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  • Peter McGuire

Mormons, Adventists and Ghosts, Oh My! The Burned Over District Part 3 of 4

Updated: Nov 1, 2021

Table of Contents:

American Exiles - Joseph Smith and Mormonism, our first post-Puritan movement

Cast Offs - Robert Matthews, a.k.a. Matthias, and his followers

Better than Scripture - John Humphrey Noyes and the Oneida community, who considered love and sex to a be a good shared in common

Part 1 covers initial European settlement in North America; the origin of puritans, Pennsylvania, and quakers; the Longhouse religion of Handsome Lake; and the socio-economic conditions that allowed the burned-over district to flourish.

Part 2 covers the first crop of eccentric New York spiritualists: The first trans American, the Public Universal Friend; celibate communists known as Shakers; and William Miller's apocalyptic visions that created Adventism.

This section covers the flowering of eccentric spiritualist movements in upstate New York: the Mormons, a non-trinitarian polygamist church that was chased out of the United States, Robert Matthews, Sojourner Truth, and the masculist patriarchy of New Zion, and John Humphrey Noyes' Oneida commune that practiced complex marriage and eugenics.

American Exiles

Mormonism represents a break in upstate religious movements from the post-puritan to something altogether more fanciful. Joseph Smith is fascinating to the historian because his religion involves an extensive imagined history for the United States that has little to do with pre-Columbian American or Biblical history. Joseph Smith somehow produced 238 pages of original history and theology, not obviously based on any preexisting work, in just 65 days. It contained ideas so far outside of existing American religion and law and drew such devotion that over two thousand Mormons fled the United States for Mexico to settle in Utah.

Joseph Smith’s story begins with a migration. He was born in Vermont in 1805 but in 1815 a volcano in Indonesia erupted. The following year was known as the “Year Without a Summer” as the air pollution diminished sunlight worldwide and many farmers in northern latitudes moved south, fleeing hardship from hunger and frost. The Smith family settled on cheap land in western New York, placing their son in the heart of eccentric spiritualist country.

New York wasn’t just better for farming, it complemented the other family business well too. Joseph Smith Sr. had been involved in two or three counterfeiting schemes “certainly as a victim, and possibly as an accomplice.” In New York, he moved to a more legal trade practiced by counterfeiters: scrying for buried treasure. Smith Sr. had his own particular method for finding treasure buried by Spaniards, pirates, or Indians: he looked at stones placed inside of his hat. This is related to other methods for seeing secret visions such as looking into a mirror, a crystal ball, or a pool of ink.

Scrying for treasure was more of an art than a science. Even if visions could be reliably obtained from the stones, if the treasure was dug in the wrong way, or if spirits got wise to the treasure hunter, or the rituals weren’t performed correctly, all could cause the treasure to sink further into the earth, out of reach, or become infested with evil spirits. Treasure hunters didn’t make money off of treasure, as one might expect. Instead, they made money offering their services to landowners who stood to profit greatly if treasure could ever be found. Frequently, treasure hunters would return to their patrons time after time, needing just a little more money to finally acquire the treasure.

Joseph Jr. not only used the rocks-in-a-hat method to read the Book of Mormon, he used the usual excuses for why his treasure couldn’t be seen by others. The first time he tried to collect the golden plates, “he saw in the box something like a toad, which soon assumed the appearance of a man, and struck him on the side of the head.” By his 20s, Joseph Jr. was working with his father on treasure hunts. He preferred to use “peepstones,” stones with a hole bored in them, to find lost objects and see faraway locations. In 1826, he went before a court on the charge of “glass-looking”, or pretending to find lost treasure.

For all its originality, the Book of Mormon contains other traces of its New York roots. Freemasonry, even for those who were not members, spread evocative symbolism that appears in Mormon writing and architecture, including on their sacred clothing. The New Israelite movement taught that Native Americans represented one of the lost tribes of Israel. Joseph Sr. experienced visions from God in dreams recorded by his wife, Lucy. Joseph Jr. would incorporate these visions into his text as belonging to the patriarch Lehi.

