The Farm

Summertown, Tennessee, USA

America's Communal Religions

From: Miller and Bates, in America's Communal Religions, Syracuse Univ. Press, 1995.

The Farm

© 1994, 1995, 1999 Albert Bates. All Rights Reserved.

To write the spirituality of some of these experiments off as pop-Aquarianism would be a mistake. Many hippie religious tenets are quite deep, as can be seen in the philosophy of The Farm, a community begun in 1971, near Summertown, Tennessee.

To understand the roots of The Farm, you have to go back to about 1965. Drop City, the first full-blown prototype hip commune, was founded in May of that year. The Grateful Dead were moving into 710 Ashbury, establishing a hip outpost in the tony Panhandle district of San Francisco. Prankster-author Ken Kesey's acid tests began in November. The Diggers emerged as a social movement that winter. 1966 brought the Trips Festival and the Summer of Love. Janis Joplin hitch-hiked in from Texas. Lou Gottlieb opened his Morning Star ranch to all comers. On October 6, 1966, California outlawed LSD-25, but it didn't stop the first Human Be-In, paisleys and flower power, White Rabbit, or the Whole Earth Catalog.

In 1966, a young assistant professor at San Francisco State College began scheduling classes to talk about what was happening outside his window. The classes grew too large for the college halls, so the class moved to a church, a theater, and then, in 1969, to the Family Dog, Chet Helms' rock hall on the coast. Monday Night Class became a weekly pilgrimage of throngs of hippies from up and down the coast, from high schools and university campuses, from army bases and police academies, from mountain communes and Haight Street crash pads. Thousands of people, in various states of consciousness, came with tamborines and diaphanous gowns, love beads and bangles, Dr. Strange cloaks and top hats with feathers. The open-ended discussions ventured into Hermeneutic geometry, Masonic-Rosicrucian mysticism, Ekenkar and the Rolling Stones, but opened with a long, silent meditation and closed with a sense of purpose. At the center of this psychedelic crucible, the professor in the welder's hood, was 31-year-old Stephen Gaskin, known simply to most hippies as "Stephen."

Stephen would say, "Lets talk about how we're gonna be." Not "how we're gonna stop the war" or "how we're gonna make it fair," but "how we're gonna be."

"[H]ere's the way the class works. It's open doors and it's free and everybody can come in, and the way it's always been is that the questions I like best are the ones that start with "what about" and "what if." So we've asked those, and I seem to be doing it [chairing the discussion] because I seem to be the only one that can do it. I'm quite willing to do it if anybody wants it done. But other folks can talk. I lead these discussions. I guess I can serve a function as a psychedelic fuse. I can create... I have done enough yoga to be able to handle whatever the juice is."

In 1969, a group of theologians who had come to San Francisco for a convention stumbled into the Dog on a Monday Night and had their minds blown. They urged Stephen to put his eclectic rap on the road and they followed up with a number of invitations to speak at their colleges and churches. In the winter of 1970, Stephen announced he was planning to adjourn the class and travel across the country in his remodelled school bus. When he rolled out of San Francisco 20 or 30 buses followed him. When the caravan returned, a year later, it numbered 60 buses and dozens of step vans, bread trucks, VW campers and other bright-painted vehicles.

In Dayton, Ohio, Stephen said, "when we got to Yellowstone we found out some of us was on welfare, so we said that everybody that was on welfare had to quit and take care of themselves.... Some folks have been raking leaves, some folks have been painting houses, some have been picking pumpkins... the folks that were on welfare had to start working, because when we're rolling it costs three hundred dollars a day in gasoline to move the caravan all day. We're working and moving the caravan and we're building up the engines and keeping them together and towing buses and accepting new people on top of all that, for no other reason than to go out in the world and say that Spirit is where its at and that God's love is heavier than violence."

The caravan, like the Farm which followed, believed in open membership--your badge was your belly-button. Openness was basic to the hip ethos; hippies tended to have a naive optimism about human nature, a belief that if one could simply be rescued from the nightmare of American culture and placed in a supportive setting, one would respond in kind and contribute to group harmony and achievement. So anyone willing to reject mainstream culture--to drop out, as the argot had it--was welcome. A second tenet, at the Farm as elsewhere in hip culture, was reverence for sacred drugs. Perhaps the hippies were not the first communal druggies; the Shakers, after all, had been major producers of opium. But by the Seventies most mood-altering substances except alcohol were illegal, and illegality put a new patina on the use of those substances. Stephen Gaskin learned to navigate the LSD ("acid") universe and led others down the pathways he discovered. Stephen described the journey of his sixth LSD experience:

"I started slipping into myself.... Then I was looking from over a view of a little creek that was very bright yellow, running down over the rocks. I looked at it, and there were bubbles on it. And suddenly I was one of the bubbles on the creek, running down this little golden river. "I bounced around a few times, and then I popped. "My bubble popped, and then I was indistinguishably part of the river."

