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Without Sin: The Life and Death of the Oneida Community Paperback – October 1, 1994

ISBN-13: 978-0140239300 ISBN-10: 0140239308 Edition: Reprint

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (October 1, 1994)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140239308
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140239300
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 5 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #527,000 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

From 1848 to 1880 a unique experiment in cooperative living took place in Oneida, N.Y. This was a utopian socialistic society founded by John Humphrey Noyes, a follower of Christian Perfectionism, a belief in moral perfection and in separation from the world of sinners. Drawing on documents left by some of the original 200-plus members, Klaw ( The Great American Medicine Show ) provides an informative account of the commune. In his striving for the perfection of life without sin, Noyes imposed "complex marriage" at Oneida, a system that provided men and women with multiple sex partners and prohibited monogamy because "it impeded the free flow of Christian love." Conception of children was forbidden unless Noyes approved of the genetic attributes of the prospective parents. Members pooled their labor and had cooperative ownership of the animal trap and silverware business that supported them. After Noyes fled to Canada in 1879 in fear of prosecution for unorthodox sex practices, residents gradually adopted more traditional social arrangements.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Kirkus Reviews

Disturbing tale of a 19th-century utopian community. Klaw (The Great American Medicine Show, 1975, etc.) wrote this with the cooperation of descendants of the Oneida Community, who granted him access to unpublished memoirs and letters. The result is a thorough if somewhat blinkered look at a daring experiment in social and biological engineering, a sort of Victorian brave new world. Oneida was the brainchild of John Humphrey Noyes, a preacher and writer who believed himself to be God's chosen instrument. Like other utopians, Noyes taught the perfectibility of the human being; more controversially, he also condemned monogamy in favor of sexual libertinism. After some false starts--including an arrest on morals charges--Noyes put his theories to the test in 1848 by establishing his own Eden in Oneida, New York. At first, the community flourished. Inventions poured out, including the stainless-steel cutlery still manufactured today; members enjoyed courses in languages and science, as well as equality in food, clothing, and shelter. But too often Noyes's activities seemed a forerunner of China's cultural revolution. Romantic love and celibacy were banned; at 13 or 14, girls lost their virginity, usually to Noyes himself in sessions known as ``interviews.'' Privacy was nonexistent, and members were subjected to scathing public criticism of their every fault. Noyes ruled as absolute dictator, wielding power by manipulating sexual privileges. His social experiments reached their nadir with ``stirpiculture,'' an attempt to produce superior human beings (with Noyes blood involved, if possible) through breeding experiments. Predictably, the community's idealism faded rapidly, and, by the 1880's, Oneida was more or less defunct. Effectively told, although Klaw is too busy praising Oneida life for its liberalness to grasp the parallels to modern religious cults, including the Branch Davidians. (Eight pages of b&w photographs--not seen) -- Copyright ©1993, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

