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The History Of The Oneida Communitys Theology Religion Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Theology
Wordcount: 5489 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The 1840s was a time of rapid change and was an age when new and revolutionary ideas were beginning to crystalize and form into modern beliefs. Many tried to experiment with social reform and this included John Humphrey Noyes. Noyes was a prominent, colorful, and devoutly religious leader and his ideas blossomed into the infamous Oneida community of New York. Oneida was a revolutionary community with philosophies taboo in that age as well as the modern age. Outsiders viewed Oneida with awe and attracted many tourists from all over to see how such a community could function under policies of complex marriage, communalism, eugenics, and mutual criticism. People looked at Oneida as a shocking utopian society which worked under taboo policies, yet lasted successfully and peacefully for over 30 years.

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            John Humphrey Noyes Jr. was born in 1811 in Brattleboro, Vermont under his father, John Humphrey Noyes Sr., a shopkeeper and former minister, and his mother, a deeply religious Christian. His father would represent Vermont in the House of Representatives for two years. Later he left politics, sold his business, and settled down in the Town of Putney with his eight children. http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_BmVnMZODeXI/TFTMG_qah5I/AAAAAAAAAFs/UFhqclvZeNE/s1600/Noyes.jpg

            Noyes had an extremely deep religious up-bringing. He was ten when his family moved to Putney and they had family prayers and readings from the New Testament daily. His mother took him to conversion meetings and had intended her son to go into ministry when he grew up. Attending private school at the age of 9, Noyes graduated with flying colors and eventually attended Dartmouth College. At first, he chose an occupation in law, but eventually decided to become a minister after he had a dramatic conversion experience after visiting his hometown of Putney in the fall. Noyes came to study scripture at Andover seminary passionately for a year but decided to transfer to Yale due to lack of liberality. While attending Yale, Noyes joined a New Haven church. These churches looked down upon the practices of other common churches for their loose interpretations of the bible, and this was where Noyes’ radical ideas blossomed. He spent most of his time having theological discussion and attending mass. After a year at Yale, he received his license to preach.

            During this time period, many began to question and interpret the bible in their own ways. One of such was Noyes’ professor of theology, Nathanial Taylor. Alongside him, many other preachers such as James LaTourette, and John B. Foot, created and preached their own takes on the bible and began to speak of Perfectionism; the lifestyle of being completely free of sin. Noyes was very interested and his religious fervor influenced him to study the bible to new extremes. Going through a period of starvation and poor health, John came to the realization that the best way to live was as a Perfectionist. He soon began to regard himself as perfect in god’s eyes because he chose to abstain from any sin.

            His self-proclaimed perfection caused uproar among his peers and professors. People questioned him deeply and he was often isolated among other students. Noyes said, “My friends were fast falling away. I was beginning to indeed be an outcast.” (Klaw). This period of persecution was rough on Noyes, but he was firm in his beliefs for he believed the best path was the path of truth. Staying rigid in his self-image, many believed he was crazy or too extreme and radical. Eventually, his professor attempted to coax him to recant his statements because he was on the precipice of being expelled. Noyes denied recanting his ideals, was expelled from Yale, had his Preacher’s license revoked, and had been voted out of his New Haven church.

            At the age of 23, Noyes had no followers and was in a bad state of mind. In spark of hope, he traveled to New York to meet one of his favorite Perfectionist theologians, Charles Grandison Finney, at an annual theology convention. Noyes traveled all the way to New York, but he failed to meet his idol and left in a state of hopelessness. He wandered for 3 weeks in New York City in a drunken stupor in open rebellion to his theories of abstinence due to his spiraling depression. Noyes was in a rough patch in his life and he spent a lot of his time preaching to the city homeless. Later on Noyes’ brother discovered what had happened to him and requested that he come back to Putney to get back on his feet. http://library.syr.edu/digital/collections/j/JohnHumphreyNoyes,ThePutneyCommunity/p054a.jpg

            For the next two years of John’s life, he rediscovered his passion and worked to convert people to Perfectionism in New York and New England. Although in an age of rapid discovery and innovative ideas, Noyes had a hard time converting people because others still considered his ideals too much. He preached that the Second coming had already occurred, men could reach perfection, and that salvation was attainable through perfectionism.

