Perfectionists and the weather: The Oneida community's quest for meteorological utopia, 1848-1879, The



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perfectionists and the weather: The Oneida community's quest for meteorological utopia, 1848-1879, The

Meyer, William B

There has always been-and, modern environmentalism notwithstanding, there no doubt remains-much about the environment that people would willingly alter if they could. Visions of a perfect earthly future have routinely incorporated a reconstructed earth. Not least have they described the transformation of features so often and so stubbornly unsatisfactory in many ways as weather and climate. Writers in classical antiquity who tried to imagine a terrestrial paradise purged its weather of everything dangerous or merely disagreeable, from extreme temperatures and tempestuous winds to overcast skies. Early Christian representations of the Garden of Eden gave it the same mild and moderate climate as medieval Europeans ascribed to the "Land of Cockaigne": "There is no heat or cold, water or fire, wind or rain, snow or lightning, thunder or hail. Neither are there storms. Rather, there is eternally fine, clear weather ... It is always a wonderfully agreeable May." Two geographers who made a study of the utopian novel found that the genre characteristically presents the weather as "either an equable given or something totally under man's control."1

But there is a second and quite different way in which meteorological utopia can be sought. It does not depend on the perfecting of the elements by divine or natural favor or by human effort. It tries to make the weather unobjectionable without altering it physically. What will be abolished in this kind of paradise is not the weather that people think bad, but their reasons for thinking it bad. The causes of complaint lie not in the weather itself, it is assumed, but in human beings, their attitudes, and their social and technological arrangements. If those attributes and arrangements are reformed, dissatisfaction with weather would disappear.. An unnamed character in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance (1852) expresses this point of view. Ile and several companions are riding through a surprise April snowstorm to join a newly founded utopian community outside of Boston. He reproaches the narrator, Miles Coverdale, for grumbling about the weather. They can never consider themselves "regenerated men," he admonishes Coverdale, until they feel as thankful for "a February northeaster" as they do for "the softest breeze of June."2

Even as Hawthorne's book appeared, another band of utopians was beginning a deliberate and sustained attempt to follow just that principle. The "Perfectionists," followers of the unorthodox religious and social thinker John Humphrey Noyes, lived and worked in central New York state from 1848 until their Oneida Community was dissolved and reconstructed on more conventional lines in 1879-80. Though it lasted for barely thirty years, and its membership never much exceeded three hundred, Oneida was one of the most famous and successful of nineteenth-century American utopian experiments. In subsequent years it has been one of the most studied. Noyes and his followers earned note or notoriety in their day and have retained it into ours because of their efforts to reform the relations of society. Such institutions as common property, "complex marriage," "mutual criticism," and "stirpiculture" scandalized many of their contemporaries and have fascinated many modern scholars. Yet the Perfectionists aspired also to reform human relations with God and with God's creation, the terrestrial environment. In particular, they claimed that their way of life was suited as no other was to coping with the weather. They made the most sustained collective effort in American history to improve the weather by rooting out the causes of discontent with it.

Their efforts are of interest for several reasons. Human relations with weather and climate remain a somewhat neglected area of environmental history. Much of the work that has been done deals with the effects of climatic change or with the closely analogous case of a change of climate experienced when groups migrate from one zone to another. Less attention has been given to the ways in which weather and climate change in their meaning as human activities change, or to the differences in their meaning at any one time for different groups of people. The attempts of the Perfectionists to find a way of life better suited than that of their neighbors to the same environment offers a rich and well-documented case study in this vein. The Community members' attempts to put into practice their theories about weather and society-above all, their insistence on the point, now widely accepted, that human relations with nature cannot be understood apart from the social relations linking humans with one another-also represent a significant episode in the history of both American environmental and American utopian thought.

The Community and the Weather-Theory

Born in northern New England in 1811, John Humphrey Noyes attended college at Dartmouth and studied for the ministry at the Andover Theological Seminary and the Yale Divinity School. Expelled from the latter for unorthodoxy, he began preaching and publishing his ideas throughout the northeastern United States. In 1838, newly married, he settled in his childhood home of Putney, Vermont. Around him collected a group of devoted followers attracted by the force of his reasoning and the power and charm of his personality. Because of growing local hostility, Noyes decided in 1848 to move his small community to a site that he was offered in Madison County, in central New York, along the banks of Oneida Creek. For a time, he maintained branch communities in Putney and in Brooklyn, and a larger and more enduring offshoot was established in Wallingford, Connecticut; but from 1848 onward, Oneida was the center of activities for Noyes and his followers.3

Once settled at Oneida, the Perfectionists, as they called themselves, systematically set about trying both to practice their principles and to convert the outside world to them. At the core of their doctrine were a number of interwoven beliefs. The most important was that the Second Coming of Christ had already occurred in A.D. 70. It followed that mankind already was capable of redemption and that individual spiritual perfection-defined in orthodox terms as a state of sinlessness and of union with God's will and purposes-could be attained not only in heaven but on earth. But it could be attained only by those who discarded the corrupt institutions of the world and lived instead according to those of heaven. And because heaven and earth were no longer estranged, those same institutions would prove as superior to those that they replaced in the practical business of life and livelihood as they were in spiritual things.

