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Explore Foundations of Faith at Religious Heritage Sites

To grow in your own faith, sometimes it’s helpful to learn about somebody else’s.

America has been home to numerous distinctive religious traditions, and visiting historic sites and modern communities associated with these faiths can give tour groups new perspective on their own beliefs. Learning about differences and similarities helps visitors expand their knowledge as well as make personal connections with people of other backgrounds.

Here are a few excellent travel opportunities for tour groups to explore their own faith alongside others, learn about faith community history and have a fun time.

Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill

Harrodsburg, Kentucky

The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, commonly known as the Shakers because of how they quivered during worship, was founded in 1747 in England, then emerged in the United States in the 1780s. They settled in several locations in the United States, including Harrodsburg, Kentucky, home of Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. During the 105 years they lived there, the Shakers built more than 260 structures; 34 of them are still on the property.

The Shakers have died out — they were firm believers in celibacy, leaving no possibility of procreation — but thanks to preservationists, Shaker Village has become a destination for those who want to learn about the history of the Shakers, see the working farm or enjoy the 3,000 acres of green space. Shaker Village is Kentucky’s largest National Historic Landmark and the largest private collection of original 19th-century buildings in the United States.

The Historic Centre is the main location of the historic collections of Shaker art, furniture and other artifacts. From there, visitors can head to the farm, where guests can take a hayride, do hands-on activities or meet the horses, steers, sheep and other farm denizens. It’s a working farm, where staff follow the sustainable practices of the Shakers.

Shaker Village has worked with state, federal and private conservation organizations to restore the natural areas surrounding the village, called the Preserve. Visitors can go on interpretive hikes, take nature walks, see a birding blind and even take a paddleboat ride on the Kentucky River on the Dixie Belle Riverboat, an authentic stern-wheeler boat.

While in Harrodsburg, guests can visit the Downtown Historic District, Morgan Row, Old Fort Harrod State Park, the Old Mud Meeting House and the Olde Towne Park.

Utopian Experiments

New Harmony, Indiana

In the far southwestern tip of Indiana sits Posey County, home of New Harmony, which has been the site of three different utopian societies. The town was established by the Harmonie Society, a religious group founded in Germany in 1785. The group was forced out due to persecution by the Lutheran Church and eventually landed in and founded New Harmony in 1814. In just 10 years, the society built 180 structures while pursuing Christian perfection in every aspect of their lives, believing that the end of the world was near.

In 1824, founder George Rapp sold the town to Robert Owen, who wanted to establish a community of equals in which education would be emphasized. Though the society built by the Owenites lasted only a few years, it made significant contributions to science and education. After the collapse, some locals stayed in New Harmony and continued to follow through with studies of geology, arts, literature and more.

In the 20th century, Jane Blaffer Owen, a Texas oil heiress, visited New Harmony with her husband, who was a descendent of Robert Owen. She fell in love with the town and made it her own spiritual and artistic community, commissioning the building of the Roofless Church, the Athenaeum, a spiritual retreat center and much more.

New Harmony is an excellent place for visitors to enjoy a retreatlike atmosphere. Church Park includes sculptures created by famous artists Jacques Lipschitz and Stephen De Stabler. There is the Harmonists Labyrinth, a hedge maze with a grotto in the middle, and the Cathedral Labyrinth, a re-creation of the 13th-century Chartres Labyrinth in France. Visitors can take a stroll through Our Lord’s Wood, a walking path with art along the way, suitable for reflection.

The town is on the Wabash River, so there is a nice riverfront for visitors to enjoy. All restaurants in New Harmony are locally owned, creating a quaint, small-town atmosphere.

Ohio Amish Country

Holmes County, Ohio

Most notable of America’s distinctive religious traditions is that of the Amish, the Anabaptists who originally came from Switzerland and who live a simple life eschewing most modern technology. Ohio’s Holmes County is a good central location to visit, but Amish country stretches over about seven counties, said Tiffany Gerber, group tour and lodging coordinator for the Holmes County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau. A good first stop is the Amish and Mennonite Heritage Center in Millersburg. It’s the home of the Behalt Cyclorama, a 265-foot-wide mural that shows the history of the Amish and Mennonite people from 1525 to today.