            While in New York, Noyes teamed up with two other theologians and shared their ideas with the public via a periodical on perfectionist ideals. This went on successfully for a year until Noyes had to leave because his radical interpretations even caused his partners to stray away and disagree with him. Once again, Noyes’ found his way back to him hometown of Putney to get back on his feet in 1836.

            Noyes was a determined man. He had many goals for himself, but felt extremely unsatisfied if those goals were not reached. He was vulnerable to neurotic fatigue, weeks of anxiety, and nervous physical disorders. After New York, Noyes slept little and ate almost nothing. He preferred to use the strongest stimulants available when he chose to eat; like cayenne peppers. He described these feelings as, “spiritual crucifixion,” and once the pain had disappeared, he would feel reborn into a new world to sow the seeds of life (Garden).

            Other aspects of Noyes’ personality were his inability to focus on one idea at a given time. He would pursue ideas, but not fully if he believed it seemed invaluable; after he would move right on to the next one. He thought that these ideas were, “divinely inspired.” Another trait of his personality was his lack of deep personal relationships with other people. He would get to know someone on a superficial level then move on to the next person. One of his beliefs was that love should be shared with others and not specialized into one single person.

            Once back at home, Noyes’ passion for preaching and converting caused him to do just that. Residing in a small town with few inhabitants, Noyes’ reputation was known well for being a very radical thinker. Most people in his hometown even looked at him with a dubious expression; many people were skeptical of Noyes’ preaching. Noyes put his passion of religion to full extent back in his hometown, and he attempted to convert most of his family. He was successful, but he did not receive the blessing of his father, John Humphrey Noyes Sr.

            The next spring, empowered by his respite in his home town, Noyes’ sought out to follow his passion for converting and preaching. His preaching skills earned him many loyal disciples. He published a new periodical called “the Witness.” At the very young age of 26, Noyes had a very prominent reputation under his belt. In his publication, he preached that perfection of morality was completely possible, but his ideas were a double edged sword for they alienated him from society. His philosophies included the belief that when one reached perfection in terms of the bible, it let you be free to do what you wanted in the physical realm. This idea led to open kissing sessions between the members of his following. He was looked at in a different light after that, but he knew that he truly believed there was nothing wrong to share love that god had intended to be shared with everybody.

            His ideas blossomed when he met Abigail Werwin. They became close and he loved her in a lustful way, but she eventually left and married another man. Even though he was rejected, Noyes was still convinced that they still had a chance together. Lonely and sick of “love,” Noyes’ isolated himself in his studies to reflect upon the teachings of the bible and to further his philosophy of love.

            One of his most devout followers was Harriet A Horton. She professed her faith to Noyes’ after reading one of his books on the topic of perfectionism. She came from a wealthy family and would frequently give him gifts and donations. Her grandparents were affluent and both her parents were dead at the time. Although he had not seen much of her, in 1838 Noyes proposed and since her grandparents were not opposed to it, they were married. In his marriage proposal, Noyes made it clear that he wanted her to love all men and women and that either of them should, “monopolize,” or, “enslave,” each other’s hearts.

            During this time period, Noyes was trying to establish himself as a leader in the Perfectionist movement and he turned his focuses to printing his philosophies. Within a couple months of getting married, he and his family were working hard to publish his previous articles into a single book called, “The Way of Holiness,” and he continued to publish his periodical, “The Witness.” http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-X9AQjPidBWc/TWMJoJ8C4KI/AAAAAAAAAT0/GBv_AgzS9As/s1600/biblecomm1.jpg

            Noyes publication work would eventually lead to the creation of the official holy text of his philosophies. In 1847 he compiled all his works into, “The Berean.” He did not consider this the complete book because he believed that forms of practice depended on the age of the time and that ideas were constantly changing with time.

