Come On Feel the Noyes: Confessions of an Attached Historian
Several years ago, a professor of mine assigned Jill Lepore’s article, “Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography”. The essay begins with an account of Lepore’s encounter with a lock of Noah Webster’s hair in a New England archive. Lepore describes feeling “an eerie intimacy with Noah himself. And, against all logic, it made me feel as though I knew him—and, even less logically, liked him—just a bit better” (129).
When I read this essay, I, a newly-minted Ph.D. student with minimal archive experience, responded to this narrative in what I assume was the natural way: “Isn’t that sweet? Weird, and a little too attached for a historian, but strangely endearing.” That was then.
Now, the time has come for me to make my own foray into the archives, and a few weeks ago, in a similarly “crisply air-conditioned Special Collections reading room” to the one where Lepore shared a tender moment with Webster, I found it: a laminated sheet containing a lock of John Humphrey Noyes’s hair and a portrait drawn by his youngest sister, Charlotte. (“Portrait of J.H.N. by C.A. Miller (before 1840),” Box 69.)
Noyes, the founder and leader of the Oneida Community, a nineteenth-century Perfectionist Christian commune known for its unusual sexual practices and selective breeding experiment, is not a figure who commonly inspires tender-hearted nostalgia from historians. Writings by and about him reveal a man who sought to secure the exclusive affection and loyalty of his followers, and the historiographic consensus paints him as a needy, controlling, possibly mentally ill, autocrat. Sociologists Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge, in their The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival, and Cult Formation, cite Noyes’s Oneida Community as the prime exemplar of the “psychopathology” model of cult formation.
Despite knowing all of this, and despite my own significant misgivings about the system of sexual relations that Noyes devised (all members were expected to “circulate” sexually, and teenagers were initiated by much older members), when I opened the folder containing that lock of hair, I found my heart strangely warmed. I regretted, even, that it was laminated because it prevented me from reaching that next level of bizarre across-the-centuries intimacy that Lepore felt: I couldn’t touch the hair.
A week or so later, I went with a friend to visit the Oneida Community Mansion House, where we took a tour, and I walked around slack-jawed, feeling almost as close to these communitarians as I had when I beheld that lock of hair in the archive. I spent about two weeks’ food budget on books. Our tour guide was excited that I was a graduate student writing about Oneida, and he graciously offered to share with me his genealogical work on the Community.
The Oneida Community Mansion House
Afterward, though, I confessed to my friend my subtle disappointment that he and the other Mansion House staff hadn’t been more thrilled to have me in their presence—they hadn’t swept us into closed-to-the-public back rooms, broken open exhibition cases for our perusal, given me a special discount at the gift shop. “I’ve spent almost my entire adult life studying this community and these people,” I whined. “I just want to shake them and say, ‘I know you! I’m your historian!’”
I was aware of the absurdity of this statement even in that moment; the truth is, the Oneida Community already has its share of capable historians (though I’m hoping there’s room for at least one more). They don’t need me to give them their history. Our tour guide had spent decades studying the Community, living right next door to the place where these people had lived and worked, and he knew things about their lives that I, a wide-eyed academic, couldn’t have gleaned from a few weeks in an archive.
Potential creepiness and naïve hubris aside, the inherent illogic of the heart-swell that that tangle of hair inspired in me, and the scholarly pride-swell that being at the Mansion House provoked, got me thinking about the ways in which we relate to our subjects. Why did I, following Lepore, feel that a few strands of old hair drew me closer than ever to this long-dead religious leader? How could I write in a balanced—much less, detached—way about a man whose diary I’d read, whose hair I’d held in my hand?
None of us, of course, is ever really detached. Some of us have secret, or not-so-secret, political or ethical agendas, hoping that the messages we carry from the past will illuminate our present circumstances and choices; others want to redeem the legacies of the historic people and movements that have occupied so much of our own twenty-first-century lives. My own agenda falls somewhere along the lines of rescuing Noyes from the insane asylum of history—of recognizing, even in one of the many apparent “whackos” (a term jokingly employed by one of my former professors) who people the game-board of U.S. religious history, an affinity with the theology of Second Great Awakening revivalism and a sincere effort to be as fully and authentically Christian as possible. Perhaps a deeper understanding of Noyes and the people who devoted themselves wholeheartedly, wholebodiedly, to his mission might soften our judgment of so-called religious “whackos” past, present, and future.
In the end, I think the real identity of John Humphrey Noyes lies somewhere between the troubled, tyrannical charlatan who fits the “psychopathology model of cult formation” and the soft-spoken, earnestly religious, adored leader whose sister lovingly preserved a lock of his hair. There is something seductive (or, in Oneida Community parlance, “magnetic”) about each of these poles of interpretation, but I hope that avoiding (at least for the most part) seduction from either side will make the story I tell more real and important.
Kathleen Williams is a Ph.D. candidate in American religious history at Vanderbilt University. She holds a B.A. from Davidson College and an M.A. from the University of Georgia. She is currently working on her dissertation, “The Art of Glancing:” Disciplining Bodies and Affections in the Oneida Community.