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Attempts to Create “Heaven on Earth”

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The Perfectionist Movement

During the first half of the 1800s, some 100,000 “individuals formed utopian communities in an effort to create “heaven on Earth” in what is now called the Perfectionist Movement (Oneida Community, n.d., para. 1). To give the reader a firm understanding of the Perfectionist Movement, they will be given an answer to a myriad of questions including

Origins of the Perfectionist Movement

The Perfectionist Movement began its infancy during the great alterations society was going through during the antebellum period–whether these changes be social, religious or economic (Oneida Community, n.d., “II. The Oneida Community…”). In response especially to the recent Second Great Awakening of the 18th century, revivalists sought to forward society through people’s coming to God, and challenged this belief “that if men and women were good, then good institutions, good government, and good society would result” (Oneida Community, n.d., “II. The Oneida Community…” line 10).

The Founders of the Perfectionist Movement

The Perfectionist Movement is analogous to other American campaigns such as the Civil Rights Movement or the American Revolution in that it was not “founded” by one person or for one specific reason, but formed as result of many different individuals forming many different machines with vastly different practices to produce the results they wished to see (and these results they wished to see just so happened to be fairly common at the time being discussed).

Just as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X could not have disagreed more on how to achieve equality between blacks and whites, and lawyer Patrick Henry could not have expressed enough disgust with those who wanted no such thing as a war against King George’s regime, Anne Lee and John Humphrey Noyes (two founders of Utopian communities) most certainly differed on their thoughts on how “heaven on Earth” should present itself. The Perfectionist Movement can be studied as just that, a movement, but in studying its founders, and to achieve a more detailed grasp of it, individual communities must be investigated (Kirkbride, 2006, p.4, 7).

Founders of the Shaker Community

The Shakers (referring to their “shaking and dancing ways” of religious practice) were founded by Anne Lee, a woman who is the polar opposite of John Noyes, the Oneida community’s founder described that will be described below (Kirkbride, 2006, p. 6). Lee was born on February 29, 1736 in Manchester England (Kirkbride, 2006, p. 4). A poor girl indeed, Lee was the sixth of eight kids in an impoverished and ignorant family (Kirkbride, 2006, p. 4). This detail is very important because the shack that the family could pay for gave Lee little breathing air, and it is very likely that this led to early exposure to “fleshly cohabitation” , or sex, between members of her family, could have left a repulsive impression (Kirkbride, 2006, p. 4). Things did not become better for Lee as she grew up: none of her children would live as long as her, and after these losses she began to fear “to stir up affections of her husband” even before her doctrine called for the end of all sex; Lee began to stop eating and drinking during this period as she believed that “self-mortification” would spiritually clean her (Kirkbride, 2006, 4-5).

As a result of all of these traumas experienced by Lee, she began to separate herself from her Quaker affiliation (Kirkbride, 2006, p. 5). Lee began to associate with James Wardley, the leader of the Camisards who had left France with his followers in 1747 to escape religious persecution (Kirkbride, 2006, p. 5). Lee agreed with the Camisards in their “energetic, intense and ecstatic connections with the Holy Spirit” but disagreed on sex, and became even more radical than them (Kirkbride, 2006, 5-6). Eventually, Lee ended her relationship with the Camisards due to differences on sex to which the Camisards approved for the purpose of procreation (Kirkbride, 2006, p. 6).

Lee came to believe she was a human form of God, which conflicted the traditional idea of God, the son and the Holy Spirit (Kirkbride, 2006, p. 6). A vision told Lee to take with her followers to North America and escape the mistreatment that her and her followers suffered in England (Kirkbride, 2006, p. 6-7).

Founders of the Oneida Community

The Oneida Community was established in 1848 in Oneida, New York by John Humphrey Noyes–convert, social rebel, and, pervert (Oneida Community, n.d., para. 3). Noyes is not at all the game-changer from humble beginnings that the world romanticizes–he was neither the carpenter that died on a cross nor the North African slave that leads a rebellion starting in a kitchen–he was more of a Ghandi, or a Dubois, a man of substance. Noyes came from a family headed by a congressman father that served for Vermont, and a mother who could call the 19th president of the United States, Rutherford Birchard Hayes, her great nephew (Holloway, 1966, p. 181-182).

Noyes was nothing less than what he was bred from: he studied at Dartmouth, but was uninterested in his schooling there (Holloway, 1966, p. 181). Surprisingly, Noyes also was not a prodigy in theology; he was converted during a revival event in 1831. From there, he went to Andover and Yale Divinity Schools. It could be said that Noyes was a lamb to the Lord, but anything but a sheep. Noyes’s father warned his son that he must preach as the other ministers, but Noyes, as Mark Holloway would put it, was “a born rebel, and was happily endowed with the temerity that such men require in order to achieve success” (Holloway, 1966, p. 181).

