The Crooked Lake Review

Fall 2005

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Saints, Sinners and Reformers

The Burned-Over District Re-Visited


John H. Martin

Table of Contents of Saints, Sinners and Reformers

Chapter 11

John Humphrey Noyes

The Oneida Community

In sedate, conservative, Republican, upstate New York, there are no doubt crimes of passion from time to time. Such events, however, are neither condoned by the communities in which they occur, nor are they sanctioned by public opinion. Passion among the lovely hills and plains of western New York must know its bounds. So it was at the very start of the history of western New York, as there were obviously restrictions upon passion when Jemima Wilkinson, the "Publick Universal Friend," decreed celibacy as the proper way of life for her followers in the late 1780s on the shores of Lake Seneca and then near Lake Keuka.

Of course, such stern form of morality has not always been followed, and there is a quotation which might suggest otherwise. That statement comes from John Humphrey Noyes, a one-time minister, who declared, "God did not intend that love between men and women be confined to the narrow channels of conventional matrimony." Thus in 1848 Noyes began his Oneida Community with a small band of Christian Perfectionists who were going to practice Bible communism and "Complex" or Group Marriage. It was America's most successful experiment in Utopian living—until the Presbyterians interfered and brought to an end this Heaven on Earth. It is amazing what sexual jealousy and partisan Christianity can achieve!

There is a lovely reminiscence of what life was like at the Oneida Community, written by Pierrepont Noyes about his youthful life in his father's Utopian establishment. He wrote:

I was born and brought up in a strange world—a world bounded on four sides by walls of isolation; a world wherein the customs, laws, religion, and social formulas accumulated by civilization came to us only as the faint cries of the philistine hordes outside our walls.

So began Pierrepont Noyes' childhood remembrances. His father, John Humphrey Noyes, had established this most unusual religious community in 1848, and it flourished for thirty years before society outside of its walls and internal stresses brought it to an end. With its beliefs in "Complex" or "Group" marriage, equal work for men and women, and the religious idea of "Perfectionism" here on earth, the community was bound to raise many eyebrows in the outside world. By the time it formally disbanded under external pressure, the Oneida Community had seen men and women and children living contentedly side by side for more than three decades. Its members were probably better educated, more widely read, healthier, and more industrious than many in the "Outside World."

Their self-supporting business enterprises, including Oneida Community, Ltd., producers of silver-plated flatware, met with one success after another. In many ways, the Oneida Community was far ahead of its time. Great pride in its accomplishments and fascination with its ideals have compelled Community descendents to preserve its memory. Thanks to them, the old "Mansion House" has become a living museum housing the aging descendents of the Community and permitting outsiders a glimpse into their unique past history.

It was for their advanced sexual ideas that the outside world was to condemn them. At Oneida, every woman was married to every man, and every man was married to every woman. This, in theory, could result in a continuing exchange of sexual partners. This was not, however, "free love" as was practiced in one community in Berlin Heights near Cleveland in Ohio in the mid-nineteenth century and elsewhere in similar unusual communities in the United States. At Oneida, men and women could have sexual relations when and with whom they pleased, subject only to the approval of a Central Guidance Committee. At Oneida, giving pleasure through sexual intercourse was to be cultivated as an art. Where sex was concerned, the only thing frowned upon was protracted sexual attachments. "Sexual selfishness" or "exclusive attachment" were not condoned. And this was in Victorian times, not the 1960s of Hippie-dom.

Unlike some later free-lovers of more modern times, at Oneida work, like sex, was to be joyous. Work they did, and they became wealthy and happy. One remarkable aspect of the Oneida community was its repudiation of the accepted Christian notion of the idea that life on earth was a vale of tears. For Oneida believers, unhappiness, if not a sin, was a serious deficiency in one's life. Life was meant to be enjoyed, and enjoy it they did.

At Oneida there was not only work of a moderate nature in which all took part in, communal labor, men and women working together, but there was also ample time for intellectual enjoyment and self-improvement. Everyone seemed to be studying astronomy, or Greek, or chemistry, or French, or reading the latest findings of Darwin and other modern thinkers, as well as the latest novels. There was time for music and games, there were community orchestras, operettas, plays, chess, croquet, baseball, and camping at Lake Oneida.

Everyone, except on a few occasions when growth outpaced space, had their own nine-by-twelve bedroom. One did not stay solitary in one's room in this engaging community, for there were always activities to keep one occupied and happy. There was the Big Hall where cultural activities took place. There was the Library of 6,000 volumes with the latest in books and periodicals. There was a generous and most pleasant upper Sitting Room for socializing. It was an unusually rich and happy—and most of the times, a sexually satisfying—life for the 306 members who occupied the Mansion House, as their community home was named.

Today, as in its own time, it is a tourist attraction even though the Community has not existed as a living entity for more than one hundred years. One can still visit the "Mansion House" of the Oneida Community in the Kenwood suburb of the village of Sherrill, New York, where the Oneida Community's Silver-plated Tableware Factory was established and still flourishes as the Oneida, Ltd. Company. Oneida has just recently announced that they have discontinued silverware production since their product can be made for them more cheaply overseas. (It is perhaps an anomaly of modern times that a proper gift for newlyweds has been Oneida Community Silverware which was created by a group who sanctioned a form of free-love—but, then, this is America.)

Today the Mansion House serves as a residence for senior descendents of the original Community, as a conference center for Oneida, Ltd., as the locus for weddings and parties, and even as a bed-and-breakfast where one can stay. Visits may be made without reservations for a guided tour of a portion of the Mansion House at 10:00 a.m. or 2:00 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and at 3:00 on Sundays. One simply appears at the front door of the Mansion House at the proper time.

Where did it all begin?

It began in 1811 when John Humphrey Noyes, one of seven children, was born in Vermont to strictly religious parents. His father was a graduate of Dartmouth College, a school teacher who was also a tutor at Dartmouth College where he had Daniel Webster as a student. The father then became a minister, which was not his true calling, and next he ended as a clerk in a Brattleboro store. His son, John Humphrey Noyes, was a bright youth who went to Dartmouth and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1830. After college he settled into the study of law as a clerk to a lawyer.

