Problems of Social Cohesion in the Oneida Community

Term Paper, 2000

14 Pages, Grade: 2

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2.1 Theocratic Platform
2.2 Complex Marriage

3.1 Foundations
3.2 The Technicalities of Love
3.3 Male Continence




1 Introduction

The Perfectionist community of John Humphrey Noyes, founded in Vermont and later based at Oneida in upstate New York, from which it derived the name under which it became both famous and infamous, was one of the most radical utopian experiments in nineteenth century America.

While other, less radical communities could not survive long beyond the first utopian impulse of their creation, the Oneida communists lived for nearly forty years a social reality devised by Noyes. They survived the vitriolic attacks by a public that was scandalized by the details of the Oneidans’ life, especially their peculiar marriage arrangements and measures of birth control. In later years, inner tensions threatened the system.

At Oneida, society was put on radically new and unexplored ground. Considering the inner and outer tensions, it is an interesting question to ask how group identity and social cohesion was achieved in four decades of experimentation, and why this cohesion was lost shortly after a prestigious project of eugenic breeding was initiated.

2 A Branch of the Kingdom of Heaven

2.1 Theocratic Platform

The seeds for the Oneida Community were laid in the 1820s, when the Second Great Awakening revivals ran over New York State. One of the most controversial schools of thought during this time was called Perfectionism. Its preachers believed that no individual was forced to sin by nature and that it was indeed possible to achieve a state of sinlessness.

Noyes who was converted at one of Charles G. Finney’s revivals in Vermont in 1831, eagerly took up these ideas. After intensive studying of theology at Andover and Yale, he felt that he had reached the spiritual state of sinlessness, and in 1834 he proclaimed it to the world. Having made tabula rasa like that, he could continue to develop entirely new ideas that went far beyond the field of the theological.

According to Noyes, these fundamental theories were of course strictly based on the Bible. God was supposed to be a dual entity, both male and female in nature. The union with God people would enter in the afterlife would necessarily be one in which matters such as sexual differences would not matter anymore. The relationship between male/female would be dissolved in the Kingdom of Heaven, including all relationships of possession between things (private property) and persons (marriage). Noyes calls this state of spiritual union with God a Complex Marriage. Exclusive, special relationships cease to exist. The latest heavenly commandment - at least as far as Noyes is concerned - reads: “love one another … not by pairs, as in the world, but en masse” (Noyes 626). In this fashion, the Kingdom of Heaven would come into this world in our time and salvation would be incredibly facilitated. Traditional relationships, “special love,” are to be given up in order to realize the goal of Complex Marriage and spiritual salvation. From that point on, every man would be married to every woman and vice versa.

Similar to other utopian movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Oneida called for “common personal and religious commitment” (Foster 263) to establish the goal of salvation and reconciliation with God. The religious factor was the fundamental element of group cohesion at Oneida, too.

2.2 Complex Marriage

A society based on the aforementioned principles, spiritual or otherwise, amounted to nothing less than a sexual revolution right in the middle of the Victorian period. Noyes ideas shattered almost every aspect of traditional male/female relationship. With Oneida, he claimed “to be in advance of marriage and common civilization” (Noyes 640).

The theory that man and woman were equal in the union with God resulted in the idea that both were also equal in marriage and in every other respect, education and work inclusive. This and the commandment to enter into Complex Marriage necessitated another profound change. Intermarital sex ceased to be reduced to its “propagative” function. By making frequently changing sexual contacts available and encouraged inside Complex Marriage, the “amative” function of the sexual act, its role as a cohesive factor in society, was stressed.

The theory released women of their fate of bearing one child after the other and gave them considerable power over their own lives and bodies. It also necessitated some means of birth control to avoid such undesirable or “involuntary propagation” (Robertson 277). A solution was found and advocated by Noyes in his 1848 book Male Continence. In it, he described a technique that required men to withhold ejaculation (coitus reservatus) in order to avoid the “propagative crisis” (Robertson 270). It allowed women a fuller experience of the “amative” element of sex, including orgasm.

