Avi Garelick



This is a story of a man, and the story of a community. This is a story, in which it is hard to tell the difference between the history of one man’s thought and the history of a community. That man is John Humphrey Noyes, and that community is the Oneida Community of Perfectionists. It begins in Putney, Vermont in 1846, and ends in Oneida, New York in 1879. It is the story of an experiment in religion, sex, society, work, and education; how it began, what its practices and goals were, and how it fell apart.

* * *

The history of Christian community is mostly segregated by sex. Thus, the domain of sex was excluded from utopian consideration. This fact requires some explanation, because you might wonder: who is supposed to make babies and perpetuate society, in this monastic world? Well, it turns out monks weren’t trying to solve everyone’s problems. Look over the third chapter of Genesis—to submit to sex and marriage was to submit to a curse, in the same way as engaging in business to secure a livelihood. Church doctrine has for centuries set the promise of salvation against the necessity of human misery on Earth. Monastic life was a tonic for that necessary depravity, not a solution for it.

Take a minute to consider the perspective that there is no inherent good in your labors, that they must be done simply as a matter of survival. Then imagine the sublimity of being free from that, of turning your thoughts purely towards heaven and your body to worship without the cursed yoke of the world weighing on you. I would give up sex in a moment for that kind of spiritual security.

But America is different, or at least felt different for a while. The young life of the American nation was a strange time, of famously bad literature and big, genocidal dreams. For the purposes of our story, it witnessed two cycles of major national frenzy. Utopian socialism, and revivalism.

At a time that was flush with the newness of the North American continent to the European brand of settlement, sudden and radical innovations in production methods and transportation changed the common person’s life and their perspective on the possibilities of the future. People believed they were the seeds of a new society.

In socialism, creative utopian ideas concocted in Europe found eager adherents. In religion, people basically felt like they could say anything, and waves of religious feeling met with the individualistic, optimistic currents of American thought.1 Whole geographic areas were swept with euphoria at the promise of salvation. Ideas like original sin, which encouraged moral passivity and supported the established order, were no longer so popular.

everyone has a spark of good

everyone can have virtue.

we can have anything and be anything.

John Humphrey Noyes was impatient for the end to come. It already had, in fact. Only the most attuned can know it though, and the great lumbering fraud of the Church never heard or saw anything of it (one remembers the wicked inquisitor from The Brothers Karamazov who did see the coming of Christ and suppressed it). The blessed can tell, that Christ has already come, the day of redemption is always already here. Original sin could be overcome by knowing Christ.

you can reach out and take it today America!

salvation on earth is available now for the perfect.

Just as mankind appeared bound to break the yoke of labor, making better things with greater ease, so the curse of social life and sex was also nigh resolved.

A note on the recent history of utopia: utopia, as a vision of a perfect society, is not necessarily a vision for its implementation (indeed, most are not), nor is it a claim that such a society can be constructed by just trying to live that way with a group of likeminded people. That claim, called communitarianism, was very suddenly popular in the specific historical context of the United States of America in the first half of the nineteenth century.2

That is the difference between a communitarian and a monastic community. The communitarian has a whole society in its sights, while the monastic has a necessary relationship with society in its cursedness.

So Noyes sought to build a whole society in Oneida, NY, based on the notion that salvation had already come. This is an upbeat religious attitude typical only to America, where revivalism worked so magically to make people transform their lives and associate religion with the aspirational.

Noyes himself had begun a career as a law student before flipping out, falling under the sway of revivalist spirit and becoming a man of God. In his own words:

I fully entered into the enthusiasm of the time; and seeing no reason why backsliding should be expected, or why the revival spirit might not be maintained in its full vigor permanently, I determined with all my inward strength to be “a young convert” in zeal and simplicity forever. My heart was fixed on the millennium, and I resolved to live or die for it.

By the end of his theological studies at Yale, he had developed some unusual doctrines of his own. After being stripped of his preaching license in 1834, he settled in his father’s town, preaching anyway, printing tracts, and slowly attracting believers. Some were living near him, and some read his ideas and lived elsewhere. His religious ideas came first, then his communist ideas, and by 1845, he went public with his ideas about sex.

So, utopian society, in a communitarian package, all the problems solved and how, according to John Humphrey Noyes:

Labor: All property is held in common. All pursuits and industries are shared and collectively governed.

Government: Aside from the government of the labor there are no laws. Each person is guided by the perfection of their own heart.