In September of 1831, a year of many religious revivals in New England, Noyes at age twenty attended a revival in Putney, Vermont, led by a disciple of Charles Grandison Finney. It was here that Noyes was saved from sin, and he decided that his true calling was that of a minister. Thus, depressed over his own supposed past sinfulness, Noyes enrolled at Andover Theological Seminary to study for the ministry.

That Noyes was saved from sin was typical of the time, even though those who were saved usually needed attendance at future revivals to retain their high state of salvation. Salvation, somehow, seemed to be an evanescent thing which did not last until the next revival would arrive in town. Thus one was in constant need of a renewal of one's sinless state. In Noyes' case it was to be different, since, once saved in a revival, Noyes came to see that he was absolutely sinless in this life ever after.

This decision on his part is indicative of the way in which religious revivals were undermining the traditional Presbyterian and Calvinist belief that only those predestined by God would arrive in Heaven. Under the revival system, one could make a decision for salvation rather than being condemned before birth by God to one's predestined future fate. To the devout of Puritan New England, this terrible deviation from Calvinist truth came about from the heretical ideas of the dissident Quakers, Methodists, and Baptists who seemed to be spreading like a religious cancer in proper New England society. It was also a by-product of Jacksonian democracy of the time where every American felt himself equal to every other American, and thus each had a right to Heaven as well as did the predestined. (One could almost say "a right under the U.S. Constitution….")

Noyes was to go even further: Jesus, through his death, had lifted the burden of sin from all who truly believed in him. Such a believing, true Christian, was therefore Perfect. Noyes doctrine of "Christian Perfectionism" was the inevitable outgrowth of the religious revivals which has swept over western New England and then the "Burned-over District" of western New York. Noyes was now convinced that the Father and the Son had come to abide in his heart. Thus he was pure. He was free of sin. He would never again knowingly do wrong in this life. What one had to do, he felt, was to strive for Perfection—which was obtainable in this life.

Finding Andover Seminary not to his liking, since it still clung to traditional Calvinistic religious thinking, one year later in 1832 Noyes transferred to the Yale Divinity School. At Andover, the students in the Seminary had been trying to be as perfect as they could be, and thus they held sessions in which they would criticize each other's behavior in order to help each other become more perfect. Later, in Noyes' Oneida Community this practice came to be called "Mutual Criticism" used to create a more moral society. It thus became a cornerstone practice in the communal society at Oneida.

In one such criticism session, which the students at the Yale Divinity School were also holding, Noyes discussed with his fellow students his conviction that he was pure and completely sinless due to his acceptance of Jesus in his heart. One of his fellow students was so shocked by Noyes' idea of his being completely without sin that he fainted dead away during the discussion. At Yale they took religion seriously. This confession of his total sinlessness took place on February 20, 1834, and later at Oneida this date was always celebrated as the day of "The High Tide of the Spirit."

Not only was Noyes expanding his theological beliefs, but he attempted to put belief into action by working among the negroes of New Haven. He even formed an anti-slavery society in that city. Logic led Noyes on: By giving himself to God and freeing himself from sin, he thereby also freed himself from the law's restraint. Since he was now pure and could do no wrong, the laws of the State did not apply to him. Yale and the local ministerial board were quick to act. Noyes was expelled from the Divinity School, and his student license to preach was revoked by the local Ministerial Council. If everyone, his religious elders realized, strove for and reached perfection, there would no longer be a need for the clergy, the church, or the traditional theology of Paul, Augustine, or Calvin. This was worse then heresy!

Unrepentant, Noyes saw the urgent need to convert Christians from their heathen belief in man's sinfulness, which came not from Jesus' teachings but from Paul and Augustine, from that Greek thought which influenced Paul and from the Manichean beliefs which Augustine brought with him into Christianity. Noyes therefore began a period of twelve years of intellectual and physical wandering while his thinking developed, a period before he could settle into his life-time work as a religious perfectionist. He attended gatherings of Christian Perfectionists in New York City, in Albany, western Massachusetts, and in the towns of central New York State, that area already burned-over by religious enthusiasms.

The ideas of the Perfectionists, which were in advance of standard Christian theology, were not up to Noyes' increasingly more radical views. He therefore found the Perfectionists views of little value. He gradually became convinced that the orthodox Christian theology and the social order were both wrong. Slowly he evolved a system which would combine aspects of the after-effects of revivalism with a form of socialism. When revivalism and socialism coalesced and worked together, Noyes decided, one could have the Kingdom of Heaven here and now, not there and thereafter.

He was concerned for the common man, and thus he studied the writings of Robert Owen, the Scottish industrialist who was to leave Scotland and to open a more equitable society in the United States. He also read the doctrines of the French socialist Charles Fourier, doctrines being heralded in the New York Tribune. Then came the economic depression of 1837, and Noyes turned to the communal economic doctrines which formed the basis of the Shakers and of Brook Farm, the later of which had just been organized outside of Boston at West Roxbury. He became convinced that socialism without religion was impossible. Socialism combined with religious perfectionism, however, could become invincible. Interestingly enough, this idea later took root in Europe, as all of the democratic societies of Europe moved toward a form of socialism, and eventually Christian Socialist parties became leading elements on the Continental political scene.

Noyes logical approach to religion continued. If one could save one's soul by faith at revivals, in the same manner one could save oneself from sin by faith. The revivalists said that one could be freed from sin, might sin again thereafter, but could be freed from sin once more at the next revival meeting—and so ad inifitum—sin, forgiveness, sin, forgiveness…. In fact, as long as one repented on one's death bed despite the evilness of one's life, one would go directly to Heaven, a doctrine still pertinent to some conservative denominations today. To Noyes, this constant renewal of sinfulness and forgiveness was neither logical nor good religion. Once freed from sin, he declared, one was freed forever. At first he had little public success with his concept.

