Free Love Tried

“That was a euphemism for [Oneida’s] Noyes, at the top, having ‘a joyful act of fellowship’ with any woman he fancied, including 13-year-olds.” Marvin Olasky

“Eventually, Oneidans rebelled and the [Communist] commune disintegrated, as dozens of other communes in the mid-19th century did.” Ibid

From free love to silverware

BOOKS | The failed ‘Bible Communism’ of Oneida, N.Y.

by Marvin OlaskyWorld magazine, August 6, Vol. 31, No. 16 – August 6, 2016

Ellen Wayland-Smith’s Oneida (Picador, 2016) shows how Yale-trained minister John Humphrey Noyes published a newspaper titled The Perfectionist and began claiming that he could attain perfect holiness by, among other things, instituting “free love” so men and women would not be tempted to steal or covet their neighbors’ spouses. The Oneida, N.Y., community he founded in 1848 practiced “Bible Communism” in which residents asserted community ownership of both property and bodies.

Noyes said “sexual love is not naturally restricted to pairs,” but the Oneida experience suggested the opposite. Wayland-Smith, a descendant of Noyes, writes that when a Mr. Howard decided to “interview” (the Oneida euphemism for sex) a young woman, Mrs. Howard “didn’t sleep for nearly a week, and cried a good deal of the time.” Also, when Seymour Newhouse did not want to share Mrs. Newhouse with a D.P. Nash, he assaulted Nash. Also, when Lemuel Bradley learned that Noyes was planning to impregnate a woman Bradley fancied, he “began to act like a madman.”

Oneidans, seeing that sexual anarchy didn’t work, gave Noyes authority to determine who could sleep with whom. Noyes placated Bradley by giving him permission to have sex with both Ellen and Philena Baker, two pretty, young sisters. Noyes decreed that teenagers should not mate willy-nilly in “horizontal” pairings: “In all safe, healthy fellowships the ascending fellowship must prevail.” That was a euphemism for Noyes, at the top, having “a joyful act of fellowship” with any woman he fancied, including 13-year-olds.

Wayland-Smith has some fun assessing her ancestor’s writing style: “With his unswerving instinct for coining awkward sexual metaphors,” Noyes once told his niece and sex partner Tirzah Miller that women’s varying prowess in making “social music” in bed resembled the difference in music produced by “a grand piano and a ten-penny whistle.” But her account overall is serious, because Oneida’s “Bible Communists” soon anticipated the totalitarianism of 20th-century atheistic Communists. When someone fell prey to “sticky love” (the desire to pair off permanently), they went before a “Criticism Committee” for confession and correction.

Other practices also proved unpopular. Mothers had to place weaned infants in the Children’s House and see them there only rarely—but when kids and moms both showed sticky love, the Criticism Committee sometimes banned visits. To cut down on unauthorized pregnancies, Noyes emphasized “amative intercourse” without ejaculation: Wayland-Smith comments again on his “unerring instinct for awkward sexual metaphors” and quotes Noyes comparing sex to firing a gun: “Better to fire in the air than to kill someone with it.”

Eventually, Oneidans rebelled and the commune disintegrated, as dozens of other communes in the mid-19th century did. Some Oneidans reconstituted themselves in 1880 as a corporation that soon became famous for producing silverware.

Peggy Noonan’s The Time of Our Lives (Twelve, 2015) takes us via her Wall Street Journal columns through the first 14 years of this millennium, with a few glances into the 1990s. One month after 9/11, she wrote about one middle-aged woman blessed with career, family, and wealth who “forgot she was lucky and blessed.” She said the same about our middle-aged country, noting we were on a pleasure cruise for the previous decade and “we thought our luck would hold.” While I’d like her to drop the “luck” and emphasize the “blessed,” her conclusion is accurate: “We were not morally serious.”

Roger Simon also attacks superficiality in I Know Best: How Moral Narcissism Is Destroying Our Republic, If It Hasn’t Already (Encounter, 2016). He rightly worries that in America now politicians and many others proclaim values, see themselves as perfect, and care little about the consequences. Noonan when young was Ronald Reagan’s best speechwriter: She learned that “the most moving speeches summon us to the cause of what is actually possible. Perfection in the life of man on earth is not.” —M.O.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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