9 of 11 people found the following review helpful By melystu on May 13, 2007
Format: Paperback
First of all, "K", whose review also appears here, misspells the author's name--it is "Klaw". The author, who died recently at 84, was a life-long journalist and historian of journalism with a distinguished career at Columbia U and UCBerkeley. Unlike "K", I was not required to read this book, but sought it out after a serendipitous visit to the historic Mansion House of the Oneida sect in the central NY town of that name--where the action was set. This book is a well researched and well documented account of the rise and fall of founder John Noyes's Utopian world-view and of the hundreds of Americans connected to it and to him. This experiment in Utopian living was the foundation of the Oneida Community silver flatware company, among other interesting connections. Klaw's annotated bibliography is extensive, giving one everything one might want to know for further reading and exploration. As "K" reported, the book is an absolute page-turner! The Oneidans had a lot of good ideas, along with some truly bizarre ones. Read the book and then visit the historic site, which is open to the public and also rents rooms for overnight stays, in the town of Kenwood, near Oneida NY.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Gerard Reed on April 6, 2009
Format: Paperback
A case study of utopianism is available in Spencer Klaw's Without Sin: The Life and Death of the Oneida Community (New York: Penguin Books, c. 1993). This is a fascinating, carefully researched study of John Humphrey Noyes and his followers who sought to live out his "perfectionist" teachings. Noyes, like another religious prophet, Joseph Smith, came of age in upstate New York when it reverberated with religious revivals. Noyes sampled various expressions of evangelicalism, studied a bit at Andover, and floated around in "perfectionistic" circles incubated by (among others) Methodist preachers.
Noyes, however, could never tolerate structured settings other than his own. So, having thought through his views, especially concerning communal property and marriage, he launched his version of realized eschatology, the Kingdom of God fully established under his guidance. In time he recruited converts, many of them family and friends, and established a utopian community near Oneida, New York. Thoroughly communistic, the community eliminated private property--possessiveness equaled sin in Noyes' thought. Also abolished was monogamy. Thus Oneida is remembered for its "free love" milieu--though it was not quite as sex-saturated as university dormitories these days. To eliminate sin, Noyes believed you must eliminate possessive sex. Thus members of the community, with the permission of its elders, were allowed to have sex with anyone they desired. Since the sexes lived in different quarters, special rooms were constructed for their sexual liaisons.
As you might expect, Noyes himself was the primary beneficiary of such sexual freedom! Young women, needing the skilled hand of the master, were usually introduced to love-making by Noyes himself.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By James V. Holton on June 4, 2007
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The Oneida Community and its leader, John H. Noyes, are frequently cited in reference and history text books as examples of the transition of American religious life and practice in the 19th century. However, except for a few sentences and brief descriptions of their more lurid practices--especially the sexual freedom of "complex marriage"--the Oneidans have not gotten their historical due.

Klaw rescues the Oneida Community from its relative obscurity in popular history. His research is top-notch and thorough, the analysis inspired and compelling. Klaw takes us inside the mind of John H. Noyes and the day-to-day life of this religious community. Readers of this book will find a sympathetic and even-handed account of the Oneidans and their leaders, wrapped up in the larger context of American religious life.
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11 of 18 people found the following review helpful By K. on June 20, 2000
Format: Paperback
OK, I admit that I was requred to read this book for my American History class...but once I started reading, I couldn't put this book down! Claw uses lots of primary sources and gives a very sympathetic depiction of the rise and fall of the Oneida colony. Claw has depicted Noyes as a man with a very strong sexual magnetism - but flip to the middle section and check out a picture of this guy. Yuck!
I found the first third of the book pretty boring - the descriptions of John Noyes' childhood and early adulthood are particularly bland. Keep reading though, because the last 2/3rds of the book are mindblowing. Who knew that feminism and Christianity could co-exist? I really enjoyed the books' description of everyday life at Oneida, and the sexual politics that made the community so unique. This is not exactly a summer beach read, but it is definately a thought provoking analysis of one of America's more interesting religious "cults".
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3 of 6 people found the following review helpful By tantos libros... on September 1, 2009
Format: Paperback
This is an excellent history of the Oneida Community, but I believe the author should state it like it was: Noyes was a cult leader. While he was not as heinous as Jim Jones & Vernon "David Koresh" Howell, he is more to be reviled than respected for his role.

To clarify the "free sex" thing, community members had to have permission to have sex, so it was not with "anyone they desired." People had to stay on Noyes' good side so he would permit them to have sex with those they desired.

Secondly, community policy was that men did not ejaculate, because Noyes felt that the constant pregnancies typical of the time were oppressive to women. Therefore, young men who still lacked self-control were assigned post-menopausal partners, and the young women were partnered with the experienced, controlled, older men (one of whom, of course, was Noyes himself).

Read this book with SEDUCTIVE POISON (about the People's Temple) by Deborah Layton and note the similarities in how cult leaders operate.
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