Once more back in New Haven, Connecticut, he issued a new periodical entitled the Perfectionist. In it his views on marriage and sex were rather conservative, if not downright prudish, unlike his future concepts in these areas. The magazine did not flourish, and thus he returned to Putney, Vermont, where people were impressed with his religious ideas, despite the fact that these ideas caused a falling out with his parents. Putney people liked his preaching since it did not involve the usual revivalistic rantings or the inevitability of the fires of Hell for the unconverted. With time, Noyes and his family were reconciled, even though his mother continued to resist his ideas. His two younger sisters and brothers, however, became convinced that he was right, that through Jesus they were all saved from sin forever.

Noyes gradually came to two conclusions:

First, he had a mounting conviction that God had chosen him as his principal collaborator in the establishment of his Kingdom on Earth. (One must remember that Imminent Millennialism was growing at this time.) God, he realized, had set him apart from and above all others, with the task of carrying out God's intentions as to how mankind should live.

Secondly, he realized that only he could be a leader of any new religious movement. (A similar inspiration was to affect Joseph Smith in the Palmyra, New York area about this time. Inspiration was obviously rampant in New England and New York.)

Next, he arrived at another conclusion by his reading of the Bible, for he realized that the Advent had already occurred, Jesus had already returned. In the Biblical Book of John he found a hint that Jesus had returned to earth in the year 70 A.D., the year in which Jerusalem fell to the Romans after a Jewish revolt, the year in which the Jewish Diaspora began. That reading indicated that Jesus would return during the lifetime of his disciples. Thus the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and the Diaspora were a sign that Jesus' return had occurred and was no longer to be awaited. What alone remained was the Millennium, Jesus' return for his 1,000 year reign on earth.

As his realization of God's intentions continued to develop, he could quote Paul, "In the resurrection the saved neither marry nor are given in marriage." That meant that in Heaven it was only marriage that had been abandoned. Nowhere was it indicated in the Bible that sex was done away with in Heaven. He went even further: Man is a creature of his appetites. Thus there is no reason why sexual intercourse should be restrained by law any more than man's other appetites are restrained by law. Thus in this new Heaven on Earth which Noyes was to create, as was the situation in Heaven, the jealousy of exclusiveness which marriage represented would be unknown.

Perhaps with these new ideas in mind, he traveled unsuccessfully to Ithaca, New York, to pursue a girl he had been in love with. His beloved, unfortunately, refused to see him or to listen to his importunities since she was happily married to some one else. While in Ithaca Noyes published a new journal entitled the Witness which espoused his changing views. He also underwent a phrenological examination of his head which he reported on in the first issue of his new journal, for it indicated that his bump of "amativeness" (love making) was large, while his "Philo-progenitiveness" (ability to create abstract ideas) was VERY large. This was scientific confirmation of aspects of his nature which he had previously realized were superior to those of other individuals. Thus as his ideas developed along unorthodox lines in sexual matters, as well as his announcement that Jesus had returned in 70 A.D., this caused subscriptions to his journal to be rapidly cancelled. The journal failed, and Noyes was in debt.

He was saved through the efforts of a young woman in Vermont who was interested in his ideas, and she sent him the funds to pay off his debts. Back in Vermont, the 27 year old Noyes on June 28, 1838, married his financial saviour, the 30 year old Harriet Holten. There was no deep love between them, and they both agreed that they could each have sexual freedom and not be hampered by conventional marital restrictions. With Harriet's dowry, they resumed the publication of the Witness in Putney, a journal which ran for nine years. Later it was renamed the Perfectionist, and later still the Perfectionist and Theocratic Watchman.

With Noyes realization that he had been appointed by God to establish a Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, some of the members of his family joined to form a religious community. They moved into a house, they built a store and a chapel to complement their communal home. They paid their expenses from a communal purse which was in the charge of the Community Treasurer. There was much study of the Bible, but no Christian ritual or ceremony since these were not Biblically grounded but were later accretions to the Christian faith. Always concerned for the plight of women in modern society, under Noyes' belief in the equality of the sexes, the group went in for communal cooking and housekeeping as well as group farming, the men and women sharing in all the work. One hot meal a day was prepared by the women who were then free of kitchen labor for the rest of the day. The leftovers from that one meal sufficed for other meals as one wished during the remainder of the day. They ate little meat and eschewed all medicines or drugs.

By the end of 1845 they had run out of the inheritance money Noyes and his siblings had received when their father died. Fortunately, at this time Harriet's grandfather died leaving her $9,000. Thus in 1845 the group became a socialist commune where all shared in the labor of the group and the results of that labor; it was a society based upon Bible communism as seen in the early Church. This was the period in America (1840-1850) when there were more than forty utopian societies blossoming in the United states, and this one in Putney, in one sense, was not unusual. The group signed a contract forming the "Putney Corporation," of which Noyes was President with unlimited powers as the appointed Minister of God and the head of the Corporation. In the new Commune, all took vows of obedience to Noyes since he was "The Father and Overseer whom the Holy Ghost has set over us." Anyone rejecting Noyes' Divine Authority was, in effect, rebelling against God. He was later to say, "I am a man of God and am right, whether people understand me or not."

With the realization that the Kingdom of God was at hand, and that the coming of the Kingdom would be hastened on Earth by the freeing of love from exclusiveness. Noyes' idea of Complex or Multiple Marriage was put into place at the Putney Commune. The pleasures of sex, he said, were created by God and were meant to be enjoyed by men and women. Each man and each woman in the community was to be the spouse of each other under a system of controls created by Noyes, one of which was that of male continence which he promulgated. It was a system of coitus reservatus in which the man did not reach a sexual climax and thus avoided impregnating the woman.

Noyes had come to this after his wife Harriet has been pregnant five times and had painfully lost four of the infants at birth. Only one child, Theodore, his later successor at the Oneida Community, survived. Noyes' form of birth control was meant to spare women unnecessary suffering, while at the same time not denying the pleasures of sex to his followers. At Oneida, shortly thereafter, he was to bring Perfectionism, socialism, and a new sexual relationship to a fulfillment never before experienced by any religious community. Meantime. Noyes had fallen hopelessly in love with Mary Cragin, a married member of the commune, and so they and their spouses formed the initial "Complex Marriage" arrangement. Noyes' two sisters and their husbands entered into Complex Marriage as well under Noyes' guidance and control.

