THE SHAKERS / ONEIDA COMMUNITY
by Randall Hillebrand
THE ONEIDA COMMUNITY
The founder of the Oneida Community was John Humphrey Noyes. He was born in Brattleboro, Vermont, in 1811 (Cornish 300). John Humphrey came from a well established home where his father, also named John, was a congressman and Dartmouth graduate. His mother Polly was sixteen years younger than his father and was a very strong-willed and deeply religious woman. She always taught her children “to fear the Lord.” (Thomas 3-4). She even prayed before John Humphrey’s birth that someday he might become a devoted minister of the gospel (Thomas 3-4). Up until John Humphery’s conversion, he was known as a
rebel who had little interest in theology or in his studies (Holloway 180). He entered Dartmouth in 1826, the year that revival had hit its peak under Charles Finney. But to no avail, John was not affected by it and looked at religion with great cynicism. Five years later though, at the request of his mother, John attended a four-day revival meeting in Putney, Vermont, again under the ministry of Charles Finney. At first he was not moved by what he heard, “but after the meeting he suffered a feverish cold which led him to think of death, and to humble himself before God.”(Whitworth 89). He vigorously embraced the faith and the expectation of the beginning of the Millennial Kingdom (Whitworth 89). Later he studied at Andover and
Yale Divinity School with a vision of going into the ministry.
While at Yale, Noyes came to a new understanding of the way of salvation which he labeled as Perfectionism. This view did not hold to total depravity as did the Calvinists’ view, but it saw man as
reaching a state of perfection or sinlessness at conversion (Muncy 161). When Noyes asserted this doctrine of complete release from sin at conversion while studying at Yale Divinity School, he was denied
ordination (Hudson 187). It is said that one of the reasons that Noyes adopted this doctrine was the fact that he could not believe that he was a sinner, since he could not summon up from within any feeling of deep guilt and despair (Holloway 180-181). For whatever reason he adopted this doctrine, it was the underlying foundation of his future endeavors.
HISTORY OF MOVEMENT:
In 1834, Humphrey Noyes started developing the theories that would later become the foundation of truth in the Oneida Community. Over the next three years, John canvassed New York state and New England trying to make new converts with no avail. Finally, after a tough three-week period in New York City, he reached the verge of a complete mental and emotional breakdown. To top things off, his first and most faithful follower, Abigail Merwin, left him to marry another man (Foster 72-73). Shortly after these events, Noyes started writing articles which were published in a new periodical called the “Battle-Axe”. His first article was on the denunciation of the institution of marriage. Also, in September of this year (1837), part of a letter written by Noyes to a friend was anonymously published by the editor in the Battle-Axe. This letter stated that Noyes felt from his interpretation of a biblical prophecy, that he was clearly convinced
he was God’s agent on earth. This article did not bring as much outrage by the people as did a later article that outlined his beliefs on sexual relationships in the spiritual world and that would prevail in the millennial kingdom (Whitworth 95).
Through the writing of these articles, a woman by the name of Harriet Holton, the granddaughter of the Lieutenant-Governor of the state, became interested in Noyes and his work. She started to financially support him, and later, after Noyes realized that he would never get Abigail Merwin back, slowly came to the point where he realized that Harriet was filling the void that Abigail had left (Holloway 182). In June of 1838, Noyes wrote Harriet a letter in which he proposed in a very careful way. He explained to her that
their marriage would be a spiritual one, even though for that time period it would be a carnal or earthly marriage. But, he felt that the marriage would benefit both of them and that they, according to his teachings, would not selfishly possess one another (Thomas 92-93).
One of his main reasons for getting married was that he felt the marriage would advance the work of God in which he was engaged. Also, it showed others who were criticizing him of his celibate state that he was not for celibacy, as were the Shakers. Noyes also said that, “By this marriage, besides herself, and a good social position, which she held as belonging to the first families of Vermont, I obtained money enough to buy a house and printing-office, and to buy a press and type.” (Foster 84). The press was then used to propagate Noyes’ teachings through a publication called “The Witness,” which he had to discontinue due to a lack of funds. So this marriage seems to have been based mainly on convenience (Foster 84).
After his marriage, Noyes then helped to arrange the marriages of his sisters to two of his closest followers, John L. Skinner and John R. Miller, who were students from his Bible institute which he had started in 1836 in Putney. He also gained the loyalty of his younger brother George and later, due to much pressure, his own mother who had been previously very upset by the way in which he had been using up the family estate to finance his religious endeavors. So at this point, John and George Noyes, Skinner, Miller, and a later addition of George Cragin became the center of an informal governing group of the movement (Foster 84).
Finally, in 1840, “the Putney Association came into being – as a purely religious body.” (Robertson 3). Then, in 1844, the group formally adopted communism by which to live. This communism “included all property of family living and associations” (Robertson 3). At this time there were approximately thirty-seven members that were involved. They lived in three houses, maintained a store, and worshiped together in a small chapel (Muncy 163). They also ran two farms at this time, and because of the death of Noyes’ father who left $20,000 each to four members who were in the community, they were able to support themselves (Thomas 97).
