Religious Movements: Oneida&Noyes
The Oneida Community
I. Group Profile
Name: The Oneida Community (also "Sect of Perfectionists" or "Bible Communists")
Founder: John Humphrey Noyes
Date of Birth: September 3, 1811
Birth Place: Brattleboro, Vermont
Year Founded: 1848
Brief History: John Humphrey Noyes' father was a Dartmouth graduate and a congressman; his mother, a fiery young religious zealot. It was Noyes' mother who taught her children to "fear the Lord" ( Oneida Overview , p.1). During his years at Dartmouth, the young Noyes seemed to look at religion with great cynicism. Then in 1831, Noyes attended a revival meeting under the ministry of Charles Finney in Putney, Vermont. Initially Noyes was unimpressed with what he heard, "but after the meeting he suffered a feverish cold which led him to think of death, and to humble himself before God" ( Oneida Overview , p.1).
Noyes went on to spend a year at Andover Theological Seminary and then transferred to Yale Divinity School . In 1833, the local Congregational Association issued Noyes a license to preach. During his time at Yale, Noyes became increasingly interested in the idea of Christian perfectionism . Upon conversion to this doctrine, man was seen as achieving a state of perfection (sinlessness). It is believed that Noyes adopted this doctrine chiefly because he could not in any way perceive himself as a sinner. On February 20, 1834, Noyes announced before a congregation at the New Haven Free Church that he had indeed achieved "full salvation from sin" (Oneida Bibliography, p. 3).
Despite being branded a heretic, Noyes spent the next few years travelling New England in search of converts to his perfectionist ideals. His efforts were concentrated mainly in two areas: New Haven, Connecticut and Putney, Vermont. In New Haven he collaborated with James Boyle _ a former pastor of the Free Church _ in publishing "The Perfectionist," a journal dedicated to advancing the doctrine. Noyes also wrote articles to be published in a periodical called the "Battle-Axe." As evidenced in his writings, Noyes was clearly convinced that he was God's earthly agent.
Noyes' writing did garner some attention, particularly that of one Ms. Harriet Holton. Ms. Holton graciously took on the task of financially supporting Noyes. The two were eventually married in 1838. Conveniently, Holton brought a great deal of money to the union. Noyes utilized much of this money to purchase a house, printing office, and most importantly a press and type. The press was used to put out Noyes' very own publication, "The Witness." Though "The Witness" was quickly discontinued due to lack of funds, it furthered Noyes' efforts in propogating his beliefs. By 1845, he had won enough converts at Putney to formally organize the "Putney Corporation or Association of Perfectionists."
"From the very beginning, the mission of the group was made crystal clear. With the help of Almighty God, as expressed through the person of John Humphrey Noyes, they were going to create a heaven on earth" (Kephart and Zellner, p.55). The Putney Association first put into practice those theories which Noyes had been developing for years under the doctrine of perfectionism. Chief among these was the concept of complex marriage: the idea that every man in the group is married to every woman in the group, and vice versa. Included with this major theme were other practices such as male continence , ascending fellowship, mutual criticism, and stirpiculture _ an extension of eugenics , or selective breeding (each of these practices is explained in greater detail below). Many of these practices were vehemently opposed by members of the community at large, particularly those with strong feelings regarding the morality of sex and sexual practices. A series of local indignation meetings and repeated threats of legal prosecution (including Noyes' actual indictment for adultery) convinced Noyes that it would be wise to move his commune to a more agreeable site. He decided on Oneida, New York. On February 1, 1848, the Oneida Community was officially organized and established.
Noyes' experiment existed for nearly three decades without serious threat of interference. Although neighbors of the Community often disagreed with many of its pracitices, they gained a certain degree of respect and understanding for the colonists. Beginning in New York in 1873, however, a concerted effort was made by many "guardians of morality" (Oneida Bibliography, p. 5) to obtain anti-Oneida legislation, particularly in regards to the principle of complex marriage. The drive culminated in 1879 in a conference held at Syracuse University. This external threat only intensified increasing tensions among the members themselves. These tensions were characterized by a younger generation of perfectionists less willing to follow Noyes unconditionally, as well as by questions surrounding Theodore (John's son) Noyes' assumption of leadership in 1876. In 1879, the older Noyes himself felt compelled to abandon the system of complex marriage "in deference to public sentiment" (Oneida Bibliography, p. 5). On August 26 of that year, the Community so resolved.