Ultimately, in the future Oneida Community, Noyes, his wife, his sister Harriet Skinner, and the central members of the Community would regulate the sex life of all Community members. This Committee would decide who could have sex with whom and how frequently. The Committee also decided who would be denied sexual privileges due to a lack of spirituality on the part of the applicant for sexual favors. One such denied individual was later to complain that he might just as well have joined a Shaker community where celibacy reigned supreme. This approach to sex was not "free-love" since coupling had to be approved by Noyes and the Committee.

Any such arrangement for sexual liaisons had to be arranged through an older woman in the Community who would serve as a go-between for those involved. She would bring the request to the Central Committee for approval once the request had been openly discussed and agreed to by both those concerned in the liaison. There were to be no inhibitions in the eventual Oneida Community where sex was concerned. There were open discussions of sexual matters, and Noyes gave evening talks on proper sexual attitudes, activities, and birth control. This was a form of sexual democracy which Jacksonian politicians had not yet arrived at.

With the doctrines of complex marriage and faith healing, into both of which Noyes had moved, these were definite signs that the Kingdom of God was under way. In fact, on January 1, 1847, Noyes declared that the Kingdom of God had arrived. Immortality with the saints in Heaven was near, and the rule of Christ over the earth was imminent. Unhappily, in October of 1847 Noyes was arrested on a charge of adultery when a dissident husband of a member of the group, who evidently was not happily participating in Complex Marriage, filed charges with the Vermont State Attorney against Noyes. Noyes was delighted—for now he could publicly expound his ideas in court and gain greater public notice for them. Unfortunately, the people of Putney, a town which was obviously not sufficiently enlightened, turned against Noyes and the Putney Corporation. Fearing mob action against them, he and Mary Cragin, the purported adulterers, fled to avoid arrest or physical harm by local, self-righteous, incensed mobs.

Then in January of 1848 Noyes decided that Oneida, New York, was THE place for a community of those who were perfect. Oneida was chosen when Jonathan Burt in the town of Oneida offered to join such a new Community if it were established on his land in central New York on a portion of the former Oneida Indian reservation. By the end of 1848 the Oneida Association had been formed with an initial thirty members which soon grew to eighty-seven members, including children of some of those who had joined. Married couples entered the Community as individuals and gave up all claims to one another, sexually or otherwise.

The initial years were to be physically and economically difficult before success and wealth ensued. The housing at first was minimal, consisting of two small farm houses and two log cabins which had previously been used by the local Oneida Indians. In those first few years, the group could not afford to permit the women to become pregnant and thus unable to participate in the work of the Community in the earning of their corporate living. Thus Noyes decreed his form of birth control which he had proposed earlier and which involved male restraint or intercourse without ejaculation. This became a basic principle in their successful sexual relations thereafter, and it was a practice which Noyes discussed in public lectures and in print. As in outside society, this form of birth control did not always work, and thus through the years unexpected children did arrive and helped to enlarge the society's numbers slightly. Between 1849 and 1867, only thirty-five children were born, even though membership had increased to three hundred individuals. Some of the births were approved by the Central Committee, particularly in the case of women who were nearing the end of child-bearing years but wanted to give birth.

New members soon joined the group in order to live a sinless life free from the grim theology of most Calvinistic churches. Within three years (1851) there were two hundred and five members in the Community. Group living, or Biblical communism, also offered an economic and social security which was often difficult to obtain in the work-a-day world outside of this community. Noyes next decided that they must build one enlarged residence building so the entire community could live under one roof. Thus in the summer of 1848 the group began the construction of their "Mansion House," a 60 by 35 foot wooden structure built by their own hands. The men did the heavy construction work while the women placed the lathing on the interior walls. By Christmas of 1848 they were able to move into their new communal home.

A number of innovative practices were engaged in at Oneida. Children were cared for communally and were not the sole responsibility of their parents. This freed women for a more responsible and freer life. Babies remained with their mother until they were weaned, and thereafter they entered the nursery for those under three or four years of age. The two nursery schools (for younger and older children) were run by those men and women most able in child care and education. Older children were a full part of the community and were taught the dignity and necessity of labor in such tasks as helping in the hoeing of the gardens. In time, with the bigger Mansion House, there was a regular "Children's Hour" in which the children had an opportunity to perform and to be a part of the larger group. Children ate in the same dining room as their elders although at their own smaller tables.

All tasks were communal, men and women sharing equally in the housekeeping, the farming, and eventually in the crafts and the fabrication work in their factory. Work-bees helped to ease tedious tasks from pea shelling to house cleaning. Women worked in the accounting office as well as in the kitchen where joint efforts reduced the time each person needed to spend at a task. Nowhere else in the work-a-day world did women serve as book-keepers and accountants as they did at Oneida.

"Complex Marriage" was undertaken under the rules which Noyes laid down. Many women who would not have had a sexual life in the outside world thus had sexual opportunities denied their peers beyond the Community. "Mutual Criticism" was practiced under a committee of four judges. This ensured that problems or incorrect attitudes could be recognized and solved before social problems developed within the community. The dictates of fashion were ignored in a community such as at Oneida where practicality rather than style was the deciding factor in dress. Long dresses did not permit for an active life by women, and thus short skirts and pantaloons were worn by the women of the group. This was in advance of what would become known as the "Bloomer" costume, named for Amelia Bloomer of Seneca Falls who did not invent the dress style but who did wear it to the derision of many of her compatriots. The care for long hair could be a nuisance for women, and thus the Oneida women cut their hair short, three-quarters of a century ahead of their time. This was done despite Paul's Biblical injunction that women's hair should be long.

They made mistakes, such as planting fruit trees as an income producing crop; the trees often did not bear fruit successfully due to the inclement local winter climate. Yet from 1858, their agricultural production led to the making and selling of canned foods in glass and in tin which they could use for their own consumption as well as selling the excess for income. At first the male members of the Community peddled the agricultural wares in the countryside, but then for seventy years the Community's fruits and vegetables were sold across the United States. They did employ advertising to help sell their products.

