The Oneida Community was a religious Utopia. It was founded in 1848 in a town called Kenwood in Upstate New York by a man named John Humphrey Noyes. The main reason for Noyes’ move toward the creation of a Utopian Society was his loss of confidence in religion and his growing awareness of the need for a re-conversion of Christians.
The Oneida Community is of special interest over the many other utopian trends of its time because of its 32-year life which has set the record for utopian existence, and its impressive financial and cultural achievements.
John Humphrey Noyes was worshipped by the Oneida Community members like a God. He preached Perfectionism, an extreme form of Christianity.
“At Oneida John Humphrey Noyes demonstrated how to apply Perfectionist theology to social life. He did not start with blueprints for the size of houses or rules for the rotation of work. To have done so would have been inconsistent with his objection to set procedures. Instead, he ruled according to general principles. Perfectionist doctrine had provided a rationale for establishing the kingdom of heaven on earth. It also provided the two principles that would dominate Community life: individual perfection and communal good.” 1).
The two basic ideals of Perfectionism were self-perfection and communalism. The society was Communist in the unselfish sense of communalism. The difference between this Communist Society and that of Russia was the allowed competitive spirit, because economic self-seeking was completely eliminated.
“I would regret it if the Oneida Community were to be confused with that modern “communism” which denies God and makes material considerations paramount. The Community adopted communism only that the members might live the unselfish lives ordained by Jesus Christ. This communism was nonpolitical and non-contentious. My father aimed at a system under which the individual would forget self and strive for the happiness of all. It was thus he interpreted the spirit of the Primitive Christian Church.” 2).
At Oneida, intellectual improvement took priority over material needs. Noyes would sooner have the Community members, young or old, sit in a class than work to build a strong economic base, even in the early years. Some men were actually criticized for neglecting their spiritual growth in their efforts to increase production at work. Social perfectionism was Noyes’ ultimate goal for Oneida, through personal achievement.
The second principle or ideal that of the communal good, was inseparable from the first. Individual perfection could be fully achieved only in the context of a community to which each person subjugated all of his selfish interests. Possessiveness with respect to property, time, and other people was forbidden. A member had constantly to strive for self—perfection and to seek ‘the public spirit’ or the ‘community spirit’, fighting ‘selfishness and egoism’ with a “perfectly obedient spirit” through which he commended himself entirely to Christ and the Church.” 3)
The strong emphasis on the Community was evident in the decor of the common rooms where nightly talks were held among the approximate two hundred members. These meeting halls were much more elaborate than any of the individuals’ private rooms.
“In accordance with Noyes’ dictum that the individual should rise above selfish interests, no one was allowed much in the way of personal indulgences such as decoration for his tiny room or for his dress. Throughout the history of the old Community, all but a very few older women kept their hair short and wore simple dresses that were styled in the fashion of the times but had skirts ending a few inches below the knee; the legs were covered by practical, loose, trouser-like pantalets. Once the Community had become prosperous, however, Noyes did not disapprove of communal indulgences. The Perfectionists eventually enjoyed a Turkish bath, a photographic studio, and a ‘chemical laboratory,’ elaborate properties for theatrical performances and musical instruments for the orchestra. They even built a two-story house to use as a summer cottage several miles away on the edge of Oneida Lake.” 4)
Noyes was considered God’s direct representative by the Community members. He always received full support in his experiments. For example, after personal experience and experimentation with his wife, Noyes introduced a birth control system of male continence in which the man practiced a natural, healthy form of self-control during intercourse.
“After Noyes had practiced this ‘amative’ (as opposed to ‘propagative’) intercourse for two years without his wife’s becoming pregnant, he decided that male continence was an effective means of birth control. At the same time, he reported, he began to feel that his ideal conception of marriage could be instituted on earth. Soon thereafter, he introduced complex marriage. Male continence obviously involved such resolution that we may wonder if the men actually practiced it. They did. Those who had, in Community terminology, ‘upsets’ found their sexual encounters curtailed. They learned to exercise self-control or were subject to public disapproval and private rejection...”
In practice, the birth control system was effective, if not quite perfect. Between 1848 and 1869, forty-four children were born in the Community. Eight of these had been conceived before their parents joined Oneida, and at least five more conceptions had been sanctioned by the Community. Consequently, at most, thirty-one children were accidentally conceived over a period of twenty-one years.” 5)
And thus the procedure was that an “encounter” could be arranged between a man and a woman, usually through a third party after it was approved and a woman was free to accept or refuse her requestor as she wished. A written record was kept of all accounts. In practice, older men who were more experienced in the practice of continence (self-control) would be arranged with the younger, more fertile women, and younger men who were more likely to have an “upset” would be matched with older women who had already experienced menopause, all in an effort to control the birth rate.
“By the late 1860’s Oneida had proved the effectiveness of its birth control system and the practicality of complex marriage. The Community seemed to have reached temporal perfection, but Noyes, who had declared perfection a progressive matter, felt that Oneida was ready for a new stage in its development — an experiment in eugenics. As early as 1848 he had written that...” 6) “The time will come when involuntary and random procreation will cease, and when scientific combination will be applied to human generation as freely and successfully as it is to... animals.” 7)
And so the system of complex marriage took on new restrictions, which modified the pairing of sexual partners. From then on there was a goal with each encounter: to create a more superior race by pairing together the more highly qualified adults. Despite the personal successes the members enjoyed in the Community, or perhaps because of them, by the early 70’s there was a marked trend away from religious perfectionism at Oneida. This was partly caused by Noyes’ changing concerns, which were becoming more and more social. This, along with Noyes’ personal physical deterioration set the stage for chaos and disunity in the Community.