Noyes grappled with that Christian teaching that taught him that he was a sinner, and eventually rejected it (Holloway, 1966, p. 182). “In the late summer of 1833, while reading the last words of the fourth gospel, Noyes received a sudden illumination concerning Christ’s words, ‘If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?’” (Holloway, 1966, p. 182). At this moment, a revelation hit Noyes: there had already been a Second Advent of Christ (he believed it to be in AD 70), the “wheat” had already been separated from the “chaff” two millennia ago and that that meant he was free from sin, and that this focus on the damned was both an “unnecessary and troublesome doctrine”; he thought to “abolish” sin in its entirety (Holloway, 1966, p.182). Noyes declared his ideas, not completely unique to himself, in a way that was unique in its audacity (Holloway, 1966, p. 182).

Instigating Factors in the Formation of the Perfectionist Movement

The Perfectionist Movement cannot be traced back to one source, but to a host of social institutions, revolutions and customs that created a time that was suitable for such radical developments.

Arguably one of the greatest of these factors is the Second Great Awakening was something of a cataclysmic time for Protestantism (An American, 2007, s. 2). Out of all of this chaos (not negative chaos, but absolutely fast paced), namely the new examination and practice of faith, came with it the word of God being reiterated on American soil (An American, 2007, s. 6).

As included by a PBS article on Mormonism, Harold Bloom said:

There is a full epiphany, or manifestation, of Jesus there, surrounded by the tribes of the Native Americans, as we call them now. That vision of Christ in the American wilderness answered a deep need on the part of Americans, because no longer was religion a European importation, no longer was it an affair of ancient Palestine. The actual epiphany had taken place on the American frontier.

This commotion led to many different people having their own interpretations of faith, and its practice.

Other factors that created the need for these societies in the minds of some were sex and racial discrimination, the very American ideal of private property, and ownership of people be it forced servitude or monogamy (Holloway, 1966, p. 18-19).

Ideals and Practices of the Perfectionist Movement

Slavery and Monogamy

Many Perfectionist communities attempted to, and did achieve “abolition of people”, through “racial communism” and ends to practices such as monogamous relationships (Holloway, 1966, p. 18-19, 160). Anti-slavery thinking and Fourierist views had come to their peak, and were starting to take hold in the minds of many Americans (Holloway, 1966, p. 161). Perfectionists dismantled the tradition of the nuclear family and monogamy in many cases (Holloway, 1966, p. 19).

Both the Shakers and the Oneida Community rejected marriage, however, for different reasons. The Shaker’s aim was to eliminate sex in all of its forms, as to bring gender equality and bring focus back to religious observations (Kirkbride, 2006, p. 14-15). The Oneida Community forbid romance, and therefore marriage (Kirkbride, 2006, p. 17).


The inhabitants lived in humble dwellings, worked for the common good of the community and had all basic needs met without cost in a communist community before the Soviet Union or China (Holloway, 1966, p. 164). Surprisingly, communism was successful in the Perfectionist Communities (Holloway, 1966, p. 164). Though communism could have led to abuses due to lack of consequences for not working, it did not fail, most likely because of the “complete lack of imagination on the part of the members” (Holloway, 1966, p. 164).

Sexual Practices

As with most religious groups, Perfectionist communities each had unique rules relating to sex. Some say, such as the Shakers, that sexual intercourse as “the root of all problems” whereas others groups, such as the Oneida community, saw sex as a too normal part of life (Kirkbride, 2006, p. 14, 17).

Shaker sexual attitudes

The Shakers believed that complete celibacy would allow the focal point of people’s lives to shift more to religious observation (Kirkbride, 2006, p. 14). As far as the Shakers were concerned, sex saturated the lives, conversation and thoughts of man, and the best way to handle this was to ban the acts altogether (Kirkbride, 2006, p.14). The Shakers reasoned that “God is perfect and does not have sex; Adam and Eve were imperfect human beings and had sex” (Kirkbride, 2006, p.14). Another purpose to a sexless life was that it could create absolute equality between men and women: this prospect of having sex with another individual led to the dehumanization of people, by eliminating this prospect and viewing others as “brother” or “sister”, individuals will view others as people (Kirkbride, 2006, 15).

Oneida sexual practices

The Oneida Community took on a stance that contrasts today: sex was all good and well, but the romance (called “special love” in the community) was restricted; this rule was enforced strictly by separation of those who partook in “special love”, and punished in some cases by way of involuntary abstinence (Kirkbride, 2006, p. 17). “Free love” as Noyes had coined it was a system in which anyone was permitted sleep with anyone as long as it was with regard to certain rules (Kirkbride, 2006, p. 17). To proceed on this topic, three subtopics must be explained first: male continence, and Oneida views towards men and their bodies, and “stirpiculture”.

