History of Utopian Founder John Humphrey Noyes Part 1

About utopian founder John Humphrey Noyes, history and biography of the creator of the utopia the Oneida Community.




When something important happened in John Noyes's personal life, he tended to transform the event into a universal rule, which his followers--and there were once over 300 of them--would put into practice. For example, his wife's problem pregnancies motivated him to develop a method of birth control, and his desire for another woman became the spark for complex marriage, a system whereby every man in the community was married to every woman.

A homely man with red hair and freckles, Noyes nonetheless had tremendous charisma, which may partially explain his large following.

It was while studying theology at Yale that Noyes became convinced that the Second Coming of Christ had already occurred, in 70 A.D., and that man was capable of becoming perfect in this life. When he began to preach about perfectibility, especially his own (which he had experienced in a vision), he was expelled from the seminary and lost his license to preach. He preached anyway. One of his converts was Abigail Merwin; he fell in love with her, but she spurned him. His broken heart led him to two conclusions--that he and Abigail were united spiritually forever (even though she married a schoolteacher) and that marriage represented a narrow possessiveness not compatible with a Christian life. During this time, he preached in the New York slums, often sleeping in doorways or on the steps of the city jail.

Then, in 1838, contrary to his antimarriage views, he married a woman named Harriet Holton and moved to Putney, Vt., where a small group of followers gathered around him. When Harriet's five pregnancies resulted in only one live birth, Noyes began to think seriously about contraception. After considering the alternatives, he decided on male continence (making love without ejaculating). "It is as foolish and cruel to expend one's seed on a wife merely for the sake of getting rid of it as it would be to fire a gun at one's best friend merely for the sake of unloading it," he said. His wife liked the practice, and the members of the group took it up, too. Many considered it to be as great a concept as the telegraph.

In 1843 the Putney group, then numbering about 35, agreed to pool their property and live together. Mary Cragin, a sexy member of the group, was indirectly responsible for Noyes's idea of complex marriage. While she and Noyes were walking in the woods, she made a pass at him. Shaken but responsive, he discussed this with his wife and Mary's husband. They agreed to a four-person marriage. The other members of the group all eventually married each other, too.

In 1847 Noyes was arrested for adultery and released on bail. He jumped bail and moved to New York, where he and his group formed the Oneida Community, which lasted over 30 years. Toward the end, Noyes left the community and went to Canada, where he died in 1886.

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