Shakers, Polygamists and Oneida Religious Sects by Stewart Davenport


Inconsolable after the marriage of his beloved to another man in 1837, a young seminarian named John Humphrey Noyes declared in a bitter and anti-love poem to his ex:

I won’t give you back your heart,
I’ve courted and earned enough,
And sooner in my life I will part,
You can depend on it.

Not content with mere verse, Noyes would turn his emotional anguish into a theological critique of the institution of monogamous marriage itself (or, as he once called it, “selfishness for two”). Condemning monogamy as “simple” and replacing it with a more heavenly polyamorous version which he called “complex marriage”, in 1848 he founded a religious sect based on his teachings: the Oneida community in upstate New York. . There people would be stripped of their worldliness as much as possible.I-mind“, and have it replaced by the most divine”we-mindof authentic Christian communion. Only with this kind of radical reorientation, according to Noyes, could believers experience community, family, and marriage the way God intended.

You may be feeling down about a lack of romantic fulfillment or a recent breakup on this Valentine’s Day, or its “Singles Awareness Day” that follows. But as the story of Noyes illustrates, you are not alone, among your contemporaries in 2022, or throughout human history. Three 19th-century American sects—the Oneida pantogamists as well as the Shaker celibates and the Mormon polygamists—wage wars against the so-called selfishness of monogamous marriage. All saw romantic exclusivity as a sin, an obstacle to creating a more universal love for a community of fellow believers.

Monogamy, of course, won out. Experiences like the commune of Noyes now seem distant, strange and historically specific. And yet, there is something familiar and universal about them. They revolved, as we still often do, around grief. What can they teach us about love and sex today?

We all search for meaning in the universe and we all long for human intimacy – to know our place in the bigger picture and to share that story with someone. These double human drives are as old as the human species. Take the book of Genesis, for example. Before God created Eve, Adam knew his cosmic meaning, walked with his Creator in Eden, but was still alone and depressed.

Noyes could understand. “The next thing a man wants after he finds his soul’s salvation,” he wrote, “is to find his Eve and his Paradise.” When his first love renounced their shared faith and then announced his engagement to another man, his world came crashing down around him.

“John Humphrey Noies.” Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

So he picked up the pieces and created a new one – without that sinful institution that had caused him so much pain: monogamy. Rather than becoming some sort of perpetual quasi-religious orgy, the Oneida community was highly controlled. Potential sex partners had to arrange their liaisons – or “fellowships” as they called them – through a third party, sleep separately after communion ended, and try hard not to have the same partner too often. in order to prevent the relationship. to become exclusive. As Noyes knew from experience, the desire for exclusivity is one of the most powerful emotions romanticized and sexualized human love can engender. Such passion could only bring spiritual ruin.

The Shakers, who were founded in mid-18th century England and reached the height of their popularity in America between 1820 and 1860, similarly hated the institutions of marriage and family for the sinful “natural affections” that accompanied them. Shaker villages were to be new families of believers, with mothers, fathers, sisters, and spiritual brothers all living together in harmony: worshiping the Lord, working hard for their bread, and waging communal warfare against the flesh abstaining from sex.

Above the Shakers too, the pain of love hovered. Mother Ann Lee, the group’s founder, had tragic and traumatic experiences in childbirth, losing her four newborn babies – a fact that later commentators point to as the psychological source of her hatred of all genders.

The story of Steven Sutton, a new convert living in Shaker Village in Canterbury, New Hampshire in the 1780s, illustrates how painful this struggle with exclusive love could be. His wife “was a lovely woman and I loved her,” he wrote. But after joining the community, “now I have to hate her… The leaders said, ‘That was my god.'” Separating the family turned out to be too much for her, and when “she was buried” , Sutton continued, “I was ordained to cover the earth on his coffin, to show that I had no natural affections; that is what I did, when at the same time, I had the feeling that I had to dive into the grave with her.

For Mormon polygamists, the message was largely the same, though the cure was certainly not, with religious leaders particularly targeting women in their crusade against selfishness. “I am sure that through the practice of this principle” of plural marriage, wrote George Q. Cannon, “we will have a purer community, a community more experienced, less selfish and with a better knowledge of human nature than any other on the face of the earth. »

The words of Helen Mar Kimball Whitney, Joseph Smith’s plural widow and later apologist for Mormon polygamy, indicate that she had internalized this logic. Plural marriage “will exalt the human family”, she wrote in an 1882 letter, and “in place of selfishness, patience and charity will find place in [plural wives’] hearts, casting out all feelings of struggle and discord.

Three 19th-century American sects—the Oneida pantogamists as well as the Shaker celibates and the Mormon polygamists—wage wars against the so-called selfishness of monogamous marriage. All saw romantic exclusivity as a sin, an obstacle to creating a more universal love for a community of fellow believers.

As with the Shakers and Oneidans, selfishness was the true enemy of Mormon polygamists—an obstacle to personal piety and communal unity that could only be slain (for plural wives) by sacrificing their exclusive claim to their husbands. These sacrifices were often truly painful for the adherents of the three sects, so leaders needed checks and balances to enforce community practices whenever individual discipline wavered. Although faithful, believers struggled deeply to root out the special love they had for others – a love they were told was selfish and sinful.

Why did Mormons, Shakers, and Oneidans all target even the exclusive romantic love found in the tried and tested, biblically sanctioned, and socially accepted institution of monogamous marriage?

Well, for starters, maybe this institution wasn’t as biblically bulletproof as its defenders might have imagined. All three groups used the same Bible verses to attack him. “The children of this world marry and are given in marriage”, proclaims Jesus in Luke 20:34-35, but those who are worthy to obtain “the resurrection from the dead, do not marry and are not given in marriage”. The Shakers and Oneidans often referred to this simple evidence text to defend their decision to abolish monogamy.

For polygamous Mormon Saints, who place the institution of marriage and the obligation to procreate through sex at the center of their eternity story, it was a little different. They believed that more wives would mean more children for the father of the family both on earth and in the hereafter. Mormons opposed these selfish, complaining, and plural wives who wanted to be their husband’s one and only with an increased commitment to religious duty.

What also tied these three sects together was when and where they rose, institutionalized and fell, relatively simultaneously. In the 1830s, the federal government was weak, the American frontier seemingly endless, and the opportunities for sectarian start-ups equally limitless. By the 1880s, however, the federal government was strong and growing, the border was rapidly disappearing, and the majority of Americans were increasingly intolerant of sexual and marital arrangements which they believed corroded the morality of the nation.

By 1881, the Oneida community had dissolved, Shakers were losing members at an alarming rate (and evidently, failing to create new ones), and many Mormons were actively choosing monogamy over polygamy. The external environment that had once nurtured religious sexual experimentation had indeed changed from tolerable to toxic, and the internal desire of many sectarians to reject monogamy for something else had also faded. Having originally condemned romantic exclusivity as a sin, over time more of them wanted it nonetheless.

We still cling to the romantic ring today, and it’s understandable that we do, especially coming out of the shared solitary confinement we’ve all been through for the past two years. Adam wanted an Eve. John Humphrey Noyes wanted his lost beloved. My wife wants me to up my romantic game. If on this Valentine’s Day you, too, are feeling particularly inflamed by a disappointment in love, you can always take a page from Noyes and write a poem about it. Noyes’ verse continues:

You say your heart is still yours,
But words will never prove it.
What God and you and I have done
Will take place; the world cannot move it.

Or maybe you’re trying to start a whole new religious-sexual community, complete with cosmology, hierarchy, institutions, and disciplinary apparatus. And buy my new book, Sex and sects. He will show you how.

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