The shining
June 22, 2016 12:06 AM   Subscribe

posted by Xoc at 1:17 AM on June 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

What a complex, bizarre and fascinating story. I'd heard about Oneida as a utopian free-love community and had seen the ads for the silverware in 1940s Life magazines but had never put the two together. Extra bonus is learning one of my favorite 20th century illustrators, Coles Phillips, did some gorgeous ads for them, too.
posted by mediareport at 4:11 AM on June 22, 2016

Hey, Oneida! I went to school about 5 miles east of Oneida, NY, and the history is embedded in a lot of the area. The polyamorous utopian bits always seem to follow Charles Pierce's 5-Minute Rule for libertarians: a lot of what they say sounds pretty sensible, but by the five minute mark, they will always say something horrifying. Let's see if the article holds true to form.

[T]he Oneida Community was profoundly revolutionary for its time, paving the way for advances in women’s and workers’ rights. At the commune headquartered on the Oneida River in upstate New York, women cut their hair short, ditched the corset, and did the same work as the men. Everyone worked four to six hours a day, and no one accumulated any material possession

OK, gender equality, labor practices that reject the Protestant work ethic that consumed the country, and some benign-sounding religious quirks around property ownership; looking good so far!

Wage labor was thought of as akin to slavery, and the notion of an individual pursuing his own wealth and self-interest above that of the community was an appalling, grievous sin.

Hot damn, Marxism a decade before Marx!

The first tenet of Noyes’ Bible Communism was to let go of emotional attachment to other people, be they spouses or even children, in exchange for a communal spirit fed by God’s love. Married couples who joined the commune were told to give up their “marriage spirit” of sexual possessiveness and jealousy. Mothers and children or pairs of lovers who showed too much attachment or “sticky love” would be punished with periods of separation.

That's, uh, that's starting to sound a little weird, but OK, it still sounds like they're all consenting adults, except for maybe the kids who are being treated unfairly, but that's not uncommon for the mid-nineteenth century.

4:58, 4:59, ...

As the Community’s children became teenagers, their untamed libidos threatened to destabilize the system of complex marriage, so Noyes came up with a workaround: Each boy coming of age, usually around 14, would be introduced to sex with a spiritually devout postmenopausal woman. Meanwhile, girls who’d gone through puberty—at that time, New York’s age of consent was 12—would lose their virginity to Noyes himself

Wait, John Humphrey Noyes, no, that's not--

In 1869, Noyes, inspired by theories of evolution by Charles Darwin and Francis Galton, instituted his own eugenics experiment he called “stirpiculture.” Unlike other eugenicists that followed, Noyes wasn’t interested in eliminating certain races (everyone in the Oneida Community was white), physical features, diseases, or deformity—Noyes wanted to breed his followers based on their moral natures, hoping the holiest among them would give birth to a race of immortals—which he called “stirpicults”—hastening Christ’s kingdom.

oh god it's happening again
posted by Mayor West at 4:42 AM on June 22, 2016 [63 favorites]

Noyes wanted to breed his followers

I'm sure there have been a few cult leaders who didn't do it for the sexual access, but I am having trouble thinking of them. How better to ensure complete sexual rights for the leader than to create a closed-off utopian or doomsday group?
posted by Dip Flash at 5:18 AM on June 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

Funny how these religious cults, current and 19th century, end up with the head man having sex with teenage girls because "God wants it that way". Similar to early Mormonism and Joseph Smith with his "spiritual wives" as young as 14, which was contemporary to Oneida. Horny old men and absolute religious power are a toxic mix.
posted by mermayd at 5:20 AM on June 22, 2016 [13 favorites]

oh god it's happening again

Yes, a recurring problem with zealots is that they just don't know when to put a cork in it...
posted by jim in austin at 5:24 AM on June 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

the 20-year-old virgin discovered he could channel all his erotic energy into Christianity

If we could somehow delete this concept from the world, I feel like a lot of people would be much better off.
posted by Rock Steady at 5:33 AM on June 22, 2016 [7 favorites]

Whenever someone says, "The Bible supports ______", whether they're doing it in praise or condemnation of the Bible, I think to myself that they probably haven't read the whole thing. The Bible supports a lot of things, many of them contradictory. Marxism and the rule of kings, slavery and abolition, judgment and freedom from judgment, virginity and polygamy. Every time people start reading it, stuff like this happens. It happened during the Second Great Awakening, as with these guys, and it happened after the Bible was first translated into national languages.
posted by clawsoon at 5:35 AM on June 22, 2016 [5 favorites]

Oneida wasn't the only utopian community to produce kitchenware. In Buffalo, then in Iowa, the Amana colonies would be better known for their refrigerators and microwave ovens. If you count the Shakers, you could furnish a house thanks to 19th century utopians.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:00 AM on June 22, 2016 [23 favorites]

The Oneida folks are about six pages in one of the most interesting books I have read in the last year: Upstate Cauldron: Eccentric Spiritual Movements in Early New York State by Joscelyn Godwin.
posted by bukvich at 6:07 AM on June 22, 2016 [15 favorites]

Similar to early Mormonism and Joseph Smith with his "spiritual wives" as young as 14, which was contemporary to Oneida.