In 1827, Joseph Smith Jr. brought something home in a box. He claimed they were long-lost golden plates with divine significance. An angel had originally led him to the plates four years earlier but he was not allowed to collect them until now. He later added to his mythos that God and Jesus had visited him three years before that and told him not to join an existing church because they were all false. His mother’s first response was to calculate the earnings they could make from exhibiting the “Golden Bible” for 25-cents per viewing. However, with this big score complete, the angel commanded him to "quit the company of the money-diggers."

The book of Mormon tells of great empires and wars that spanned the American continent complete with mystical parables and personal dramas.

Only true believers ever saw the Golden Plates firsthand, only in spiritual visions, and only after their contents had been translated from a language Smith called “reformed Egyptian” to English. This was supposedly the script of the ancient American Jews. Smith did not translate the “Egyptian” word for word, but received the meaning of each passage through his seeing stones. Just like his father, Joseph Smith got his secret knowledge by consulting stones in a hat.

Early supporters of the translation effort were Martin and Lucy Harris, neighboring farmers who financed Smith with $50 and offered to serve as scribes. Smith accepted only Martin’s help, saying he preferred not to deal with wives, probably sensing Lucy’s skepticism. The translation proceeded slowly at first. By April of 1828, Lucy had become concerned that the golden plates did not exist and searched the house for them while her husband and Smith were away. When she couldn’t find them and confronted Smith, he explained that he’d left the plates hidden in the nearby woods to protect them from just such duplicity and that the seeing stones in his hat were all that he needed to translate them.

By June, Martin Harris wanted to see the plates firsthand and feared he was being swindled. Smith refused outright but, after threats of being financially cut off, allowed Harris to show the translation so far to his wife and other close family members.

Shortly thereafter, Smith’s wife, Emma, gave birth to a child who was “very much deformed” and died shortly after birth. Emma also nearly died. Smith only stayed with her for two weeks and then left to search for Harris and his manuscript in a state of great agitation. When he caught up with Harris, the manuscript was nowhere to be found. Smith was stricken. He reportedly moaned “Oh, my god! … All is lost!” Smith thereafter lost the ability to translate and, worse still, an angel took away the plates until Smith could properly atone for his error of sharing the contents before the translation was finished. For the rest of the year, all work stopped on the Book of Mormon as the Smith family mourned.

The coy nature of the Mormon God helps keep prophetic power concentrated in the hierarchy, like in Catholicism.

The next spring, Smith was visited by Oliver Cowdery, a distant relation of his. In two months, they produced the entire Book of Mormon. It contained none of the original 116 pages. Instead, the Book of Mormon contains a short synopsis of the contents of the missing pages. This event is explained by the Mormon Church as a necessary setback required for Smith to receive his full revelation. It’s used as a parable about questioning Smith’s revelation too closely. It seems to be the clearest evidence that Smith had no reference point and was dictating from his own vivid imagination.

This is one of many examples of this tactic. Holy authorities remove the power of revelation in such a way that our human communicator cannot provide evidence for their claims. Spiritualism relied heavily on this explanation. This may also be a response to movements like the Shakers, where the gift of revelation allows community members to rampantly accuse each other with the authority of God. The coy nature of the Mormon God helps keep prophetic power concentrated in the hierarchy, like in Catholicism.

When the translation was finished, Smith led Cowdery, Harris, and a third supporter, David Whitmer into the woods where, at Smith’s suggestion, they saw a vision of an angel holding the golden plates. Harris then mortgaged his farm to finance the printing of the completed book of Mormon. The book did not sell well, in part because of Smith’s reputation as a huckster.

Harris lost his farm and his wife before being disavowed by Joseph Smith. At age 87, he rejoined the LDS church. Even at his lowest point, Harris claimed to have seen the angel holding the plates and insisted that Joseph Smith’s revelations were true. In fact, none of the three witnesses, nor any of the later eight, ever refuted that they'd seen the holy objects, despite many of them falling out with Joseph Smith.

