Mormons, Shakers, and the Oneida community all had unusual marriage practices. What is the best explanation for polygamy from a non-Mormon view? Dr. Larry Foster from Georgia Tech gives his best explanation for the practice.
Larry: So it wasn’t like God suddenly said, “You should start polygamy.” Joseph Smith asks God, according to the revelation that was written, recorded in 1843 that is now section 132 of the Utah Mormon Doctrine and Covenants, he asks, “Why did you allow the Hebrew patriarchs like Abraham, Solomon, and David and all these other people to have plural wives?” Then God tells him, “It’s time to reintroduce the system in a different form in preparation for the millennium.” That’s reading a few extra things into it.
Then similarly, the argument that he was just mentally disturbed, there’s some definite possibilities there, but you have to ask, is there an assumption that anybody who would think that they wanted to introduce polygamy would automatically have to be mentally disturbed? Then you’d have to say, “Well, all those people in the Bible were mentally disturbed.” I don’t think that that would hold up.
But I do think that there are some definite psychological peculiarities about Joseph Smith that I’ve argued–several different interpretations that might work to try to help explain how unusual psychology and narcissistic and possibly bipolar manic depressive tendencies might have contributed in sort of encouraging him to move toward polygamy, and maybe sincerely believe it was God’s will, but mainly, might have been his own desires that were sort of feeding back into, “It’s coming from God,” sort of thing.
All three groups were founded in the 19th century and had unusual marriage practices. Of course, Mormons adopted polygamy, but Shakers were celibate and the Oneida community banned marriage but allowed sexual relations among the entire group. Dr. Larry Foster has studied so three groups and we will get to know the Shakers and Oneida community and learn more about them.
Larry : The Shakers were much more widespread than people realize. They were the most successful, fully communal group from that period in American history. They continued to exist, almost up to the present. There still are, I think, one or two or three people. It’s just a handful now. But they depended, of course, on converts. So, they lasted for over 200 years, which is darn good time for—it’s just like a monastic order, except the problem with the Shakers is they didn’t have any church to give them monks or nuns to become celibate. So, when they couldn’t get as many converts, after about 1830 or 1840, they gradually began to decline. But there were over 1,000 Shakers in the United States as late as 1900. They’ve continued to have some really, really bright people in the group down to the very end, really out at the very end, I think now, unless something very unusual happens.
The Oneida community, of course, only lasted for about 32 years with its system at Oneida, altogether less than that if you count the sexual system was ended before the community was disbanded. But that’s a long time to have people living a complicated arrangement in which you have multiple partners and you break up exclusive relationships and you have communal childcare, and you have much more equality for women, participation of women in all sorts of areas, in leadership roles and other sorts of things. After the community at Oneida officially ended in January 1st of 1881, they reorganized as a joint stock Corporation and eventually began to produce the silverware that they became famous with under one of John Humphrey Noyes’ sons Pierpont Noyes, who was head of the Oneida company for about 50 years, into the 1950s. They were the most effective of both silverware and flatware producing company in the United States at that point. Then later, the company got taken over by outsiders, and they followed modern business practices, which was to sort of try to rip off the public and then get higher, fantastically higher salaries for the executives, even when they were destroying the company. So, it’s now gone bankrupt twice, and it’s totally unconnected with the Oneida community, although, it is still being produced, I guess, by Chinese. They are doing production of the silverware, the flatware.
We will also learn more about the Oneida Community’s unusual and effective practice of birth control.
GT: So the Oneida community was small. We were trying to talk about whether they influenced Joseph Smith.
Larry: They did not influence Joseph Smith, but when the Mormons were being attacked in the 1850s, the Oneida Community was attacked in the early 1850s. But Oneida was smaller, only 300 people all together at the max and about equal men and women. For over for 21 years, they tried to avoid having any children. In effect, they had a system of birth control. This is really weird. I know, people don’t believe it could work. But it did. A system that was technically called Coitus reservatus, that is a man and a woman would engage in sex, but the man would never ejaculate either during or after intercourse. This was the way, the only method that they used for birth control. It was extraordinarily effective under the conditions at Oneida, which were anything but totally free. They estimated that there were only 31 births during this 21-year period from 1848 until 1869, when they started a systematic effort to have children. Only 12 of them were supposedly accidental, according to the community’s records. That’s an astounding record that I don’t think you’ve could even beat on the pill, probably, with that number of people. So, it was effectively introduced and now there’s certain groups that talk about this as a better way to have sex. I don’t think it’s caught on because basically, the man simply had to learn not to get too excited in intercourse and ejaculate. According to the Kinsey report in the 1950’s, or 40’s, I forget, he had a three-page on this practice, which he said, men could reach orgasm under without ejaculating. So, the whole thing is really weird stuff. But I mean, they experimented with a lot of different sexual practices that even people who think they’re sophisticated probably have no idea about that.
It is interesting that all three groups used the same biblical scripture in Luke to justify their marriage arrangements. Jesus, when confronted by the story that a woman married seven brothers who all died without a male heir, said the Pharisees misunderstood the scriptures. There is no marriage in heaven. What do you think of these three groups marriage practices?