The relative frankness with which such matters were discussed at Oneida is astonishing - for them, sex was something perfectly natural on which eventually all life and all society is based. By most Victorians however, sex was regarded as an awkward and somewhat embarrassing topic. Even Charles Nordhoff, who in 1875 published a scientific examination of the American communistic settlements, remained cloudy about the details and mused about the “capacity of mankind for various and extreme religious beliefs” and wondered “that many men have brought their wives and daughters into the Oneida Community” (272).

3 The System in Practice

3.1 Foundations

John Humphrey Noyes claimed that the Bible was Oneida’s “only written creed and constitution” (Robertson 54) and that social life there was entirely based on the Holy Scriptures - and his own interpretations of it.

In fact, most of the Community’s life was based on a virtual flood of contracts, declarations and agreements. The original members signed a constitution as early as 1841, followed later by a “Contract of Partnership” (1845), and a “Statement of Principles” (1848). The documents were mainly designed to install Noyes as head and “father” of the Community, whose authority was to be unchallenged. They also constituted the Complex Marriage system and communism of property.

The force behind these formal papers was not entirely spiritual by nature. Economic considerations played an important role, as well. New members had to sign contracts that stated the terms under which they could bring money and other possessions into the community, and in how far “seceders” (Robertson 52) were allowed to take these out again. Clearly, besides a distinctive religious doctrine and a system of sexual freedom, a third element of social cohesion was emerging here: economic interest paired with obligations deriving from legally binding business contracts.

It becomes clear that the Oneida system was not as communistic as it appeared to be. In fact, the distribution of power and authority from the head down to the basis was a very strict and static one. Noyes, who was rumored to get direct communications from St Paul himself and exercised unquestioned authority, was surrounded by a committee of “central members,” five or six men appointed by him. All important decisions were made here, and Noyes word was always final and non-negotiable. The Oneida Residents General Assembly was little more than a talking shop, which could give advice to the Central Committee. There were also separate men and women business committees and a number of subcommittees. These subcommittees were responsible for all sorts of things, for example finance, agriculture and education, and regulated community life down to clothing.

The social structure at Oneida was similarly static. The most “spiritual” and oldest men were at the top of the social pyramid, followed by the most “spiritual” women. They in turn were followed by the younger men, and these again by the younger women. Members entered this system at the bottom when they reached sexual maturity.

To justify this construction, Noyes had devised the “Law of Fellowship” in which he distinguished between “ascending” and “descending” fellowship. Younger members were required to seek the company of older ones in order to gain spiritual (and sexual) knowledge. If they had achieved that goal, they could in turn help younger members. The secret was to find the right mix between “ascending” and “descending” fellowships. “Horizontal” contacts, meaning those between equals in age and spirituality, however, were not encouraged and were considered harmful.

3.2 The Technicalities of Love

A glance at the social structure at Oneida reveals that the sexual paradise of “Universal Love” (Robertson 278) was ar from being as free or liberal as it appeared to be.

As sex was linked with the gain of spiritual knowledge, younger members were demanded to join older ones. The process as such was a formal one and was handled by another committee over which Noyes had total control.

It was usually a man who made the first move. He declared his intentions to an intermediary - usually an older woman - who then in turn approached the object of desire. The woman could accept the invitation or turn it down, allegedly “without embarrassment” (Robertson 268). It does not require much fantasy to suspect that in such a “system of supervision” (Robertson 268), the intermediaries (who were essentially Noyes’ front people) could also put pressure on the desired one to accept the proposal, for the sake of more “spirituality.” Moreover, both the laws of Perfectionism and of Fellowship explicitly demanded that the younger members were instructed by older ones. Some sources suggest that Noyes misused his power to direct young flesh into his and the other male central members’ beds (Hayden 188).

