A couple of years ago, we told you about the Oneida Community, a commune that practiced relative equality and complex marriage among all members and then ended up as a corporation that produced silverware. The group was led and held together by John Humphrey Noyes, who espoused the concept of “Perfectionism,” or the idea that Christians can become sinless. The concept got him thrown out of Yale Divinity School. Ellen Wayland-Smith, author of Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table and a descendant of Oneida members, tells us how Noyes developed the notion of complex marriage when his only convert left him to marry another man. Noyes told her that one could have a “spiritual husband” as well as an earthly husband. He later expanded the idea to include multiple husbands and wives, and when he married, it was with the stipulation that the couple would not be exclusive. And he attracted others who liked his ideas.
The transition from John Humphrey Noyes’ abstract, theoretical polyamory to actual extramarital sex didn’t take place until 1846, after George Cragin expressed his attraction to Noyes’ wife, Harriet. His affection was returned, and Noyes’ also felt Mary Cragin was his new spiritual wife. The two couples, the Noyes and the Cragins, met and agreed to the Society’s first “complex marriage” engagement, to be acted on when the kingdom of Christ arrived. However, when Noyes, out walking with Mary, felt overwhelmed with passion, he quickly decided that God’s kingdom had already arrived—and that it was starting quietly, stealthily in Putney and would slowly spread throughout the world. It was the Society’s job to create and spread paradise on earth.
Three other couples—Noyes’ sisters and their husbands and Mary and Stephen Leonard—joined the marriage that year, and the 10 signed an agreement saying, “all individual proprietorship either of persons or things is surrendered” and “John H. Noyes is the father and overseer whom the Holy Ghost has set over the family thus constituted.” John and Harriet Noyes moved into the Cragins’ home, while Noyes’ sisters welcomed the Leonards into their family home nearby. The other 25 members of the Society were kept in the dark about this new martial arrangement. In her research, Wayland-Smith found no evidence that John Humphrey Noyes had sex with his sisters.
Their complex marriage would not remain a secret for long. Noyes, who had taken to practicing faith healings (one that worked, and another that failed), confided in a new friend about his multiple relationships. During the fall of 1847, that pal betrayed him and took the news of Noyes’ extramarital affairs to the Vermont attorney. Noyes was arrested on charges of adultery in October but quickly released on bail. The Putney villagers’ outcry about the group’s amoral behavior caused them to flee to a Perfectionist’s farm on Oneida Creek in New York, part of the former Oneida Native American reservation, in early 1848.
Wayland-Smith has a detailed account of how the Oneida Community was built, and how it transitioned into a capitalist corporation that continued to espouse communist ideals up to a point, at Collectors Weekly.