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The Oneida Community



Oneida was one of the most successful utopian communes in history. For approximately 30 years, they lived in a gigantic group marriage (over 200 people at the end) with shared property. They called themselves Perfectionists and they proceeded to substitute for the small unit of home and family and individual possessions, the larger unit of group-family and group-family life.

Avoiding the "back to the land" fantasies which were so prevalent in 1800's (and 1960's!) communes, and which typically resulted in city people trying to be farmers and failing miserably, they founded businesses including a spoon factory which evolved (after their breakup) into the Oneida Silversmiths atware company.

The Oneida Community was founded by John Humphrey Noyes in upstate New York in 1848. Noyes believed that man was able to live without sin in his life if he were in the perfect environment. He set out to create this utopia near the Oneida Creek in the state of New York.

The Oneida Community never become very large. In January of 1849 the community had 87 members; 172 members by February of 1850, and by February of 1851 the number rose to approximately 205 members. The records show that in 1875 there were 298 members, and by 1878, the year of the breakup, there were 306 members.

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The story of the Oneida Perfectionists is largely the story of John Humphrey Noyes. But it to some extent also the story of the sweeping changes taking place in the United States in the first half of the 19th century. It is important to view Noyes and hi s followers against the backdrop of this period in order to understand their motivation for starting a utopian community and how that community fits into the larger utopian model established by the Puritans in the 17th century.

Noyes was born in Vermont in 1811 into an accomplished family. His father served in the United States House of Representatives, and he was a cousin of President Rutherford B. Hayes. Noyes experienced a religious conversion at a revival in 1831, during t he Second Great Awakening. The Awakening signaled the reaction of thousands of Americans to the enormous social and political changes taking place in the United States in the early 19th century. The country was moving away from the cohesive and localize d societies of the Revolutionary Age and entering the Age of Jackson, which was marked by splintering political factions and the upheaval of the Industrial Revolution. The Awakening looked back to what people felt was a simpler American life. And while the tenets of the Awakening differ significantly from those of the First Great Awakening and the Calvinists, like the First Great Awakening, it sought to create a community of believers at a time when many felt the traditional communal bonds were slippin g away. Noyes' own conversion prompted him to leave Vermont and to attend Andover and Yale, the school where many of the most prominent ministers of the Awakening received their training, and he became a minister.

Noyes grew intensely concerned about God's will for him. After tremendous study and what some believed to be an emotional breakdown, Noyes came to believe that God could not expect the impossible from his subjects, and that the perfection that he demande d was not only attainable, but that it could be accomplished by an inner sense of salvation. Noyes also believed that the millennium had actually arrived in 70 A.D. He based this on what he interpreted to be Christ's expectation that the millennium wou ld arrive within one generation of His death. In Noyes' understanding, therefore, the saints had been separated from sinners for generations, and no longer needed to fear sin. These two ideas working in combination, led Noyes to the belief that the King dom of Heaven could be realized on earth. He wrote in 1847: "The church on earth is now rising to meet the approaching kingdom in the heavens, and to become its duplicate and representative on earth."

As Noyes said, beyond an inner sense of salvation, in order to attain the kingdom of heaven on earth he and his followers would have to duplicate Heaven, and to do this they would have to follow Christ's teaching on what the reign of God would be like. O ne important tenet was that the community must be truly communist economically. All the members were equal, and each had a job that help to support the community as a whole.

But the most famous rule that Noyes imposed was based on Christ's teaching that there would be no marriage in Heaven. Therefore, Noyes believed that on earth all men were married to all women, and that the men and women in the community should be sexuall y intimate with a variety of partners. Noyes called this practice complex marriage. Complex marriage was essential to Noyes, because he felt that it moved the community beyond the traditionally divisive commitments to one partner or the family, and rais ed this love and loyalty inherent in those commitments to the level of the community, just as he envisioned it in Heaven. The practice of complex marriage was regulated by the practice of what Noyes called "male continence", a highly successful form of b irth control. Noyes needed to control pregnancy so he could control which members of the community parented children, and through this type of social engineering people his community with only the "best" individuals.

Noyes founded his first community based on these beliefs in Putney, Vermont in 1840, after his unusual belief's caused him to lose his license to preach in 1837. He was forced out of Putney in 1847 because of his group's radical sexual practices, and he and his family and followers went West to Oneida, New York, where in 1848 they founded the community of the Oneida Perfectionists.

In order to support itself, the community explored many different economic ventures, including farming, sawmilling, blacksmithing and silk production. But by far their most lucrative venture was the production of the steal traps being used by the Hudso n's Bay Company and other trappers throughout the United States to trap beaver. When the fur trade tapered off, the Oneidans turned to the production of silverware as their main source of inc ome. They were so financially productive, that by the time the community voted to disbanded in 1881, due to a decreasing commitment to the idea of complex marriage, the community's holdings were valued at over $600,000. Instead of dissolving entirely, the members transformed themselves into the Oneida Community, Limited, a joint stock company. They are know today simply as Oneida, Ltd..

The Oneida Perfectionists had a very different vision of utopian life than the Shakers and the Puritans, and yet their communities did share structural and ideological similarities. First, it believed that its members had entered into a special covenant with God. Secondly, this covenant required them to provide an example of righteous living for the rest of the world to observe. Third, that in this community the individual was to be sublimated to the community as a whole. Fourth, that in order to provide this example, the community must necessarily separate itself form the society at large and carve out a new place for themselves. Fifth, it revolved around the leadership of an au thoritarian figure who prescribed a very specific sets of rules for its members to follow. Finally, John Humphrey Noyes and the Oneida Perfectionists were responding, not just to the call of the West and the promise it held out, as Turner might have us believe, but just as Winthrop and the Puritans, to changing social conditions that undermined their understanding of themselves and their place in their society.