Meantime, Noyes and Mary Cragin made trips to Niagara Falls and to the Crystal Palace in London, and then for five years they and their family lived in Brooklyn Heights at their Commune in that city, running the Oneida Community in absentia. When the Brooklyn Commune was closed in 1854, the Noyes returned to Oneida in order to re-invigorate the original Community's spiritual life.

Economics had been an over-riding problem for the Community, but the situation changed entirely in 1855 when a new member, Sewell Newhouse, brought his trade with him, the manufacture of an improved animal trap. The Community's initial income had come from logging and farming, but this did not procure sufficient funding for the ongoing expenses of the community. Noyes then became convinced that industry rather than farming would be the key to their successful economic life, particularly after the animal trap production proved remunerative. Following their success with the animal traps, they began to turn out traveling bags and satchels, and mop holders, and they spun thread from silk imported from China, and then they made silver-plated flatware for dining. They became the only communistic experiment in the United States which became a thriving industrial operation.

Sewell Newhouse's animal trap was further improved at Oneida, and water driven machinery was employed to punch out parts in an automated procedure. This was the start of the "Oneida Community, Ltd." and the Community's prosperity. All those within the Community took part in the production of the traps, even the children learned the value of work by making one hundred links of chains for the traps every day after lunch.

By 1860 they were selling more than 100,000 traps a year, even to the Hudson Bay Company of Canada. By 1865 they were selling 275,000 traps a year, and thus it became necessary to build a new brick factory for this production. Traps were being sold as far away as Australia and Russia. The factory was built at Willow Point (now Sherrill, New York), and it was the forerunner of the Oneida, Ltd. Factory. Yankee ingenuity helped to make them wealthy. They created the first lazy-Susan for use on dining tables, then came a washing machine, a low lace-less shoe for women, and a popular garter belt among other items.

By 1861 they had a new, three-story, brick residence built for their growing numbers. It had small bedrooms for each member, a Family Hall with a stage where the Community could be seated for entertainment performances, for lectures, for musical recitals, for plays. There was an upper Sitting Room with its pictures of the sages of the world on the walls. In 1869 they added a second wing and installed steam heat in the Mansion. A third wing was necessitated in 1878.

With a more abundant income, they began to send the more promising of their young men to Yale. Two of these young men became physicians, including Noyes' son Theodore. Two became lawyers, one a mechanical engineer, another an architect, all professions which were needed at Oneida. Increased income permitted for more and more books for the Community's library, and they spent an increasing amount of money on the enrichment of their cultural and intellectual life. Few towns had the variety of cultural activities as were enjoyed in the three-story Mansion House in Oneida. Success led to shorter working hours and to the hiring of outside help for some of the more laborious income-producing work. With more free time, there was an opportunity for parties which they loved to hold, for two orchestras within the Community, for string quartets, for singing groups. In 1879-1880 they even produced a full version of Gilbert and Sullivan's Pinafore. Life was enjoyable, working hours were reduced, there were cultural events every evening, and in the daytime there were sports such as croquet which all could enjoy. Life outside the Community was grim in comparison.

Organizational efficiency was paramount to keep so large an institution with so many members functioning properly. There were twenty-one standing committees which supervised all aspects of the Community life. Committee members served for a year, and all decisions were made by general consent, or else matters were tabled for future discussion and consensus. Administration was divided into forty-eight departments which functioned well. A "Business Board" meeting was held every Sunday morning where all department heads reported on the activities of the past week of their unit. Each spring a special Board meeting was called so that all departments could share in the creation of the plan and the budget for the ensuing year. There was no problem in knowing where each member of the Community was at any one time since a square board in the gallery near the Library had a peg in the appropriate spot identifying each member and the individual's location at any given time.

Work was so organized that it never became tiring or boring. Jobs were changed regularly for the sake of variety, and jobs could even be changed during the course of a single day. Breaks were taken from work for dancing, music, or sport. The planned work-bees made quick work of onerous tasks, particularly in farming when seventy-five to one hundred members would march to the fields to fife and drum accompaniment. There were work-bees in the kitchen, in the manufacturing of travel bags which they created and sold, and at these times one member read to the group from the works of Dickens, Scott, and other popular novelists of the day to make the time pass more quickly. Meals were carefully prepared of the most healthy foods in which vegetables, grains, and fruits played a major part. Meat was seldom served. The dining room provided ample space for the residents who sat at round table which could accommodate ten or twelve, and the use of the lazy-Susan which they had invented helped in the passing of foods at the table.

Each member of the Community had all his/her needs looked after: clothing and bedding supplies were furnished as needed, and each member eventually received pin money to spend. Since men and women worked together, this arrangement also forwarded the finding of new sexual partners. Those who shirked work were given "Mutual Criticism"—and denied sexual partners. For the benefit and the edification of the residents, Noyes offered counseling and held forth in discourses as to the meaning of life and the ways to improve it. The achievement of moral perfection, he stressed, was a beginning, not an end. It involved a life-long process of learning how better to understand, to love, and to please God. While Noyes was a minister, even if defrocked, his talks were like sermons, but religion in the Oneida Community involved no Christian crosses, no communion, no formal prayers or invocations. They were Christian Perfectionists who had moved beyond these mechanical means which were needed by outside Christians.

Noyes worked from the Bible, and "Mutual Criticism" came from St. Paul who admonished Christians to rebuke and to reprove one another. All should sit in judgment on others—in small groups. Reports were filed on such sessions, and these were open for all to read. Harmony in Community life was an absolute necessity, and thus the competitive spirit and special love attachments were frowned upon. Mutual Criticism was used to force problems into the open so that inter-personal problems could be solved before things got out of hand. Noyes warned against trying for a professional degree of excellence in tasks: "We must all be mediocre and avoid abnormal or excessive development in the individual, since forms of excellence are at the expense of other individuals who are less endowed. Competitiveness within society is the root of evil and is to be avoided since life is meant for enjoyment, not for competing against others." There was no place for an independence of spirit at Oneida—since Noyes spoke with divine authority.

