Open main menu

ONEIDA COMMUNITY (or Bible Communists), an American communistic society at Oneida, Madison county, New York, which has attracted wide interest on account of its pecuniary success and its peculiar religious and social principles (see Communism).

Its founder, John Humphrey Noyes (1811-1886), was born in Brattleboro, Vermont, on the 3rd of September 1811. He was of good parentage; his father, John Noyes (1763-1841), was a graduate of and for a time a tutor in Dartmouth College, and was a representative in Congress in 1815-1817; and his mother, Polly Hayes, was an aunt of Rutherford B. Hayes, president of the United States. The son graduated at Dartmouth in 1830, and studied law for a year, but having been converted in a protracted revival in 1831 he turned to the ministry, studied theology for one year at Andover (where he was a member of “The Brethren,” a secret society of students preparing for foreign missionary work), and then a year and a half at Yale, and in 1833 was licensed to preach by the New Haven Association; but his open preaching of his new religious doctrines, and especially that of present salvation from sin, resulted in the revocation of his license in 1834, and his thereafter being called a Perfectionist. He continued to promulgate his ideas of a higher Christian life, and soon had disciples in many places, one of whom, Harriet A. Holton, a woman of means, he married in 1838. In 1836 he returned to his father's home in Putney, Vt., and founded a Bible School; in 1843 he entered into a “contract of Partnership” with his Putney followers; and in March 1845 the Putney Corporation or Association of Perfectionists was formed.

Although the Putney Corporation or Association was never a community in the sense of common-property ownership, yet it was practically a communal organization, and embodied the radical religious and social principles that subsequently gave such fame to the Oneida Community, of which it may justly be regarded as the beginning and precursor. These principles naturally excited the opposition of the churches in the small Vermont village where the Perfectionists resided, and indignation meetings against them were held; and although they resulted in no personal violence Mr Noyes and his followers considered it prudent to remove to a place where they were sure of more liberal treatment. They accordingly withdrew from Putney in 1847, and accepting the invitation of Jonathan Burt and others, settled near Oneida, Madison county, New York.

Here the community at first devoted itself to agriculture and fruit raising, but had little financial success until it began the manufacture of a steel trap, invented by one of its members, Sewall Newhouse; the manufacture of steel chains for use with the traps followed; the canning of vegetables and fruits was begun about 1854, and the manufacture of sewing and embroidery silk in 1866. Having started with a very small capital (the inventoried valuation of its property in 1857 was only $67,000), the community gradually grew in numbers and prospered as a business concern. Its relations with the surrounding population, after the first few years, became very friendly. The members won the reputation of being good, industrious citizens, whose word was always “as good as their bond”; against whom no charge of intemperance, profanity or crime was ever brought. But the communists claimed that among true Christians “mine and thine” in, property matters should cease to exist, as among the early pentecostal believers; and, moreover, that the same unselfish spirit should pervade and control all human relations. And notwithstanding these very radical principles, which were freely propounded and discussed in their weekly paper, the communists were not seriously disturbed for a quarter of a century. But from 1873 to 1879 active measures favouring legislative action against the community, specially instigated by Prof. John W. Mears (1825-1881), were taken by several ecclesiastical bodies of Central New York. These measures culminated in a conference held at Syracuse University on the 14th of February 1879, when denunciatory resolutions against the community were passed and legal measures advised.

Mr Noyes, the founder and leader of the community, had repeatedly said to his followers that the time might come when it would be necessary, in deference to public opinion, to recede from the practical assertion of their social principles; and on the 20th of August of this year (1879) he said definitely to them that in his judgment that time had come, and he thereupon proposed that the community “give up the practice of Complex Marriage, not as renouncing belief in the principles and prospective finality of that institution, but in deference to public sentiment.” This proposition was considered and accepted in full assembly of the community on the 26th of the same month.

This great change was followed by other changes of vital importance, finally resulting in the transformation of the Oneida Community into the incorporated Oneida Community, Limited, a co-operative joint-stock company, in which each person's interest was represented by the shares of stock standing in his name on the books of the company.

In the reorganization the adult members fared alike in the matter of remuneration for past services—those who by reason of ill-health had been unable to contribute to the common fund receiving the same as those who by reason of strength and ability had contributed most thereto; besides, the old and infirm had the option of accepting a life-guaranty in lieu of work; and hence there were no cases of suffering and want at the time the transformation from a common-property interest to an individual stock interest was made; and in the new company all were guaranteed remunerative labour.

This occurred on the 1st of January 1881, at which time the business and property of the community were transferred to the incorporated stock company, and stock issued therefor to the amount of $600,000. In the subsequent twenty-eight years this capital stock was doubled, and dividends averaging more than 6% per annum were paid. Aside from the home buildings and the large acreage devoted to agriculture and fruit raising, the present capital of the company is invested, first, in its hardware department at Kenwood, N.Y., manufacturing steel game-traps, and weldless chains of every description; second, the silk department at Kenwood, N.Y., manufacturing sewing silk, machine twist and embroidery silks; third, the fruit department at Kenwood, N.Y., whose reputation for putting up pure, wholesome fruits and vegetables is probably the highest in the country; fourth, the tableware department, at Niagara Falls, N.Y., which manufactures the now celebrated Community Silver; fifth, the Canadian department, with factory at Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada, where the hardware lines are manufactured for Canadian trade. The annual sales of all departments aggregate over $2,000,000. The officers of the company consist of a president, secretary, treasurer and assistant treasurer, and there were in 1909 eleven directors. Each of the five leading departments is managed by a superintendent, and all are under the supervision of the general manager. Nearly all the superintendents and the general manager were in 1909 young men who were born in the community, and have devoted their life-work to the interests of the company. Selling offices are maintained in New York City, Chicago, St Louis, Cleveland, O., Richmond, Va., Atlanta, Ga., and San Francisco.

