PART FOUR - the Oneida Community - a 'utopian community' sprung up in the mid 1880's

This is part four in a series I started to read about on my own, just for fun.  I love to research and love to read and have many hand written, filled notebooks and 3 ring binders simply for my own enjoyment.  Sometimes I choose to keep some of the information online on my site because it's easier for me to find at a moments notice and it sure beats hand writing or printing off all the information I find interesting and want to save!

So many parts of what John Humphrey Noyes was implementing into his utopian society are very similar to other movements starting up at the same time; mainly - Mormonism.  Reading through this, if you know anything about the history or doctrines of the Mormon cult, you may recognize it here as well.

PART FOUR - the beginning and the economics

In 1834, John Humphrey Noyes started developing the theories that would later become the foundation of truth in the Oneida Community. Over the next three years, John canvassed New York state and New England trying to make new converts with no avail. Finally, after a tough three-week period in New York City, he reached the verge of a complete mental and emotional breakdown. To top things off, his first and most faithful follower, Abigail Merwin, left him to marry another man.

Shortly after these events, Noyes started writing articles which were published in a new periodical called the "Battle- Axe". His first article was on the denunciation of the institution of marriage. Also, in September of this year (1837), part of a letter written by Noyes to a friend was anonymously published by the editor in the Battle-Axe. This letter stated that Noyes felt from his interpretation of a biblical prophecy, that he was clearly convinced he was God's agent on earth. This article did not bring as much outrage by the people as did a later article that outlined his beliefs on sexual relationships in the spiritual world and that would prevail in the millennial kingdom (Whitworth 95).

Through the writing of these articles, a woman by the name of Harriet Holton, the granddaughter of the Lieutenant-Governor of the state, became interested in Noyes and his work. She started to financially support him, and later, after Noyes realized that he would never get Abigail Merwin back, slowly came to the point where he realized that Harriet was filling the void that Abigail had left. In June of 1838, Noyes wrote Harriet a letter in which he proposed in a very careful way. He explained to her that their marriage would be a spiritual one, even though for that time period it would be a carnal or earthly marriage. But, he felt that the marriage would benefit both of them and that they, according to his teachings, would not selfishly possess one another.

One of his main reasons for getting married was that he felt the marriage would advance the work of God in which he was engaged. Also, it showed others who were criticizing him of his celibate state that he was not for celibacy, as were the Shakers. Noyes also said that, "By this marriage, besides herself, and a good social position, which she held as belonging to the first families of Vermont, I obtained money enough to buy a house and printing-office, and to buy a press and type." The press was then used to propagate Noyes' teachings through a publication called "The Witness," which he had to discontinue due to a lack of funds. So this marriage seems to have been based mainly on convenience.

After his marriage, Noyes then helped to arrange the marriages of his sisters to two of his closest followers, John L. Skinner and John R. Miller, who were students from his Bible institute which he had started in 1836 in Putney. He also gained the loyalty of his younger brother George and later, due to much pressure, his own mother who had been previously very upset by the way in which he had been using up the family estate to finance his religious endeavors. So at this point, John and George Noyes, Skinner, Miller, and a later addition of George Cragin became the center of an informal governing group of the movement.

Finally, in 1840, "the Putney Association came into being - as a purely religious body.". Then, in 1844, the group formally adopted communism by which to live. This communism "included all property of family living and associations." At this time there were approximately thirty-seven members that were involved. They lived in three houses, maintained a store, and worshiped together in a small chapel. They also ran two farms at this time, and because of the death of Noyes' father who left $20,000 each to four members who were in the community, they were able to support themselves.

Two years later, in 1846, the community adopted Noyes' teachings of "Mutual Criticism," "Complex Marriage" and "Male Continence". At this time in the groups history, these practices were only practiced on a small scale among leadership, and not until 1848 in Oneida, New York, would these be practiced by the whole community. Because of these practices, the community came under much persecution, even to the point where Noyes was indicted for adultery. Noyes, not wanting to become a useless martyr, and who by this time was viewed by the group as the Moses of the new dispensation who was going to lead them to the promised land, quickly purchased twenty-three acres of land that contained some buildings in Oneida, New York.

Their "Promised Land" was near the Canadian border which would be very convenient in case of future persecution. Then in 1847, the Putney group agreed "that the Kingdom of God had come." . The community could believe this because of two of Noyes' teachings: one being that Christ's second coming took place in A.D. 70, and the other being that they could bring in the millennial kingdom themselves. Forty-five of his followers from Putney followed Noyes to Oneida and by the end of 1848, their membership grew to eighty-seven.

The economic base of the Oneida Community was agricultural and industrial. They had approximately forty acres of partially cleared land on which to farm and an Indian sawmill in which to produce lumber. Over the next year, the community purchased and cultivated additional land, established a variety of minor craft industries, built a communal dwelling house [now a museum, pictured above], appointed administrative committees and set up a pattern of daily living which the community followed for the next thirty years.


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.

In order to understand the many changes to the structures and grounds and the many uses to which they have been employed, it is useful to divide the 150 years into three distinct "phases", each with its own "family".
Phase I is the Oneida Community Period, 1848-1880, under the leadership of John Humphrey Noyes. The "family" is the group of Christian Perfectionists living together communally. This is the time during which all extant structures were planned and built, with the exception of the "Lounge" (1914).

Phase II is the Oneida Limited Period, 1881-1987, under the early leadership of, most significantly, Pierrepont Burt Noyes. The "family" is largely descendants of the original Oneida Community members until the 1970's when more friends of family and employees of the Oneida Limited Silversmiths and local schools are resident in the Mansion House. Owner and manager is Oneida Limited. This is the period of most significant changes to the interior of all the structures as private apartments were created for families. It is also the time of most change to the landscape in and around the Mansion House.

Phase III is the Oneida Community Mansion House, (OCMH 1987 - present). The "family" is a group of resident descendants and non-descendants, many short-term guests visiting for meetings, conferences, social events and daily patrons of the museum. Use of the Mansion House as a residence continues while the museum and historic site functions have become most prominent. Owner and manager is a not-for-profit museum with a for-profit subsidiary.

Continued in the next post..... part five.