Disease, Noyes taught, is a spiritual phenomena since it shows that one's body was invaded by an evil spirit. Anyone who became sick was obviously spiritually deficient. Confessing Christ as one's saviour from sin could dramatically improve one's health. They had no belief in physicians or medicine (this was the era in which Mary Baker Eddy was developing Christian Science with similar views) since one needed only to turn to Christ for a cure. If one were ill, Mutual Criticism could point out one's spiritual deficiencies, and thus one could be cured, be it of a headache, asthma, or diphtheria.

In the publications of the Oneida Community and in their newsletter, which went out with each shipment of their goods for sale, the Oneida Community became known and of interest to the outside world. Some 2,000 copies of the Circular, their Community newspaper, was distributed without charge weekly. Trains brought interested visitors to the Community, some times over one thousand individuals on week-ends. There the visitors would be entertained by the Community band, and they could enjoy the Community's vegetarian dinner and homegrown strawberry desserts. Visitors came out of curiosity, some hoping to be shocked and to be able to disapprove of what they saw. What they found was a happy, healthy community which did not, to some disapproving visitors, prove that the wages of sin are death. Visitors in time became so numerous that they had to be charged for refreshments and meals, a flier being printed to describe the situation and the reason for the fees.

Time passed and Noyes did change his beliefs somewhat as he read further into the new sciences of the day. He even sent his son Theodore and Mary Cragin's son George Cragin to Yale to study medicine. He decided that the Community should go in for Turkish Baths and massage, and when malaria broke out, he even had quinine added to Mutual Criticism as a cure. But confessing Christ as saviour together with Mutual Criticism remained the best and strongest medicine which always led to a cure—even for diphtheria.

In 1849 when the Community began, Noyes was convinced that "time" would end before long, a belief which Jemima Wilkinson had preached, which the revivalists affirmed, and which William Miller believed, even though Miller became trapped in his belief when the world did not end in the 1840s as he had predicted. In 1871 Noyes still looked for the coming Millennium, although his belief was beginning to undergo modification, He had read Charles Lyell's works in which Lyell said the Bible was wrong and that the world had begun millennia ago, not in 4000 B.C. as one British divine had declared in the 1700s and which was accepted by conservative Christians.

Thus Noyes decided that the present generation would die and go to Hades, which wasn't the unhappy place imagined in popular myth and theology. In time, God would bring them back to earth where they would be united with Jesus and the primitive or early Christians. It was obvious that God had chosen Noyes to clear the way for Jesus to return and for the Heavenly hosts to take possession of the world. In the meantime, the Oneida Community existed to foil the Devil by leading an inspired life under Noyes' guidance. They would thus serve as the bridgehead for Jesus to conquer the world. Salvation at Oneida, therefore lay in complete submission to Noyes' authority since he sought and obtained guidance from Jesus and the apostles—and the 140,000 members of the Primitive Church who were taken to Heaven by Jesus when he returned to earth, according to the Book of John in 70 A.D. as Noyes interpreted the Bible.

By 1869 the Community was flourishing. There were now 654 acres at Oneida and another 240 acres at their subsidiary Commune in Wallingford, Connecticut. Thus Noyes decided to lift the ban on having babies, a decision instituted when they were a struggling community and needed every able bodied individual in the working force. Outside influences also affected Noyes in this decision. He was reading Charles Lyell, Charles Darwin, and Auguste Comte. The doctrines of evolution and the new science of eugenics founded by Francis Galton fascinated him. Thus he decided that the Community should embark on "stirpiculture," his term for the scientific breeding of children, and this dictated a change in certain sexual attitudes within the Community.

Sex at Oneida had always been controlled by the Committee which decided who could cohabit with whom. The concept of marriage had been opposed since it deprived one of the freedom of sexual choice and led to a selfish interest in an individual and an exclusiveness in relationships. These were antithetical to the benefit of the group and its individuals. The rejection of marriage was not that different, in one sense, from the idea of celibacy for the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church, since a selfish interest in an individual or a family in marriage would interfere with a concern for the greater good for the greater number.

Thus a very elaborate theory had been developed by Noyes: The amative and propagative functions in life were distinct and must be separated, The amative function was a union of persons making twain one flesh. It was a forming of a medium of spiritual interchange. Its purpose was to integrate sexual love with the life of the spirit, to make a sacrament of physical love, and this was the outward sign of inward spiritual grace. Non-reproductive sex relations were regulated so as not to be limited to the same individual, for Noyes said, "Variety is the nature of things, as beautiful as useful in love as in eating and drinking. Chaining individuals in pairs for life is contrary to the laws of human nature."

However, this did not mean that the reproduction of the race was to be ignored. Under the new science of eugenics, if parents were chosen wisely, children with superior traits could be created from selected individuals who were themselves superior spiritually. As a result, in 1869 fifty-three women and thirty-eight young men volunteered to serve as martyrs to science as the parents of such superior children. Noyes and a Committee of Elders would consider who could participate in this noble experiment. Of the fifty-eight children who were conceived, Noyes fathered nine while his adult son Theodore fathered four. (It is interesting to note that through the years, most of the children who had been conceived earlier remained within the community.)

Times were changing after the Civil War as America became industrialized and the new doctrines of capitalism caught on. The United States was gradually accepting the scientific, materialistic view of the world. Church attendance may have been important for many Americans, but now they were more interested in making money than in saving their souls. The great religious storms of the 1830s had burned out and did not return. Revivals still continued, but they were no longer in the forefront of most American concerns, then or now. At home, the making of money was more important for the average individual, and the religious impulse was now directed to the more be-knighted souls overseas who did not know Jesus. Thus at the end of the nineteenth century, the religious impulse was marked by a movement to save the world through overseas missions by Christian churches, to bring the world to Christ in one generation. America, it was obvious, did not need saving as much as the rest of the world did. Perhaps the missionary impulse should be seen in terms of the imperialist movement on international levels where western society, convinced of its superiority, was out to re-make the world in its own image—then and now.

