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A Minister Is Born
When John Humphrey Noyes’s mother, Polly Hayes Noyes, took a deep breath after the travail of childbirth to see that her firstborn son was a “proper child”—that is, one apparently hearty enough to buck the odds of making it through the bitter New England winter to see his first birthday—she prayed on the spot that he might become a “minister of the everlasting gospel.” Polly’s prayer would be granted twenty-two years later, in 1833, when John Humphrey received his minister’s license from the Yale Theological Seminary. But on the day of his birth, as she fell back upon her pillows in sweet exhaustion, this prim and conventional Congregationalist could hardly have anticipated the theological edifice her infant son would one day construct. For John Humphrey Noyes would not become just any minister; his brainchild, the Oneida Community, would blend a utopian ethic of total selflessness, communism of property, and divinely sanctioned free love into one of the most baroque interpretations of Jesus’ “everlasting gospel” ever attempted.1
Born into a prosperous New England family in Brattleboro, Vermont, on September 3, 1811, John Humphrey was the fourth of nine children. Polly Hayes Noyes was a strong-minded, deeply religious woman who demanded that matters of spirituality be kept foremost in the raising of her children. John Humphrey’s father, John Noyes Sr., was of a more secular character; a 1795 graduate of Dartmouth College, John was first a teacher and then a successful Brattleboro businessman, spending a two-year stint as a representative in Congress from 1815 to 1817. Letters that John Noyes wrote home to his wife from Washington in 1815 hint at his enjoyment of the city’s cosmopolitan privileges, foreign to the native Vermonter: “The style and manner of proceeding, the dignity which every member seems to feel, and the living at our quarters, all are very, very different from what we have in Vermont. A man cannot but feel animated, and as it were elevated.” “We live full well enough for our health,” he continued later in the same letter. “Our meat and poultry are of the first quality.… Brandy and wine very good and very dear. Plenty of oysters, apples, chestnuts.” While he was gallant (or cagey) enough to write to his wife that the “pie, apples, and the wine lost their charms” when he thought of the comforts of home, one senses the sensual enjoyment he took in “the bustle, the show and parade of great folks.” Later in life, he would become a rather pronounced alcoholic; only when he received a formal written letter from his wife and children begging him to cease “indulging [his] degrading appetite” was he jarred from his pleasures.2
“In the highways and byways of business he was a born Solomon,” John Humphrey would later recall of his father, one who “in social and commercial life … found his natural sphere.” The competing claims of religion and a worldly life were twin currents traversing the Noyes household. “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth,” warns the apostle Matthew, “where moth and rust doth corrupt, and thieves break through and steal,” but, rather, “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6: 19–21). Flying in the face of the good evangelist, John Humphrey Noyes would devote his life to brokering a fragile truce between treasures on earth and those in heaven. Perhaps only the collision of two such vigorously opposed natures as the saintly Polly Hayes and the carnal John Noyes Sr. could have spawned a compromise as brilliantly bizarre as John Humphrey Noyes, who would close this parental gap between spirit and flesh by claiming, among other things, that the sexual organs were the “first and best channel of the life and love of God” and that getting salvation was “a business—like getting a living”—in other words, that spiritual and earthly pursuits were, in fact, one and the same thing.3
Young John was a thoughtful boy—as a child, he was fond of going to bed early because “he wanted to think”—and from the first a natural leader. As his mother recalled in later years, “I can see him now marching off up the hill at the head of a company of his playmates, all armed with mullein stalks.” Sent away to school in Amherst, Massachusetts, when he was nine years old, John Humphrey sent letters home that reveal a boy seized by homesickness but anxious not to upset his mother on his account: “Mamma, I must say that when I am not reading, or writing, or studying, I am homesick. Yes, I am homesick.… But away with all this! I fear I have distressed you already.… Tell Papa that I am studying Cicero, and that I have got to the fourth book of Virgil.” When he was ten years old, his family relocated to the village of Putney, Vermont, within easy communication of his new school, Brattleboro Academy, where John would complete his preparation for college. Endowed with a ruddy, freckled complexion and a bright red shock of hair, John Humphrey early gave signs of a passionate nature to match; a friend from his Brattleboro days referred to him as “inclined to give way a little too much to the libido corporis.”4
Just which “lusts” of the body the young boy had a particular weakness for is not divulged in the friend’s letter; it is clear from his diaries that, by the time John Humphrey had entered Dartmouth College as a freshman in 1826, a partiality for the ladies was chief among them. This journal, begun at the age of eighteen in 1829, provides glimpses of a teenager struggling with paralyzing shyness in his relations with the opposite sex. He was further hampered by the conviction that his red hair and freckles rendered him physically repulsive. John Humphrey compared himself to the “Black Dwarf” in the Walter Scott romance of the same name, a tortured, loveless figure whose deformed body and “long matted red hair” forced him to sequester himself in the forest as a hermit. The young collegian’s interactions with women were, accordingly, nothing short of torture. In one diary entry, he berates himself: “Oh! For a brazen front and nerves of steel! I swear by Jove, I will be impudent! So unreasonable and excessive is my bashfulness that I fully believe I could face a battery of cannon with less trepidation than I could a room full of ladies with whom I was unacquainted.”5
