Life at the Oneida Colony was kind of a like a key party, but no one had cars and everyone was doin’ it for Jesus.
(This article is the first in a five-part series about experimental utopias.)
Do angels have sex? John Humphrey Noyes thought so. Related question: If they do the nasty in heaven, is it really so nasty after all? Noyes reasoned not. These were the basic philosophies that animated the creation of Noyes’s Oneida Community, a 19th century colony of so-called Bible Communists who believed that free love and ecstatic sex would bring them closer to God.
The story of John Humphrey Noyes — as told by Ellen Wayland-Smith, a descendant of Oneida’s original inhabitants, in her 2016 book, Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table, about the colony — is one of a man desperate to reconcile his competing corporeal and celestial desires. If the moniker sounds familiar, that’s because the successful silverware company Oneida was founded at its namesake colony. But while its corporate legacy shines on, Oneida’s radical approach to sex and faith has largely been obscured, in part because the colony’s descendants destroyed the evidence.
Born in Vermont in 1811 to a wealthy congressman, John Humphrey Noyes matriculated at Dartmouth College and Yale Theological Seminary. While Noyes was patrician and ministerial, he was never a prude. Throughout his youth, he was said to be “bewitched” by women; a childhood friend remembered him as “inclined to give way a little too much to the libido corporis.”
Noyes was a man of earthly appetites, and would have perhaps never become interested in the seminary had a religious revival not rocked New England in his early adulthood. In the 1830s, some radical ministers began to reject Calvinism’s austere, puritanical notions of destiny. The new theologians argued instead that people could make their own fate, or, as Wayland-Smith writes, that they had “an obligation to at least meet God halfway in ushering in paradise on earth.”
This new religious trend, known as Millenarianism, was dynamic and extravagant. Millenarian revivals were ecstatic affairs. A preacher’s voice would tremble with emotion, waxing and waning rhythmically as onlookers wept, convulsed, or collapsed. Congregants were overcome by what one preacher called “waves of liquid love.” Though people weren’t literally having sex during the sermons, revivals blurred religious and sexual experience, and saintliness with sin.
Noyes attended a few of these gatherings and was seduced by what he called their “meridian splendor.” But he struggled with the chastity required of him by the seminary. “I cannot send abroad my thoughts in any direction without crossing the track of some polluted image,” he wrote, “and a thousand needless suggestions of impurity occur daily to blast my endeavors after holiness.”
But seek and ye shall find: Noyes soon discovered the doctrine of perfectionism, which maintained that no outward act was sinful if one’s heart and love for Christ were pure. For example, one could feel holy lust, just as one could feel unholy lust.
Perfectionism led Noyes to declare sin an invalid concept, which resulted in his expulsion from the seminary at Yale. When asked if he would keep preaching, Noyes answered, “I have taken away their license to sin, and they keep on sinning. So, although they have taken away my license to preach, I shall keep on preaching.”
Noyes began publishing a journal called The Perfectionist, which put him in touch with other free-wheeling, amorous revivalists. He became fascinated by the question of whether saints were sexually active, reasoning that if the angels were getting it on, then bringing God’s kingdom to earth surely involved following suit. He concluded that if sex was a feature of the afterlife, it was surely communal and not possessive.
Airtight argument in hand, he began advocating non-monogamy. “All experience testifies,” he wrote, “that sexual love is not naturally restricted to pairs.” Marriage, he asserted, “provokes to adultery.” But Noyes got married anyway, to a woman named Harriet Holton, and in 1838 the pair and a handful of converts set about building an intentional community in Putney, Vermont.
Millennial sects and communities were cropping up all over the United States, including the celibate Shakers nearby. But Noyes’ commune was the inverse of the Shakers. Community members were encouraged to participate in a “complex marriage” system, an “open and equal sexual union” between all men and women in the community. Numbering less than a dozen at first, they called themselves Bible Communists. In time their numbers grew, and they moved from Vermont to the town of Oneida in central New York, where they formally established the Oneida Community.
At first, the Oneida compound was rudimentary. The Bible Communists lived in old Native American dwellings on the property until they erected their first buildings in 1848. They proceeded to alter traditional social arrangements and relationships, challenging norm after norm until a unique culture had been established. Newborn children, for example, lived with their mothers until the age of one and a half, and were then relocated to the communal Children’s House. This arrangement was a challenge to what Oneidans called “philoprogenitiveness,” or the tendency of adults to favor their own biological offspring. Children, they argued, were not private property, but individual community members — brothers and sisters in Christ. Life in the Children’s House was by all accounts pleasant. Oneida’s “vivid green and sunlit yellow summers” alternated with the “white world” of winter where the children “rolled immense snowballs, or played fox and geese in the field,” according to one memoir.