The institutions adopted at Oneida included communism in all important matters. Private property was abolished. The "marriage spirit," any exclusive personal attachment of the sort recognized in the outside world through the matrimonial tie, was sternly repressed. Monogamous unions were replaced by the institution of "complex marriage," which in theory meant the union of all with all and in practice involved the assignment of sexual partners for single or multiple occasions by Noyes himself. Children were regarded and raised as the children of the entire large family. The quest for perfection was aided by the discipline of community life, including the practice of "mutual criticism" to identify and eradicate sinful traits. The proper size of a community was determined by the number of hands necessary to make it self-sufficient in its productive activities and free it from dependence on the outside world. Numbers were regulated by selective admissions and by male birth control. When new births were desired, the parents were selected according to the principles of a kind of early eugenics that Noyes dubbed "stirpiculture."

From their core doctrines, the Perfectionists also derived certain rules governing human relations with the natural environment and in particular with the weather. Many of their contemporaries saw the relations of climate and human life chiefly in terms of climatic determinism, the belief that different climates molded different forms of human society and character. Its exponents included radical Northern thinkers with whom the Oneidans shared much ground: Emerson and Thoreau, the African-American leaders Frederick Douglass and James McCune Smith, the feminist and abolitionist writer Lydia Maria Child. The Oneidans, however, rejected the "very plausible and popular sophistry" of explaining social phenomena as the work of the weather. Their reasons for doing so were grounded in their religion. They had little sympathy for any belief that weakened Christian doctrines of morality, human responsibility, and human brotherhood-or their own belief in universal perfectibility-by granting local physical features a dominant role in behavior. "We are sick of this materialistic philosophy which makes man the creature of climate and circumstances," one Oneida publication proclaimed. Were the teachings of Jesus, they asked, to be explained away as the product of the physical geography of Palestine? Temperate-zone determinists often dismissed the tropics as irremediably backward. The Perfectionists thought them as capable of the highest civilization, the best government, and the truest religion as any other climatic zone.4 Determinism saw the role of the weather and climate in human life as given, as an external and independent influence. In rejecting it, the Oneidans affirmed their basic belief that the weather's significance was not found but made.

That conviction left them hardly more interested in the possibility of weather and climate modification. Such measures, in one sense the opposite of determinism, in another sense follow logically from it, for if the weather controls human life, only by changing it can life be changed for the better. Weather modification too had its prominent advocates in the antebellum United States. The meteorologist James Pollard Espy gave lectures around the country advocating government management of the rain and the winds.5 At the same time, the American disciples of the French utopian socialist Charles Fourier looked forward as their master had to the transformation of an unsatisfactory environment and particularly the creation of a "serene and genial" atmosphere. They listed among mankind's tasks "the regulation of the seasons, the moderation of temperatures, and the control of climates, in such a way as to have them always the most favorable." It could only be done, they maintained, through social reform on the lines of cooperative association and the detailed planning of work and life. The benign influences of a more rational system of land use and settlement would eliminate "sudden and violent fluctuations in temperature, prolonged droughts and excessive rains, which exhaust vegetation, excess of heat and cold, &c, &c." But without what the Fourierists called Association, "those great labors ... which are necessary to bring the earth and the atmosphere into a healthy condition, are impossible," and disorganized and unregulated human action only worsened an already bad state of affairs. "Climates and seasons deteriorate," the polar and torrid zones and deserts encroached on the temperate lands instead of being reclaimed, and the air was poisoned by miasma.' The Oneidans's plans for an ideal earthly future did not depend on any such hopes for gaining control of the weather.

Even the special case of weather modification through divine agency, though present in their doctrine, was not central to it. Their contemporaries the Latter-Day Saints expected the harsh climate of the Great Basin to be gradually softened by God's favor. Protestant theology added faith in "special providences," unique interruptions of the natural order, to faith in "general providence," the belief that God's wisdom and beneficence had provided humankind with all of the means it needed to flourish. In nineteenth-century American thought, the widespread acceptance of both conceptions of providence gave way to an increasing reliance only on the latter; belief in miracles and divine interpositions grew weaker.7 The Oneidans reached much the same position in their own way.

