A utopian community as defined by Webster’s dictionary is “A place of ideal perfection in laws, government and social conditions”. The group attempted to establish a new social community based on their visions of an ideal society. For this paper, I have chosen to research the Oneida community, founded by John Humphrey Noyes. Although their teachings are unusual, they believed they were a perfectionist communal society living as one family and sharing all properties (Struve 1).
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John Humphrey Noyes was born in Brattleboro, Vermont in 1811 into a well-established home. He grew up in a deeply religious family but believed in it with great cynicism. In his college years. He came to a new understanding of the way of salvation, which he called Perfectionism. It soon became the underlying foundation to his future endeavors (Hillebrand 1).
In 1838, he married Harriet Holton and founded the original community in Putney, Vermont in 1839. He concluded it was God’s will that newly attracted couples have consensual sexual relations with each other. Thus, began the arrangement in which each member considered himself or herself to be married to all members of the opposite sex in the group (Murray 75). In 1840, the Putney Association came into being as a truly religious body and soon after, they formally adopted communism by which to live (Hillebrand 2). They began this community with about 37 members who lived by the rule that all property and family was to be shared. They shared three modest houses, maintained a store and ran two farms to support themselves.
In 1846, the community adopted Noyes’ teachings of “mutual criticism”, “complex marriage”, “male continence” and “ascending fellowship”. Mutual critism was given to every member of the community during their general communal meetings. A committee member or the community as a whole would criticize the member about any bad flaws. The goal was to eliminate undesirable character traits in each person in the community. They were also firm believers in free love know as complex marriage. Every member was free to have sex with any other as long as both consented. All men were thought to be linked to all women. Possessiveness and exclusive relationships were frowned upon (Struve 3). The teaching of male continence was a type of birth control where men could not ejaculate during intercourse. Noyes believed an unwanted pregnancy was a waste of a man’s seed. Through this process, he was able to control both members and the population. The final teaching known as ascending fellowship, allowed young virgins to be introduced into complex marriage. The central members, elders of the group, were allowed to choose a young partner, who was compelled to accept the sexual invitation. Noyes believed this would prevent young members from falling in love with each other and could control the range of who fell in love (Hillebrand 3).
In 1848, because of these unusual teaching practices, the community came under fire. The local townspeople threatened legal charges of adultery and child molestation against Noyes. The group fled to Oneida, New York and quickly settled in and purchased 23 acres of land they called “The Promised Land” (Hillebrand 2).
By the end of 1848, their membership had grown to around 250 people with economic bases of agriculture and industrial. They were involved in farming, sawmills and crafting. With their growth came the need for some form of governing. They created a committee and an administrative department as their new form of government rule. Both men and women were considered equal and all activities and jobs were shared.
In 1876, Noyes was ready to retire as leader and tried handing the reigns over to his son, Theodore Noyes. The move was unsuccessful as his son had no leadership skills and was an agnostic (Hillebrand 4). It created a divide within the community and much debate about its practices. In 1879, due to opposition and hostility from surrounding communities, Noyes was compelled to abandon the system of complex marriage and the community (Hillebrand 4). He fled to Canada, never to return to the United States (Murray 76). Remaining members reorganized as a joint-stock company called Oneida Community. Ltd. Today they are still known as the world’s largest manufacturer of stainless-steel knives, forks and spoons (Reynolds 3).
The Oneida utopian community had many different success and failures within. The surprising factor was not their failure, but the length of their survival (Reynolds 3). Communal living appeared to boost successfulness. It allowed for creative cultural growth, integrated working environments, increased economic outlook and group parenting (Reynolds 3). Their leader and his beliefs were the community’s biggest failure. As Noyes believed more and more in his Godly power, the younger members began to question the way of life they were leading. The member numbers began to decline and they chose to separate from the group to live normal lives.
I believe the Oneida community was an inclusive society. All members were included in the daily aspects of life and all were considered contributors to their society as a whole. Although Oneida was a utopian community, there were also a few dystopic aspects within it. The community incurred independent thought restrictions, they had a figurehead leader to worship and the belief that they had a perfect society are just a few. Although this community had its share difficulties, it had managed to survive for forty years.
In conclusion, this unique Oneida utopian community was perfection in its own mind. Their lives as one committed family worked to their advantage for many years. Through their communal living, they did prove that people could live and work together to create a better society. Although their teachings leave many people with thoughts of insanity or disbelief and you may either agree or disagree with their teachings, its cultural history and community development ideals are an important part of American history. Today, tourists still visit the mansion house intrigued with the history the house possesses.
Hillebrand, Randall. “The Oneida Community.” The Oneida Community, http://www.nyhistory.com/central/oneida.htm.
Hillebrand’s history summary offers extensive information on who John Humphrey Noyes was and how his community began and developed. He includes personal background history of the Oneida movement and all the teachings and beliefs established by the growing community. The article is very informative and helpful in gaining an understanding of this utopian community. The information provided within the writing was very interesting and valuable. The source would be very useful for specific research on this topic. The style of writing is easy to understand and covered all areas of this intriguing community.
Reynolds, David S. “Complex Marriage, to Say the Least.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 24 Oct. 1993, https://www.nytimes.com/1993/10/24/books/complex-marriage-to-say-the-least.html.
Reynolds article covers the complex marriage teachings within the Oneida community. It explains the fascination that although the community failed, the length of time they survived was impressive for that time in history. Reynolds also speaks more about the positive factors the community upheld rather than the negatives that many other articles focus on. The article is both reliable and helpful for research information on the covered topic. The positive covered topics allowed the reader to see another side of this community and express personal opinions on the good and bad sides of Oneida. I would recommend this article as a reliable source.
Struve, Henry D, et al. “Oneida Community (1848-1880): A Utopian Community.” Social Welfare History Project, 12 Mar. 2018, https://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/religious/the-oneida-community-1848-1880-a-utopian-community/.
Struve’s article was done as a history project to learn more about the utopian Oneida community. He explains the teachings and beliefs within the structured community and the effects they had on both the members within the community and the outrage of the surrounding townspeople. The article also contains witness testimony from an insider of the community explaining some of the occurrences that transpired from some of the teachings. The article is very insightful and having the witness details within, allows the article to be considered a very reliable source for research. The witness testimony on the teaching also allows the reader to gain a better understanding of what was truly occurring in the community with its members. The information was very valuable to my writing and changed a few views I had on this topic.
Murray, John E. “Expanding Marriage: A Historical Experiment.” Human Life Review, vol. 38, no. 4, Fall2012, pp. 74–78. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=85355220&site=ehost-live.
Murray’s article discusses the downfall of the Oneida Community due to their teachings. He thoroughly explains their social beliefs and the strong reactions of the surrounding Christian communities. He reviews the values of “Perfectionism” and how Noyes believed he was a divine authority and God figure who could lead based on his own Christian beliefs. Murray also discussed the downfall of the Oneida community. He believed that age old traditions of marriage could never be destroyed. Todays societies are built on the marriage, family and religious traditions that follow this teaching.
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Information within this article is easily usable for an essay or research project. The given analysis of this community allows the reader to visualize and understand how the community expanded and collapsed in great detail. Students will find Murray’s article easy to understand, yet very informative about the topic.