The Communistic Societies of the United States, by Charles Nordhoff, , at sacred-texts.com
I was permitted to spend several days at the Oneida Community, among which was a Sunday.
The people are kind, polite to each other and to strangers, cheerful, and industrious. There is no confusion, and for so large a number very little noise. Where two hundred people live together in one house, order, system, and punctuality are necessary; and loud voices would soon become a nuisance.
I was shown the house, the kitchen and heating arrangements, the barns with their fine stock, the various manufacturing operations; and in the evening was taken to their daily gathering, at which instrumental music, singing, and conversation engage them for an hour, after which they disperse to the private parlors to amuse themselves with dominoes or dancing,
or to the library to read or write letters. Cards are prohibited. The questions I asked were freely answered; and all the people in one way or another came under my eye.
Some of them have the hard features of toil-worn New England farmers; others look like the average business-men of our country towns or inland cities; others are students, and there are a number of college-bred men in the community. A fine collection of birds in a cabinet, skillfully stuffed and mounted, showed me that there is in the society a lively love of natural history. The collection is, I should think, almost complete for the birds of the region about Oneida.
The people seem contented, and pleased with their success, as well they may be, for it is remarkable. They use good language, and the standard of education among them is considerably above the average. No doubt the training they get in their evening discussions, and in the habit of writing for a paper whose English is pretty carefully watched, has benefited them. They struck me as matter-of-fact, with no nonsense or romance about them, by no means overworked, and with a certain, perhaps for their place in life high average of culture. I should say that the women are inferior to the men: examining the faces at an evening meeting, this was the impression I carried away.
If I should add that the predominant impression made upon me was that it was a common-place company, I might give offense; but, after all, what else but this could be the expression of people whose lives are removed from need, and narrowly bounded by their community; whose religious theory calls for no internal struggles, and, once within the community, very little self-denial; who are well-fed and sufficiently amused, and not overworked, and have no future to fear? The greater passions are not stirred in such a life. If these are once thoroughly awakened, the individual leaves the community.
On Sunday the first work is to sort and send away to the
laundry the soiled clothing of the week. After this comes the regular weekly meeting of the Business Board; and thereafter meetings for criticism, conducted in rooms apart.
The institution of Criticism, a description of which I have reserved for this place, is a most important and ingenious device, which Noyes and his followers rightly regard as the corner-stone of their practical community life. It is in fact their main instrument of government; and it is useful as a means of eliminating uncongenial elements, and also to train those who remain into harmony with the general system and order.
I am told that it was first used by Mr. Noyes while he was a divinity student at Andover, where certain members of his class were accustomed to meet together to criticize each other. The person to suffer criticism sits in silence, while the rest of the company, each in turn, tell him his faults, with, I judge, an astonishing and often exasperating plainness of speech. Here is the account given by Mr. Noyes himself:
"The measures relied upon for good government in these community families are, first, daily evening meetings, which all are expected to attend. In these meetings, religious, social, and business matters are freely discussed, and opportunity given for exhortation and reproof. Secondly, the system of mutual criticism. This system takes the place of backbiting in ordinary society, and is regarded as one of the greatest means of improvement and fellowship. All of the members are accustomed to voluntarily invite the benefit of this ordinance from time to time. Sometimes persons are criticized by the entire family; at other times by a committee of six, eight, twelve, or more, selected by themselves from among those best acquainted with them, and best able to do justice to their character. In these criticisms the most perfect sincerity is expected; and in practical experience it is found best for the subject to receive his criticism without replying. There is little danger that the general verdict in respect to his character will be unjust. This ordinance is far from agreeable to those whose egotism and vanity are stronger than their love of truth. It is an ordeal which reveals insincerity and selfishness; but it also often takes the form of commendation, and reveals hidden virtues as well as secret faults. It is always acceptable to those who wish to see themselves as others see them.
"These two agencies—daily evening meetings and criticism—are found quite adequate to the maintenance of good order and government in the communities. Those who join the communities understanding their principles, and afterward prove refractory and inharmonic, and also those who come into the communities in childhood, and afterward develop characters antagonistic to the general spirit, and refuse to yield to the governmental agencies mentioned, either voluntarily withdraw or are expelled. Only one case of expulsion is, however, recorded."