On the one hand, the idea of special providence had much appeal for them. Thinking themselves the unique bearers of Christian truth on earth, they readily supposed that they enjoyed the favor and aid of the deity who controlled the skies. They many times declared their faith in the reality of special providences.8 They cited examples from their own weather experience.9 But their faith was so strong that, paradoxically, it pulled them back in effect to a trust in general providence and to a belief that special providences would occur chiefly in small things. "If I find myself moving in a vortex of good luck," Noyes observed in 1855, "I am not to consider that God has turned aside out of his general course, and instituted a separate system in my individual case; not in the least." It meant, rather, that he had found a way of living that was in harmony with God's creation. Proper conduct would not so much be rewarded with special weather providences as it would bring out the best in ordinary weather. Every general or sustained pattern of weather and climate was necessarily beneficial to those who lived in the right way, a reflection of divine wisdom even if its benefits were not immediately apparent. The leader of an Oneida evening meeting in 1864 cited a current drought in order to contrast "the way it affects the world outside of us, viewed from their stand point- its effect on us, viewed from our entirely different stand point. To them it bodes evil. They think of it as a calamity & are seriously disabled by it. We ... see, & expect good to come of it-& accordingly can pursue the serene tenor of our way, all the same."10

At the most, the Oneidans allowed that rare violent events could be the work of the devil, "in which he assumes the character of a providence directing things according to his will" until checked by divine intervention. Otherwise, they reasoned, whatever was, was right, and troubles came only from living in conflict with the conditions of the earth. Noyes and his followers began to expound this view during their first years at Oneida. An 1852 editorial in their newspaper, The Circular, on "How to Take the Weather" founded their thought directly upon their religious convictions. It dismissed "the idea of imputing evil and mischievous power to the rain and wind and simple elements" as patently inconsistent with Christianity. "I do not see why we may not take that principle of Paul's-`Every creation of God is good,'- and extend it to the weather." If all but the most extraordinary weather was good, the causes of unhappiness with it must lie in people and particularly in their selfishness and self-centeredness. Most people were "always cross in stormy, sloppy weather" because it interfered with their plans: "their hearts are in their business, and that suffers at such times: the farmer cannot work out doors and the merchant misses his customers." As their livelihoods fared best in fair weather, rain generally made them angry, but the fault was theirs for counting on what they had no right to expect all the time. They sinned in making no allowance for, and no good use of, the wet days that were sure to come. "Do not scowl at the heavens, because you think they scowl at you," one editorial proclaimed. "If you scowl at all, scowl at mankind who are in a quarrel with the heavens: but I should not recommend much scowling in any direction. Take it all good-naturedly; but come out from the spirit of the world ... and you will find that the weather is tolerably clever, and can be put to good use, be it what it may."11

The Circular returned to the topic several times over the next few years. All weather came from God, it observed in 1854, but most people wanted only the kind that would be to their immediate benefit: "No wonder that such a world of people as this is, should not have weather to suit them." In 1857, the paper again criticized the "weather grumbling" and "climatic unthankfulness" that it saw prevailing everywhere. Such an attitude was wrong on several counts. It impiously faulted God's arrangements; it was futile, for the weather had "never been made better by murmuring" ; and it ignored the great amount of good there was in all weather. It was an expression of what the Oneidans called the "turn-up-the-nose spirit," the sinful tendency of people "to dislike a thing, when the difficulty is not in the thing but in themselves." The true doctrine was that "the thankful view is always the correct one."12

At their simplest, such pronouncements could suggest that all weather problems were but an illusion resulting from a mistaken attitude. And merely correcting one's frame of mind, the Oneidans indeed held, could greatly lessen the discomforts and the dangers to health of heat, cold, and damp. They emphasized how important it was to "keep in rapport with the weather." "It is by getting our spirits at crosspurposes with the order of the universe, by grumbling and complaining... that we are injured and made sick or uncomfortable." They looked forward to the day when they would feel so much in harmony with rain that they would cease to use umbrellas.13 But they recognized too that weather problems could be much more than merely matters of psychology or of personal maladaptation. That they were not inherent in the weather itself did not mean that they were simple illusions that a mere change of heart would sweep away. In many cases, a change in behavior also was needed. Many common ways of life and livelihood that conflicted with the weather, however, were beyond the power of the isolated individual to alter; they had to be changed collectively. Their own ways, the Oneidans maintained, were ideally suited to eliminating the real inconveniences that the weather could bring.

