4.1. THE BURST OF UTOPIAN EXPERIMENTS
America was an auspicious place for social experimentation and the Second Great Awakening was the golden age of utopianism. The majority of American utopias were established on religious grounds, while the rest were scientific experiments. Driven by the belief that they act on God’s command, the religious fanatics isolated themselves from the rest of the world and struggled to build a literal paradise on the earth. But, ironically, utopianism was never envisioned as a democracy, but as a holy communism. The European monarchical system of social inequality was collapsing and people began to search for new forms of political and social organization. The natural tendency of the people was to head toward the other extreme, of absolute equality. Thus, while Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels supported communist ideology on rationalistic grounds, the religious fanatics used biblical arguments; the prototype of the religious utopias was the community of the early Christians.
Begun in 1804 in Pennsylvania, the community of …
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… compared with the utopia in Oneida. While Ann Lee or George Rapp taught their followers that sex is a deadly sin, John Humphrey Noyes encouraged the practice of sex as the ultimate way of glorifying God. The stark contrast between the visionaries who populated the awakenings says a lot about American religiosity.
Originary from Vermont, Noyes was an extremist since his youth. While he was a student at Yale he tried to find out the date of the Second Coming, which brought him into contact with the shocking doctrine of preterism. He quickly accepted the idea that Parousia already occurred in the year 70 AD and mankind lives in a new era, but he did not find an answer to why mankind was still not saved. If Parousia occurred in the 1st century and man is not free from sin, then Christianity is a lie. This, however, was an unacceptable conclusion. Noyes’s solution was the doctrine of perfectionism: true Christians can reach the sinless state in this life only if they surrender to God’s will. This relation with God purifies the soul of man and cancels the obligation to respect the moral standards or the laws of society.1054 Accordingly, in 1834 Noyes declared himself to be full of Holy Spirit and free from sin, and everything that he was going to do ever since was sinless because it came from a perfect heart. This blasphemy cost him the place at Yale and his license to preach.
Returned to Putney, Vermont, Noyes gathered a handful of followers and established a utopian community. Complex marriage started to be practiced in 1844 and the communal way of life was adopted two years later. The Noyesites came to share among themselves absolutely everything, including their partners of marriage. Allegedly, the monogamous marriage was no longer operating in the Millennial Age, being replaced by pantagamy – every man was married to every woman and vice versa. In a letter addressed to his future wife, Harriet, Noyes synthesized his conception about love and marriage:
I desire and I expect my yoke-fellow will love all who love God, whether they be male or female, with a warmth and strength of affection unknown to earthly lovers, and as freely as if she stood in no particular connection with me. In fact, the object with of my connection with her will be, not to monopolize and enslave her heart or my own, but to enlarge and establish both, in the free fellowship of God’s universal family.1055
For Noyes and his followers sex was a purifying activity carefully supervised and regulated. But in the eyes of the outsiders the practices of the Noyesites seemed like a resumption of the Roman Bacchanalia. In 1847, threatened with arrest for adultery and sexual immorality, they quickly left Putney and headed toward the “burned-over district” of New York. Here they obtained 40 acres of land at Oneida, their community thus taking the name of the place.
In 1848 Noyes published the work Bible Communism, in which he indicated the fundamental ideas of the community: preterism, complex marriage and communism. Noyes understood from Matthew 24 that the destruction of the Temple inaugurated a new epoch, in which all believers can have the experience of perfection. Any sinner is cleansed when he converts to Christianity. The establishment of the Millennium depends only on the will of the faithful, who must eliminate the pleasure driven by selfishness. If a man, said Noyes, seeks the pleasure of his partner and not his own, then that man is capable to free himself from the sin of selfishness. Man has to learn to control his body and his selfish passions, or else he is a threat to the welfare of the others.