Nevertheless, he was obviously right in claiming that the Oneida “family” was the “opposite of licentiousness” (Robertson 273) and free love, as sexual contacts were heavily restrained by formal rules of conduct. Exclusive relationships (“idolatrous bonds” Robertson 268) were considered as sinful and expressively discouraged, especially when it took place on the “horizontal” levels. Such members were treated with a heavy dose of public Criticism, another technique that kept members within the frame of what Noyes considered to be acceptable behavior. Lawrence Foster even believes that Criticism was “the chief means of informally establishing and sustaining community cohesion” (260) at Oneida. It certainly was a tool in pushing members gently or not so gently into the desired direction.

3.3 Male Continence

As already mentioned before, the structure of the Oneida community and the fact that frequently changing sexual contacts were encouraged made it necessary to devise reliable methods of contraception.

This was also important out of sheer economic necessity: the community, for the first twenty years of its existence, simply could not afford children. Only twenty-five children were born at Oneida between 1848 and 1869. None of them were considered as “accidents,” though. Brian Berry points out that, if Oneida had been a Hutterite foundation, more than five hundred children would have been born in the same period of time (96).

The method sounds simple in theory but demanded considerable discipline and physical restraint on the part of the men. It is best described as a kind of sexual trance: ejaculation was withheld to avoid contraception.

The few children born to the Oneida community before 1869 showed three things: first, that children were not considered to be of special importance for the cohesion of the group. Second, that the unique practice of Male Continence indeed worked; and finally, that its prolonged application did not reduce the men’s ability to produce children. Thus the technique was an “incontestable” success (Foster 258) and proved to be of paramount importance for the sexual basis of community life at Oneida.

4 The Next Phase: Stirpiculture

When the Community was economically better off to allow the production of a next generation, it was only the logical conclusion to use the experience of almost thirty years of birth control to lead the Community’s genetic and spiritual potential into certain desired directions.

To that end, John Humphrey Noyes devised and even more wondrous theory that mixed perfectionist thought with the Darwinist ideas that were en vogue at the time. He predicted the end of the “promiscuous scrambling” in marriage and declared the arrival of a new age of “scientific propagation” (Robertson 348). Geniuses would be born, godlike creatures even - the act of doing so would not be much different from the breeding of new varieties of “horse, swine, and potatoes” (Robertson 348). In short, he aimed at the creation of a human Triomphe de Gand strawberry (Robertson 346).

The great project called Stirpiculture was started in 1869. The formal procedures were only a bit different from the already mentioned way sexual contacts in general were achieved

In most cases, prospective parents approached the responsible committee, and here the final decision about the couple was made. In later years, as inner dissent had increased, the central members did that business directly. In other cases the committee itself (or the central members) suggested couples that were considered particularly suitable to produce a child. Either way, the final verdict was given by Father Noyes personally. Of the fifty-eight “stirpicults” born to the community between 1869 and 1879, eleven were Noyes’ own.

In some cases, Noyes explicitly forbade willing couples to step to the task; there is no way to decide in how far social pressure was put on unwilling men and women to join the project. Constance Noyes Robertson notes that men were an average 12.2 years older than the women, so it seems not too farfetched to assume that the Law of Fellowship was also enforced on the stirpiculturalists (339).

Moreover, men and women had to sign further documents before they took part in the project. They were required to surrender their bodies to the higher goal of “scientific propagation:” female candidates were described as “martyrs of science” and “living sacrifices to God and true Communism,” while male candidates were “servants of truth” and “true soldiers” (Robertson 338).

All babies, not just the ones born during the Stirpiculture period, were considered as property of the Community and were taken care of by everybody. “Philoprogenitiveness”, meaning excessive love of one’s own offspring, was frowned upon and a source of Criticism in the Community’s meetings.

5 The Breakup: Conclusion

The beginning of the project of Stirpiculture marked the zenith of the development of the Oneida Community. Its economic situation was formidable, and Noyes’ position as spiritus rector and “final arbiter” (Robertson 268) in all matters spiritual and temporal was unchallenged enough to warrant a daring and, by our standards, slightly deranged program in genetic engineering.

