CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

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The 2002 CESNUR International Conference

Minority Religions, Social Change, and Freedom of Conscience

Salt Lake City and Provo (Utah), June 20-23, 2002

Free Love in Utopia: How Complex Marriage was Introduced in the Oneida Community

by Lawrence Foster
School of History, Technology, and Society - Georgia Institute of Technology -Atlanta, GA
A paper presented at CESNUR 2002, Salt Lake City and Provo. Preliminary version. Do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author

Buy this book This paper is a compression of some high points from the introduction to FREE LOVE IN UTOPIA: JOHN HUMPHREY NOYES AND THE ORIGIN OF THE ONEIDA COMMUNITY, compiled by George Wallingford Noyes and edited by Lawrence Foster (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001), pp. ix-xlvii.

Few religious and communal experiments in the United States have attracted more attention than the Oneida Community (1848-81), founded in mid-nineteenth-century New York state by the eccentric, Vermont-born genius John Humphrey Noyes.1 This remarkable community was a product of the turbulent decades of the 1830s and 1840s before the Civil War, when thousands of Americans joined new religious movements that rejected existing marriage and sex-role patterns in favor of alternative life-styles. New York state, where groups such as the celibate Shakers, polygamous Mormons, and free-love Oneida Perfectionists were founded or were active, was, like California today, a hotbed of religious and social diversity.

This pre-Civil War period, like the 1960s a century later, was one of major social transition. Antebellum Americans were caught between the earlier, more traditional, colonial life-styles and the developing Victorian emphasis on an internalized sense of self-control, which would predominate by the 1850s. Although the specific patterns introduced during those pre-Civil War years may sometimes appear idiosyncratic, Americans of that period strugled with larger issues that may help us better understand ourselves and our efforts to define new, more satisfying roles for men and women today.

No religious and social experiments from the pre-Civil War period raise such questions more starkly than the Oneida Community. Historians, sociologists, psychologists, literary scholars, and the general public alike have continued to be fascinated by Oneida’s "complex marriage" system and its implications. Both Noyes and his critics have somewhat misleadingly described this system--in which all adult members of this nearly three-hundred-person community considered themselves heterosexually married to the group, rather than to one monogamous partner--as a form of "free love."2 Perhaps the journalist Charles Nordhoff most colorfully characterized complex marriage as an apparently unprecedented "combination of polygamy and polyandry with certain religious and social restraints."3

Rather surprisingly, one of the most intriguing and significant questions about sexuality in the Oneida Community has never been systematically explored: How could a group of capable women and men have successfully made the difficult transition to such an unorthodox system of communal and sexual relations?

Such a successful transition to a system that lasted more than thirty years, from 1848 until 1879 at Oneida itself, was hardly accidental. It must have required extraordinary religious/ideological commitment, careful planning, skillful leadership, and the ability to surmount a variety of complex interpersonal problems that neither the Oneida Perfectionists themselves nor present-day scholars could necessarily anticipate. Although the specific details of Oneida belief and practice may or may not have resonance for the present, the process of transition and the institutionalization of such an unorthodox religiously-based social system raises issues of perennial concern for those seeking to understand the ways in which radical social change occurs.

Not until recently, however, did the most critical documentary key to the early development of Oneida finally become available to scholars. This is an approximately 2,200-page typed transcription of original Noyes family and Oneida Community letters, diaries, manuscripts, and excerpts from community newspapers, interspersed with connecting commentary, that was compiled by Noyes’s nephew George Wallingford Noyes from the core documentary records of the Community that were in his personal possession. G. W. Noyes’s typescript had been the basis for his two published documentary collections on his uncle’s early religious experience and on the Putney Community. It also served as the source for Constance Noyes Robertson’s important documentary analysis of the causes of the breakup of the Oneida Community.4

In the mid 1940s after George Wallingford Noyes’s death, nearly a truckload of these core Oneida Community documentary materials that had been in his possession were burned, apparently because leaders of the Oneida silverware corporation were uncomfortable about the damage that their possible publication might do to the "good name" of the corporation.5 Since then, G. W. Noyes’s compilation from those documents--which survived only in the hands of his immediate descendants and was not fully available to scholars until 1993--remained the sole source preserving many of the primary records of this remarkable community.

The most important unpublished part of that massive typescript consists of three folders comprising 450 double-spaced typed pages on the development of the Oneida Community during its first seven years from 1848 through 1854. George Wallingford Noyes had prepared those materials as a third documentary collection to follow his published books on Noyes’s religious experience and on the precursor Putney Community, and they were virtually ready for publication prior to his death in 1941. In FREE LOVE IN UTOPIA: JOHN HUMPHREY NOYES AND THE ORIGIN OF THE ONEIDA COMMUNITY (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001), I have published an edited version of this G. W. Noyes manuscript, along with a full reprint of Oneida’s FIRST ANNUAL REPORT (1849), which includes Noyes’s "Bible Argument; Defining the Relations of the Sexes in the Kingdom of Heaven," his extraordinary religious and sexual manifesto.

The George Wallingford Noyes manuscript presents a riveting story highlighting the complexity of the early Oneida Perfectionist struggles to introduce new sexual ideals and practices and make them work in a close-knit, religiously based communal setting. This paper--after briefly placing the early Oneida Community into it larger historical context--will highlight three aspects of this turbulent story that illustrate the complex interplay between religious and sexual ideals and impulses within the community.