Contemporary, and both began close to each other, too.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:09 AM on June 22, 2016

Obviously not to be confused with the actual Oneida people.
posted by mrjohnmuller at 6:15 AM on June 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

“His ideas about electricity were very current,” she continues.
boooooooooooooo!!! bad pun, bad!
posted by clawsoon at 6:37 AM on June 22, 2016 [8 favorites]

The Erie/Southern Tier/Finger Lakes region of New York in the early 19th century was a hot bed of woo, spiritual enthusiasms, and progressive notions. It's been called the "burned-over district" and it was home to the Oneida Community, the Amana colonies, Joseph Smith, the apocalyptic Millerites and their descendents, the Adventists, Shakers, séances, Fourierism ("Good luck with your Fourierism!"), free banking, abolitionism, feminism, etc. It only wanted Sylvester Graham and Lysander Spooner to complete the whole set.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:41 AM on June 22, 2016 [11 favorites]

>"...the 20-year-old virgin discovered he could channel all his erotic energy into Christianity"

>"If we could somehow delete this concept from the world, I feel like a lot of people would be much better off."
I don't know, Gregory "wounded by a spiritual and fiery dart of desire for God" of Nyssa, St Bernard "Lord, with my mouth I touch and worship Thee, With all the strength I have I cling to Thee, With all my love I plunge my heart in Thee" of Clairvaux and St Teresa "I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart… The pain was so great that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain that I could not wish to be rid of it" of Ávila each seemed to do neat things with it. Of course this was all about channeling erotic energy into their love for God rather than vulnerable teenagers, but proper little o orthodox Christianity is supposed to be hard? wet? lets go with pregnant with pants feelings for God in a way that is perhaps uncomfortable for Puritan mores to accommodate.

The Song of Soloman is all about telling the story of the relationship between God and Israel as well as the relationship between Christ and the Church using the allegory of two unmarried lovers so burning with passion for each other that they sneak around to get it on in the fields. It is beautiful erotic poetry, there is appreciating of her bouncing gazelles, thrusting of hands into openings, and fellating in return. However, get this, even according to the most dry and sanitized interpretations of this book its an allegory where either we or Israel generally are the bride and God or Christ is the bridegroom. It seems that according to Christian teaching at least in a sense, God loves us like a straight dude loves boobs while we are expected to want God like a straight woman really wants the D.
posted by Blasdelb at 6:46 AM on June 22, 2016 [5 favorites]

And Heaven meets earth like an unforeseen kiss/And my heart turns violently inside of my chest

That's a popular Evangelical worship song; youth group worship leaders like to replace "unforeseen" with "sloppy wet."

So yes in a sense Jesus is our collective boyfriend.
posted by bracems at 7:32 AM on June 22, 2016

So yes in a sense Jesus is our collective boyfriend.

That's why you have to stay skinny for Jesus.
posted by clawsoon at 7:42 AM on June 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

That's why you have to stay skinny for Jesus.

Thanks a fucking million for putting that in my Amazon history. I'm gonna be fighting off bizarre "recommended for you"s for weeks.
posted by Itaxpica at 7:54 AM on June 22, 2016 [9 favorites]

Beyond Sin by Spencer Klaw is the book about the Oneida Commune that I thought was most interesting and (hard to judge, but I'm guessing) even-handed. Somewhere at home, in my library of New York history ("The Upstate Archives") I have a book authored by one of Noyes' sons, which I thought was interesting also. Alas, I'm at work now. Memail me if you want the specific reference.
posted by newdaddy at 8:28 AM on June 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

Thanks a fucking million for putting that in my Amazon history. I'm gonna be fighting off bizarre "recommended for you"s for weeks.

If only Amazon allowed you to edit your browsing history, like say through a link at the bottom of your account page in the personalization section.
posted by ckape at 9:27 AM on June 22, 2016

Somewhere at home, in my library of New York history ("The Upstate Archives") I have a book authored by one of Noyes' sons

I suspect that would be "My Father's House" by Pierrepont Noyes. Another descendent of the community to write about it was Constance Noyes Robertson, daughter of Pierrepont and granddaughter of John Humphrey.
posted by maurice at 9:44 AM on June 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Bible supports... Marxism and the rule of kings, slavery and abolition, judgment and freedom from judgment, virginity and polygamy

Erm. Sorta. I might tackle those one at a time. (No apologies for being a bit ranty about "ooh controversial" bits of Judeo-Christian doctrine; people failing to think and use common sense regarding the Bible directly and significantly made my childhood worse. So now I set the bar high.)

Marxism. No. The main proof text I see people using for this is Acts 2:43ff:

2:43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.
2:44 All the believers were together and had everything in common.
2:45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.
2:46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts,
2:47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

That gets taken to be somehow prescriptive for Christians 2000 years later. Sell your possessions! Join a commune! Except the context for that passage is the day of Pentecost: the giving of the Holy Spirit, the "comforter" Jesus promised in John 14:16,26. That was a one-time event (the timing matched a particular Jewish holiday); said apostles were the ones who hung out with Jesus; said believers were mostly or all Jews physically in Jerusalem (God intended both the "mostly Jews" and "in Jerusalem" parts to be temporary.)