They depend upon criticism to cure whatever they regard as faults in the character of a member; for instance, idleness, disorderly habits, impoliteness, selfishness, a love of novel-reading, "selfish love," conceit, pride, stubbornness, a grumbling spirit—for every vice, petty or great, criticism is held to be a remedy. They have even a "criticism-cure," and hold that this is almost as effective as their "prayer-cure."
On Sunday afternoon, by the kindness of a young man who had offered himself for criticism, I was permitted to be present. Fifteen persons besides myself, about half women, and about half young people under thirty, were seated in a room, mostly on benches placed against the wall. Among them was Mr. Noyes himself, who sat in a large rocking-chair. The young man to be criticized, whom I will call Charles, sat inconspicuously in the midst of the company. When the doors were closed, he was asked by the leader (not Mr. Noyes) whether he desired to say any thing. Retaining his seat, he said that he had suffered for some time past from certain intellectual difficulties and doubts—a leaning especially toward positivism, and lack of faith; being drawn away from God; a tendency to think religion of small moment. But that he was combating the evil spirit within him, and hoped he had gained somewhat; and so on.
Hereupon a man being called on to speak, remarked that he thought Charles had been somewhat hardened by too great good-fortune; that his success in certain enterprises had somewhat spoiled him; if he had not succeeded so well, he would
have been a better man; that he was somewhat wise in his own esteem; not given to consult with others, or to seek or take advice. One or two other men agreed generally with the previous remarks, had noticed these faults in Charles, and that they made him disagreeable; and gave examples to show his faults. Another concurred in the general testimony, but added that he thought Charles had lately made efforts to correct some of his faults, though there was still much room for improvement.
A young woman next remarked that Charles was haughty and supercilious, and thought himself better than others with whom he was brought into contact; that he was needlessly curt sometimes to those with whom he had to speak.
Another young woman added that Charles was a respecter of persons; that he showed his liking for certain individuals too plainly by calling them pet names before people; that he seemed to forget that such things were disagreeable and wrong.
Another woman said that Charles was often careless in his language; sometimes used slang words, and was apt to give a bad impression to strangers. Also that he did not always conduct himself at table, especially before visitors, with careful politeness and good manners.
A man concurred in this, and remarked that he had heard Charles condemn the beefsteak on a certain occasion as tough; and had made other unnecessary remarks about the food on the table while he was eating.
A woman remarked that she had on several occasions found Charles a respecter of persons.
Another said that Charles, though industrious and faithful in all temporalities, and a very able man, was not religious at all.
A man remarked that Charles was, as others had said, somewhat spoiled by his own success, but that it was a mistake for him to be so, for he was certain that Charles's success came
mainly from the wisdom and care with which the society had surrounded him with good advisers, who had guided him; and that Charles ought therefore to be humble, instead of proud and haughty, as one who ought to look outside of himself for the real sources of his success.
Finally, two or three remarked that he had been in a certain transaction insincere toward another young man, saying one thing to his face and another to others; and in this one or two women concurred.
Amid all this very plain speaking, which I have considerably condensed, giving only the general charges, Charles sat speechless, looking before him; but as the accusations multiplied, his face grew paler, and drops of perspiration began to stand on his forehead. The remarks I have reported took up about half an hour; and now, each one in the circle having spoken, Mr. Noyes summed up.
He said that Charles had some serious faults; that he had watched him with some care; and that he thought the young man was earnestly trying to cure himself. He spoke in general praise of his ability, his good character, and of certain temptations he had resisted in the course of his life. He thought he saw signs that Charles was making a real and earnest attempt to conquer his faults; and as one evidence of this he remarked that Charles had lately come to him to consult him upon a difficult case in which he had had a severe struggle, but had in the end succeeded in doing right. "In the course of what we call stirpiculture," said Noyes, "Charles, as you know, is in the situation of one who is by and by to become a father. Under these circumstances, he has fallen under the too common temptation of selfish love, and a desire to wait upon and cultivate an exclusive intimacy with the woman who was to bear a child through him. This is an insidious temptation, very apt to attack people under such circumstances; but it must nevertheless be struggled against." Charles, he went
on to say, had come to him for advice in this case, and he (Noyes) had at first refused to tell him any thing, but had asked him what he thought he ought to do; that after some conversation, Charles had determined, and he agreed with him, that he ought to isolate himself entirely from the woman, and let another man take his place at her side; and this Charles had accordingly done, with a most praiseworthy spirit of self-sacrifice. Charles had indeed still further taken up his cross, as he had noticed with pleasure, by going to sleep with the smaller children, to take charge of them during the night. Taking all this in view, he thought Charles was in a fair way to become a better man, and had manifested a sincere desire to improve, and to rid himself of all selfish faults.
