Chapter 20


IN THE spring of 1846 Noyes "saw many reasons for thinking that the time had come to take the final step out of marriage."

The religious principles upon which the new social order was to rest had been worked out during the twelve years from 1834 to 1846. Published originally as scattered articles in The Witness and The Perfectionist, these principles were collected in May 1847 into a single volume, The Berean.

During the same period the theory of Bible Communism had been elaborated. Though not published until 1849 it was well understood and accepted by the central members of the Putney Community.

The nucleus of Perfectionists at Putney had been associated in religious faith for eleven years. They had found in Noycs a strong leader of demonstrated ability, and by the spring of 1845 had advanced toward external union as far as communism of property.

Tbe nominal Perfectionists throughout the country had heen sifted by means of the paper and personal acquaintance until those who acknowledged Noyes's divinely appointed leadership spiritual and temporal stood clearly distinct from those who did not.

The Belchertown imbroglio had strengthened the conviction that Bible Communism, when at last it should come, must be closely knit, sharply set off from the world, not liable to the disturbing influence of outside peripatetic preachers.

Plainness of speech, always practised by Noyes, was rapidly developing into "mutual criticism," a powerful yet harmonizing means of government.

Male Continence, the physiological basis of Complex Marriage, after two years' proof had become the unquestioned rule of sexual conduct.

Noyes had definitely turned away from the expansive procedure of Owen and Fourier. Tn February 1846 he wrote: "I am every day more persuaded, that to build here slowly and silently a little


Community in which the true gospel shall be thoroughly embodied will tell more effectually on the interests of God and man than to push forward extensive organizations at first."

The Putney Community was in Noyes's view a moral oasis, a place to shelter and sustain the new social life during infancy. "We have overcome many of the difficulties," he wrote to G. W. Robinson, "with which Satan besets the path of believers, and are growing in confidence, and love, and assurance that God will give us the kingdom. What if there is not another bright spot in the wide world, and what if this is a very small one? Turn your eye toward it when you are tired of looking into chaos, and you will catch a glimpse of a better world." And Harriet Skinner in A Sober Statement of Truth" published in March 1846 declared: "The improvement that has been made among us the past winter is so palpable and universal that I cannot forbear acknowledging it. There has been a marked increase of union. The grim cowards Accusation and Despondency, that so terribly harass the lonely pilgrim, fly from our closed ranks, and in their place come Innocence, Courage and Strength."

In the above respects all was in readiness for Complex Marriage. But the woman who was to lead off with Noyes in the daring adventure remained still in doubt.

Noyes had believed Abigail Merwin his predestined mate.[1] She was his first convert, and had stood bravely by him through his hardest battle. She had opened to him the door of the Free Church and the city of New Haven. But she bad revolted against the mysticism and antinomianism that then prevailed among Perfectionists, and had returned to the church. Noyes had tried desperately to win her back. Despite his entreaty she had married another. In his anguish he had clutched at the theory of Complex Marriage, but this, he thought, applied only in heaven. He had followed her to Ithaca to recall her to the post she bad deserted. Then the fraudulent, unexpected publication of his theory had given a providential signal, be thought, for Complex Marriage soon on earth. Almost immediately word had come that she had separated from her husband, and had returned to her father's home. He had sent her a message through Harrison that, if she would not take her appointed place, some other woman would-soon. She had ignored the summons, and he bad married Harriet A. Holton, expressly reserving however his right to introduce Complex Marriage at his discretion on earth. Five years later Abigail's husband had died.

1 Religious Experience of John Humphrey Noyes, pp.351-357.


Cragin, who sent this information in a letter dated December 8, 1845, was on a missionary journey near Abigail's home. It is extremely probable that here is a link of secret history-another attempt on the part of Noyes to present his claim. But she was obdurate. Her answer must have been, as when in 1851 a similar attempt was made, that the Kingdom of God had not come, that marriage was not abolished, that if Mr. Noyes loved her as represented it was a sin. When she failed him at first, Noyes had turned to Harriet A. Holton. When she failed him now, he turned to Mary E. Cragin. He still hoped to draw Abigail into the widening Community vortex. Several times, as the years passed, she came unexpectedly upon the scene, but she never joined. As a leading actor in the revolutionary drama she now made her final exit.[1]

The rehabilitation of Mrs. Cragin was completed in the fall and winter of 1845-6. Since 1840, when she came to Putney, she had been under criticism, and in her despair had been tempted to suicide. Noyes and his wife had tried to help her, but she still languished in the "Slough of Despond." During a visit of Smith to Putney in November 1845 Noyes drew up a paper apportioning the guilt for their old offense, and obtained the hearty written acceptance of Smith and Mrs. Cragin. This lifted the burden of remorse, and Noyes's wife, taking Mrs. Cragin by the hand in loving companionship, led her step by step out of the dark valley. So it came about that Mrs. Cragin was prepared to play the part which Noyes had supposed God designed for Abigail Merwin.

There was still a complete blockade. Noyes had many times curbed impatient disciples by asserting that the resurrection of the body must precede Complex Marriage. A long warfare against disease had been waged in the Putney Community, faith-cures so-called had become increasingly frequent, and a climax had been reached in the fall of 1845 when Noyes himself was cured, miraculously he believed, of a menacing throat trouble of three years standing. But nothing that could be accepted as a resurrection of the body had been attained. Reconnoitring the whole position from his new standpoint Noyes perceived for the first time that there was an interaction between life and environment; that increased life tended to improved environment, and improved environment to increased life. He therefore announced his belief that Complex Marriage was one of the means by which the resurrection power would he let into the world.

1 Abigail died February 4, 1899, at the age of 96 years, surviving Noyes by 13 years.-G. W. N.


But Noyes might not even then have embarked on his perilous voyage, had not events in the outside world simultaneously assumed a portentous aspect. It was this that pushed him off the wharf. Fourierism with its attempt to base religion on socialism instead of socialism on religion, Swedenborgianism with its nullification of the Bible and its sanction of concubinage and roaming for mates, Modern Spiritualism with its substitution of ancestor and sub-conscious self-worship for the worship of God, Individual Sovereignty with its industrial and social anarchy, Free Love with its default in responsibility for women and children were to Noyes the point for point antithesis of Bible Communism; and when in the spring of 1846 the world seemed about to be overwhelmed by the junction and rush of these, his most dreaded foes, he became convinced that the time had come to launch his own complete social scheme. "We kept the law until 1846," he wrote to Hepworth Dixon in 1867. "We withstood Fourierism and Swedenborgianism in their risings. We have withstood Berlin Heights Free Love steadily until this day. In view of these facts I maintain that the Putney Community instead of causing the flood built the ark, and that it set about the work not a moment too soon."


Chapter 21: Beginnings of Complex Marriage | Contents