Sex, Celibacy, and Salvation: What The Shakers and The Oneida Community Remind Us About Sexuality and Religion

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Religion tends to have an opinion about everything, but sex and sexuality seems to be one of the most talked about issues facing various religious communities around the United States and the world. This preoccupation with sex is seen in the attention Pope Francis has gotten for his comments about moving the conversation away from sexuality; in Texas’ House Bill 2, which put even tighter restrictions on abortion and has given Wendy Davis national recognition for her attempt to stop the law; and in the continued debates about LGBTQ rights.

While you may associate “sex and Christianity” with virginity, abstinence, the FLDS church, or heated debates about abortion, these reflect a very narrow view of the relationship of sexuality and religion. Let’s go back 150, 200 years and we find many religious movements where ignoring sex was not an option – divine perfection and salvation hinged on practicing appropriate sexual behavior. In the 18th and 19th centuries, two different utopian movements illustrated two most extreme beliefs of sex as a way to salvation: Mother Ann Lee discarded marriage, sex, and most all physical contact between men and women as she led the Shakers of the 1770s and 1780s towards perfection, while John Humphrey Noyes advocated for complex marriage and shared sexual partners as core practices of the Oneida Community in the mid-1800s.

Though these two communities functioned in stark contrast to each other, the beliefs and values of both movements were grounded in the same desire for perfection and salvation. For Lee and the annleeShakers, renouncing all carnal desires and living a celibate life would re-establish order, and mankind would be restored to God. This meant no marriage, no sexual activity, and very little physical contact between men and women. Some scholars suggest Lee’s insistence on celibacy and the single life came from her personal experiences: before joining the Shakers she suffered many difficult pregnancies, losing four children, and her marriage disintegrated soon after her move to the United States. The Shakers, holding beliefs that were firmly in opposition to the idea the women’s duty was to bear children, drew many critics who suggested the movement was launching an assault on marriage and attacking the validity of family life. Yet even with the public and adamant rejection of marriage, the order of leadership within the Shaker church reflected traditional ideas of family and household. At each level of authority, from the head Ministry to local groups, men and women led in equal numbers. Shakers were divided into “family” units, where one man and one woman would assume leadership over a household, creating the guise of a traditional family. The success of this structure, with men and women in equal positions of power, is often attributed to the doctrine of celibacy in the Shaker community.

John_Humphrey_Noyes

It is not difficult to see similarities between the Shakers’ beliefs about sex and sexuality, and common Christian rhetoric today. Unlike the Shakers, John Humphrey Noyes would still be considered controversial in United States; Noyes formed his 19th century movement around the other end of the sexuality/salvation spectrum: frequent sex with multiple partners was the key the perfection and salvation. Noyes came to the conclusion that sex was a form of worship and monogamous relationships, i.e. marriage, would never allow someone to truly glorify God. This was the core doctrine of Noyes’ Oneida Community, though it should not be mistaken for “free love.” While Noyes required complex sexual relationships, there were still rules to be followed when picking sexual partners. Age played a large role in who was allowed to have sex with whom, because Noyes established a connection between age and spiritual knowledge. Followers were encouraged to select partners based on this relationship, because a spiritually superior person was able to share their wisdom through the act of sexual intercourse. Another important rule of the Oneida community was that there should be no “special love” or sexual preference between two members, which negatively impacted the community’s goal of salvation. Despite these guidelines, Oneida’s sexual activity did not always stay in Noyes’ parameters. Often young men and women would avoid elders as sexual partners because they were not as physically attractive as the younger members of the community, leading to this “special love” and older members feeling neglected. Noyes saw this as a huge problem, responding by revoking sexual privileges as punishment for at the sign any of special love or preference and sometimes sending one partner to Oneida’s sister community in Wallingford, CT. Any special bond between two people threatened Noyes’ ideal community and was quashed as quickly as possible.

Neither the Shakers nor the Oneida Community exist in the United States today, with no real surprise. Between the inability of the Shakers to attract enough new followers (and the non-existent birth rate) and the many problems that arise when people are instructed to engage in sex without emotion, both movements faded away. Yet I think these two movements remind us that the loudest voice is not the only voice, and nothing regarding sexuality and faith is black and white. Using celibacy and single life, the Shakers advocated for gender equality in the 1770s and 1780s, when most societies had yet to consider that women were actually people. Through shared sexual partners and an emphasis on women’s sexual pleasure, Noyes challenged the negative attitudes towards sexual activity, particularly for women. However the most important goal for Lee and Noyes went beyond changing social attitudes towards sex and gender. At their cores, both movements were searching for an answer to a question contemporary Christians are still asking today – what is sexuality’s role in salvation and perfection?

What do you think? What kind of sex does your god want you to have?

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One response to “Sex, Celibacy, and Salvation: What The Shakers and The Oneida Community Remind Us About Sexuality and Religion

  1. I am not sure if a straight line can be drawn from shakers to modern pre-marriage abstinence, but I did enjoy the reminder that in the often misunderstood “olden times” there existed these radical ideas of sexuality and religion. I think there is a movement of very personalized sexuality forming. I think that is where a lot of the backlash against controlling birth control comes from. Not everyone who supports access to birth control plans on being overtly sexual, but they do not see the reason in limiting the choices of someone else.

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