left biblioblography: Allegories Gone Wild – Utopian Communism Of A Different Level…And Spooning!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Allegories Gone Wild – Utopian Communism Of A Different Level…And Spooning!

Cross posted @ God Is 4 Suckers!spoons

There are strange, small pools of thought that emerge sporadically from the landscape of any culture. Oddities that come bobbing to the surface like so many bits of driftwood on the beach of obscurity, that do not enrage the heart but cause a furrowing of the brow and a stroking of the chin by the fingers.

One of these oddities was one John Humphrey Noyes.

Noyes was born in Brattleboro, Vermont, and was not even 21 before he started voicing his first "heretical" ideas. While studying at Dartmouth College, Andover Theological Seminary, and Yale Theological College he used his skills at theological argument. He combined this with his skill in religious science, and the common sense he had gained as a farmer, to “make the application of a revolutionary religious doctrine to everyday life, an application that produced a social revolution.”

Where have we heard that one before?

It was in his second year at Yale that he made his first theological discovery. He was trying to determine the date of the second coming of Christ, and determined it had already occurred. His conclusion was that Christ’s second coming had taken place in 70 A.D., and that “mankind was now living in a new age.” With this in mind he became increasingly concerned with salvation from sin and with perfection. He began to argue with his colleagues that unless man was truly free of sin, then Christianity was a lie, and that only those who were perfect and free of sin were true Christians. This internal religious crisis brought about a religious conversion within Noyes. From there he began to proclaim that he “did not sin.” The idea of Perfectionism—that it was possible to be free of sin in this lifetime—caused his friends to think him unbalanced, and he began to be called a heretic by his own professors. From the moment of his conversion Noyes maintained that, because he had surrendered his will to God, everything he chose to do was perfect because his choices “came from a perfect heart”. His theory centered around the idea that the fact that man had an independent will was because of God, and that this independent will came from God, therefore rendering it divine. The only way to control mankind’s will was with spiritual direction. And Noyes proclaimed “it was impossible for the Church to compel man to obey the law of God, and to send him to eternal damnation for his failure to do so.” Noyes claimed “his new relationship to God canceled out his obligation to obey traditional moral standards or the normal laws of society.” As a result Noyes started acting on impulses from his intuition rather than giving thought to the actions or consequences. On February 20, 1834, he declared himself perfect and free from sin. This declaration caused an outrage at his college, and his newly-earned license to preach was revoked.

This obsession with ‘perfection’ has laid many low, and may eventually be the downfall of the human race.

Upon his expulsion from Yale and the revocation of his ministerial license, he returned to Putney, Vermont, where he continued to preach, declaring, "I took away their license to sin and they go on sinning; they have taken away my license to preach but I shall go on preaching". At this time his Putney community began to take shape. It started in 1836 as the Putney Bible School and became a formal communal organization in 1844, practicing complex marriage, male continence and striving for Perfection.

Like so many people before him, upon being cast out by his peers, he went out and founded his own community:

Community structure

Even though the community reached a maximum population of about 300, it had a complex bureaucracy of 27 standing committees and 48 administrative sections.

The Oneida Community was a self-supporting enterprise. Its primary industries were the growing and canning of fruits and vegetables, the production of silk thread, and the manufacture of animal traps. They were the primary supplier of animal traps to the Hudson's Bay Company. The manufacturing of silverware, the sole remaining industry, began in 1877, relatively late in the life of the Community, and still thrives.Secondary industries included the manufacture of leather travel bags, the weaving of palm frond hats, the construction of rustic garden furniture, and tourism.

All Community members were expected to work, each according to his or her abilities. Women tended to do much of the domestic duties. Although more skilled jobs tended to remain with one person (the financial manager, for example, held his post throughout the life of the Community), Community members rotated through the more menial jobs, working in the house, the fields, or the various industries. As the Community 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.

Interesting, but little more than a raised eyebrow.

Gender roles

As a goal subsidiary to achieving religious and social revivalism, Noyes believed that one of the major purposes of the Community was to regenerate relations between men and women, which he believed to be deteriorating in the larger society. In theory, males and females had equality and equal voice in the governance of the community.

However, scholars disagree about whether gender roles at Oneida were, on the whole, feminist or conservative. On the one hand, women were relieved of the special duties of childcare by a community nursery, which provided care for infants and children so that both parents could work. Females adopted a style of dress, believed to have been copied from the Iroquois, consisting of a short skirt over trousers (bloomers). This allowed them much greater freedom of movement than contemporary women's styles.

On the other hand, Marlyn Klee-Hartzell has shown that women were disproportionately assigned to tasks—like nursery duty, housekeeping, and laundry—that were traditionally considered women's work. Some women may have been required to wear bloomers against their will by Noyes, who believed that allowing women to wear dresses would make them materialistic.

