Oneida Community

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The Oneida Community between 1865 and 1875

The Oneida Community was a perfectionist religious communal society founded by John Humphrey Noyes and his followers in 1848 near 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 in Heaven (a belief called perfectionism). The Oneida Community practiced communalism (in the sense of communal property and possessions), complex marriagemale sexual continence, and mutual criticism.

The community’s original 87 members grew to 172 by February 1850, 208 by 1852, and 306 by 1878. There were smaller Noyesian communities in Wallingford, ConnecticutNewark, New JerseyPutney and Cambridge, Vermont.[1] The branches were closed in 1854 except for the Wallingford branch, which operated until the 1878 tornado[2][3] devastated it.[4][5]

The Oneida Community dissolved in 1881, converting itself to a joint-stock company. This eventually became the silverware company Oneida Limited.[6]


John Humphrey Noyes (1811-1886) led the community

Even though the community only reached a maximum population of about 300, it had a complex bureaucracy of 27 standing committees and 48 administrative sections.[7][better source needed]

All community members were expected to work, each according to his or her abilities. Women tended to do many of the domestic duties.[8][page needed] Although more skilled jobs tended to remain with an individual member (the financial manager, for example, held his post throughout the life of the community), community members rotated through the more unskilled jobs, working in the house, the fields, or the various industries. As Oneida thrived, it began to hire outsiders to work in these positions as well. They were a major employer in the area, with approximately 200 employees by 1870.

Secondary industries included the manufacture of leather travel bags, the weaving of palm frond hats, the construction of rustic garden furniture, game traps, and tourism. The manufacturing of silverware began in 1877, relatively late in the life of the community, and still exists.[6]

Complex marriage

The Oneida community strongly believed in a system of free love – a term which Noyes is credited with coining – which was known as complex marriage,[9] where any member was free to have sex with any other who consented.[10][page needed] Possessiveness and exclusive relationships were frowned upon.[11]

Noyes developed a distinction between amative and propagative love.

Complex marriage meant that everyone in the community was married to everyone else. All men and women were expected to have sexual relations and did. The basis for complex marriage was the Pauline passage about there being no marriage in heaven meant that there should be no marriage on earth, but that no marriage did not mean no sex. But sex meant children ; not only could the community not afford children in the early years, the women were not enthusiastic about a regime that would have kept them pregnant most of the time. They developed a distinction between amative and propagative love. Propagative love was sex for the purpose of having children; amative love was sex for the purpose of expressing love. The difference was what Noyes called “male continence” , in which the male partner avoided ejaculation. Noyes argued that this practice not only kept them from producing unwanted children but also taught the male considerable self-control. The system worked very well.[12]

Women over the age of 40 were to act as sexual “mentors” to adolescent boys, because these relationships had a 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 he would often encourage relationships between the non-devout and the devout in the community, in the hope that the attitudes and behaviors of the devout would influence the attitudes of the non-devout.[13][page needed]

In 1993, the archives of the community were made available to scholars for the first time. Contained within the archives was the journal of Tirzah Miller,[14] Noyes’ niece, who wrote extensively about her romantic and sexual relations with other members of Oneida.[1]

Mutual criticism

Every member of the community was subject to criticism by committee or the community as a whole, during a general meeting.[15] The goal was to eliminate undesirable character traits.[16] 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 said he had witnessed the criticism of a member he referred to as “Charles”, writing the following account of the incident:

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 selfsacrifice. 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.[17]

Male continence

To control reproduction within the Oneida community, a system of male continence or coitus reservatus was enacted.[18] John Humprey Noyes decided that sexual intercourse served two distinct purposes. In Male Continence, Noyes argues that the method simply “proposes the subordination of the flesh to the spirit, teaching men to seek principally the elevated spiritual pleasures of sexual connection”.[19] The primary purpose of male continence was social satisfaction, “to allow the sexes to communicate and express affection for one another”.[20] The second purpose was procreation. Of around two hundred adults using male continence as birth control, there were twelve unplanned births within Oneida between 1848 and 1868,[20] indicating that it was a highly effective form of birth control.[21]: 18  Young men were introduced to male continence by women who were post-menopause, and young women were introduced by experienced, older males.[21]: 18–19 

Noyes believed that ejaculation “drained men’s vitality and led to disease”[22] and pregnancy and childbirth “levied a heavy tax on the vitality of women”.[22] Noyes founded male continence to spare his wife, Harriet, from more difficult childbirths after five traumatizing births of which four led to the death of the child.[21]: 17  They favored this method of male continence over other methods of birth control because they found it to be natural, healthy and favorable for the development of intimate relationships.[23] Women found increased sexual satisfaction in the practice, and Oneida is regarded as highly unusual in the value they placed on women’s sexual satisfaction.[21]: 19  If a male failed he faced public disapproval or private rejection.[23]

It is unclear whether the practice of male continence led to significant problems. Sociologist Lawrence Foster sees hints in Noyes’ letters indicating that masturbation and anti-social withdrawal from community life may have been issues.[21]: 19  Oneida’s practice of male continence did not lead to impotence.[21]: 18 


Main article: Oneida stirpiculture

Stirpiculture was a proto-eugenics program of selective controlled reproduction within the Community devised by Noyes and implemented in 1869.[24][25][26] It was designed to create more spiritually and physically perfect children.[27] Community members who wished to be parents would go before a committee to be approved and matched based on their spiritual and moral qualities. 53 women and 38 men participated in this program, which necessitated the construction of a new wing of the Oneida Community Mansion House. The experiment yielded 58 children, nine of whom were fathered by Noyes.

Once children were weaned (usually at around the age of one) they were raised communally in the Children’s Wing, or South Wing.[28] Their parents were allowed to visit, but the children’s department held jurisdiction over raising the offspring. If the department suspected a parent and child were bonding too closely, the community would enforce a period of separation because the group wanted to stop the affection between parents and children.[29][30] The Children’s department had a male and female supervisor to look after children between ages two and twelve. The supervisors made sure children followed the routine. Dressing, prayers, breakfast, work, school, lunch, work, playtime, supper, prayers, and study, which were “adjusted according to ‘age and ability’.”[13][page needed]

Stirpiculture was the first positive eugenics experiment in the United States, although it was not recognized as such because of the religious framework from which it emerged.[31]

Role of women

Oneida embodied one of the most radical and institutional efforts to change women’s role and improve female status in 19th-century America.[32] Women gained some freedoms in the commune that they could not get on the outside. Some of these privileges included not having to care for their own children as Oneida had a communal child care system, as well as freedom from unwanted pregnancies with Oneida’s male continence practice. In addition, they were able to wear functional, Bloomer-style clothing and maintain short haircuts. Women were able to participate in practically all types of community work.[32] While domestic duties remained a primarily female responsibility, women were free to explore positions in business and sales, or as artisans or craftsmen, and many did so, particularly in the late 1860s and early 1870s.[33] Last, women had an active role in shaping commune policy, participating in the daily religious and business meetings.[32]

The complex marriage and free love systems practiced at Oneida further acknowledged female status. Through the complex marriage arrangement, women and men had equal freedom in sexual expression and commitment.[32] Indeed, sexual practices at Oneida accepted female sexuality. A woman’s right to satisfying sexual experiences was recognized, and women were encouraged to have orgasms.[34] However, a woman’s right of refusing a sexual overture was limited depending on the status of the man who made the advance.[35]

Ellen Wayland-Smith, author of “The Status and Self-Perception of Women in the Oneida Community”, said that men and women had roughly equal status in the community. She points out that while both sexes were ultimately subject to Noyes’ vision and will, women did not suffer any undue oppression.[36]

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