Interpersonal Processes in Nineteenth Century Utopian Communities: Shakers and Oneida Perfectionists
Isaac, James, Altman, Irwin, Utopian Studies
Traditional and emerging social values often clashed amidst the dramatic changes sweeping through the new American republic in the early years of the nineteenth century. The former colonies reveled in their freedom but had not yet fully worked out the norms of the new order; the fledgling industrial revolution created new economic opportunities and uncertainties; and political and social freedoms expanded, especially those involving rights of participants in close interpersonal relationships. For example, divorce, birth control, abortion and prostitution were more readily available, people were freer to choose their own marital partner, and women's rights were enhanced (Altman and Ginat 21; Foster 223-238; Kern 34-49).
Not surprisingly, there were reactions to some of these liberalizing trends, often based on religious ideologies that called for restoration or re-interpretation of traditional values and approaches to everyday life. The Shakers and the Oneida Perfectionists were two examples of utopian movements of the era who sought "ideal" and stable lives for individuals, families, and communities. These and other social experiments promised security and religious salvation through unique family structures based on strict behavioral norms, strong authority systems, economic self-sufficiency, and a degree of separation from society at large (Foster 1-13; Hayden 3-6; Brewer 5-6).
The present article focuses on interpersonal relationships in Shaker and Oneida movements, especially their unique attempts to restrict or prohibit close and intimate heterosexual relationships. Although differing in many ways, both Shaker and Oneida doctrine sought to eliminate monogamous marriages, or any form of enduring or permanent heterosexual relationship -- an idea that sharply contrasted with long-standing values in America and most western societies. Traditional heterosexual relationships, these groups argued, often resulted in selfishness, inattention to spiritual responsibilities, and insufficient commitment to other people and the larger community. To achieve an ideal life, the Shakers called for their members to practice celibacy and sharply curtail informal contacts between men and women. In contrast, but in order to reach the same goal, the Oneidans practiced "group marriage," in which men and women could engage in physical sexual activity with many others-albeit only in accordance with strict rules designed to prevent permanent bonds. (Later, they practiced "stirpiculture," a eugenics-like program in which more enduring relationships sometimes occurred.)
To understand the dynamics of interpersonal relationships in Oneida and Shaker communities we pose the following questions: 1. How did the Shaker and Oneida movements employ environmental design, rules for use of the physical environment, and social practices to control close heterosexual relationships? 2. How viable were their approaches to close interpersonal relationships in light of present day concepts and theory?
Our research and theory on close relationships is based on transactional and dialectical philosophies or "world views," which we here apply to an analysis of Oneida and Shaker ideologies (Altman and Rogoff 7-37; Altman, Vinsel and Brown 117-126; Brown, Werner and Altman in press). Briefly, the transactional perspective calls for a holistic understanding of interpersonal relationships. This means, first, that one simultaneously attends to multiple aspects of behavior that are inseparable, function as an integrated unity, and reflect several domains of interpersonal activity. Consistent with our earlier research, we describe how the design of homes and the physical layout of Shaker and Oneida utopian communities were related to interpersonal relationships. Next, we discuss how the two groups guided their members in the use of physical environments. Finally, we address how they prescribed a variety of social rules, norms, and behavioral practices regarding heterosexual relationships. In so doing, we illustrate the complementary and holistic unity of several domains of Shaker and Oneida lifestyles.
Second, the transactional perspective treats interpersonal phenomena as inseparable from individual, cultural, and historical contexts. Thus we describe how Shaker and Oneida approaches to heterosexual relationships were embedded in social, economic, political, and community organizational contexts, and in individual role requirements of the era.
Third, the transactional perspective assumes that both stability and change appear in all of the preceding qualities of close relationships. We examine how Oneida and Shaker movements regulated close relationships over the years, how they responded to internal and external pressures, and the viability of their approaches to heterosexual relationships.
Our transactional perspective also incorporates a dialectical approach which assumes that social bonds involve oppositional qualities of engagement, affect, and regulation (Altman et al. 117-126; Baxter and Montgomery 3-17; Werner and Baxter 348-355; Brown et al. 7-17). Engagement refers to oppositional tensions for participants in a relationship to become integrated, involved, connected and interdependent with one another versus seeking to be individuated, less involved, disconnected and independent of one another. Obviously, some degree of engagement is necessary for a relationship to occur, but there can be variations in levels of engagement as circumstances shift, as contextual factors enter in, as individuals change, and as the dynamics of relationships evolve. Thus on some occasions participants may be highly interdependent; at other times they may be more autonomous, yielding differing relationship dynamics.
