6.16.2017

PART SIX - And final installment in the Oneida Community Series - A closer look at the doctrines


This is part six - the final even though my previous post talked about the decline of the community, the leader escaping arrest for statutory rape by heading to Canada and the community disbanding in part and dividing up their 'joint stock' and becoming the Oneida brand silverware we know today.

However - I want to go back and talk about some of their doctrines for a minute.  One of them is very familiar to the Warren Jeff's FLDS compound - and how Mormons under Joseph Smith operated until the government made the Mormons stop practicing polygamy and of course we all know the fall out of the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints mess of Mr. Jeffs.   (One random link here describes his penchant not just for 'many' bedmates he called wives - but young ones.)

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While studying at Yale, Noyes had formulated a ‘Perfectionist creed’ that postulated that the Second Coming of Christ had already transpired so Christians were actually living in the era of fulfillment and not the age of prophecy.

For the past decade, religious revivals had been sweeping the country and warning of the Second Coming of Christ.

Get your house in order for the hereafter - was what the revivalists preached. Noyes had a different take.

Men and women could sleep with multiple partners now - just no ejaculation - and sinlessness could be achieved in the here and now.

Yale Department of Theology viewed these sermons as heretical and tossed Noyes out of the seminary.

So where else to go but New York City, where he bounced around for three weeks in ‘the moral cesspit of Manhattan, the ground zero of sexual temptation’, having the most delicious out-of body fantasy of having sex with the godhead.

The experience was so intense that it convinced him he had the skills to become god’s prophet on earth. It was ‘an ingenious fantasy of sex’ where there was no expulsion from Eden. He indulged in his strongest sexual urges with no shame or sorrow.

His brother, Horatio, viewed him as ‘a downright madman’.

‘A hallucinating vagabond prophet in the bowels of New York City’, Noyes escaped to his family’s home in rural Putney, Vermont, in 1834 where he began work on his Perfectionist movement newspaper.

He returned to New Haven to work with a colleague from the Free Church on the first edition of The Perfectionist, a paper that disseminated his ideas on ‘Perfectionism’.

Learning about the sexual experimentation among New York Perfectionists, Noyes decided to adopt it for his own New Haven Perfectionist group.

While in Putney and still a virgin, he was told he had lost the girl he was so attracted to in New Haven. She was now engaged to another man.

He wrote her and told her he had no intention of interfering with her ‘earthly engagement’ because that was simply an earthly dream.

He believed that by the word of God, she was given to him. He would have her in the hereafter - except he really wanted her in the flesh so he packed up and moved to where she now lived with her new husband in Ithaca, NY.

She coldly ignored him and his next thought was ‘invent a system in which exclusiveness was banned and all were wed to all’. There was no sexual rivalry in this dreamed up concept.

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Noyes became the hub of a group of men and women, eventually numbering about 300, who saw monogamy as impure and group love as the means of ushering in the millennium. They thought God demanded variety in every facet of life, including sex. To overcome what they regarded as the sin of monogamy, they called for the continual change of partners under the supervision of Noyes. 

Noyes took advantage of his position as sexual arbiter. Although he was married, his main gratification came from elsewhere. He indoctrinated his followers with the idea of "ascending fellowship," whereby community elders, considered especially godly, led younger believers heavenward by introducing them to what they saw as the holy pleasures of sex. Shortly after puberty, boys and girls were assigned a succession of older love partners. Teen-agers commonly slept with people in their 50's or 60's, though they got to choose partners their own age as time passed. Mr. Klaw cites sources that suggest Noyes often assigned himself 12- and 13-year-old girls. 

All the men at Oneida were thought to be linked in divine marriage to all the women. Many community members had two or three different partners a week. To avoid unwanted pregnancies and to insure maximum pleasure for women, the Oneidans practiced coitus reservatus, or, as Noyes called it, male continence -- intercourse without ejaculation. Couples who drifted toward "idolatrous" (that is, monogamous) love or who broke the rule of male continence were chastised publicly at group discussion meetings. Child rearing was also a group matter. Couples could request to have a child, but children lived in separate quarters, apart from their parents, and were raised communally. 

Mr. Klaw judiciously sorts out the rewards and the anxieties of these unusual living arrangements. Parents and children sometimes felt the strain of being separated from one another. He gives the affecting example of a mother who in her rare moments alone with her son asked, "Darling, do you love me?" The son recalled later: "I always melted. My marbles and blocks were forgotten. I would reach up and put my arms about her neck. I remember how tightly she held me and how long, as though she would never let me go." 

Possessiveness and jealousy inevitably arose among competing sex partners. The problems surrounding complex marriage contributed to the community's demise. Young people, in particular, grew tired of being assigned older lovers they often found undesirable. "I wish," one woman lamented, "it were more popular than it is for the young to love the old, the handsome to love the less so, the educated the less educated, in short, that love might be truly free, permeating and pervading all hearts." 

