The Oneida Community
The Oneida Community
The Oneida Community was a religious and utopic commune founded by John Humphrey Noyes in 1848, in Oneida, New York. It was one of the only communities of the nineteenth century to have experimented in the sharing of property and emotional and sexual life.
The community dissolved in 1881, transformed into cooperative, and became a large company of silverware, Oneida Limited. What is really interesting with this subject as a wayward one, is the fact that such a community, motivated by so many avant garde ideas, could have existed at this time. Its goal wasn’t only limited to the sharing of property and love, but also focused on the improvement of women’s way of life; on a better education for everyone; on gender equality; and above all, on the self-perfecting of human beings. Thus, this entry will ask how and why this commune was made but also why it didn’t last. It will stress particularly the subjects of gender and sexuality in Oneida. And to finish, the notion of utopia and its importance through this commune will be discussed.
The Oneida Community emerged little by little in John Humphrey Noyes’ mind before becoming reality. John H. Noyes is described as a precocious learner and thoughtful, with a quick temper yet a natural leader. He started to study law before becoming a strong religious believer and joining the Yale Theological College during the Second Great Awakening, in 1831. However, after months of intense study, he was called a heretic; his license was resigned, and he was asked to withdraw from college. Why? Because John H. Noyes declared several times, that he had never committed sins. Indeed, according to him, unless man was truly free of sin, then Christianity was a lie, and that only those who were perfect and free of sin were true Christians. He also made his first theological discovery, and determined that the second coming of Christ has already occurred and took place in 70 AD. From here emerged the idea of perfectionism that became a key notion during the Oneida Commune. Noyes pointed out that it was people’s duty to God to get all the pleasure they could from the World in which God had placed them. Noyes claimed his new relationship to God canceled out his obligation to obey traditional moral standards or the normal laws of society. Noyes advocated neither a plurality of wives nor a community of wives, but a nullity of wives: “When the will of God is done on earth as it is in Heaven there will be no marriage. Exclusiveness, jealousy, quarreling have no place in the marriage supper of the Lamb.” Between 1838 and 1848, he began to create a commune of true believers. His own family was the original nucleus, his wife, sisters and brother; they called their group the Society of Inquiry. The community’s original 87 members grew to 172 by February 1850, 208 by 1852, and 306 by 1878.
“Community Family” Image courtesy of Oneida Community, An autobiography, Constance Noyes Robertson.
Oneida Community family, around 1860, John Humphrey Noyes, with arms crossed, stands in right foreground. Around 1860, the Oneida Community was already well established and counted more than one thousand members. The picture shows that the Male Continence was a great success; there are few children and a majority of adults.
One of the main principles of the community established by John H. Noyes was “complex marriage.” Complex marriage was an imaginative effort to liberate men and women from the narrow, and often narrowing, confines of monogamy and conventional family life. Complex marriage allowed free sexuality and love. The pleasures of sex were seen as a creation of God and were meant to be enjoyed by men and women. However, John H. Noyes agreed with Malthus on the absolute necessity for control over propagation, and this is the reason why he instilled those system of coitus reservatus that he named “Male Continence” to avoid undesired pregnancies. Postmenopausal women were encouraged to teach young boys how to have sex without incurring the risk of fertilization. In the same way, older men often introduced young women to sex. Meanwhile, during the Victorian era, which was a period of high prudery, it was not uncommon to practice barbaric acts such as penile cauterization and clitorodectomy to erase sexual pleasure, since sexuality was seen as one of the worst sin. Moreover, despite the fact that during this time most medical authorities though women were incapable of enjoying sex; at Oneida, it was incumbent on men to make sex pleasurable for their partners.
“Community Song”, Image courtesy of Oneida Community, An autobiography, Constance Noyes Robertson.
This song was written by the Oneida Community, and is considered as the hymn of the commune. The song is mentioning the existence of Eden on earth, which would be built by the community itself. It refers to the main principles of Oneida: True love through “Complex Marriage”; and being “one” it means altogether in a sharing community living in one home.