To understand the context for the George Wallingford Noyes manuscript, one must realize that crisis was nothing new to John Humphrey Noyes and his followers at Oneida in the late 1840s and early 1850s. Indeed, crisis had been an almost constant part of Noyes’s life since his conversion in February 1834 to Perfectionism, a complex set of religious beliefs emphasizing the idea that a progressive process of achieving "perfect holiness" was possible on earth. Faced with his inability to convince others of the truth of his new convictions, Noyes in May 1834 experienced three emotionally devastating weeks in New York City, during which he fluctuated from extremes of manic euphoria to depression so severe that he felt on the verge of death.6

Although Noyes partially recovered from this psychic distress, he found the succeeding three years exceptionally difficult as he wandered around New York State and New England, trying with little success to convert the world to his highly unorthodox belief that perfection could be realized on earth. When his first idealized love object, Abigail Merwin, deserted him to marry another man, Noyes wrote a private letter in which he advocated sexual freedom in the holy Christian community. The unauthorized publication of that 1837 letter in a socially and religiously radical newspaper edited by Theophilous Gates and colorfully entitled The Battle-Axe and Weapons of War, caused Noyes temporarily to lose virtually all his remaining followers. Nevertheless, during the decade that followed the publication of that "Battle-Axe Letter" Noyes rebounded by publishing a series of newspapers defending his views and by establishing a small core group of nearly forty followers in his hometown of Putney, Vermont.7

The Putney Community, as the group came to be known, experienced a modest degree of success, despite continuing internal and external tensions. By the mid-1840s, the group was moving toward communism of property--and of persons. The first recorded practice of complex marriage on a limited scale began in 1846 when Noyes and his wife Harriet entered into an enlargement of their marital relations with George and Mary Cragin. The formal announcement in 1847 of the group’s sexual experimentation (even though that announcement was couched in veiled terms) outraged some members of the group and of the town of Putney. Noyes was indicted on two specific counts of adultery, and rather than face a possible lynching or conviction, he left the state, eventually forfeiting half his $2,000 bond.8

Early in 1848, Noyes and his Putney loyalists started over again on a farm owned by Jonathan Burt, one of his supporters in Oneida, New York. Noyes, optimistic about the future despite the recent setbacks, also at that time wrote a manifesto presenting his social and sexual theories, published as part of his First Annual Report of the Oneida Association . That manifesto was sent out to leading public figures in New York and New England.9 Despite all the turmoil, the community at Oneida grew rapidly. By January 1849, the original nucleus of Putney Perfectionists had expanded to 87; by February 1850, to 172; and by February 1851, to 205.10

Noyes’s communal experimentation at Oneida can be viewed as an attempt to overcome the religious and social disorder that he and his followers had experienced in the rapidly changing antebellum America of their day.11 Noyes’s underlying objectives at Oneida were to achieve: (1) "right relations with God," a common set of religious values for himself and for his followers; (2) "right relations between the sexes" that would allow men and women to live together harmoniously; and (3) "right economic relations" that would overcome the disruptive "dog-eat-dog" capitalism of early nineteenth-century America. The achievement of these three objectives in his "enlarged family" at Oneida, Noyes argued, was a precondition for the realization of a fourth goal, the full establishment of the millennium, the literal kingdom of heaven on earth, and the elimination of "disease and death."12

The stages leading to that final goal were not static, but progressive and ever-changing. Perfection of spirit, the correct inner attitude demanded by God, might be basically unchanging once one had achieved "salvation from sin," but the external social arrangements necessary to implement that perfection of attitude in practice were constantly changing and would continue to change, even after the establishment of the millennium.13

How did Noyes hope to achieve these ambitious goals? He had two chief means. The first was to spread his ideas through the newspapers he published from 1834 until 1879, and the second was to establish his ideas in practice among a community, or communities, of his followers. Although the communitarian side of Noyes’s experimentation has attracted the greatest attention and is emphasized in this compilation, Noyes himself always emphasized the publication of his newspapers as a means of getting his ideas before the world. As the Oneida Community declared in its Third Annual Report in 1852, "the publication of truth shall be our central business objective around which all other industrial interests shall organize."14 Noyes’s communities were thus in his mind chiefly important as the vehicle by which publication of truth as he understood it was possible. In addition, however, the communities were profoundly important in themselves. They provided a laboratory in which Noyes’s ideals could be realized in practice and a core group of followers who directly affirmed Noyes’s key role as God’s chief spokesman on earth.15

Because the social practices implemented at Oneida were so controversial and demanding, a word must also be said about them if we are to understand the crisis in the early community. As part of his effort to reestablish a holy community of Christians on earth, Noyes argued that such a community would eliminate exclusive sexual relations. Instead, his followers would consider themselves married to the entire group in a "complex marriage" in which love, including heterosexual love among adults, could be expressed freely among the entire community.

The specific arrangements that made possible this complex marriage system were developed gradually during the decade at Putney and only began to be fully implemented in 1847, shortly before the departure for Oneida.16 One of the most important of these practices was the use of birth control by "male continence" or coitus reservatus, in which couples were allowed to come together in intercourse but the men were not supposed to ejaculate, either during or after intercourse. (Noyes vehemently rejected coitus interruptus as a vile waste of the man’s seed). Also important was a form of group control by "mutual criticism," in which all, or more commonly a small portion of, the larger group, would meet to discuss and attempt to change the beliefs or behavior of individuals who were seen as failing to meet community standards. And an informal status hierarchy known as "ascending and descending fellowship" was the basis for the informal governance of the group based on the leadership of Noyes and his closest male and female associates.

The effort to implement these controversial new beliefs and practices caused many difficulties. That all was not well at Putney and Oneida between 1846 and 1852 is suggested by numerous exhortations in the community newspapers during those years to unquestioning obedience, unity, love, harmony, right devotion, and the like. Psychosomatic illnesses and faith cures were frequently discussed, and several cases of temporary insanity and suicidal tendencies were mentioned.17 In 1849, about a year after the founding of the Oneida Community, Noyes--who typically tried to absent himself from conflict situations he could not handle--moved with the nucleus of his most loyal Putney followers to a small community outpost in Brooklyn, New York. He lived there for most of the time between 1849 and 1854, when John Miller, Noyes’s brother-in-law and primary lieutenant at Oneida, died.

During those years, and particularly once he formally resumed editorship of his newspaper in 1851, Noyes wrote with a surprising degree of distance from his communal ventures. In his column "Ideas from the Communes," for instance, he seemed to write with an observer’s detachment about his own "Associated Communities" at Oneida, New York; Wallingford, Connecticut; Newark, New Jersey; and Cambridge and Putney, Vermont.18

External pressures also contributed to communal tensions during this period. In 1850 and 1851, grand juries in Oneida and Madison counties, on whose boundaries the community was located, heard complaints about the Perfectionists from their enemies. The exemplary deportment of community members, who answered highly personal questions freely and honestly, helped defuse the hostility, and influential local power figures also interceded on their behalf.19 The success of the community in weathering this crisis was partly attributable to its circumspection in not actively seeking new members at Oneida and thereby avoiding the explosive hostilities that the vigorous search for local members at Putney had entailed.