According to Constance Noyes Robertson, herself a second-generation product of Stirpiculture and granddaughter of Noyes, the children born to the Community were exceptionally bright and healthy. She does not mention Charles J. Guiteau, another product of Oneida, who was insane and assassinated President James A. Garfield on July 2, 1881 (Berry 98).

For a moment, the children appeared to enhance community cohesion. But behind the façade, the substance of Oneida was crumbling away. Over the years, a profound loss of conviction in the religious mission of Father Noyes had taken place. Moreover, there was an ever-increasing amount of outside criticism; attacks from the Presbyterian synod got more and more violent and legal persecution was imminent after stories of pre-pubescent sex had leaked into the public.

Younger members protested against the Law of Fellowship and the commandment to sleep with older people for spirituality’s sake. Especially from the part of the women, there was the urgent demand to get back to more traditional ways of life, to more “exclusive, committed sexual relationships” (Foster 267). Many had the future security and happiness of their children in mind.

In 1879, Complex Marriage was formally renounced, Stirpiculture ended, and Noyes fled to Canada with some of his closest associates in order to avoid a process. In 1881, the Community was turned into a joint stock company. Most of the members left the compound and returned to more ordinary ways of life.

Why was the social cohesion at Oneida lost so quickly? First of all, there was a growing loss of religious conviction; members ceased to believe that there was a special road to salvation via Complex Marriage. The Darwinist theories from which Stirpiculture was derived were added in an attempt to amend and update the religious element of Oneida. Instead, it undermined the original spiritual nature of the foundation. It must have left most members disoriented and uncertain about the future.

Second, the sexual element was undermined by inner dissent and violent outside criticism. Every teenager falling in love with one of his or her peers posed a potential threat to the system, and as Noyes’ authority was dwindling, there was no way to stabilize a system that was crumbling away at its very base. When Noyes finally left for Canada, the Community lost it center and focus.

Ironically, it was only the third and final element that survived the agonies of the Community’s dissolution. Religious fervor and utopian drive was replaced with the reality of money. Economic interest dictated the creation of Oneida Community Ltd., a joint stock company that continued the business operations of the original Perfectionist foundation.

As such, it exists to this very day as one of the most successful silverware and flatware companies of the United States. It has an estimated worth of more than 600 million dollars.


Berry, Brian J. L. America ’ s Utopian Experiments: Communal Havens from Long-Wave Crises. Hanover: Dartmouth College, 1992.

Foster, Lawrence. “Free Love and Community: John Humphrey Noyes and the Oneida Perfectionists.” American Communal Utopias. Ed. Donald E. Pitzer. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1997. 253-278.

Hayden, Dolores. Seven American Utopias: The Architecture of Communitarian Socialism, 1790-1975. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1976.

Nordhoff, Charles. The Communistic Societies of the United States: From Personal Visit and Observation. 1875. New York: Hillary House, 1960.

Noyes, John Humphrey. History of American Socialisms. 1870. New York: Hillary House, 1961.

Robertson, Constance Noyes, ed. Oneida Community : An Autobiography, 1851-1876. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1970.

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Problems of Social Cohesion in the Oneida Community
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
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Ich fand die Arbeit nicht schlecht und auch die Note OK, aber die Dozenten haben sie trotzdem gehaßt. Ich hatte eine Depression und fand heraus, das es besser ist, doch näher am Literaturwissenschaftlichen zu bleiben und sich nicht unter der Hand sagen lassen zu müssen, daß man sich in einem Feld probiert hat, wo man nichts zu suchen hat (d.h. Soziologie, Geschichte).
Problems, Social, Cohesion, Oneida, Community, Seminar
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Rainer Marquardt (Author), 2000, Problems of Social Cohesion in the Oneida Community, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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