by Michael Doyle
John W. Mears was a head of his time.
Yes, that’s a pun.
A fiercely minded 19th century public intellectual, Mears anticipated the 21st century’s predilection for clash. Outrage was his default setting, dialed up to 10. He was a Presbyterian minister, Hamilton College philosophy professor, and all-purpose polemicist who called out one social threat after another: Mormonism, Romanism, liquor. Free love!
Especially that. Through the 1870s, John Mears repeatedly tilted his lance against the ostensible free-lovers of New York state’s Oneida Community. It was Mears who led the climactic – or perhaps, better put, the anti-climactic – ministers’ crusade in 1879 credited with dislodging Oneida’s patriarch John Humphrey Noyes and neutering the Community’s decades-long experiment with “complex marriage.”
Complex marriage was not quite, in fact, free love, and Oneida’s retreat sprang from more than the Mears-fronted campaign. The Yale Divinity School-educated Mears himself was subtler than the one-note scold that Oneida’s defenders made him out to be. Rhetorical simplification, though, comes with the career that John Mears inhabited then and illuminates still. This is the land of public agitation, where the prevailing media rewards those who simplify, stimulate and escalate. It is a land where fashions may change but certain rules remain evergreen. John Mears’ 19th century campaign against the Oneida Community thus foreshadowed any number of spin cycles in the 21st century’s attention-getting political economy. Mind-share is won and public mobilization stimulated by ever-escalating rhetoric amplified by instruments that are simultaneously strummed and bashed.
Start with the player’s ambition
Lavishly credentialed as Hamilton’s Albert Barnes Professor of Intellectual and Moral Philosophy, Mears craved more than classroom apples. When he told his Hamilton students that “what the college wants is visibility,” he meant himself. He belonged in the arena, though it left him bloodied. He ran for Congress in 1878 and got clobbered. He ran for New York governor in 1879, finished a distant fifth and then wondered, as he wrote, “what God has in store for me.” Surely it would involve fighting the good fight in front of an audience; for he was, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle said upon his death, “an able controversialist.”
“This was partly due to his love of right,” a former student named Gilbert Reid recalled, “and partly due to his love of agitation. He hated deadness.”
Today, Mears would shine on a Fox News panel, though a producer might urge him to lose the mutton-chops.
This hungry 19th century controversialist knew the secrets to getting a 21st century news producer’s call-back, which are vehemence, versatility and availability. Name the moment’s topic, and Mears could expound upon it. And if things seemed dead, he could always whip up something new. So, Mears ridiculed the man-from-monkey insinuations of Charles Darwin. He raged against Philadelphia’s Sunday street cars, those clamorous intruders on the day of worship. He warned against river pollution; not as metaphor, but the real, wet Schuykill. He denounced operas, urging all “to turn our backs upon theatre-going and wine-drinking.” Yea, he abominated strong drink. He wrote against it as editor of the weekly American Presbyterian, and he ran against it twice on the Prohibition Party ticket.
Finally, with the Oneida Community, Mears found perfect pitch for his public-rousing rhetoric. Noyes was, he said, guilty of “monstrous practices” and “diabolical uncleanness.” Oneida was, he said, a “den of shameful immoralities,” a place of “moral defilement” and “vile passion.” It was “one of the most revolting and disgraceful evils of our state” and, my personal favorite, “an Epicurean sty.”
Mears needed such explosive sticks to dislodge the Oneida Community, which had withstood prior sallies and sieges.
The Oneida Community
Established west of Utica in 1848 by Noyes and about 30 pioneers, the Oneida Community had grown by the 1870s to include 200-plus adults and an impressively cultivated spread along Oneida Creek. They were good neighbors, solid citizens, exemplary businesspeople, and carnal communists. They eschewed monogamy and discouraged exclusive relationships. Complex marriage was accompanied by the discipline of “male continence,” enabling social connection through sexual intercourse without the propagative consequences. Through the principle of “ascending fellowship,” Noyes promoted the spiritual and practical benefits of bedding younger with older.