Another, Luke 12:31ff:

12:31 But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.
12:32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.
12:33 Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.
12:34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
12:35 “Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning,
12:36 like servants waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him.
Again, context. Jesus is describing to his disciples the "rules of operation" for the Kingdom, a spiritual, non-political thing that Jesus in part came to declare. Look at the sentence directly after the bit about giving alms:

Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail

Jesus is not creating in advance a market for Burberry. Are modern-day Christians also meant to carry lamps around and take care not to let them be extinguished? As Spurgeon lamented, theology is built on prepositions, and in this case the "in" of "in heaven" needs a lot of attention.

On to the next:

The Rule of Kings. A qualified yes. The Bible has a strong preference for order over chaos, in almost every sense you can think of, and it explicitly talks about God delegating authority to human political leaders, be they kings or otherwise. It's worth noting that the nation of Israel was specifically intended not to have a king, but they whinged and moaned for one until God relented - then they had 1000 years of mostly shitty kings.

Slavery and Abolition. In the context of this thread I think arguing these points constitutes a derail, as do Judgment and Freedom from Judgment.

Virginity and Polygamy. Finally the fun stuff. I've in the past used God's tolerance for polygamy as an argument against "one man for one woman for life" views of marriage - successfully, I think, based on the reaction I received from conservative friends. (Which reaction was fairly funny, and involved lots of adherence to theological party lines and little originality or substance.)

So, I can't very well now trot out the Apostle Paul on marriage (ergh) then smugly sit back in my armchair. I'd perhaps summarize things as "virginity has value, polygamy is not ideal but sometimes isn't terrible depending on the context, if you want to be a Christian leader or some crap then don't fuck around." Perhaps we're in agreement here. On to tackling the article though:

John Humphrey Noyes talks about Jesus being a battery who will charge you with electric life. He believed some ways of communicating this magnetic fluid were more effective, like having sexual intercourse.

That's wonderfully weird. While he perhaps deserves some points for use of contemporary metaphor, the bit about sexual energy transmission is something you get more from mystery religions and Satanism than the Bible, which seems to view sex less weirdly.

“In Revelations...

Minus 10 points, Wayland-Smith, for ignoring the text.

A lot of 19th-century reform movements were based in religion; the idea was Christ is coming back, and we better get our house in order.

Not bad, really. Jesus approves of this. Pubescent boys and post-menopausal women, not so much.

“Franz Anton Mesmer, for example, theorized that you could heal sick people through these magnetic touches, which could reset your ‘magnetism.’

I want to yell "poppycock" but I'm reminded that Nikola Tesla might agree with that statement, for empirical reasons... so I might reserve judgment. Especially with all the stuff about TMS these days.

Regarding the rest, the ways in which the cult's values influenced the subsequent corporate history is pretty interesting too.

TL;DR: valuing humans, valuing equality: good. Complex arrangements of and transparent justifications for weird sex: bad.

Finally, fuck silverware. Civilized people eat with chopsticks.
posted by iffthen at 10:46 AM on June 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

We sprung for some of their flatware several years ago, and it is actually pretty nice. I saw a mysteries of the museum or something about the cult and kept thinking "wait, are these the people who made our spoons and forks?"

Turns out, yep.
posted by lkc at 11:37 AM on June 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

Seems like there was quite a bit of spooning and forking going on.
posted by smidgen at 12:23 PM on June 22, 2016 [6 favorites]

iffthen: Erm. Sorta. I might tackle those one at a time. ...context... ...context... ...context...

Context, schmontext. :-) The great thing about the Bible is that you can take whatever you want out of context and use it to support a wide range of opinions. And I would argue that there's nothing particularly wrong with that, since the Bible is a whole bunch of different books written by a whole bunch of different people with different opinions. You want raging anti-wealth populism? Amos is your guy. You want sex? Song of Solomon has been explained away as a metaphor about God and Israel, but a plain reading of the text says it's about sex and desire. There are lots of metaphors in it but they're all metaphors for sexiness - "your belly is a heap of wheat" and all that. You want some kind of existential-y nihilism-y stuff? Ecclesiastes. You want polygamy and patriarchy? All the parts about the polygamous patriarchs. You want faith without works? Ephesians. You want faith with works? James.

You want to interpret it as a single book with a unified message? Good luck. :-)
posted by clawsoon at 12:47 PM on June 22, 2016 [4 favorites]

A friend of mine has a novel (or at least I have never seen it anywhere else) theory about how the burned over district came to be what it was. There was a big geographical area that was cleared of Natives after the Revolutionary War where they had allied with the British giving the new government self-justification to steal all their land and make them move. This was followed by a huge influx of Euros into land that was empty. Or so they thought. It was empty of live Indians. It was filled with Indian spirits and many of them were not pleased.

Those "Angels" that took the piss out of Joseph Smith? They were Native trickster spirits.
posted by bukvich at 4:13 PM on June 22, 2016 [5 favorites]

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