Thereupon the meeting was dismissed.
All that I have recited was said by practiced tongues. The people knew very well how to express themselves. There was no vagueness, no uncertainty. Every point was made; every sentence was a hit—a stab I was going to say, but as the sufferer was a volunteer, I suppose this would be too strong a word. I could see, however, that while Charles might be benefited by the "criticism," those who spoke of him would perhaps also be the better for their speech; for if there had been bitterness in any of their hearts before, this was likely to be dissipated by the free utterance. Concerning the closing remarks of Noyes, which disclose so strange and horrible a view of morals and duty, I need say nothing.
Here are a few specimens of criticisms which have been printed in the Circular. The first concerns a young woman:
"What God has done for U. is wonderful; her natural gifts and attractions are uncommon; but she has added very little to them. She is spoiling them by indolence and vanity. The gifts we have by nature do not belong to us. We shall have to give account for them to God as his property. All that we can expect any reward for is what we add to that which he gives us."
The next seems to point at troubles of a kind to which the community is, I suppose, more or less subject:
"I wish I could entirely change public opinion among us in regard to the matter of keeping secrets. The fact that a person is of such a character that others associated with him are afraid that he will finally expose their wrong-doing is the highest credit to him. I would earnestly exhort all lovers of every degree, young and old, and especially the young, to consider the absolute impossibility of permanently keeping secrets. It is not for us to say whether we will keep other folks' secrets or not. It is for God to say. We are in his hands, and he will make us tell the truth even though we say we won't. He has certainly made it his programme and eternal purpose that every secret thing shall come to light. What is done in darkness shall be published on the house-top. This is sure to come, because it is God's policy, and it is vain for us to seek to evade and thwart it. Two persons get together with shameful secrets, and promise and protest and pledge themselves never to turn on each other. What is the use? It is not for them to say what they will do. They will finally turn on one another. It is a mercy to them that they must. The best thing to be said of them is that they are likely to turn on one another and betray their secrets. They will, if there is any honesty or true purpose in them. This keeping secrets that are dishonest, profane, and infernal, and regarding them as sacred, is all wrong. It is the rule of friendship and honor in the world, but to let the daylight in on every thing is the rule for those who want to please God."
What follows relates to a man who was cast down because of criticism, and whose fault Noyes says is excessive sensitiveness:
"Excessive sensitiveness is a great fault. Every one should strive to get where he can judge himself, look at himself truthfully by the grace of God, and cultivate what may be called the superior consciousness, looking at his own fault as he would at another person's, and feeling no more pain in dissecting his own character than he would that of any one else. This superior consciousness takes us into fellowship with God and his judgment; and in that condition it is possible to rejoice in pulling to pieces our own works. Paul says: 'Other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble, every man's work shall be made manifest—for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work, of what sort
it is. If any man's work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire.' There is a great amount of poor building upon that good foundation; a great number of structures that are wood, hay, and stubble, and which in the day of fire will be burned up. The main point to be gained by those who have thus built is to get into such sympathy with God that they can stand by when the day of fire comes, and help on the destruction—poke the wood, hay, and stubble into the flame, rejoicing that they have a good foundation, and are to be saved not only from the fire, but by the fire."
Finally, they use criticism as a remedy for diseases. I take this example from the Circular for June 4, 1853:
"S. P., having a bad cold and symptoms of a run of fever, tried the criticism-cure, and was immediately relieved. She was on the bed in a state of pain and restlessness, when a friend mentioned to her the above remedy as having been successfully applied in similar cases. Having some faith in it, she arose immediately and made her wishes known to the family physician, that is, to the family, who kindly administered the remedy without delay. The operation was not particularly agreeable—there is no method of cure that is; but it was short and speedily efficacious. One secret of its efficacy is, it stops the flow of thought toward the seat of difficulty, and so tends directly to reduce inflammation. At the same time it has a very bracing, invigorating effect. In the present case, it went right to the cause of the disease, which was discovered to be a spirit of fear, throwing open the pores and predisposing the subject to the attack. S. P. had been brought up in a bad habit in this respect, expecting with every exposure to take cold—and then expecting to have it go on to a serious cough, and so on—fear realizing itself. Criticism stopped this false action, and not only made her well in the first instance, but by breaking up this fear it has given her comparative security against future attacks. It requires some fortitude and self-denial in the patient, when he thinks he needs sympathy and nursing, to take criticism instead; but it is well known that to rouse the will to strong exertion is more than half a cure. The criticism remedy professes to be universal, and is recommended for trial to all the afflicted."
