A Failed Attempt At ‘Bible Communism’

The founder of the 19th century Oneida commune believed in an extremely literal sense of ‘love thy neighbor’

“In establishing the society of inquiry as a communal economic unit, Noyes was no doubt influenced by the tradition of Christian socialism, as well as by the more general fad for associationist models in forward-thinking reform circles of the 1840s. But what Noyes was after was a much more radical.”

 

In Oneida—a runner-up for WORLD’s 2016 Book of the Year in the Understanding America category—Ellen Wayland-Smith, a descendant of Oneida commune founder John Humphrey Noyes, describes vividly the theory and practice of “Bible Communism” pioneered in Oneida, N.Y., beginning in 1848. Residents established community ownership of both property and bodies, but neither approach proved successful. Some people didn’t work very hard, and many people fell prey to “sticky love,” the desire to pair off permanently. They then had to go before a “Criticism Committee” for confession and correction. From anarchy to dictatorship to demise—that’s the repeated pattern not only politically but socially. At least some of the Oneidans eventually made good silverware.

In the excerpt below, courtesy of Picador, Wayland-Smith explains how Noyes, while he and his followers lived in Putney, Vt., during the mid-1840s, tried to “link sex to immortality through the little-understood, apparently magical workings of electricity.” —Marvin Olasky

Chapter 4: Electric Sex; or, How to Live Forever

In establishing the society of inquiry as a communal economic unit, Noyes was no doubt influenced by the tradition of Christian socialism, as well as by the more general fad for associationist models in forward-thinking reform circles of the 1840s. But what Noyes was after was a much more radical and, ultimately, more mystical state of union than anything imagined by early apostolic Christianity or Fourier’s acolytes. To grasp his intentions we must go back to the Christian mystics and their vision of the godhead as one and indivisible, a unity in which all partial or surface identities are dissolved.

In the mystical tradition, the union between Christ and his church, or between God and the individual believer, was often expressed by analogy with sexual union. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul seizes upon the metaphor of marriage as a fitting image for the relationship between Christ and his followers: just as man and wife “become one flesh” in marriage, so too Christ is a bridegroom espousing the church as the body of all His faithful. The twelfth-century Cistercian monk Bernard of Clairvaux elaborated on Paul’s metaphor, claiming that the overtly sexual Song of Songs was a perfect allegory for the relationship between Christ and the individual soul: “No sweeter names can be found to embody that sweet interflow of affections between [Christ] and the soul, than bridegroom and bride. Between these all things are equally shared, there are no selfish reservations, nothing that causes division. They share the same inheritance, the same table, the same home, the same marriage-bed, they are flesh of each other’s flesh.” Bernard’s sermons are stuffed with “mouth-kisses,” fertile wombs, life-giving breasts (“filled with a milky richness”), and, in general, all manner of fecund flows that bind Father, Son, and church into an indissoluble union.

Noyes had the audacity (or perhaps simply the honesty) to take the mystics at their word: far from falling outside the divine orbit, the sexual organs were, in fact, “the medium of the noblest worship of God.” Not just a metaphor, sexual union was a practical way for souls to bind themselves to one another in the common medium of Christ’s body. The marriage law that held sway in the world, then, and the nuclear family that attended it, worked to constrict and diminish love, which in its fullness and by its very nature was expansive, rippling out in ever more inclusive circles. As the logical consequence of reading Christ’s gospel to “love thy neighbor” in the most literal way imaginable, Noyes’s theology quite simply refused to exclude eros as a viable channel for union with the godhead. “Love in all its forms is simply attraction, or the tendency of congenial elements to approach and become one,” he mused, and sexual love was no exception.

During his time in Putney, Noyes would develop an elaborate theological and biological argument that placed sexual intercourse at the very heart of Christian community. More ingeniously, he made sex the linchpin in what he theorized was humanity’s progressive march to conquer death. For when the invisible world of the saints came to annex the earthly saints— that is to say, Noyes’s followers—to Christ’s heavenly kingdom, all of its members would enjoy everlasting life as promised in the Book of Revelations. One might believe the Old Testament God who drew forth the cosmos from the void capable of endowing His chosen creatures with eternal life by simple fiat. Yet in the spirit of Yankee self-reliance, Noyes was taking no chances: he wagered that there was a physiological mechanism involved in immortality, discoverable through patient scientific inquiry, which humans could perfect on their end in order to meet God halfway to Resurrection. Drawing on current debates within the fields of biology, chemistry, and physiology, Noyes was able to link sex to immortality through the little-understood, apparently magical workings of electricity.

Ever since the day when, in 1780, Luigi Galvani first made an amputated frog’s leg jump by connecting it to the pole of a battery (a feat his nephew had, even more spectacularly, if perhaps less tastefully, surpassed in causing the corpse of an executed convict to flinch by the same method), the mysterious link between electricity and animal energy, or what was called “animal magnetism,” had become a matter of intense debate for scientists and the literate public alike. Seeking an animating force uniting the cosmos, Romantic scientists were quick to see in electricity a life force pulsing throughout creation, uniting organic and inorganic nature. Perhaps the most famous period expression of this current of thought was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Haunted by Galvani’s experiment, she penned this dark romance as the story of a medical student who imparts the “spark of life” to dead matter and later discovers the jerky, lurching creature hanging over his bed, gazing at him “with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.”

In opposition to the Romantics, Alessandro Volta and other scientists in the materialist camp sought to reduce electricity to a mechanical force at work in the universe, stripped of any mystical life-giving properties. Still, despite Volta’s counterdemonstrations discrediting Galvani, the debate over animal magnetism would live on well into the nineteenth century, with magnetizing hypnotic treatments, healing magnets, and other electrical devices (belts, bracelets, and vests) gaining a foothold in mainstream American medical practice by the 1840s and 1850s. “The human system may be looked upon as a voltaic pile, with positive and negative polarity,” commented one medical treatise from 1863, chalking disease up to a disturbance in the life force that needed to be reequilibrated. Artificial electricity—the application to the body of magnets or electric shocks—was capable of rechanneling, reorganizing, and even augmenting the human vital fluid.

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