Ethics: Each person’s character is subject to rigorous group scrutiny called Mutual Criticism.

Sex: Held in common along with all pursuits. Its erotic aspect overcomes its dangerous, propagative aspect by a practice of sexual rigor called male continence. That is, everybody could have sex, but no one got pregnant because men were trained not to ejaculate.

Eugenics: Some ideas about eugenics developed later.

* * *

Times being what they were, a young American with big hopes for the future could either beat the drum of progressive reform in urban areas, or strike out for a fresh plot of farm land out west. Both reflect the optimistic conviction that it is possible to live in a perfected social space. Noyes drily noted the similarities between socialist fantasies of a farming paradise and the delusions of the young yeoman family unit of westward expansion. Both were driven by an aesthetic, infantile fascination with the power of land, and an association of owning land with the vast potential of the American future. The American family thus begins its trajectory to each-man-is-a-palace suburbia.

Everyone, by the middle of the 19th century, had done their little communitarian farming dream experiment (Hawthorne, Thoreau, etc), and Noyes was particularly annoyed by dismissal of socialism arising from their failures.

Noyes took umbrage at the idea that “individual happiness was the law of nature, and it could not be exorcised”; he attributed the failure of utopian socialisms to a naivety about land and farming, as well as an inattention to the human spirit. He was skeptical about the development of this spiritual capacity in secular socialism. He knew, from his own experience, that getting religion was the route to living as perfect, and putting petty personal urges aside.

Let’s talk about putting petty personal urges aside. Noyes believed that a functioning communism needed to encourage the commitment of the human spirit to community. It was for this that he scheduled daily parlor meetings and built spacious common spaces. Just so, these urges needed to be channelled away from private concerns. This meant a strict prohibition on all selfishness.

None are rich unless all are rich; the highest good of each is the good of the Community.

All personal property was given over to the government of the Community, and all future enjoyments subject to its success.

This also meant moderation in activities that inflame private feelings, or have private measures of success. Noyes loved music and public concerts, but was deeply suspicious of a thirst among the young for virtuosity. He called it a “spirit of diotrephiasis,” named after a reference to the Third Letter of John, who-shall-be-the-greatest mania. And he discouraged the formation of intense private relationships, whether between lovers, friends (conflicts on this point are not attested), or even between mothers and children.

The strong pathos of the bourgeois family was, indeed, the greatest internal threat to Noyes’ communism (though if that was the 19th century threat, one wonders what it would be today—probably Netflix).

Oneida’s strategy for economic success, within mid-late 19th century American markets, was to go into small industry and to own the means of production. They constructed facilities for silk manufacture, steel trap production, and carpentry among others (a great source of prosperity was the fortuitous membership of one Sewell Newhouse, who invented a cutting edge steel trap which was in high demand, and whose production was undertaken by the Community). Thus people’s labors, seen as a continuous means for education and self-improvement, were spread between labors for the Community and production for the market. Their economic activities also served as a basis for their civic life and education. Nightly meetings were held, that were “partly social, partly intellectual, partly industrial, and partly religious in character.” They were modeled on family life, “in the same manner that a family gathers around the hearth.”

Weekly business meetings were conducted democratically and open to all. Management and finances devolved onto the government of the dozens of committees. Members were appointed to a station in accord with ability and interest. Thankless jobs were rotated frequently, and younger people were also rotated more often for the sake of their practical education.

Personal finances (“incidentals”) were also governed collectively. In one instructive democratic incident, a member successfully petitioned the finance committee to restructure incidentals into an annual disbursal to individual women. This indicates the democratic flexibility of Oneida’s financial structures. It also points towards one of the subtler problems of community: how to govern people’s sphere of permitted individuality, that is, how to treat ethics.

Mutual Criticism

Mutual Criticism was the bread and butter of Oneida’s Perfectionism. It was based on the eminently true proposition that no one has a more distorted perception of their own faults than that very person. So as to avoid the common dangers of gross self-delusion and uninhibited decay, it is necessary to cultivate as much awareness as possible, as well as to consult the opinions of your intimate friends. So, members of Oneida structured their perfection by this rigorous method of peer rebuke, Mutual Criticism. One person, perhaps a volunteer, would submit silently to a well-rounded, sensitively delivered, detailed critique of their character. It could be given in the presence of the whole community, or by a panel of intimates. It was expected to be given with the utmost love, respect, and sincerity, and received with honest expectation of improvement. In Noyes’ own words:

Mutual Criticism, it will be seen, is an organized system of judgment and truth-telling which gives voice and power to the golden rule, “Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.” Selfishness and disorder inevitably annoy the circle around them, and the circle thus annoyed has, in the institution of Mutual Criticism, a regular and peaceable method of bringing the truth to bear upon the offender—a method more likely to cure the evil than ill-timed and acrimonious complaints of aggrieved individuals.