            Of other ideas present in his book of Perfectionism, Noyes included his theory that the Second Coming of Christ had already happened, and that freedom from sin could be possible. He argued that simply believing in Christ or taking the traditional route of faith, which included studying the bible and attending church, could give you a quality faith, but it could not free you from sinful deeds. He said that receiving this second rebirth was achievable but hard. He argued against antinomianism, the theory that faith in god was all you needed, and said that faith in god did not save one’s soul; god taught people through the bible how to save their own soul. Through god’s teachings, mankind could evolve inevitably toward a perfect society. He also said that eventually even death itself would cease because mankind would become so perfect that death was not required for one to go to heaven. He did not include how this was possible and his ideology was regarded as an extreme interpretation.

            In his holy book, Noyes also discusses how a perfect holy man would be. He said that he would be a very spiritual individual, and with the guidance of god and the church, he was free to become holy through his will. He believed that man didn’t have to follow every rule as the Puritans did, but man should be open and willing to try new experiences and to accept all that life had to offer.


            The origin of the Oneida community began in Putney. Through his publications on Perfectionism, Noyes had gained a small amount of followers throughout the Putney region. Small pockets in Northern New Jersey, Northern Vermont, and New York began to look towards him as their leader. Noyes encouraged these people to organize conventions from where they could discuss social reform and talk about their faith. The issue between these pockets of people was that they were segregated. In 1841, Noyes created, “The Society for Inquiry,” consisting of no more than 12 members in his town of Putney to unify them.

            Later in 1841, eight months before Noyes’ father died, his father split his savings and each gave his children $20,000. With this money, Noyes finally had a source of capital to fund his activity. Before, he had relied on donations from his dispersed followers and from his wife. He decided that he would change the policy of his church so that to be an official member, one needed to donate a certain amount of time to the church. With this set, the beginning of his organization was created with 29 adults and 9 children.

            His followers inhabited 1 of 3 houses owned by Noyes’ family and they relied economically on 2 farms and a store located on their land. They created a school for the children and stressed that 3 hours a day should be a minimum to study and worship god. This was troublesome for them because it entailed that they would spend less time working on the farm and making money, but Noyes was adamant that religion came above work.

            Interestingly, the small community was unanimously dedicated to the sole theocracy of Noyes. Anything that Noyes wanted he got and he was the sole decider of what would happen. His sisters who were part of the community even let him chose their husbands. In one case, 2 of the members had fallen in love in secret and wanted to get married, but Noyes expelled them from the community not because they had fallen in love, but because they had done it in secret.

            The context of the time period showed that communal associations were rising throughout the nation during the 1840’s. Noyes became more interested in establishing a true community away from the influence of the outside world where he could institute his utopian ideas and practice communal marriage. One could observe Noyes’ ideas through his teachings, but one could not observe his social ideas in his current situation. Many knew that he was all for complex marriage; however, the members were expectantly waiting for him to declare that it would be acceptable to have sexual relations between members of the church.

            In 1846, Noyes and his wife finally agreed to have sexual relations with another couple who they were attracted to. Later, the 4 agreed that it was god’s intention for them to have sex and they began incorporate this marriage system in the community. The principles for their social union were that they would all share material possessions as well as relationships between people, and they submitted themselves to the John Noyes’ leadership.

            Other members of his church who weren’t part of the central location began to hear of Noyes’ new policy and were curious about it. Noyes’ told them that exchange of love between two people was acceptable, but he stressed that it would only be alright with his blessing. The town of Putney eventually heard of what was going on and Noyes’ was at the spotlight of the authority. Charged with adultery in November 1847, Noyes fled to New York.

            Eventually, the community had come to the conclusion that Putney was too conservative and slow of a town to practice their beliefs, and looked to find an oasis to practice. As this occurred, a group of Noyes’ followers had started a community in Madison County, New York. The land, which was a sawmill located at Oneida creek, was owned by Jonathan Burt and he invited Noyes to see the land in hopes of creating a settlement there. After visiting, a grateful Noyes gave Burt $500 and began to invite members from other settlements to come.

