Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table

Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table

by Ellen Wayland-Smith

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A fascinating and unusual chapter in American history about a religious community that held radical notions of equality, sex, and religion---only to transform itself, at the beginning of the twentieth century, into a successful silverware company and a model of buttoned-down corporate propriety.

In the early nineteenth century, many Americans were looking for an alternative to the Puritanism that had been the foundation of the new country. Amid the fervor of the religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening, John Humphrey Noyes, a spirited but socially awkward young man, attracted a group of devoted followers with his fiery sermons about creating Jesus’ millennial kingdom here on Earth. Noyes established a revolutionary community in rural New York centered around achieving a life free of sin through God’s grace, while also espousing equality of the sexes and “complex marriage,” a system of free love where sexual relations with multiple partners was encouraged. Noyes’s belief in the perfectibility of human nature eventually inspired him to institute a program of eugenics, known as stirpiculture, that resulted in a new generation of Oneidans who, when the Community disbanded in 1880, sought to exorcise the ghost of their fathers’ disreputable sexual theories. Converted into a joint-stock company, Oneida Community, Limited, would go on to become one of the nation’s leading manufacturers of silverware, and their brand a coveted mark of middle-class respectability in pre- and post-WWII America.

Told by a descendant of one of the Community’s original families, Ellen Wayland-Smith's Oneida is a captivating story that straddles two centuries to reveal how a radical, free-love sect, turning its back on its own ideals, transformed into a purveyor of the white-picket-fence American dream.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250043108
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 05/03/2016
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Ellen Wayland-Smith teaches in the Writing Program at the University of Southern California, and received her PhD. in Comparative Literature from Princeton University. A descendent of John Humphrey Noyes, the founder of the Oneida community, she lives in Los Angeles with her family. Oneida is her first book.

Read an Excerpt


From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table

By Ellen Wayland-Smith


Copyright © 2016 Ellen Wayland-Smith
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-04310-8


A Minister Is Born

When John Humphrey Noyes's mother, Polly Hayes Noyes, took a deep breath after the travail of childbirth to see that her firstborn son was a "proper child" — that is, one apparently hearty enough to buck the odds of making it through the bitter New England winter to see his first birthday — she prayed on the spot that he might become a "minister of the everlasting gospel." Polly's prayer would be granted twenty-two years later, in 1833, when John Humphrey received his minister's license from the Yale Theological Seminary. But on the day of his birth, as she fell back upon her pillows in sweet exhaustion, this prim and conventional Congregationalist could hardly have anticipated the theological edifice her infant son would one day construct. For John Humphrey Noyes would not become just any minister; his brainchild, the Oneida Community, would blend a utopian ethic of total selflessness, communism of property, and divinely sanctioned free love into one of the most baroque interpretations of Jesus' "everlasting gospel" ever attempted.

Born into a prosperous New England family in Brattleboro, Vermont, on September 3, 1811, John Humphrey was the fourth of nine children. Polly Hayes Noyes was a strong-minded, deeply religious woman who demanded that matters of spirituality be kept foremost in the raising of her children. John Humphrey's father, John Noyes Sr., was of a more secular character; a 1795 graduate of Dartmouth College, John was first a teacher and then a successful Brattleboro businessman, spending a two-year stint as a representative in Congress from 1815 to 1817. Letters that John Noyes wrote home to his wife from Washington in 1815 hint at his enjoyment of the city's cosmopolitan privileges, foreign to the native Vermonter: "The style and manner of proceeding, the dignity which every member seems to feel, and the living at our quarters, all are very, very different from what we have in Vermont. A man cannot but feel animated, and as it were elevated." "We live full well enough for our health," he continued later in the same letter. "Our meat and poultry are of the first quality. ... Brandy and wine very good and very dear. Plenty of oysters, apples, chestnuts." While he was gallant (or cagey) enough to write to his wife that the "pie, apples, and the wine lost their charms" when he thought of the comforts of home, one senses the sensual enjoyment he took in "the bustle, the show and parade of great folks." Later in life, he would become a rather pronounced alcoholic; only when he received a formal written letter from his wife and children begging him to cease "indulging [his] degrading appetite" was he jarred from his pleasures.