As Mr. Klaw points out, the surprising thing is not that Oneida failed but that it lasted as long as it did.

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The community believed that Jesus had already returned in AD 70, making it possible for them to bring about Jesus’s millennial kingdom themselves, and be free of sin and perfect in this world, not just Heaven (a belief called Perfectionism). The Oneida Community practiced Communalism (in the sense of communal property and possessions), Complex Marriage, Male Continence, Mutual Criticism and Ascending Fellowship. There were smaller Noyesian communities in Wallingford, Connecticut; Newark, New Jersey; Putney and Cambridge, Vermont. The community’s original 87 members grew to 172 by February 1850, 208 by 1852, and 306 by 1878. The branches were closed in 1854 except for the Wallingford branch, which operated until devastated by a tornado in 1878. The Oneida Community dissolved in 1881, and eventually became the giant silverware company Oneida Limited.

Even though the community reached a maximum population of about 300, it had a complex bureaucracy of 27 standing committees and 48 administrative sections.

The manufacturing of silverware, the sole remaining industry, began in 1877, relatively late in the life of the Community, and still exists. Secondary industries included the manufacture of leather travel bags, the weaving of palm frond hats, the construction of rustic garden furniture, game traps, and tourism.

All Community members were expected to work, each according to his or her abilities. Women tended to do much of the domestic duties. Although more skilled jobs tended to remain with an individual member (the financial manager, for example, held his post throughout the life of the Community), Community members rotated through the more unskilled jobs, working in the house, the fields, or the various industries. As Oneida thrived, it began to hire outsiders to work in these positions as well. They were a major employer in the area, with approximately 200 employees by 1870.

Complex Marriage

The Oneida community believed strongly in a system of free love known as complex marriage, where any member was free to have sex with any other who consented. Possessiveness and exclusive relationships were frowned upon. Unlike 20th century social movements, the Oneidans did not seek consequence-free sex for pleasure, but believed that, because the natural outcome of intercourse was pregnancy, raising children should be a communal responsibility. Women over the age of 40 were to act as sexual “mentors” to adolescent boys, as these relationships had minimal chance of conceiving. Furthermore, these women became religious role models for the young men. Likewise, older men often introduced young women to sex. Noyes often used his own judgment in determining the partnerships that would form, and would often encourage relationships between the non-devout and the devout in the community, in the hopes that the attitudes and behaviors of the devout would influence the non-devout.

Mutual Criticism

Every member of the community was subject to criticism by committee or the community as a whole, during a general meeting. The goal was to eliminate undesirable character traits. Various contemporary sources contend that Noyes himself was the subject of criticism, although less often and of probably less severe criticism than the rest of the community. Charles Nordhoff witnessed the following criticism of member “Charles:”

Charles sat speechless, looking before him; but as the accusations multiplied, his face grew paler, and drops of perspiration began to stand on his forehead. The remarks I have reported took up about half an hour; and now, each one in the circle having spoken, Mr. Noyes summed up. He said that Charles had some serious faults; that he had watched him with some care; and that he thought the young man was earnestly trying to cure himself. He spoke in general praise of his ability, his good character, and of certain temptations he had resisted in the course of his life. He thought he saw signs that Charles was making a real and earnest attempt to conquer his faults; and as one evidence of this he remarked that Charles had lately come to him to consult him upon a difficult case in which he had had a severe struggle, but had in the end succeeded in doing right. “In the course of what we call stirpiculture,” said Noyes, “Charles, as you know, is in the situation of one who is by and by to become a father. Under these circumstances, he has fallen under the too common temptation of selfish love, and a desire to wait upon and cultivate an exclusive intimacy with the woman who was to bear a child through him. This is an insidious temptation, very apt to attack people under such circumstances; but it must nevertheless be struggled against.” Charles, he went on to say, had come to him for advice in this case, and he (Noyes) had at first refused to tell him any thing, but had asked him what he thought he ought to do; that after some conversation, Charles had determined, and he agreed with him, that he ought to isolate himself entirely from the woman, and let another man take his place at her side; and this Charles had accordingly done, with a most praiseworthy spirit of self-sacrifice. Charles had indeed still further taken up his cross, as he had noticed with pleasure, by going to sleep with the smaller children, to take charge of them during the night. Taking all this in view, he thought Charles was in a fair way to become a better man, and had manifested a sincere desire to improve, and to rid himself of all selfish faults.



As stated earlier, Noyes' teachings were practiced here by the community. The main teaching which received the most criticism was that of "Complex Marriage." In Complex Marriage, every man was married to every woman and vice versa. This practice was to stay only within the community and had to stay within two main guidelines. The first was that before the man and woman could cohabit, they had to obtain each other's consent through a third person or persons. Secondly, no two people could have exclusive attachment with each other because it would be selfish and idolatrous. Any two people found in any such situation would be separated and not allowed to see each other for a certain length of time.


