Every Man In The Oneida Christian Community Was Married To Every Woman And It Did Get Wild (Part Two of “The Other Sexual Revolutionaries”)

“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.”

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The Shaker Christians Mandated Celibacy And Eventually They Just All Died (Part One of “The Other Sexual Revolutionaries”)

“Pre-Civil War America became a laboratory for religious experiments,” writes Nancy Koester. “Even though the great majority of people stayed within more conventional forms of Christianity, they were always some who thought they could discover, restore, or invent ‘True Religion.’ Available land helped to make these experiments possible” (P. 63).

The Second Great Awakening had inscribed a kind of “utopian proclivity” in much of the American consciousness. Generally, this led to the kind of progressive reforms for which nineteenth century activist Christianity is best known. But it also produced “separatist” communities who sought the live together, cloistered from the outside world, embodying to the best of their abilities the terms of “God’s new order.”

One such “early Utopian community, the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing (known more familiarly as the Shakers) arrived in America from England in 1774 under the direction of mother Ann Lee,” writes Edwin Gaustad. “Lee taught that procreation was unnecessary since the kingdom of God was near at hand. This being so, Shaker men and women should live apart, living celibate lives. If a married couple joined the Shaker community, the marital relationship ended as the common life began” (P. 150).

These enclosed communes “included both men and women, but celibacy was strictly enforced through indoctrination and careful regulation of day-to-day activities,” writes Barbara MacHaffie. “Men and women ate at different tables, worked separately, used separate stairs to their living quarters, and sat on opposite sides of the room for worship” (P. 124).

According to Gaustad, Shakers saw themselves as “reviving the Pentecost church in their own time, one feature of that church being the commitment to live a virgin life” (P. 150).

Procreation was not simply unneccesary, though. “Lee came to believe that sexual intercourse was the source of all sin and that the family was based on carnal lust,” writes Koester. “Therefore, the perfect community must practice celibacy, which alone could bring equality between the sexes” (P. 63).

It is easy to forget how many of the early Christian communities held celibacy to be the optimal or even normative mode of Christian sexual expression. Works like the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla reflect this mindset. For the communities that produced the fictitious narrative, compulsory abstention from sexual relations owed less to the dominant culture’s Platonic unease with “bodies” and “material” than with an essentially feministish protest against the broad exploitation of women in Greco-Roman sexual practices.

As I’ve written elsewhere, “There was no ‘recreational’ sex for women in Rome – at least in the mainstream. Sex was not a game in the Empire Aeneas built – it was a tool, specifically, to dominate others. Affairs were not unheard of, but they were rarely for fun: Rome was entrenched in a rigid class system in which upward social mobility was nearly impossible. Sexual favors were often doled out in exchange for gifts, both monetary and otherwise,” but if you were a woman, sex was not about your pleasure – or your consent.

So when Thecla, an engaged noble woman from Iconium, hears St. Paul delivering a sermon, she devotes herself to chastity – much to the dismay of her mother and the chagrin of her fiance. When she will not back down, her loved ones (and eventually all of Rome) team up to martyr her, first with fire, then with lions, and finally by means of a whole array of Wile E. Coyote tricks and gadgets. In each case, the Lord rescues her, cementing, for those early Christian communities out of which the work emerged, God’s solidarity with womankind, who, in God’s new order, will not submit themselves to exploitation.

It is difficult for those of us born after the era of “sex positivity” to grasp the extent to which compulsory celibacy could have been liberating rather than stifling, both for women and for men, not only in the years immediately following the Resurrection of Jesus but even in the Shaker communities.

“Child-rearing became a shared responsibility,” writes MacHaffie. “Orphans and the children of new converts among the Shakers were cared for by a group of adults” (P. 125). According to Koester, “Their basis for Christian Community was the village, where property was held in common and all duties were shared. They built villages in which men and women lived separately and everyone contributed to farm work or crafts” (P. 64).

“Women generally did the indoor work and men did the heavier outdoor tasks but there was no indication that one type of work was superior to the other,” writes MacHaffie. “There is also evidence that men in Shaker communes carded wool and picked fruit, duties normally assigned to women” (P. 125).