Members quickly began to marry, in an attempt to reorganize their lives within conventional marriage patterns. But complex marriage was such an integrated part of Community life that members' attempts to settle down ultimately failed. On the first of January, 1881, "the business and property of the Community were transferred to Oneida Community, Limited and the Oneida Community itself was abandoned.
Sacred or Revered Texts: the Bible and The Berean
Noyes' theology "strived to bridge the gap between the words in the Bible and the reality in the Oneida Community" (Sannes, http://www.digitmaster.com/chris/papers/major/noyes/title.htm) . Written in 1847, The Berean was Noyes' own theological treatise, embodying his interpretations of and arguments surrounding scripture. Along with the Bible and Noyes himself, "[ The Berean ] was one of the principal sources of truth for the Oneida community" (Sannes, ibid. ).
Size of Group: 300 (at its time of greatest membership)
In January of 1849 the Community had 87 members; 172 by February of 1850; and one year later the number was approximately 205. In 1875 there were 298 members, and a total of 306 at the time of breakup.
II. Beliefs of the Group
"The Holiness Movement tried to create a perfect believer, and Adventism longed for a perfect world. By seeking both, the [Oneida Community] took these twin American religious movements to their logical extreme" (Bainbridge, p.145).
The foundations of Perfectionism are layed upon particular aspects of the aforementioned religious movements. The Holiness Movement, first of all, was "launched in search of an experience of sanctification that many seekers hoped would free them from anxiety, guilt, and perhaps even from sin" (Bainbridge, p.87). It was a movement to establish better people: people whose beliefs were strong and infallible. Adventism held that "members are supposed to follow distinctive norms of behavior, both in religious contexts and in their daily lives. [Adventists] consider their own brand of religion to be vastly better than that of conventional churches..." (Bainbridge, p.118). This practice was to bring about a better world. In its formation, the schismatic movement that was Perfectionism adopted these principle beliefs of both movements. This paved the way for the establishment of such utopian communes as the Oneida Community.
In advancing his perfectionist beliefs, John Humphrey Noyes first of all maintained that believers would be free from all outward law. At the same time, he insisted on another, higher power. "Right conduct," he felt, "must be based on love of God and an understanding of the truth" (Oneida Bibliography, p.4).
In 1847, the Putney group came to the conclusion that "the Kingdom of God had come" ( Oneida Overview , p.2). This assumption was made as a result of two of Noyes' particular teachings: one being that the second coming of Christ occurred in A.D. 70, and the other being that the group could bring in the millenial kingdom by their own accord.
Noyes' Putney Association formally adopted communism by which to live. The type of communism practiced "included all property of family living and associations" ( Oneida Overview , p. 2). Moreover, the Association placed a great emphasis on education. Perfectionists were often read to as they worked. Members also abstained from intoxicants, tobacco, profanity, and obscenity. Even common products like meat, coffee, and tea were seen as luxuries that were served only occasionally to vary the regular diet of fruits and vegetables.
The overriding teaching in the community was that "separation from society was needed to encourage conditions under which social [and spiritual] perfection could be achieved" (Sannes, ibid. ). And since "one [can't] construct a perfect society our of corrupt building blocks," the aim of the community was at "maintaining a perfect social order, [and] also at improving the individuals within that order" (Sannes, ibid. ). To that end, the Oneidans practiced several unique ideals.
The first, and most pervasive of these ideals was "complex marriage." Noyes based his views on matrimony mainly on his own biblical interpretations. Instrumental in his thinking was the following passage:
In the kingdom of heaven, the institution of marriage _ which assigns the exclusive possession of one woman to one man _ does not exist (Matt. 22:23-30).
