John Humphrey Noyes

Stirpiculture [stur-pi-kuhl-cher] is a word coined by John Humphrey Noyes, founder of the Oneida Community (a religious commune founded in 1848 in Oneida, New York, which practiced group marriage), to refer to eugenics, or the breeding of humans to achieve desired perfections within the species. Noyes derived stirpiculture from the Latin word ‘stirps,’ which means ‘stock, stem, or root.’

Up until the late 1860s, John Humphrey Noyes believed in only having children with purpose and preparation. In his society, it was not simply about the preparedness of the parents, but rather the preparedness of the community to support a new generation. In the early years of the community, when poverty was an issue, the community did not feel adequately prepared to take on the raising and support of children. Therefore, procreation was discouraged in these early days before the financial successes of trap-building. An ‘accidental’ conception was thought to be a failure in male continence, the act that was meant to prevent unwanted pregnancies through the withholding of male ejaculation during intercourse.

In the 1860s, the Oneida Community experienced a shift in the themes of reproduction philosophy. Noyes had begun to read Darwin’s ‘Principles of Breeding’ and Sir Francis Galton’s papers and books on subjects ranging from anthropology, meteorology, horticulture, and eugenics. Thoroughly intrigued by his readings, Noyes expanded upon these ideas and considered the potential benefits in the use of scientific propagation to create a superior human being. Previous studies in eugenics set goals of a physically superior human being, but Noyes was more interested in perfecting the soul by breeding for religious and virtuous qualities. By the late 1860s, the Oneida Community began its experiment with stirpiculture, which Noyes governed fully. Noyes required each person to have specific qualities pertaining to his own idea of human perfection, the qualities of Christianity’s patriarchs’ (Abraham’s obedience, Jesus’ compassion, etc.)

Noyes was the main judge of the men and women selected to parent children in the experiment, but he also sought the aid of a committee. This committee approved and denied requests of community members to have a child. Many members applied as couples, and some of the couples were actually encouraged by the committee itself. There was a set of standards by which each candidate should meet; older men in the Community were especially sought after according to Ascending Fellowship, as Noyes believed they were much wiser and spiritually sound. Women, on the other hand, were typically between the ages of 20 and 42. Each potential parent was required to sign a contract committing themselves to the experiment, and most importantly to God and his human representative: Noyes. Most important in these pledges were the promises to avoid any ‘personal feelings in regard to child-bearing’ because it was believed that this quality would help them to better serve the experiment and most importantly, the community.

Children at Oneida were raised communally. This means that they were not raised specifically by their biological parents. They were brought up under the supervision of community members who were assigned the job of child care. Children were surrounded with guidance and support from multiple sources. The ‘stirpcults’ were brought up in a healthy country environment with plenty of fresh air, good food, and attention, and Oneida was isolated from chronic diseases that might have affected children in more crowded areas. Once a child was born, it stayed with its mother for the first 15 months of life. During this period the mother was allowed and even encouraged to breast feed the child. Breast feeding is one of the only instances in which a strong attachment between mother and child is encouraged. This was due to its ability to encompass both scientific and natural views of life. Socially, this attachment is not important because it is a bond between child and mother.

Once weaned from breast feeding, the child is sent to live in the Children’s House. For a certain period of time after being weaned, children still slept with their mothers at night. Once they reached a certain age, they were discouraged from sleeping in their mothers’ rooms. Still concerned with creating a bond between the child and the community, he/she would often sleep in the bed of a community member. This member changed periodically so no special attachments could be formed. There were certain guidelines established by the community to create the desired relationship with their child. Most of these guidelines were an extension of the principles of non-attachment and commitment to the communal ideal. The concern was that an excessive relationship would fail to appropriately teach the child the social fundamentals of the community. It was acceptable to be attached, as long as it was a general emotion of love and trust to the community rather than to a particular individual. A mother’s excessive attachment to her child was considered a potential cause for illness or suffering on the child’s part. In cases like this, it was often prescribed that the mother or child be moved to another community site for a temporary amount of time.

The experiment with stirpiculture in the Oneida Community lasted between the years 1869-1879. Fifty-eight children were produced. Most women and men only produced one child. Some produced two or three, and 13 of those were recorded as ‘accidental conceptions.’ To prove his religious and social prowess, as well as that of his bloodline, John H. Noyes and his son Theodore produced 12 children between them, 11 of which survived. The development and nourishment of these children were very diligently attended to, and values such as non-attachment were impressed on children, even at a very young age. Many of the children lived long and were very well-educated, however, it has been offered that perhaps the children’s environment lent them these abilities.  Theodore kept detailed records of the growth and development of the children produced and raised in the Stirpiculture experiment. Only one was reported to have physical disabilities. The children learned the importance of non-attachment and commitment to the community, however it is apparent that some special relationships did occur.

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