Oneida Community Mansion. Photo by Cheryl Yarchuk.
The year 1848 was one of great change: it marked the beginning of the French Revolution, the discovery of gold in California, and the Seneca Falls Convention for women’s rights. At this time in New York State, several religious groups were challenging the status quo of Christian theocracy and experimenting with new paradigms of belief — like Mormons in Palmyra and the Spiritualists in Wayne County. In this year of emerging social-religious movements, a preacher named John Humphrey Noyes began building the Oneida Community Mansion to house the members of his Perfectionist Community — a commune with controversial sexual practices and also the foundations of one of American’s greatest brands: Oneida silverware.
Born in 1811 in Vermont, Mr. Noyes was no stranger to leadership. His father was a member of the United States House of Representatives and his cousin was President Rutherford B. Hayes. More than the lust for power, though, his mother’s staunch evangelism may have had the strongest impact on his eventual exploration into social Christianity, though with his own rebellious interpretation.
Mr. Noyes attended Dartmouth College and later New Haven Seminary, where he began exploring his first truly controversial belief: the Perfectionist philosophy. Still in his early 20s, Mr. Noyes firmly believed that the second coming of Christ had already occurred generations ago. He maintained that saints and sinners had been separated by God at that time and that he fell into the former category rather than the latter. In this post-Judgment Day era, according to Mr. Noyes’ calculations, he became convinced that one could be free of sin during this lifetime, and in fact, declared himself free of sin. Mr. Noyes’ license to preach was revoked. In the Calvin church in the early 1800s, this was heretical stuff.
It was his burning desire to spread this word that led Mr. Noyes to an annual New York City gathering of Calvinist clergy. What happened next was referred to by Mr. Noyes in later memoirs as “The Storm” and a “religious experience.” Others of his day, including some of his family, felt he had something akin to a psychotic break with reality.
While in the city, the young Mr. Noyes took it upon himself to write a dissertation on Perfectionism to share with his highly-doubtful theological contemporaries. In the process of writing, he began to have dreams that the devil was following him. For three weeks he wandered the streets of New York City, avoiding food, rarely sleeping, and when he did, only on sidewalks and in alleyways. He revoked his temperance vows and began drinking. He visited areas of the city that were dangerous, even in the daytime, to preach to the homeless. He believed he was Christ on the cross and then Lucifer. He denounced his faith until during a moment of clarity he fought off temptation and apparently came to his senses. However one deems to classify this experience, it was the “calling” that Mr. Noyes had so fervently longed for: he had defeated the devil and was vindicated in his conviction that the path to God was through Perfectionism.
With his faith confirmed and charges of adultery looming over him and the Vermont commune he led, he was soon forced to pull up stakes and move his small group to the picturesque countryside of Oneida. From these ambiguous beginnings, what followed was the most successful experiment in religious communism that the United States, and perhaps the world, has ever seen.
Mr. Noyes teachings of “Complex Marriage” raised more than a few eyebrows in the outlaying areas. He believed that there were no marriages in heaven and that numerous partners was the will of God. This is not to be confused with polygamy, as any type of formal union or partnership was discouraged. Sex was consensual and pregnancy was prevented by “male continence,” perhaps better understood as the withdrawal method with a twist. Ejaculation of any type was forbidden.
As many know, the withdrawal method is not the most successful form of birth control, and, as a result, the community did see many births over the years. As each male and female child reached puberty at around 14 years of age, they were initiated into the group’s sexual practice by male and female elders of the community. This particular custom was to be the demise of Mr. Noyes and his dream.
In the 1870s, some couples had begun to live together and to marry. Many began questioning the rights of elders to have sexual privileges over the virgins of the community and whisperings of statutory rape were bandied about. At the same time, law was passed in the state forbidding the mention of birth control, and outsiders started taking exception to what they perceived as concubinage. With internal and external pressures rising, Mr. Noyes’ utopian community was forced to dissolve in 1880, and he fled to Niagara Falls, Ontario, where he remained until his death in 1886.
The Oneida legacy is still evident today. Sitting on a sloping landscape of manicured gardens, the Oneida Community Mansion is a testament to one man’s charismatic control. From 1848 to 1880, the mansion was built in several stages on 40 acres to house its growing community. What started as a migration of 45 members from Putney, Vt., grew into 300 men, women and children over the course of 30 years. To accommodate the growing membership and births, the home expanded into a 93,000 square foot architectural beauty that served as a place of worship, a home and a workplace for the believers of the Perfectionist Community.
The mansion originally held decorative common rooms to encourage a shared family atmosphere, and a communal kitchen with a large oven for baking and preparing of meals. Each member’s private rooms remaining simple and functional. Today it is managed by The Oneida Community Mansion House, a nonprofit organization that oversees this National Historic Landmark. The building holds the Oneida Community collection and offers tours, educational programs and special events. It contains apartments, overnight lodgings, conference rooms and a restaurant. Its immensity can only be seen by walking the grounds.
Mr. Noyes encouraged entrepreneurship when it came to work. He realized that to survive, the community needed to be productive and the fruits of it labors must compete outside the walls of the mansion. We can assume that this twist on communistic living was to be advantageous to future growth of its silverware manufacturing. The community made their living by selling various goods to the surrounding townsfolk: canned fruits and vegetables, animal traps, silk thread, and eventually, forks, knives and spoons made from silver. The latter were the beginnings of what we know today as Oneida silverware.
Though the community dissolved in 1880, there was one glitch, however. The manufacturing of silverware had proven to be a lucrative enterprise, to the tune of around $600,000.00 in holdings. To solve this business dilemma, the holdings were turned into a corporation called Oneida, Ltd. and shares were divided among the members, male and female alike. The brand survives today, and the products are, perhaps paradoxically or perhaps fittingly, used by many families in the celebratory meals honoring their own religious traditions.