14. Oneida

Submitted by Ross Arctor on October 3, 2014

Millenarianism, chiliasm, pentecostalism — we are inclined to think of these terms as applying to movements in a religious underworld of theological proletarians, of semi-literate people — in fact, much like the early Christians. John Humphrey Noyes, born in 1811 in Brattleboro, Vermont, the founder of the Oneida Community, and a sect known as the Perfectionists, was a graduate of Dartmouth who turned first to the study of law and then to theology at Andover and later at Yale. Under the influence of the revivalist movement he underwent an experience of spiritual conversion and came to believe that it was possible for men not only to be saved but to become perfect — or perfected — in this life. Intensive Bible study accompanied with much meditation and prayer convinced him that this end could be achieved best by a literal following of the apostolic life.

In 1834 Noyes returned to Putney, Vermont, where his father was a banker, married the granddaughter of a congressman, and slowly gathered about himself a group of persons, at first mostly his close family, who followed him not only in belief but in undergoing the same experiences and convictions, and in spending their time in Bible study and prayer. In the course of ten years the little group of perfectionists worked out the main body of their doctrines, and gained a few converts and correspondents throughout New England and New York. In 1846 they began to live together holding all things in common. At this point they aroused the wrath of the citizens of Putney and were driven out of town.

In 1848 the Perfectionists purchased forty acres and a poor house near Oneida in northern New York, and in the next couple of years established branches in Brooklyn and Wallingford, Connecticut. At Oneida the land was poor, the buildings were tumbling down. At first there were fewer than a hundred people, who were able to bring comparatively little money to the founding of the community. However, they soon got the land under production, added more acreage, and were able to feed themselves, whereupon they embarked upon a carefully planned program of small-scale diversified industrial development. They sold farm crop and cattle, put up fruits, vegetables, jellies, and jams, made furniture, raised and wove silk and wool, made traveling bags and matchboxes, and ran a saw mill and blacksmith shop. In the latter they began to make, at first by hand, traps of their own invention and this eventually became the most profitable of their manufacturing enterprises, before they took up the silversmithing which as a private corporation still continues.

In 1874 the full members at Oneida and Wallingford (Brooklyn had been moved to Oneida) numbered two hundred and nineteen adults, about twenty per cent more women than men, sixty-four children, and about two hundred and seventy hired farm laborers, fruitpickers, and workers in the shops, including thirty-five women and girls in the silk mill at Wallingford; and in addition to this they employed a considerable number of domestic servants. In 1873 they had sold over three hundred thousand dollars worth of produce and manufactures. In other words, in twenty-five years the Oneida colonists had become modestly rich, were able to employ help on a ratio of more than one employee to one adult colonist, and to live lives with a higher level of satisfaction both materially, culturally, and spiritually than any other religious colony. Oneida seems to have been a thoroughly enjoyable place to live. This remarkable success was probably due to the high quality of the colonists themselves and especially to their leader, a man of truly exceptional intelligence and will, the product of the best education of his time, who believed in not asking anyone to do anything he could not do himself and so worked as farmer, blacksmith, administrator, cattle-breeder, and, at one time or another, in all the other enterprises of the community.

Viewed from the perspective of late twentieth-century secular culture, thoroughly skeptical of science as well as religion, John Humphrey Noyes may seem to be a crank. Of course, anyone who belonged to a communalist group by definition was something of a crank. But it should be remembered that in the first half of the nineteenth century the foundation of education and learning and life philosophy was still for most people, however cultivated, the Bible, especially in America. The founding fathers may have been radical intellectuals, and amongst them there may have been a few rationalists and deists, but the majority of educated Americans, particularly after the reaction against the French Revolution, were devout Christians. Noyes was a devout Christian, but he was also a radical and rationalist Christian who, in his little study group in Vermont, set about trying to discover exactly what the word of God meant. If the New Testament was approached in this way, with a mind consciously shorn of preconception, it seemed obvious that apostolic Christianity was millenarian, chiliastic, pentecostal — and communalist.

Oneida was in many ways a mirror image of the Shaker communities, with methods of building group commitment which might seem to have been direct contraries to Shaker practices. Most famous was Oneida’s special form of group marriage. Everyone was available to everyone else, but the actual pairing of couples was under the guidance of the community, ultimately it would seem of Noyes himself, and the unions were usually relatively short-lived. Coupled with this group sex (“complex marriage”) was Noyes’s special discovery of “male continence.” Men were expected to control themselves in sexual intercourse until the woman had one or more orgasms and then withdraw, apparently without ejaculation. This sounds like a nerve-wracking custom but in fact, as has been demonstrated by various erotic yogic practices, it is quite possible for a man to train himself to separate orgasm from ejaculation. The functions are controlled by two different sets of nerves. Also in some of Noyes’s writing on the subject he seems to be talking in a very occult manner about oral sex. The significant thing is that the entire community practiced birth control by withdrawal and was committed to the sexual pleasure of women — most extraordinary notions for the mid-nineteenth century. Noyes continuously stresses his, one is tempted to say, “startling discovery” that the sexual act has two functions, procreation and pleasure — the greatest pleasure in life. Sometimes behind his rather cryptic language he seems to have stumbled on a kind of Tantrism, the erotic mysticism of the sexual trance.

