Biography16 Sep 2010 11:51 am
“It was impossible for the Church to compel man to obey the law of God, and to send him to eternal damnation for his failure to do so.”- John Humphrey Noyes.
Prevailing American attitudes towards hippies reflect a deep ambivalence (affection contradicted by contempt, obsession contradicted by irony-(to borrow from Sontag)) toward the subject matter, to say the least. On the positive end, hippies produced some great music, shattered the taboo on casual sex and really knew how to have a good time. That being said, their endless peace-mongering drum circle shtick was annoying as hell, especially in light of the fact that their “establishment” parents were footing the bill, but I digress….
Anyway, while the hippies deserve the lion’s share of credit for mainstreaming fornication, “free love” was practiced in America long before Woodstock. In fact, the “free love” Oneida Community, founded in New York State by John Humphrey Noyes during the turbulent decades before the Civil War, practiced an extraordinary system of “complex marriage”. In fact, for more than thirty years, the two hundred adult members of the Oneida Community considered themselves heterosexually married to the entire community rather than to a single monogamous partner.
Noyes, deeply influenced by the religious revivalism that swept through New York and New England in the first third of the nineteenth century, based his ideas for the new social order in religious perfectionism. All members of the Oneida commune were expected to “take on the task of personal reform and self-betterment”. In accordance with this belief, Noyes decreed that his flock enter into “complex marriages”, under which members of Oneida chose their sexual partners freely. He believed “or at least claimed to believe) that complex marriage as it was practiced at Oneida would eliminate selfishness and possessiveness in sexual and social relationships.
Noyes can be credited with granting his female followers equal voice in the governance of the commune, especially when you consider that he came of age in antebellum America. The commune had its very own community nursery that provided care for infants and children so that both parents could work. Females adopted a style of dress, believed to have been copied from the Iroquois, consisting in a short skirt over trousers (bloomers). This allowed them the luxury of actually being able to breathe and move freely in their clothing, in stark contrast to the punishing corsets that their contemporaries were expected to wear (with a gracious smile).
However, Noyes was hardly the king of Kumbaya. He sexually manipulated many of his followers and his commune was hardly a democracy. Noyes was well aware of the gendered application of power in his rule of Oneida, and he often tried to control other men in the community through his sexual use of women. He also consolidated his power over women through sexual relationships. In 1874 Noyes bragged of an “exquisite little romance” he was conducting with thirteen-year-old Lillian Towner, the daughter of James Towner, the leader of an anti-Noyes faction. Yikes!
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