If you brought a woman into your tiny bedroom at the Oneida Community, no one would raise an eyebrow. If you brought her in the next night, they would. But if you replaced her with another that second night, they would not.
This is because they did the “complex marriage” thing at that socialist community where they believed in sharing all things equally—even each other. It was “selfish” to focus on a single mate. Traditional marriage was a “slaveholding position” toward women, wrote the founder, John Noyes.
Furthermore, everyone knew just who you brought into your bedroom at night. It was their business to know. The tiny bedrooms all opened up, on upper and lower level, off the joint living room areas. Thus, the architecture of the mansion—enlarged several times as the group prospered—served to prod conformance to group norms.
Oneida was a Bible-believing community (believe it or not) that adhered to a doctrine called “perfectionism” and drew great authority from the Matthew 22:29-30: “In the resurrection neither do men marry nor are women given in marriage, but they are as angels in heaven.’” He was replying to the Sadducees who had been trying to trap him.
Taking that “resurrection” to mean heaven, Noyes figured that the one man-one woman marriage model would be obsolete at that place and time, and he determined that the start date was 70 CE, when the Romans destroyed the Jewish temple. Christ had returned just after that time, he calculated. Human absolution was thereby accomplished, and faith in this doctrine made Noyes theologically perfect, to benefit whoever’s life he touch by his “hastening the coming of heaven to earth.”
Our docent was a retired professor at the community college who had taught sociology. He came to Oneida to investigate an example of a unique marital type—there can be only for, he said, one man/one woman, one man/many women (common), one woman/many men (rare, though there were some, he said), and many men/many woman. He determined that after he retired, he would serve here as a guide, and here he was.
Those of the Onieda Community were not the only ones to take defining guidance from that passage of Matthew 22, a passage recorded in all three synoptic gospels. The Shakers thought it meant no sex at all in the here and now—it is not surprising that they died out. Somehow the Mormons took from it that a man might take many wives. My own people (Jehovah’s Witnesses) put it not only yet in the future, but also on the earth. Death ends the marriage bond in this system of things. In the new system, it apparently does not pick up where it left off.
The novel living arrangement prevailed only through the tenure of the founder, John Noyes, whose initial plans to practice law had been diverted into religious beliefs. He had attended Yale Divinity College, till embracing “perfectionism” made him an oddity there, so he founded a community based on the new teaching. Toward the end of his tenure, “apostates” sprung up who wanted monogamy, the exact reverse of what has happened in modern times, where monogamy gradually loses out to a Woodstock-inspired life of no rules.
The mirror image is far from correct, our guide pointed out, for the Noyes community was hardly one of no rules—there were myriad rules. Your sexual tryst in the tiny bedroom (I am certain that they were not thought of as “trysts”) was only to last two hours—that way you didn’t get selfishly attached to one person—after which it was well if you rejoined the group, and it was not to reach the point of male climax—“male contraception,” it was called, and booklets explaining it and other practices were put out by the community.
When you ask the docent how Noyes came to terms with (it is even worse if you say “got around,” as I did) Jesus’ words that a man should stick to his wife so as to become “one flesh,” he braces himself for a barrage of criticism from a religionist, as though he himself is suspected of promoting a lifestyle of shacking up like at Woodstock. I know this because I asked him. I asked him because I thought I saw him so bracing. Nobody knows any scripture today, and if you do, he figures it might mean trouble. However, I told him that with me, it did not.
I even toyed with opening this post by telling of my fictional friend Tom Pearlsnswine, (from “Tom Irregardless and Me,”) and relating how I had decided to leave him in my home town, since he had embarrassed me at the Ithaca Earth Museum, loudly muttering about the “wiles of Satan” upon seeing all the fossils, and if he carried on like that there, what might he do HERE—I didn’t want to find out, so I cut him loose. In fact, I visited Oneida with my friend, and not my wife, who would break both my arms if I pulled such a stunt as was done here. She would have broken both my legs as well had I told her it was due to my interpretation of the Bible.
It is good that I did leave Pearlsnswine home, for he would not only have muttered about “orgies” here, but also about the fossils. Noyes’s community accepted evolution. Their perfectionism extended to perfecting the intellect, not just the spirit, and they assumed that higher education would do the trick. The mansion included a 1300-volume library, as great a collection of accomplished authors as might be found anywhere in the region. They promoted study and education, and if you mastered any given subject, you were encouraged to teach it.
The townspeople thought them odd, but not especially objectionable. In the words of Hilton V. Noyes (born 1871), they enjoyed a “priceless reputation for honesty and fair dealing in business, a tradition of manufacturing only the highest quality goods, and a habit of fair dealing and human sympathy amongst themselves, and in their relations to employees and neighbors.” The current museum features a room dedicated to the community’s children, which Hilton would have been one of, and it connects to one dedicated to its one-time greatest product—steel animal traps—a placing that the docent thought odd.
The clergy were less tolerant than the general populace. From time to time they launched campaigns against the group. Adultery was illegal at the time, so they had plenty of fodder to work with. It was one rumored pogrom, which turned out to be a false alarm, that caused founder Noyes to flee into Canada, never to return. From there he sought to guide his group through epistle, as though the apostle Paul, but with limited success.