They “multiplied in the first half of the 19th century as these ascetic visionaries moved into Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky.” Though a fringe group, the sheer breadth of their reach suggests that their communities struck a chord with the populace (Gaustad, P. 150).

“The group began to attract revival converts who sought a radically new way of life,” writes Koester. And according to Gaustad, they “grew to about 6,000 by mid-century” (P. 150). But if “The Shaker rule of celibacy freed women from child-bearing and child-rearing,” Koester goes on, “it also meant that without new converts or the steady adoption of orphans, the movement would eventually die out” (P. 64).

Shakers not only “altered basic ideas in the Victorian ‘Cult of True Womanhood,'” writes MacHaffie, “But also challenged the traditional theological concepts” (P. 125). Although some Medieval and many “Modern” theologians had popularized the idea that God was literally male, the Shakers reclaimed something akin to the early Christian notion that God is neither male nor female, but that both maleness and femaleness are derivative from the nature of God. Although we speak of Him often in masculine language, the Patristics thought, this was chiefly a practicality: No one, they would say, should be deceived into thinking that God was male.

And so “The Shakers used their belief in the ‘androgynous’ nature of God as a keystone in the life of the community.” And more: “They built into their theology and group structures an equal rule for women. The Shaker ministry, which presided over the community, was made up of two women and two men. An equal number of Elders and Eldresses supervised the spiritual life of the Shaker families (30 to 90 people) while deacons and deaconesses attended to the practical details of communal life” (P. 126).

But the pathway that the Shakers took to get there was almost irredeemably problematic. “Mother Ann’s children had died in infancy, and in her grief she received visions that she believed were from God,” writes Koester. “In these visions, she saw herself as a female incarnation of God, a counterpart to Jesus” (P. 63). The logic ran that “God had first appeared incarnate in a male, Jesus of Nazareth. Now, the Divine Essence had its second incarnation in a female, mother Ann Lee” (Gaustad, P. 150). Previously, the human face of God was Jesus – a man. But “with the coming of the female Messiah,” writes MacHaffie, “The original equality that women had with men was restored” (P. 126).

Eventually, their commitment to celibacy doomed their communities to “a slow decline and ultimately near extinction,” says Gaustad. “When revivalism and utopian experimentation waned, so did the growth of the Shakers” (P. 150). According to Koester, “At the close of the 20th century, only one Shaker village remained, with just a few believers” (P. 64).

Nonetheless, in their day they were remarkable. “Studies of some Shaker communities in the last century show two female members for every male on average,” writes MacHaffie. This is noteworthy and it isn’t. In its earliest stages, the “Christian Revolution” was a peaceable uprising of women (and the men they’d won over with their otherworldly vision for a world put to rights).

By the nineteenth century, however, Christianity in America was largely the domain of “Godly (or ungodly) Men,” with women by default relegated largely to the background. Thus, it is possible that “Women may have been attracted to the sectarian communities for reasons directly related to their status in church and society.”

She continues: “Evidence taken from direct testimonies” suggest that “The revival spirit created in the atmosphere of intense religious feelings and yearnings which were satisfied for some women in sectarianism. Also, contact with other women, especially in communal sects, seemed to provide some women with a much-needed sense of ‘sisterhood.’ Testimonies from Shaker women, for example, reveal their intense enjoyment of conversation with women in their own communities and visits and letters from sisters and other locations. By joining the sectarian groups, however, women may also have been unconsciously rebelling against their status in the Protestant churches and in American culture” (P.127).

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Works quoted above:

Gaustad, Edwin S., and Leigh Eric. Schmidt. The religious history of America. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, a division of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2004.

Koester, Nancy. Introduction to the history of Christianity in the United States. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000.

MacHaffie, Barbara J. Her story: women in Christian tradition. Philadelphia: Fortress Pr., 1988.

Meeks, Wayne A. Origins of Christian morality: first two centuries. Yale University Press, 1995.