney was at the center of this concern for the threefolding of the social organism. He had been asked by Rudolf Steiner to develop this aspect of the anthroposophical activity and movement in the United States. Our perspective even before we came to live in the Threefold was that a threefolding of activity was not present at the Threefold, but there was a concern for such a possibility.
One of my earliest experiences in the circle of anthroposophists in relation to threefolding occurred at a gathering of a circle of members around Mary Mitchell in Washington DC in 1957. At that time Rudolf Grosse was visiting and gave a lecture which drew the members of the Society together in that city. After Grosse’s lecture we all had a meal together. A number of conversations ensued, one of which impressed me deeply. It was a conversation which came to focus on the threefolding of the social organism. One of the guests, with absolute conviction, stated that the one thing that was not needed in this country was the threefold impulse, the impulse to threefold the social organism. Here, said this guest, Rudolf Steiner had given something that was not needed in this country. The social circumstances was just right in this country for this assertive individual. This conversation has remained with me for these many years. In contemplating this subject this conversation comes again and again to mind. It has always seemed important to keep such a different view in mind, since this view seems to be that of so many. The other view is often that working with the threefold impulse is not possible. Further, the existence of divergent views is the fabric of human exchange. The hope with this little essay, this brief sharing, is to address those who are interested in this impulse in the anthroposophical movement.
Having now lived in the Threefold Community for thirty-five years and having worked with principles of threefolding at the Fellowship Community for the last twenty-eight years, let me begin with Rudolf Steiner’s striving which has concerned me for nearly fifty years.