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 ugely 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 person’s intellect. 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 im 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 ommunity, 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 weaknesses. 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 hey 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 Earth. 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 industries. 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, ltd. 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 ill 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 vents 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.