“Without Sin: The Life and Death of the Oneida Community” by Spencer Klaw

This reading described an attempt at a utopian way of living that combined Christianity and Communism. It shows the contradictions between a desired state of life and the challenges of carrying it out.

Clearly, the Communism of the community was successful so long as the members of the commune shared a common purpose and common values. Their commitment to their leader was such that they believed him divinely inspired. John Humphrey Noyes exercised a level of control over the society that was both sinister and perhaps necessary. Certainly, once he left the values of the community fell apart.

The concept of “complex marriage” is an intriguing one. At first it sounds idyllic. In the mid-1800s, men and women are free to partner with whomever they want, though presumably not with same-sex partners. Then, the conditions come in- they cannot partner exclusively with one person, though this seems inherent in the idea of choice. Children are expected to join in as soon as they hit puberty. For girls, this is guided by Noyes himself, and it seems that none in the commune called this pedophilia. I am curious as to how this tracks with consent- if you are raised all your life to believe that you should be groomed by the founder of your church, does your consent to this process have any meaning? Can we apply our own values to such situations? Is there a universal law? If the past is a different country, does cultural relativism apply to its practices?

For the most part, this article seemed to be more about the community itself than secessionism. Separatism was certainly present as a theme in the breakup of the church, but it seems that it collapsed mostly due to the criticism of some members rather than any concerted effort to split the church and form a new group. Adding to our definition of secession- if a coup does not count as secession, does an effort at reform? Even if it results in the destruction of the community?

I am not sure how to feel about the Oneida community. As the author says, there are both positive and negative aspects to their practices. In some ways women were empowered. However, the community as a whole experienced both a liberating unity of purpose and a terrifying lack of intellectual freedom. How do we reconcile these aspects? Can they be reconciled? Is a utopian community possible?

On the whole, I feel that it is not. People will always disagree on the best ways to live their lives. The same answers will not fit every situation. The pursuit of perfection is admirable, but its pursuers must recognize that only an approximation of the goal is possible.

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