The real emphasis in America had shifted from concern for the individual soul to the improving of society through various social and political rather than religious movements—abolition, temperance, women's rights. As a sign of the times, the Oneida Journal changed is name in 1876 to the American Socialist as its emphasis was becoming more social than religious. After the late 1860s, the growth of the Oneida Community peaked at 306 members, and growth stopped. Some individuals even seceded from the group, being given back whatever capital they had contributed to the Community so they could begin a new life. Youthful members who left the Community were given financial help to get started in the outside world.

Noyes was aging, and slowly his son came to the fore. Theodore had gone to Yale, had become a physician, and now he was taking over the management of the Community. The fact that Theodore had become a physician says something about "Mutual Criticism" as the means to cure illness within the group. Things were not to be the same without Noyes at the head. Theodore had nervous breakdowns, he had come to doubt Jesus' divinity, and he even questioned the existence of God. He became interested in spiritualism, and when one small group in the Community in 1876 began revivals, father Noyes quickly put this down since they were leading to a rival authority, God, than his divine authority. The problem for Theodore Noyes' rule over the Community was that he could not speak with the divine authority with which his father spoke. Theodore was not the strongest of leaders, and thus he tried to institute rules and regulations into a community which had always been led by the charismatic and divine authority of his father.

Gradually, by 1878 disillusion was setting within the Community. The members were losing confidence in the aging Noyes. The idea of the imminent Millennium faded, and thus their position within it as the advance guard for Jesus also faded. College education of some of the young, and reading, travel, and the use of hired help were undermining the religious underpinnings of the Community. There was a slipping into dis-belief. The world seemed rather good and the religious element in life became secondary. Some turned to God (e.g. the revivals in-house) instead of Noyes.

Then the sexual controls were breaking down. Sexual partners wanted to make their own choices instead of going through the Committee, and the Committee always consisted of the Elders of the Community. The Committee encouraged the younger members to have sexual relations with the older members of the group so that the elders would not be starved for sex, but the younger members preferred young partners. Under "stirpiculture," the younger women who had had children evinced a desire for monogamy. As Noyes aged, they feared a dissolution of the Community and their place in the future. They wanted the safety and security of marriage. One must remember that women had no legal status or fiscal resources under American law at this time.

Next an internal opposition party grew under William Towner and William Hinds. Towner and his wife had come to Oneida from the former Berlin Heights, Ohio, the free sex community, and they did not care for the committee structure which controlled temporary sexual partnerships. Towner obviously wanted to be free to play the sexual field at Oneida. There was also growing opposition to Noyes' role as the "first husband" of adolescent girls. Noyes was the one who introduced adolescent girls of twelve or thirteen to sex, just as his wife Harriet and his sister introduced young male adolescents to sex. Towner and Hines wanted to be able to get at the younger girls themselves.

Then there was Theodore's protracted love affair with Ann Hobart, a twenty-seven year old member of the group, and this created a new crisis since this violated one of the basic tenets of "Multiple Marriage" which forbad exclusiveness of sexual relationships. Ann Hobart was pretty, intelligent, and strong willed. As a result, in effect she and Theodore were now in charge of the Community, and she began to separate for herself some of the more attractive young men from the young women in whom they were interested. The elder Noyes turned against the young woman as a trouble maker, and thus he and his son Theodore came into conflict. Noyes tried to reinstate the old "Complex Marriage" situation, but attitudes were changing within the Community. Then Ann ran off with a dissident member of the group and married him—and Theodore left Oneida to run a Turkish Bath in New York City. Eventually Theodore returned to the Community, but no longer as its leader.

Outside forces came into play was well. In the 1870s Anthony Comstock got Congress to ban any mention of birth control, particularly through the mails, a ban which came down well into the twentieth century, as witness the trials of Margaret Sanger with Comstock and his laws in the first portion of the 1900s. This ban struck at the basic practice of birth control, a practice which Noyes had always advocated publicly. Then in 1878 John Meers, a Presbyterian minister and a teacher at Hamilton College, and some other clergy, took a public stand against what they saw as concubinage at the Oneida Community. The local newspaper defended the Community against these clerical attacks, stating that the members of the Oneida Community were law abiding citizens who caused no problems in the area. The Community was, moreover, an income producing unit for local business firms—which is another indication as to how materialism was overcoming religious scruples.

The small clerical group continued in their open opposition, and the furor even made national notice, for the February 26, 1879. issue of the nationally circulated Puck Magazine used its front cover to mock clerical opponents of the Oneida Community. The cover cartoon had as a caption: "O, dreadful. They dwell in peace and harmony and have no church scandals. They must be wiped out!" Then, on June 23, 1879, in the face of arrest and a law suit, without warning Noyes fled to Canada under the cover of night in his 67th year. He also left since it was obvious that he was losing control of the Community as internal opposition developed. With Noyes' departure, his opponents within the Community now demanded constitutional government with elections, the abolition of the "Ascendancy of Fellowship" (the hierarchal structure in which decisions were made by the Elders, including sexual privileges), and the end to all sexual controls in favor of a freedom of sexual privileges.

In exile on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, Noyes proposed ending "Complex Marriage," thereby permitting legal marriages. This was not what the chief opponent Towner wanted—he wanted freedom of sexual choice and not the restrictions of the married state. Towner argued that marriage and Bible communism could not go together. He was right, since the married couples would be concerned with their own welfare rather than that of the group as a whole. Complex Marriage came to an end at 10:00 a.m. on August 28, 1879. Long dresses began to appear, women's hair grew longer, and Mutual Criticism died.

There were other problems, too, which had been undermining the situation. Hard work was going out of fashion as the Community's wealth increased and hired help was employed. The Community was also drifting toward bankruptcy. Thus the Community resolved the situation by forming a joint-stock company. Everything was turned over to a new corporation, the Community members being given stock in that new organization. Life-time support and care were provided for the older members of the Community, and Noyes was provided by the Community with a home at Niagara Falls, Canada, a horse, a carriage, and a stipend of $150 a month for life. A number of adherents gathered about him at Niagara Falls, and he kept an open-house for Oneidans so long as he lived. Noyes died in his 74th year on April 13, 1886, seven years after going into exile, and his body was returned to Oneida and buried in the Community cemetery.