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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.

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Economic Communism - From their community's birth right up to it's death the members rejected all forms of personal wealth and private property.

Equality Of The Sexes - The Oneida Community believed in equality of the sexes.

Separation - The members did separate into a community, but their main separation was to be a sexual one.

Complex Marriage - This is where every man and every woman is married to each other. They could engage in sexual intercourse, but could not be attached to each other. Noyes was the first to use the term "free love" and strongly encouraged the practice. The idea was to engage in sexual relations with as many different partners as possible in order to keep two members from falling in love. Monogamous marriage was harmful because it excluded others from sharing in connubial affection. ­ Monogamous marriage was abolished, and children were raised communally from their second year until age 12. Excessive love between children and their biological parents was discourages because it took way from the group feeling. The children were also taught a trade so that the community could end up self-dependent.

Male Continence - This was a form of birth control where during and after sexual intercourse the man could not ejaculate. The couple would engage in sexual activities without the male ever ejaculating, either during intercourse or after withdrawal. Men were encouraged to use coitus reservatus unless the woman they were having sex with was post menopausal. By permitting men to achieve ejaculation only with post menopausal women the Perfectionists not only were employing a novel level of birth control, but were also using an effective method of providing older women with sexual partners.

Ascending Fellowship - This is where the young virgins in the community were brought into the practice of Complex Marriage. The older godly members who were in a special group and were called Central Members would pick a virgin to be spiritually responsible for. This took place when the young people were about fourteen years old. The female members performing the ceremony were usually post-menopausal. This was to assure that pregnancy would not occur during the time which young men would learn male continence. This practice was instilled to prevent younger members from creating special love and to broaden their interactions within the group.

Stirpiculture - If a child was desired-and allowed- a Eugenics program was used so that only the best children would be bred. These concepts of creating a perfect world had not been expounded since Plato's Republic. Stripiculture is derived from the principle of eugenics, attempts to improve hereditary qualities through selective breeding. Noyes encouraged the most spiritually ascended followers to mate with each other in order to produce the most spiritual offspring. The mating of certain individuals tended to create special love between members and caused tension among members.

Mutual Criticism - In Mutual Criticism, each member of the community that was being reprimanded was taken in front of either a committee or sometimes the whole community to be criticized for their action. Meetings would be held in which all members, including the spiritual ascendants could be criticized by anyone in the 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 was not subjected to mutual criticism because he believed a group should not criticize its leader.

Confession - The members of the community, according to Noyes, were sinless after conversion, so no confession would be needed.

Regeneration - That Christ's death was not for the sins of man, but was the first blow to Satan. But that by believing in the death of Christ, one was released from sin, because Christ destroyed the central cause of sin. By believing then, one is regenerated (Whitworth 101-102).

Revelation - Noyes never said that he received special revelation, though he did have some twisted interpretations. Noyes once wrote an article in "The Berean" and emphasized the credibility of scripture and denounced those who denied the validity and relevance of scripture.

Millennial Kingdom - That the Millennial Kingdom had been introduced in A.D. 70 at which time Noyes thought Christ had made His Second Coming (Hudson 186).

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Original Material extern:


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  • Andrews, Edward Deming. The Gift to be Simple. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1940.
  • Andrews, Edward Deming. The People Called Shakers. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1963.
  • Andrews, Edward Deming and Faith Andrews. Work and Worship. Greenwich: New York Graphic Society, Ltd., 1974.
  • Askew, Thomas A. and Peter W. Spellman. The Churches and the American Experience. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984.
  • 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.
  • Ferguson, Charles W. The New Books of Revelations. Garden City: Doubleday, Doran and Co., Inc., 1928.
  • 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. / New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
  • Foster, Lawrence. 1991. Women, Family, and Utopia: Communal Experiments of the Shakers, the Oneida Community and the Mormons. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.
  • Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity. Vol. 2 San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984.
  • Holloway, Mark. Heavens on Earth. New York: Liberty Publishers, 1951.
  • Hudson, Winthrop S. Religion in America 3rd Ed. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1981.
  • 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.
  • Morse, Flo. The Shakers and the World's People. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1980.
  • Muncy, Raymond Lee. Sex and Marriage in Utopian Communities: 19th Century America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973.
  • Neal, Julia. By Their Fruits. Philadelphia: Porcupine Press, 1975.
  • Noyes, Pierrepont. My Father's House: An Oneida Boyhood. Gloucester: Peter Smith, 1966.
  • Robertson, Constance Noyes. Oneida Community: The Breakup, 1876-1881. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1972.
  • Robertson, Constance Noyes. 1970. Oneida Community: An Autobiography. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.
  • Robertson, Constance Noyes. 1972. Oneida Community: The Breakup. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.
  • Sasson, Diane. The Shaker Spiritual Narrative. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1983.
  • Sprigg, June. By Shaker Hands. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1975.
  • Thomas, Robert David. The Man Who Would Be Perfect. University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc., 1977.
  • Whitworth, John Mc Kelvie?. God's Blueprints. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, Ltd., 1975.
  • Wisbey, Herbert A., Jr. "Noyes, John Humphrey." Encyclopedia International. 1967 ed.

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