* * *

"There was no verbal content, no semantic content. That was sort of like a benchmark for me for acid's ego death."1
* * *

"We have a kind of a funny thing in this culture because you can drop some acid, and then you can experience satori, probably, you know, if you're karma's not too bad you can probably just get kicked right into it for a while, whether you notice it or recognize it or not. It may not even be the part of the trip you enjoy the most."2

Stephen Gaskin, once a hard-drinking, bar-brawling Marine, took hundreds of such trips, but then spurned LSD, as well as heroin, uppers, downers, cocaine, alcohol, tobacco, even coffee. Stephen was deeply convinced that certain substances were valuable in a spiritual way, but that others were bad for the body and only numbed the mind.3 He termed his spiritual growth agents--those that came from plants, not a lab--"sacraments." They provided access to realms of sight, sound and extrasensory perception that were difficult to reach by other means They heightened compassion. The conferred the ability to live harmoniously with others and with nature.

Stephen Gaskin also spurned the hippie icon of free love. The standard hip theory was one of total sexual freedom: multiple partners, multilateral relationships or no commitment at all, no boundaries. Some earlier communes had experimented with unusual sexual mores; the nineteenth-century Oneida Community, for example, had a group marriage involving hundreds of members that lasted for over 30 years. But Stephen Gaskin, who had entered into a four-marriage in San Francisco and a six-marriage in Tennessee, later proclaimed the importance of traditional family values. Those who wished to join the Farm must become fidelitous. "If you're having sex, you're engaged," warned Stephen. "If you're having babies, you're married."

The Farm soon found that Tennessee laws were hospitable to unconventional religions. All that was required to become a church was a preacher and a congregation and the Farm had both. Sunday Services resembled Monday Night Classes: a sunrise meditation, a group "om," Stephen giving a short talk, and the group of up to 1500 people engaging in a free-ranging discussion of everything from bop kaballah to transubstantiation.

The religious tenets of The Farm gradually evolved from these discussions and came to be known simply as "the agreements." The pre-eminent agreement was "We are all one." This one-ness was not limited to the human family, or some abstract sense of love of other. Farm members understood that matter and energy existed together in a kronon-to-kronon dance of existence and non-existence; that electrical fields co-penetrated; that boundaries between separate individuals quite literally did not exist. "When they say that man does not live by bread alone, they mean that we're like vibratory amphibians. ... That's the real thing about being spiritual is to know that what happens on those vibrational places is first and determines what happens on the material plane."4

* * *

"Energy... What is energy? A lot of things are energy. We are energy. This stuff is energy... also this sort of feeling that we have here of being this many people stonedish together... is energy. Energy's more specific than that, though--I believe that energy's the Holy Spirit, I believe that it's the body and blood of Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, and anybody along that line. We're a dance of energy, arranged and held in the mind of God.

"Our human attention is energy, because we are energy producers, each one of us produces energy. It's silly for us to take each other off for energy when we're all sources for it. We're pouring it loose all the time, and we put it where we put our attention, that's where we point our energy to....

"We all start with undifferentiated energy, and then we hold an idea of our self, and if we lose that idea of our self we start to die. That's what happens to people, they lose their idea of themself, and don't create themselves good enough to make it anymore. We're each one creating our own self and our whole universe. Saying things like that is like throwing a rock out somewhere and listening for an echo. It really is, because like when I say that you are all gods creating your own universe then there's implications that should arise in your mind, like this is the universe that you're creating right now... see. Here we are. This is your creation... each one of you. Each of you creates all this."5

From this central theme--we are all one--all other agreements followed with reasonably coherent logic: "it doesn't help to turn anyone into meat," "telepathy is real," "anger and fear are optional," "how you choose to be makes a difference for everyone," "enlightenment is just being adult," "change is a constant," "vegetarianism is good ecology," "truth heals."6

"How to get out of Hell? You have to plug up the holes in your bucket, then you get higher. Most people who are in Hell are complaining. They think they're complaining because they're in Hell... uh-uh. They're in Hell because they're complaining."9

* * *

"They say... the sin that hangs you up is to sin against the Holy Ghost.... that network of compassion that exists between all sentient beings... it's the level where we're just like the monkeys... just like the waves and the trees and the grass.

"If you shut yourself off, it'll take you a long time to get open again. And you have to make a commitment to stay open... and help other people stay open... help them relax. Don't do things in ways that put other people uptight. Pay attention to the whole thing that's happening around you."10

While he was frequently termed a "self-proclaimed prophet" by the press, Stephen did not believe in prophesy.

"I am a believer in free will. I am not a believer in predestination. I think a belief in prophecy robs us of our free will. If you insist in wanting to know that it all comes out all right, you must use your freedom to affect the outcome and help make it all come out alright.

* * *

"I think each one of us has a non-shirkable obligation to figure out the world on our own as best we can. The way we behave as a result of that investigation is our real and practiced Religion."11

* * *

"The key to the future is service. Part of what made Kennedy great was the idea of the Peace Corps. Part of Clinton's votes came from people who liked the idea of repaying student loans with service. As the world becomes more crowded, each way of making money becomes precious and money is charged for things that used to be given for free or for love. Service becomes a revolutionary act."12


Stephen Gaskin can be e-mailed at

Albert Bates

Some other works by Albert Bates available on-line:

Go to | The Farm FAQ | The Farm | Intentional Communities