Book Review: Without Sin, by Spencer Klaw


I became interested in the Oneida community when I was in high school, in the late 1960s’s.   I  read a  popular book on sex, and  the physician who wrote it suggested, for the inexperienced, they find members of the Oneida community to initiate them. Of course, they no longer existed.  However,  it got me curious  about the community, as I was interested in Utopian communities.

The Oneidans were a ‘intentional community’ practicing  Christian communalism.  They were organized as a commune, shared labor and  learned different tasks.  They were led by the eccentric , John Humphrey Noyes, who had, in retrospect, a very convoluted Christian view.   They were concentrated around Putney and Oneida , New York.

The most interesting thing about them, I think, was their conscious feminism and advocacy for women. Marriage was allowed, but monogamy was discouraged.  But more, since in the 1860s, there really wasn’t much  birth control available, men were encouraged to practice sexual continence  (not ejaculate), and, as a result, the community controlled its fertility, and there were very few unplanned pregnancies.

Using the writings and letters of Noyes, as well as other members, Klaw has put together a very good description and history  of the community.  They are remembered for ‘free love’, but, in fact,  sex was relatively discreet.  Indeed, the leader, Noyes, seems to have been having more sex than anyone.  That the community  existed for over 30 year (from 1848) and became quite wealthy due to their work and enterprises, is really the remarkable thing.    This is attributed to both the shared labor aspect, as well as the equality of women in  learning job tasks.

They became quite wealthy,and their  best known enterprises were Coates & Clark thread, and Oneida Silverware.   But this was after they had been established for several decades. At the disbanding of the community, these enterprises became corporations.

Why did the  community fold if things were  going so well?  Several reasons: 1.  John Humphrey  Noyes was the undisputed leader, and his word was law.    He was  ultimately threatened with  being charged with sexual crimes and fled the country, moving to Canada.  He never was charged, but leadership after he left becamse hotly disputed.; 2.  It was a religious  commune, and  they discouraged people not fully committed to Christ from joining ; 3.  They  would not work with other communes; 4.  When Noyes left, new leadership  emerged and  members started thinking   about whether they wanted traditional marriage or  how they had been living, and the younger people chose traditional marriage.

In any case, the  commune ‘devolved’ to a corporation, and was in decline for a couple of years until John Noyes son, Pierpont, was able to take the reins  of the silverware company, which exists in some form to this day.

This is a well researched book, and would be  of interest to anyone interested in communes.

 

I always like to include the wikipedia  post because  it is concise and  generally  well documented. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oneida_Community

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