It seems incredible to say, but amidst these stories, even an atheist like me must admit that people can experience visions and strange communications if they really want to. It's well attested all throughout history. Premonitions usually take the form of dreams but cultures of all kinds have ways of inducing otherworldly experiences. Even 19th Century scientific culture had a version of this, Mesmerism, where "animal magnetism" could influence the will of others. Freud would inherit this tradition and promote hypnosis as a way of communicating directly with the unconscious. Like mesmerizers of his time, Smith could suggest his visions to others as well.

Premonitions usually take the form of dreams but cultures of all kinds have ways of inducing otherworldly experiences.

With very little education, Smith managed to produce a long and coherent scripture without significantly more internal inconsistency than any other holy book, and in a remarkably short period of time. Despite some documented influences, no direct sources have been found for his tale. The Book of Mormon laboriously imitates the language of the King James bible but not its contents. It tells of great empires and wars that spanned the American continent complete with mystical parables and personal dramas. It goes much further than other non-trinitarian movements by suggesting that God began his life as a mortal being and the same fate awaits truly pious and enlightened followers. Angels too are supposed to be the pious dead. Smith took the new ideas of universal salvation and a knowable God to their furthest conclusion.

Unlike Anne Lee and the Public Universal Friend, Joseph Smith embraced sex in a way that was typical of his time. In the 19th Century, an ethic of true love developed, where sex could be a permissible and even enjoyable experience if it derived from an impulse of love. Some went so far as to suggest that love and sex could be enjoyed separately from marriage. Smith incorporated these ideas into Mormonism in the concept of Sealing. Sealing is a separate sacrament to marriage that joins the souls of two people for eternity. Mormons today practice sealing as part of the marriage ritual and also perform posthumous sealing to join souls of the dead.

Including posthumous sealings, Smith had 49 wives.

Smith was also interested in the idea of “spiritual marriage,” which was developing alongside the love-sex ethic. A common belief in Protestantism in general was that the Christian church had been corrupted at an early point by worldly Catholic church fathers and a purer Christianity could be practiced by living like early biblical figures. Smith was not the first to notice that early biblical figures are not monogamous. Abraham himself had two concubines. Smith not only argued that plural marriage was holy, he received specific revelations concerning which of his followers’ daughters he should take for his extra wives. This is not an uncommon revelation you see in cults to this day. His ninth wife writes that he told her in 1831, when she was 12, that God had commanded him to take her as a wife. Eleven years later he did just that.

It is hard to say how many wives Joseph Smith actually had in life because many women sealed themselves to him after his death. Including posthumous sealings, Smith had 49 wives. It’s hard to tell how many of these sealings were sexual in nature. Many may have been purely political.

The doctrine of plural sealings would prove to be the Mormons’ undoing. Although Smith publically dismissed allegations of bigamy, the surrounding community agitated more and more for Smith and his followers to be investigated and arrested. However, Mormons had strong evangelism from the start, and had attracted wealthy members in England and on the western frontier. Mormons had won many converts in Kirtland, Ohio, just west of Buffalo, and the church moved there to escape New York. Smith, for his part, continued to receive revelations and to attempt translations of ancient texts.

In Kirtland, Smith acquired four mummies and some papyri from Michael Chandler, who was touring the first complete mummy ever exhibited in the U.S.. The 19th century saw a boom in archeological work and private collections became increasingly common as colonial powers annexed Egypt and the Middle East. Scholars had only begun to translate ancient Egyptian languages.

Belief that seems more outlandish to neighboring communities requires greater commitment on the part of the believer.

Smith and Cowdery quickly revealed that the texts they’d purchased were handwritten by the biblical Abraham himself. They claimed the text of the canonical Genesis was based on this first-hand account by Abraham. As their translation continued, they “discovered” some of the stranger Mormon doctrines. The Book of Abraham, as they called it, introduced the idea that God creates only the physical form of man. Man’s spirit comes from angels who fought in the war with Lucifer before creation. God is only the greatest of a panoply of divine beings that are inherently similar to him. Humans, therefore, become angels after death and perhaps even gods in their own right. Cosmology reflects this order in that all the stars rotate around and serve the star Kolob, which sits nearest to God in the sky. For these reasons, Mormonism can better be termed as a gnostic religion than as a form of Christianity. These tenants are further outside the Christian mainstream than most of Islam is.