Yoder’s Amish Home is a restored farm open to the public where staff explain the Amish lifestyle to guests. There’s often someone on-site baking, and guests can take buggy rides and visit with the farm livestock. “It’s just a glimpse into a daily life of an Amish family,” Gerber said.

Another type of farm experience is the Farm at Walnut Creek, where guests can visit with more than 500 animals from all over the world.

A local cheesemaker, Guggisberg, has won Swiss-cheese championships, and Heini’s Cheese Chalet makes a unique cheese fudge. Heini’s offers tours and gives each guide and bus driver $15 worth of free cheese.

An unusual cultural experience is the Amish Country Theater, which has comedy shows that poke fun at Amish culture in a friendly way and serves an Amish country buffet. The Ohio Star Theater has regular concerts and events but specializes in Broadway-style productions of Amish fiction.

Hutterite Colonies

Great Falls, Montana

Like the Amish and the Mennonites, the Hutterites are Anabaptists, and they share a lot of beliefs with those communities. However, the Hutterites believe in community of goods: All material goods are held in common. Members of the group are provided for equally, and no assets are kept for personal gain.

Surrounding Great Falls are several Hutterite communes, and there is ample opportunity to visit them. Many colonies will set up tours individually and will include the tour and lunch. Each colony is different and wears distinct styles of conservative clothing unique to its particular branch of the faith. The Hutterites can often be found at farmers markets, where they sell their wares, including farm products and artisan goods.

Because of the location, visitors to Hutterite sites are surrounded by Montana’s Big Sky Country, along with Glacier National Park to the northwest and Yellowstone National Park to the south. The Rocky Mountains offers an amazing view that no visitor should miss. Great Falls is also a key area on the Lewis and Clark exhibition trail, so visitors can visit the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center, managed by the U.S. Forest Service, for a historical perspective.

Moravian Church

Winston-Salem, North Carolina

In what’s now the Czech Republic, the Moravian Church was founded in protest of the Catholic Church. Eventually, the Moravians came to the United States and founded Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Fifteen of those Moravians later walked from Bethlehem to North Carolina looking for more fertile soil; in 1753, they founded Bethabara. Then, in 1766, they created the planned community of Salem, which would eventually become part of Winston-Salem.

Old Salem, as it’s now known, is a historic town where visitors can learn about the Moravian heritage of the area. If a group tour stays a night in a hotel, Visit Winston-Salem will do a free step-on tour around the city. Guides will also tailor those tours to whatever interests the group, said Kay Calzolari, group tours sales manager for Visit Winston-Salem.

Old Salem has many unique interpretive events: Visitors can learn how to make pottery alongside an artisan, bake in a hearth and then eat what they cooked, or visit a Moravian church. The city has two Moravian churches: St. Philips Moravian Church, the oldest African-American church in North Carolina, and the Home Moravian Church. If a tour comes to Home Moravian at Christmas, guests can participate in a Candle Tea, a Moravian tradition that involves singing hymns, making beeswax candles and eating Moravian sugar cookies. The rest of the year, the church is open from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m., and members are available to show it and explain the Moravian faith to visitors.

Visitors with a sweet tooth can also visit Mrs. Hanes’ Hand-Made Moravian Cookies, operated by a seven-generation Moravian family. Guests can tour the operation, watch how the cookies are made and sample them. The Tavern at Old Salem offers Moravian Chicken Pie, which is not like chicken potpie, Calzolari said. It’s made with chicken and gravy, with the vegetables served on the side.

Bethabara, only about 15 minutes from Old Salem, has its own interpretive center where visitors can watch a short film about Moravian history, see a restored palisade fort from the French and Indian War, or visit the 1788 Gemeinhaus, a church and meetinghouse.