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Oneida versus the Moralists: A Review of The Ministers’ War

The Ministers’ War: John W. Mears, the Oneida Community, and the Crusade for Public Morality. By Michael Doyle. Syracuse University Press. 2018.

 

Antebellum activism is often refracted through an abolitionist lens, though few Northern evangelicals compartmentalized reform. Protestant ministers spearheading change could be found among any of a number of reform groups. In this regard, the subject of Michael Doyle’s fascinating study, the Rev. John W. Mears (1825-1881), was typical of men from the rising Northern middle class whose passions were inflamed by the religious revivals of the Second Great Awakening, which reached their height in the 1830s. There wasn’t much that Mears didn’t see as a sin in need of extirpation: prostitution, birth control literature, Mormonism, water pollution, Roman Catholicism, Valentine’s Day cards, obscenity…. The last of these, obscenity, really distressed Mears who was, as Doyle, a Washington, DC-based reporter, puts it, a “virtuous man (44).”

Battles over obscenity often stumble over its definition and parameters. As Doyle suggests, this was Mears’ problem. In the crucial decades before the Civil War, virtue was generally synonymous with the values of the middle class, but it took Mears some time to direct his prodigious energies at the targets that consumed him: John Humphrey Noyes (1811-1886) and the Oneida Community. On the surface, the Oneida Community was what we’d today call a “soft target.” It was, after all, rooted in ideals located far from the banks of the mainstream, the least controversial of which was shared property and living arrangements rooted in spiritual communism. Members also practiced a system of “complex marriage” in which all men and women could (in theory) have carnal relations with each other. Moreover, Noyes equated unwanted pregnancy as enslavement of women, hence the keystone practice of “male continence.” More shocking still, young men learned this discipline through intercourse with postmenopausal women. Noyes himself was a bail jumper who escaped Putney, Vermont, and a possible jail term for adultery back in 1847. So why did it take Mears and the other ministers he recruited until 1881 to force the dissolution of the Oneida Community?

One of the many merits of Doyle’s book is that he captures aspects of the nineteenth-century Zeitgeist in just 172 briskly written pages. Mears shared commonality with others emboldened by the Second Great Awakening, but as Paul Johnson and others have demonstrated, conversion in Western New York State’s “burned-over district” was weighted heavily toward the middle class. Most locals were farmers and artisans. Although they disapproved of Oneida Community practices, most were also intrigued (possibly titillated) by them, found the group to be good neighbors, and were willing to live and let live. This adds an under-examined class dimension to the crusade against Oneida.

It is important to note that neither Mears nor Noyes should be viewed through modern eyes. The Presbyterian Mears was meddlesome, but he was not akin to contemporary moralists. Northern evangelists were not fundamentalists—the concept barely existed then. Mears studied theology at Yale, revered Immanuel Kant, and was an exacting professor of moral philosophy at Hamilton College. Nor was Noyes a proto-hippie free lover; the Dartmouth/Andover Seminary-educated Noyes based community sexual practices in conceptions of primitive Christianity and a belief in moral perfectionism, the latter a key element of Second Great Awakening thought. In one of the books many concise summaries, Doyle details ways in which Mears and Noyes were quite similar in many respects. The sexual practices gap, though, was simply too wide for the stern Mears to bridge.

Mears prevailed—sort of; Oneida disbanded in 1881, but Mears expired that same year. One is tempted to draw parallels between the minister’s campaign against Oneida and today’s culture wars but, again, Doyle’s objective is to shed light on the nineteenth century, not our own time. Oneida was an endlessly intoxicating experiment about which much has been written. The dissolution narrative generally ends with the incorporation of the community’s chief source of income, its flatware manufactory. Doyle deftly illumines the lesser-known details of the organized opposition that forced the community’s hand. Metaphorically, Noyes represents the utopian impulse and Mears what Robert Wiebe famously dubbed “the search for order.” Doyle’s small gem of a book should prove invaluable in facilitating discussions of ante- and postbellum America. Undergraduates will appreciate its clarity and brevity; general readers will find it fascinating.

Robert E. Weir

University of Massachusetts


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