Original followers who traveled from Putney to Oneida, New YorkIn the course of 18 months, arrangements were made for 31 adults, 14 children, and other members from Vermont to inhabit the area. The area in New York was a very popular place where many other Utopian Societies were established. The rolling green hills and country side were very attractive to these Utopian communities. They spread like wildfire and the area was named, “The Burned over District”. http://tontine255.files.wordpress.com/2011/02/raking-bee.jpg

Noyes did not have a set of rules for how to run the community so he laid out 2 basic principles, individual perfection and communal good. He said that Perfectionism was a process of perfecting character. One should try to achieve a, “spirit of love,” and a, “spirit of childlike freedom”. Education was very important in the community. People were encouraged to be introspective and study curriculum alongside with the bible. It was stressed that self-realization came through the process of education. The second principle was achieved by giving up selfish desires. A perfect community could be achieved by relinquishing personal want for the better of the community. By the end of 1848, there were 87 members of the community and in the next couple of years, over 200 would join.


Members of Oneida in 1860

            In his community Noyes arranged marriages between his followers. He did this because he thought it was a good idea to join together two people so that if the community were to disband, a person would not be left alone to deal with adjusting to normal society. He was a hard worker and people looked up to him for his unending devotion to bettering the community. Noyes had a personality that made you almost feel completely accepted, and this was useful because it would make people strive for his full acceptance by being obedient towards him. Although neurotic and radical, Noyes was an intelligent, devoted, and outspoken person. If anyone was to lead the community, it was him.


            Many joined Oneida for their luxurious comforts. Neighboring villages were astounded that such a community could create the Mansion House, which housed over 50 people. People would question how this community could strive and be successful. Noyes’ plan for establishing this was by picking a select group of talented individuals to help start economic factors in the community. Some were chosen based off of their wealthy backgrounds and others for their skill sets. The community eventually had a net investment of around $108,000. Without this investment, Oneida was almost certainly doomed to failure, and it would takes almost 10 years and over $40,000 lost for the community to finally begin reaping in profits.

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            Noyes began to realize that to become self-sufficient, farming would not be able to support the entire community even though they did have the equipment, labor, and supplies to create a successful farm. John R. Miller proposed that Oneida plunge itself into the commercial world to be able to seek self-support. Their first business venture was to preserve fruits and vegetables and peddle them to surrounding villages, and this market was attractive to anyone who wanted to enjoy foods that were not in season. When Miller died, it did not stop the community from gaining profits.

Sewell Newhouse’s traps on display in Oneida            In 1848, Sewell Newhouse, a successful trap maker, joined the community. He manufactured traps with a special spring that made them very effective. Once he moved to Oneida, his traps gained more and more popularity. The 1850’s saw an increase in the popularity of traps and the success it drew caused Newhouse’s traps to become Oneida’s main source of income. On the side, Oneida also canned fruits and vegetables and created small items such as chains, travel bags, brooms, and rustic seats. During the mid-1860s Noyes sent 3 members to New York to learn how to weave silk from silk thread and thus, it established a new business venture that helped the Oneida community thrive. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/34229/34229-h/images/000.jpg

            In 1862 the Oneida community began to hire local villagers to do menial tasks. This began to grow as Oneida’s economic status grew. By 1875 Oneida was hiring more than 200 workers and it soon became an industrial center. By 1864 its net worth was $185,000. By 1875 this grew to $500,000, and by 1880 it was over $600,000.

            In 1860, with the successes in business, Oneida began to experience a taste of luxury after years many years of hard work. They created the Mansion House which was used to house many of the people. It was remodeled to be made out of brick instead of wood and it would be designed to have 4 stories. Around it, the mansion was covered with beautiful gardens and trees.


Originally made to house 50, the Mansion House grew to house 250 people. Since the main philosophy of Oneida was of the importance of community, the public rooms showed the most grandeur. They were extravagant and had many sitting rooms. Once Oneida became prosperous, entertainment attractions were created such as a photo studio, chemical lab, theatre, musical instruments, and a two-story summer house near the Oneida Lake.


