During the late 18th and early 19th century, many communal colonies were established in the United States. Examples of these are the Amana Colonies in Iowa, Zoar in Ohio and New Harmony in Indiana. Bethel German Colony, similar to those colonies, was founded in 1844 by Dr. Wilhelm Keil, a charismatic religious leader who sought to create a harmonious, nurturing community for its citizens.
Keil was born in Prussia on March 6, 1812. During his lifetime, he shifted occupations many times. In Darmstadt, he was a milliner, In New York, a tailor, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a druggist and doctor. After being converted to German Methodism by Dr.William Nast, he became a preacher. Soon he separated from the Methodist Church and became an independent preacher. When Keil began preaching in Pittsburgh, he found a nucleus for a Christian communal society within a group of people who had split from the Harmonist Society. These were joined by other converts to Keil's doctrine of Christian communal life. Promised nothing but bread, water and hard work by Keil, his followers sold their property in Pennsylvania, Ohio and other states and undertook the arduous journey to the far West to establish their Colony on the sparsely settled prairies of North Missouri. In the autumn of 1844, Keil and his family, with a few others, arrived to spend a winter of considerable hardship on property on the North River. The following spring other colonists began arriving, among them many skilled craftsmen who erected dwellings, community buildings and other necessary structures. All buildings were large and sturdy, most of them made of brick manufactured in the Colony.
All activities of the Bethel German Colony were under the nominal direction of Keil, who seems not only to have exerted an extraordinary power over his followers but to have inspired an extraordinary devotion among them. His word was final in all legal, as well as religious and social matters. By 1850 the Colony had 476 members. Each family was given a house and each person worked as he was able. No records or accounts were kept of work done or supplies provided within the community. Food was distributed from the Colony stores each Saturday and Clothing was provided in the spring and fall. While agriculture was the primary occupation, the Bethel Colonists supported such thriving industries as a tannery, blacksmith shop, saw mill, grist mill, a tailor shop, a distillery, and a few textile looms.