Scholars, both Mormon and secular, have since translated the Joseph Smith papyri and found they are fairly common funerary texts with incantations and instructions for helping a soul navigate the Egyptian afterlife. No reference to any biblical figure is made and the symbol that Smith identified as Abraham’s signature is a W. The response from the Mormon Church is that the source document itself is not important. Ancient sources are often reproductions with changes and redactions from the original version. Joseph Smith used his seeing stones to obtain the original meaning of the writers of the papyri, regardless of what the documents actually say.

Allegations of polygamy, distrust of doctrine, and financial deals gone wrong drove Joseph Smith’s congregation further west still. Violence erupted in outposts in Missouri, leading the state to expel Mormons completely, an order that stood until 1976. They settled in Illinois and renamed their city Nauvoo. Here, Mormonism developed a formal leadership beyond simply Smith and his brother Hyrum. The change came just in time, because 5 years later, Joseph and Hyrum Smith were dead. The newspaper in Nauvoo published an expose on Mormon polygamy, sparking outrage from Christians. Mormons led by Smith destroyed the press, which led the Governor to arrest him for violating freedom of the press. Authorities made little to no attempt to keep Joseph and Hyrum Smith safe in custody, and a mob killed them both inside the jail.

After a brief power struggle, an early supporter, Brigham Young, assumed control of the church and led an exodus to Utah. At the time, this barely-explored expanse of land was part of Mexico. Immediately after the first Mormons fled to Utah, the U.S. annexed all of Mexico north of the Rio Grande, putting Mormons back in American jurisdiction. Even though they could not escape America, Mormons publicly acknowledged their practice of plural marriage.

In 1856, the newly formed and newly powerful Republican party seized on two major issues in their new platform declaration. "It is the duty of Congress to prohibit in the territories those twin relics of barbarism, polygamy and slavery." Pressure caused the president James Buchannan to send troops to Utah to enforce American law, an action that dissolved into inconclusive skirmishes called the Utah Wars. In one notable escalation, Mormon settlers attacked a settler train from Arkansas, lured them out of their wagon fortification with a false surrender, and massacred 120 people including all women and children over the age of 7. Ultimately, a truce was found when Young agreed to step down and allow a non-mormon Governor to take power in the Utah Territory.

Finally, in 1890, pressure from the government won out and the Mormon church outlawed plural marriage. Six years later, Utah was admitted into the union on the condition that its constitution outlaw polygamy. Mormons have a strong impact on the Western United States to this day. The major geology of Utah has names like Zion and Moab taken from the old testament. Mormon families form some of the only Western American political dynasties, most notably the Udalls, who have held political office in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Oregon in recent times.

There are currently around 17 million Mormons in the world. A major reason this religion has become a world force as opposed to other upstate New York phenomena involves organization. From the beginning, Joseph Smith had strong support from family members and early converts. Before his death, these canny supporters created positions of power for themselves. In Kirtland, Mormons organized a theo-democratic system where major decisions came before a council of church apostles. When Smith died, a broad group of effective leaders was ready to take control, which kept the movement strong after its charismatic leader had passed. We can see this development in the Shakers, although the diffuse nature of leadership allowed that movement to dissolve into bickering. Mormonism maintained a strict hierarchy of leadership where only the top could receive meaningful revelations.

Mormon families form some of the only Western American political dynasties

Another key to its longevity was how isolating the Mormon experience was. Belief that seems more outlandish to neighboring communities requires greater commitment on the part of the believer. Mormonism could present itself as a Christian religion that shared similarity with New England Protestantism, but once a convert learned more of the secrets of Mormon belief, it became far more difficult to return to mainstream religion than it was for a Millerite, for example. This effect only grew as the community moved westward and outside the influence of established American communities. At some point, it became socially easier for Mormons to move to Utah than to return to their original communities.