“He argued from the Bible that in the Kingdom of Heaven, there is no marriage, since marriage is like slavery; a form of selfish personal ownership,” physician Anita Newcomb McGee wrote in 1891. “And to overcome this selfishness among Perfectionists, Noyes devised an extraordinary system of regulated promiscuity, beginning at earliest puberty.”
As antagonists often will, John Mears mirrored John Humphrey Noyes. Both graduated from college at 19. Both were Yale Divinity men, and both burned to make their mark. Both knew early church failures. Both were of a philosophical bent. Mears particularly loved the dense cogitations of Immanuel Kant; too much so, his put-upon Hamilton students might say. Lord, but he could drone. Both men relished debate. And both men could turn a phrase. Mears published like a man possessed. He wrote a 475-page book about the Jews, a 350-page book about Bohemia in the 14th century and a 313-page book about Madagascar. Madagascar! Of all places, Mears chose that alien island to explore from afar; but then again, the foreign fascinated and repulsed him.
Mears turned to Oneida, the nearby foreign and the fight for which he longed, after he joined the Hamilton faculty in 1871 following a madly prolific decade at the Philadelphia-based American Presbyterian. In a July 1871 ceremony, Mears introduced himself to the Hamilton community with an address that, while not mentioning Oneida, nonetheless with his denunciations of “unrestrained indulgence” and the “dark and slimy depths” made inevitable his coming clash with the commune located about a dozen miles away from the hilltop college campus. “The fact is,” Mears warned, “man has fallen in love with this lower world, this earthly home of his.”
In the classroom, Mears lectured on the Book of Romans, intellectual philosophy, and German. During some terms, Mears would add courses in French and an optional seminar uncompromisingly entitled “Kant’s Kritik der Reinen Vernuft.” As was his wont, he taught through confrontation, setting students up for what he liked to call “mental gymnastics.” All the while, he grappled with outside foes.
Mears apparently beheld Oneida for the first time on July 3, 1874, as the leading member of a Utica-based Presbyterian Synod committee formed to investigate the community. It was a pleasant enough visit, but the final committee report issued that fall laid it on thick, in the Mears’ fashion. Though the committee had included three lawyers, the report’s tenor was pervaded, the Oneida Community’s newspaper assessed, more by a “spirit of ignorant and reckless vituperation” than by neutral fact-finding. The Community’s practices were a “monstrous aggregate of lust and shame” that were “totally unfit for public mention or discussion.” The residents were “filthy dreamers” who had sunk into “scandalous impurity.” Their views of religion were “perverse, fantastical and devilish.” Tolerating their existence caused “the stimulating of impure and licentious passions.”
The pestilential details, though, were left to the imagination. Complex marriage was neither named nor explained. The Biblical argument for the common ownership of both property and bodies was ignored. The specifics of male continence and ascending fellowship were omitted. All that modesty may have been a tactical mistake; faced with shouted generalities, the public yawned and Oneida’s neighbors would not quiver. Facts, personally known, can puncture inflated rhetoric. The Community had ingratiated itself over the years, contributing to local charities, loaning books and, during the Civil War, paying bounties to help local residents sidestep the draft. By the mid-1870s, as many as 200 outsiders at a time were employed by the Community. The Community members did not noisily proselytize, while their thrift and industry had improved everyone’s lot.
“It is the successful business arrangements of the Community that are blinding or reconciling the public to their grosser features,” the committee’s report sighed. “People easily grow indulgent to an evil which increases their worldly prosperity.”
Disappointed but undeterred, Mears continued picking away at Oneida until his big moment ripened on Valentine’s Day, 1879.
Several weeks prior, citing the “great wrong done to society” by Oneida, Mears and several well-placed allies including Syracuse University Chancellor Erastus O. Haven and Episcopal Bishop Frederic Dan Huntington had summoned those who believed it was time to “demand some unified counsel and action on the part of teachers of the gospel and defendants of public and domestic virtue.”
