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The Dissolution of the Oneida Community

The Dissolution of the Oneida Community

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Anna livia Cullinan. Originally submitted for Dissertation at Trinity College, Dublin, with lecturer Dr Geary in the category of Historical Studies
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Anna livia Cullinan. Originally submitted for Dissertation at Trinity College, Dublin, with lecturer Dr Geary in the category of Historical Studies

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 29, 2012
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The Dissolution of the Oneida CommunityIntroduction
During the nineteenth century so many ‘enthusiasms’ swept like fires across thewestern half of New York State that the region has been called the ‘burned-over district’.
It was here in 1848 that John Humphrey Noyes founded the Oneida Community. Basedon his perfectionist beliefs it practiced a system of ‘Bible Communism’.
This was anattempt to achieve life without sin on earth through communal living. So comprehensivewas this idea of communal living that even watches were owned by the Communityrather than by those whom carried them.
For thirty-three years the members livedtogether in what was called the Mansion House, an imposing red-brick building,supported by agriculture and a steel trap industry.
 Their embrace of communal livingalso extended beyond issues of property and wealth to marriage and family. Noyes believed marriage and monogamous sex were selfish and thus hindered one’s relationshipwith God. To overcome this he developed a system of ‘complex marriage’ through whicheach member of the Community was heterosexually married to one another.
Thishowever was not ‘Free Love’ and Noyes was careful to distinguish between the two.
Although allowed to engage sexually with any member of the Community the choice of  partner was heavily regulated by Noyes through a system of ‘mutual criticism’ and‘ascending fellowship’. ‘Mutual criticism’ was the process whereby the community wasregulated through weekly meetings where individuals were critiqued to assist them in
Maren Lockwood Carden,
Oneida: Utopian Community to Modern Corporation
, (Baltimore, 1969), p 23.
For the full meaning and use of this term within the Oneida Community see Spencer Klaw,
Without Sin:The Life and Death of the Oneida Community,
(New York, 1993), pp.54-55; and
 Bible communism : acompilation from the annual reports and other publications of the Oneida Association and its branches; presenting, in connection with their history, a summary view of their religious and social theories,
(Brooklyn, 1853), Syracuse University Library Department of Special Collections; Oneida CommunityCollection, (http://library.syr.edu/digital/collections/b/BibleCommunism/), 4 March 2011, pp. 82-91;
Spencer Klaw,
Without Sin: The Life and Death of the Oneida Community
, (New York, 1993), p. 1.
For the most comprehensive economic history of the Oneida Community see Maren Lockwood Carden,
Oneida: Utopian Community to Modern Corporation
, (Baltimore, 1969).
For a comprehensive description of ‘‘complex marriage’’ see Richard DeMaria,
Communal Love at Oneida: A Perfectionist Vision of Authority, Property and Sexual Order,
(New York, 1978),
andMaren Lockwood Carden,
Oneida: Utopian Community to Modern Corporation
, (Baltimore, 1969), pp. 49-61.
For further explanation of the distinction between ‘Free Love’ and ‘‘complex marriage’’ see MarenLockwood Carden,
Oneida: Utopian Community to Modern Corporation
, (Baltimore, 1969), pp. 52-54.
growing closer to God.
This concept of being closer to God also led to ‘‘ascendingfellowship’’ where the community was divided on a spectrum of spirituality with Noyesof course the closest link to God.
 Those closest to Noyes and God on this spectrum heldmuch power in the Community. Through ‘mutual criticism’ they regulated the sexual pairings of the Community. The result of this exercise of power was that the majority of sanctioned sexual interludes were between those higher in the ‘ascending fellowship’with the younger members of the Community in the hope of guiding them closer to God.
The Oneida Community survived over three decades with this system of ‘BibleCommunism’ and grew from its initial fifty members to over three hundred.
In 1881 theCommunity dissolved and became a joint stock company, an event which was ultimatelycaused by the reshaping of public sexual culture in late-nineteenth century America.Public sexual culture refers to the representation of sex and sexuality in the publicforum. In the nineteenth century the dominant public forum was printed word. In theyears between the American Revolution and the age of Jacksonian democracy there arosea widespread interest in journalism of every conceivable kind. Religious, literary,economic and, above all, political topics including sexuality were discussed so widelythat newspapers and magazines cropped up across the country. This print industrymatured and was prolific over the course of the nineteenth century.
