Academic journal article Communal Societies

Discord in Utopia: Reconciling Perfectionism with Human Nature in the Oneida Community

Academic journal article Communal Societies

Discord in Utopia: Reconciling Perfectionism with Human Nature in the Oneida Community

Article excerpt

Introduction

Seventeen years prior to the establishment of the Oneida Community in 1848, founder John Humphrey Noyes underwent a religious conversion that forever shaped his understanding of Christianity. "My heart," Noyes wrote, "was fixed on the Millennium, and I resolved to live or die for it." (1) While training to be a minister at Yale Theological Seminary, Noyes became convinced that Christians needed to profess faith in God, attain spiritual perfection, and congregate to hasten the coming of the Millennium. Noyes's contemporaries, objecting in particular to his assertion that humans could attain perfection on Earth, accused him of heresy.

In spite of popular opposition, Noyes accumulated enough followers to form communistic societies based on his teachings in Putney, Vermont, and later in Oneida, New York. The Oneida Community (OC), Putney's long-lasting successor, served as a testing ground for Noyes's religious, social, and scientific experiments until its formal dissolution on January 1, 1881. In accordance with Noyes's teachings, members of the OC practiced bible communism and complex marriage, sharing all possessions, responsibilities, and sexual partners with one another. (2) The Community flourished economically under this system and carved a niche for itself in central New York.

Although other nineteenth-century religious communal societies also paired communistic living with spirituality, the OC stood out from the rest because of its Perfectionist leanings. Noyes contended that his followers needed to place complete faith in God and renounce all temptations to sin in order reach an exalted state of perfection. He understood the attainment of perfection to be a long, drawn-out process rather than an immediate acquisition. OC member Allan Estlake indicated in The Oneida Community (1900) that Noyes expected his followers to experience "a slow development of the spiritual nature of man leading up to the regeneration" as opposed to immediate perfection. (3) Such perfection could be attained through virtuous behavior, faith in God, and rigid adherence to Noyes's doctrines of complex marriage and bible communism. In attempts to defend their unconventional practices to outsiders, OC members described the Community as peaceful, pleasant, and devoid of internal divisions and quarrels. Estlake, for instance, proclaimed that the OC "fulfilled all the requirements of an ideal home of harmony" while it lasted. (4)

OC publications, documents, and diaries reveal, however, that the Community experienced many internal conflicts and tensions, contrary to its utopian image. In Free Love in Utopia (2001), historian Lawrence Foster stated that the OC faced particularly significant internal turbulence during its first decade of operation. He noted that early issues of the Community newspaper, the Circular, placed strong emphasis on obedience, unity, love, and other virtues designed to facilitate community building and harmony. Foster posited that this trend reflected a difficult transition to communal life. (5) As the OC became more secure in its effectiveness as an organization, its publications increasingly addressed instances of interpersonal conflict, apostasy, and mental illness among members. Personal diaries, memoirs, and documents also reveal the range of doubts, insecurities, jealousies, and resentments plaguing Community members on a regular basis. These sources, which arguably paint the most accurate portrait of Community life, indicate that many members did not see their lives as utopian at all.

According to contemporary publications and documents, the OC dealt with spiritual lapses, emotional disorders, interpersonal conflicts, and social resentments during its years in operation. Prospective members joined the Community after expressing ideological solidarity with Noyes and his fellow Perfectionists. In spite of shared doctrinal convictions, however, many new members wrestled with spiritual doubts and faced temptations to regress to their former ways of life. …

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