Despite his best resolutions, John Humphrey continued to experience acute anxiety and embarrassment in social situations. Once, at a wedding party, he mistook the name of a lady he was introducing to a company of gentlemen; he recorded afterward that he could “feel [his] cheek burn with shame” upon recollecting the “scornful smile [that passed] over the countenance of a certain lady” who, sitting near, overheard his blunder. A sense of intense social shame and self-loathing, especially when he felt himself caught in the gaze of the opposite sex, was one of the strongest currents in young Noyes’s emotional life. At one point, he had even resigned himself to remaining unmarried and becoming a philosopher, renouncing the physical world for the life of the mind.6
Yet John Humphrey’s social fortunes took a turn for the better upon graduation from Dartmouth. In 1830, when he entered into training as a lawyer at his brother-in-law Larkin Mead’s practice in Chesterfield, New Hampshire, John Humphrey unexpectedly found himself at the center of a robust social scene. He and his classmate “Put,” also an intern in Mead’s practice, were catapulted into the enviable position of being the only two college graduates of a crew of eighty or ninety young men and women attending a nearby school. “Bewitched” by his female companions, John Humphrey nonetheless complained that the continual round of balls and parties raised his emotions to a painful pitch of overexcitement: “impatience of absence from those seraphs, jealousy of my competitors in gallantry, and the dolorous reflection that the school would close in thirteen weeks were constantly dragging me down from the pinnacle of felicity which seemed to be almost within reach.…” Drawn as he was to the libido corporis, John Humphrey was acutely affected by desire’s painful obverse: the ache of pleasure denied or delayed.7
Somehow John Humphrey was able to overcome his shyness long enough to tentatively court a young woman who is recorded in his diary only as Caroline M—. The dances where he met her might have been held in one of the academy’s buildings or in a hall hired in town: one can almost hear the squeak of the freshly polished floor, the clink of teacups at the refreshment table, the sweep and rustle of ladies’ skirts. The gauzy, high-waisted, ankle-length frocks of the Empire period were no longer in vogue, but dresses had not quite yet evolved into what was to become the standard armor of the Victorian woman, thickly petticoated, wooden-hooped, and tightly corseted into the shape of a dinner bell. Caroline would have worn a dress that dropped all the way to the floor, with sleeves swollen like cream puffs and a pinched wasp waist—possibly corseted, but in either case symbolic, in its tightness, of the strict emotional control women were increasingly expected to exercise as moral heads of the Victorian household. The popular ladies’ hairstyle at the time was closely plaited and center-parted with bunches of ringlets at the ears. With the flickering candlelight bouncing off Caroline’s curls, perhaps making her dark eyes snap, one imagines John Humphrey’s heart tightening as the orchestra gave the signal for another quadrille and the dancers took their places.
Noyes even penned a rather sweet, if sophomoric, poem to Caroline that he copied in his diary, a country idyll in fashionable hymn meter:
Mark, Caroline, yon western sky.
Deep-tinged in crimson light.
The sun’s red glories haste to die.
And swift comes on the night.
Then hasten, ere the twilight ends.
Far down the vale we’ll roam,
Nor pause till o’er us night descends,
Then Love shall light us home!
Alas, John Humphrey’s dream of an enveloping night illumined by the star of love was to remain unfulfilled. (Indeed, if we are to believe Noyes’s own later account, he would remain a virgin until the night of his marriage.) When the academy’s school year finally drew to a close, John Humphrey abruptly ran home to Putney, forgoing even a parting interview with his beloved Caroline, upon whom he never laid eyes again. This precipitous disappearance in the face of a situation he felt at a loss to master was just the first of what would become a series of such retreats over the course of Noyes’s life. In any case, in his relationship with Caroline, the young Noyes proved himself unable to heed the advice he had once given to a lovesick Dartmouth chum to “never read Byron,… and above all to repeat every five minutes: ‘Faint heart never won fair lady.’”8
Yet just as John Humphrey had steeled himself, like Macbeth, to “jump the life to come” in favor of worldly pursuits, religion came knocking. In the fall of 1831, at his mother’s prompting, Noyes attended a religious revival in Putney and, against all expectations, experienced conversion. The year was the watermark for religious revivals that had been sweeping across the Northeast for over a decade. “The Second Great Awakening,” as it came to be called, resulted in the conversion of hundreds of thousands of middle-class souls to Jesus and, perhaps more important, to a strikingly new way of thinking about their relationship to God and the world. The dour Calvinism of the Puritans depicted humans as sinners in the hands of an angry God, waiting passively to be eternally damned or lifted up to join God’s elect—resigned, in any case, to their status as “loathsome insects,” in the words of Jonathan Edwards, dangled over the pit of hell. In contrast, the new revival religion emphasized humans as active moral agents capable of steering their souls—and the fallen world around them—toward the perfection promised by the advent of God’s kingdom on earth. Instead of waiting passively for the millennium to come, humans had a duty to reform their world and thereby hasten the King’s arrival.9
The effect of the revivals was to ignite within the American national consciousness the spark of millenarianism: the belief that the Second Coming of Christ and the advent of his one-thousand-year reign were nigh. Some converts took this message quite literally. William Miller, a Baptist preacher and farmer in northern New York, performed a complicated calculus based on the prophecies of Daniel to predict that Christ would return very soon, indeed: on October 22, 1844, to be exact. Other converts stuck to a looser timeline. Christ was coming, and, in anticipation, good Christians were duty-bound to set their house in order by reforming such ugly social blights as alcoholism, the poor state of America’s prisons, slavery, and women’s mistreatment at the hands of men. Abolitionists Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, as well as the feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were carried to prominence in the 1840s on this wave of intense social activism and compellingly framed their ideas in the messianic language of the revivals. Humans, it was believed, had an obligation to at least meet God halfway in ushering in paradise on earth.