Noyes "criticized monogamy and extolled the virtues of group marriage" (Kephart and Zellner, p.75). As a result, group members came to regard themselves as members of a single family, "rejecting conventional marriage both as a form of legalism from which Christians should be free and as a selfish institution in which men exerted rights of ownership over women" (Oneida Bibliography, p. 4). In essence, every man in the group was married to every woman in the group, and vice versa. It was Noyes who actually coined the term "free love," although he found "complex marriage" to be a more acceptable label. The practice also followed two main guidelines. The first was that prior to a man and woman cohabitating, they each had to obtain the other's consent through a third party. Secondly, no two people could be exclusively attached to one another.
Another specific trait of the Community was known as "stirpiculture." The idea here was to breed superior children by encouraging the mating of the healthiest, most intelligent males and females. After much debate, Noyes had become convinced that "a scientific breeding program could be adapted to the needs of the Oneida community" (Kephart and Zellner, p.84). This practice of stirpiculture, then, can be regarded as a derivation of the principle of eugenics _ attempts to improve hereditary qualities; selective breeding. Although no such term was known at the time of the Community, this is exactly the concept that Noyes and his people adopted (Kephart and Zellner, p.84). Only certain people were allowed to become parents, and these were hand-picked by a special committee. Nearly ninety percent of Community babies born in an eleven-year span were carefully planned by such a committee. During the time of the program, no defective children were born, and no mothers died as a result of childbirth (Kephart and Zellner, p.84).
A third Oneidan ideal was the practice of "ascending fellowship." This teaching was set up so that virgins might be properly introduced into the system of complex marriage. Moreover, ascending fellowship worked to prevent young members from falling in love and from limiting their affections to just their peers. So-called Central Members were chosen to care for the virgins, as these members were believed to have a closer association to God. Central Members were allowed to pick their virgin partner over whom they were to have the responsibility of spiritual guidance.
Yet another essential teaching of Noyes' was that of "male continence." This practice was, in essence, a form of birth control. It stated that "a couple would engage in sexual congress without the man ever ejaculating, either during intercourse or after withdrawal" ( Oneida Overview , p.3). Noyes had concluded that unwanted pregnancies simply represented a waste of a man's seed, and therefore bore no difference to masturbation.
A final major principle of the Community was "mutual criticism." This practice was established "to assure the integrity of the community by conformity to Noyes' morality" ( Oneida Overview , p.3). Under communal control, members were subjected to the criticisms of a committee or else the whole community. These criticisms were directed toward the "member's bad traits (those thoughts or acts that detracted from family unity), [so that the] individual could be put through a shameful and humiliating experience" ( Oneida Overview , p.3). Ironically enough, Noyes would never allow himself to be criticized.
III. The Breakup
The end of the Oneida Community can not be attributed to any one reason. There were various causes, all blending together to bring about the group's demise. Obviously, outside pressures from community leaders and members aggravated the situation. The wide opposition to the Community could not be ignored, and the tension put a heavy strain on the Oneidans and their leadership.
More importantly, internal pressures and conflicts gradually weakened the group. Over time, the nature of the Perfectionist movement began to change. A deep religious fervor gave way to a more secular, wordly approach. Much of this sentiment was propagated by the group's youth, who were becoming at odds with the Community. Many of them began to resent Noyes as an ultimate authority. They questioned the principle of ascending fellowship. Further, many denounced the stirpiculture program.
In 1874, minister-turned-lawyer James W. Towner and several followers were admitted into the Community. Towner quickly succeeded in winning over a minority of the membership. He further succeeded in splitting the group into two camps _ Noyesites and Townerites. The Townerites complained of Noyes' autocracy and demanded an equal say while the other members remained loyal to their founder. The Oneida Community was never to be the same again.
The combination of internal and external pressures was killing the group. Inexplicably, John Humphrey Noyes seemed to just give up. He became withdrawn and disinterested. In 1877, he resigned. He left for good two years later, seemingly in fear of further legal action against him.