The exigencies of successfully establishing as difficult a system as complex marriage thus necessitated a move away from Noyes’s desire to convert the entire world toward a more restricted goal of establishing a tightly knit, internally unified community. Such an order could not be established if there were too many new people joining the community or leaving it all the time.20

The peak of the early difficulties over institutionalizing complex marriage and the beginning of the resolution of those problems, which are most fully laid out in the following George Wallingford Noyes compilation, apparently came between March and August 1852. During those six months complex marriage was temporarily discontinued at Oneida.21

The obvious external reason for this abrupt change of course was an all-out newspaper crusade launched by a New York religious paper, The Observer, and supported by other papers. On March 7, 1852, evidently in response to this pressure, the Oneida Circular made the surprise announcement that despite its continuing commitment to its system, the community was temporarily discontinuing the practice of complex marriage until public feeling moderated. By this action, the community declared, it was graphically demonstrating that it was "not attached to forms," even its own. "To be able to conform to any circumstances, and any institutions, and still preserve spiritual freedom" was the goal of the perfectionists. The community’s new efforts would be devoted to the establishment of a free press and to what must appear a most puzzling objective indeed--the "abolition of death."22

What is one to make of this remarkable announcement? As I argued in an earlier essay,23 it seems clear from a close perusal of the community’s newspapers that during the six months between March 7, 1852, and the triumphant announcement of the restoration of complex marriage on August 29, 1852, the practice of Oneida’s unorthodox marital arrangements was, indeed, temporarily discontinued. During this period, the community focused on the difficult legal challenges that threatened its existence, described in detail for the first time in this document, and on overcoming the emotional and psychological problems associated with the introduction of complex marriage. Complicating these factors were leadership conflicts between John Humphrey Noyes and George Cragin, who appears to have still chafed over Noyes’ continuing affection for his wife, even after her untimely death in a boating accident in the summer of 1851.24

Only after full communal commitment to Noyes’s leadership and principles had been reestablished did the Oneida Community once again joyfully announce its resumption of the practice of complex marriage on August 29, 1852.25 The community went on to function successfully for more than a quarter of century until it officially discontinued its system of complex marriage in August 1879. On January 1, 1881, the community formally came to an end when it replaced its communistic economic arrangements with a joint-stock system that eventually achieved great success through the manufacture of Oneida silverware.26


The first and one of the most important issues raised by the George Wallingford Noyes manuscript is John Humphrey Noyes’s demand for his followers’ full and unquestioned loyalty to his religious ideas and leadership. This "belief in Noyes’s divine commission,"27 as G. W. Noyes called it, was central to Noyes’s efforts throughout his life. As early as 1837 John Humphrey Noyes declared, "I would never connect myself with any individual or association in religion unless I were acknowledged leader."28 Noyes described his ideal of the Kingdom of God, which he sought to implement at Putney and at Oneida, as an "absolute monarchy," with authority coming from the top, yet decisions tempered by the concerns of the membership below.29 Noyes saw himself the supreme leader who benevolently delegated his authority to loyal subordinates who would do the concrete work of implementing his ideals in practice. As G.. W. Noyes observed: "The dogma of Noyes’s divine commission became a touchstone in the Putney and Oneida Communities. Those who rejected it were turned away; those who accepted it were bound together in a brotherhood of self-sacrificing quest for the Kingdom of God."30

Noyes’s demand for total loyalty to his ideas and his leadership, so characteristic of certain types of charismatic leadership and genius as described in Len Oakes’s insightful PROPHETIC CHARISMA: THE PSYCHOLOGY OF REVOLUTIONARY RELIGIOUS PERSONALITIES,31 may appear quite disturbing to some readers of this document. It certainly was disturbing to some of Noyes’s capable followers who eventually broke with him during the earliest years of the Oneida Community. One of these individuals, William Gould, stated bluntly:

. . . after the strictest observation for three weeks at Putney, I am compelled to say that his government is an exhibition of the most absolute specimen of despotism I ever saw. The members are under his control in the most absolute sense in the matters of the least as well as most consequence. I do not think they feel the least right of control over their property, persons, time, their wives, choice, judgment, will or affections. I heard them express not a solitary opinion in his presence until they heard his first, and then all gave in the same opinion. He treats counsel with contempt, and criticism as mutiny and treason, and all such intruders are placed under the ban of the community. And although I say it with pain and regret, yet truth compels me to say that, notwithstanding the exalted opinion I have of the privileges and advantages of Association, if I can have access to them only through worse than southern slavery, then I will face isolation with all of its evils.32

Noyes’s preoccupation with his own authority certainly was a dual-edged sword, and helps account for the intensity of reactions for or against him and other highly creative individuals who claim to have a unique handle on truth--to speak, in effect, "for God." What is particularly interesting in the case of John Humphrey Noyes is how deftly he eventually was able to temper the potential extremes of such demands for supreme authority. In addition to expecting absolute loyalty, Noyes also had an eye for capable people, not just yes-men and -women. Once he had his followers’ basic loyalty, he proved flexible in giving them their heads and letting them develop divergent ways of implementing his basic ideas.

Unlike some prophets, who are eventually seen by some of their followers as "going off the deep end" and, as a result, may eventually be deposed or killed, Noyes was also a shrewd judge of character and typically sought the broadest possible input before making major decisions. Noyes did not claim omniscience, at least explicitly. Like Len Oakes’s "prophetic" leaders, who demand primary loyalty to a set of ideas rather than to their person, the way more explicitly "charismatic" leaders often do, Noyes was willing to open himself to criticism when it was judiciously couched in terms of the degree to which certain actions did or did not achieve underlying community goals based on his ideals. Indeed, much of the success of the Oneida Community during the first difficult years described in this manuscript was not due to Noyes himself, who retreated during much of the period to the community outpost in Brooklyn, New York, but to individuals like Noyes’s capable brother-in-law John R. Miller, who skillfully acted as Noyes’s agent in running Oneida before his death in 1854.

