John Humphrey Noyes

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John Humphrey Noyes
John Humphrey Noyes.jpg
Born (1811-09-03)September 3, 1811
Brattleboro, Vermont
Died April 13, 1886(1886-04-13) (aged 74)
Niagara Falls, Ontario
Occupation Utopian socialist
Known for Oneida Community
Spouse(s) Harriet Holton (m. 1838)
Children Pierrepont Noyes

John Humphrey Noyes (September 3, 1811 – April 13, 1886) was an American utopian socialist. He founded the Oneida Community in 1848.[1] He coined the term "free love".

Early activism[edit]

Noyes was born in Brattleboro, Vermont to John Noyes, an agnostic teacher, businessman, and member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and Polly Hayes.[2] He was below the age of 21 when he started voicing his "heretical" views. While studying at Dartmouth College, Andover Theological Seminary, and Yale Theological College he used his skills at theological argument. He combined this with his skill in religious science, and the common sense he had gained as a farmer, to “make the application of a revolutionary religious doctrine to everyday life, an application that produced a social revolution.”[3]

It was in his second year at Yale that he made his first theological discovery. He was trying to determine the date of the second coming of Christ, and determined it had already occurred. His conclusion was that Christ’s second coming had taken place in 70 AD., and that “mankind was now living in a new age.”[4] With this in mind he became increasingly concerned with salvation from sin and with perfection. He began to argue with his colleagues that unless man was truly free of sin, then Christianity was a lie, and that only those who were perfect and free of sin were true Christians. This internal religious crisis brought about a religious conversion within Noyes. From there he began to proclaim that he “did not sin.”[4] The idea of Perfectionism—that it was possible to be free of sin in this lifetime—caused his friends to think him unbalanced, and he began to be called a heretic by his own professors. From the moment of his conversion Noyes maintained that, because he had surrendered his will to God, everything he chose to do was perfect because his choices “came from a perfect heart”.[4] His theory centered around the idea that the fact that man had an independent will was because of God, and that this independent will came from God, therefore rendering it divine. The only way to control mankind’s will was with spiritual direction. And Noyes proclaimed “it was impossible for the Church to compel man to obey the law of God, and to send him to eternal damnation for his failure to do so.”[5] Noyes claimed “his new relationship to God canceled out his obligation to obey traditional moral standards or the normal laws of society.”[4] As a result Noyes started acting on impulses from his intuition rather than giving thought to the actions or consequences. On February 20, 1834, he declared himself perfect and free from sin. This declaration caused an outrage at his college, and his newly-earned license to preach was revoked.

Upon his expulsion from Yale and the revocation of his ministerial license, he returned to Putney, Vermont, where he continued to preach, declaring, "I took away their license to sin and they go on sinning; they have taken away my license to preach but I shall go on preaching". At this time his Putney community began to take shape. It started in 1836 as the Putney Bible School and became a formal communal organization in 1844, practicing complex marriage, male continence, and striving for Perfection.


In 1847, Noyes (who had legally married Harriet Holton in 1838) was arrested for adultery. Upon receiving word that arrest warrants had been issued for several of his loyal followers, the group left Vermont for Oneida, New York, where Noyes knew some friendly Perfectionists with land. They made the decision to settle there, and built their first communal dwelling in 1848.

The Oneida Community, as it came to be known, survived until 1881. It grew to have a membership of over 300, with branch communities in Brooklyn, New York; Wallingford, Connecticut; Newark, New Jersey; Cambridge, Vermont; and Putney, Vermont. The Community had many successful industries. They manufactured animal traps and silk thread, and raised and canned fruits and vegetables. Smaller industries included the manufacture of leather travel bags and palm-leaf hats. Their most successful trade, however, was that of silverware.


In June 1879, one of Noyes' most loyal followers alerted him that he was about to be arrested for statutory rape. In the middle of the night, he fled Oneida for Ontario, Canada, where the Community had a factory. In August, he wrote back to the Community, stating that it was time to abandon the practice of complex marriage and live in a more traditional manner. The Community formally dissolved and converted to a joint stock company on January 1, 1881.

Although Noyes never returned to the United States, he remained a powerful influence over many of his followers. Some even left Oneida to come to the Niagara Falls area. One young woman, entertaining marriage proposals from two young men, wrote to Noyes for his advice. When Noyes advised her to reject both proposals and take up with Myron Kinsley—the follower who had tipped him off to his impending arrest, and a man twenty years her senior—she took Noyes' advice.


John Humphrey Noyes died in Niagara Falls, Ontario, in 1886. His body was returned to Oneida and is buried in the Oneida Community Cemetery with those of many of his followers.[1]


In the early decades of the 20th century, Noyes' son Pierrepont consolidated the Community's industries and focused solely on silverware production. The company became known as Oneida Limited and was the largest producer of flatware in the world for much of the 20th century. The Community's second communal dwelling, the 93,000-square-foot (8,600 m2) brick "mansion house", survives today as a multi-use facility encompassing a museum, apartments, dormitory housing, guest rooms, and meeting and banquet facilities.


  • The Berean (1847)
  • Bible Communism (1848)
  • History of American Socialisms (1870)
  • Mutual Criticism (1876)
  • Male Continence (1848)
  • Scientific Propagation (1873)
  • Home Talks (1875)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "The Oneida Community. The Life And Death Of Its Founder, John H. Noyes.". New York Times. April 15, 1886. Retrieved 2008-05-29. "The death at Niagara Falls, on Tuesday, of John Humphrey Noyes brings conspicuously before the public, probably for the last time, one of the most curious of the Socialistic experiments for which the first half of this century is noted, the Oneida Community of Perfectionists, which Noyes founded, and which, so long as he was able to manage it, maintained a wonderful degree of material prosperity and vitality." 
  2. ^ Bednarowski, Mary Farrell. "Noyes, John Humphrey"; [1]; American National Biography Online February 2000.
  3. ^ Bernstein, Leonard. "The Ideas of John Humphrey Noyes, Perfectionist". American Quarterly 5 (1953): 158. JSTOR. IUPUI University Library, Indianapolis. 15 April 2008.
  4. ^ a b c d Sandeen, Ernest R. "John Humphrey Noyes as the New Adam". Church History 40 (1971): 83. JSTOR. IUPUI University Library, Indianapolis. 15 April 2008
  5. ^ Bernstein, Leonard. "The Ideas of John Humphrey Noyes, Perfectionist". American Quarterly 5 (1953): 162. JSTOR. IUPUI University Library, Indianapolis. 15 April 2008.

Further reading[edit]

  • Kennedy, David M., et al. (2002). The American Pageant. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  • Klaw, Spencer (1993). Without Sin: The Life and Death of the Oneida Community. New York: Allen Lane, Penguin Press.
  • Noyes, Pierrepont B. (1937). My Father's House: An Oneida Boyhood. New York and Toronto: Farrar and Rinehart, Inc.

External links[edit]