"In the highways and byways of business he was a born Solomon," John Humphrey would later recall of his father, one who "in social and commercial life ... found his natural sphere." The competing claims of religion and a worldly life were twin currents traversing the Noyes household. "Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth," warns the apostle Matthew, "where moth and rust doth corrupt, and thieves break through and steal," but, rather, "Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven" (Matthew 6: 19–21). Flying in the face of the good evangelist, John Humphrey Noyes would devote his life to brokering a fragile truce between treasures on earth and those in heaven. Perhaps only the collision of two such vigorously opposed natures as the saintly Polly Hayes and the carnal John Noyes Sr. could have spawned a compromise as brilliantly bizarre as John Humphrey Noyes, who would close this parental gap between spirit and flesh by claiming, among other things, that the sexual organs were the "first and best channel of the life and love of God" and that getting salvation was "a business — like getting a living" — in other words, that spiritual and earthly pursuits were, in fact, one and the same thing.

Young John was a thoughtful boy — as a child, he was fond of going to bed early because "he wanted to think" — and from the first a natural leader. As his mother recalled in later years, "I can see him now marching off up the hill at the head of a company of his playmates, all armed with mullein stalks." Sent away to school in Amherst, Massachusetts, when he was nine years old, John Humphrey sent letters home that reveal a boy seized by homesickness but anxious not to upset his mother on his account: "Mamma, I must say that when I am not reading, or writing, or studying, I am homesick. Yes, I am homesick. ... But away with all this! I fear I have distressed you already. ... Tell Papa that I am studying Cicero, and that I have got to the fourth book of Virgil." When he was ten years old, his family relocated to the village of Putney, Vermont, within easy communication of his new school, Brattleboro Academy, where John would complete his preparation for college. Endowed with a ruddy, freckled complexion and a bright red shock of hair, John Humphrey early gave signs of a passionate nature to match; a friend from his Brattleboro days referred to him as "inclined to give way a little too much to the libido corporis."

Just which "lusts" of the body the young boy had a particular weakness for is not divulged in the friend's letter; it is clear from his diaries that, by the time John Humphrey had entered Dartmouth College as a freshman in 1826, a partiality for the ladies was chief among them. This journal, begun at the age of eighteen in 1829, provides glimpses of a teenager struggling with paralyzing shyness in his relations with the opposite sex. He was further hampered by the conviction that his red hair and freckles rendered him physically repulsive. John Humphrey compared himself to the "Black Dwarf" in the Walter Scott romance of the same name, a tortured, loveless figure whose deformed body and "long matted red hair" forced him to sequester himself in the forest as a hermit. The young collegian's interactions with women were, accordingly, nothing short of torture. In one diary entry, he berates himself: "Oh! For a brazen front and nerves of steel! I swear by Jove, I will be impudent! So unreasonable and excessive is my bashfulness that I fully believe I could face a battery of cannon with less trepidation than I could a room full of ladies with whom I was unacquainted."

Despite his best resolutions, John Humphrey continued to experience acute anxiety and embarrassment in social situations. Once, at a wedding party, he mistook the name of a lady he was introducing to a company of gentlemen; he recorded afterward that he could "feel [his] cheek burn with shame" upon recollecting the "scornful smile [that passed] over the countenance of a certain lady" who, sitting near, overheard his blunder. A sense of intense social shame and self-loathing, especially when he felt himself caught in the gaze of the opposite sex, was one of the strongest currents in young Noyes's emotional life. At one point, he had even resigned himself to remaining unmarried and becoming a philosopher, renouncing the physical world for the life of the mind.

Yet John Humphrey's social fortunes took a turn for the better upon graduation from Dartmouth. In 1830, when he entered into training as a lawyer at his brother-in-law Larkin Mead's practice in Chesterfield, New Hampshire, John Humphrey unexpectedly found himself at the center of a robust social scene. He and his classmate "Put," also an intern in Mead's practice, were catapulted into the enviable position of being the only two college graduates of a crew of eighty or ninety young men and women attending a nearby school. "Bewitched" by his female companions, John Humphrey nonetheless complained that the continual round of balls and parties raised his emotions to a painful pitch of overexcitement: "impatience of absence from those seraphs, jealousy of my competitors in gallantry, and the dolorous reflection that the school would close in thirteen weeks were constantly dragging me down from the pinnacle of felicity which seemed to be almost within reach...." Drawn as he was to the libido corporis, John Humphrey was acutely affected by desire's painful obverse: the ache of pleasure denied or delayed.