Complex marriage allowed all the men of the community to “marry” (by turn) any woman, and all the women to marry any man. The only condition was the mutual consent. Unwanted pregnancies were avoided as much as possible. To this effect, the elders were religious models and sexual instructors for the youngsters. Women at menopause were encouraged to introduce the young men in the secrets of controlled sex, while the older men had the same obligation regarding the young women. Basically, it was a form of prostitution legitimated by religious fallacies. Noyes advised his devotees to have sex even with non-devotees in order to gain more followers. From 87 members in 1847, the number grew to 306 in 1878. Tirzah Miller, Noyes’s niece, described in detail in her journal the sexual experiences she had had with the other members, including her uncle. But from the perspective of an impartial observer Tirzah’s euphoric confessions rather picture a terrifying orgy in continuous form than an activity of religious worship.1056
Noyes tried to implement a form of eugenics based on an assumed spiritual heredity. “Stirpiculture” was a selective program of reproduction through which the community aimed to create an improved race of babies. The members who desired to become parents had to pass through a series of examinations, after which, based on the results, a committee was coupling them with the best partners. The experiment produced 58 children, nine of them being fathered by Noyes. The fundamental idea of stirpiculture was that the learned moral skills would be transmitted from parents to children, and the latter would progress even more in morality and purity. When the children were being weaned from mother’s milk, they were placed in a separate area and raised in a communal style. Their parents could visit them, but they were not allowed to become too close.1057
The system of mutual criticism was another unique feature of the Oneida experiment. Each member had to come in front of the community in order to be subjected to criticism during a general meeting. The purpose was correction, not punishment. Perfectionism was seen as a gradual process, in which the failures of the individual can be eliminated through collective correction. A rotating committee of four members evaluated by turn the qualities and the defects of all the others. The committee was replaced every three months, so that everyone could be both criticized and critic. It was a tough process, but appreciated by most of the members because it was helping them improve themselves.1058
Aside from these bizarre rules, the group worked extensively in horticulture, in an attempt to reproduce the social and material environment of the Garden of Eden. It proved to be a totally ineffective vision. After ten years they abandoned horticulture and turned to business and manufacture, inspired by the model of the Rappists. All the members of the community were working, each according to his own abilities and powers. They were usually changing their places of work through rotation in order to avoid monotony, discontent and the feelings of exploitation or discrimination. The rotation also had a role of culturalization.
The community survived until Noyes tried to pass the leadership of the community to his son Theodore, an atheist. Under the pressure of an arrest for statutory rape and the risk of an open revolt, in June 1879 Noyes ran to Niagara Falls, Ontario, never to return. Noyes’s departure was immediately followed by collapse: some members began to fight for the leadership, while others openly contested various practices. As a result, most of them left the community, abandoned complex marriage and normalized their married status. Only a few remained and reorganized the community as a purely economic joint-stock company.1059
The overwhelming majority of the utopian experiments eventually dissolved, both due to internal circumstances – failed prophecies, revolts, schisms or the attrition of doctrines – and external circumstances – rapid industrialization and scientific development. At the moment, the Hutterite, Amish and Mennonite colonies are a living example of the utopian experimentation. It is true that these groups have their roots in 16th-century Anabaptists and the Radical Reformation, but the guiding principles are largely the same: isolation and the practice of a so-called pure lifestyle. However, the concept of purity seems to be very malleable. For example, the Amish community chose to live in the conditions of the 17th century, rejecting or limiting all the subsequent technological innovations, including electricity. These are, allegedly, corrupt and they encourage the commission of sins. Likewise, the Hutterites use the products of the “decayed” society only in work purposes. In other words, science is used when it helps the doctrine and the community, and it is rejected when it becomes a threat to the unity of the group. This is pure hypocrisy combined with poor theological choices. There is no theological support for accepting a certain degree of material progress as coming from God and rejecting the subsequent degrees of progress as coming from the devil. The candle used by the Amish is as pure or impure as the light bulb. In the 15th century the Catholic Church condemned the printing press because it made the Bible available to everyone; then, in the 17th century, when the Amish communities were forming, the Adamites condemned the loom as the work of Satan and demanded a return to the Adamic innocence and the living without clothes. These examples show that the religious fanatics refuse or they are simply not capable of seeing that all the laws of nature come from the same God, but only their usage in one way or another can be categorized as evil or good. Hence, the utopias that promote a so-called return to a state of innocence or the isolation in a certain degree of knowledge are false utopias, because there is nothing ideal or holy in ignorance, stupidity, inaptitude or in being at the mercy of the Universe.
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