welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please


John Humphrey Noyes: Philosopher of Bible Communism

David White contemplates a life of sex and sermons.

Those who know his name at all associate John Humphrey Noyes (1811-86) with the Oneida Community, an experiment in communal living in the tradition of Christian Perfectionism. A business which developed from the community originally made animal traps but later became famous for tableware. Its present descendent, Oneida Limited, includes a brief history of the commune on its website, but gets no more specific than saying, “They called themselves Perfectionists and, being logical and literal, they proceeded to substitute for the small unit of home and family and individual possessions, the larger unit of group-family and group-family life.” In fact, as is generally known, all adult males were considered husbands of each adult female and could apply to enjoy sexual relations. Enjoy, because for them, the purpose of sex was pleasure, community-building and spiritual progress.

The story of the Oneida Community (1848-80) has been told many times, often with diligence and occasionally with an excess of sensationalism or prudishness. However it’s told, what tends to get lost in the story is the extraordinary philosophical skill with which one man, working alone and at times against formidable opposition, was able to successfully found a community based on the union of religious enthusiasm and sexual passion. Of the many who experimented with alternatives to conventional marriage in the early 19th century, only the Mormons, begun in Palmyra in upstate New York, less than 100 miles from Oneida, were as successful for as long. But the Mormons were initially driven from New York, and eventually forced to publically renounce their polygamy.

The shame that still attaches to any deviation from the prevailing sexual norm, especially concerning monogamy, is indicated by the sanitized accounts of the community one finds in the company’s literature, in history books aimed at school children, and in tourist material. The Mansion House at Oneida, which once was home to over 300 people, is still standing and welcomes visitors. When the original community was flourishing, tourists were brought in regularly, and Noyes kept up a relentless promotional campaign, mainly out of the printing operation in Brooklyn, 340 miles away. The Archives of Syracuse University maintains on-line facsimiles of much of Noyes’ exposition of his philosophy, but the shame factor led the modern tableware company to destroy many of the papers, letters and journals of the House’s original inhabitants.

One of the charges which eventually forced Noyes to flee to Canada was statutory rape. There is no doubt that Noyes had sex with girls who were legally under age, and that his defense would never have prevailed in court; but the clarity and cogency of his reasoning is philosophically interesting. Remember that sex in Oneida was a spiritual transaction, so it was necessary that young people be initiated by someone who was spiritually advanced, and almost always this meant chronologically older by more than a few years. Pairings had to be approved by a committee, but Noyes effectively reserved the virgin girls for himself and his cronies.

Now consider his argument. First, Noyes complained that limiting sex to conventional marriage arrangements makes no provision for the sexual appetite at just the time it’s strongest. He claimed that puberty commences at fourteen, but the average age of marriage was twenty-four. Thus, according to convention, most people face a decade of sexual starvation at just the time they most want sex. (This was even harder for females, because they had even less opportunity of choosing their time of marriage than men.) Of course, people don’t obey the prohibition on sex outside of marriage, but this discrepancy is the source of prostitution, disease and masturbation. Defenders of the conventional system might point out that pregnancy at such a young age as fourteen is problematic, physically and economically. But Noyes had thought of this objection. In the Oneida system contraception was strictly enforced, and should a pregnancy occur, by accident or by permission, the child was provided for by the community under its communist programme.

The main negative, which Noyes does not mention in his writings, but which was often raised as an objection, is that the adolescents who so much want to have sex want to have it with someone their own age, not with someone twenty or thirty years older. Noyes would answer that only he and a few other men had the skills needed to sexually initiate young girls, and that young males should practice with post-menopausal women until they learned how to avoid ejaculation. Noyes believed that the practice of ‘male continence’, as he called it, was useful both as a way to enhance sexual pleasure and as a method of contraception. The available surviving evidence supports Noyes. Noyes believed that both women and men enjoy intercourse more without ejaculation, because what men desire most is to penetrate many times, and what women desire most is prolonged love-making. Male ejaculation tends to cut the session short. More importantly, perhaps, Noyes believed in self-control. For males, sexual intercourse is under control until the final phase; thus the ability to avoid ejaculation is an instance of the great virtue of self-control, admired by philosophers since antiquity.

In Noyes’ telling, sex becomes a spiritual art form, far removed from animal instinct. But Noyes clearly recognized that sex serves two functions, the amative and the reproductive, and that these functions needed to be regulated in different ways. Unlike the Shakers, who relied entirely on recruitment to perpetuate the community, the Oneida group allowed for reproductive sex as needed, and eventually started a eugenics programme. More generally, Noyes established himself in the middle of the 19th century as a pioneer in women’s rights and reproductive freedom.