Children were raised communally. Elderly people worked as much or as little as they liked. In the offices and in some of the lighter duties of the manufacturey as well as in the management and care of the communal home, women shared the labor and, in fact, the Oneida Community was one of the first groups to grant full equality of position to women. The Victorian Era was still a slavery period for women. Spencer Klaw wrote about it: “In an age when it was fashionable for women to emphasize how different they were from men by proclaiming their helplessness and dependency, women at Oneida, though they were praised for being bewitching and lovable, were exhorted to get rid of “effeminacy” to cultivate “manliness and robustness of character.” Women at Oneida have the chance to associate with men, both as lovers and as friends, on a more equal footing than the rest of the world usually permitted. They were told that they must not try to make men crazy by making themselves beautiful, because to do so would be to encourage idolatry.
John H. Noyes saw no virtue in poverty (another thing that differentiates him from the Christian Church). Education was a priority in Oneida. They sent promising young men into college – most of them to Yale; and they also had an education program for adults and for girls –who weren’t allow to have access to education outside the commune. In his will of perfectionism, Noyes created a system of mutual criticism, in which the goal was to eliminate bad character traits. Egotism in any form was ruthlessly suppressed. Also, he created a program of eugenics that he called “stirpiculture.” Stirpiculture was a special program dedicated to the perfectionism of children. A committee decided who should make a child with whom according to their qualities.
Although the Community gained more and more respectability due to its workshops, some tensions aroused with time. Indeed, more and more Oneidans were wondering why John H. Noyes was the only one to be under the direct commandment of God. By 1879, many Oneidans were demanding more freedom in sexual matters. They argued that young people should be free not to have sexual relations with older people. Young people wanted to be free to have lovers of their own age. Women who were not especially attractive often felt sexually deprived; and men were criticized for treating their partners like mistresses. But the main source of anguish and frustration was Noyes’s refusal to tolerate love affairs and their intensity or exclusivity. Besides, for years Oneida had been under intermittent fire from crusaders for moral purity and surnamed the “Utopia of obscenity”. The pressures that sent Noyes fleeing into exile and the Oneida Community to vanish came from the world outside Oneida as well as from within.
“Satiric cartoon of clergymen appalled by the “Utopia of obscenity.” Image courtesy of Without a Sin, Spencer Klaw.
The Oneida Community had several detractors, and were called the “Utopia of obsecenity”. Puck, a satirical journal, printed a cartoon that counter-attacked Oneida critics. The cartoon shows a band of self-righteous ministers pointing at Oneida and declaring “Oh, dreadful! They dwell in peace and harmony and have no church scandal. They must be wiped out.”
The Oneida Community proved that as a utopic commune – even if it did not last very long – it lasted and reached its goals for a time. It is important to care about such utopias because it shows that at any time it is possible to be and act against the social norms established by the laws or by the morality of society. It is also important to remember that such communes had existed because even if they didn’t have a huge impact on the future, if no men like John H. Noyes would have stands for gender equality and freedom of love, we could still be in a Victorian era. Such utopias prevent history to go round in circles, and make mental changes. That is to mean, if waywardness did not exist, improvements and changes in society could not exist either.
Spencer Klaw, Without Sin: The Life and Death of the Oneida Community, (Penguin Books, 1994).
Maren Lockwood Carden, Oneida: Utopian Community to Modern Corporation,(Syracuse University Press, 1998).
Donald E. Pitzer, America’s Communal Utopias, (The University of North Carolina Press, 1997).
Constance Noyes Robertson, Oneida Community, An Autobiography 1851-1876, (Syracuse University Press, 1970).
“Community Song”, in Oneida Community, An autobiography, Constance Noyes Robertson.
“Marriage perplexities”, Oneida Circular (1871-1876), Feb 17 1876, American Periodicals, pg 52.