Male continence was, simply put, “pulling out” and was the surprisingly effective birth control practice used within the community (Kirkbride, 2006, p. 18). Male continence plays directly into Noyes’ idea that “men should be in complete control over their bodies at all times” and “ that a man’s semen should be treated as a precious fluid and should never be wasted” (Kirkbride, 2006, p. 18). Finally, both of these concepts converge in relation to “stirpiculture”. Stirpiculture was an early incarnation of eugenics; Noyes himself headed the council that decided who could reproduce, and with who they could reproduce (Kirkbride, 2006, p. 17-18).

Male continence was monumental in ensuring that people did not have unapproved offspring, and it worked: “ According to William Kephart and William Zellner, religious historians who penned the book Extraordinary Groups: An Examination of Unconventional Life-styles, nearly ninety percent of the community babies born in an eleven-year span were carefully planned by this committee” (Kirkbride, 2006, p. 18). The ideas Noyes perceived about semen and self-control could only encourage adherence to this practice.

Religious Observation

As largely religious endeavors, ideas about worship and God absolutely came about in Perfectionist communities.

Shakers and religious observation

A “direct and honest relationship with the Holy Spirit” was central to faith in the Shaker Community (Kirkbride, 2006, p. 16). This practice of a “direct and honest relationship with the Holy Spirit” is an example of the Shaker idea that nobody is less or more than another regardless of education, gender, or etc (Kirkbride, 2006, 16). To the Shakers, religion was a personal journey (literate Shakers often kept journals of divine experiences), and from a theological standpoint, the Shakers did not require clergy, and as most early Shakers were illiterate, the Bible and other writings were not the focal point of services (Kirkbride, 2006, p. 16).

Oneida community and religious observance

At the Oneida community different things Noyes wrote were used in religious sermons (Kirkbride, 2006, p. 20). Of all of Noyes’ many writings, The Berean served as a major basis of his views (Kirkbride, 2006, p. 20). While Noyes’ works played a large role in the Oneida community’s religious practice, the Bible was used thoroughly as well (contrasting the Shakers) (Kirkbride, 2006, p. 20). Biblical passages such as Matthew 22:30, “for in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven”, would be used to add weight to Noyes’ ways; in this case the abandonment of marriage (Kirkbride, 2006, p. 20).

Failure of Perfectionist Communities

Though many Perfectionist communities still exist in some fashion, such as the Oneida community as a manufacturer, or the Shakers as their community (though one that is becoming less and less like itself), failure of Perfectionist communities can be traced back to economic factors and the weakening of old rules and practices (Holloway, 1966, 212-221).

Economic factors

Utopian societies were, at least partially made up of consenting members. Unlike the society on the outside, you could just leave one of these communities when things got rough, in particular economically strained (Brittingham, 2009, p. 9). This issue would become intensified by Utopia’s reliance on the outside’s economic condition (Holloway, 1966, p. 212). Two outside factors specifically would prove detrimental to utopian communities: indirectly a population boom, and directly a widening wealth gap (Holloway, 1966, p. 212).

Population Boom

A population boom might seem like it would only benefit communal societies: more births; more people to smell the rank air of the world; more people desperate for a change; more people that feed into utopian communities. However, this was far from the case. As the 23 million people residing in the United States became 69 million from 1850-1900, land prices rose (Holloway, 1966, p. 212).

The socialist or communist communal societies of Utopia were financially no match for the millions of capitalists (whose ultimate goal was to create and obtain more and more, not just stop at sustenance) that were buying the same land; establishment was difficult as they could not even afford places to build homes and churches and pastures to raise livestock and fields to grow crops (Holloway, 1966, p. 212).

Widening Wealth Gap

For perspective, the total wealth of the United States increased 928% from 7 billion to 65 billion between the years of 1850-1890; in 1850, wealth distribution was homogeneous and held in land whereas by 1890 fewer than 1% of the population owned 50% of the United States’ wealth, and only 25% of that wealth was held in land (Holloway, 1966, p. 212). “In Europe and America alike, the class war had begun in earnest, and there was no place for dreamers in the bitter struggles of a hard-pressed proletariat” (Holloway, 1966, p. 213).

Weakening of Old Rules and Practices

Just like any other living, breathing and evolving community, utopian societies changed as they grew older. Especially in certain communities, namely the Oneida community, original members grew old and passed away, the younger crowd began to disregard or disagree on customs once written in stone (Bishop, n.d., p. 11).

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