- Oneida Utopia: A Community Searching for Human Happiness and Prosperity by Anthony Wonderley, and: The Ministers' War: John W. Mears, the Oneida Community, and the Crusade for Public Morality by Michael Doyle
The Ministers' War and Oneida Utopia both explore the history of Oneida Community, a group of religious Perfectionists who lived together in a system they called "bible communism" from 1848 to 1881 in rural upstate New York. In a departure from many other scholarly works about this socialist utopian community, both Doyle's and Wonderley's books are distinguished by their emphasis on historical actors other than the community's founder, John Humphrey Noyes. Noyes was a charismatic leader and voluminous writer whose influence loomed large over the Oneida Community and its story many years after the community voluntarily disbanded in 1881. In moving away from the long shadow of Noyes, Doyle and Wonderley add to the complex history of the community.
The Oneida Community has long fascinated scholars because of its uniquely intersectional history. Members' Christian Perfectionist faith grew out of the Second Great Awakening, they were highly successful in industrial manufacturing (specializing in animal traps and silk thread), and they challenged contemporary ideas of gender, marriage, and child rearing. From the community's founding, members believed that existing forms of marriage were not accurate interpretations of Christian scripture; rather, partners should consent to open sexual relationships within a committed Perfectionist group, a system the community termed "complex marriage." This challenge to contemporary ideals of marriage earned the community a significant amount of criticism. They also practiced a type of birth control known as "male continence," and late in the community's existence they began a program of intentional reproduction that they named "stirpiculture," which had the goal of creating spiritually superior children. When they disbanded in 1881, the former members decided to continue their business ventures and became shareholders in Oneida Community, Ltd., which by the mid-twentieth century had evolved into one of the most recognizable names in silverware manufacturing in the United States.
Wonderley's Oneida Utopia follows the community's history from an early iteration known as the Putney Association to 1950, well after the utopian group had disbanded and transformed into a joint-stock company known as Oneida Community, Ltd. Wonderley tells what he terms a collective story [End Page 129] that emphasizes the group rather than any individual. He chooses to create an extended history of the community to explore the development of the utopian group first as industrial makers of animal traps and thread in the communal era and then as postutopian manufacturers of silverware. In Wonderley's work, "commune and corporation are the same story of economic success, innovative thinking, and an abiding concern for the welfare of others" (4). In order to create a collective narrative, Wonderley draws on the community's writings, including their newspaper and magazine publications and their Daily Journal (a newsletter that functioned as a communal diary of sorts for several years). His analysis is also informed by the material culture of the group, as well as the settlement pattern and built environment of the community.
Wonderley makes a conscious decision in his study to consider the community sociologically and in relationship to socioeconomic trends. He acknowledges that in the public mind the community was known for "scandalous sexual practices" (12), and he suggests that other works about Oneida have depicted a communal lifestyle that revolved around sex far more than the lived experiences of the religious Perfectionists did in practice. The resulting narratives, he argues, misrepresent the complexities of communal living and result in an inaccurate depiction of Noyes as an authoritarian leader. Wonderley does write about the practices that distinguished the people of the Oneida Community from their contemporaries, including male continence, complex marriage, a rejection of separate...