The practice refines the criticized, who learn to “lie in wait for the truth” about themselves, and cultivate a “balance between eagerness and self-control” in facing criticism. The criticizers learn acute observation, and honesty in dealing with their fellows.

Below are excerpts from a Criticism of “Charles,” recorded in Charles Nordhoff’s profile of the Community:

A young woman next remarked that Charles was haughty and supercilious, and thought himself better than others with whom he was brought into contact; that he was needlessly curt sometimes to those with whom he had to speak.

Another young woman added that Charles was a respecter of persons; that he showed his liking for certain individuals too plainly by calling them pet names before people; that he seemed to forget that such things were disagreeable and wrong.

A man remarked that Charles was, as others had said, some-what spoiled by his own success, but that it was a mistake for him to be so, for he was certain that Charles’s success came mainly from the wisdom and care with which the society had surrounded him with good advisers, who had guided him; and that Charles ought therefore to be humble, instead of proud and haughty, as one who ought to look outside of himself for the real sources of his success.

Finally, two or three remarked that he had been in a certain transaction insincere toward another young man, saying one thing to his face and another to others; and in this one or two women concurred.

There were no laws for conduct in Oneida, but there was this closely monitored method of social control. Noyes believed, or at least hoped, that this method was ready to spill over into American society and trigger a renewal of social relations.

Complex Marriage

Complex marriage was the most ambitious and controversial element in Noyes’ social program. Complex marriage means everyone is married to everyone. He implemented it cautiously, trying it first himself before carefully assessing the “advanced morality” of his community. He was, of course, worried about the government, but more seriously, about the internal risks of such an adventure. But he had theological and social convictions. As we’ve seen, he thought private attachments dispelled communal feeling.

He had been married to Harriet A. Holton for twelve years, and they did not divorce, but changed the conditions of their marriage to radically open. Everyone who joined thus entered into their marriage. So they really were all part of one big family, if your family is the people you have sex with.

This was part of what Noyes called the posthumous condition of a Christian life. Marriage, like all your other social bonds, can be dissolved only by death. But a life after death comes from partaking in the death of Christ.

We are dead to the world! And our marriage has sublimated to a higher state.

Did Noyes expect to see a widespread adoption of complex marriage in society? Probably not—the theological content of it developed in correspondence with Noyes’ idea of the heavenly church, and that this higher state was a product of their election.

Was everyone really committed to each other, or were the bounds of marriage so wide as to be invisible? I have seen no evidence of any attempts to have sex with an outsider, or whether that would have been considered adultery. They mostly only hung out together, in Oneida, but I do not know the sexual activities of, for instance, Theodore the son, when he went off to Yale.

It should be no surprise, knowing what we know about Noyes’ views on community and property, that sex, like all social life, should be held in common as a source of community feeling. And this goal was very directly pursued. To be clear, this was NOT a kind of serial monogamy, with freedom to form intense attachment and to dissolve it in its time. There was always lots of sex going on, but always with the community in mind.

Male Continence

This is another one of Noyes’ experiments. He and his wife felt the curse of sex particularly harshly. In the first six years of marriage she got pregnant five times and lost four children. This is what the curse of Eden meant, even in the middle of the nineteenth century—the pleasures of sex were chained closely to the dangerous consequences of pregnancy. So, the problem of contraception was a hotly discussed public topic. Here, Noyes freely mixed his Christian faith and his reformer’s spirit. Just as God has given us the faculties and the powers of social and spiritual organization to overcome our animal fates and control our own environments—the time was coming for sexual control as well.

Some day, with God’s help, we will have the technology. But until then, we will use our spirits!