Much of what they said on this score echoed the assertion of the American Fourierites that community living offered great advantages over individual family life in coping with weather. It was a claim far more congenial to Noyes and his followers than were the hopes of the Fourierites for transforming the global climate. The large collective dwellings of the Fourierite community, by replacing many wasteful individual family homes, would enjoy a great economy of both fuel and labor through a modern system of central heating in winter. Uniting living, dining, and recreational space, they would offer an expanse of shelter from the elements that individualistic family life hopelessly lacked. Through covered and enclosed galleries, one could walk "from house to house, and from workshop to workshop, without exposure to the inclemencies of weather," saving money on protective clothing and benefiting in health. Heavy unemployment in the winter was a fact of life in the mid-nineteenth century northern United States. But under the rational planning of Association, Fourier's disciples claimed, "there never could be a season when any should be idle because they could not obtain work," nor even a day when the weather outdoors meant that nothing could be done. Tasks would be shifted around to harmonize with prevailing conditions. There would always be work, "either in doors or out, according to the weather," - "full employment for all, in all weathers, and at all seasons."14

Noyes in his Putney years had read the Fourierite literature with great interest, and although he and his followers had many quarrels with it, on these points they found common ground.15 The three early annual reports of the Oneida Community and the Circular expounded in very similar terms the advantages of joint life and livelihood in coping with the elements. Even their use of the Fourierite term "Association" as a synonym for their own "Community" or "Communism" is evidence of how much they borrowed, while enriching it with their own distinctive beliefs and placing the result on a quite different foundation of theory. The idea that the many economies of scale and advantages in efficiency of associated over individual life would best satisfy basic needs, make community life more appealing, and free the members as far as possible to focus their efforts on the attainment of perfection harmonized with their own conviction that the institutions of heaven were the ones best suited to earthly life. Many families living together could afford "improvements which but few single families can adopt." They could enjoy tools of adaptation-shared outerwear for cold, wet, and snowy weather; irrigation works to offset droughts; the large sheltered, enclosed, and heated space of the communal dwelling-that individual families could not afford. A community of the proper size, engaging in a diversity of occupations, could keep its members busy at all seasons, following an overall program of "mechanical pursuits in the winter, and gardening in the summer." It could easily muster, as the individual household could not, the many hands needed for "bees," short bursts of intensive labor in highly seasonal or weather-sensitive trades. A community was "far better able to make hay while the sun shines'... than a single farmer is, because it can put on extra force-call all hands to the field." Nor need a farmer be idled by rain "in Association where many trades are carried on, some in-doors as well as out." Or, as one issue of the Circular argued, "It is a great advantage of the combined industry of Association that it makes work independent of the weather." By pooling a variety of interests, a community could also ensure that effects of weather were balanced: Though some members might be hurt by a storm or cold spell, others would be helped, and the group as a whole would come out ahead. Thus the tendency toward grumbling was corrected in that members were encouraged to appreciate the good in any weather "sympathetically" when they could not do so "individually." Breaking worldly ties, finally, made it easier to discard practices that were maladapted to the weather yet imposed by prevailing opinions. The Oneidans's ways of life would be tested not by fashion and convention but by inspiration and experience.16

Using both original and borrowed materials, the Perfectionists thus succeeded in constructing a coherent understanding of weather and society that was closely integrated with their other beliefs. It amounted to the most elaborate statement in American thought to its time of a view of the weather-and, by implication, the environment in general-as something whose meaning and significance depend entirely on the ways of life carried on within it. But it was a program for action as well as a system of natural theology. It was meant to guide the Oneidans in the way they lived. How well did it fare when put into application?

Daily Life-Shelter and Clothing

Of all the ways of uniting comfort and economy that community life could offer, indoor climate control furnished one of the earliest vindications of the Perfectionists' claims. In their first several years at Oneida, they, like most of their neighbors, used closed stoves for space heating. Already they could boast of the advantages of communal living. The forty families at Oneida required only twenty-three stoves in all of their buildings, no more than twenty of which were in constant use. Forty families living separately would have used "not less than sixty, and perhaps eighty." The results were "a great saving in the expense of stoves; and second, a saving of about three-fourths in fire wood."17

A hot-air furnace was first used in the main community dwelling house in the winter of 1851-52. It offered new evidence of the superior efficiency of communal living as making possible "improvements which but few single families can adopt." Central heating-rare in all but the most affluent private houses of the time-was much more comfortable than the stoves that it replaced. On the Circular's estimate, it still saved half to three-quarters of the fuel that the stoves of separate families would have consumed. The saving of labor was even more striking, for only one central fire had to be tended instead of many scattered ones. "Is this not a good illustration," the Circular asked proudly, "of the advantages of Communism over isolation? There are many things which in isolation each man finds it necessary to do for himself, but which one can do for a huge company with the same ease as for himself, as in making a fire in the furnace."18



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