“While the Second Great Awakening sought to save the whole country, some smaller groups of believers sought to save themselves from the country,” writes Edwin Gaustad. “Or at least they (like the seventeenth-century Puritans) wished to first save themselves and then, perhaps by example, save others. In the first half of the nineteenth Century hopes were high, land was cheap, and experimental visions abounded” (P. 149).
“Another such group was the Oneida community, founded by John Humphrey Noyes,” writes Nancy Koester. “Noyes was a revival convert who believed that Christ had already returned and that true Christians, such as himself, were sinless” (P. 64), which makes him sound further beyond the pale than he was. In reality, he was simply “influenced by the prevailing belief that Christians could overcome all intentional sin” (MacHaffie, P. 123), which had come especially in vogue during the Awakening due to the widespread influence of mass revivalist Charles Finney.
As such, “Noyes envisioned the ‘Perfect Society’ as holding everything in common, including property, industry, and spouses,” writes Koester. “In 1846 in Vermont, Noyes instituted a ‘Complex Marriage,’ in which any adult male in the community can have sexual relations with any adult female” (P. 64)
He believed that “sexual relations were a gift from God which would not disappear in the Kingdom, but rather would be extended to include all the saints instead of just one husband given to one wife,” writes Barbara MacHaffie. “This, he believed, was the meaning of the phrase, ‘They shall neither marry nor be given in marriage.’ The leaders of the community regulated the frequency of sexual liaisons between men and women, insisting that they did not condone free love and also making sure that no permanent attachments developed” (P. 125).
Instead, “The community itself would determine who should mate with whom, that decision being guided by the best principles of eugenics, or ‘scientific propagation,'” writes Gaustad. “Monogamy, Noyes believed, ‘is an absolute bar to scientific propagation.’ Consider, Noyes wrote, ‘how much progress would the horse breeders expect to make if they were only at liberty to bring their animals together in exclusive pairs.'”
He continues: “Noyes believed that monogamy made no more sense than celibacy did.” (He was not a fan of the Shakers). “What did make sense was bringing together the best specimens of the human race to procreate and thereby to lift all humankind up to the level where a truly spiritual revolution could occur” (P. 151).
In Noyes’ estimation, monogamy was so morally disastrous from a communal standpoint, that “’What we have in effect done,’ he said, was ‘choose the worst over the best.’ For ‘The good man will be limited by his conscience, while the bad man, free from moral check, will distribute his seed as widely as he desires’” (P. 152).
For good Christians to practice monogamy meant that good Christians seriously limited their ability to procreate en masse – which meant, in the days before reliable birth control, that lawless folks who were neither monogamous nor virtuous would far outnumber good Christians in their progeny, who could then remake the world in their inglorious image.
Thus, in Gaustad’s words, “To bring about spiritual revolution, a sexual revolution was required as well” (P. 151).
“Noyes believed that Oneida represented God’s kingdom on earth where selfishness, sexual inequality, tiresome labor, and death itself would be overcome,” writes MacHaffie. As such, they “dramatically altered the Victorian picture of the ‘Ideal Woman’ as wife, mother, and keeper of the hearth. The family was seen as a stumbling block to these groups since it diverted the attention and efforts of women and men away from the good of the community” (P. 124). They abstained from traditional family structures like contemporary Baptists abstain from alcohol: Even if they did not regard them as sinful, they regarded them as irredeemable obstacles to honoring God’s will in the fullest.
“For the vast majority of Americans, religion was a support to traditional forms of community,” writes Koester. But for the Shaker and Oneida communities, it did the opposite (P. 65). “Women were encouraged to take the initiative in beginning relationships and Noyes expressed particular concern that they be sexually satisfied by their partners. To reduce the chances of pregnancy, Noyes taught a method of birth control in which the male partner could, through discipline, eliminate the ejaculation of sperm during sexual intercourse” (MacHaffie, P. 125).
This was “an age of hope, Noyes observed, but so much of people’s hope was misplaced, being centered on an idealization of the past or on expectations of some divine fulfillment in the future,” Writes Gaustad. Whereas the Shakers sought (ineffectively, I should point out) to emulate the earliest Christian communities, and doomsayer groups sat on their hands waiting for the King to come home, the gathered Church at Oneida would endeavor to construct the kingdom of heaven in their own midst. “Noyes believed in a spiritual revolution that was now at hand, ‘An outburst of spiritual knowledge and power, a conversion of the world from sensuality, from carnal morality, and from brain philosophy, to spiritual wisdom and life,'” as he put it (P. 151).
Thus, at the compound, “where men and women freely intermingled, women farmed alongside men and men learned to sew. Women, it seems, were also encouraged to drive the teams of horses and work in the machine shops,” writes MacHaffie. “The leaders “discouraged the formation of bonds between mothers and children and relegated their care to men and women of the community in a special wing of the house.” The result being that Oneida women were not imprisoned in a cult of domesticity and consigned to embodying “traditionally maternal” norms and habits.
Perhaps as much as the Shakers, “Residents of Oneida challenged the idea of male and female occupational spheres. The communities were self-sufficient, producing the products and foods necessary for daily life – similar to the pre-industrial households of colonial America. In both instances, women had useful and productive work to fill their days” (P. 125).
“The community grew to about 200 members, supporting themselves through logging, farming, and the manufacturing of Steel traps,” writes Koester. “Another Oneida community excelled in the crafting of fine silverware, by which the Oneida name is still widely known” (P. 64).
Not unlike the Shakers, “Noyes insisted that God had masculine as well as feminine dimensions or elements. Often the word ‘androgynous’ (having the characteristics or nature of male and female) is used to describe their perspective” (MacHaffie, P. 125).
“Such sectarian groups offered women opportunities for participation and recognition which went beyond what was available to them in traditional Protestant churches.” MacHaffie goes on: “Perhaps most significantly, they were prepared to see women as inspired channels for new truth from God” (P. 126).
According to Nancy Koester, “In 1879 Noyes fled to Canada to escape lawsuits,” and without his stabilizing leadership, “Oneida Community members abandoned ‘complex marriage'” (and the eugenic underpinnings that came with it) “in favor of monogamy” (P. 64). In Noyes’ absence, it would seem, they determined (foreshadowing a 2015 Time Magazine article) that, even if monogamy isn’t ‘optimal,’ it’s nice.”