Sexy Sermons: A 19th-century Vermonter Preached "Free Love"
Some Vermonters of a certain age — i.e., those who remember the ’60s as more than grainy images of the Vietnam War set to Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” — recall when Vermont meant “free love.” Back then, young people were drawn to the Green Mountain State by the temptations of communal living and its concomitant promise of open loving — part of the sexual revolution that blossomed in the 1960s, along with the advent of feminism and the birth-control pill. That trend would go mainstream in the ’70s, before the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s stomped on everyone’s libido.
But “free love” itself is much older. While Vermont can rightfully claim ownership of the hippie phrase, its origins date back more than a century before the Summer of Love. Credit for coining it belongs to Brattleboro native and longtime Putney resident John Humphrey Noyes (1811-1886).
Noyes was a religious reformer and socialist who became famous for founding the Oneida Community of western New York, considered one of the most successful utopian communities ever established in the United States. At its peak, the Oneida Perfectionists, as they called themselves, had as many as 300 members, with branch communities in Cambridge and Putney, Vt., as well as in Brooklyn, N.Y.; Wallingford, Conn.; and Newark, N.J.
But “Hump Free” Noyes didn’t stick around Vermont for very long, largely because he had a knack for landing in hot water with the natives when he espoused views on marriage, sin and sex. Not only were those views considered radical by the sexually repressed Victorians of Noyes’ era, but they would shock many open-minded folks today. Chief among them was Noyes’ belief that people can get right with God by getting busy with numerous sexual partners.
Noyes was born in Brattleboro on September 3, 1811, the son of a U.S. congressman and a devoutly religious mother. According to a history of the Oneida Community by Randall Hillebrand, published on New York History Net, young Noyes initially had no interest in religion or faith. But, after attending a four-day religious revival in Putney, he contracted a fever that planted the fear of God in him. Noyes went on to study theology at Yale Divinity School and made plans to become an ordained minister.
However, Noyes the divinity student evidently had trouble wrapping his noggin around the fundamental Christian notion of original sin. Instead, he came to believe that man could achieve salvation by reaching a state of sinless perfection at the time of his conversion. This credo, later dubbed Perfectionism, asserted that it was possible for humans to be devoid of sin as long as they surrendered their will to God with “a perfect heart.”
Furthermore, Noyes conveniently claimed that his relationship to the Almighty “canceled out his obligation to obey traditional moral standards or the normal laws of society.” Putting his money (and tuition) where his mouth was, on February 20, 1834, Noyes declared himself “perfect and utterly free of sin” — a boast that, understandably, served as grounds for Yale to boot him out of divinity school and yank his newly acquired ministerial license.
Following his expulsion from Yale, Noyes returned to Putney and founded the Putney Bible School in 1836. There he developed a devoted following who bought into his groundbreaking notions of gender equality and sexual promiscuity.
These notions didn’t exactly endear him to most of his fellow Vermonters. In 1847, Noyes, who had been legally married to Harriet Holton since 1838, was indicted for adultery. When he learned that arrest warrants had also been posted for some of his followers, the entire gang fled the Green Mountains for a 23-acre tract of land in Oneida, N.Y., where they set up a proto-hippie commune.
As Rebecca Furtado outlines in an article on Yahoo Voices called “The Oneida Community: Free Love and Women in Trousers Before Woodstock,” Noyes preached that he and other male members of the community were free to have sex with various female members, as long as the women were down with it.
Noyes and his disciples frowned on the idea of people coupling up to form deep emotional attachments; indeed, this was grounds for eviction from the community. Instead, Noyes preached the idea of “complex marriage,” which held that every man in the community was considered married to every adult woman — and thus free to enjoy all the connubial benefits such complex relationships entailed.
Another Noyes innovation was something called “ascending fellowship,” or the practice of older members of the community — of both sexes — mentoring younger virgins on the group’s sex, breeding and birth-control principles. According to Furtado, young, inexperienced men were encouraged to get their sexual schooling from older women — that is, until they mastered another Oneida innovation: “male continence.”
Male continence, an effective form of birth control — by 19th-century standards, at least — was the practice of not ejaculating during or after intercourse. (Masturbation was also a no-no.) Since this method was bound to fail from time to time — then, as now, teenage boys tended to be quick on the draw — less experienced males honed their Kegel skills with postmenopausal women who couldn’t get pregnant. In return, older women of the community were ensured a steady supply of strapping lads with whom they could maintain a vigorous sex life.
Not all of Noyes’ revolutionary ideas related directly to sex. He also preached that adult women over the age of 14 were equal to men and should not be relegated solely to domestic drudgery such as cooking, cleaning, laundry and child rearing. Among the Oneida Perfectionists, babies were raised in communal nurseries, freeing many of the women from such duties. Women were not only allowed but required — sometimes by force — to eschew flashy dresses in favor of pants, which enabled them to do “male” work.
Though such beliefs were groundbreaking for his time, Noyes’ preaching also presaged a creepier ideology that would rear its head in Vermont several decades later: eugenics. As Furtado explains, anyone who wished to procreate first had to go before a committee and request permission. The committee would then ruminate on whether the couple was likely to produce “moral” children. Noyes himself took advantage of his position in the community to father nine kids, making him seem more like a cult leader than a mere religious reformer.
Like many experimental communities, the Oneida Perfectionists didn’t survive long after the death of their charismatic leader, on April 13, 1886. The last of the community members went their separate ways two years later. Some married, got jobs and settled into more conventional lifestyles — not unlike Vermont’s free-love hippies, who would unwittingly follow in their footsteps a century later.