Noyes started out as a theologian. He recognised that the Bible was strong on marriage, but thought that believers were called upon to live in a "resurrection state", i.e. to live posthumously, as if in the afterlife. And in the afterlife there were no laws regarding marriage or divorce. Instead, there was openness and service to all, equally.
Noyes therefore held that believers should reject monogamous marriage and replace it with pantogamy, in which there would be no "selfish possession" when it came to sexual relations. As the Oneida Handbook put it,
In the resurrection, marriage was to be superseded by universal unity ... We have thus far carefully traced the doctrine of Christ and Paul on the subject of marriage ... We have found them not in favor of divorce, and not polygamists, but pressing toward the cessation of marriage itself ...
pantogamy ... recognizes the continued existence of the sexual relation, but excludes ownership, and replaces human beings where they were as children - in friendship and freedom, without selfish possession.
... in that posthumous state which we are taught to pray for and expect on earth, the relation of the sexes will be that described in Christ's prayer - "that they may all be one, even as I and my Father are one" - which we call pantogamy.
It seems that if you were an American radical in the 1830s you still had to find justification for your views in the Bible. But this wasn't Noyes's only source of authority. He mixed the Bible with scientism - his aim was to achieve "scientific" forms of social organisation (rather than "sentimental" ones).
And he often sounded something like a radical left-liberal, believing in feminism, freedom, equality and progress to human perfection.
It was Noyes who coined the term "free love" to denote the abolition of marriage and its replacement by non-possessive, multiple sexual relationships. He founded a community of several hundred people on this basis that lasted for 30 years. So how did it work out in practice?
The commune had a conception of itself as being "free, open and democratic," as "enlightened," and as practising "sexual freedom".
It also saw itself as feminist, with women there pioneering the wearing of pants and working alongside the men:
Always concerned for the plight of women in modern society, under Noyes' belief in the equality of the sexes, the group went in for communal cooking and housekeeping as well as group farming, the men and women sharing in all the work.
But the "free love" practised at Oneida was in reality not so free and not so loving. The community was highly regulated, with "a complex bureaucracy of 27 standing committees and 48 administrative sections" for just 300 people.
One of these committees, headed by Noyes himself, decided who would be allowed to embark on a sexual relationship. There was a principle of Ascending Fellowship, which meant that older members of the community were paired up with younger members. This meant that Noyes and a few of the other older men were paired up with very young girls (twelve or thirteen years old). Noyes at times used his power to determine relationships to maintain control over the community.
So relationships weren't really so free. And there were limitations on love as well. Couples weren't supposed to get too attached to each other, as this was thought to be too exclusive and detrimental to a commitment to the community. It was condemned as "idolatrous worship".
Nor was there much opportunity for maternal or paternal love. In the early years of the community, Noyes sought to prevent children being born. Men were supposed to practise "continence" as a form of birth control (i.e. withdrawal). Later on, Noyes became interested in the science of eugenics. He set up another committee, with himself at the head, to decide on applications from those wishing to conceive.
The children born from this system of stirpiculture were allowed to stay with their mothers, for breastfeeding purposes, for 15 months. Afterwards, they were removed to be raised communally by those considered expert at the job. The children were rotated at night between different members of the community according to a principle of "non-attachment".
So there was sex and work but a repression of marital love and maternal love. In this, the Oneida communists (a term they used themselves) were strikingly similar to later radical moderns. I'm reminded of the Spanish anarchists of the 1930s who passed a resolution stating that for those comrades suffering from "the sickness of love ... a change of commune will be recommended". Alexandra Kollontai, the Russian Bolshevik of the 1920s, wrote similarly that love was,
an expenditure of precious time and energy ... utterly worthless ... We, the women of the past generation, did not yet understand how to be free. The whole thing was an absolutely incredible squandering of our mental energy, a diminution of our labour power.
It is certainly true that we ... were able to understand that love was not the main goal of our life and that we knew how to place work at its center...
For those who wish to control or manage people according to a perfectionist ideology, love and marriage will often be looked on as a threat - as binding people to each other and creating independent sources of loyalty and commitment.
It's interesting too that Noyes promoted mediocrity as best suited to life in an egalitarian commune:
We must all be mediocre and avoid abnormal or excessive development in the individual, since forms of excellence are at the expense of other individuals who are less endowed.
How did it end?
Two factors led to the demise of the Oneida community. First, there were younger men who did not accept that the older men should have the rights over the younger women. So an oppositional faction to Noyes emerged.
Second, when the women were finally allowed to have children, they then started to want to marry for the purposes of security. There is possibly an insight into the nature of women here. When women are young and childless they are possibly more accepting of acting from sexual impulse alone. But when they have young children, the instinct for the security provided by a husband is at its strongest. Women at this point in their life can develop the qualities associated with the "loving wife and mother".
Perhaps that's one reason I'm troubled by the advent in Australia of paid maternity schemes. At just the time that a woman might look to her husband for security and develop the qualities in herself that are likely to ground a lifelong marriage, the government steps in to provide security instead.
Anyway, an ageing Noyes did finally concede and allowed the women to marry. By the 1880s, the Oneida experiment went into decline.
There are many conclusions to be drawn from the Oneida Community. But perhaps one of the most significant is that attacking traditional marriage is unlikely to lead to a "sexual utopia" in which people freely and equally exchange partners.
At Oneida, in spite of the idealism and the rhetoric about free love, once the traditional restraints were gone the older men used their power in the community to win sexual access for themselves to very young women (to girls). They were in effect reverting to the customs of more primitive societies: they were enacting a civilisational regress rather than a progress.
Whatever its faults, traditional marriage is more egalitarian than the alternatives (allowing everyone a strong chance to partner, to have a sexual relationship and to bear children); it avoids generational conflict (in which fathers and sons are set against each other in competition for women); it is pro-natalist (as the emphasis is not on keeping all women available for sexual purposes); it provides protection for women from more primitive customs of pairing girls with much older men; and it also forms an independent unit of society that helps to prevent total power over individuals by those governing society.