There were problems of adjustment as the group moved into a freer society without the security which the structure of the Community had offered. Since children born into the Community took their father's names, and since children of different mothers may have been sired by the same father, the problem of a man being able to marry but one woman created problems for some women. But in all situations, the Community in its dissolution tried to provide equitable financial adjustments to all those involved. Towner, who had been a cause of the inadvertent break-up of the Community, migrated with thirty-five members to Orange County, California, today perhaps appropriately enough the home of Disneyland and wealthy, very conservative taxpayers who have not in recent years believed in honoring their city's bonds.

The managers of the new corporation built homes for the former members of the Oneida Community on community land which in time became Kenwood Village. The problem for the corporation was that the managers were composed of some of the senior members of the former community, and they were not the best of business men. Moreover, many of them had turned to Spiritualism, and the advice of the Spirits was not conducive to the increase of corporate profits. In 1893, one of the stirpiculture children, the son of John Humphrey Noyes and Harriet Worden, the twenty-five year old Pierrepont Noyes, became the Oneida Company Director. His mother had been one of the fiercest advocates for women within the Community and for years edited the Community journal the Circular. She had participated in the "stirpiculture" experiment with John Humphrey Noyes fathering her son.

With difficulty the elderly Board was ousted from their position, and Theodore Noyes, Pierrepont's half-brother, became President of the Oneida Corporation, and he turned the business around with the help of his very able half-brother Pierrepont. At twenty-nine Pierrepont Noyes became General Manager, a position he retained for the next twenty-nine years. He moved the Company from the making of animal traps into the full-time production of silver tableware, previously but a minor portion of the business. In 1913 a new factory was built in adjacent Sherrill, New York. Pierrepont saw the Company as an extension of the old Community: decisions within the Company were made by consensus, and he saw that the workers were properly treated. Kenwood itself remained an intellectual, closely knit community where conspicuous consumption was absent. It was in many ways a continuation of the Oneida Community under different times and customs. After 1930 there was the inevitable change in Kenwood as the older generation passed from the scene. A form of continuity continued, however, since it was 1981 when Pierrepont's son retired as Chief Executive Officer of the Corporation.

Today the Oneida Community is but an interesting portion of the history of western New York State and the end of the Burned-over era. The Oneida Community Mansion House remains, albeit many of the small, individual rooms have been amalgamated into decent-sized, small apartments for the older residents today. One room is a "Museum Room" with a quilt which illustrates the many crafts in which the Community worked, and among its other displays are one of the original animal traps which made the Community wealthy, a pantaloon of the Bloomer-type of dress which the women wore, as well as examples of the silk thread made by the Community, and the early Oneida silver-plated tableware.

The Big Hall is still enhanced with its trompe l'oeil designs, and cultural activities continue to take place here as they did in the past. The original library with its shelves set back in wooden alcoves continues to hold a number of the original books, although the majority of them are now at Syracuse University. Today a comfortable and delightful modern library serves current residents. The charming Social Gathering Room next to the Big Hall provides a pleasant room for small group gatherings, and the dining facilities still serve both residents, guests, and visitors. The Oneida Community, Ltd. Corporation remains a successful enterprise, but the sexual issues which provoked the religious of the 1848 to 1880 era against the Oneida Community are not that great an issue to the public at large in this more permissive age and more permissive society. Instead, today such matters only become an issue for United States Presidential campaigns every four years.

Further Readings

Carden, M.L. Oneida: Utopian Community to Modern Corporation. John Hopkins University Press. Baltimore, 1969, and Harper and Rowe, New York, 1971.

Eastlake, Allen. The Oneida Community. AMS Press, New York, 1973.

Hayden, Dolores. Seven American Utopias: The Archhitecure of Communitarian Socialism, 1790-1970. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1976.

Holloway, Mark. Heavens on Earth: Utopian Communities in America, 1680-1880. Dover Publications, New York, 1966.

Klaw, Spencer. Without Sin. Allen Lane. The Penguin Press. New York. 1993.(Has the most up-to-date bibliography on Noyes and Oneida in its "Notes" section.)

Morse, Flo. Yankee Communes, Another American Way. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich. New York. 1971.

Nordhoff, Charles. The Communistic Societies in the U.S. 1875. Re-printed by Hillary House Publishers. New York. 1961.(Nordhoff visited and wrote about all the communal societies in his day.)

Noyes, Corinna. The Days of My Youth. Mansion House, Kenwood, New York. 1960.

Noyes, Pierrepont. A Goodly Heritage. Rinehart. New York. 1958. (By the sterpiculture son of John Humphrey Noyes and President for many years of the Oneida Community Corporation.)

Noyes, Pierrepont. My Father's House. An Oneida Boyhood. Farrar and Rinehart. New York, 1937.

Parker, Robert A. A Yankee Saint: John Humphrey Noyes and the Oneida Community. Putnam, New York. 1935.

Robertson, Constance Noyes. Oneida Community, An Autobiography. Syracuse University Press. Syracuse, New York. 1970.

Robertson, Constance, Noyes. Oneida Community Profiles. Manison House. Kenwood, New York. n.d.

Robertson, Constance Noyes. Oneida Community, The Break-up 1876-1871. Syracuse University Press. Syracuse, New York. 1970.

Thomas, Robert D. The Man Who Would Be Perfect: John Humphrey Noyes and the Utopian Impulse. Philadelphia, 1977.

Worden Harriet. Old Mansion House Memories. Oneida, New York. Privately published. 1950.(Articles written by Harriet Worden, the mother of Pierrepont Noyes, one of the stirpiculture children of John Humphrey Noyes and Harriet Worden. She edited the Oneida Community Newsletter for many years while the Community still existed.)

Note: The Oneida Community archives are held by the University Library of Syracuse University as are a number of the books from the Community's Library.

Table of Contents of Saints, Sinners and Reformers
© 2005, John H. Martin
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