A Review of Ellen Wayland-Smith’s “Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table”
Really Radical Christianity
I’m not sure if I would have ever come to a book such as this one on my own. It’s more of a historical biography — not really in my wheelhouse too much — than anything else. However, I got back in touch with an old contact at Picador USA a little while ago, and this title was put in my hands with the promise that it was a “religious” title — which it is and isn’t. Oneida is a book about a 19th century commune in upper New York State that was pretty liberal in practicing Christianity for its time. And that’s probably putting things mildly. I’ll get to the juicy bits in a moment, but the weird things about this commune — and who knew that there were such things in the United States before Karl Marx? (at least, I didn’t) — is that it eventually and gradually turned its back on their rather tumultuous history and began reaching out to the outside world by making silverware for middle class families.
I know that I’ve seen Oneida cutlery, but I’m not sure where. The name is familiar, at least. What is not so familiar is the company/commune’s backstory, which is told by Ellen Wayland-Smith, who is a descendant of the commune’s founder, John Humphrey Noyes. In a sense, Oneida might be a little biased given the author’s heritage, but the thing is it is probably the kind of book best written by an “insider” because most of the commune’s biography and documents relating to it went up in flames in 1947 at a local garbage dump, presumably because the owners of the soaring silverware business didn’t want their image tarnished. (Yes, that’s a bad pun.)
Essentially, the book feels divided into two parts. In the first, Wayland-Smith recounts the origins of the Oneida religious commune. In the second, the focus shifts to the commune’s dissolution after Noyes’ death and reformation as a capitalist enterprise — though history from the first half does play a major role in this telling of the story, with Wayland-Smith constantly reminding us of the commune’s origins. And those origins form quite the salacious history! Essentially, Noyes was a preacher who believed that men and women shouldn’t be tethered to marriage — which was quite radical in the day (perhaps even still to some degree today), even as Wayland-Smith takes pains to point out that Noyes’ vision wasn’t quite so out of step with the times from a feminist perspective.
Essentially, Noyes wound up with a gaggle of followers who went with him and settled in the middle of New York State. (Noyes fled Vermont for New York because he would have been arrested for falling afoul of marriage laws there. Why the authorities didn’t follow him across state lines is a lingering question that Wayland-Smith never answers.) There, men and women were free to love whomever they wanted of the opposite sex, so long as attachments to a particular lover didn’t form. As Wayland-Smith notes, “though surviving Community records are scarce, passing references in diaries and letters suggest the average age of female induction was 13.” (!)
If that wasn’t alarming enough, Noyes — towards the end of his life — would institute a system of eugenics (or inbreeding) to raise the stock of the commune. Eventually, cousins would be marrying cousins. Wayland-Smith notes, “The closest the Oneidans would come to breaking the incest taboo, at least on the record, was their open practice of ‘avunculate unions’ between uncles and nieces.” And all of this, of course, was based on Noyes command of scripture and his interpretation of it. (Leviticus 18 was brought into these matters, apparently.) And I’m not even mentioning that, despite Oneida being a religious colony, it also employed the use of mystics and mediums from time to time.
Not all was shocking in the world of Oneida, though. The commune was rather far ahead in allowing women to pursue whatever labour roles they wanted. And working at an Oneida company once the commune folded and became a business venture would be very lucrative for workers, as some profits raised would go back to them, and worker retention policies were — to these eyes — quite remarkable, going so far to ensure that workers had access to affordable housing.
Much of Oneida is a story that’s ripe for the tabloids — the publicist promised lots of sex in this book, and, on that front, it certainly delivers — but this is a serious, academic study. That’s one of my slight knocks against the book: that Wayland-Smith takes a boatload of sex and religion and makes it come out clinical and sterile. In fact, after Noyes’ death, I put the book down and wasn’t sure if I would return to it given that, since Noyes is such a colourful and controversial character, his death would seem to almost dilute the narrative to capitalist stuffiness. (No worries, though. Noyes’ vision still pops up from time to time.)
However, on the other hand, I’ve come to think that a serious and academic study of the Oneida community and businesses (they had their fingers in a bunch of pies before settling on silverware) is the only way to do it. Otherwise, the book would come across as alarmist and sensational of a certain side of religion. Still, Wayland-Smith does well to give due time to how the Community was evolving at the same time as American religious and social morals, and her approach broadens the reach of the story. Oneida isn’t really just about the story of one little commune. It was the story of changes in American society being taken to their most logical (and sometimes illogical) extremes.
Overall, I quite enjoyed much of the book — though the cast of characters can be rather large and off-putting, and Wayland-Smith has the annoying habit (presumably to prevent charges of being too subjective) of introducing various people over and over again as “my great-great-great grandfather” or something along similar lines. I do have the question how an almost 300 page book of this sort can come into being, considering that much of the documentation about the commune was destroyed more than a half century ago. How did Wayland-Smith come into possession of her sources? Was there material that wasn’t destroyed and kept in the family? The answer is not given.
Why I did enjoy most parts of Oneida — though I thought the sections on eugenics were rather grueling to get through, probably on account of personal taste — is that it reminds us of the prejudice radical Christians can face from society. (Heck, it may have parallels to the prejudice any Christian may face in society today.) I think this is an important book, considering the conversations churches are having around gay and lesbian roles in the Church currently — there seems to be some obvious parallels.
Oneida, of course, doesn’t have answers to those questions, but serves as a studious reminder that, even back in the mid-19th century, there were those who were breaking societal norms. Even if some of them seem extreme and off-putting to most people of moral persuasion, this proves that those who were involved can find a way back into the mainstream eventually and influence fine society. I have another bad pun for you, but Oneida, ultimately, is a lot of food for thought. (Groan!) At the very least, I was nourished (double groan!) by the cutlery of this complex and ever changing story of one man’s peculiar take on religion and how that morphed into something much bigger than himself in many, many different ways.
Ellen Wayland-Smith’s Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table was published by Picador on May 3, 2016.
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Zachary Houle is a resident of Ottawa, Canada, and was the recipient of a $4,000 arts grant from the City of Ottawa for emerging artists. He has been a Pushcart Prize nominee, too. He also is a music critic, with music writing publishing credits in SPIN magazine and the Ottawa Citizen, among others. He is a member of First United Church in Ottawa, Canada, and has been so for the past two years. Houle is interested in anything having to do with deepening his newfound faith in God, so, if you’re an author, feel free to get in touch. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.