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Anachronism, Context and Progress in Nineteenth-Century American Communitarianism Michael Fellrnan The Presidential Address to the Canadian Association for American Studies, Banff, Alberta, October 28. 1983. "He that commiteth sin is of the devil." When John Humphrey Noyes, a twentytwo year old theology student preached that text to his Yale Divinity School colleagues one afternoon in 1834,he knew full well the religious and personal implications. That night he ''received the baptism" of freedom from sinin this life forbidden to neoCalvinists. Thus armed, he could face the inevitable onslaught which began the very next day. A fellow student came by and asked Noyes, ''Don't you commit sin?" "I knew that my answer would plunge me into the depths of contempt, but I answered deliberately and firmly- NO!" The other man stared at Noyes as if struck by lightning, made Noyes repeat his blasphemy and then bolted, spreading the word that Noyes had said he was perfect, and then that Noyes was crazy. "Thus my confession was made, and I began to suffer the consequences." Yale's great evangelist, Nathaniel Taylor, then came by Noyes's room to persuade him that it was God alone who saved in His unfathomable benevolence . Noyes was asked by his revered teacher if he, Taylor, sinned. Noyes answered in the affirmative, quoting John 3:3-10 at him- ''He who sins is of the devil." Taylor then replied that Noyes too was a sinner as evidenced by his extreme discourtesy. Noyes understood that Taylor had presented him with a logical gambit, one which presented Noyes with what he knew to be his last chance to remain in an orthodox theological seminary. "I observed the best kind of courtesy, in such a case, was plainness of speech." Canadian Review of American Studies, Volume 15,Number 1, Spring 1984,35-48 36 Michael Fellman Thus he did not back down and Taylor departed; Noyes soon was expelled from Yale.1 Theologically, in his declaration of freedom from sin, Noyes committed two heresies: the doctrine of security-that a person could have absolute knowledge of his salvation while in this world- and the doctrine of freedom from law. The perfected person had received directly a renewed covenant containing a new disposition-a heart made whole in love of God. ·'This disposition God promises by the new covenant to secure; and His promise abolishes His statute. Under the old covenant God said: 'Do according to all I command you, and ye shall live.' Under the new covenant, where its powers are fully developed, He may safely say 'Do as you please for I promise that your pleasure shall be mine. I willwrite my law upon your hearts.'" 2 The higher law was inscribed directly upon the perfected person's heart; mere worldly understanding was as nothing if it did not conform to true law. Over the next dozen years, Noyes would construct a new theology and a new Christian community deriving from these two heresies. He would redis· cover and reenact the original, now invisible, primitive church, not through uncovering a continuous subterranian historical institution, but by discovering its essence through intuitive vision. "We shall find that church, soaring over us and descending upon us, living, organic and accessible." 3 First, let me reconstruct some of Noyes's theology, written during his most active years as a biblical scholar. Noyes published his essays in 1847,prior to the founding of the Oneida Community. The "correct" reading of the Bible had to precede and fully justify subsequent worldly actions. This theology sounds quite archaic to modern ears, and so I do apologize to a degree for reconstructing some of these arcane doctrines, but their distance from our modes of analysis is precisely the point I wish to emphasize. Noyes called his collected essays The Berean: A Manual for Those Who Seek the Faith of the Primitive Church. Noyes spent a great deal of time in The Berean demonstrating that Paul and the true primitive church communicants had been perfect, and that Jesus had returned to live among them in perfect holiness rather than either remaining aloft or serving as their worldly superior. Christian communist perfection was the enactment of...


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