John Humphrey Noyes (1811-1886) was the founder of the Oneida Community, one of the notable experimental societies of his century.
John Humphrey Noyes, born on Sept. 3, 1811, in Brattleboro, Vt., was raised in an individualistic family by a religious mother and a father who became an agnostic, succeeded in business, and served in the U. S. Congress. Noyes graduated from Dartmouth College in 1830 and entered law. Converted by revivals, he attended Andover Theological Seminary and then Yale College. His studies centered on biblical passages which persuaded him that one could be free of sin.
In 1834 Noyes experienced a "second conversion"; his assertion that he had achieved perfection cost him his place at Yale. His essential point, expounded in The Perfectionist, was that, being free of sin, he was restricted by man-made laws. Also, God, being composed of man and woman, required both in full relation for salvation from sin. As early as 1834 Noyes expressed dissatisfaction with formal marriage.
This view matured into an article of faith but did not impede Noyes's marriage in 1838 to Harriet A. Holton. In 1846, when his religious followers first engaged in "complex marriage," they created a scandal. Noyes was arrested and faced charges of adultery. He ran off to Oneida, N.Y., in an area noted for its social and religious experimenters. He was joined by the greater number of his followers in 1848. Noyes's writings of that year, Bible Communism and Male Continence, along with The Berean (1847), summed up his views.
The Oneida community outraged its neighbors and precipitated several scandals, yet its several hundred members settled into an equitable society, living together in a vast house of many chambers, with other establishments for housekeeping and industry. The sales of a steel trap gave the colony economic security. Efforts were made to develop other colonies, and a small one at Wallingford, Conn., succeeded.
"Father" Noyes was absolute dictator of Oneida. Despite defections, the community solidified through such traditions as public confession of egotistical behavior. Noyes pioneered in selective childbearing, expressing his principles in Scientific Propagation (ca. 1873). A student of communities, he concluded in his History of American Socialisms (1870) that only religiously based communities could flourish. In time, however, elements at Oneida tired of public disapproval. In 1879 Noyes himself prepared plans to dissolve the community, and in 1881 it was reorganized as a corporation. Noyes, to avoid legal suits, moved to Canada. He died at Niagara Falls, Ontario, on April 13, 1886.
Excellent introductions in Noyes's own words are provided in two works edited by George W. Noyes, Religious Experience of John Humphrey Noyes, Founder of the Oneida Community (1923) and John Humphrey Noyes: The Putney Community (1931). Noyes is sympathetically treated in William A. Hinds, American Communities (1878; rev. ed. 1908), and critically treated in Gilbert Seldes, The Stammering Century (1928). See also Pierrepont Noyes, My Father's House: An Oneida Boyhood (1937).
Thomas, Robert David, The man who would be perfect: John Humphrey Noyes and the Utopian impulse, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1977. □