The Oneida Community
In the first part of the 19th century, more than 100,000 individuals formed utopian communities in an effort to create individual spiritual perfection within a harmonious society. These religious utopian communities sought a “heaven on earth.” The Perfectionist movement came out of a Protestant revival known as the Second Great Awakening which appealed to emotion and anticipated the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
The Oneida Community in New York
The Oneida Community was a Perfectionist communal society dedicated to living as one family and to sharing all property, work, and love. They called their 93,000 square foot home the Mansion House. Today, this National Historic Landmark houses a museum with permanent and changing exhibitions.
The Oneida Community was founded by John Humphrey Noyes in 1848 in Oneida, New York. The community believed that Jesus had already returned in AD 70, making it possible for them to bring about Jesus’s millennial kingdom themselves, and be free of sin and perfect in this world, not just Heaven (a belief called Perfectionism). The Oneida Community practiced communalism (in the sense of communal property and possessions), complex marriage, male continence, mutual criticism and ascending fellowship.
There were smaller Noyesian communities in Wallingford, Connecticut; Newark, New Jersey; Putney and Cambridge, Vermont. The community’s original 87 members grew to 306 by 1878. The branches were closed in 1854 except for the Wallingford branch, which operated until devastated by a tornado in 1878. The Oneida Community dissolved in 1881, but set up a joint-stock company called the Oneida Community, Ltd. Today, Oneida Limited is one of the world’s largest designers and producers of tableware and cutlery.
The Oneida community believed strongly in a system of free love known as complex marriage, where any member was free to have sex with any other who consented. Noyes believe that complex marriage would move the community beyond divisive commitments to a single partner or family. All the men were thought to be linked in divine marriage to all the women; possessiveness and exclusive relationships were frowned upon. The community practiced coitus reservatus, or, “male continence” that is, intercourse without ejaculation. Children were raised communally and did not live with their parents.
Women over the age of 40 were to act as sexual “mentors” to adolescent boys, as these relationships had minimal chance of conceiving. Furthermore, these women became religious role models for the young men. Likewise, older men often introduced young women to sex. Noyes often used his own judgment in determining the partnerships that would form, and would often encourage relationships between the non-devout and the devout in the community, in the hopes that the attitudes and behaviors of the devout would influence the non-devout.
Every member of the community was subject to criticism by committee or the community as a whole, during a general meeting. The goal was to eliminate undesirable character traits. Various contemporary sources contend that Noyes himself was the subject of criticism, although less often and of probably less severe criticism than the rest of the community. Charles Nordhoff witnessed the following criticism of member “Charles:”
Charles sat speechless, looking before him; but as the accusations multiplied, his face grew paler, and drops of perspiration began to stand on his forehead. The remarks I have reported took up about half an hour; and now, each one in the circle having spoken, Mr. Noyes summed up. He said that Charles had some serious faults; that he had watched him with some care; and that he thought the young man was earnestly trying to cure himself. He spoke in general praise of his ability, his good character, and of certain temptations he had resisted in the course of his life. He thought he saw signs that Charles was making a real and earnest attempt to conquer his faults; and as one evidence of this he remarked that Charles had lately come to him to consult him upon a difﬁcult case in which he had had a severe struggle, but had in the end succeeded in doing right. “In the course of what we call stirpiculture,” said Noyes, “Charles, as you know, is in the situation of one who is by and by to become a father. Under these circumstances, he has fallen under the too common temptation of selﬁsh love, and a desire to wait upon and cultivate an exclusive intimacy with the woman who was to bear a child through him. This is an insidious temptation, very apt to attack people under such circumstances; but it must nevertheless be struggled against.” Charles, he went on to say, had come to him for advice in this case, and he (Noyes) had at ﬁrst refused to tell him any thing, but had asked him what he thought he ought to do; that after some conversation, Charles had determined, and he agreed with him, that he ought to isolate himself entirely from the woman, and let another man take his place at her side; and this Charles had accordingly done, with a most praiseworthy spirit of self-sacriﬁce. Charles had indeed still further taken up his cross, as he had noticed with pleasure, by going to sleep with the smaller children, to take charge of them during the night. Taking all this in view, he thought Charles was in a fair way to become a better man, and had manifested a sincere desire to improve, and to rid himself of all selﬁsh faults. (Nordhoff, 292-293)
The community lasted until John Humphrey Noyes attempted to pass the leadership thereof to his son, Theodore Noyes. This move was unsuccessful because Theodore was an agnostic and lacked his father’s talent for leadership. The move also divided the community, as Communitarian John Towner attempted to take control himself.
Within the commune, there was a debate about when children should be initiated into sex, and by whom. There was also much debate about its practices as a whole. The founding members were aging or deceased, and many of the younger communitarians desired to enter into exclusive, traditional marriages.
The capstone to all these pressures was the harassment campaign of Professor John Mears of Hamilton College. He called for a protest meeting against the Oneida Community; it was attended by forty-seven clergymen. John Humphrey Noyes was informed by trusted adviser Myron Kinsley that a warrant for his arrest on charges of statutory rape was imminent. In late June 1879, Noyes fled the Oneida Community Mansion House for Canada, never to return to the United States.
With Noyes gone, the community soon abandoned complex marriage and broke apart. Remaining members reorganized as a joint-stock company called the Oneida Community, Ltd.
The last original member of the community, Ella Florence Underwood, died at the age of 101 on June 25, 1950 in Kenwood, New York near Oneida, New York.
For further reading:
Bernstein, Leonard (1953). “The Ideas of John Humphrey Noyes, Perfectionist,” American Quarterly 5 (2), pp. 157–165.
Hand-book of the Oneida Community : with a sketch of its founder, and an outline of its constitution and
doctrines. Digital Edition, Syracuse University Library.
Hinds, William Alfred (1908). “The Perfectionists and Their Communities” American Communities and Co-operative Colonies. Chicago: C.H. Kerr & Co.
Klaw, Spencer (1993). Without Sin: The Life and Death of the Oneida Community. New York: Allen Lane.
Nordhoff, Charles (1875). “The Perfectionists of Oneida and Wallingford.” The Communistic Societies of the United States from Personal Visit and Observation. London: John Murray.
Noyes, John Humphrey (1974). Male Continence, Together with Essay on Scientific Propagation, Dixon and his Copyists, [and] Salvation from Sin. (Reprint of 4 works originally published by the Oneida Community, Oneida, N.Y.; the 1st originally issued 1872, 2d 1875, 3d 1874, and 4th 1876.) New York: AMS Press.
Oneida Community Collection. Special Collections Research Center. Syracuse University Libraries.
Robertson, Constance Noyes (1972). Oneida Community: the Breakup, 1876-1881. Syracuse University Press.
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Social Welfare History Project (June 2017). The Oneida Community. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from http://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/religious/the-oneida-community-1848-1880-a-utopian-community/ [Date accessed].