Even in the early days of Oneida the practices of their Utopian society were prevalent everywhere. They had no real structure for worship. Every day was sacred and even Sunday wasn’t regarded as a special day. They did not recite prayers formally, and Christmas wasn’t considered too important. Baptism was also seen as unnecessary and funerals were deemed unimportant because it was considered a good thing that the soul had moved from Earth to Heaven. People spent most of their days working jobs, doing chores, or enjoying themselves with entertainment or play.

            There were few holidays, because they considered every day to be special. However, on February 20th, people got together to celebrate the day when Noyes believed he was reborn and free from sin.

            Every day at 8 o’clock, the members would gather in the main hall and listen as Noyes would speak. He would teach of new realizations and teachings, and discuss perfectionist theology and how it applied to everyday life, and how to live life. Noyes also had writers take note of what he said so that they could publish it to read in the future.


            One of Noyes basic principles was the evils of monogamous marriage. He thought this was a tyrannical institution and that it was selfish because love should be free to love all. His ideas of complex marriage would not easily be synchronized into his community, so it took years after his marriage to come up with a plan. Noyes thought that women’s role in society was flawed; women were seen as simply children factories. He eventually came up with the idea of “male continence.” Sexual intercourse did not require a final stage of ejaculation because it burdened women with the painful process of pregnancy. Male continence would be beneficial to the society for 2 reasons. It hindered women from pregnancy, and it stopped the drain of life on the man’s part. After practicing male continence for two years, Noyes felt that it could be useful to his community as a form of birth control, and he then introduced it to the community. This system was successful; however, 31 children were accidentally conceived between 1848 and 1869.

            With this system in place, Noyes saw that it could easily run wild. He created a process of choosing sexual partners via a hierarchical form called “Ascending Fellowship”. A person could have sex with people who were considered above their spiritual level, and the higher up you were the more freedom you could have. He put this system in place to make sure that no one person was left out or more desired than another. Men simply asked women if they were comfortable having sex and the women could either decline or refuse; if accepted, it would be approved by a third party, usually Noyes or a high seated citizen. A physician reported that a woman would have sex every two to four days.

            The community differed from the outside world in that they believed that women should enjoy sex as much as men. Sexual expression was, “love in its most natural and beautiful form” (Garden). Social taboo against sex seemed irrational to Oneida because it created shame; It was a hopeless was against human nature. God gave humans these feelings and to deny them was denying the instruments of love that god had given them. These topics were discussed freely among the Oneida people and visitors never reported strange or unusual behavior. Orgies, homosexuality, and incest were never reported. Setbacks to this system were that the males could not ejaculate into the woman; a factor hard to believe was still accepted among the people, but both parties still agreed that it was better than abstinence.

            An issue concerning this system was that two people could fall in love. If caught in love, public criticism followed that person and they were sent to another branch of Oneida until those Earthly desires were relinquished. As punishment, Noyes would withdraw sexual privileges from a person and they would be lowered in the ranks of Ascending Fellowship; this entailed that they had less choices in people to have intercourse with. Falling in love was a threat to the whole as a community because it created an unequal balance of love.


            By the 1860’s their system of birth control and communal marriage proved successful. In the community’s evolution, they now experimented with the idea of eugenics. Not known about the term eugenics, Noyes created the term “stirpiculture.” It was accepted in their community without much opposition and fathers were chosen via the ranking of Ascending Fellowship; men who seemed more spiritual were better suited fathers because their genes would create spiritual children. Women chosen were usually around the ages of 20 to 41 and men were from the ages of 25 to 68.

            Noyes himself had fathered many. His lineage was deemed better because he was the leader of the community, and he fathered 10 children. Children born via eugenics were put into Children homes. The children were made to see their parents less frequently compared to other children in fear that they would develop some sort of specialized love. Eventually the time spent between parent and child would grow as the child got older. In this Children homes, children would be raised to focus on education and religion. They were cared for by the leaders of the house and if any of them developed special relationships with another they would be separated. No setbacks could be reported among these children. They were given food to eat, a great education, and much attention and love from the adults who oversaw them. They were encouraged to attend college and they became successful in business, scholarship, and arts.