Given John Humphrey Noyes’s stress on control and on loyalty to his leadership, Oneida may ultimately best be understood as the lengthened shadow of this one extraordinary man, reflecting both his strengths and weaknesses. Unlike most individuals, who simply seek to reach an accommodation with the larger world, Noyes adopted a prophetic stance, arguing that his insights provided a universally valid model for setting the world straight. Possessed by this compelling idea, unable or unwilling to work within what he considered an unstable and inconsistent value framework, Noyes sought, in anthropologist Kenelm Burridge’s words, "to initiate, both in himself as well as in others, a process of moral regeneration."33 He projected both his ego strengths and weaknesses onto the world.

Noyes was one of those individuals about whom William James wrote in whom "a superior intellect" and a "psychopathic temperament" coalesce, thereby "creating the best possible condition for the kind of effective genius that gets into biographical dictionaries. Such figures do not remain mere critics and understanders with their intellect. Their ideas possess them, they inflict them, for better or worse, upon their companions or their age."34


John Humphrey Noyes’s insistence on the primacy of his religious leadership was closely related to a second issue, the unorthodox sexual practices of the community and how they were to be administered. This issue is central to understanding the entire document. As part of the effort to overcome human "selfishness" by full submission to the will of God (and to Noyes as God’s agent on earth), Noyes argued that, among fully faithful Christians, selfish, exclusive marital ties would be replaced by a "complex marriage," in which all adult believers could love each other fully and have the possibility of heterosexual relations with each other. Noyes wanted all believers to be unified and to share a perfect community of interests, to replace the "I-spirit" with the "we-spirit." If believers were fully to love each other while living in close communal association, they must be allowed to love each other fervently and physically, "not by pairs, as in the world, but en masse." The necessary restrictions of the earthly period, governed by arbitrary human law, would eventually have to give way to the final heavenly free state. A perfect unity in all respects would result. Each should be married to all--heart, mind, and body--in a complex marriage.35

The catch was just how these "free" sexual relations were to be regulated. Here, just as in Noyes’s demand for loyalty to his leadership and to his religious beliefs, he was the ultimate referee. As the first chapter of this document clearly shows, Noyes’s demand for ultimate control over the sexual lives of his followers was perhaps the most significant test of the total loyalty of his disciples and caused many of his followers, who otherwise were in accord with Noyes in his religious principles, to break with him. Looking back, Noyes remembered: ". . . during the first days of my residence at Oneida, our social [i.e., sexual] theory was the subject of open and violent discussion between myself, Burt and others on one side and all the leading Perfectionists who deserted us on the other."36

Even those who stayed did not move immediately toward complete "communism of love." Many of the intial members at Oneida, indeed, had not been previously aware of the unorthodox sexual practices there but had been attracted primarily by Noyes’s religious beliefs. For example, John R. Miller, Noyes’s brother-in-law and indispensable right hand man during the early days at Oneida, apparently did not fully subscribe to the community’s social theory at first.37 After the publication in early 1849 of the First Annual Report of the Oneida Association--with its detailed "Bible Argument Defining the Relations Between the Sexes in the Kingdom of Heaven"--the sexual platform was clear for all to see.38 Even then, however, the move toward complete abolition of sexual exclusiveness did not occur immediately.

Noyes commented on August 30, 1849: "If a man comes into this Association with a wife that he has to watch and reserve from others, he has brought a cask of powder into a blacksmith’s shop."39 Rather than see the sparks cause the cask to explode, Noyes worked gradually to reeducate his followers, maintaining private marriage at first as a matter of expedience until individual exclusiveness could be voluntarily and completely broken down under proper oversight.

In addition to gradually extending his own sexual prerogatives, Noyes gradually allowed greater freedom to his followers whom he thought ready for it. On June 11, 1849, a letter from Mary Cragin to her husband George, for instance, reports Noyes’s suggestion that "if Mr. Bradley is in a good state. . . , he have liberty with Ellen and Philena if he wishes it. Sarah (Bradley) will no doubt be pleased to help her husband fellowship with others. . . . Also hint to those girls that they exercise some conservatism, and not allow themselves to be made too free with by all sorts. . . ."40

Noyes also withheld authorization for sexual relations, as Mary Cragin, in that same letter to her husband, delicately notes:

With regard to the state of things between you and me, I am well satisfied. God has our hearts in his power, and I have no complaint to make of his administration. When he thinks best he will give me that attraction which you desire; and until he does think best, as there is some excellent reason for withholding it, let us say, "Thy will be done."41

Control over sexual freedom by means of "ascending fellowship," in which Noyes and those he authorized supervised and exercised their prerogatives with those deemed as being of lesser "spirituality," was critically important if the whole system was to be kept from degenerating into random licentiousness that would splinter the community into a thousand fragments.42 Noyes continually stressed the necessity of absolute candor, or what he called "sincerity," in sexual discussion in the community. Although the detailed discussion of many of these sexual issues is not highlighted until later in the manuscript, readers must keep in mind the complex sexual undercurrents that had an impact on other, more public aspects of community life during the late 1840s and early 1850s.

A retrospective assessment that sheds great light on the dynamics of the sexual system at Oneida is found is a remarkable letter dated April 15, 1892, that Noyes’s son Theodore wrote (but never sent) to a young medical student, Anita Newcomb McGee. In that letter, Theodore Noyes indicated that the power to regulate or withdraw sexual privileges, "inherent in the community at large and by common consent delegated to father [John Humphrey Noyes] and his subordinates, constituted by far the most effectual means of government. Father possessed in a remarkable degree the faculty of convincing people that the use of this arbitrary power was exercised for their own good, and for many years there was very little dissatisfaction and no envy of his prerogative. . . ."

But now to come closer, and take the bull fairly by the horns. In a society like the Community, the young and attractive women form the focus toward which all the social rays converge; and the arbiter to be truly one, must possess the confidence and to a certain extent the obedience of this circle of attractions and moreover, he must exercise his power by genuine sexual attraction to a large extent. To quite a late period father filled this situation perfectly. He was a man of quite extraordinary attractiveness to women, and he dominated them by his intellectual power and social "magnetism" superadded to intense religious convictions to which young women are very susceptible. The circle of young women he trained when he was between 40 and 50 years of age, were by a large majority his devoted friends throughout the trouble which led to the dissolution [of the Oneida Community between 1879 and 1881].