Ejaculation, according to a survey Noyes had read, is experienced as pleasurable because of the sensation of the fluid’s interaction with the internal nerves of the penis. It is, therefore, isolated from the “amative” experience of sexual congress. Noyes, you see, believed that the sexual function of the genitals could be segregated, as indeed we do with urination. There are two functions—social and propagative. The propagative climax is a tempting, but not at all inevitable, telos of sex. It is its termination, not its essence. All of the other pleasures of sex can be had and savored without rushing towards climax, just like you can go for a row in a river without charging towards the rapids (that’s his image). Through practicing spiritual-sexual discipline, a man could learn to master his body and explore the whole range of pleasures without being overpowered by ejaculation.

It’s hard to know how skeptical to be of male continence, or what exactly about it is the most deserving of skepticism.

As to your first question—it actually did work, as a method of contraception. Only twelve children were born accidentally in twenty years of the Community.

As to pleasure, the Kinsey Report does in fact attest to the incidence of adult male orgasm sans ejaculation, for what that’s worth.

As to the prevalence of the secretive sexual practice of male masturbation—we cannot know for sure.

Noyes’ position does in some way prefigure Erich Fromm’s critique of Freud’s treatment of sex as fundamentally a physiological urge to release tension, claiming it instead to be a deeper need for “connection between two poles.” Think what you want about that debate.

In his own writings and remarks about human energy, it actually seems as though he subscribes to a Victorian ideology of vitality which suggests that a certain virility and strength of action was in part derived from the retention of seed (the bull is superior to the ox, etc). This same thinking produced the coercive apparatuses, e.g. chastity belts, which prevented the dangerous dissipation of nineteenth century youth through onanism, but that’s another story. In any case, Noyes thought holding it in makes you stronger and better. He wrote against concerns of psychological damage to the practitioner, citing a psychiatric study of the Community to dispel them. He also cited personal experience to argue that women liked it better.

Noyes did develop male continence as a method of contraception, but also clearly valued its spiritual effects beyond its practical value. This is evidenced by one pamphlet titled “How the sexual function is to be redeemed and the relations between the sexes are to be restored.”

The consequence of this contraception method was that sex in Oneida was learned as a discipline. This leads us to:

Ascending Fellowship

Like any discipline, sex needs to be taught. So, Oneida developed a principle of ascending fellowship, which rewards association with members more advanced in age and spiritual development. This had the specific function of concrete training for boys, who were initiated into continence by post-menopausal women. More broadly, between both sexes, sex was understood to be about mentorship, rather than about the heat of young attraction. (In a way, this sexual hierarchy resembles the authority of a parent, through an incestuous mirror). And yes, as to what you’re thinking, Noyes did act as a sexual initiator (and therefore father?) to teenage girls.

Exclusive Attachment

This is not to say the young were discouraged from seeking sexual partners from amongst their peers. But they were discouraged from intense, exclusive attachment. Some men suffer from the “marriage spirit” and are unable to give up their wives. This was considered idolatrous—subordinating the complex marriage (and its relationship to the heavenly church) to devotion to a mortal object. Openness was encouraged.

As such, “interviews,” as they were known, had a public face. A male (and indeed, always the male) would request an interview with his desired partner through a third party, like at a middle school dance or something. There was, then, something of a public record of what was going on. People who violated norms of attachment were instructed to change their behavior, and insistent offenders were even separated, sometimes sent to live at the sister community in Wallingford.

Tirzah Miller, Noyes’ niece and prized student (yes, that), was deeply devoted to the principles of the community, and still made record of the turmoil of her suppressed attachment to a man named Homer Barron. For several months she notes it in her diary whenever he looks at her. Later, she is chosen (more about that later) to bear the child of another man, Edward, and fights feelings for him as well. A poignant excerpt:

August 9

A peaceful week. No temptation. That love is dead. I shall never love him like that again.

August 10

Felt a gush of love in my heart for him today. I am glad it is not gone. It will only be better.

September 6

Georgy was telling me a story this evening, and he said, “Papa said get up, too.” “Who is your papa?” I asked surprised. “Why, Mr. Homer,” He answered, and went on with his story... I said to H., “Are you sometimes kind to Georgy?” “I hope I am.” And I told him what G. had said.

October 23

Wrote to Homer, telling him I dare not have him feel toward me as he seems to. He must give me up to God.

November 10

E. left for N.Y. My love and respect for him grow continually.

In Oneida’s later years, this discontent flowered into rebellious dissension. The youth bristled at the careful oversight of their sex lives and relationships. This, of course, is a classic overstep of sexual authority. There is nothing that sustains a romantic attachment like its deferral.