To address possessiveness among the adults, married couples who joined the commune were permitted to remain primary partners, but spiritual unions were regularly formed and broken outside the bonds of traditional marriage. When disputes naturally arose, Noyes himself would mediate them — telling a possessive male partner, for instance, “I do not wish you to forget her, nor to love her less. But cannot you love her without claiming her?” Noyes referred to amorous possessiveness as “sticky love,” and was known to put lovers in time out to cool their passions if an instance of sticky love threatened the harmony of the group.
There were pros and cons to this fluid and publicly mediated sexual compact. On the plus side, women were more liberated at Oneida than almost anywhere in America. They were partners in community decision-making, and the community childrearing arrangement relieved them of their nonstop domestic burdens, so many had time to pursue personal creative endeavors. Community men were encouraged to practice “sexual continence” so that both partners could pursue their passions without consequences. In the area of sex for pleasure — known as “amative” sex, the individual’s desire reigned supreme.
But there were downsides, too. While colonists shared property in common, they were separated based on perceived enlightenment into what Noyes called “spiritual castes,” with himself perched at the top. He encouraged the spiritually unenlightened to take sexual lessons from their spiritual elders, who were almost always their actual elders. As a result, cross-generational sex was common at Oneida; much of it would today be considered statutory rape, or worse.
The group also practiced “stirpiculture,” a form of eugenics in which lovers were matched for procreative (as opposed to amative) sex based on their moral strengths and flaws, in order to produce more perfect children. In the area of procreation, the community had the final say; matches were decided upon by committee, employing a process called “mutual criticism,” in which the group would exhaustively discuss an individual’s faults and virtues while that he or she was compelled to passively listen.
As the stirpicults (i.e. products of stirpicultural union) grew older, many were demonstrably uninterested in their parents’ way of life. The breakdown in respect and authority for spiritual elders reverberated throughout the community. By 1880, a the community had established a commission to decide if the experiment would continue. “We now have no government worthy of the name,” reflected one older community member. “The council is a failure. The young people just do as they like.”
Though they called themselves Communists, the spirit of capitalism had been alive and well at Oneida since the beginning. Noyes himself declared that “money-making is the soul of the world,” like it or not, and that “in order to subdue the world to Christ we must carry religion into money-making.” After Noyes’ death in 1886, Pierrepont Noyes — one of John Humphrey’s children through stirpiculture — oriented the colony increasingly toward industry.
Noyes’ death was followed by the dissolution of the commune. The holdouts relocated together to a single massive building called the Oneida Mansion House, each family residing in a separate apartment in the hulking edifice. They established a factory at Niagara Gorge, where the Oneida Company Limited began making spoons. Pierrepont and the other stirpicults were energetic and determined; their aging parents were depressed. His mother Harriet wrote in her journal, “The New Year has begun and we now bid adieu to communism… and we enter O.C. Limited with all its terrors. I have no pleasure in the contemplated change.”
But while you can take the stirpicult out of the Children’s House, you can never quite take the spirit of communalism out of the stirpicult. Pierrepont was partially moved by the socialism of Eugene V. Debs, though he rejected the idea of a society altogether without class. As Oneida Community Limited grew, it became a beacon of welfare capitalism, ensuring that every factory worker was paid a living wage. At the end of every year, the company’s profits were divided in half, with one half being distributed equally to all workers.
Pierrepont and the other stirpicults — and their own children — were wary of public inquiries into Oneida’s sexual openness. When informed in 1947 that they would be a receiving a visit from now-famous sexologist Dr. Alfred Kinsey, the descendants of Oneida gathered every diary, every letter, and every document they could get their hands on that told the story of their family’s sexual licentiousness and experimentalism — and burned them. Author Wayland-Smith speculates that the anti-communist mood in the country at the time, which was often coupled with a fear of sexual perversion, may have contributed to the community’s decision to erase its history.
John Humphrey Noyes started with theories and passion. The residents of Oneida collaborated to bring them into the realm of flesh and bone. The burning didn’t spell the end of the company, notes Wayland-Smith — you can still buy Oneida silverware at many popular retailers. But it did difinitively mark the end of an era, in which the Oneidans boldly attempted to reconcile the mandate of heaven with the desires of humankind, on their own terms.