In addition to the members of the society the company employs between 1500 and 2000 workmen. The policy has been to avoid trade-unions, but to pay higher wages and give better conditions than other employers in similar lines, and by so doing to obtain a better selection of workmen. The conditions of work as well as of living have been studied and developed with the idea of making both healthful and attractive. With this in view the company has laid out small villages, in many ways making them attractive and sanitary, and has encouraged the building of houses by its employes. Much has been accomplished in this direction by providing desirable building-sites at moderate expense, and paying a bonus of from $100 to $200 in cash to every employé who builds his own home. The company has also taken an interest in the schools in the vicinity of its factories, with the idea of offering to the children of its employés facilities for a good education.

The communism of John H. Noyes was based on his interpretation of the New Testament. In his pamphlet, Bible Communism (1848), he affirmed that the second coming of Christ occurred at the close of the apostolic age, immediately after the destruction of Jerusalem, and he argued from many New Testament passages, especially 1 John 1, 7, that after the second coming and the beginning of Christ's reign upon the earth, the true standard of Christian character was sinlessness, which was possible through vital union with Christ, that all selfishness was to be done away with, both in property in things and in persons, or, in other words, that communism was to be finally established in all the relations of life. But, while affirming that the same spirit which on the day of Pentecost abolished exclusiveness in regard to money tends to obliterate all other property distinctions, he had no affiliation with those commonly termed Free Lovers, because their principles and practices seemed to him to tend toward anarchy. “Our Communities,” he said, “are families as distinctly bounded and separated from promiscuous society as ordinary households. The tie that binds us together is as permanent and sacred, to say the least, as that of common marriage, for it is our religion. We receive no new members (except by deception and mistake) who do not give heart and hand to the family interest for life and for ever. Community of property extends just as far as freedom of love. Every man's care and every dollar of the common property are pledged for the maintenance and protection of the women and the education of the children of the Community.”

The community was much interested in the question of race improvement by scientific means, and maintained with much force of argument that at least as much scientific attention should be given to the physical improvement of human beings as is given to the improvement of domestic animals; and they referred to the results of their own incomplete stirpicultural experiments as indicative of what may be expected in the far future, when the conditions of human reproduction are no longer controlled by chance, social position, wealth, impulse or lust.

The community claimed to have solved among themselves the labour question, all kinds of service being regarded as equally honourable, and every person being respected according to his real character.

The members had some peculiarities of dress, mostly confined, however, to the women, whose costumes included a short dress and pantalets, which were appreciated for their convenience, if not for their beauty. The women also adopted the practice of wearing short hair, which it was claimed saved time and vanity. Tobacco, intoxicants, profanity, obscenity found no place in the community. The community diet consisted largely of vegetables and fruits; meat, tea and coffee being served only occasionally.

For securing good order and the improvement of the members, the community placed much reliance upon a very peculiar system of plain speaking they termed mutual criticism, which originated in a secret society of missionary brethren with which Mr Noyes was connected while pursuing his theological studies at Andover Seminary, and whose members submitted themselves in turn to the sincerest comment of one another as a means of personal improvement. Under Mr Noyes's supervision it became in the Oneida Community a principal means of discipline and government. There was a standing committee of criticism, selected by the community, and changed from time to time, thus giving all an opportunity to serve both as critics and subjects, and justifying the term “mutual” which they gave to the system. The subject was free to have others besides the committee present, or to have critics only of his own choice, or to invite an expression from the whole community.

Noyes edited The Perfectionist (New Haven, Connecticut, 1834,

and Putney, Vermont, 1843-1846); The Witness (Ithaca, New York, and Putney, 1838-1843); The Spiritual Magazine (Putney, 1846-1847; Oneida, 1848-1850); The Free Church Circular (Oneida, 1850-1851); and virtually, though not always nominally, The Circular and The Oneida Circular (Brooklyn, 1851-1854; Oneida, N.Y., and Wallingford, Conn., 1854-1876); and The American Socialist (Oneida, 1876-1880). He was the author of The Way of Holiness (Putney, 1838); The Berean (Putney, 1847), containing an exposition of his doctrines of Salvation from Sin; the Second Coming of Christ; the Origin of Evil; the Atonement; the Second Birth; the Millennium; Our Relations to the Primitive Church, &c. &c.; History of American Socialism (Philadelphia, 1870);

Home Talks (Oneida, 1876); and numerous pamphlets.
See a series of articles in the Manufacturer and Builder (New York,

1891-1894), by “C. R. Edson” (i.e. C. E. Robinson); The Oneida Community, by Allan Estlake (a member of the community) (1900); Morris Hillquit's History of Socialism in the United States (New York, 1903), and especially William A. Hinds' American Communities and

Co-operative Colonies (3rd ed., Chicago, 1908).

(W. A. H.)