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The Great Oneida Love-in
Driven from Vermont, the prophet John H. Noyes and his followers formed a communistic society in central New York where they shared everything — including a belief that scientific breeding would improve their offspring
February 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 2
Though allured by such shimmering visions, he had to deal with present problems. An urgent personal problem was that of sex. His wife was pregnant five times in six years. She endured long agonies ending in four stillbirths. The only surviving child was Theodore, born in 1841. John Noyes suffered with his wife, and he protested against cruel nature, perhaps against God. Surely women were not made to suffer so. Surely there was a better way. A perfectionist could not brook flagrant imperfection. Noyes’s habit was to seek and find a better way, and then sanctify it. The better way turned out to be male continence.
Noyes had been trained in the Puritan ethic, which did not regard marital sex as unholy. Nevertheless the consequences of male egotism horrified him. “It is as foolish and cruel to expend one’s seed on a wife merely for the sake of getting rid of it,” he wrote, “as it would be to fire a gun at one’s best friend merely for the sake of unloading it.” After his wife’s disasters he lived for a time chaste by her side. But chastity proving to be no solution at all, he embraced male continence, of which the definition embarrasses the chaste pen. When embarrassed, the chaste pen may decently quote. One of the community disciples, H. J. Seymour, thus defined the practice: “checking the flow of amative passion before it reaches the point of exposing the man to the loss of virile energy, or the woman to the clanger of undesired child-bearing.” Or, with Latin decorum, coitus reservatus ; or, more colloquially, everything but.
This was not actually the beginning of birth-control advocacy. In 1832 a Boston physician, Charles Knowlton, published The Fruits of Philosophy; or the Private Companion of Young Married People , pointing to the menace of excessive child-bearing and eventual overpopulation, and recommending contraception. Dr. Knowlton and his publisher were accused of blasphemy. Their case was carried to the Supreme Court, and they were condemned to several months in jail. Robert Dale Owen, the reformer of New Harmony, Indiana, supported by Miss Frances Wright, “the Priestess of Beelzebub,” carried on the work. In his Moral Physiology (1836), Owen recommended coitus interruptus , which Noyes scored as substituting selfindulgence for self-control.
“Amativeness is to life as sunshine is to vegetation,” wrote Noyes twelve years later in his Bible Argument Defining the Relation of the Sexes in the Kingdom of Heaven . “Ordinary sexual intercourse (in which the amative aucl propagative functions are confounded) is a momentary affair, terminating in exhaustion and disgust.… Adam and Eve … sunk the spiritual in the sensual in their intercourse with each other, by pushing prematurely beyond the amative to the propagative, and so became ashamed.” In the future society, “as propagation will become a science, so amative intercourse will become one of the ‘fine arts.’ Indeed it will rank above music, painting, sculpture, &c.; for it combines the charms and the benefits of them all.”
All this is very noble and high-minded; but we are trained to look for—and we usually find—a casuistical serpent in the gardens, who is able to transform impulse into ideals, even into new theologies. The serpent in this case was Mary Cragin, who with her husband, George, had joined the Putney Community. Mary was a charmer, and, to put it baldly, sexy. (Do not condemn her; some are, some aren’t. This is a wellknown fact.) Noyes feared that she might “become a Magdalene” if he did not save her. One evening in the woods, Noyes and Mary discovered that they were united by a deep spiritual bond. “We took some liberty of embracing, and Mrs. George distinctly gave me to understand that she was ready for the full consummation.” But Noyes insisted on a committee meeting with live respective spouses. “We gave each other full liberty, and so entered into marriage in quartette form. The last part of the interview was as amiable and happy as a wedding, and a full consummation … followed.”
This was Noyes’s first infidelity, according to the world’s idiom. He found a more grandiloquent term for it—complex marriage, to contrast with the restrictiveness of simple marriage. Heaven beamed on the participants. “Our love is of God; it is destitute of exclusiveness, each one rejoicing in the happiness of the others,” said Mary. The Putney Community, in general, applauded; some, under direction, adopted the new cure for marital selfishness. It appears that some puritan wives, as well as husbands, were secretly weary of the “scanty and monotonous fare” provided by monogamy.
But righteous Putney soon had hints of the goingson and uprose in anger. On October 26, 1847, Noyes was arrested, charged with adultery, and released, pending trial, in $2,000 bail. Noyes declared himself guiltless, insisting that in common law no tort has been committed if no one is injured. “The head and front and whole of our offense is communism of love.… If this is the unpardonable sin in the world, we are sure it is the beauty and glory of heaven.” But in fear of mob violence from “the barbarians of Putney” he thought it well to jump bail, following the counsel of the highest authority: “When they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another.”