John Humphrey Noyes: Complex Marriage and Male Continence

"The Shakers, and most revivalists, had been content to permit the maximum amount of license that was compatible with absolute chastity. The complement of this license was a rigid system of taboo, which was observed with a ritualistic attention to detail.... The students of both sexes who attended [Oberlin Theological Seminary] prided themselves upon their ability to withstand all sexual temptation. But since their spiritual muscles were in such fine trim, the desire to exercise them was correspondingly great. How could they be certain of their stamina and resistance - how, indeed, could they even keep in training - without regular practice in jumping the hurdles and leaping the ditches of sexual temptation? Some means must be found of arousing passion in order that it might be resisted - some means, of course, that would have the blessing of religious sanction.

"What better method could be found than that ancient custom of taking 'spiritual wives' - a tradition handed down from the Agapetae of early Christian days? ... [Lucinia] Umphreville stated that perfection could be derived from passionate love, provided the lovers lived together without indulging their carnal desires. Should they be so weak as to submit to temptation, the spiritual couples would prove that they were unworthy and ill-assorted. They would have to look for new partners, and go on experimenting and searching until the ideal partner was found. Umphreville Perfectionism, in fact, by making provision for lapses from grace, slyly admitted erotic possibilities by a side door.... In the middle 'thirties [that's 1830s] there appeared among these Perfectionists an earnest and eager young man who was to give the doctrine a revolutionary twist of his own by actually establishing a colony of Perfectionists who would openly practise a completely new system of sexual relations.

"John Humphrey Noyes, unlike the founders of most religious communities, came of a well-established family. His father had represented Vermont in Congress, and his mother was a great-aunt of Rutherford Birchard Hayes, nineteenth President of the United States. Noyes was born a rebel, and was happily endowed with the temerity that such men require in order to achieve success. He was converted at a revival in 1831, at the age of twenty, having previously shown little interest in theology or, indeed, in the studies he had been pursuing at Dartmouth. Moving now to Andover and Yale Divinity Schools, he prepared to enter the ministry, but to enter it on his terms: 'If you are to be a minister,' said his father, 'you must think and preach as the rest of the ministers do; if you get out of the traces, they will whip you in.' 'Never!' replied Noyes, 'never will I be whipped by ministers or anybody else into views that do not commend themselves to my understanding as guided by the Bible and enlightened by the Spirit.' This animated reply was a prophetic utterance, for Noyes very soon got out of the traces. His trouble was that he simply couldn't believe he was a sinner. Try as he might, he couldn't summon up any feelings of deep guilt or despair. Yet this very waywardness was itself a sin in the eyes of the orthodox; and Noyes, being unable to admit it, somehow had to devise a means of abolishing sin altogether. His solution to this problem was so astoundingly simple that it amounted to a stroke of genius. In the summer of 1833, while reading the last words of the Fourth Gospel, Noyes received a sudden illumination concerning Christ's words, 'If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?' 'I knew', wrote Noyes, 'that the time appointed for the Second Advent was within one generation from the time of Christ's personal ministry' - in A.D. 70, to be precise. The Second Coming had taken place centuries ago - so long ago, in fact, that no record of the event had been preserved. The sinners had been divided from the saved, and he that sinned now, so Noyes preached, was of the devil. Noyes himself had the courage to proclaim that he did not sin, and the grace to confess that Christ had absolved him....

"The implications of a Second Advent that has already taken place are bound to be far-reaching. The Shakers and the Noyesian Perfectionists, both of whom thought they were living in a state of regeneration, believed that if they were not quite in heaven itself, they were at least close enough to it to order their lives upon heavenly conventions. One such convention for which Biblical authority existed was the absence of marriage in Heaven - where 'they neither marry nor are given in marriage'. The Shakers, who wanted to be celibate, used this text in order to justify their desires: the followers of Noyes, who did not want celibacy, used the same text to support a form of regulated promiscuity. In 1837 'The Battle Axe' published a letter from Noyes explaining his conception of the sexual relations that ought to exist between men and women. In his letter, he stated uncompromisingly that when the will of God is done on earth as it is in Heaven 'there will be no marriage. The marriage supper of the Lamb is a feast at which every dish is free to every guest. Exclusiveness, jealousy, quarrelling have no place there, for the same reason as that which forbids a guest at a thanksgiving dinner to claim each his separate dish, and quarrel with the rest for his rights. In a holy community, there is no more reason why sexual intercourse should be restrained by law, than why eating and drinking should be - and there is as little occasion for shame in the one case as in the other.'

