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The Radical Oneida Community

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Founded on principles of the communal ownership of property and free love, the Oneida community was a Christian sect organized by John Humphrey Noyes, a radical preacher and socialist. It was the most successful of many Utopian communities that sprang up in America in the 19th century.

John Humphrey Noyes

The son of a wealthy New England businessman, Noyes was born in Brattleboro, Vermont in 1811. He seemed headed for a career in law when he came under the influence of the revivalist preacher Charles Finney.

Noyes studied theology at Yale Theological Seminary and embraced perfectionism, a philosophy that said it was possible for a person to use will power and religious conversion to become free of sin. Noyes proclaimed that he had achieved perfection, by surrendering his will to God. He argued that without an independent will every action he took in his life was divinely directed and therefore perfect.

This didn't go down well with the religious orthodoxy of the day and people with whom he associated began to think he might be a crackpot. Yale took away his license to preach and booted him out of the seminary. He moved to Putney, Vermont where he gathered around him people of like mind who subscribed to the perfectionist ideals.

He called the community a gathering of Bible Communists and advocated free love among consenting adults. That got Noyes into trouble with the authorities who charged him with adultery. Preferring not to face trial and possible imprisonment, Noyes and some of his followers skipped town and headed for Oneida, where he had friends with land.

Complex Marriage

In 1838, Noyes had married Harriet Holton and pregnancies quickly followed upon one another. Five babies were born in six years of marriage but only one child survived, the others were premature deliveries in a time when such infants were almost certain to die. The tragedy of some many deaths got Noyes to thinking about sexual intercourse in marriage and he concluded that it had two purposes, procreative and amative (an expression of sexual love).

He believed it was essential to separate the one from the other and that men should practice continence, that is refraining from ejaculation.

He wrote that “Lovers who use their sexual organs simply as the servants of their spiritual natures, abstaining from the propagative act, except when procreation is intended, may enjoy the highest bliss of sexual fellowship for any length of time, without satiety or exhaustion; and thus marriage life may become permanently sweeter than courtship or even the honey-moon.”

In one respect, he was far ahead of his time in thinking that pregnancy and child-rearing limited the life choices of women, so children were moved to communal nurseries as soon as they could walk.

Along with this went the idea that all men in the community were married to all the women, likewise all the women were married to all the men. Any sexual activity between women and men had to be consensual. Noyes preached the need to sever the emotional connections between two people that became known as “selfish” or “sticky” love.

"Sticky" love was frowned upon in the Oneida community.

"Sticky" love was frowned upon in the Oneida community.

The Oneida Community Thrived

When Noyes and his followers first set up shop in Oneida they had almost nothing. They had a barn in which they slept on the floor. But, community members went to work making goods for sale to generate financial support.

They were motivated to construct a society based on Christian values that rejected what they saw as the greed that drove the industrial market economy. Members rotated jobs and “Soon, they moved into industry opening a sawmill, blacksmith shop, and a manufacturing facility focused on animal traps. The commune ventured into furniture making, travel bags, satchels, silk production, preserved fruits, and even some type of ferry service” (Michael Olenick). The work was not gender specific with women operating machinery and men weaving on looms, and then switching jobs.

The group prospered; by 1857 it had assets of $67,000, giving it a purchasing power of $2.1 million in today's money. They used their money to buy more land and they built a substantial mansion in which to live. They hired local non-members to do labouring and domestic work. The Bible Communists had become Bible capitalists.

And, as with any capitalist enterprise, there were performance reviews, although, in the case of the Oneida community they were known as “mutual criticism.”

An observer of the system, Charles Nordhoff, wrote that “It is in fact their main instrument of government; and it is useful as a means of eliminating uncongenial elements, and also to train those who remain into harmony with the general system and order . . . The person to suffer criticism sits in silence, while the rest of the company, each in turn, tell him his faults, with, I judge, an astonishing and often exasperating plainness of speech.” Nordhoff said the session was carried out without rancour and was intended to increase harmony within the commune.

At its peak, the Oneida community numbered about 300 members. As its affluence became better known it was swamped with applications from people who wanted to join, almost all were turned down.

The Decline of the Oneida Community

As with all such attempts at creating a Utopian society, the Oneida community eventually fizzled out. There were a number of reasons for this.

One cause of the decline was the community's attempt at eugenics. Noyes called it “stirpiculture” and the elders decided who should be allowed to breed with whom based on characteristics deemed best suited to the group's needs.

Alexandra Prince in The Journal of Religion and Science writes that “Stirpiculture resulted in the planned conception, birth, and communal rearing of fifty-eight children, bred from selected members of the Oneida Community.”

The experiment in selective breeding lasted from 1869 to 1879, and caused rifts in the community. In particular, those born into the group rather than their parents who chose to join objected to the attack on romantic attraction and stirpiculture. There was also growing opposition to complex marriage.

A couple petitions a committee of elders to have a child.

A couple petitions a committee of elders to have a child.

As John Noyes grew older he handed some leadership chores to his son who lacked his father's charismatic qualities. Also, Noyes learned that he was going to be charged with statutory rape so, in June 1879, he escaped across the border into Canada, never to return.

The Oneida community survived a couple of years after Noyes left and was wound up in 1881 when it was turned into a limited company. Its enduring product was Oneida tableware but Wall Street money managers took control and moved production overseas. The company has changed hands among hedge funds and equity funds several times and has gone bankrupt twice.

Bonus Factoids

  • John Noyes calculated that the second coming of Christ had happened in 70 CE and that he and his followers were living in Heaven on Earth.
  • James W. Towner led an internal revolt against Noyes and eventually took several Oneida members with him when he moved to California. They bought land and became a political force to be reckoned with. So much so that the Governor of California set aside a large tract of land for them and called it Orange County. It is now in the Los Angeles metropolitan area.
  • The House of David was another odd Christian sect that fielded a top-quality baseball team whose players wore long hair and beards. You can read more about them here.

Sources

  • “Male Continence.” John Humphrey Noyes, The Oneida Community, March 1872.
  • “Oneida: The Victorian Free Love Commune that Changed the US.” Michael Olenick, blueoceanthinking.com, January 12, 2021.
  • “Communistic Societies of the United States.” Charles Nordhoff, John Murray, 1875.
  • “Oneida: The 'Free-Love Utopia' that Chased Immortality.” Maria Bardia, BBC History, September 24, 2020.
  • “Stirpiculture: Science-Guided Human Propagation and the Oneida Community.” Alexandra Prince, The Journal of Religion and Science, February 12, 2017.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on September 18, 2021:

Many thanks for your kind words Rodric.

Rodric Anthony Johnson from Surprise, Arizona on September 17, 2021:

This truly intrigued me, Rupert. You are a source of so much novelty historical truths. I love that you invited your readers to learn more about related topics. I am hooked? If I could thumbs up this like in the old days, I would!

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