Townspeople of today certainly would have been up in arms, not so much at the group marriage—that would be accepted today—but at the initiation of children into the world of sex by adult members of the community. “Older members, more advanced toward perfection, could impart their spirituality to younger members through intimate association. Young people were encouraged to have sex with their elders (ascend in fellowship) and discouraged from forming exclusive attachments to one another,” reads an interpretive poster.
Boys were introduced to it by post menopausal women, so that if they took some time to master withdrawal, it would not bring consequences. Girls were initiated into it by—wait for it—Noyes himself, so that the modern person assumes that the entire “cult” was started for just that purpose. But there appears no murmuring about it at the time, nor do docents of the here and now cluck their tongues over it. They simply relate the history. The present spectrum of pedophilia ranges from, at the lower end, sex with prepubescent children, roundly condemned by all as wicked, to, at the upper end, sex with underage teens, which increasingly becomes a matter of enforcing changing societal norms. If we are to extend the current rules into the not distant past, we must label Lennon and McCartney, the ones who sung: “Well, she was just 17. You know what I mean,” as pedophiles.
“When the Oneida Community felt prosperous enough to have children, they instituted the world’s first eugenics or “stirpticulture” program,” another poster reads. “Their idea was to breed spiritually elevated people who would benefit humankind. 41 mothers and 40 fathers had about 60 children, called stirpcults, who grew up in the mansion.” You had to apply to produce such children, and it caused hard feelings, since only 2/3 of all applications were approved. Moreover, your proposed child might be approved with the mother you chose, but not with you as father if you were judged as not quite measuring up.
The community practiced “mutual criticism.” You might be “invited” to the stage of the home’s auditorium where the community would tell you everything that was wrong with you, confident that you would thereby improve. When certain ones proved to have too thin skin, the entire group was replaced by committees of 6-8 seniors to impart their degree of perfection to you—ostensibly based upon recognized spiritual values, but probably (the docent agreed with me on this) mixed in with a good amount of just plain old meddling.
“Glance at a photograph of the assembled members of the Oneida Community and you will intuit the charisma of the leader [right foreground] who dominated the group’s history,” writes Deloris Hayden.
One might imagine that leaving the group was all but impossible, but in fact, it was not at all traumatic. If one chose to do so, he or she left with he good will of the group and an equal share of wealth, the same as they had once pooled what they had. John sent his oldest boy to Yale Medical School, and when he returned he didn’t believe in God—at best he returned agnostic. His second son left to make his way in business, and when he returned, he proved to be the group’s salvation, for they had floundered with the exile of their chief to Canada.
After Noyes died in that country, certain ones of the group tried to contact him through spiritism (with no more success than when Saul tried to contact Samuel that way). When the docent told us this, I asked him if he knew the two sisters from Rochester, and he said the name before I could—the Fox sisters, who were well known for spiritism. I then asked him if he knew about Nelson Barbour, the publisher/preacher who briefly teamed up with the commonly credited founder of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Charles Taze Russell, but he did not. Central New York at the time was known as the “burnt over district,” for the number of zealous preachers criss-crossing the region.
The second returning son, Pierrepont, the one who had tried his business hand in New York City, took a laissez faire attitude toward religion, but preserved the socialist orientation of the group, an orientation which was thought to be supported by the early doings of first-century Christianity: “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life…all who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes.” (Acts 2:44-47) The group took as permanent what most have recognized as a temporary arrangement to accommodate visitors during that first Christian Pentecost.
Pierrepont determined to throw the group’s industry into spoon-making. He changed the name Oneida Community to that of a business corporation, Oneida Community, Ltd, and by 1910, silverware had become the group’s main product. That business continued into the early twenty-first century, and I well recall the company’s advertising. “We were descendants of Oneida perfectionists and were attempting to carry into a modern setting as much of the principles taught by our forebears as seemed to us practicable,” Pierrepont would write later. “No other American communism enjoyed the economic success [and] approached in prosperity or in significance the adventure of the perfectionists of central New York,” writes Whitney R Cross, in “The Burnt-Over District.”
I know several persons with the Noyes surname, but they couldn’t be the same family, I told the guide. “Don’t be too sure of that,” he replied—it was a very large family. The more I think about it, the more I think he may be right. I mean, this was a Bible-studying non-mainstream group, and so are Jehovah’s Witnesses. I can easily picture the descendants of the first opting for the second. Some of those descendants live there today, for the connected mansions are now museum, community center, bed and breakfast, and apartments.
The notion of living in such an apartment sort of appeals to me, but my friend said that for him it was not that way, for it seemed too institutional. Well, it is that, I guess, but I like the notion of being somewhere where so much is going on—unexpectedly as we toured we would encounter roped off areas that were residential and you were asked not to cross that barrier, but there was no reason that they could not cross over to the common area, where there was a comfortable library, well-lit due to overhead skylights, and it was connected by a small joint room to the original library of 1300 volumes. Other rooms are employed as a B&B, something I had not known or I might have stayed there instead of the hotel in Utica. It is also a community center hosting events such as weddings.