Hmmm…some sexual equality, but a disparity between theory and practice is to be expected. Now here’s where it gets interesting -

Complex marriage

In theory, every male was married to every female. Status at Oneida was based on people's spirituality. Community members were not to have an exclusive sexual or romantic relationship with each other, but were to keep in constant circulation. To help prevent a "special love" from forming, each Community member had his or her own bedroom. This extended even to couples who came to the Community already married. A married couple entering the Community was not required or even encouraged to legally dissolve their union, but rather to extend the borders of it to the rest of the Community in complex marriage. The average female Community member had three sexual encounters, or "interviews", a week.

I would imagine that if they’d gotten farther than one generation, the diversity may have well broken down into the third and fourth generations, contingent on the restrictions of community.

Postmenopausal women were encouraged to introduce teenage males to sex, providing both with legitimate partners that rarely resulted in pregnancies. 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 which would form and would often encourage relationships between the non-devout and the devout in the community, in the hopes that the attitudes and behaviors of the devout would influence the non-devout.

Interesting, and this sort of practice would have discouraged the raging ageism we see today.  Here’s where I get a tad irked:

Noyes believed that sex had not only biological, but social and spiritual purposes as well. To Communitarians, it was yet another path to perfection. Generally, it was believed that older people were spiritually superior to younger people, and men were spiritually superior to women. Noyes and his inner circle were at the top of this hierarchy in the Community. In order to improve oneself, one was only supposed to have sexual relations with those spiritually superior. This was called "ascending fellowship." Once a Community member had reached a certain level (usually determined by Noyes and his inner circle), they were then to turn around and practice "descending fellowship" with those Communitarians trying to work their way up.

The idea of ‘perfection’ seems to always include some hierarchal concept of superiority – and I myself have met many older men and women who were anything but ‘superior’ in any way.

I found this intriguing:

Mutual criticism

Every member of the community was subject to criticism by committee or the community as a whole, during a general meeting. The goal was to eliminate bad character traits. 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. Although this could sometimes be a harsh process, the majority of community members appreciated this criticism because it allowed them to try to better themselves.

I think a great many folks in this day and age should embrace criticism (as long as it’s constructive and not constrictive), but we tend to lead with our emotions and confuse our opinions with ourselves.

Here’s where it gets a little scary…


A program of eugenics, then known as stirpiculture, was introduced in 1869. It was a selective breeding program designed to create even more perfect children. Communitarians who wished to be parents would go before a committee to be 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 from breast milk (usually at around the age of one) they were raised communally in the Children's Wing, or South Wing. Their parents were allowed to visit, but if those in charge of the Children's Wing suspected a parent and child were bonding too closely to one another, the Community would enforce a period of separation.

This is truly illustrative of how a slippery slope argument actually does work. First, the environment is too controlled and structured. Second, interfering with a parent-child bond violates some serious ethical imperatives. Third, perfection of any sort is a plateau: you cannot by definition become more perfect – A. it’s an impossibility, and B. there’s utterly no yardstick for this falsehood.

Of course, since this community was too close-knit and too internally diverse in so many ways, it started to come apart at the seams (and you folks will love one of the factors):

The community lasted until John Humphrey Noyes attempted to pass the leadership of the Community to his son, Theodore Noyes. This move was unsuccessful because Theodore was an atheist and lacked his father's talent for leadership. The move also divided the Community, as Communitarian John Towner attempted to wrest control for himself.

Them durned atheists! And of course the eventual confusion about sex:

Within the commune, there was a debate about when children should be initiated into sexual rituals, and by whom. There was also much debate about its practices as a whole. The founding members of the Community were aging or deceased, and many of the younger Communitarians desired to enter into exclusive, traditional marriages.

Noyes had a penchant for the youngsters:

The capstone to all these pressures was the harassment campaign of Professor Mears, of Hamilton College. John Humphrey Noyes was tipped off by trusted adviser Myron Kinsley that a warrant for his arrest on charges of statutory rape was imminent. Noyes fled the Oneida Community Mansion House and the country in the middle of a June night in 1879, never to return to the United States. Shortly afterwards, he wrote to his followers from Niagara Falls, Ontario, advising that the practice of complex marriage be abandoned.

And the polygamy/polyandry/universal marriage thing came apart at the seams (a self-fulfilling prophecy if ever there was one):

Complex Marriage was abandoned in 1879 following external pressures and the community soon broke apart with some of the members reorganizing as a joint-stock company. Marital partners normalized their status with the partners they were cohabiting with at the time of the re-organization. Over 70 Community members entered into a traditional marriage in the following year.

On a final note:

The joint-stock corporation still exists as of 2008 and is a major producer of cutlery under the brand name "Oneida Limited". In September 2004 Oneida Limited announced that it would cease all manufacturing operations in the beginning of 2005, ending a 124 year tradition. The company would continue as a marketer for products manufactured overseas. The company has been selling off its manufacturing facilities. Most recently, the distribution center in Sherrill, New York was closed. Administrative offices remain in the Oneida area.

Hence the ‘spooning’ joke in the title.

Thus endeth the history lesson. While Noyes had some interesting (and eclectic) ideas about communal organization, gender roles, etc., it is readily obvious that he would have failed regardless of whether religion was involved or not. However, it’s safe to say that religion usually ends up helping these oddballs screw the pooch even sooner.

Till the next post, then.

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