From a home in Canada, he kept in touch with the group through emissaries. In August of 1879, he recommended that the Community abandon the practice of complex marriage. And so they did. Amidst all the changes, no new leader emerged. Slowly, the group disintegrated. In 1880, plans for dissolution were drawn up, and on the first of January, 1881, the Oneida Community was no more.
After the breakup, John Humphrey Noyes summarized his communal experiment thusly: "We made a raid into unknown country, charted it, and returned without the loss of man, woman or child" (Abrams, http://www.etext.org/Politics/Spunk/texts/misc/sp000933.txt ).
Following the group's dissolution, the joint-stock company Oneida Ltd. was formed. Initially the company was run by former Community members and their families. The company itself, however, has never embodied the true ideals of Noyes' utopia. Today, it is a company like any other, and can not truly be seen as a modern representation of the Oneida Community. Still, descendants of original members are heavily involved in the company and Oneida Ltd. serves as a constant reminder of its Perfectionist namesake.
IV. Issues and Controversies
"Despite such deep roots in Christianity...utopian communes are in high tension with the surrounding sociocultural environment. They are socially separate from the world, hostile to its styles of life, antagonistic to its economic system, and dissatisfied with its failure to achieve spiritual perfection" (Bainbridge, p.119). The Oneida Community was no exception.
"[Unlike their Utopian counterparts the Shakers, the Oneidans were never forced to deal with legal suits based on property rights. And unlike the Mormons, the Oneida Community rarely struggled with apostates spreading untrue stories]" (Kephart and Zellner, p.65). But like any other social experiment, the Oneida Community was involved in its fair share of controversy and opposition. The most blatant opposition was in response to the Community's sexual practices. The implementation of practices like complex marriage and male continence, while accepted by the group, met with many opponents in the larger community. Resistance had begun in the early days at Putney. Word of the Perfectionists' spousal sharing quickly reached community members. "It was the 1840's (not the 1990's!), and marriage meant one man and one woman, joined in the sight of God and legally recorded in the town-hall registry" (Kephart and Zellner, p.53). In essence, "to the citizens of Putney, right was right and wrong was wrong" (Kephart and Zellner, p.53). Needless to say, the practices of the Oneidans were a bit much for them to handle. Citizens began to meet in protest and demanded action. Eventually, rumors of mob violence abounded and Noyes was indicted by a grand jury on counts of adultery.
The antagonism of the group continued throughout its existence. Two attackers, in particular, are worthy of notoriety. The first is Anthony Comstock. A New York Congressman, he sponsored the state law that forbade immoral works. Comstock also organized the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Further, in 1873 he was instrumental in persuading Congress to "enact a federal obscenity bill which...forbade the dissemination of all literature dealing with birth control" (Kephart and Zellner, p.87). The Community became an obvious target for Comstock's moral crusade. He was successful in branding the group as vicious and obscene.
A second effective opponent of the Community was Professor John Mears of Hamilton College. The Oneida Community became Mears' sole obsession. He was the source of a myriad of articles, speeches, and sermons aimed against the "'debaucheries' being practiced by John Humphrey Noyes and his followers" (Kephart and Zellner, p.87). Mears incited other religious groups to take action against the Community. He helped in appointing committees, holding conferences, and demanding legal action. Mears and Comstock both greatly fueled the fire of opposition to the Oneida Community.
Fiery moral opposition to its major practices was what plagued the Oneida Community during its life. But in the face of resistance, the group prevailed and maintained its own standards of living. In the many decades of its existence, there were only two incidents that may truly be considered embarrassing. One involved a member, William Mills, being asked to leave, refusing, and eventually being forcibly evicted. The other surrounded a member named Charles Guiteau . In 1867, Guiteau left the Community after a short stay. Years later, Guiteau would go down in history as the man who assassinated President Garfield.
