An Experience of Mutual Criticism
Beginning in 1846 John Humphrey Noyes began to gather around him a group of “perfectionists” which would soon become the Oneida Community. This communistic, utopian society was based in the idea that true holiness came from communal living and the termination of monogamy with a focus on studying the Bible and becoming better individuals. The Oneidas believed that the second coming of Christ had already taken place, at the destruction of Jerusalem, so it was possible to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth, which would be a perfect world free of sin and corruption.
Along with striving to become better individuals, the Oneidas practiced mutual criticism. This was when a member of the community would volunteer to put themselves forward in order to be honestly evaluated by all the other members of the society so as to better ones character. The volunteer would remain silent while the other members would tell them their faults, which served as the main way to informally establish community unity and standards.
A well known journalist at the time from the Evening Post and the New York Herald, Charles Nordhoff, was allowed to stay with the Oneida Community for several days during the height of their community to research for a book that he was writing on the communistic societies in America. While there he was permitted to witness a criticism of a young man named Charles who put himself forward to be evaluated. Nordhoff states that Charles was first permitted by Noyes to criticize himself, which he did by claiming that he thought himself to be suffering a lack of faith and found himself leaning towards positivism and wanted to turn away from all of that. From then on Charles was to be silent and listen to the criticism that everyone else had of him. The members jumped right in stating that Charles was haughty, egotistic, needlessly curt, slow to take the advise of others and occasionally insincere. Nordhoff observed that though Charles had at first looked at ease, the longer the criticism went on and the more accusations that were thrown at him the paler Charles became and beads of sweat began to form on his forehead. Noyes drew this to a close after about a half hour and claimed that he believed that the young man was trying to cure himself. Noyes then brought up what was considered the worst of Charles offences, that he given into “selfish love”, which was his desire for singular intimacy with the woman who was soon to bear him a child. In the Oneida Community you were not to be connected to just one, but to all. Monogamous relationships were not allowed, nor was it allowed to even show preference of one person over another for this got in the way of forming God’s Kingdom.
Through criticizing each other in this way, one was able to better perfect the self and become more holy. Many of the utopian communal societies that arose during the mid nineteenth century were all striving for that. By living together in a communal society and perfecting themselves as individuals and as a community they believed that they would either hasten the coming of the Kingdom of God, or be able to begin forming the Kingdom of God here on earth.
- Charles Nordhoff, The Communistic Societies of The United States from Personal Visits and Observation Including Detailed Accounts (New York: Schocken Books, 1875, 1966), 259-301.
- Carl J. Guarneri, The Utopian Alternative: Fourierisn in Nineteenth-Century America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), 60-90.
- Lawrence Foster, "Free Love and Community: John Humphrey Noyles and the Oneida Prefectionists," in America's Communal Utopias, ed. Donald E. Pitzer (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 253-278.
- Biography Resource Center, s.v. "Charles Nordhoff," http://galenet.galegroup.com.libproxy.furman.edu/servlet/BioRC?vrsn=149&OP=contains&locID=furmanuniv&srchtp=name&ca=2&c=1&AI=U14794885&NA=charles+nordhoff&ste=12&tbst=prp&tab=1&docNum=BT2310006615&bConts=35 (accessed April 28, 2010).