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.

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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

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

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 of onanism as masturbation. Also, pregnancy could create exclusive
bonds between parents.

Stirpiculture was a form of eugenics. Noyes felt that certain
people were closer to God than others. Those people would be elected to
have children. Acceptance was not obligatory and the committee tried to
pair people with people that they