The public forum of  print was primarily created by and catered for those of the middle class, which wasequally growing during this period.
As such it should be noted that when discussing the public sexual culture of the nineteenth century in America, especially when drawing fromnewspapers, one is predominantly speaking about the public sexual culture of the middleclass. It is also important to further clarify the distinction between public sexual cultureand private sexual culture. Historians of sexual culture in early America have long
(Oneida, 1876),Syracuse University Library Department of Special Collections; Oneida Community Collection,(http://library.syr.edu/digital/collections/j/JohnHumphreyNoyes,ThePutneyCommunity/chap12.htm), 4March 2011.
Maren Lockwood Carden,
Oneida: Utopian Community to Modern Corporation
, (Baltimore, 1969), p 52.
For more on the sexual politics and its role in government at the Oneida Community see Pierrepont Noyes,
 A Godly Heritage,
(New York, 1958).
The exact membership varies according to sources these figures are the most regularly offeredapproximates and used by Maren Lockwood Carden in
Oneida: Utopian Community to ModernCorporation
, (Baltimore, 1969), p 41.
John R. Betts, ‘Sporting Journalism in Nineteenth-Century America’,
 American Quarterly
, Vol. 5, No. 1(Spring, 1953), p 40.
Mary P. Ryan,
Cradle of the Middle Class: The Family in Oneida County
, (New York, 1981), pp. 5, 153.
attended to a public/private dichotomy for the simple reason that most sexual behaviour is predominantly confined to a very private realm, usually beyond direct observation,whereas the rules, norms, prescriptions and laws, that is to say the ways in which asociety attempts to regulate sex, have to be part of the public realm to be effective.
Therefore although public sexual culture and private sexual culture are connected theyare not the same.The public sexual culture of the nineteenth century in America was constantly re-shaping. In the early to mid-nineteenth century it took the form of a broad discussion withmultiple opinions represented. In the mid-nineteenth century public sexual cultureincreasingly divided the various ideas and representations of sexuality into thoseconsidered conservative and, in contrast, those perceived as liberal. Both conservativeand liberal ideas of sexuality were represented in the public forum of print but thenuances of ideas about sexuality and sexual expression, so apparent in the earlienineteenth century, were increasingly simplified to fit into either of these categories. Bythe late nineteenth century conservative ideas of sexuality had come to dominate publicsexual culture. No longer were both sides represented equally in the public forum of  print. The conservative side in public sexual culture adopted the language of thenormative, giving the sexually liberal side the place of deviant. Those who espoused whatwere considered sexually conservative ideas came to dominate public sexual culture andthey turned their attention to the very issue of public sexual culture itself. The publicsexual culture of the late nineteenth century increasingly took the form of attack. Theelements of society which espoused conservative values used the public forum of print toexpress their ideas and attack sexually liberal ones and also sought to remove therepresentation of what they perceived as sexually liberal ideas from the public forumaltogether.
Patricia Cline Cohen, , ‘Sex and Sexuality: The Public, the Private and the Spirit Worlds’,
 Journal of the Early Republic
, Vol. 24, No. 2, (Summer, 2004), p 310.
These conclusions were drawn from the collective reading of over four hundred newspaper articles from1848 to 1881, the following citations are simply a few examples, of the many available, that illustrate thesedevelopments in public sexual culture; for the growing divide between conservative and liberal ideas of sexuality see ‘Free Love’,
 Boston Investigator,
(Boston, MA), 7 August 1867, Issue 14, col A.;
‘Free Love-Marriage’,
 Boston Investigator,
(Boston, MA), 14 August 1867, Issue 15, col A; for the simplification of ideas and change in language see ‘Death To Be Abolished’,
 Detroit Daily Free Press
, (Detroit, MI), 27May 1857; ‘A Remarkable Community’,
 Bangor Daily Whig & Courie
, (Bangor, ME), Saturday, August19 1865, Issue 42, col A; and ‘Running Riot’,
 Detroit Daily Free Press
, (Detroit, MI), 6 June 1865; for anexample of conservative dominance in print and attack see ‘VIEW OF HORATIO SEYMOUR--THE NEW

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