John Humphrey Noyes
JB Lippencott & Company
John Humphrey Noyes was the founder of the Oneida Community, one of the most successful utopian-socialist societies of the United States. Founded in 1848, the community thrived until 1881 upon principles of communal sharing of property and the belief that Christ’s return had already occurred and therefore the heavenly kingdom may then be built upon earth. The journalist Charles Nordhoff, in his 1875 book The Communistic Societies of the United States referred to Noyes group as the perfectionists and he devoted a chapter to describing their customs and lifestyle.
History of American Socialisms is a long and comprehensive book about the phenomena of Utopian societies in 19th century America. Over the course of 48 chapters, Noyes gives the details of virtually every aspect of utopian communities, from their philosophical influences, to the aspect of religion, to the individual and specific communities, and in rare cases, the specific effect of certain influences on certain communities (such as the chapter on Swedenborgianism on the venerable Brook Farm community). The longest chapter in Noyes history was on the Wisconsin Phalanx (the phalanxes were societies specifically based on the utopian socialist ideas of French idealist philosopher, Charles Fourier) and Noyes’ own Oneida Community, which was one of the longest lasting of these societies, and the one which the author could speak about at length with great authority.
Noyes also inserts many of his own views, and in particular, the importance of religion to these societies was often stated by the author. Noyes himself was a theologian who “discovered” that Christ had made his second coming in 70 ad, a peculiar perspective that provided the ground for the beliefs of his society. Furthermore, the author notes that most of the utopian societies barely survived a year, and he believes that those societies that had cleaved themselves to religious principles were more successful.
Noyes view that a mix of socialist politics and millenarian religion keeps a group together has a truth to it that, I'm sure, most contemporary activists who admire socialistic communities would like to dismiss. At the time of this book's publication, Noyes own community was in its second decade, and most of the other groups he describes were long gone. The Oneida Community is now long gone too but some communities continue, and are hardly acknowledged as countercultural by current activists, who would love to establish long-term socialist communities, because they cannot conceive of spiritual belief as anything other than a strategy deployed by authorities for the purpose of deceiving unsophisticated adherents into obedience. Noyes history reveals that people can successfully and sincerely combine socialist politics and religion into the theoretical foundation for a new way of life.