Lastly, Mormon evangelism and openness to change allowed the religion to remain relevant despite the beliefs of early Mormon leaders. Most Mormons outside the U.S. are in Central or South America or the Philippines and Mormons evangelize all over the world. Young adult initiates in Mormonism (paradoxically called “Elders”) are expected to spend time evangelizing before starting careers.

As the religion won converts outside of the U.S., a central tenant became unworkable. Mormonism, unlike most upstate religions, did not support abolition. The enmity with the Republican party was mutual. Smith taught an idea popular with slavery supporters at the time, that black people suffered both the mark of Cain and the curse of Ham and therefore deserved to live as servants. Christians even had bible verses to prove this idea. Smith opposed abolition, but the Book of Mormon cautions against racial prejudice, even as it describes Native Americans as racially-cursed, fallen Jews.

By the time Mormonism hit Utah, people of African descent were considered cursed by God and excluded from the priesthood as well as all major ceremonies. Mormon evangelists in South America found it difficult to determine member eligibility because race has a somewhat different meaning in the Hispanic world than in the anglophone world. Mormons, like Americans, considered anyone with an African ancestor to be black. In the Hispanic world, virtually all people had mixed race ancestry and race is seen as something with many gradations that each have social meaning. The Spanish Empire had a complicated hierarchy of race that emphasized class and appearance over ancestry which lives on in Central and South American ideas about race.

In 1978, under increasing pressure in the U.S. and abroad, Mormon leadership dropped racial restrictions on priesthood and ceremonies. Church leadership argued that both policies were God’s will at the time, implying that God did indeed change his mind about black people in 1978. This appears to have been the last major revelation of the Church of Latter-day Saints, but the leadership leaves open the possibility that Mormonism will continue to evolve its doctrine as time goes on. There are roughly 17 million Mormons today.


Remember that these movements were happening around the same time in an easily traveled state where unique communities formed and dissolved regularly. The mixing of people and ideas can be seen in the story of Robert Matthews and his servant, Isabella Van Wagenen.

Robert Matthews preached an apocalypse at the same time William Miller, in the 1830s. The resemblance ends there. Upstate Cauldron describes him as “a carpenter by trade, a wife-beater by recreation, and all but illiterate.” Matthews shows all the egoism and megalomania we’ve come to associate with cult leaders.

Robert Matthews (Mathias)

Incredibly, he preached that the world had come to such a low and corrupt state because women had ruled it too much for the last eighteen hundred years. In typical conspiracy-theorist-style, victim-blaming mentality, he insisted that women secretly dominated the world and the coming apocalypse would finally create a true patriarchy in God’s image. The devil, which is the incarnation of female power, created all chaos and disobedience. By 1851, he promised, the world would burn up, each father would be lord of his house, women would love subservience, money would be abolished, and Robert Matthews would rule the world as Father.

Two of his early followers were older, wealthy widowers and businessmen. The third, Benjamin Folger, was also a wealthy businessman and put up Matthews (now calling himself Matthias) in a large estate house not far from New York City. Matthias renamed the site Mount Zion (he had an affinity for Old Testament Christianity and its more fatherly, austere God) and soon married Ann Folger, Benjamin’s wife. In consolation, Matthias married Benjamin to his own daughter. Matthias and Benjamin frequently beat her and she soon fled.

Now ensconced in his new kingdom, Matthias devised a kingly costume for himself. “He favored a military-style green frock coat with pink silk or tartan lining, adorned with brass buttons, gold braid and frogging, silver sun and stars, lace ruffles at wrist and throat, a red sash with twelve tassels for the twelve tribes of Israel, and pantaloons of various colors tucked into high Wellington boots. He carried a gold watch (bought him by Mr. Folger), a heavy chain and key (to lock up Satan in the bottomless pit), an iron rule (for measuring the temple), a two-edged sword, and topped it all with a giant three-cornered or conical hat. He was about the only man in New York to grow his beard.”