Several dozen such worthies answered the call, convening mid-afternoon on February 14 in Syracuse University’s main building, the imposing Hall of Languages. “Here,” one observer would sum up in the Syracuse Daily Journal, “were venerable bishops, more or less venerable doctors of divinity, a college president, several college professors, clergymen, ordinary and extraordinary, doctors of medicine and councilors-at-law, two editors and a sprinkling of common people.”
No reporters, though. Mears kicked them out. He was always of two minds about the whole reporting business.
Mears, the endlessly quotable crusader who exploited newspapers’ lust for scandal, nonetheless called it “a matter of profound regret that this ubiquitous agency is so generally unscrupulous as to the character of the news which it reports, that it so often panders to depraved tastes.” On this front, at least, Mears and Noyes shared a love-hate perspective. Noyes, the friend of prominent editors and the willing subject of many profiles, still said it made his “spiritual eyes ache to look over the popular newspapers. With their murders and their hangings and shipwrecks and car-smashings and man-roastings, they may be said to be all the time in the white heat of hell fire.”
Depravity, to a reporter, is the fast track to A-1. Or rather, these days, to plenty of clicks and page views. A good man-roasting will get serious play, every time. Even the Oneida Community’s own reporters, Noyes said, were “always anxious for news that is sharp and racy and will produce a sensation.” All too true, but even as they occasionally loathed newspapers, Noyes and Mears catered to them. They understood that the sensational draws an audience, without which no sermon matters. Sex, that 100-proof sensation, sells. So does denouncing it and, in truth, Mears had a conflicted relationship to the world of the senses. Stewing too long in Kantian metaphysics can do that to a fellow. Even as Mears lamented the human appetite for “a little tickling of the palate or glow of the nerves,” whether by naughty books or noxious drink, he plucked sensory strings louder to excite a distracted crowd.
Of course, reporters pieced together from the inevitable leaks what transpired behind closed doors in the Hall of Languages. They followed along, as well, over the subsequent months as Mears and his allies maneuvered in a sustained campaign. Mears, or someone close to him, was presumably the source for the June 21, 1879 Syracuse Morning Standard report declaring that some of the state’s top attorneys had been consulted, Oneida literature collected, and testimony taken. The story, picked up statewide, bluntly predicted that “the arrest of Noyes…is to be made,” though the potential charges were left vague. Could it be incest, obscenity, or something altogether unexpected? Noyes didn’t wait to find out. He quietly decamped for Canada the next night.
“I only know,” Noyes wrote later, “that indictments, mobs, imprisonment and even death were in the air at Oneida when I took my flight to the north.”
The dissolution of Oneida
With Noyes gone, the Oneida Community’s complex marriage system ended at 10 a.m. on August 28, 1879.
For 21st century combatants, the ministers’ war against the Oneida Community underscores the importance of timing, persistence, and personal ambition in shaping an outcome. It also shows that rousing rhetoric can caricature an enemy and swell a crowd but can also deflate when pierced by contrary experience. Mears learned that in 1874; then, in 1879, he was more fortunate in his timing. His external crusade coincided with the Community’s internal disarray. Noyes had lost his touch and, literally, his voice. A new generation chafed under his leadership. The religious chords binding members frayed. “There was the raid of the ministers upon us,” Community member Tirzah Miller recounted, “but that was nothing compared to the internal dissensions.”
So, Mears finally happened to strike at an opportune moment. His hammer hit just where the Community’s armor wore thin. But the equally telling fact was, Mears struck and he kept striking where others had wearied. He kept going, this renouncer of sensory temptations, for virtue’s sake as well as for the most paradoxical of reasons: John Mears fought on, one might say, for kicks.
“I enjoy few things more than a downright, earnest combat with something that deserves to be combatted,” Mears said.
For more on Mears and the Oneida Community, see Michael Doyle’s book The Ministers’ War: John W. Mears, The Oneida Community, and the Crusade for Public Morality.
All work at The Commons is published under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/
Michael Doyle is a reporter with E&E News and author of “The Ministers’ War: John W. Mears, the Oneida Community and the Crusade for Public Morality,” published by Syracuse University Press.