. . . I must suppose that as he grew older he lost some of his attractiveness, and I know that he delegated the function [of initiating young women into sexual intercourse] to younger men in several cases, but you can see that this matter was of prime importance in the question of successorship and that the lack of a suitable successor obliged him to continue as the social center longer than would have otherwise been the case and so gave more occasion for dissatisfaction.43

Among the most intriguing discussions in the George Wallingford Noyes document are those dealing with "the wishes of the young unmarried men"44 and their difficulty becoming integrated into the sexual system at Oneida. This difficulty is hardly surprising, given the community’s extraordinary method of birth control through "male continence." Under that system (technically known as coitus reservatus), men and women were supposed to come together in sexual intercourse without the men ever ejaculating, either during or after intercourse.45 It does not require a vivid imagination to understand how inducting sexually inexperienced young men into such a practice might prove difficult.

As John Humphrey Noyes put it: ". . . the transition of the young men from the hot blood of virginity to the quiet freedom which is the essential element of our Society is emphatically the difficult pass in our social experience."46

. . . experience has shown that the usual "sale and delivery" of the woman to the man through marriage is highly objectionable. We have distressing examples of the effect of initiating young men. The spiritual collapse of Julia Hyde and Sarah Dunn, perhaps also of Sarah Campbell, Mrs. Worden and Louisa Waters may be mentioned. . . . The weaker party needs protection from the untamed lion; and if the amativeness of the young men is not civilized enough to be safely trusted, the Association is bound to protect the young women. . . .

On the other hand the plan proposed last fall of introducing the young men to the freedom of the Association through the more spiritual women has been attended with difficulties. Mrs. Cragin lost her equilibrium in the attempt to carry it out, and there appears to have been an unhealthy excitement in Perkins and perhaps others, which has ended in grudging discontent.47

Tensions also resulted among some of the adult men. A detailed discussion was made, for instance, of the case of William H. Perry, who was accused of "sensual self-seeking and concealment," including hiding evidence of venereal disease, in his overly free relations with community women.48 Eventually those who were suffering from what Noyes called "the rooster spirit" and were not willing to conform to community standards, as supervised by Noyes and public mutual criticism sessions, were expelled from the community.49

Interestingly, the community in the early 1850s appears to have responded to internal criticism of tendencies toward "licentiousness" by becoming passive sexually. As Noyes put in a Home-Talk on "Fear of Criticism" on June 23, 1851:

I find myself in a state of simplicity and freedom, and I act it out from time to time, but there is little response. The work of breaking through the barriers to fellowship is left to me. But unless others take hold with me the barriers are not permanently removed. The Association generally seems to have betaken itself to the passive virtues. They have ceased to do evil, and have become very dutiful and obedient. But "cease to do evil, learn to do well" is the order of God.50

This type of problem does not appear to have been resolved until after the resumption of complex marriage in the late summer and early fall of 1852. On December 28, 1852, in a letter to George Cragin, John R. Miller reflected:

I think I can say with Mr. Noyes, that exclusive love with me is a thing gone by. Two years ago we were obliged to act with constant reference to exclusiveness. We had to have our watch constantly on duty to prevent our social building from being burned up by the fires of jealousy. It was the great labor of the Association. Now it is not thought of, except in the case of new members. It never enters our heads that we can offend anyone by the expression of love. This is truly one of the "greater miracles."51

Thus it is clear that Oneida throughout its existence was not only the lengthened shadow of John Humphrey Noyes in its intellectual and organizational aspects, but also in the way it integrated sexual relations as a means of tightly linking the community together in the pursuit of a comprehensive set of religious and social goals. During the early years of the community, however, efforts to establish John Humphrey Noyes’s sexual as well as intellectual and organizational primacy led to much tension within the community and, indirectly, with the outside world. It is fascinating to investigate how the Oneida Community was able to deal successfully with such tensions, while many other new religious and communal groups have not been able to surmount such problems.


A third issue, introduced in the second chapter and continuing throughout the George Wallingford Noyes manuscript, is the continuing legal threat to the community’s existence throughout its early years.52 As Oneida was getting started, the numerous leftover lawsuits directed against Noyes’s earlier Putney Community could easily have scuttled his efforts to set up a new community at Oneida. Noyes had been arrested on October 26, 1847, on two specific charges of adultery, based on frank conversations with supporters or would-be supporters who subsequently defected. Released on $2,000 bond, Noyes left the state a month later, ostensibly to avoid the possibility of a lynching. The bond forfeiture case was handled by Larkin Mead, Noyes’s brother-in-law and a respected local lawyer, who defended the group despite his discomfort at their practices. Numerous other nuisance cases were also lodged, largely relating to young women such as the fifteen-year-old Lucinda Lamb who, to the dismay of her parents, had been attracted to the group.

What is most interesting about these lawsuits and the later, more dangerous Hubbard suits at Oneida, to be discussed shortly, was how skillfully they were handled. John R. Miller and other members of the community used every bit of persuasive ability they could muster, drawing upon the generally positive business and personal relationship the Noyes family and the Putney followers had with the townspeople. Compromise and conciliation were important, especially in nuisance cases with little merit, in which, as Noyes put it, "Our policy is to give the enemy a bridge of money, over which to make a decent retreat."53 Even the $2,000 bond itself was only half forfeited, after a case was made that money would come not directly from Noyes but from the trust fund he had set up for his family and from less controversial followers like John R. Miller, whose store would suffer bankruptcy if he were forced to pay the charges.

Noyes’s prominent and well-connected family, even those members who thoroughly disapproved of his sexual theories and behavior, put family ties above other considerations. Well-connected local leaders also helped them weather the storm. The tenuousness of the group’s survival at Oneida in the face of ever-present challenges from outsiders or disaffected members must always be kept in mind.