By 1851, he promised, the world would burn up, each father would be lord of his house, women would love subservience, money would be abolished, and Robert Matthews would rule the world as Father.

In 1834, one of the older widowers died and news of Mount Zion broke in New York society. Charges were brought against Matthias and his servant Isabella for poisoning the man. Matthias was also charged with assaulting his daughter. He served three months for that crime but the murder was never proven. Benjamin Folger, meanwhile, accused Isabella of attempting to poison him as well and she successfully sued him $125 for slander. It was a landmark case, so rare was it for for a black woman and former slave to successfully sue a white man. Isabella accompanied Matthias on his release from jail and, finding himself unwelcome in his home of Albany, traveled west to Kirtland, Ohio. Joseph Smith hosted him for a short time, but before long, he and Matthias mutually denounced each other as satanic. Little else is known of his life and he may have died in Iowa.

Isabella stayed in New York and moved in more mainstream religious circles. Like many others, became swept up in Millerism. In 1843, the final year according to the Millerites, she felt a strong personal calling to preach, sold her belongings, left town, and renamed herself Sojourner Truth. When the second coming failed to materialize the following year, she continued to preach and distanced herself from Adventists, falling in with abolitionists instead. For two years, she lived in a black utopian community in Massachusetts that had a sawmill, a gristmill and a silk factory. While part of this community, she met William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, who took notice of her strong speaking presence. From there she lived and worked with abolitionists and women’s rights activists and became a major voice for black Americans during the Civil War.

Later in life, she again sold her possessions and moved, this time to Battle Creek, Michigan to live with old friends who were now Seventh-day Adventists. The Kellogg brothers ran the Seventh-day Adventist’s sanitarium there and experimented with diet and of many pseudoscientific treatments of the time, mostly inspired by their religion’s beliefs around health. These experiments gave the world Corn Flakes.

Truth continued to advocate for women, going as far as to attempt to vote for president Ulysses S. Grant but was turned away from the polling place because of her gender, not her race. She continued to speak and preach in Battle Creek until her death in 1883.

Better Than Scripture

After the second World War, the Oneida company, a silverware maker, tried to rewrite history. The company decided their past would be too damaging if it became known, so they burned all known records of the Oneida community. George Noyes, a child of the community, had copied 2,200 pages of information by typewriter, two copies of which survive. Thanks to his work, as of 1993, few secrets remain about the Oneida Community and George’s strange uncle, John Humphrey.

John became a preacher around the age of 30 in 1833. He punished himself with deprivation of food and sleep and eating cayenne pepper. The following year, 1834, his devotion paid off. Eventually he experienced a “spiritual crucifixion” that allowed him to experience the suffering and rebirth of Christ. This culminated in his announcement that he was permanently exempt from sin, which instantly excluded him from mainstream American religion.

Noyes constructed his own vision of the apocalypse. In it, the second coming had already happened and the final judgement was ongoing, but would culminate in 1880. According to his revelation, those who achieve perfect freedom from sin (which also confers freedom from death), the mortal form may pass away but the person does not die. John Humphrey, who had recently freed himself from sin and death, could communicate with these undead individuals he called the “Primitive Church”, a collection of spirits who’d now had 1,830ish years to perfect their advice for mankind.

Noyes accused progressives of hypocritically ignoring scripture even as they touted it to support their agenda. He pointed out that the bible permits slavery, drinking alcohol, and making agressive war. God was not wrong on these issues, he argued, but His word had been delivered incorrectly. Noyes no longer needed scripture to know the truth of morality as he could know it himself or ask the Primitive Church. After the Civil War, Noyes claimed it was his teaching that had ignited the abolition movement and brought an end to legal slavery.

In 1846, he had his second epiphany. His wife of six years had suffered five agonizing births, four premature and stillborn. John vowed to never put her through such suffering again and realized a new way of having sex. Because of his great willpower and divine connection, Noyes could have sex without ejaculating. He began teaching a new doctrine. While sex was sinful to have flagrantly, love and pleasure were not. As such, people could enjoy sexual contact without ejaculation in a way that actually celebrates God rather than offending Him. The eyes of any queer person listening have now just rolled across the floor.