            Work in Oneida was cycled often. This supposed that the people would not be stuck in monotonous jobs and that they could try a little bit of everything. People changed jobs frequently but people who displayed a passion in their work would remain there for years. Since women were not burdened by child bearing, they were seen much as equals. They shared jobs that men would work on and they could even ascend into the lines of business. Everybody had equal opportunity to participate in community events. Despite this; however, Oneida believed that gender entailed different specializations. Men were seen to always do a better job compared to women.

The Oneida Community Working in the Garden            Each child went to school regardless of gender and they would learn a wide variety of topics such as zoology, astrology and philosophy. Oneida prepared their students for the outside world and college. Their library housed over 4000 volumes and they sent people outside to achieve higher educations. Over a dozen were sent to Yale to gain scientific knowledge, and those who gained medical knowledge outside of Oneida came back as physicians. https://encrypted-tbn1.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcQpq5va1H1h3-_J8PRF7oJ9kb0vxWT7cDO611U1ecyHYA3ouNe3

            Oneida worked hard and played hard. In contrast to other religious organizations, they saw the joy in good spirits in activities such as dancing, theatricals, and card playing. They later formed an orchestra and a theatrical group and the audience was always enthusiastic. In one Christmas performance in 1867, the visitors outnumbered the actual Oneida members in the audience. The carefree charisma present at Oneida was noticeable and many thought that the women not only looked carefree in their short hair and dresses, but that they had compassionate personalities because they were worry-free in their daily lives.


            Noyes found the power of mutual criticism to be powerful. This entailed that a single person would be given public, constructive criticism by a council of 6 to 12 people. These criticisms were not necessarily negative. They were usually published in the newspaper and the criticism gave people a different paradigm as to how they saw themselves and it taught them how to become a better person. Criticism ranged from being called arduous to carefree and enthusiastic. Noyes’ comments on people were usually harsh and insightful as he was a good judge of character. As the leader; however, he was rarely judged but he would often judge himself harshly. Mutual criticism could break someone’s ego, but such catharsis could give birth to a new and better person who did not live in the confines of their former self.


Utopian ideals usually come with the sole rule of a single person and Oneida was no exception. People joined Oneida with full dedication to John H. Noyes and he was their complete leader. People could not join without giving themselves up to his influence, and Noyes often discussed this with his followers. He concluded that service was freedom just as following Christ was their freedom. Concerns were always brought up at daily meetings with the public and a higher council, but they all gave themselves to Noyes because they believed that he led them through life with good intention; all his principles stemmed from Perfectionist ideology.

Many times punishment was too austere for peoples’ liking. People shown to develop specialized relationships were given different jobs that they usually did not like. Sick people were treated harshly too because they believed that sickness was a sign of bad spirits. Higher ranked citizens were immune to criticism and they were given more privileges. Members did not complain about the system, or it would be evident once they left. People who did leave were never dissatisfied and usually admitted wanting the Oneida policies to be incorporated into larger society. Despite Noyes’ single rule, he was not close-minded. He discussed topics openly with his council and took many ideas into consideration.


Subtle changes in the way the community was originally run led the slow but definite crack in the glass tree that had thrived for over twenty years. People believed they had solved most major social issues in the world and this was caused in the change of tone in Oneida. The 1870s showed a change from religious emphasis towards social emphasis. In the 1860s, Noyes began to research social science. A.J. Macdonald was a social scientist whose works Noyes began to study. With this inspiration he drifted his process of thinking from religious justification to scientific justification.

Instead of the usual “Oneida Circular”, the town periodical, Noyes established the “American Socialist”, and he also set up clubs focused on mutual improvement. He used to emphasize the important of 3 hours of religious study, but then began to emphasize spiritualism, a sect of philosophy he formerly shunned.

At the age of sixty-four in 1875, Noyes had difficulty in speech and hearing. Since he was the sole leader of Oneida, his importance began to decline as he got older. He put more responsibility to the central


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