Tucked in a quiet corner of upstate New York, around a bend in a lonely road, there stands a dramatically large brick building that once housed 300 radical Christian communists. The Oneida Community Mansion House was home to a group of Christians who shared everything among themselves, from possessions to labor. The Oneida Community was founded by John Humphrey Noyes in the middle of the nineteenth century on the belief that Christ had already returned and, thus, that moral perfection was possible. To achieve this great end, the members refused any form of selfishness, sharing even the parenting of their children and, as they are most famously known, their marriages. These mid-century Christians practiced complex marriage in which every man of the community was married to every woman and vice versa. Members were encouraged to not cling too much to one partner—a sign of selfishness in their eyes.
Aside from the guarantee to wake up any class of dozing undergraduates, their practice of plural marriage interests me because this group was necessarily geographically limited by their practice of communism and marriage and, yet, understood themselves to be changing the whole world. To share as they did required being in each other’s immediate presence with limited interaction with outsiders. How, then, did the Oneidans imagine themselves to connect to the world at all, let alone serve as a model for a new way of global life?
In this two-part post, I offer a brief account of the ways in which Oneidans connected to the world around them. In this part, I describe the ways they brought the world in to their small community. In the next part, I will describe how they imagined themselves to lead the world to a new form of Christianity.
The Mansion House today contains a large store of artifacts that illustrate their determined connection to the farthest corners of the globe. In front of their meeting hall, they have a large curio cabinet that houses silk slippers and chopsticks from China, a miniature stone statue of a Pharaoh from Egypt, and coins from around the world. The cabinet, true to this Victorian form, is a tour of the “exotic,” in which a local indigenous arrowhead sits alongside a bone comb from Asia. Many of these objects were collected by Noyes on his trips abroad or given as gifts from foreign visitors. The collection was placed in a central location and stands in front of the room where most of the community meetings, worship, and entertainment took place.
The library is another site of this kind of global connection and invention. There, a small globe sits in the corner and anchors the numerous books and journals to which the Community subscribed. The Oneida Community’s library reflects a commitment to knowledge about the world, whether through highly technical texts on recent advances in electrical engineering or early anthropologies. Notably, they were great fans of Darwin, who significantly influenced their later attempts to breed more perfect humans in a process they called “Stirpiculture.” Their collection contains the books that paved the way for the later scholarly habit of inventing global organizations of systems of thought, habit, and belief from around the world (e.g. Frazer’s Golden Bough).
The Oneida Community took in the world in a way typical to mid-nineteenth century America: part wonder at difference, part domesticating study, and all with an eye to creating the global out of the foreign. That is, the world became accessible by making it systematic, organized, and an object of sight and study.