As the colony matured Noyes, who as we have seen was a successful cattle-breeder, introduced the idea of controlled eugenic breeding, which he called stirpiculture. Only those people who were judged to be the best breeding stock with physical and mental qualities which, if developed genetically through the generations would produce a superior race, were allowed to have children. Noyes and a special committee, after long observation in the community, picked them out and instructed them to mate, whatever their previous unions may have been. Today such practices have become identified with extreme reaction, but perhaps the future will decide that one of the greatest evils of Nazism was discrediting eugenics. Once, after it was popularized by Noyes, eugenic reform was a common belief and hope of almost all social radicals.

Noyes was a food mystic too, and most of the people in the community were vegetarians. Only two meals a day were served. They drank tea and coffee, but no alcohol, and used no tobacco. They believed that disease was a kind of sin and treated it with a combination of self and group criticism and faith healing — ideas which resemble Samuel Butler’s and George Bernard Shaw’s, whom Noyes probably influenced. They seem to have been about as successful as the orthodox medicine of their day. Instead of private confession before admission to the community, and after any serious sin later, as practiced by the Shakers, Oneida used a form of group criticism which went on as the occasion offered throughout life. There is a certain resemblance to the group criticism practiced by present-day Synanon with the vast difference that in Oneida this was done with gentleness, consideration, and respect for the individual.

The change in the public temper of the United States is well indicated by the dominant society’s reaction to Oneida. The strongest objections were not to communalism or political radicalism but to the colony’s strange customs — complex marriage, stirpiculture, the equality of women, and, not least, the manner of dress. Men were attired plainly but conventionally. Women wore short hair, skirts to the knee, long trousers, and a good deal less underwear than was common in those days of corsets, corset covers, many petticoats, ruffled pantaloons, and bustles. Visitors found what seems to us extremely modest dress most exciting. But the Oneidans were also amongst the most advanced political radicals of their time. There exists a letter to William Lloyd Garrison from Noyes which he called his Declaration of Independence from the United States and its collective responsibility for slavery. Insofar as the community paid attention to worldly politics it uniformly took what we would consider the most radical position on every issue of the day.

Throughout the daily life of the community in every department, in every activity, the member encountered built-in checks, controls, and short-circuits designed to prevent, abort, or cure every vestige of acquisitiveness and selfishness. After weaning, the children were raised in nurseries by specialists, both male and female, and early played at work or worked alongside their elders as children do in primitive societies. They were usually permitted some time each day with their parents. All toys were held in common and from then on, all but articles of the most personal use, including “clothing to wear outside,” was drawn from and returned to a common wardrobe.

Government was by a vast array of interlocking committees, which were permitted considerable initiative, subject always to the meeting of the whole community; and if a division did occur, the decision, as with the Quakers, was postponed until unanimity could be reached. Oneida shared with the Society of Friends two ideas that seem rather commonplace but which are really quite startling and are held by hardly any other Christian, or for that matter, secular group. First was that it is indeed possible and not really terribly difficult to be good (their official name was the Perfectionists). Second, they believed there can exist scarcely any social emergencies where consensus need be sacrificed to decisiveness. Agreement was more important than disagreement.

Noyes’s specifically theological ideas were not too unusual for a time of religious eccentricity. He believed in the authority of the Bible, but beyond it, in the ultimate authority of the Spirit of Truth, which, like the Quakers and their Inner Light, could be turned to by every man. He believed that God was dual, male and female. The Second Coming of Christ had already occurred at the time of the fall of the temple. We are now living after the apocalypse but before the imminent spiritual transformation of the world that would usher in the open rule of the kingdom of heaven. Complex marriage was not just a social technique for a communalist society — it was the method by which the spiritual union of the sexes which had been broken by the fall of Adam and Eve would be restored and mankind would once again be a divinized syzygy reflecting the Godhead. Death would be overcome and man would return to eternity.

As we read Noyes today it is easy to see through his dated, biblical language to the working of a powerful mind. He was the only religious communalist leader who was a radical intellectual, and he continuously stressed Oneida’s as it were apostolic succession from Brook Farm, certainly the most far-out intellectual highbrow activity of its day, which dissolved the month Oneida was founded.

As Noyes grew old and the new generation of colonists grew up, as usual there was more and more objection to details of the colonists’ life. In 1879, worn out by attacks from both within and without, Noyes wrote a letter proposing the abandonment of complex marriage, and the general meeting approved the proposal with only one negative vote. From then on, bit by bit, practice by practice, the colony rapidly disintegrated, and the miscellaneous property was distributed. In 1881 Oneida became a joint-stock company engaged primarily in the manufacture of silverware and so continues to this day. The former colonist stockholders, if they kept their stock, grew rich, but the business became a capitalist enterprise, and very far from being a workers’ democracy.