The Circular for December, 1863, reports:
"It is a common custom here for every one who may be attacked with any disorder to apply this remedy by sending for a committee of six or
eight persons, in whose faith and spiritual judgment he has confidence, to come and criticize him. The result, when administered sincerely, is almost universally to throw the patient into a sweat, or to bring on a reaction of his life against disease, breaking it up, and restoring him soon to usual health. We have seen this result produced without any other agency except the use of ice, in perhaps twenty cases of sore throat within a few weeks. We have seen it take effect at an advanced stage of chronic disease, and raise a person up apparently from death's door. It seems a somewhat heroic method of treatment when a person is suffering in body to apply a castigation to the character through the spiritual or moral part; but this is precisely the thing needed to cleanse and purify the system from disease. We have tried it, and found it to be invaluable. To all who have faith in Christ as a physician we can commend this prescription as a medium for conveying his healing life. If you are sick, seek for some one to tell you your faults, to find out your weakest spot in character or conduct; let them put their finger on the very sore that you would best like to keep hid. Depend upon it, there is the avenue through which disease gets access to you. And if the sincerity which points this out and opens it to the light hurts, and is mortifying for the time being, it is only a sign that the remedy is applied at the right place and is taking effect."
In a recent number of the Circular (1874) a "criticism of a sick man" is reported in full. It is too long to give here; but I quote a few of the remarks, to show the style of attack in such cases. The report opens with this statement:
"[L. has been quite prostrate for months with some kind of spinal affection, complicated with chills and fever. In presenting himself for criticism, he was invited, as the subject generally is, to open his own case. He said he was under a spirit of depression and discouragement, particularly about his health. He thought he should be better off if he did not know so much about his disease. Dr. Pope had pronounced it incurable.]"
"I think that L. is troubled with false imaginations, and that he has inherited this tendency. His father was subject to the hypo—always a prey to imaginations. I question whether the root of L.'s whole difficulty does not lie in his imagination. I don't doubt but that he feels what he
thinks he does, but imagination has terrible power to make us feel. Christ can cast down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God."
"He talks a great deal about his symptoms. If he would talk on the side of faith, I think he would be a well man right off. He is as well as any body when he is well, and there is no reason why he should not be well all the time. He is a very valuable member of the community, and I don't like to see him lie on his back so much.
"M.—I have thought that his knowledge of physiology, as he uses it, is really a hindrance to him: he knows too much about his case.
"C.—I thought I had the heart disease when I was about nineteen years of age. My heart would beat so when I went up stairs that I had to sit down at the top. I remember that I said to my aunt one day I was sure that I had got that disease, because my heart had such times of beating. 'O la!' she answered,' I guess you would not live long if it did not beat.'
"N. [probably Mr. Noyes]—I have good reason to believe that a great many diseases which doctors pronounce incurable are so so far as their powers are concerned, and yet can be cured by exorcism. Doctors do not believe in possession by the devil, and of course have no means of curing diseases of that nature. They accordingly pronounce some diseases incurable. Yet these diseases are not incurable by persons who understand the nature of them, and that they are spiritual obsessions. I do not care what the doctors say about L.'s back. It is very likely incurable so far as they know, and yet it may be very easily curable to any body who knows about the doctrine of the possession of the devil. There is a range of science beyond the routine of the doctors which we must take into the account in all this dealing with disease. Just look at the case of Harriet Hall, and see what incurable diseases she had. Two doctors certified that she ought to be dead twenty years ago, and here she is alive and waiting on her father. Those doctors are dead, and she is trotting around.
"E.—I have been associated a good deal with L. in business and now in this sickness. I have studied his case some. His attitude toward disease is very much like his attitude in business. When he has been well and able to do his best, he has been in the past an autocrat in our businesses. If he said a thing would not go, or would go, his dictum was always accepted. He has a good deal of pride in having what he predicts turn out to be true. I have sometimes thought that he was willing to
have things break down in order to demonstrate his infallibility as an oracle. He shows the same trait in regard to disease. If he has a symptom, and makes up his mind that he is going to have a certain disease, he notifies his friends of it, and seems bound to have his prophecy come true any way.
