Cult Study: Oneida Utopia 1/4

Circa 1850 picture of John Humphrey Noyes

The Oneida Utopia is my “favorite” historical cult. Learning about this group in a US history class gave me the first hint I was raised in a cult myself. All the other students thought this group was unmitigated weirdness; they couldn’t relate at all. Meanwhile I felt a strange familiar connection to them. An internet search confirmed my own cult history and I have loved history ever since. Here’s a not so brief overview of the group and their practices.

The community was founded in the New York town of Oneida in 1848 by John Humphrey Noyes I. Several US new religious movements started in the 1840s, a natural consequence of the Second Great Awakening, a period of intense evangelism and religious fervor from the 1790s to 1820s. Upstate New York was a hot spot of trendy new religions including Oneida and Latter Day Saints, the Sedona, Arizona of its day. Following the Awakening, many central and western New York counties were called the “burned over district”, since there was no more fuel (unconverted) left for the fire of evangelism.

In this environment, 20 year old Noyes had a religious conversion and decided to forego law school in favor of seminary. While there he determined that the second coming of Christ had already occurred way back in 70 AD. Noyes interpreted this to mean the foretold age of the Millennial Kingdom was upon them. He took on the Perfectionist belief that it was possible for Christians to live without sin, and that they were called to do so.

On February 20, 1834 Noyes declared that he was free of sin. This pronouncement was deemed so heretical that he was expelled from Yale and his license to preach was revoked. Noyes moved to Putney, Vermont where he preached without a license, gathering a small following. The Putney Bible School, formed by Noyes in 1836, was by 1844 an intentional community engaging in all the practices that came to define Oneida.

One of those practices was “complex marriage”. Noyes, married himself by that point to Harriet Holton, believed that closed family units were not godly and encouraged sins such as envy and pride. Within his communes, each man was considered married to each woman, and vice versa. Same-sex relationships were not part of it, and all matches were cross sex.

The law didn’t see the situation as “complex” so much as “illegal” and in 1847 Noyes was arrested for adultery. Arrest warrants were issued for several other followers as well, so the group as a whole moved to Oneida, New York. For the early years of Oneida they lived in their first communal building there before constructing the Mansion House in 1862. The Mansion House has remained in constant use ever since, for a variety of purposes. 

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