Somehow John Humphrey was able to overcome his shyness long enough to tentatively court a young woman who is recorded in his diary only as Caroline M —. The dances where he met her might have been held in one of the academy's buildings or in a hall hired in town: one can almost hear the squeak of the freshly polished floor, the clink of teacups at the refreshment table, the sweep and rustle of ladies' skirts. The gauzy, high-waisted, ankle-length frocks of the Empire period were no longer in vogue, but dresses had not quite yet evolved into what was to become the standard armor of the Victorian woman, thickly petticoated, wooden-hooped, and tightly corseted into the shape of a dinner bell. Caroline would have worn a dress that dropped all the way to the floor, with sleeves swollen like cream puffs and a pinched wasp waist — possibly corseted, but in either case symbolic, in its tightness, of the strict emotional control women were increasingly expected to exercise as moral heads of the Victorian household. The popular ladies' hairstyle at the time was closely plaited and center-parted with bunches of ringlets at the ears. With the flickering candlelight bouncing off Caroline's curls, perhaps making her dark eyes snap, one imagines John Humphrey's heart tightening as the orchestra gave the signal for another quadrille and the dancers took their places.

Noyes even penned a rather sweet, if sophomoric, poem to Caroline that he copied in his diary, a country idyll in fashionable hymn meter:

    Mark, Caroline, yon western sky.
    Deep-tinged in crimson light.
    The sun's red glories haste to die.
    And swift comes on the night.

    Then hasten, ere the twilight ends.
    Far down the vale we'll roam,
    Nor pause till o'er us night descends,
    Then Love shall light us home!

Alas, John Humphrey's dream of an enveloping night illumined by the star of love was to remain unfulfilled. (Indeed, if we are to believe Noyes's own later account, he would remain a virgin until the night of his marriage.) When the academy's school year finally drew to a close, John Humphrey abruptly ran home to Putney, forgoing even a parting interview with his beloved Caroline, upon whom he never laid eyes again. This precipitous disappearance in the face of a situation he felt at a loss to master was just the first of what would become a series of such retreats over the course of Noyes's life. In any case, in his relationship with Caroline, the young Noyes proved himself unable to heed the advice he had once given to a lovesick Dartmouth chum to "never read Byron, ... and above all to repeat every five minutes: 'Faint heart never won fair lady.'"

Yet just as John Humphrey had steeled himself, like Macbeth, to "jump the life to come" in favor of worldly pursuits, religion came knocking. In the fall of 1831, at his mother's prompting, Noyes attended a religious revival in Putney and, against all expectations, experienced conversion. The year was the watermark for religious revivals that had been sweeping across the Northeast for over a decade. "The Second Great Awakening," as it came to be called, resulted in the conversion of hundreds of thousands of middle-class souls to Jesus and, perhaps more important, to a strikingly new way of thinking about their relationship to God and the world. The dour Calvinism of the Puritans depicted humans as sinners in the hands of an angry God, waiting passively to be eternally damned or lifted up to join God's elect — resigned, in any case, to their status as "loathsome insects," in the words of Jonathan Edwards, dangled over the pit of hell. In contrast, the new revival religion emphasized humans as active moral agents capable of steering their souls — and the fallen world around them — toward the perfection promised by the advent of God's kingdom on earth. Instead of waiting passively for the millennium to come, humans had a duty to reform their world and thereby hasten the King's arrival.

The effect of the revivals was to ignite within the American national consciousness the spark of millenarianism: the belief that the Second Coming of Christ and the advent of his one-thousand-year reign were nigh. Some converts took this message quite literally. William Miller, a Baptist preacher and farmer in northern New York, performed a complicated calculus based on the prophecies of Daniel to predict that Christ would return very soon, indeed: on October 22, 1844, to be exact. Other converts stuck to a looser timeline. Christ was coming, and, in anticipation, good Christians were duty-bound to set their house in order by reforming such ugly social blights as alcoholism, the poor state of America's prisons, slavery, and women's mistreatment at the hands of men. Abolitionists Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, as well as the feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were carried to prominence in the 1840s on this wave of intense social activism and compellingly framed their ideas in the messianic language of the revivals. Humans, it was believed, had an obligation to at least meet God halfway in ushering in paradise on earth.