In addition, certain controversy has tarnished the group's name since its dissolution in 1881. After the Community broke up, sex remained the prominent issue at hand. Former members, however, were hesitant to discuss the sexual practices of the group let alone their personal sex lives.
As personal diaries were common place in the nineteenth century, the Community left behind a slew of personal documents. This information was widely known. It was decided that these documents should be stored in the vaults of Oneida Ltd. for safe-keeping. Close examination of the material revealed that the documents were generally of a very personal and explicit nature. It was thought that divulging such information to the public would only be detrimental to the company and to former members and their families. Consequently, the decision was made to burn all materials. And so it was done.
While this act was done with the best interests of all those associated with the community in mind, it was a misfortune for the greater community. Those diaries and letters would have no doubt shed some light on the Community and its practices _ information from first-hand accounts. Now, one might say, it can be supposed that we'll never know for sure!
Although it managed to survive for some time, the Oneida community clearly was at odds with greater society. The stiff opposition to the group was founded in moral indignation and a belief in the importance of conformity. For their time, the doctrine and practices of the Oneidans were outlandish and controversial. In its quest for perfection, the group deviated from societal norms, making it a viable target for criticism. But such was the nature of religious movements. What the members of the Oneida Commnity failed to realize _ and what their critics were so apt to point out _ was that "no moral society achieves perfection, and for all its success [our] culture brings within it inevitable frustrations and disappointments. Religion promises to transport the believer to spiritual perfection, and it is perfectly natural for some participants in high-tension movements to believe they could bring heaven down to earth" (Bainbridge, p.145).
V. Links to Oneida Community Web Sites
The Oneida Bibliography
This site, maintained by Syracuse University, is an extensive bibliographical collection of Oneida Community materials. It has links and information to various publications ranging from books, pamphlets, and even articles by John Humphrey Noyes himself. It is a great starting point for finding the wealth of information available on the Community. The Foreward for this site, written by Nelson Blake, gives a good history of the movement.
The Oneida Community Collection
Also maintained at Syracuse, this page contains a generalized Oneida bilbiography, spanning not only the University's collection but also other collections on-line and otherwise.
This piece _ the second half of an article written by Randall Hillebrand _ gives an excellent overview of the Oneida Community, from its history and inception to the eventual breakup. The article also details the group's major beliefs and principles.
This site, maintained at Howard University, is similar to the above bibliography. A short, basic introduction is followed by a typical listing of print sources relating to the Community. Also contains some interesting links to other University collections, etc.
This is the official site of Oneida, Limited, the corporation that was formed after the breakup of the community. Although this site has no real historical significance, it is a reminder of what the Oneida Community has become in today's modern age.
Bainbridge, William S. 1997.
The Sociology of Social Movements. New York: Routledge. Chapter 5, "American Religious Communes," pp. 119-145.
Carden, Maren Lockwood. 1969.
Oneida: Utopian Community to Modern Corporation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.
Fogarty, Robert S. 1994.
Special Love/Special Sex: An Onedia Community Diary. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.
Foster, Lawrence. 1984.
Religion and Sexuality: The Shakers, The Mormons, and the Oneida Community. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Foster, Lawrence. 1991.
Women, Family, and Utopia: Communal Experiments of the Shakers, the Oneida Community and the Mormons. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.
Kephart, William M. and William W. Zellner. Eds. 1994.
Extraordinary Groups: An Examination of Unconventional Life-Styles. New York: St Martin's Press. Chapter 2, "The Oneida Community," pp. 50-93.
Kern, Louis J. 1981.
An Ordered Love: Sex Roles and Sexuality in Victorian Utopias: The Shakers, the Mormons and the Oneida Community. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Klaw, Spencer. 1993.
Without Sin: The Life and Death of the Oneida Community. New York: The Penguin Press.
Robertson, Constance Noyes. 1970.
Oneida Community: An Autobiography. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.
Robertson, Constance Noyes. 1972.
Oneida Community: The Breakup. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.
Created by Keith Bernstein
For Soc 257: New Religious Movements
Spring Term, 1998
Last modified: 07/23/01
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