By 1848, the Miller wave had crashed and many wealthier believers had joined Noyes’ cause. Noyes fell on the side of Millerites who believed that the second coming had already occurred and now mankind needed to perfect the world for it to become the heavenly kingdom incarnate. One follower owned land near the Oneida, one of the Iroquois Nations. This nation had been evicted, largely to Green Bay, Wisconsin, over the preceding century. The Noyes community set up a perfectionist commune on this land that he called Oneida. This community would have quickly plunged into debt and hunger like most communes in this time and place except that the talented blacksmiths of Oneida invented a new animal trap and began manufacturing and selling hundreds of thousands of traps for fur poachers each year.

The bear traps that made Oneida viable

Photo credit: Kaitlin

The residents mostly lived in a single mansion house without newspapers, liquor, or money. Women wore short hair and pants with skirts. Men considered adopting a more androgynous costume as well but the idea was abandoned. Children were not allowed toys. The men gave up chewing and smoking tobacco. Work was done in common. The community was largely self-sufficient, which meant there were always new jobs to try. Noyes insisted that men and women working side-by-side made any work a pleasure and was good for the soul. As such, men were encouraged to perform traditionally female work like caring for children and sewing while women were encouraged to participate in field work and manual labor. Recollections from the time note that while the men had no trouble learning needlepoint, women often shirked from hard labor on account of not wanting to tear their clothes. Oneida considered unpleasant labor and especially gendered labor to be a scourge on mankind. They viewed progress and technological innovation as a major path to the liberation of mankind from the curse of Adam (as it had liberated women from the curse of Eve by ending childbirth). When the community purchased its first Singer sewing machine it rejoiced that so many women the world over could now be freed from the drudgery of their women’s work. Regardless, tasks considered onerous by everyone were performed by everyone, often all at once. When large fields needed plowing or lumber needed clearing or chamber pots needed cleaning, Oneidans would come together and all work side-by-side until the task was done. They called these events “bees”.

Instead of Christian sacraments, they listened to Noyes, played music, read, and performed Mutual Criticism. The last of these involved sitting together in a room and stating as explicitly as possible a person’s faults to them. This resembled ceremonies performed by earlier firebrand preachers who would berate a parishioner for faults in front of a congregation, except that all members were invited to criticize and be criticized. Many noted that John Humphrey got especially light treatment, but then, he was free from sin after all.

The auditorium where mutual criticism took place

Photo: me

While communist communities had become relatively common in upstate New York by this time, the Oneida community took the idea a little further than most by considering love to be a common good. Couples were strictly forbidden and the few children that the community allowed to be conceived were raised in common in a building adjacent to the Oneida Mansion House. To love a person, be they your spouse or your child, above any other member of the community was to commit the sin of pride and greed. Noyes argued that love for an individual was un-christ-like and unnatural. “Men and women find universally, (however the fact may be concealed,) that their susceptibility to love is not burnt over by one honey-moon, 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.” In a strongly abolitionist New York, Noyes argued that marriage was literally a form of slavery that only belittled and debased women. It also ruined love because “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.” He coined the term “free love,” and his writing during this time laid the groundwork for ethical polyamory as it is discussed today. He took the notion of free love much further than the previous generation of William Blake and Mary Wollenstonecraft both in concept and in practice.

All community members considered themselves married to each other. At the height of Victorian sexuality, Noyes taught that pleasurable and non-procreative sex could be a holy sacrement if performed correctly. The prevention of ejaculation was crucially important because he agreed with contemporaries that masturbation (which includes coitus interruptus and the use of a “sheath”), a grave sin and dangerous to health. Men needed to be taught the skill and all members needed to learn proper non-procreative sex. As such, young male initiates were paired with post-menopausal women and young women with older men who already knew the trick, particularly Noyes himself. Through this form of sex, love-desire could be shared across the entire community and women would be freed from the curse of Eve to bear children, spend her life caring for them, and generally being a slave to domestic duties.