Later in his spiritual journey, Noyes would fully embrace the reformist spirit stirred up by the revivals, concocting his own millennial timeline no less bizarre than that of the Millerites and building his own miniature version of the coming City of God. Initially, however, one senses that Noyes's conversion simply provided the exhausted teenager with a welcome exit from the dark labyrinth of sexual desire, disappointment, and shame that had marked his adolescence. Tempted by the pleasures of the flesh yet wracked with ambivalence about his right to a place at the sexual table, Noyes had spent the last five years of his life agonizing over whether society or solitude, sex or cold philosophy was to be his ultimate fate. Now, suddenly, he had an answer: the "meridian splendor" of God's light had pierced his heart, outshining the romantic love-lit nights he had imagined in the presence of Caroline. Referring scornfully to the love poem he had so recently penned to his sweetheart, Noyes scribbled in his diary: "These three verses cost me an hour of labor. How much better would that hour have been spent in framing a hymn to the praise of God." Pledging himself to the "happiness of heaven," Noyes could now safely disparage the "groveling world" of earthly desires. "Hitherto the world, henceforth God!" he penned hopefully, turning the page, he trusted, on the melancholy pleasures of the flesh.

But the flesh was to give him trouble yet. Indeed, considering the thin margin separating the religious ecstasy so prevalent at nineteenth-century revivals from the sexual sort, what Noyes may initially have sought as a steady spiritual substitute for the painful ups and downs of carnal love would, in fact, lead him into no less complicated territory. These revivals encouraged extravagant outpourings of emotion from people who normally sat through buttoned-up church services with bland and silent piety. At a typical New England "protracted meeting," a charismatic preacher would alternately pray with and sermonize to a gathered audience over the course of three or four days of meetings, exhorting them to repent and accept Christ. Those with the temerity to admit themselves sinners in need of salvation would crowd to the front of the hall and occupy what came to be called "the anxious seat," in full view of the expectant congregation, who scrutinized them for signs of conversion. Cries, tears, groans, and fainting were taken as external tokens that the Holy Spirit was doing its appointed work.

The most famous of these revivalist preachers, Charles Grandison Finney, narrates his own conversion in the autumn of 1821 as an ecstatic flood of love coursing throughout his body: "[T]he Holy Spirit descended upon me in a manner that seemed to go through me, body and soul. I could feel the impression, like a wave of electricity, going through and through me. Indeed it seemed to come in waves of liquid love, for I could not express it any other way. It seemed like the very breath of God." These "waves" reached a peak of almost unbearable intensity, until Finney cried out, "'I shall die if these waves continue to pass over me. ... Lord, I cannot bear any more.'"

In his autobiography, Finney goes on to detail an impromptu revival staged by an unlikely Congregational deacon, who, normally spare of words and possessed of a thin, reedy voice, this time "soon began to wax warm and to raise his voice, which became tremulous with emotion." He rocked back and forth on his heels, then on his chair, bringing it down against the floor again and again "so that they could feel the jar in the room." The audience melted. "The brothers and sisters that were on their knees began to groan, and sigh, and weep, and agonize in prayer. ... [N]o one in the room could get off his knees. They could only weep and confess and melt down before the Lord."


Excerpted from Oneida by Ellen Wayland-Smith. Copyright © 2016 Ellen Wayland-Smith. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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Table of Contents


Introduction — 1

1. A Minister Is Born — 7
2. Noyes in the Underworld — 24
3. New Jerusalem (in Vermont) — 36
4. Electric Sex; or, How to Live Forever — 50
5. Marriage Grows Complex — 64
6. The Machine in the Garden — 85
7. Sticky Love — 104
8. Brave New World — 121
9. Twilight of the Gods — 143
10. Things Fall Apart — 161
11. Selling Silver — 184
12. Survival of the Fittest — 203
13. “The Strike of a Sex” — 225
14. “Back Home for Keeps” — 242
15. The Burning — 254
Epilogue — 261

Notes — 271
Bibliography — 289
Acknowledgments — 295
Index — 297

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