Noyes, John Humphrey (1811-1886)

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John Humphrey Noyes (1811-1886)


Founder of the oneida community

Perfectionism. John Humphrey Noyes was born in Brattleboro, Vermont, on 3 September 1811. He had a conversion experience in 1831, after which he changed his career plans from law to the ministry. He studied theology, first at Andover Theological Seminary and then at Yale Divinity School. In February 1834 he underwent a second conversion experience that he believed set him apart forever. As he later explained, all people were born to sin; some, however, could have a converting experience. A chosen few had a second, more thorough converting experience after which it became possible for them to follow Christs command in Matt. 5:48: Be you perfect, even as my Father in heaven is perfect. In the terms of the day, Noyes became a perfectionist, or someone who claimed to have attained sinlessness.

Bible Communism. Noyes converted a few friends and family members to perfectionism. On 28 June 1838 he married a perfectionist, Harriet Holton. By working with this small group, then living in Putney, Vermont, Noyes developed his ideas of how perfect people ought to live. Perfectionists were biblical people, accepting revelation as found in Christian Scriptures, although, being perfect, they did not need to go to church or observe any rules designed to bring them closer to God. Perfectionists were communists, in the sense of having an economic system in which all worked for the common good and all were entitled to common support. They were also communal rather than familial people. Adults could share sex with each other, not just with one spouse, and children were considered offspring of the whole community. When the attorney general of Vermont heard that the perfectionists were practicing complex marriage, as Noyes called it, he tried to prosecute the religious leader for adultery. In 1848 Noyes and nearly one hundred perfectionists moved to Oneida, New York. There they could practice Bible communism and develop a perfect society as a bridgehead over which Christ would return to earth.

Prosperity. Several forces contributed to Oneidas development. Oneida was so far from major population centers that during the Civil War government officials neglected to register its men for the draft. The community also stuck firmly to its priorities. The members experimented with several ways of making a living and operated small factories turning out traveling bags, animal traps, canned fruit and vegetables, and tin-plated spoons. Instead of using their profits on consumer goods, Oneidans simplified their lives. They reduced housekeeping and cooking to a minimum and encouraged women to cut their hair and to wear trousers and short dresses instead of elaborate hairstyles and cumbersome stylish clothes. Thus, the Oneidans had more money left for expenses deemed important to the community, and they also had the time to read, study, and improve their minds. By 1875 approximately three hundred people lived in the community.

Complex Marriage. Outsiders feared that complex marriage would lead to sexual license. In some ways Oneida was very conventional: none of its records mentions homosexuality, and some individuals were expelled for molesting children or harassing women. Noyes regarded sex as he regarded all human activities, as something that should be subordinated to individual and community perfectionist efforts. Young adults received sex education. Men were especially taught to control themselves to avoid causing pregnancy and to make sex equally pleasurable for women. Men asked women to be their partners through a third party. (In this manner Oneidan men found it easier to take a possible no for an answer.) The third-party method had the side effect of bringing one other person into each liaison, giving Noyes or other leaders opportunities to evaluate couples and terminate relationships considered harmful to the community.

Breakup. Changing times threatened the Oneidan community. In the early years the community was so poor that it discouraged people from having children. In 1869, when Oneida was on firmer financial ground, Noyes embarked on a program of stirpiculture, encouraging the most nearly perfect among the community to become parents. Problems developed when parents insisted on keeping their children to themselves rather than raising them communally. Parents also began to prepare their children to get ahead in a competitive world rather than to find their place in a communal one. Stirpiculture eroded Noyess authority, and in 1873 a young reformer named Anthony Comstock organized the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. It was a sign of a renewed attack on experiments in sexual relations such as complex marriage. In 1879, when he heard a rumor that he might be arrested for violating New York marriage laws, Noyes escaped to Canada and died there seven years later. During his lifetime he wrote various books on his religious beliefs, including Male Continence (1848) and Scientific Propagation (1873).

Corporation. Noyess departure brought into the open the distance between those who wanted communal life and those who wanted family life. After Noyess death Oneida became a corporation, with the former community members owning individual shares. In order to create the corporation, Oneidas business leaders studied the various products the community made and determined the future lay with the tin-plated spoons. In January 1881 each former Oneidan received shares of stock in Oneida, Ltd. (capitalized at $600,000), which has since become a silverware manufacturer.


Spencer Klaw, Without Sin: The Life and Death of the Oneida Community (New York: Penguin, 1993).

Noyes, John Humphrey

views updated May 23 2018


NOYES, JOHN HUMPHREY (18111886), American religious reformer and founder of the Oneida Community. Born to a prominent family in Brattleboro, Vermont, John Humphrey Noyes graduated from Dartmouth College and attended Andover and Yale theological seminaries, studying under Nathaniel W. Taylor. Because of his unorthodox "perfectionist" beliefs, Noyes soon lost his ministerial license and became the focus of opprobrium and ridicule. He argued that Christ's second coming and the end of the Jewish dispensation had occurred in 70 ce, when the Temple was destroyed in Jerusalem. Henceforth, "perfect holiness," a right attitude that would lead to right works, was literally possible on earth as part of the establishment of the kingdom of God.

These beliefs, which Noyes attempted to propagate throughout New York State and New England, attracted little support. In 1836 Noyes returned to his family estate in Putney, Vermont, and started a Bible school, which became the Putney Community. By 1845 the group had moved toward full communal ownership of property, inspired by the Christian communism of Acts 2:4445. An effort in 1846 to introduce a form of group marriage led to expulsion from Putney in 1847 and the establishment of the Oneida Community in central New York State in 1848.

