The Loss of Religious Allegiance among the Youth of the Oneida Community

By Roach, Monique Patenaude | The Historian, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

The Loss of Religious Allegiance among the Youth of the Oneida Community


Roach, Monique Patenaude, The Historian


"It's coming; it's bound to come; we are going to have a terrible smash up. Wait and see, Orrin Wright said ominously in 1879.(1) It was during this year that open rebellion and dissatisfaction within the Oneida Community, a unique religious commune in upstate New York, became too blatant to ignore. "It is simply fearful" Frank Wayland-Smith agreed. "One is lied about incessantly. It is hard to believe that we can ever be united again"(2) Such turmoil was a stark contrast to the decades of harmonious living that had become synonymous with the commune. But on 1 January 1881, Orrin Wright's prophecy became a reality when members voted to abandon the communal and religious nature of the group and restructure it as a joint stock company, Oneida Community, Limited. It was not an easy resolution for many members, but after several years of dissension most thought it the best option.

The breakup of the Oneida Community has been attributed to a myriad of factors: pressure from those outside the community who objected to what they perceived as immoral community practices; the aging of its dynamic leader, John Humphrey Noyes; and infighting among varied factions for control. While all of these factors were significant, this essay argues that the essential element to the decline of the community was the inability of the younger generation--adult children raised in the community--to subscribe to the religious covenant of their parents. This second generation, among them Noyes's own son and successor, rejected Noyes's teachings in favor of what they considered a more scientific and pragmatic philosophy.

Located near Syracuse, New York, the Oneida Community grew to more than 300 members from its inception in 1848 to 1881. The community offered a sanctuary of opportunity and prosperity, security and devotion during a time when life was changing rapidly in the "Burned-over District" amidst an influx of immigrants, new business and industry, and progressive ideas. In addition to the Oneida Community, the area was also home to a strong abolitionist movement, early women's rights advocates Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and Mormon founder Joseph Smith. A corridor that stretched from New England through New York and into Ohio, the Burned-over District also regularly experienced waves of fiery religious revivals in the early to mid-nineteenth century.(3)

At the heart of the Oneida philosophy was John Humphrey Noyes's particular version of Perfectionism. Traditional Perfectionism, which dated back to the early Christian Church, mandated complete avoidance of sin, insisting that only a few could attain salvation through celibacy, poverty, and asceticism. In the eighteenth century, John Wesley, founder of Methodism, popularized a more moderate form of Perfectionism in which redemption was possible through repentance and attempting to live without sin. Noyes, citing Matthew 5:48 ("Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect"), believed that attempting perfection was not enough; one must actually achieve it or one would not, by definition, be a Christian. A graduate of Yale Theological Seminary, Noyes lost his license to preach when he declared himself to have reached this state.(4)

"Bible Communism" based on Noyes's own interpretation of the New Testament, was the key to attaining perfection. Only by living communally, Noyes theorized, could people live unselfish lives as Christ had taught, sacrificing their individual will for the benefit of the group. This religious basis of the Oneida Community cannot be overemphasized. The crux of what the community offered was a refuge for likeminded people with radical, yet extremely devout, religious beliefs.(5)

The "forgetting of self" ideology permeated every aspect of life. "Property was held communally to eliminate material self-seeking; [members] dressed in simple clothes, tabooed jewelry, and the women cut their hair short, to eliminate vanity," recalled Pierrepont Noyes, one of Noyes's 13 children. …

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