The most dangerous of all the early lawsuits, one which came very close to destroying the Oneida Community in the early 1850s, is described for the first time in detail in the George Wallingford Noyes manuscript. It involved a disturbing case of personal misconduct associated with an attempt to deal with mental illness at Oneida. The case was precipitated by a series of severe whippings by community member Henry Seymour of his mentally disturbed wife Tryphena. She had begun acting strangely--"crying nights, wandering about, frightening the children, and talking incoherently."54 In response to the whippings, which had been intended to try to stop her behavior, an indictment on "assault and battery" charges was lodged in Utica on September 27, 1851, prompted by Tryphena’s father Noahdiah Hubbard.55

That indictment forced nine community members to go to Utica to testify on October 7. On November 4, Noyes cautioned the community, saying: "Our system of criticism has generated more or less sharpness and severity of spirit which has precluded the softness and gentleness of Christ."56 The case itself was settled on November 26, with the community agreeing to pay Tryphena’s expenses at the Asylum, and, after she came out, $125 per year if she were well and $200 if she remained "unsound in body or mind."57

The Utica suit and attandent publicity probably contributed to the sharp editorial attack on January 22, 1852, by the New York Observer.58 It made an extended--and unfavorable--comparison of Oneida sexual practices with those of the polygamous Mormons. In a Home-Talk on February 28, 1852, Noyes observed that "it is quite possible that the agitation which The New York Observer has stirred up may compel the authorities to prosecute the indictment."59 In response, Noyes proposed what he called a "coup d’etat," that the group make temporary strategic concessions on their sexual arrrangements, while keeping all other valuable elements of the community intact.60

Despite the out-of-court settlement in November 1851 with the Hubbards regarding the assault and battery charges against Henry Seymour and the public commitment of the community in March 1852 to discontinue complex marriage for the time being, attacks picked up again by April 1852. That was when the Hubbards began threatening to take to court ten other proposed indictments against the community.61 In attempting to defuse the tension, Noyes told his local critics that he would do everything in his power to honorably satisfy them and the authorities of the county--including, if necessary, dispersing and disbanding his community at Oneida.62 Noyes clearly articulated his reasoning as follows:

I am satisfied that our true policy is to avoid a trial, as we did at Putney, by paying whatever is necessary. . . . A trial, if public and reported in the newspapers, converts a local difficulty into a general scandal. We are dealing with the enemy on the field of public opinion, and our hope is that we shall finally overcome prejudice by common sense, sound reasoning and good behavior.63

As part of their public relations campaign, the Oneidans invited eighty surrounding families, including the Hubbards, to a highly successful strawberries-and-cream party and open house attended by more than three hundred neighbors. After that gathering, the community offered to buy out the Hubbards by paying them $150 in mid-July on receipt of a certificate from Mr. Hubbard "honorably discharging them [the Community] from further claims and expressing his wish that the indictments be dropped," and $150 more "if by that certificate and other influences which he and his family can command, those indictments shall be stopped so that we shall have no further trouble."64 As Noyes observed: "It seems to me that the likeliest way to quash those indictments is to set the Hubbards to work as our attorneys, and pay them well for it."65 Although the total charges the Hubbards extracted from the community ultimately came to $350, the strategy proved successful. The major critics of the community enthusiastically endorsed the Hubbard statement exonerating the community, one of them even declaring: "The people in this vicinity will not consent to have you disperse."66

As a postscript to this case, it should be noted that Tryphena eventually overcame her mental disorder and returned to the community and to her husband, by whom she had a child and with whom she lived until her death at age forty-nine in 1877.67 Henry Seymour himself became one of the most influential and respected members of the Oneida Community, noted especially for his remarkable horticultural skills. After the breakup of the community, Seymour was one of the loyalists who followed John Humphey Noyes to Canada, where he lived until his own death at age eighty in 1906.68

The Tryphena and Henry Seymour case suggests a host of issues that deserve further investigation. Just as Noyes’s idiosyncratic relationship with his Mary Cragin may have had a significant impact on the way in which complex marriage eventually developed, so the Tryphena Seymour assault-and-battery case suggests how factors that may have been exacerbated by the sexual arrangements of the community couldhave contributed to its overall tensions, internally and externally. For example, evidence in the manuscript suggests that part of Tryphena’s mental instability may have been associated with her difficulties in accepting and adapting to Oneida complex marriage, to which she had initially been strongly opposed.69 Moreover, the use of severe punishments such as whipping suggests that excesses may have occurred in other, less publicized cases, as well.

What is most impressive about this case, however, is that the community learned rapidly from its mistakes. By the mid-1850s, the excesses of the transition phase had been largely overcome, allowing for a further quarter century of successful communal living in what one community member described as "a home the like of which has not been seen since the world began."70


In conclusion, the early Oneida Community records tell a fascinating and sometimes disquieting story of one extraordinary community that sought to radically restructure relationships between men and women. The experiences of these dedicated religious communitarians raise complex issues for us today as we also continue to struggle to come to terms with issues of personal transformation and change in our own lives.


1. This paper is a compression of the introductory essay written by Lawrence Foster for Free Love in Utopia: John Humphrey Noyes and the Origin of the Oneida Community (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001), compiled by George Wallingford Noyes and edited by Lawrence Foster, pp. ix-xlvii. Among the most important scholarly studies that focus on the internal dynamics of the Oneida Community throughout its history are Robert Allerton Parker, A Yankee Saint: John Humphrey Noyes and the Oneida Community (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1935); Maren Lockwood Carden, Oneida: Utopian Community to Modern Corporation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1969, reprinted, Syracuse University Press, 1998); Lawrence Foster, Religion and Sexuality: The Shakers, the Mormons, and the Oneida Community (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984) and Women, Family, and Utopia: Communal Experiments of the Shakers, Oneida Community, and Mormons (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1991); and Spencer Klaw, Without Sin: The Life and Death of the Oneida Community (New York: Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 1993). [back]

2. For John Humphrey Noyes’s discussion of the shifting meaning of the term "free love," see his History of American Socialisms (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1870), pp. 638-40. An example of the hostile use of the term is found in John B. Ellis, Free Love and its Votaries; or, American Socialism Unmasked (New York: United States Publishing Co., 1870). [back]

3. Charles Nordhoff, The Communistic Societies of the United States: From Personal Visit and Observation (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1875), p. 271. [back]

4. For the Syracuse University manuscript holdings, which include the George Wallingford Noyes manuscript, see Mark F. Weimer, comp., The Oneida Community Collection in the Syracuse University Libraries: Inventory (Syracuse: Syracuse University, George Arents Research Library for Special Collections, 1986). George Wallingford Noyes’s two edited collections of primary documents are The Religious Experience of John Humphrey Noyes, Founder of the Oneida Community (New York: Macmillan, 1923), and John Humphrey Noyes: The Putney Community (Oneida, NY: By the Author, 1931). Constance Noyes Robertson’s documentary account of the end of the community is found in The Oneida Community: The Breakup, 1876-1881 (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1972). [back]