If we think of the moralist as an ideologue of conventionally approved behaviour, then Noyes was no moralist. Someone who has to flee the country to avoid legal prosecution is a poor candidate for defender of the received moral standard. However, there is another way to understand the moralist. The moralist is responsible for coaching people on how to maximize their life satisfaction, as philosophers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bertrand Russell have attempted. Noyes excelled in this area, partly in the boldness of his vision, but also in the strictness of his reading of the Bible and in his success at instantiating the whole scheme in a real-life community which was economically self-sufficient, and which survived for more than thirty years in its original form. What is truly remarkable is how explicit and radical Noyes was willing to be in printed material distributed to the public.

Religion and Rationalization

Noyes is rarely mentioned as a philosopher, but he is acknowledged as a utopian thinker of note. His monumental History of American Socialisms (1870) was well received at the time and continues to be respected. To understand Noyes’ philosophical accomplishment is to understand the rational basis of the community. Noyes chooses to present the Oneida story in the History by means of extensive extracts from his books The Berean (1847) and Bible Communism (1848). In fact there were quite a few roads that led to Oneida, but they fall into three categories: the Biblical, the naturalistic and the personal.

Noyes’ personal life is well known. In the first six years of their marriage, John and Harriet Noyes had the heartbreaking experience of five difficult pregnancies, four resulting in still births. So his commitment to contraception had a solid foundation.

But there was much more to Noyes’ sex life than his love for Harriet. Noyes was a man of enormous sexual energy and ambition. Furthermore, Noyes had a particular yearning for his neighbor’s wife, Mary Cragin. This was not Mary’s first dalliance with a man other than her husband, but with Noyes the spiritual and the physical bond was especially strong.

Noyes was in love with his wife, deeply. He was no casual adulterer. He also loved Mary, deeply and spiritually. He found his sex drive too strong for him to set it aside out of respect for prevailing conventions or the approval of the neighbors. If need be, he would change neighbors. Noyes was also deeply and sincerely religious, and accepted God’s commands as presented in the Bible, which clearly prohibited adultery. Most people would give up at this point. Either you sin boldly, or you suffer, or you divorce, or you get another God. All these were impossible for Noyes. Self-deception and obfuscation appears the only way out, and most accounts of Noyes’ thinking can’t resist the suggestion that he allowed his genitals to overrule his brain.

Because the surviving testimony is contradictory, and because the implications of key terms change over time, it is now impossible to establish a precise chronology of Noyes’ theory and practice. But regardless of the exact logic of its discovery, the logic of justification in Noyes’ theory seems clear. A close reading of Noyes’ own rationalization (I use that here as a neutral term) suggests a cumulative argument based on the convergence of considerations of human nature, careful Bible reading, and the strong personal motives just explained.

The biblical argument, as stated in Bible Communism chapter 2, proposition 5 and following, is intended to show that conventional marriage is not an institution of the Kingdom of Heaven and must give place to complex marriage. Noyes presents his revisions of the concept of marriage as an interpretation of scripture – which they are – but we can also see the revisions as a philosophical analysis of the personal problem with Mary which Noyes was determined to resolve.

The first main premise of complex marriage is the elimination of the “exclusive possession of one woman to one man.” Noyes backs the elimination of exclusivity by appeal to Matthew 22:23-30, in which Jesus teaches that in the resurrection there is no marriage, and from John 17:21, where Jesus instructs his disciples to pray “that we all be one.” Noyes takes this verse to require of believers a perfect community of interests, finding additional support for the unity of the members of Christ in other Biblical passages too.

The second major premise in Noyes’ argument for complex rather than simple marriage, and also for communism, is also taken directly from scripture: “All that believed were together and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all, as every man had need ” (Acts 2:44-45); “The multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul; neither said any of them that aught of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common ” (Acts 4:32); “Here is unity like that of the Father and the Son: All mine thine, and all thine mine ” (John 17:10). Noyes argued from these that private property and rights of exclusivity are abolished in the Kingdom of God. Slavery, in the sense of one person owning another, is abolished. Marriage, in the sense of sexual exclusivity, is abolished because it is so divisive to the community. But far from being abolished, love, including sexual intercourse, is such a good thing that in the Kingdom of God there can only be more love than in the present dispensation. “The abolishment of appropriation is involved in the very nature of a true relation to Christ in the gospel, ” claims Noyes. His extraordinary argument in support must be quoted at length to get the full effect:

“The possessive feeling which expresses itself by the possessive pronoun mine, is the same in essence when it relates to persons, as when it relates to money or any other property. Amativeness and acquisitiveness are only different channels of one stream. They converge as we trace them to their source. Grammar will help us to ascertain their common center; for the possessive pronoun mine, is derived from the personal pronoun I; and so the possessive feeling, whether amative or acquisitive, flows from the personal feeling, that is, it is a branch of egotism. Now egotism is abolished by the gospel relation to Christ. The grand mystery of the gospel is vital union with Christ; the merging of self in his life; the extinguishment of the pronoun I at the spiritual center... The grand distinction between the Christian and the unbeliever, between heaven and the world, is, that in one reigns the We-spirit, and in the other the I-spirit. From I comes mine, and from the I-spirit comes exclusive appropriation of money, women, etc. From we comes ours, and from the We-spirit comes universal community of interests... The abolishment of exclusiveness is involved in the love-relation required between all believers by the express injunction of Christ and the apostles, and by the whole tenor of the New Testament... We are required to love one another fervently. The fashion of the world forbids a man and woman who are otherwise appropriated, to love one another fervently. But if they obey Christ they must do this; and whoever would allow them to do this, and yet would forbid them (on any other ground than that of present expediency), to express their unity, would ‘strain at a gnat and swallow a camel’; for unity of hearts is as much more important than any external expression of it, as a camel is larger than a gnat.”

Noyes’ argument also includes the following points: All experience (except in novels) testifies that sexual love is not naturally restricted to pairs. Second marriages are contrary to the one-love theory, and yet are often the happiest marriages. And however the truth may be concealed, men and women find universally that their susceptibility to love is not burnt out in one honeymoon, or satisfied by one lover. On the contrary, the secret history of the human heart will bear out the assertion that it is capable of loving any number of times and any number of persons, and that the more it loves the more it can love. This is the law of nature, thrust out of sight and condemned by common consent, and yet secretly known by all. Moreover, the conventional, exclusivist rule of marriage has undesirable consequences: 1) It provokes to secret adultery, actual or of the heart. 2) It ties together unmatched natures. 3) It sunders matched natures. 4) It gives to sexual appetite only a scanty and monotonous allowance, and so produces the natural vices of poverty, contraction of taste and stinginess or jealousy. 5) As mentioned, it makes no provision for the sexual appetite at the very time when it’s strongest. Thus the conventions of marriage amount to a perversion of nature.

Noyes then appeals to revelation again, claiming that the restoration of true relations between the sexes is a matter second in importance only to the reconciliation of man to God. In the beginning Adam and Eve were in open, fearless, spiritual fellowship, first with God and secondly with each other. Their transgression in the Fall produced two corresponding alienations: first, an alienation from God, indicated by their fear of meeting him and hiding themselves among the trees of the garden; and secondly, an alienation from each other, indicated by their shame at their nakedness and their hiding themselves from each other by clothing. These were the two great manifestations of original sin. The first thing to be done then, in an attempt to redeem man and society, is to bring about reconciliation with God; and the second thing is to bring about a true union of the sexes. In other words, in the great enterprise of establishing the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, religion is the first topic of interest, and sexual morality the second.

Rethinking About Sex

Besides the perhaps surprising practicality of complex marriage, the Oneida experiment indicates that somewhen in history a straightforward understanding of scripture may have been exchanged for one which reinforced sexual preferences which people already had from sources other than the Bible.

All sex in the Oneida Community was based on consent. Sexual unions were regulated and recorded. Some pairs who had been approved by committee may have helped themselves to an unapproved night or two, but signs of becoming a couple were grounds for dismissal. The layout of the mansion was such that it was easy to keep track of who was ‘interviewing’ whom. (We can’t say ‘sleeping with’, since after sex individuals were required to retire to their own rooms.) Thus even though there is much to be said for complex marriage both biblically and as according to nature, the system did require sharp regulation. This was bound to lead to a general unhappiness, if not serious abuse. Both points were raised against Noyes, with some justification.

Yet John Humphrey Noyes should be acknowledged as a founder of the modern philosophy of love and sex. He formulated his premises and conclusions with clarity, made his inferences with cogency, submitted all his theories to the reality-check of practice, and distributed printed versions of this arguments to as wide a public as possible. Noyes also suffered the ‘philosopher’s fate’, of being forced to leave his home country.

© David white 2008

David White teaches philosophy at St John Fisher College, Rochester, NY and is the editor of The Works of Bishop Butler (2006).

Bibliographic Note A good place to start reading primary material on Oneida is the ‘First annual report of the Oneida Association’ (1849). This is available from Syracuse University at library.syr.edu/digital, along with many other relevant documents.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X