Two years later, in 1846, the community adopted Noyes’ teachings of “Mutual Criticism,” “Complex Marriage” and “Male Continence” (Muncy 167). At this time in the groups history, these practices were only
practiced on a small scale among leadership, and not until 1848 in Oneida, New York, would these be practiced by the whole community (Foster 88). Because of these practices, the community came under
much persecution, even to the point where Noyes was indicted for adultery. Noyes, not wanting to become a useless martyr, and who by this time was viewed by the group as the Moses of the new dispensation
who was going to lead them to the promised land, quickly purchased twenty-three acres of land that contained some buildings in Oneida,New York.
Their “Promised Land” was near the Canadian border which would be very convenient in case of future persecution. Then in 1847, the Putney group agreed “that the Kingdom of God had come.” (Holloway
181,183). The community could believe this because of two of Noyes’ teachings: one being that Christ’s second coming took place in A.D. 70, and the other being that they could bring in the millennial
kingdom themselves (Holloway 181,183). Forty-five of his followers from Putney followed Noyes to Oneida and by the end of 1848, their membership grew to eighty-seven (Muncy 167).
The economic base of the Oneida Community was agricultural and industrial. They had approximately forty acres of partially cleared land on which to farm and an Indian sawmill in which to produce lumber. Over the next year, the community purchased and cultivated additional land, established a variety of minor craft industries, built a communal dwelling house, appointed administrative committees and set up a pattern of daily living which the community followed for the next thirty years (Whitworth 120).
As stated earlier, Noyes’ teachings were practiced here by the community. The main teaching which received the most criticism was that of “Complex Marriage.” In Complex Marriage, every man was
married to every woman and vice versa. This practice was to stay only within the community and had to stay within two main guidelines. The first was that before the man and woman could cohabit, they had to
obtain each other’s consent through a third person or persons.
Secondly, no two people could have exclusive attachment with each other because it would be selfish and idolatrous. Any two people found in any such situation would be separated and not allowed to see each other for a certain length of time (Holloway 185-186). Another teaching practiced at the Oneida Community was that of “Male Continence,” which was a type of birth control. In the practice of Male Continence, “a couple would engage in sexual congress without the man ever ejaculating, either during intercourse or after withdrawal.” (Foster 93-94). Noyes justified this practice because his wife Harriet in the first six years of their marriage had five difficult childbirths, four of which were premature and resulted in the deaths of the children. Noyes came to the conclusion that where an unwanted pregnancy occurred, there was a waste of the mans seed and that it was no different in practice to masturbation (Foster 93-94).
With the implementation of Male Continence, which lasted from 1848 to 1868, some forty children were born in the community of about two hundred and fifty people (Whitworth 126). Another teaching practiced along these same lines was that of “Ascending Fellowship.” Ascending Fellowship was set up to properly introduce the virgins into Complex Marriage. This practice also worked to prevent the young members from falling in love with each other and from limiting their range of affection to just the younger
members. The main people picked to care for the virgins were people who were considered to be closer to God. These people were of course older and had a special title which was that of Central Member. These
Central Members were allowed their pick of a partner over which they would have the responsibility of spiritual guidance. It usually worked that the male Central Member would pick any female virgin of
his choice. Due to her lower order, she was compelled to accept. In the case of the female Central Member, they were usually past the age of menopause, and when they chose their male virgin, they were obligated to honor the request. The reason women past menopause were chosen was so that as they taught the younger men Male Continence, they would not have to worry about unwanted pregnancies (Muncy 176-177).
The forth major teaching practiced was that of “Mutual Criticism.” Mutual Criticism was established to assure the integrity of the community by conformity to Noyes’ morality. The way in which Mutual Criticism worked was that a member, under communal control, was subjected to criticisms of either a committee or the whole community. The criticisms were usually directed toward the “member’s bad traits (those thoughts or acts that detracted from family unity), and an individual could be put through a shameful, humiliating experience.” (Thomas 163). Only Noyes himself would not go through this unless he decided to, because he felt that a group should not criticize their leader (Thomas 163).
In the area of government of the Oneida Community there were “twenty-one standing committees and forty-eight administrative departments. This organization covered every conceivable activity and interest from hair-cutting and dentistry to education and silk-manufacture.” (Holloway 190-191). The Oneida Community had no definite rules restricting a member’s time of rising in the morning for work, but they had very few problems with people taking advantage of it. Also at Oneida, the women had equality with the men and served on these committees and shared in all activities (Holloway 190-191). In 1849, a small branch community started at Brooklyn, and others followed “at Wallingford, Newark, Putney, Cambridge, and Manlius’. But in 1855, some of these communities were abandoned so that a concentration of members would take place at Oneida and Wallingford.” (Holloway 187-188).
