ANXIOUS TOURS September 10, 2012

I recently remarked on the concentration of important religious sites in upstate New York, the famous Burned Over District.

I mentioned just a couple of these evocative places, from a large list of possible candidates – Palmyra, Seneca Falls, Hydesville. One of my favorites, though, is Oneida, which is just seventy miles from Seneca Falls. Oneida recalls America’s long history of communes and religious settlements – if you want to be rude, call them “cult compounds.” It beautifully illustrates the astonishing historical continuity that we find in such movements, and it often seems to belong to 1970 rather than 1870.

The story is familiar enough. In 1848, John Humphrey Noyes led a group that believed that Christ’s Second Coming had already occurred. (Recall that this was just a couple of years after the Millerites suffered their Great Disappointment about the imminent end of the world). As they were living in the millennial age, humanity could now achieve perfection in this life, in this reality. This meant accepting communal living and ownership of property, and new rules about open sexuality,  complex marriage, contraception, and eugenic breeding. The result was the utopian Oneida settlement, intended as heaven on earth. At its height, it had several hundred faithful members.

As with later communes and cults, Oneida attracted widespread public suspicion focusing on Noyes’s conduct with teenaged female devotees. In 1879 he fled to Canada, fearing statutory rape charges, and the community disbanded the following year. Quite apart from Noyes’s own behavior,  public attitudes towards sexual and religious unorthodoxy were becoming much chillier: 1879, after all, was the year of the US Supreme Court’s harsh condemnation of Mormon polygamy in its Reynolds decision.

So what else could happen? Well for one thing, Oneida could produce a globally notorious assassin. Remember those cultists and Charles Manson devotees who tried to kill President Ford in the 1970s? In 1881, in a striking moment of historical déjà vu, Oneida alumnus Charles Julius Guiteau actually did murder President Garfield. The Oneidans, of course, had not the slightest responsibility for Guiteau, whom they had expelled as hopelessly unstable. It was Guiteau’s notable distinction that, even in a “free love” commune, he had not been able to find a willing sexual partner. The Oneidan girls called him “Charles Julius Git-Out!” (Cultists can be very cruel).

Even so, the assassination further contaminated the reputation of the now defunct Oneida. As in the 1970s, “cults” seemed infallibly associated with lunacy, violence, fanaticism, and sexual exploitation.

As you can read in an excellent travel piece by Beth Quinn Barnard, substantial remains of the settlement survive today in the form of the central Mansion House. As she writes,

“These days 47 people live in the Mansion House. Some …. are Oneida descendants or longtime area residents who have retired. Others have no connection with the Oneida Community but like the grounds and the handsome old building. Residents share the building with bed-and-breakfast guests, who stay in large, comfortably furnished bedrooms with private baths. In the nearby dining rooms, they enjoy an Oneida-style serve-yourself breakfast featuring cereal and fruit with scrambled or poached eggs made to order. The Oneida Community Cemetery, where Noyes and many of his followers are buried, is a five-minute walk away, amid the fairways of the Oneida Community Golf Course. The residents’ library and lounge and the building’s grounds are open to guests, as are several of the museum’s public rooms.”

As she remarks, this is “surely one of the most unusual bed-and-breakfasts in the world.” Dare we call it Cult Tourism?

In more or less any part of the country, it’s possible to find so many places recalling America’s diverse religious history. In fact, I’d like to propose that the Anxious Bench blog set up a travel agency as a subsidiary enterprise.

What do you think of the name, “Anxious Tours”?

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