The architecture of the Oneida Mansion House reflects this community goal. The building is beautifully preserved and now acts as a hotel. To the hotel’s credit, the exhibits in the Mansion House unabashedly refer to the community as a communist sex cult. Unlike many communes such as the Shakers, people did not sleep in large common bedrooms. Instead, the house has large sitting rooms with many bedrooms lining the walls. Each bedroom is small, like a monk’s cell, only big enough for a single bed and a dresser. People commonly spent their downtime in the sitting rooms in full view of the bedrooms. They enforced the community rules: visits needed prior approval, partners could not sleep in the same bed, and no approved pair should meet up too many times at the expense of others. Essentially, the community kept a close eye out for anyone “catching feelings”. Pairings were determined by community elders, especially Noyes, and he apparently used this power to reward and punish his followers as he saw fit.

The Oneida Mansion today

Photo: Kaitlin

By the mid 19th Century, Noyes became interested in “scientific propagation,” as he called it, inspired by pre-Darwin ideas of evolution. He selected pairings of community members to create more physically and spiritually perfect children. People considered more physically and spiritually perfect were encouraged to have children in the hopes that their bloodlines would progressively create more perfect people, eventually creating the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth and fulfilling the prophecy of the millenium. Noyes was not the only person at this time who became interested in eugenics but was one of the few who actually experimented with humans. Noyes believed in LaMark’s ideas of evolution, that traits developed during one’s lifetime could be passed to children. Naturally, therefore, Noyes’ blood was the most perfected bloodline, and he elevated his children to leadership positions over the community’s other children. Noyes had now instilled a caste system and the ideas of radical communism started to feel like a sham. Similarly, labor became more specialized, men and women more segregated, and the famous Oneida bees ceased altogether.

Noyes was not the only person at this time who became interested in eugenics but was one of the few who actually experimented with humans.

The final demise of the community came in the form of ghosts. Although Noyes warned against simple and cheap methods for contacting spirits, by 1878, all of the Oneida community, including Noyes, became involved in spiritualism. The ability to speak to spirits with ouija boards, trances, and table rappings threatened his monopoly on revelation.

In 1879, a follower informed Noyes that authorities were coming to arrest him and he fled to Canada. Noyes had long-standing arrest warrants out for adultery but recently statutory rape had been added to the charges and a more serious effort to apprehend him had begun. After the departure of their leader, the community reincorporated as a joint stock company, one of the first in the world. The company remained committed to providing for its members until their deaths. Released back into the world, many older community members had to learn how to use money again. John Humphrey died in 1886 and while the community spoke often with his ghost, the ghost had little of practical value to offer them.

The Oneida company rapidly headed for bankruptcy until a new board of directors was formed by Pierrepont Noyes, a child of the eugenics experiments. He formed a board of directors with several of his cohort of half-siblings and cousins. As Oneida Limited, the company focused on silverware production and tried to raise the prestige of their brand. They invested in high-priced, large-circulation magazines with large images of beautiful women and insisted Oneida silverware was a precious wedding gift that every woman needed to be a happy housewife with an adoring husband. The campaign was one of the first to deemphasize the product in favor of the woman holding it. The new image of marital bliss was completely at odds with the history of the Oneida community, and the Oneida company did its best to bury the memory of their forebears. The company dominated the tableware market until the 1980’s. As of 2006, the company no longer manufactured tableware, but older sets are still prized.

Oneida Company Advertisement

Like the Shakers, Noyes pointed to sex as the central point of sin, but had a radically different solution, more in keeping with Joseph Smith’s ideas of marriage than the celibacy that long dominated spirituality. Also like the Shakers, they believed that innovation and economic progress provided the path to freeing mankind from its endless labors.

By mid century, New York prophets had moved beyond reinterpreting the Bible and puritain theology to freely inventing new ideas. From here we enter a free-for-all of revelation, mystical practice, and ghosts as New York explodes with spiritual frenzy.

Me in the Oneida library

Photo: Kaitlin

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