Without Sin, the Life and Death of the Oneida Community by Spencer Klaw

Klaw has written a very informational book describing one of the most intriguing religious experiments in history.  In the wake of the revivalism of the so-called Second Great Awakening in America some 40 utopian societies were founded.  Almost all of these (Brook Farm being a notable exception) were spiritual communities, many looking for, or attempting to establish, the kingdom of God on earth.  It was as if the revivalistic fires that were best represented by Charles Finney had destroyed true Christian fervor, leaving behind scorched ground ripe for strange movements to spring to life.  The “Burnt Over District” of New York State was home to more than its share of these movements, cults and utopian experiments.  Of utopian communities none was more successful than Oneida.  Founded in 1848 by perfectionist proponent John Humphrey Noyes, it would continue until 1880 when it voted itself out of existence and became the Oneida Community, Ltd., a highly successful manufacturer of silverware.

Noyes believed he received direct revelation from God and, thus, ruled Oneida with “divine” authority.  He believed in an extreme form of perfectionism in which his followers would not only have victory over sin but disease and death as well (pp. 15, 190).  Noyes taught that the Second Coming had taken place in AD 70 (p. 40) and the followers of Christ were commissioned to establish Christ’s kingdom on earth through societies such as Oneida.  The structure of Oneida was what Noyes called Bible Communism (p. 81) in which all things were held in common.  The most unique feature of Oneida’s Bible Communism was “complex marriage” in which all men were married to all women (p. 3).  Sexual relationships were controlled by Noyes and his hand-picked leaders but most of the girls were introduced to sexual relations when they came of age by Noyes himself.  To control the population a form of birth control was practiced called coitus reservatus (p. 58, 176).  In order to have a child a couple would apply to Noyes and if a child was born it was soon removed from the mother and raised by the community (p. 132).  In time Oneida even attempted a human breeding experiment which produced 58 “stirpicults,” nine of which were fathered by Noyes himself (pp. 11-13, 202-211).

Mutual criticism was another feature of Oneida in which each member sat quietly while the other members, one by one, told him his faults in the plainest way possible” (p. 112).  Those ignoring the criticisms were punished by a drastic restriction in choice of sexual partners (p. 113).

Eventually spiritism, secularism, division, outside attacks by the neighboring Christian community and the inability to replace Noyes led to the collapse of Bible Communism at Oneida.  With all of its strange ideas Oneida experienced many positive features: variety of work opportunities, enjoyable times of play and fellowship, financial success, and freedom and joys that many in that day did not have.  Nevertheless the society was built on a premise of sand and was doomed to eventually fail.  That it succeeded as long and as well as it did can be attributed almost entirely to John Noyes genius and leadership. 

If you enjoy history, as I do, and especially “Christian” history, you will deeply appreciate Without Sin.


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