Another teaching practiced at the Oneida Community was that of "Male Continence," which was a type of birth control. In the practice of Male Continence, "a couple would engage in sexual congress without the man ever ejaculating, either during intercourse or after withdrawal." Noyes justified this practice because his wife Harriet in the first six years of their marriage had five difficult childbirths, four of which were premature and resulted in the deaths of the children. Noyes came to the conclusion that where an unwanted pregnancy occurred, there was a waste of the man's seed and that it was no different in practice to masturbation. With the implementation of Male Continence, which lasted from 1848 to 1868, some forty children were born in the community of about two hundred and fifty people.

Another teaching practiced along these same lines was that of "Ascending Fellowship." Ascending Fellowship was set up to properly introduce the virgins into Complex Marriage. This practice also worked to prevent the young members from falling in love with each other and from limiting their range of affection to just the younger members. The main people picked to care for the virgins were people who were considered to be closer to God. These people were of course older and had a special title which was that of Central Member. These Central Members were allowed their pick of a partner over which they would have the responsibility of spiritual guidance. It usually worked that the male Central Member would pick any female virgin of his choice. Due to her lower order, she was compelled to accept. In the case of the female Central Member, they were usually past the age of menopause, and when they chose their male virgin, they were obligated to honor the request. The reason women past menopause were chosen was so that as they taught the younger men Male Continence, they would not have to worry about unwanted pregnancies.

The forth major teaching practiced was that of "Mutual Criticism." Mutual Criticism was established to assure the integrity of the community by conformity to Noyes' morality. The way in which Mutual Criticism worked was that a member, under communal control, was subjected to criticisms of either a committee or the whole community. The criticisms were usually directed toward the "member's bad traits (those thoughts or acts that detracted from family unity), and an individual could be put through a shameful, humiliating experience." Only Noyes himself would not go through this unless he decided to, because he felt that a group should not criticize their leader.

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In 1849, a small branch community started at Brooklyn, and others followed" at Wallingford, Newark, Putney, Cambridge, and Manlius. But in 1855, some of these communities were abandoned so that a concentration of members would take place at Oneida and Wallingford." By this time, "relative tranquility had been achieved and almost all the theories and practices that would make Oneida one of the most distinctive of all American ventures in religious and social reorganization had been at least provisionally established."

Within the commune, there was a debate about when children should be initiated into sex, and by whom. There was also much debate about its practices as a whole. The founding members were aging or deceased, and many of the younger communitarians desired to enter into exclusive, traditional marriages.

The capstone to all these pressures was the harassment campaign of Professor John Mears of Hamilton College. He called for a protest meeting against the Oneida Community; it was attended by forty-seven clergymen. John Humphrey Noyes was informed by trusted adviser Myron Kinsley that a warrant for his arrest on charges of statutory rape was imminent. Noyes fled the Oneida Community Mansion House and the country in the middle of a June night in 1879, never to return to the United States. Shortly afterward, he wrote to his followers from Niagara Falls, Ontario, recommending that the practice of complex marriage be abandoned.

Complex marriage was abandoned in 1879 following external pressures and the community soon broke apart, with some of the members reorganizing as a joint-stock company. Marital partners normalized their status with the partners with whom they were cohabiting at the time of the re-organization. Over 70 Community members entered into a traditional marriage in the following year.

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Noyes was the father of ten of the sixty-two Community children born in a ten-year period from 1869 to 1879.

An additional nineteen were blood relatives and fifty per cent of the newest generation had Noyes blood coursing through their veins.

Noyes complex theological and social systems guaranteed Noyes could have sex with as many ‘spiritual’ wives as he chose. His peculiar psychosexual needs were met.

But it was all over in 1879. Times had dramatically changed in defense of marriage and the New York Committee for the suppression of vice was hearing testimony that the Oneidans were worse than the polygamists of Utah.

For forty years, Noyes flourished at the center of what he believed was his divine commission of transforming the world into a kingdom of love on earth.

On the morning of June 22, 1879, word reached Noyes that he was about to be arrested for statutory rape.

He fled the Mansion House, the 93,000 square foot grand Victorian estate and communal home and escaped over the border and into Canada - never to return to the United States.





Sources for further reading:

http://www.nyhistory.com/central/oneida.htm
http://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/religious/the-oneida-community-1848-1880-a-utopian-community/
https://library.syr.edu/digital/guides/o/OneidaCommunityCollection/hsr1.htm
http://www.nytimes.com/1993/10/24/books/complex-marriage-to-say-the-least.html
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3581008/Inside-John-Humphrey-Noyes-19th-Century-Oneida-NY-commune-people-believed-sleeping-ultimate-medicine.html