A Meeting of Two or Three Hundred Minds : WITHOUT SIN: The Life and Death of the Oneida Community, By Spencer Klaw (Viking: $25; 337 pp.)

Dick Russell and Susan Dewan are Boston-based free-lance writers

Is it possible to comprehend a time of spirit and creativity nearly 150 years after the fact--a time when several hundred people chose to live together in a communal situation outside of the religious and social pressures of their era? After all, our jaundiced perception of community has been shaped by the Manson family, Jonestown and the Branch Davidians. Considering the increase of domestic violence, child abuse and sexually transmitted diseases, a group of people who lived together successfully for three decades may seem as strange as a view of life on another planet.

"Without Sin" is just such a view. Between 200 and 300 people were drawn together in the late 1840's in Upstate New York to form what their founder, John Humphrey Noyes, called "a bridgehead over which the armies of Christ would soon advance to establish God's kingdom on earth"--the Oneida community. Born in 1811, Noyes decided to give up studying law at Dartmouth and, in 1831, devoted his life to serving God. The community became proof that, in the religious experiences which moved Noyes far out on the "doctrinal limb," he was no longer alone.

Spencer Klaw's investigation into what made this experiment in "Bible communism" thrive for over three decades walks a fine line between history and intolerance. And that seems to reflect the Oneida group leader Noye's own veering back and forth between genuine inspired faith and blatant manipulation.

It strikes me that the experience of communal life is very difficult to understand from the outside. Much like a bachelor writing about marriage, unless you've done it or are doing it, the most extraordinary aspect of this kind of life (not lifestyle) does not really translate; that is, the whole (like marriage) is something greater than the sum of its parts. It is not the commonality of like minds (that only creates mass consciousness), but the internal dynamics of individuals that create this sum. In "Without Sin," the feeling of this is overshadowed by an excessive concentration on the religious and spiritual evolution and devolution of John Humphrey Noyes.

But then can any charismatic figure be understood without a contemporary cultural prejudice that makes them appear like cult leaders or debunked evangelists, especially where sex is involved? Noyes believed that it was the Oneidan's duty to God to get all the pleasure they could from the world in which God placed them. Sex was viewed as the highest form of worship, and sexual shame was blasphemy.

Out of that came "complex marriage," Noyes' effort to liberate men and women from the confines of monogamy and conventional family life. This is not to be confused with the "free love" of the 1960s or any other time. All Oneida men were required to practice a form of birth control using a technique invented by Noyes, and no woman had to bear more children than suited her. Oneidans were also encouraged by the rule of "ascending fellowship" to have sexual relations with their spiritual betters. Monogamy was seen as incompatible with the Bible's emphasis on universal love, and Noyes felt that the "secret history of the human heart showed it capable of loving any number of persons." Lust, ambition, jealousy, exclusiveness, egotism and "the claiming spirit" of marriage were dealt with as evils antithetical to communal life.

One way of dealing with their problems was through "mutual criticism," which continually forced community members to face themselves and those they lived with in an honesty that is sorely missing from the nuclear family. Countless therapies thrive today due to that very lack.

Apart from the difficulties that come from any system attempting to govern the world of relationships, the Oneidans had a rich life made more comfortable as their businesses flourished. Women were released from the slavery of domestic life in ways far advanced of their century, and educational pursuits of all kinds were given an important place in life.

Spencer Klaw sees the breakup of the community in 1879 as its death. In fact, after the formal dissolution, members built houses on community farmland, creating the town of Kenwood, which even as late as 1935 was an extended family enclave. The family business, Oneida Community Ltd., became one of the world's largest manufacturers of silverware and the last Noyes descendant retired as chairman in 1981. So what really died in 1879 when John Noyes crept out of Mansion House in the middle of the night? The old structure, the old ways, the old ideas.

Oddly enough, it was an intense longing for the confines of marriage and the right to be able to choose one's own partners that led to the dissolving of the original community. The rules and regulations of "complex marriage" became an intolerable limitation to a younger generation.

John Noyes was a superb myth-maker, and when the power and glory of that myth no longer unified his people but instead divided them, he left. This was no act of cowardice or ego. Unfortunately, only tribal peoples understand and have a means for the passage of spiritual authority from one generation to the next. They know the process of consensus-making to be intrinsic to development of the common blood that flows through the veins of the larger family.

Klaw does mention the rash of "utopian communities" that popped up all over the landscape in the mid-1800s, as if people of European descent invented community, but overlooks that Native American communities have been here all the while. People moving West at the same time into the unknown were threatened by numerous dangers. They banded together because they needed one another and westward-moving pioneers everywhere found group travel and group living perfectly normal.

As Spencer Klaw looks back from the last paragraph of his book, he sees Oneida soaring "above the plain of 19th Century revivalism and utopia building, a monument to the irresistible impulse, inevitably doomed but seldom so nearly realized, to create a new world and people it with new men and women."

Those two words, inevitably doomed, come from somewhere inside the author I cannot fathom. If the struggle of people to learn to live together can only come to naught, the future looks bleak indeed. But if human failings can be accepted, there is a great deal to learn from the example set at Oneida.

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