Saints, Sinners and Reformers
The Burned-Over District Re-Visited
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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