The End

How do we actually assess the failure of Oneida? Should we even call it a failure? It is clear that dissension from the second generation is what killed it, that Noyes’ influence didn’t matter as much to them. But WHY that happened (Noyes growing old) is a different and easier question from HOW it happened—what forces affected what change, and how did the young lose interest?

The whole Community folded in 1879. Noyes was exiled in Canada over rumors of police action, and issued a decree dissolving complex marriage and instituting the Pauline ideal—marriage permitted celibacy preferred. Meanwhile, a group led by Theodore moved to downgrade the Community's resources into a joint stock company. Oneida continued to be profitable, making silverware, long after a wave of weddings and a disbanding of the group.

So, while the decisive collapse was the end of communal property and government, the source of rebellious energies were likely sexual dissatisfactions.

John Towner led a popular faction against stirpiculture and ascending fellowship which had no aims to sink the whole Community. But as their struggle with the status quo weakened its health, Theodore and his good-business faction went in for the kill.

So, where did the Noyes generation go wrong in the doctrinal education of the next one?

Let’s start with the obvious.


Stirpiculture is the weirdest part. The only practiced eugenics program in American history. Noyes became intensely interested in breeding Oneida to spiritual heights, and so began a controlled experiment. Members could apply to bear children, and be placed with a spiritually concordant person to contribute to the next generation. Thus controlling, eugenically, the spiritual future. Noyes personally believed that he could concentrate his own spiritual substance into greater progeny by consanguineous stirpiculture. Which is, you guessed it, incest. In a letter, he wrote:

In overthrowing the worldly notion about incest I am conquering the devil's last stronghold. We have routed him on marriage and got our freedom and now remains the last citadel of social falsehood, which forbids the union of brothers and sisters. In setting up this bar the devil bars the possibility of ever founding a new race. It has got to be taken down. The fellowship of brothers and sisters is fundamental and eternal. It is concentration. It approaches nearest to the fashion of God himself whose life ever turns in upon himself.

His obsession with this project is ironic, considering the mutinous disposition of his actual son Theodore. It is an obvious error, and incoherent, to discount the tenor of specific sexual connection in making social arrangements, while prizing it and treating it very carefully in propagation. Can the Community not form its perfect people by communal strategies?

Meanwhile he overlooked several key features of cultural education. For instance, he gave Theodore control over the architectural plans for new construction. Theodore hired an outside architect, who built wings which moved public circulation away from private space, and subordinated an architectural ideology which had been carefully cultivated in previous decades.

Trusting Theodore for anything was his other big mistake, being that Theodore expressed dissatisfaction with his core beliefs. While the father called his son “our most promising young man”, the son said such as “I think there is conclusive evidence of the existence of a spiritual world, inhabited by spiritual beings. I think it extremely probable that these beings have lived as men and women in this world. I think in this sense I am spiritually minded,” while twice leaving the community before his brief uninspired reign as its leader.

If Noyes was going to exercise influence in the formation of new leadership, he should have at least offered support to people who trusted him and believed in his basic mission instead. An interesting failure—being tripped up by the wrong egoistic impulses. Loving yourself by loving your son, instead of loving yourself by loving people who are really devoted to you.

But was it, in the end, that Oneida was simply destined to die along with him? Was his charismatic voice the glue that held them all together?

Reports indicate that Mutual Criticism fell into disuse in the last years. Laments one member in 1879, “Criticisms of individuals in public are almost or quite unknown, and we no longer have a standing committee for Criticism. In fact, there is very little of the old-fashioned ‘mutual Criticisms’ done in these days.”

* * *

These days, The utopian fascination has returned—if the last generation was planning the architecture for their dream house, we want utopia again. We just lack the architectural concepts for it.

The 19th century mind is ready for utopia because it seems within reach. Ours, just because it feels like there is no other choice.

This story is only partially a cautionary tale, partly a success story. The utopian thinking of today springs from different sources, but its questions can be informed by these events. Once you’ve overthrown the yoke of the old society, you need to know: Should there be laws? How should we manage charismatic authority? How do children fit in? How do we develop normative expectations? What uncontrollable vices will be our undoing?

1 This is partly how the Calvinism of American Puritanism lost ground to the universalistic, free-will oriented doctrines of Methodism.

2 See Alfred E. Bestor’s 1953 essay, “Patent-Office Models of the Good Society: Some Relationships between Social Reform and Westward Expansion.”

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