The second dialectic -- affect -- involves a range of positive and negative emotions associated with a relationship. Positive affect may include approval, agreement, friendliness, liking, and love versus negative affective qualities of disapproval, disagreement, hate, dislike, and hostility. Differing strengths of these oppositional processes also may occur at different times and in different circumstances. The third dialectic -- regulation -- refers to the internal rules or norms that participants in a relationship adopt or create to manage their social bond. Regulation can include rules for dominating or submitting, controlling or being controlled, and offering direction versus receiving guidance; approaches to seeking change in a relationship versus maintaining stability; and norms regarding individual freedoms and rights versus couple-oriented attitudes and restrictions.
The freedom of people to exercise varying degrees of interpersonal engagement, affect and regulation was a new norm in eighteenth and nineteenth century America -- one that we pretty well take for granted nowadays. Yet the Shakers and Oneidans sought to vigorously counter this emerging value system of their era by sharply restricting such freedoms, and prohibiting voluntary and varying levels of engagement, affect, and regulation.
In the following sections we apply transactional and dialectical approaches to describe how Oneidans and Shakers attempted to manage close relationships through architecture and interior design, rules for use of the environment, and norms regarding social practices. We also assess the viability of their programs of rigid control of close relationships.(1)
The Shaker religious movement was founded by Ann Lee, an English woman, who migrated to the United States in 1774 with a handful of followers.(2) Influenced by Quaker concepts of love and pacifism, and experiencing visions of an earthly paradise and sinless human beings, Ann came to see herself as a female counterpart to Jesus Christ (Hayden 65; Brewer 1-6), a "Mother in Christ" (Schiffer 5). Perhaps influenced as well by the loss of four children in birth or early infancy, she viewed sexual relationships as the "source and foundation of human corruption" (Schiffer 5).
Through promises of a peaceful, loving, and pure way of life on earth, the movement grew in the turbulent new American republic. They came to be known as the Shakers because of their singing, dancing, whirling, speaking in tongues, and rolling on the floor during church services -- behavior in sharp contrast to their otherwise staid demeanor and low-key religious practices (Foster 25; Schiffer 5-7).
The Shakers advocated a most unusual approach to heterosexual relationships, namely, celibacy and prohibitions against any social relationships between a particular man and woman. They viewed close heterosexual relationships as self indulgent and an obstacle to a simple and virtuous religious life (Brewer 5). Instead of engaging in intimate personal relationships, Shakers were encouraged to love all people, serve the whole community, and avoid acting for personal gain or self-aggrandizement. If these principles were followed, the Shakers believed that a veritable heaven on earth would result (Brewer 70; Andrews 54-69; Schiffer 5). Shaker theology also called for diligence and pride in work, creating useful and simple things without frills, and absolute integrity in business dealings (Brewer 79; Schiffer 13; Hayden 98). The results were impressive, with Shaker communities acknowledged to be well designed and carefully maintained, and their many inventions and products known to be simple, creative, practical, and of high quality.(3)
The Shaker movement grew steadily, with eighteen communities and a peak number of about 6,000 members in New England, New York, Kentucky and Ohio in the years prior to the Civil War (Andrews 70-93; Lassiter 17-18). Thereafter, membership declined, with only about a thousand members at the beginning of the twentieth century (Andrews 224). At present only a handful of Shakers remain active.
The Shaker dream was initially appealing for several reasons: religious fervor and interest in evangelical movements in the early 1800s, desire for a peaceful lifestyle following the Revolutionary War, availability of land for community development, and a growing market for manufactured goods. The promise of a stable and organized life, a supportive and safe community, and religious salvation also attracted many converts. However, conversion rates dropped and apostasies mounted over the decades as a result of internal and external problems, including tensions associated with their prohibition on interpersonal relationships. Although early converts adhered to principles of celibacy and separation of the sexes, increasing numbers of men and women thought or acted otherwise in subsequent decades. A number left the movement as couples, and many who had been in the movement as youngsters wished to have heterosexual relationships as they approached adulthood. Reports of attractions, secret relationships, and inappropriate contacts between men and women rose over the years, while resistance mounted to an array of severe restrictions on individual behavior. Other internal factors contributing to the declining membership included conflicts about leadership, a diminished leadership pool as younger and middle-aged people left the movement and as the number of new converts dropped, and only lukewarm commitment to Shaker theology by many new members.
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Publication information: Article title: Interpersonal Processes in Nineteenth Century Utopian Communities: Shakers and Oneida Perfectionists. Contributors: Isaac, James - Author, Altman, Irwin - Author. Journal title: Utopian Studies. Volume: 9. Issue: 1 Publication date: Winter 1998. Page number: 26+. © 1998 Society for Utopian Studies. COPYRIGHT 1998 Gale Group.
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