“During the 1860’s and 1870’s Noyes’ physical infirmities made it impossible for him to command as he once had. His perennially weak voice became reduced to a whisper, and his hearing deteriorated. By 1875, although he was only sixty-four, he could no longer hear ordinary conversation, and when he attended the daily meeting, someone had to repeat members’ comments to him in a loud voice. He delegated more and more responsibility to the central members and gradually allowed them to govern almost completely without his intervention and advice. The change contributed to the decline in Perfectionist theology and to a shift in the emphasis placed on its ideals.” 8)
John R. Miller, Noyes’ brother in law suggested extending their economic base from farming to commercial enterprise. When Noyes agreed, they peddled many goods in the local towns and villages but expenses still exceed their increased profits.
Then, 1879, a serious conflict split the Community into two opposing factions. The Community became a joint-stock company called the Oneida Community, Limited. As the economic situation consequently deteriorated, Pierrepont B. Noyes, son of John Humphrey Noyes came back after leaving for some time to try to restore it by reinvigorating industry. However, the faith in Perfectionism never came back and Noyes was beginning to give up.
“Whatever the approach planned to reunite the Community spiritually, Noyes was dissociated from it. Earlier he had kept in constant touch with Oneida, even during his frequent sojourns at Wallingford and elsewhere; by the 1870’s he was absent even while present, retiring during evening meetings to the upper sitting room which adjoined the big hall, responding with silence to the issues that he had once interpreted with critical acumen. Left to their own devices in conducting the affairs of the Community, Noyes’ lieutenants, in disagreement about both Community goals and the means by which to achieve them, could hardly have been expected to re-establish the balance and consistency of various aspects of life at Oneida. Instead they created a tension, which precluded resolution. While insisting, on the one hand, that self-improvement and self-realization were to be achieved in intellectual terms, they placed increased emphasis, on the other hand, on submission to the communal, that is, the central members’ will.” 9)
As these troubles weakened the Community, the members found it harder and harder to unite in defense against outside criticisms. When Noyes finally fled secretly to Canada one night, the dilemma of Community government was left to the two opposing parties.
“As a utopian community, in contrast to an organization like an industrial firm, Oneida demanded complete commitment from its members. Unable to turn outward for substitute gratifications, they had to find all of their satisfactions within the community. This total involvement heightened rather than reduced the possibility for conflict because Community leaders had ideally to satisfy the demands of each individual member’s whole personality in the course of implementing Oneida’s general objective.” 10)
The Oneida Community, if evaluated on the basis of how long it lived, could be considered a success. A thirty-two year life is almost unbelievable for a Utopian community at that time. However, this is a not sufficient criterion for judgment of the community’s success.
If success was based solely on personal happiness of the Community members, then perhaps one could say that the Community was a success. However, this could not apply as a basis for analysis because the Community was Communist, in the sense that each individual strove for personal achievement only as a means for the communal good. So, personal happiness didn’t count, ultimately.
As a Communist Society, the Oneida Community failed. The responsibility of the higher-ups to see that each individual’s happiness, spiritual and intellectual growth always flourished, was largely impossible. From a natural, biological point of view, it was made even more difficult by all of the personal restrictions. The idea of the communal good was a contradiction in itself, because of the unheard-of practices.
Finally, as an economic system, the Oneida Community was never in the race. From the beginning, production and expenses were neck-in-neck. This condition suggested an inevitable economic collapse at the outbreak of any other community problem. Therefore, the breakdown in leadership and faith, which began in the 70’s lead immediately to economic deterioration. If not for the complete emphasis on the Communal good, there may have been an increased productivity rate from the start. A stronger economic beginning for the Community, teamed with milder Communist ideals may have even altered the conclusion of the Society.
1. Carden; Oneida, Utopian Community to Modern Corporation; 1969; Harper & Row; N.Y., Evanston, San Francisco, London. p. 23.
2. Pierrepont Burt Noyes; ~y Father’s House: An Oneida Boyhood; 1937; Holt, Reinhardt & Winston, Inc.; Massachusetts. p. 125.
3. Carden; Oneida, Utopian Community to Modern Corporation; 1969; Harper & Row; N.Y., Evanston, San Francisco, London. p. 24-25.
4. Ibid, p. 43.
5. Ibid, p. 51.
6. Ibid, p. 61.
7. Parker, Robert Allerton; A Yankee Saint: John Humphrey Noyes And the Oneida Community.; 1935; G.P. Putnam’s Sons; New York. p. 253—254.
8. Carden; Oneida, Utopian Community to Modern Corporation; 1969; Harper & Row; N.Y., Evanston, San Francisco, London. p. 92.
9. Ibid, p. 92.
10. Ibid, p. 106.
1. Carden. Oneida Utopian Community to Modern Corporation. New York, Evanston, San Francisco, London; Harper & Row, 1969.
2. Parker, Robert Allerton. A Yankee Saint: John_Humphrey Noyes and the Oneida Community. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1935.
3. Noyes, Pierrepont Burt. My Father’s House: An Oneida Boyhood. Massachusetts; Holt Rinehardt and Winston, Inc., 1937.
4. Noyes Robertson, Constance. Oneida Community An Autobiography. New York: Syracuse University press, 1970.
5. Estlake, Allan. The Oneida Community. London: George Redway, 1900.
6. Bible Communism; A Compilation from the Annual Reports and Other Publications of the Oneida Association and Its Branches. Brooklyn, N.Y.: The Office of the Circular, 1853.
7. Edmonds, Walter D. The First Hundred Years. New York, Oneida, Ltd, 1948.
8. DeMaria, Richard. Communal Love at Oneida — a Perfectionist Vision of Authority,_Prqp~rty and Sexual Order. New York and Toronto: the Edwin Mellen Press, 1978.