5. For a brief account of the burning of thousands of Oneida documents that had been assembled in a specially constructed fireproof storage vault, see Foster, ed., Free Love in Utopia, pp. x-xii. This document destruction remains a very painful episode that descendents of the Oneida Community would rather not discuss. In the absence of those documents, serious scholars of the community have relied on the extensive serial publications of John Humphrey Noyes and the Oneida Community between 1834 and 1879, numerous other books and pamphlets put out by the community, and many diaries, journals, and other records that survived in private hands, many of which are now located in the Oneida Community Collection at Syracuse University Library, cited above. The complete run of community serials, comprising eleven reels of microfilm, along with four other reels of microfilms of community publications and related materials, are available from UMI, Ann Arbor, Michigan, and described in Jack T. Ericson, ed., Oneida Community: Books, Pamphlets and Serials, 1834-1972 (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI, 1990). [back]

6. The following background comments are based on the analysis of Oneida presented in my books Religion and Sexuality, pp. 72-122, and Women, Family, and Utopia, especially the chapter "The Rise and Fall of Utopia: The Oneida Community Crises of 1852 and 1879," pp. 103-23, itself revision of a paper originally published under the same title in Communal Societies 8 (1988): 1-17. For primary documentation on John Humphrey Noyes’s early religious turmoil, see his Confessions of John H. Noyes: Part I: Confessions of Religious Experience, Including a History of Modern Perfectionism (Oneida Reserve, NY: 1849) and G. W. Noyes, ed., Religious Experience of John Humphrey Noyes. An important scholarly analysis of the roots of Noyes’s charisma and mission, largely prior to the start of the Oneida Community, is found in Robert David Thomas, The Man Who Would Be Perfect: John Humphrey Noyes and the Utopian Impulse (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1977). [back]

7. Noyes’s letter, published in part in Theophilous Gates’s anti-establishment newspaper The Battle-Axe and Weapons of War, included this remarkable declaration: "In the holy community, there is no more reason why sexual intercourse should be restricted by law than why eating and drinking should be--and there is as little occasion for shame in the one case as in the other." Reprinted in The Witness 1 (January 23, 1839): 49. Documentary background on these developments is found in G. W. Noyes, ed., Putney Community, pp. 1-10. [back]

8. For a skillful presentation and analysis of these developments, drawing upon some primary materials no longer available, see Parker, Yankee Saint, pp. 119-142. Primary documentation on the disposition of this and the other Putney lawsuits is found in Foster, ed., Free Love in Utopia, pp. 13-22. [back]

9. Noyes first published this article, "Bible Argument Defining the Relations of the Sexes in the Kingdom of Heaven," in The First Annual Report of the Oneida Association (Oneida Reserve, NY: Leonard, 1849), pp. 18-42, and elaborated it in final form in Bible Communism: A Compilation of the Annual Reports and Other Publications of the Oneida Association and Its Branches (Brooklyn, NY: Office of the Circular, l853). The entire First Annual Report is reprinted as an appendix to Foster, ed., Free Love in Utopia, pp. 296-361. [back]

10. These membership figures are based on the first three annual reports of the Oneida Association published between 1849 and 1851. [back]

11. This frequently-repeated emphasis is most vividly suggested in "The Family and Its Foil," Circular 3 (November 16, 1854):594, where Noyes argues that existing patterns of monogamous "marriage" derived from romantic love were antithetical to the "family," by which he meant larger social and kinship ties. As Noyes saw it, love attachments confined to individual couples were a sort of "egotism for two," part of the same disruptive and antisocial individualism that was present in the rampant, economically acquisitive antebellum scene. [back]

12. "Bible Argument," pp. 27-28. [back]

13. The fullest presentation of Noyes’s theological perfectionism is found in his The Berean: A Manual for the Help of Those Who Seek the Faith of the Primitive Church (Putney, VT: Office of the Spiritual Magazine, 1847). [back]

14. As quoted in Robertson, Oneida Community: The Breakup, p. 10. [back]

15. Throughout his life, Noyes demanded total authority and control. This key element in Noyes’s approach is discussed below, pp. 12-15. [back]

16. For a summary of how these key arrangements developed, see Foster, Religion and Sexuality, pp. 93-106. [back]

17. The Oneida Circular 12, n.s. (May 1875): 170, recalled: "The years 1850, ‘51, ‘52 were years of external trial to the community. First came the conflict with internal "evils," such as insubordination, disloyalty, and pleasure-seeking, culminating in the withdrawal of several fimilies which seemed at times to jeopardize the very existence of the community." [back]

18. Circular 3 (January 17, 1854): 75. [back]

19. Parker, Yankee Saint, pp. l87-89. The details of the legal challenges faced by the Oneida Community at this time are among the exciting discoveries from the George Wallingford Noyes Papers, discussed below in Foster, ed., Free Love in Utopia, pp. xxiii-xxiv, xxvii-xxx. [back]

20. As early as 1850, the Oneida Community publicly stated that it was not actively seeking new members, and thereafter it periodically reaffirmed this position. "Plans and Prospects," Free Church Circular 3 (October 21, 1850):281. [back]

21. For a fuller discussion of my earlier reconstruction of these matters based on newspaper sources, see Foster, Religion and Sexuality, pp. 111-116, and in Foster, ed., Free Love in Utopia, pp. xxx-xxxii. [back]

22. "The Past, Present, and Future," Circular 1 (March 7, 1852):6; reprinted in Foster, ed., Free Love in Utopia, pp. 157-60. [back]

23. Foster, "The Rise and Fall of Utopia." [back]

24. See Foster, ed., Free Love in Utopia, pp. xxvi-xxvii. [back]

25. That statement is printed, ibid., pp. 192-93. [back]

26. For the final phase of the community experience, see especially C. N. Robertson, The Breakup; Pierrepont B. Noyes, My Father’s House: An Oneida Boyhood (New York: Farrar & Reinhart, 1937); Parker, A Yankee Saint; Carden, Oneida; and Klaw, Without Sin. [back]

