Culture from Cranium
Throughout the history of anthropology it has been a popular view
that people are largely products of their culture, and not the other way
around. Yet culture is an exclusively human phenomenon. While it is true
that everyone lives within a cultural context, and that context accounts
for varying degrees of who that person is (indeed, there are those who say
that certain people are wholly products of their culture), the reverse is
also true. Each person, then, has some degree of impact on the culture
around him or her. The current culture of this country, for example, was
hugely shaped by the intellects and ideals of those who founded it, even of
the original European settlers. Just as a person can be almost fully
created by their culture, so can a culture result almost fully from one
There have been many cases of such things happening throughout
history. Some have met with success, and some not. For the purposes of this
essay I have chosen to examine one case, which, considering it’s sharp
deviation from the cultural context from which it came, was surprisingly
successful. The Oneida Community, in Oneida, New York was a unique
religious communist society in the mid-nineteenth century. The community
was based on the radical religious beliefs, and biblical interpretations of
John Humphrey Noyes.
Noyes grew up in a well to do household in Vermont. He Graduated
from Dartmouth College in 1830 with high honors. Up to that point he had
been cynically agnostic. But in 1831 he attended a revival with his mother
lead by Charles Finney, the leader of a large religious movement in the
northeast. Deeply moved he decided to enter the ministry. Noyes attended
the Andover Theological Seminary and Yale Divinity School. It was at Yale
that he started developing his controversial views, which then prevented
him from being ordained. He decided that when one accepted Jesus that they
were then totally without sin and had achieved a state of spiritual
perfection. He also became convinced, as he wrote in a letter to a friend,
that he was God’s agent on Earth. Returning to Vermont, Noyes assembled a
core group of 32 followers, consisting of his family and some friends,
calling themselves the Putney Association. In 1844 the group adopted
communism. They owned three houses, a store, a small chapel for collective
worship, and ran two farms. Two years later they began practicing the
systems of Mutaual Criticism and Male Continence. These practices lead to
the persecution of the group by the surrounding communities, culminating in
the arrest and indictment of Noyes. As a result the group relocated to
Oneida, New York, where they continues their way of life successfully for
over thirty years.
Noyes’ practical theology, and, subsequently, that of the Oneida
group, rested on four main ideas: Mutual Criticism, Complex Marriage, Male
Continence, and Stirpiculture. Mutual Criticism was a system where, if one
member of the community was seen as acting of thinking in a way that
detracted from the family, for the community as a whole was viewed ad a
community, they would sit silent in front of a group of ten to fifteen men
and women who would openly and honestly discuss the persons strengths and
Complex Marriage meant that every man was married to every woman,
and vice versa. It was considered selfish for two people to have an
exclusive marriage. This meant that gender was the only boundary for sexual
access between members of the community. However, if two people wished to
live together they first had to attain each other’s consent through a third
person. If two people were seen to be developing an exclusive relationship
they would be separated. It was believed that in Heaven “every dish is free
to every guest.” And that what was true in Heaven would now be true on
Mail Continence was a technique that allowed a man not to ejaculate
durring of after sexual intercourse. This served many purposes. The
Onidians did not believe in contraceptives, so this was a good method of
preventing unwanted births, in which respect it was actually quite
effective. An unwanted, unplanned pregnancy was not only avoided because of
the mothers; unnecessary ejaculation was frowned upon as just as much a
form of onanism as masturbation. Also, pregnancy could create exclusive
bonds between parents.
Stirpiculture was a form of eugenics. Noyes felt that certain
people were closer to God than others. Those people would be elected to
have children. Acceptance was not obligatory and the committee tried to
pair people with people that they liked.
At Oneida the group bought forty acres of farm land and a saw mill.
Within a year they had bought more land, built a communal mansion,
appointed administrative committees, and started a number of small craft
By 1876 there were roughly 300 members, some of whom were living in
Wallingford, New York at a significantly large branch commune. The branch
was having some internal problems, so Noyes left Oneida to take care of it,
leaving his son, Dr Theodore Noyes. Theodore was an agnostic and ran the
Oneida commune strictly. The strain on the community lead to factioning
that could not be remedied by the time John Noyes returned later that year.