At Oneida, and at the smaller related community established in 1851 at Wallingford, Connecticut, the practices that had originated at Putney became fully institutionalized. Central to these was "complex marriage." Oneida Community members, who eventually numbered more than two hundred adults, all considered themselves married to each other in an "enlarged family." Men and women exchanged sexual partners frequently, and exclusive romantic attachments were broken up as threats to group stability. Members lived, ate, and worked together, had a system of communal child rearing, and held all but the most basic property in common. Government was achieved through a daily religious and business meeting, a method of group feedback and control called "mutual criticism," and an informal hierarchy known as "ascending and descending fellowship." A system of birth control called "male continence," technically coitus reservatus, was used exclusively until the final decade of the community's existence, when a "stirpiculture," or eugenics, experiment was inaugurated among some members. At Oneida there was far less sex-role stereotyping than in comparable American groups. Men and women worked alongside each other, and women served in positions of authority over men in certain jobs.

Complex marriage existed at Oneida from 1848 until 1879, when it was renounced because of internal dissatisfactions and external pressure. Noyes, with a few of his followers, had meanwhile fled to Canada, where he lived until his death in 1886. In 1881 the group also gave up its communistic system of economic organization, reorganized as a joint-stock corporation, and went on to become a successful business, best known for its silverware. Throughout his career, Noyes was primarily concerned with disseminating his religious ideas through the newspapers that he and his associates published. Subsequent scholars and popular writers, however, have been most fascinated by his unorthodox sexual ideas and practices, which sometimes have been held up as a prototype for the future.


The only comprehensive biography that captures the spirit of John Humphrey Noyes and his communal efforts is Robert Allerton Parker's A Yankee Saint: John Humphrey Noyes and the Oneida Community (New York, 1935). The most accessible primary materials are found in George Wallingford Noyes's two edited documentary volumes, The Religious Experience of John Humphrey Noyes (New York, 1923) and John Humphrey Noyes: The Putney Community (Oneida, N. Y., 1931), and in Free Love in Utopia: John Humphrey Noyes and the Origin of the Oneida Community (Urbana, Ill., 2001), compiled by George Wallingford Noyes and edited by Lawrence Foster. Two classic and complementary nineteenth-century studies that analyze the Oneida Community within the context of the communitarian movement of which it was a part are John Humphrey Noyes's History of American Socialisms (Philadelphia, 1870) and Charles Nordhoff's The Communistic Societies of the United States (New York, 1875). For the most important primary source material on Noyes and his various communal ventures, serious scholars must consult the periodicals that he and his associates published between 1834 and 1879. These went by many different titles, including The Circular (Brooklyn and Oneida, N. Y., and Wallingford, Conn., 18511864), and are available through Uni-versity Microfilms, Ann Arbor, Mich., or the Syracuse University Library, the official repository of Oneida materials.

Lawrence Foster (1987 and 2005)

John Humphrey Noyes

views updated May 18 2018

John Humphrey Noyes

John Humphrey Noyes (1811-1886) was the founder of the Oneida Community, one of the notable experimental societies of his century.

John Humphrey Noyes, born on Sept. 3, 1811, in Brattleboro, Vt., was raised in an individualistic family by a religious mother and a father who became an agnostic, succeeded in business, and served in the U. S. Congress. Noyes graduated from Dartmouth College in 1830 and entered law. Converted by revivals, he attended Andover Theological Seminary and then Yale College. His studies centered on biblical passages which persuaded him that one could be free of sin.

In 1834 Noyes experienced a "second conversion"; his assertion that he had achieved perfection cost him his place at Yale. His essential point, expounded in The Perfectionist, was that, being free of sin, he was restricted by man-made laws. Also, God, being composed of man and woman, required both in full relation for salvation from sin. As early as 1834 Noyes expressed dissatisfaction with formal marriage.

This view matured into an article of faith but did not impede Noyes's marriage in 1838 to Harriet A. Holton. In 1846, when his religious followers first engaged in "complex marriage," they created a scandal. Noyes was arrested and faced charges of adultery. He ran off to Oneida, N.Y., in an area noted for its social and religious experimenters. He was joined by the greater number of his followers in 1848. Noyes's writings of that year, Bible Communism and Male Continence, along with The Berean (1847), summed up his views.

The Oneida community outraged its neighbors and precipitated several scandals, yet its several hundred members settled into an equitable society, living together in a vast house of many chambers, with other establishments for housekeeping and industry. The sales of a steel trap gave the colony economic security. Efforts were made to develop other colonies, and a small one at Wallingford, Conn., succeeded.

"Father" Noyes was absolute dictator of Oneida. Despite defections, the community solidified through such traditions as public confession of egotistical behavior. Noyes pioneered in selective childbearing, expressing his principles in Scientific Propagation (ca. 1873). A student of communities, he concluded in his History of American Socialisms (1870) that only religiously based communities could flourish. In time, however, elements at Oneida tired of public disapproval. In 1879 Noyes himself prepared plans to dissolve the community, and in 1881 it was reorganized as a corporation. Noyes, to avoid legal suits, moved to Canada. He died at Niagara Falls, Ontario, on April 13, 1886.

Further Reading

Excellent introductions in Noyes's own words are provided in two works edited by George W. Noyes, Religious Experience of John Humphrey Noyes, Founder of the Oneida Community (1923) and John Humphrey Noyes: The Putney Community (1931). Noyes is sympathetically treated in William A. Hinds, American Communities (1878; rev. ed. 1908), and critically treated in Gilbert Seldes, The Stammering Century (1928). See also Pierrepont Noyes, My Father's House: An Oneida Boyhood (1937).

Additional Sources

Thomas, Robert David, The man who would be perfect: John Humphrey Noyes and the Utopian impulse, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1977. □

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