27. G. W. Noyes, Putney Community, pp. 25-33. [back]

28. Ibid., p. 25. [back]

29. See Spiritual Magazine 2 (July 1, 1847): 57-59, and First Annual Report, pp. 12-14. [back]

30. G. W. Noyes, Putney Community, p. 33. [back]

31. (Syracuse University Press, 1997). This book suggests a typology of the development of charismatic leadership that helps place the development of the Oneida Community into a larger context. [back]

32. Foster, ed., Free Love in Utopia, pp. 6-7. [back]

33. Kenelm Burridge, New Heaven, New Earth: A Study of Millenarian Activities (New York: Schocken, 1969), p. 162. [back]

34. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (New York: New American Library, 1958; original, 1902), p. 36. [back]

(Putney, Vt.: Office of the Circular, 1847). The best primary account of Noyes’s perfectionist religious beliefs in context is his Confessions of John H. Noyes. [back]

35. "Bible Argument," pp. 21-22. [back]

36. Foster, ed., Free Love in Utopia, p. 171. [back]

37. Ibid., p. 61, reports the allegation that "Mr. Miller does not fully believe our social theory," and this reluctance was also confirmed elsewhere, for example, Ibid., p. 231. In Religion and Sexuality, p. 110, I note that in the Circular, October 3, 1850, a letter highly critical of Oneida sexual practices was prominently featured in the community’s newspaper, with only a relatively half-hearted defense of their practices by John Miller and other conmmunity members. I note: "It is quote possible that John Humphrey Noyes’s decision to resume formal editorship of his newspapers in 1851 was in part an attempt to avoid losing control over both his newspapers and his communities in the face of deep-seated opposition to his policies." [back]

38. One of the factors that allowed Noyes to achieve success was his willingness to candidly yet judiciously state precisely what he was attempting to do. He could never convincingly be criticized for not letting people know what he stood for or where he was trying to go in his community ventures. [back]

39. Foster, ed., Free Love in Utopia, p. 215. [back]

40. Ibid., p. 213. [back]

41. Ibid., p. 213. [back]

42. For an overview of the role of "ascending fellowship," in which older, more "spiritual" members generally guided younger, less "spiritual" individuals, and how such "ascending fellowship" was used to direct and control the community’s sexual system, see Carden, Oneida, pp. 52-57. [back]

43. Copy of letter from Theodore E. Noyes to Anita Newcomb McGee, April 15, 1892, in my possession, provided courtesy of P. Geoffrey Noyes. [back]

44. Foster, ed., Free Love in Utopia, p. 223. [back]

45. Noyes’s fullest discussion of this practice and its rationale is found in his Male Continence (Oneida, NY: Office of the Oneida Circular, 1872). For an assessment of this practice and its impact, see my Religion and Sexuality, pp. 93-98. A tantalizingly brief discussion by Alfred Kinsey, Wardell Pomeroy, and Clyde Martin, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders, 1948), pp. 158-161, argues that men practicing coitus reservatus can indeed achieve orgasm without ejaculation. The most recent accounts emphasizing the advantages of coitus reservatus for male and female sexual pleasure are William Hartman and Marilyn Fithian, Any Man Can: The Multiple Orgasmic Technique for Every Loving Man (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994); and Mantak Chia and Douglas Abrams Arava, The Multi-Orgasmic Man: Sexual Secrets Every Man Should Know (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997). [back]

46. Foster, ed., Free Love in Utopia, p. 223. [back]

47. Ibid., p. 223-24.. [back]

48. Ibid., p. 225-26.. [back]

49. Ibid., p. 228. One noteworthy expulsion involved Charles Guiteau, the unstable man who later assassinated President James Garfield. Parker, Yankee Saint, pp. 224-25. [back]

50. Foster, ed., Free Love in Utopia, p. 234. [back]

51. Ibid., p. 249. [back]

52. See, especially, ibid., pp. 13-22, 94-97, 136-45, 169-86. [back]

53. Ibid., p. 16. [back]

54. Ibid., p. 260-61. [back]

55. Foster, ed., Free Love in Utopia, pp. 136-45. It is interesting that the primary focus of the interrogation appears to have been the community’s sexual arrangements, with the case of Tryphena brought up almost as an afterthought. [back]

56. Ibid., p. 143. [back]

57. Ibid., p. 142. [back]

58. Ibid., pp. 145-48. [back]

59. Ibid., p. 154. [back]

60. Ibid., p. 155. [back]

61. Ibid., p. 175. [back]

62. Ibid., p. 176. [back]

63. Ibid., p. 178. [back]

64. Ibid., p. 187. [back]

65. Ibid. [back]

66. Ibid., p. 189. [back]

67. Teeple, Oneida Family: Genealogy of a Nineteenth-Century Perfectionist Commune, p. 26. [back]

68. Ibid., p. 14. [back]

69. Much evidence suggests that Oneida’s unorthodox sexual practices, and Tryphena’s father’s opposition to them, may well have been factors contributing to Tryphena’s mental instability. Tryphena was the first local resident other than the Burts to join the group and accept their sexual practices after they moved to Oneida. Prior to so doing, she and Mrs. Burt had vociferously opposed those same unorthodox sexual practices. Just as the opposition of the father of the 15-year old Lucinda Lamb to joining the Putney Community had caused problems for the group earlier, so Dexter Hubbard’s profound opposition to his daughter’s involvement was an ongoing source of tension between him and the Oneida Community. Tryphena, in addition to having to adapt to a marital relationship with her somewhat eccentric husband Henry Seymour, presumably remained profoundly ambivalent about the community’s unorthodox sexual practices and the estrangement from her family that resulted. Other revealing discussions of the tensions associated with Oneida sexual practices are found in Jane Kinsley Rich and Nelson F. Blake, eds. A Lasting Spring: Jessie Catherine Kinsley, Daughter of the Oneida Community (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1983); in the Victor Hawley diary, edited by Robert Fogarty as Special Love/Special Sex: An Oneida Community Diary (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1994); and in Robert Fogarty, ed., Desire and Duty at Oneida: Tirza Miller’s Intimate Memoir (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000). Tirza Miller was the mother of George Wallingford Noyes, who compiled this manuscript. [back]

70. Alan Estlake [Abel Easton], The Oneida Community (London: George Redway, 1900), p. 56. [back]

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