The story of the Oneida Perfectionists is largely the story of John Humphrey Noyes. But it to some extent also the story of the sweeping changes taking place in the United States in the first half of the 19th century. It is important to view Noyes and hi s followers against the backdrop of this period in order to understand their motivation for starting a utopian community and how that community fits into the larger utopian model established by the Puritans in the 17th century.
Noyes was born in Vermont in 1811 into an accomplished family. His father served in the United States House of Representatives, and he was a cousin of President Rutherford B. Hayes. Noyes experienced a religious conversion at a revival in 1831, during t he Second Great Awakening. The Awakening signaled the reaction of thousands of Americans to the enormous social and political changes taking place in the United States in the early 19th century. The country was moving away from the cohesive and localize d societies of the Revolutionary Age and entering the Age of Jackson, which was marked by splintering political factions and the upheaval of the Industrial Revolution. The Awakening looked back to what people felt was a simpler American life. And while the tenets of the Awakening differ significantly from those of the First Great Awakening and the Calvinists, like the First Great Awakening, it sought to create a community of believers at a time when many felt the traditional communal bonds were slippin g away. Noyes' own conversion prompted him to leave Vermont and to attend Andover and Yale, the school where many of the most prominent ministers of the Awakening received their training, and he became a minister.
Noyes grew intensely concerned about God's will for him. After tremendous study and what some believed to be an emotional breakdown, Noyes came to believe that God could not expect the impossible from his subjects, and that the perfection that he demande d was not only attainable, but that it could be accomplished by an inner sense of salvation. Noyes also believed that the millennium had actually arrived in 70 A.D. He based this on what he interpreted to be Christ's expectation that the millennium wou ld arrive within one generation of His death. In Noyes' understanding, therefore, the saints had been separated from sinners for generations, and no longer needed to fear sin. These two ideas working in combination, led Noyes to the belief that the King dom of Heaven could be realized on earth. He wrote in 1847: "The church on earth is now rising to meet the approaching kingdom in the heavens, and to become its duplicate and representative on earth."
As Noyes said, beyond an inner sense of salvation, in order to attain the kingdom of heaven on earth he and his followers would have to duplicate Heaven, and to do this they would have to follow Christ's teaching on what the reign of God would be like. O ne important tenet was that the community must be truly communist economically. All the members were equal, and each had a job that help to support the community as a whole.
But the most famous rule that Noyes imposed was based on Christ's teaching that there would be no marriage in Heaven. Therefore, Noyes believed that on earth all men were married to all women, and that the men and women in the community should be sexuall y intimate with a variety of partners. Noyes called this practice complex marriage. Complex marriage was essential to Noyes, because he felt that it moved the community beyond the traditionally divisive commitments to one partner or the family, and rais ed this love and loyalty inherent in those commitments to the level of the community, just as he envisioned it in Heaven. The practice of complex marriage was regulated by the practice of what Noyes called "male continence", a highly successful form of b irth control. Noyes needed to control pregnancy so he could control which members of the community parented children, and through this type of social engineering people his community with only the "best" individuals.
Noyes founded his first community based on these beliefs in Putney, Vermont in 1840, after his unusual belief's caused him to lose his license to preach in 1837. He was forced out of Putney in 1847 because of his group's radical sexual practices, and he and his family and followers went West to Oneida, New York, where in 1848 they founded the community of the Oneida Perfectionists.
In order to support itself, the community explored many different economic ventures, including farming, sawmilling, blacksmithing and silk production. But by far their most lucrative venture was the production of the steal traps being used by the Hudso n's Bay Company and other trappers throughout the United States to trap beaver. When the fur trade tapered off, the Oneidans turned to the production of silverware as their main source of inc ome. They were so financially productive, that by the time the community voted to disbanded in 1881, due to a decreasing commitment to the idea of complex marriage, the community's holdings were valued at over $600,000. Instead of dissolving entirely, the members transformed themselves into the Oneida Community, Limited, a joint stock company. They are know today simply as Oneida, Ltd..
The Oneida Perfectionists had a very different vision of utopian life than the Shakers and the Puritans, and yet their communities did share structural and ideological similarities. First, it believed that its members had entered into a special covenant with God. Secondly, this covenant required them to provide an example of righteous living for the rest of the world to observe. Third, that in this community the individual was to be sublimated to the community as a whole. Fourth, that in order to provide this example, the community must necessarily separate itself form the society at large and carve out a new place for themselves. Fifth, it revolved around the leadership of an au thoritarian figure who prescribed a very specific sets of rules for its members to follow. Finally, John Humphrey Noyes and the Oneida Perfectionists were responding, not just to the call of the West and the promise it held out, as Turner might have us believe, but just as Winthrop and the Puritans, to changing social conditions that undermined their understanding of themselves and their place in their society.