Without Sin: The Life and Death of the Oneida Community

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Spencer Klaw

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Spencer Klaw's Without Sin chronicles the rise and fall of nineteenth-century America's most successful experiment in Utopian living: the Oneida Community in upstate New York. Founded in 1848 by a small band of Christian Perfectionists under the leadership of John Humphrey Noyes, the Community flourished for more than thirty years. Before it was finally destroyed by a fierce internal dispute - as well as external attacks by a legion of self-appointed guardians of public morals - Oneida could boast some three hundred practicing members who, following the tenets of Noyes's Bible Communism, collectively owned and operated a number of profitable factories and mills and drew thousands of curious visitors to see how they lived.
Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of life at Oneida was the highly unorthodox sexual regimen prescribed by its founder, who believed that in a community of true Christians, God did not intend love between men and women to be confined to the narrow channels of conventional matrimony. In the Oneidan system of complex marriage, every woman in the Community was considered to be married to every man, resulting in a virtually constant exchange of sexual partners. Oneidan men were required to practice a special technique of birth control, freeing the women from the burden of bearing unwanted children. Child-rearing, like most work at Oneida, was shared by the Community's men and women. According to Noyes's view, work, like sex, was intended to be joyous: Oneidans were encouraged to change jobs often to prevent boredom, and whenever possible hard and monotonous work was transformed into a game or social occasion.
Working for more than a decade from the letters and diaries - many previously unpublished - of Oneida's own members, Spencer Klaw has rescued a largely forgotten chapter in American history, reminding us of one of the most successful attempts ever made to build a society in which men and women could live together harmoniously sharing with absolute equality the fruits of their common labor. As one of the children born and raised at Oneida would write years after the Community had disappeared, I have the faith to believe that here a great example of unselfishness was set for the world for all time, and that the future will find that out.


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