A Better Life – Part Two
November 21, 2016
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The Oneida Community
Taking their name from that part of New York State that they chose to settle in, the Oneidans were a utopian, religious movement which was founded by John Humphrey Noyes in 1848. They had a number of beliefs which were unorthodox for the time, not least their adherence to the doctrine of Perfectionism – after religious conversion you became free from all sin without having to wait to shuffle off this mortal coil. Quite handy really. Unlike other religious communities, the Oneidans were not waiting for the Second Coming of Christ. It had already happened – around 70CE if you missed it – and his spirit had now entered Noyes’ band of adherents.
For a community which never had more than 300 members it was incredibly bureaucratic with 21 standing committees and 48 administrative sections which supervised the commune’s activities. All members were expected work with tasks which involved little skill rotating amongst the bulk of the commune. Women who wore their hair short and dressed in trousers or short-skirted tunics and more freedoms than their equivalents in the outside world would have, including the ability to develop and practise skills. They also played an active role in shaping commune policy and participated in its daily religious and business meetings.
A key feature of the community was the custom of mutual criticism. Held in front of the community as a whole initially but as it grew, in front of committees individuals were subjected to criticism. The goal was to eliminate unsocial behaviour, to provide an outlet for aggression and guilt and promote community cohesion. For those at the end of the torrent of criticism it could be a gruelling experience.
Their most controversial practice was what they called complex marriage and what we might term free love. Any member of the commune was free to have consensual sex with another –although I suspect it was strictly heterosexual – and children became a communal responsibility. Older women introduced adolescent males to sex as did older men with young girls. But there was a sinister controlling aspect to the arrangement rather than it being a free-spirited hippy love-in. Under a creepy eugenic process known as Stirpiculture which was started in 1869 couples were specially selected for features which would go towards producing perfect children. 58 children were sired under the programme, 9 by Noyes – wonder how he got selected?
Initially, the community had a hand-to-mouth existence, living off the fruits of the soil and by logging. What transformed their fortunes was the arrival of a member who gave them gratis the rights to the trap he had invented. What became known as the Oneida trap was acknowledged to be the finest in the land and became the foundation of a thriving industrial enterprise.
But it was the controversial complex marriage system that sounded the death knell for the community. Bowing to outside pressure in 1879 Noyes advised the commune to give the practice up – some 70 entered into traditional marriage arrangements. But this didn’t pacify his external critics. A group of clergymen issued a warrant for Noyes’ arrest on the count of statutory rape and he skipped over the border to Canada with a few of his most loyal followers, dying there in 1886.
The remaining members set up a joint stock company, Oneida Community Ltd, and it became a major producer of cutlery until it closed in 1995. The last original member of the community, Eliza Underwood, died in 1950 at the grand old age of one hundred.