John Humphrey Noyes was the founder of a religious utopian community known as the Oneida Perfectionists and remained its leader until the group abandoned the system of complex marriage in 1879. In 1881, Oneida became a joint-stock company involved primarily in the production of silverware which has continued to the present day.
Noyes attended Dartmouth where he studied law. After graduation, he studied theology at Yale and received his preaching license in 1832. It was in New Haven that Noyes first announced his radical belief that he was morally perfect and incapable of committing sin: New Haven Perfectionism was born with the establishment of a Perfectionist church in 1834. He subsequently set up a Bible School in Vermont, married a Vermont congressman’s daughter, and left New Haven to set up the Putney Community in 1841. His letter of proposal to his future wife Harriet
reveals Noyes views on love and marriage:
‘I desire and expect my [wife] will love all who love God . . . with a warmth and strength of affection which is unknown to earthly lovers, and as free as if she stood in no particular connection with me. In fact the object of my connection with her will not be to monopolize and enslave her heart or my own, but to enlarge and establish both in the free fellowship of God’ s universal family.’ (Quoted in Kern, page 215)
In 1846, the community in Putney decided to live together with all things (and marriage partners) held in common. In 1847, the good citizens of Putney had had enough of Noyes’ strange and eccentric ways and threatened to arrest him on charges of adultery and sexual immorality. Noyes and a few of his followers quickly left town and crossed into New York, where, in 1848, they were able to purchase forty acres of land in Oneida, in upstate New York. Later, they set up branch communities in Brooklyn, New York, and Wallingford, Connecticut.
Noyes’ radical views on community life were partly a result of personal tragedy. Noyes had witnessed his wife, Harriet’ s suffering during five extremely painful pregnancies, with the result that four were stillborn. He vowed that never again would he subject his wife to such needless suffering. He discovered a practice he called “male continence,” which led later to “complex marriage.”
Noyes believed that the physical pleasures of sex were a God-given blessing. Pleasure, however, was often motivated by selfishness, which must be eliminated if the communal system were to succeed. If a husband, Noyes reasoned, would seek his marriage partner’s physical pleasure and not his own, the man could “atone” for the sin of selfishness. According to Noyes’ philosophy, a man needed to subject his body and sexual desires to the will of God; in doing so he would be seeking “perfect” self-control. Communal fellowship depended on successful performance. The male had to learn objective detachment through control of the will, or he would fall under the control of selfish passion, a threat to the well-being of the entire community.
In 1846, a year before the Putney lawsuit was filed against him, Noyes announced the workings of “complex marriage,” or pentagamy
where every male was declared married to every female (and vice versa)
Noyes believed that he and his followers were living in the Millenial Age, when monogamous marriage would cease to exist. What appeared to the pious citizens of Putney to be adulterous “free love”, in actual practice, was not, since all sexual activity was intended to be supervised and highly regulated. Until 1867, living quarters were communal, and certain rooms designated for “social purposes.” A change came about when Noyes’ plan for scientific reproduction, called “stripiculture” was introduced. Coincident with stripiculture came the institution of individual rooms, which provided welcome privacy.
The stripiculture system necessitated a Stripiculture Committee, which had to give approval to all couples selected to be “parents”, of an improved race of children. The parents were to be morally “perfect”; the children of these parents would progress even further beyond sinlessness. Noyes believed that learned moral characteristics would be transmitted to the children through the parents. The discipline and education of these children was not the parents’ responsibility but a communal one. When the child was about a year old, he or she entered the community nursery during the day, and spent only nights with the mother. Then, at four years old, the child was placed in children’s quarters
separate from the parents.
The system of mutual criticism was another unique feature of Oneida life. Mutual criticism required a community member to appear before a group of older members who would evaluate his or her personal strengths and weaknesses. Perfectionism was seen as a gradual process whereby individual human failings could be eliminated through collective correction. A rotating committee of four “criticized” each member of the community; then after three months the committee was replaced so that everyone would take turns being critic and criticized. This method served to discipline commune members, provided a forum for individual “testimony,” and provided a way to help members (particularly new members) to adjust to community life. The overall goal, according to Noyes, was correction, not punishment. What was best for the life of the community was the evidence in the lives of community members of an heartfelt commitment to the principles and practices of “Bible Communism” as espoused by Father Noyes. They believed that whatever problems they identified, God would help them solve, whether that problem be spiritual, physical, sexual or emotional. Even the landscape and climate, Perfectionists believed, could be modified under the process of mutual criticism! Arriving at agreement was essential; mutual criticism should serve to unite the communal members and promote a spirit of renewed cooperation.
At first, the Oneida community believed it could recreate an environment much like the Garden of Eden, with fruit-growing their primary occupation. They believed they could bring horticulture to perfection, with God’s help.
After ten years, however, the Perfectionists abandoned dependency on horticulture and turned to business and manufacturing for their primary means of economic survival. In the year 1873, they sold over three hundred thousand dollars’ worth of manufactured goods and farm produce. They built not only well-planned wooden frame houses, but also large brick buildings, including two central Mansion Houses, the later one (1870) built with twin towers enabling residents to overlook their vast domain. Adaptation was a key concept in their building efforts; there was a constant need for improvement in technique and function. Additions were always being constructed, and interior walls removed and repartitioned. One building, constructed in 1850, served at different times as a granary, chair factory, dormitory, broom factory, sawmill, silk spinning factory, and storage shed. (Hayden, page 199)
The achievements of the Oneidans were these: first, they were able to define an image of a community which had meaning to the members of the community. A collective spirit was cultivated and maintained by strong leadership and group decision-making. A second major achievement was in designing and building the community which they desired. Individual as well as group skills were fostered and utilized. There was a spirit of progressive experimentation in designing and perfecting practical things. They exercised control over their environment which was consistent with their moral and religious principles.
In the end, the Oneidans could not overcome human nature. In attempting to create an “Eden of heart-love” where all could enjoy the “feast of joy forever,” (Nordhoff, page 299) Noyes had tried to create’ an unselfish socialized system which went against the grain of personal sexual preferences. For over thirty years, John Humphrey Noyes had managed to maintain a utopian-religious experiment that served as a model community. Noyes was a remarkable leader who worked as administrator, cattle-breeder, farmer and blacksmith, and was involved in virtually all aspects of the community’s economic life. But in the end, even Noyes’ charastatic leadership was not enough to avoid the eventual breakup of the Oneida Perfectionist Community. In 1879, threatened legal action against Noyes for immorality forced him to flee to Canada. Before his departure, Noyes proposed a resolution to abolish complex marriage, which was accepted by the general meeting. With Noyes absent, the colony rapidly broke up, with Oneida becoming a joint-stock corporation in 1881. Looking back Noyes commented, “We made a raid into an unknown country, charted it, and returned without the loss of a single man, woman or child.” (Quoted in Hayden, page 190). After thirty-five exciting years it was over. And it had been a fascinating building process.