1902 Encyclopedia > Oneida Community

Oneida Community

ONEIDA COMMUNITY, in Madison co., New York, is a society which has attracted wide interest on account of its pecuniary success and its peculiar religious and social principles. Its founder, organizer, and controlling mind was John H. Noyes, who in 1834, while a student and licentiate of the theological seminary of Yale College, was led by his study of the New Testament to believe that the gospel of Christ, when fully accepted, secures present salvation from sin, and that the second coming of Christ, instead of being a future event, took place, according to promise, within a single generation of His first coming. Other religious doctrines at variance with popular theology were developed by Mr Noyes, such as that God is a dual being, Father and Son; that God is in no sense responsible for the existence of evil, but that the author of evil, as the author of good, was uncreated; that, the second coining of Christ being past, we are now living in a new dispensation of grace; that personal spiritual communication with Christ and His risen church is possible, and when perfected secures salvation from all evil, including disease and death itself.

These doctrines found their practical expression in a social system of pure communism. In the Oneida Community, founded in 1848, "not one said that aught of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common." The Community was a large family or brotherhood, numbering at one time over three hundred members, the common bond being paramount. The children were regarded as belonging primarily to the Community; and it was a favourite theory, which they made some attempts to realize, that children should be begotten and reared only under the best conditions. So far as their experiments in this direction extended, the results, they claimed, justified their theories, and they adduced in confirmation the testimony of critical observers like Professor Goldwin Smith, who wrote after a visit to the Community as follows:—

"Undeniably, they are a fine, healthy looking, merry set of children. They are reared under conditions of exceptional advantage, which could not fail to secure health to the offspring of any but positively diseased parents. The nurseries, with everything about them, are beautiful. Large playrooms are provided for exercise in winter. The nurses are not hirelings, but members of the community who voluntarily undertake the office. Every precaution is taken against the danger of infection. A simple and wholesome dietary is enforced, and no mother or grandmother is permitted to ruin digestion and temper by administering first a poison from the confectioner’s and then another poison from the druggist’s."

But, while the Oneida Communists extended the pentecostal principle to all social relations, they yet maintained strict order among themselves. The thousands of visitors who annually inspected their dwellings and factories, and .admired their lawns and gardens, discovered none of the usual signs of lax social morality. Credit for this is unquestionably due in part to the strong personal influence of Mr Noyes, but credit is also due to the members for voluntarily subjecting themselves to a system of self-control in the intercourse of the sexes called "male continence," and to "mutual criticism," which last was in fact exalted into their principal means of government. The system is one of plain truth-telling, and was termed "mutual" because it was expected that all, or nearly all, would alternate as critic and subject. Sometimes persons were criticized by a standing committee selected for the purpose by the Community, sometimes by committees of their own selection, sometimes by the whole Community. The critics were expected in all cases to speak the truth without fear or favour, that the subject might see himself, whatever his faults or virtues, as others saw him.

Radical as its theories and practices were, the Oneida Community was able to conduct its experiment with much success for thirty years. About that time public opinion, aroused by the clergy of the surrounding region, demanded that its social practices should be abandoned; and this was accordingly done in 1879, under the counsel of its founder and president, Mr Noyes, who had many times previously expressed his willingness to conform to the wishes of the public respecting the practical assertion of his social principles. This important change led to other changes in the society, including the introduction of marriage and family life; and in 1880 communism of property gave place to joint-stock, and the Community was legally incorporated as the Oneida Community, Limited. Each member now has a separate individual interest represented by shares of stock, in place of the undivided interest he formerly had in the common property. These changes were so wisely managed that the complex manufacturing and commercial businesses of the society were not seriously disturbed. In the division of the property of the Community, prior to its reorganization into a joint-stock company, a guarantee of support was first offered to all elderly and infirm persons in lieu of stock; secondly, a guarantee was pledged for the support and education of the children of the Community till sixteen years of age; thirdly, labour in the new company was guaranteed to all members of the old society; fourthly, some co-operative features were preserved, such as common dwellings and lawns, a common laundry, library, reading-room &c.

Although the Oneida Community was started with very limited capital (the inventoried valuation of its property in 1857 being only $67,000), and hard work and poor fare were the lot of its members for many years, yet industry and business integrity brought their usual rewards, and upon the reorganization the members were able to divide $600,000. The last annual report of the Oneida Community, Limited, filed with the secretary of state at Albany, New York, shows that its assets, 1st January 1884, were $785,656,—a sum covering, not only its capital stock of $600,000, but a surplus fund of $24,050, and all liabilities against the company.

The Oneida Community, Limited, owns water-powers and factories at Wallingford, Connecticut, and Niagara Falls, New York, as well as at Community, New York; but its business is principally carried on at the two places last named. At Wallingford there existed, previous to the reorganization, a branch community, varying from thirty to sixty members, and having a common interest in the parent society,—both men and means being transferred from one society to the other as occasion required.

The Oneida Community has been often described by writers not connected with the society, the most noteworthy being Colonel T. W. Higginson, Professor Goldwin Smith, Charles Nordhoff in Communistic Societies of the United States, and William H. Dixon in New America. The Community also published many pamphlets and larger works in exposition of its principles and social life, and a newspaper during its entire career of thirty years. Those may be consulted in several of the public libraries of the United States, and also in the British Museum, which has a complete set of the publications of the Oneida Community. The following list includes the more important books and pamphlets:—History of American Socialisms, by John H. Noyes, 1870; Berean, Home Talks, Salvation from Sin, Male Continence, Scientific Propagation, Dixon and his Copyists, all by the same author; Report on the Health of the Children of the Oneida Community, by Dr T. R. Noyes; Foot-Notcs, by Alfred Barron ; Mutual Criticism, and American Communities, by William Alfred Hinds. (W. A. H.)

The above article was written by: William A. Hinds.

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