"N.—He would rather have a good chill, I suppose, than have his prediction prove false.
"E.—I think he really knows but very little about his case. He lost his health, and took up the study of medicine to find out what ailed him. It may seem paradoxical, but I think that he is suffering for want of work; his brain is suffering for want of some healthy action. If he would use his brain about something for only half an hour a day, he would find himself improving right along.
"A.—I remember L. had the reputation of being an ingenious boy; but he used to seem old even then—he had the rheumatism or some such complaint. In thinking about him, it seems to me that the instinct of his life is to find a soft place in the world: he is hunting up cushions and soft things to surround himself with. His bent is rather scientific than religious. A man that is an oracle surrounds himself with something soft in having people defer to him. I must say I think he is too oracular about disease, considering the amount of study he has given to the science of medicine. He went into the study of medicine in a sort of self-coddling way, to find out what the matter was with himself. I have realized that it is not good for a man in this world to hunt for a soft spot."
And so on. Mr. Noyes closed the session with this remark:
"N.—Christ's words, 'Because I live ye shall live also,' may be thrust in the face of all incurable diseases. There is no answer to that. No incurable disease can stand against it."
I do not know whether L. recovered or not.
On Sunday evening, about half-past six o'clock, there was a gathering in the large hall to hear some pieces of music from the orchestra. After half an hour's intermission, the people again assembled, this time for a longer session. A considerable number of round tables were scattered about the large hall; on these were lamps; and around them sat most of the women, old and young, with sewing or knitting, with which they busied
themselves during the meeting. Others sat on benches and chairs, irregularly ranged about.
After the singing of a hymn, a man rose and read the report of the business meeting held that morning, the appointment of some committees, and so on; and this was then put to vote and accepted, having elicited no discussion, and very little interest apparently. Next a man, who sat near Mr. Noyes in the middle of the room, read some extracts from newspapers, which had been marked and sent in to him by different members for that purpose. Some of these were mere drolleries, and raised laughter. Others concerned practical matters.
To this reading, which was brief, followed a discussion of the power of healing disease by prayer. It was asserted to be "necessary to regard Christ as powerful to-day over diseases of the body as well as of the spirit." When several had spoken very briefly upon this subject, and the conversation was evidently closed, a considerable number of the people concurred in what had been said by short ejaculations, as "I confess the power of Christ in my heart;" "I confess the power of healing;" "I confess to a tender conscience;" "I confess Christ;" "I confess a love for all good people," and so on.
Next a hymn was sung relating to community life, which I copy here as a curiosity:
"Let us sing, brothers, sing,
In the Eden of heart-love—
Where the fruits of life spring,
And no death e'er can part love;
Where the pure currents flow
From all gushing hearts together,
And the wedding of the Lamb
Is the feast of joy forever.
Let us sing, brothers, sing.
"We have built us a dome
On our beautiful plantation,
And we all have one home,
And one family relation; p. 300
We have battled with the wiles
Of the dark world of Mammon,
And returned with its spoils
To the home of our dear ones.
Let us sing, brothers, sing.
"When the rude winds of wrath
Idly rave round our dwelling,
And the slanderer's breath
Like a simoon was swelling,
Then so merrily we sung,
As the storm blustered o'er us,
Till the very heavens rung
With our hearts' joyful chorus.
Let us go, brothers, go.
"So love's sunshine begun:
Now the spirit-flowers are blooming,
And the feeling that we're one
All our hearts is perfuming;
Toward one home we have all
Set our faces together,
Where true love doth dwell
In peace and joy forever.
Let us sing, brothers, sing."
This was presently followed by another song peculiar to the Oneida people. A man sang, looking at a woman near him:
"I love you, O my sister,
But the love of God is better;
Yes, the love of God is better—
O the love of God is best."
To this she replied:
"I love you, O my brother,
But the love of God is better;
Yes, the love of God is better—
O the love of God is best."
Then came the chorus, in which a number of voices joined:
"Yes, the love of God is better,
O the love of God is better;
Yes, the love of God is best."
Soon after the meeting broke up; but there was more singing, later, in the private parlors, which I did not attend. Thus ended Sunday at the Oneida Community; and with this picture of their daily life I may conclude my account of these people.