In 1879 the surrounding communities started a campaign against the Onidians.
The group decided to give up the practice of Complex Marriage while they
could still preserve the value of the idea instead of being defeated. Many
of them married soon after, but Complex Marriage was, by then, such an
important part of how their lives were lived that it was impossible for
them to return to their normal state of operation. In 1881 the commune was
abandoned and replaced by a joint- stock company called Oneida Community,
Given that the Oneida community was as successful as it was, had it
not been for outside interference, it may have continued to today. But what
would it be like? It did not last long enough to establish a pattern of
kinship. How would incest be defined in this odd family? These questions
will never be answered, but what we do know about them is fascinating.
Their religion was bold and their lives were vital. They do not fit the
stereotype of rigid communistic religious fanatics.
Their beliefs were atypical of Christianity. Central to their
theology were the ideas that men and women were equal, that the three parts
of the trinity were not, and that humans were intrinsically good.
God was supposed to be male and female, although the male side was
somewhat stronger. Still, women in the Oneida society were regarded as
equals to men and shared equally in administration of the commune. They saw
the Father and Son as being somehow androgynous, and the Holy Spirit as
simply an emanation from the other two.
The most pivotal teaching was that humans are free of sin. Sex was
not seen as a sin, although excess sexual activity could be seen as lacking
is self-restraint and therefor looked down upon. But it was also believed
that perfection was not easily attained. To resolve this paradox they drew
a dichotomy between body and spirit. “While the human spirit could ‘die to
sin,’ the body might still be prone to bad habits.” Humans, being created
by God, are good. But since we live on the earth, which has been invaded by
Satan, we must contend with the sin of our earthly flesh.
The Sabbath was not observed, worship was a part of each person’s
daily life. Worship was also a very personal, unstructured activity, as
everyone was to have their own personal relationship with God.
In general life was fairly relaxed. No one worked for more than six
hours a day, and most positions had two people working on them so that one
could cover for the other if need be. Leisure time was often filled with
some form of live entertainment as artistic study was encouraged. Regular
events like meals and meetings were often rescheduled and jobs were rotated
simply for variety. Children were placed in a nursery, watched by both men
and women, after they had been weaned. Regarding that, however, Charles
Nordhoff wrote of his visit to Oneida that the children seemed somehow
unhappy for the lack of a mother and father.
The Oneidians seem to have been a cheeful, relaxed people. Very few
ever left the community. This is even true of the children, who were often
sent away to college and graduate school.
In a time of huge demographic change in the area , their community
offered a sense of stability. The practice of Complex Marriage was actually
the biggest deterrent. Once people became used to that, though, they were
usually comfortable members of the community. To aid in that capacity, new
members would go through a period of Ascending Fellowship, which was also
used to introduce people into adulthood. An older member of the community
would request to mentor a younger one, or a newcomer, in their spiritual
growth. This would entail teaching them the sexual practices of the
community. Because of this most women who became spiritual mentors would be
post-menopausal to prevent accidental pregnancies. The younger person would
always be obligated to accept by reason of seniority.
The Oneida Community prospered for three decades. Were it not for
extraneous circumstances they might still be around. Their lifestyle,
religion, and views were unique and alien, yet their numbers steadily grew
for a long time. They fully embraced everything they believed in, and yet
their culture was brand new. Some might say that groups like the Oneida
community are just sects or cults, but the people at Oneida did create a
culture, a culture that did not evolve in the conventional sense, but one
that was deliberately designed.
1) Foster, Lawrence 1991 “Women, Family, and Utopia”. Syracuse, New York: .
Syracuse Univ. Press
2) Nordhoff, Charles 1966 The Communistic Societies of the United States.
3) Complex Marriage and Male Continence. Christian Tantra
4)”The Shakers/Oneida Community” Randall Hillebrand, (part two)
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