Culture from Cranium

Eliot Brown

Throughout the history of anthropology it has been a popular view that people are largely products of their culture, and not the other way around. Yet culture is an exclusively human phenomenon. While it is true that everyone lives within a cultural context, and that context accounts for varying degrees of who that person is (indeed, there are those who say that certain people are wholly products of their culture), the reverse is also true. Each person, then, has some degree of impact on the culture around him or her. The current culture of this country, for example, was hugely shaped by the intellects and ideals of those who founded it, even of the original European settlers. Just as a person can be almost fully created by their culture, so can a culture result almost fully from one person's intellect.
There have been many cases of such things happening throughout history. Some have met with success, and some not. For the purposes of this essay I have chosen to examine one case, which, considering it's sharp deviation from the cultural context from which it came, was surprisingly successful. The Oneida Community, in Oneida, New York was a unique religious communist society in the mid-nineteenth century. The community was based on the radical religious beliefs, and biblical interpretations of John Humphrey Noyes.
Noyes grew up in a well to do household in Vermont. He Graduated from Dartmouth College in 1830 with high honors. Up to that point he had been cynically agnostic. But in 1831 he attended a revival with his mother lead by Charles Finney, the leader of a large religious movement in the northeast. Deeply moved he decided to enter the ministry. Noyes attended the Andover Theological Seminary and Yale Divinity School. It was at Yale that he started developing his controversial views, which then prevented him from being ordained. He decided that when one accepted Jesus that they were then totally without sin and had achieved a state of spiritual perfection. He also became convinced, as he wrote in a letter to a friend, that he was God's agent on Earth. Returning to Vermont, Noyes assembled a core group of 32 followers, consisting of his family and some friends, calling themselves the Putney Association. In 1844 the group adopted communism. They owned three houses, a store, a small chapel for collective worship, and ran two farms. Two years later they began practicing the systems of Mutaual Criticism and Male Continence. These practices lead to the persecution of the group by the surrounding communities, culminating in the arrest and indictment of Noyes. As a result the group relocated to Oneida, New York, where they continues their way of life successfully for over thirty years.
Noyes' practical theology, and, subsequently, that of the Oneida group, rested on four main ideas: Mutual Criticism, Complex Marriage, Male Continence, and Stirpiculture. Mutual Criticism was a system where, if one member of the community was seen as acting of thinking in a way that detracted from the family, for the community as a whole was viewed ad a community, they would sit silent in front of a group of ten to fifteen men and women who would openly and honestly discuss the persons strengths and weaknesses.
Complex Marriage meant that every man was married to every woman, and vice versa. It was considered selfish for two people to have an exclusive marriage. This meant that gender was the only boundary for sexual access between members of the community. However, if two people wished to live together they first had to attain each other's consent through a third person. If two people were seen to be developing an exclusive relationship they would be separated. It was believed that in Heaven "every dish is free to every guest." And that what was true in Heaven would now be true on Earth.
Mail Continence was a technique that allowed a man not to ejaculate durring of after sexual intercourse. This served many purposes. The Onidians did not believe in contraceptives, so this was a good method of preventing unwanted births, in which respect it was actually quite effective. An unwanted, unplanned pregnancy was not only avoided because of the mothers; unnecessary ejaculation was frowned upon as just as much a form