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Oneida Handbook

Hand-book of the Oneida Community. Oneida, N.Y., 1871.

Oneida’s rules and regulations were both stringent and singular. The Handbook, given to each new member, covered every aspect of personal and business relations.

The Oneida men willingly offered themselves, as Noyes’s “true soldiers,” “to be used in forming any combination that might seem to you desirable.” The women, for their part, signed a document which stated “that we do not belong to ourselves in any respect, but that we do belong first to God, and second to Mr. Noyes as God’s true representative. Above all, we offer ourselves ‘living sacrifices’ to God and true Communism.”

Oneida Hand-Book

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John Humphrey Noyes (1811-1886) studied at Dartmouth, Andover, and Yale Divinity school. While at Yale, he came to a new understanding of the way of salvation which he labeled as Perfectionism. This view did not hold to total depravity as did the Calvinists' view, but it saw man as reaching a state of perfection or sinless-ness at conversion. When Noyes asserted this while studying at Yale, he was denied ordination.

In the early 1840s, Noyes founded the Putney Association, a group which adopted communism as its model, and lived by Noyes' teachings of "Mutual Criticism," "Complex Marriage" and "Male Continence."

Mutual Criticism was established to assure the integrity of the community by conformity to Noyes' morality. Members were subjected to criticism directed at traits which detracted from the unity of the group. This powerful instrument remained in place throughout Noyes’s leadership.

In 1848, having been driven out of Vermont on charges of adultery, Noyes escaped to New York State and set up a new community in Oneida. Members were carefully screened and Noyes set about perfecting his doctrine. It resembled the writings of Fourier in several ways. He stated, for example, that “loving companionship in labor, and especially the mingling of the sexes, makes labor attractive.”

Economically, the Oneida community followed a system of “true Communism” as described in Acts 2:44-45 in which the early Christians “held all things in common, and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need.”

The central tenet of Noyes’s Perfectionism was “complex marriage" in which each man was married to every woman and each woman to every man. Noyes rejected conventional theology and morality, declaring that salvation was a pleasurable process and sexual shame irrational. Monogamous marriage, wrote Noyes, was “a tyrannical institution that did not exist in Heaven and eventually would be abolished on earth.”

Not surprisingly, the Oneida Community was accused of immorality by outsiders. A contemporary journalist described complex marriage as an unprecedented “combination of polygamy and polyandry, with certain religious and social restraints.” The restraints were considerable, as Noyes’s theory of “stirpiculture,” a method of birth control based on male continence, ensured no unwanted children were conceived.