By this time, “relative tranquility had been achieved and almost all the theories and practices that would make Oneida one of the most distinctive of all American ventures in religious and social reorganization had been at least provisionally established.” (Foster 74). The Oneida Community never did become very large. In January of 1849 the community had 87 members; 172 members by February of 1850, and by February of 1851 the number rose to approximately 205 members (Foster 103). The records show that in 1875 there were 298 members, and by 1878, the beginning year of the breakup, there were 306 members (Holloway 187). From the original 87 members at Oneida in 1849, the totals from that year on were group totals from all of the communities combined (Foster 103).
Over the years from 1849 to 1879, “the community remained true to its original ideals” (Hudson 188). Problems started to occur in 1876 when Noyes tried to hand over leadership to his son, Dr. Theodore
Noyes, who was an agnostic. Not only was the fact that he was an agnostic bad enough, but he ran the community with a tight fist which was resented by the people. It got so bad that John Humphrey Noyes
himself had to come back from Wallingford where he was living to put things back in order. By then it was too late, factions within the community had already formed, some even with the opposition on the outside (Holloway 194). And then in 1879, due to the opposition and hostility from the surrounding communities, Noyes, who had already withdrawn from active leadership, felt compelled to abandon the system of Complex Marriage (Askew/Spellman 111). Even though Noyes wanted to keep the community together after this, some living married and others celibate (not preferred), problems occurred.
Many of the members quickly got married, but since Complex Marriage was such an integrated part of their lives, the community could not settle down to their normal style of living. In 1880, a committee was appointed “to consider the advisability of re-organizing upon a joint-stock basis.” In January of 1881 the joint-stock company, called the “Oneida Community, Limited,” was set up (Holloway 194-195) and the Oneida Community was abandoned.
Noyes did not see the necessity of observing the Sabbath (Whitworth 104). They did have a Sunday chapel meeting in which outsiders were allowed in. After work in the evening they would sing and pray and be taught such languages as Hebrew, Greek and Latin (Holloway 183). Not much else is written on the topic.
(1) COMPLEX MARRIAGE – This is where every man and every woman is married to each other. They could engage in sexual intercourse, but could not be attached to each other as stated earlier.
(2) MALE CONTINENCE – This was a form of birth control where during and after sexual intercourse the man could not ejaculate.
(3) ASCENDING FELLOWSHIP – This is where the young virgins in the community were brought into the practice of Complex Marriage. The older godly members who were in a special group and were called
Central Members would pick a virgin to be spiritually responsible for. This took place when the young people were about fourteen years old.
(4) MUTUAL CRITICISM – In Mutual Criticism, each member of the community that was being reprimanded was taken in front of either a committee or sometimes the whole community to be criticized for their action.
(5) CONFESSION – The members of the community, according to Noyes, were sinless after conversion, so no confession would be needed.
(6) REGENERATION – That Christ’s death was not for the sins of man, but was the first blow to Satan. But that by believing in the death of Christ, one was released from sin, because Christ destroyed the central cause of sin. By believing then, one is regenerated (Whitworth 101-102).
(7) SEPARATION – The members did separate into a community, but their main separation was to be a sexual one.
(8) REVELATION – Noyes never said that he received special revelation, though he did have some twisted interpretations. Noyes once wrote an article in “The Berean” and emphasized the credibility of scripture
and denounced those who denied the validity and relevance of scripture (Whitworth 98).
(8) EQUALITY OF THE SEXES – The Oneida Community believed in equality of the sexes as stated earlier.
(9) MILLENNIAL KINGDOM – That the Millennial Kingdom had been introduced in A.D. 70 at which time Noyes thought Christ had made His Second Coming (Hudson 186).
(NOTE: Doctrines listed above without references are common knowledge)
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Andrews, Edward Deming. The People Called Shakers. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1963.
Andrews, Edward Deming and Faith Andrews. Work and Worship. Greenwich: New York Graphic Society, Ltd., 1974.
Askew, Thomas A. and Peter W. Spellman. The Churches and the American Experience. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984.
Ferguson, Charles W. The New Books of Revelations. Garden City: Doubleday, Doran and Co., Inc., 1928.
Foster, Lawrence. Religion and Sexuality. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity. Vol. 2 San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984.
Holloway, Mark. Heavens on Earth. New York: Liberty Publishers, 1951.
Hudson, Winthrop S. Religion in America 3rd Ed. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1981.
Morse, Flo. The Shakers and the World’s People. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1980.
Muncy, Raymond Lee. Sex and Marriage in Utopian Communities: 19th Century America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973.
Neal, Julia. By Their Fruits. Philadelphia: Porcupine Press, 1975.
Noyes, Pierrepont. My Father’s House: An Oneida Boyhood. Gloucester: Peter Smith, 1966.
Robertson, Constance Noyes. Oneida Community: The Breakup, 1876-1881. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1972.
Sasson, Diane. The Shaker Spiritual Narrative. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1983.
Sprigg, June. By Shaker Hands. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1975.
Stine, Jeanne. Telephone Interview. September 25, 1985.
Thomas, Robert David. The Man Who Would Be Perfect. University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc., 1977.
Whitworth, John McKelvie. God’s Blueprints. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, Ltd., 1975.
Wisbey, Herbert A., Jr. “Noyes, John Humphrey.” Encyclopedia International. 1967 ed.