"... in 1840 the Putney Association came into being - as a purely religious body, thus described in 'The Witness':

'Our establishment, such as it is, exists in the midst of an ordinary village, and differs not in its relation to the community around from a manufacturing corporation or any other ordinary association. A few families of the same religious faith, without any formal scheme or written laws, have agreed to regard themselves as one family, and their relations to one another are regulated as far as possible by this idea. The special object of the association is not to make money, nor to exemplify the perfection of social life, but to support the publication of the gospel of salvation from sin, by papers, books, tracts, etc. Formal community of property is not regarded by us as obligatory on principle, but as expedient with reference to our present circumstances and objects. We are attempting no scientific experiments in political economy nor in social science, and beg to be excused from association in the public mind with those who are making such experiments. Our highest ambition is to be able to preach Christ without being burdensome to any, and to act out as far as possible the family spirit of of the gospel. When we find a better way than our present plan to attain these objects we shall freely change our mode of living.'

"They soon found 'a better way than their present plan' of living, and in 1844 adopted communism, in which change Noyes had been influenced by the example of the Shakers.... it was at Putney... that Noyes first formulated his ideas of Male Continence and Complex Marriage, which were adopted by the community in 1846.

"These latter practices were more than the inquisitive neighbors were prepared to tolerate. In the following year the persecution of the community culminated in the indictment of Noyes on the grounds of adultery. Noyes... purchased... land in another state.... at Oneida.... In 1847... it was unaninimously adopted by the forty or fifty members at Putney 'that the Kingdom of God had come'....

"The birth of Oneida Community was preceded by the conceptions of Male Continence and Complex Marriage. Both systems, although given religious justification, were invented by Noyes in order to overcome the suffering which was then the common experience of women in childbirth. Mrs. Noyes had given birth to five babies in six years, and four of them had been stillborn. Her husband could see no religious reason for permitting such pain and disappointment; but, since he disapproved of contraceptives, he advocated the practice of 'self-control', or coitus reservatus. At the same time Noyes the organiser, the lover of scientific method and order, was shocked by haphazard procreation, which often resulted in the birth of deformed or mentally deficient children. 'We are opposed', he wrote in 'Bible Communism', 'to random procreation, which is unavoidable in the marriage system. But we are in favour of intelligent, well-ordered procreation. The physiologists say that the race cannot be raised from ruin till propagation is made a matter of science; but they point out no way of making it so. Procreation is controlled and reduced to a science in the case of valuable domestic brutes; but marriage and fashion forbid any such system among human beings. We believe the time will come when involuntary and random propagation will cease, and when scientific combination will be applied to human generation as freely and successfully as it is to that of other animals. The way will be open for this when amativeness can have its proper gratification without drawing after it procreation as a necessary sequence. And at all events, we believe that good sense and benevolence will very soon sanction and enforce the rule that women shall bear children only when they choose....'

"But 'amativeness' was seldom satisfied by monogamy, which 'gives to sexual appetite only a scanty and monotonous allowance, and so produces the natural vices of poverty, contraction of taste, and stinginess or jealousy. It makes no provision for the sexual appetite at the very time when that appetite is the strongest. By the custom of the world, marriage, in the average of cases, takes place at about the age of twenty-four; whereas puberty commences at the age of fourteen. For ten years, therefore, and that in the very flush of life, the sexual appetite is starved. This law of society bears hardest on females, because they have less opportunity of choosing their time of marriage than men.'

"The obvious remedy for these abuses was male continence combined with complete freedom of intercourse. Such a system would also remove that discrepancy between community of goods and private possession of persons that must always be obnoxious to a logical individual like Noyes; for was it not absurd that man 'should be allowed and required to love in all directions, and yet forbidden to express love except in one direction'?

"Complex marriage meant, in theory, that any man and woman might freely cohabit within the limits of the community. In practice, however, there was less freedom than might have been expected. The partners in this new form of relationship were obliged to obtain each other's consent, 'not by private conversation or courtship, but through the intervention of some third person or persons'. The exclusive attachment of two persons was regarded as selfish and 'idolatrous' and was strongly discouraged. It was usually broken up by means of 'mutual criticism' - and so were the innocent 'partialities' of one child for another. While no one was obliged, under any circumstances, to receive the attentions of someone whom he or she did not like, the propagation of children was controlled by the elder members of the community. They advised that the young of one sex should be paired off with the aged of the other sex; and at one time twenty-four men and women were specially selected in order to conduct a eugenic experiment designed 'to produce the usual number of offspring to which people in the middle classes are able to afford judicious moral and spiritual care, with the advantage of a liberal education'.

"On the whole the system was remarkably successful. Apart from a few sorrows due to the breaking-up of an exclusive attachment, the sexual relations of the members inspired them with a lively interest in each other, and Pierrepont Noyes - one of the sons of John Humphrey - believes 'that the opportunity for romantic friendships also played a part in rendering life more colourful than elsewhere. Even elderly people, whose physical passions had burned low, preserved the fine essence of earlier associations.'

"It is likely that Noyes's attention was first drawn towards the religious justification of Complex Marriage at Andover Theological Seminary, where Professor Moses Stuart taught that the description of the marriage relations in Rom. vii applied to carnal man before conversion, and was not a matter of Christian experience."

Quoted from: Heavens on Earth by Mark Holloway,
Dover Publications, 1966, pp. 180-7.

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