Later in his spiritual journey, Noyes would fully embrace the reformist spirit stirred up by the revivals, concocting his own millennial timeline no less bizarre than that of the Millerites and building his own miniature version of the coming City of God. Initially, however, one senses that Noyes’s conversion simply provided the exhausted teenager with a welcome exit from the dark labyrinth of sexual desire, disappointment, and shame that had marked his adolescence. Tempted by the pleasures of the flesh yet wracked with ambivalence about his right to a place at the sexual table, Noyes had spent the last five years of his life agonizing over whether society or solitude, sex or cold philosophy was to be his ultimate fate. Now, suddenly, he had an answer: the “meridian splendor” of God’s light had pierced his heart, outshining the romantic love-lit nights he had imagined in the presence of Caroline. Referring scornfully to the love poem he had so recently penned to his sweetheart, Noyes scribbled in his diary: “These three verses cost me an hour of labor. How much better would that hour have been spent in framing a hymn to the praise of God.” Pledging himself to the “happiness of heaven,” Noyes could now safely disparage the “groveling world” of earthly desires. “Hitherto the world, henceforth God!” he penned hopefully, turning the page, he trusted, on the melancholy pleasures of the flesh.10
But the flesh was to give him trouble yet. Indeed, considering the thin margin separating the religious ecstasy so prevalent at nineteenth-century revivals from the sexual sort, what Noyes may initially have sought as a steady spiritual substitute for the painful ups and downs of carnal love would, in fact, lead him into no less complicated territory. These revivals encouraged extravagant outpourings of emotion from people who normally sat through buttoned-up church services with bland and silent piety. At a typical New England “protracted meeting,” a charismatic preacher would alternately pray with and sermonize to a gathered audience over the course of three or four days of meetings, exhorting them to repent and accept Christ. Those with the temerity to admit themselves sinners in need of salvation would crowd to the front of the hall and occupy what came to be called “the anxious seat,” in full view of the expectant congregation, who scrutinized them for signs of conversion. Cries, tears, groans, and fainting were taken as external tokens that the Holy Spirit was doing its appointed work.
The most famous of these revivalist preachers, Charles Grandison Finney, narrates his own conversion in the autumn of 1821 as an ecstatic flood of love coursing throughout his body: “[T]he Holy Spirit descended upon me in a manner that seemed to go through me, body and soul. I could feel the impression, like a wave of electricity, going through and through me. Indeed it seemed to come in waves of liquid love, for I could not express it any other way. It seemed like the very breath of God.” These “waves” reached a peak of almost unbearable intensity, until Finney cried out, “‘I shall die if these waves continue to pass over me.… Lord, I cannot bear any more.’”11
In his autobiography, Finney goes on to detail an impromptu revival staged by an unlikely Congregational deacon, who, normally spare of words and possessed of a thin, reedy voice, this time “soon began to wax warm and to raise his voice, which became tremulous with emotion.” He rocked back and forth on his heels, then on his chair, bringing it down against the floor again and again “so that they could feel the jar in the room.” The audience melted. “The brothers and sisters that were on their knees began to groan, and sigh, and weep, and agonize in prayer.… [N]o one in the room could get off his knees. They could only weep and confess and melt down before the Lord.”12
If these depictions of divine rapture sound sexual, it is because they were. Indeed, one of the well-noted aftereffects of the spiritual ecstasy circulating at these revivals was a surge in sexual activity between attendees. In an 1820 pamphlet entitled Methodist Error; or, Friendly Christian Advice to Those Methodists, Who Indulge in Extravagant Emotions and Bodily Exercises, John Fanning Watson warned against the popular revival indulgence in “the practice of shouting, leaping and jumping, and other outward signs of the most heedless emotions.”13 Noting that most of those affected with the “leaping” mania were not only women but “women who while single are conspicuous in these things, [yet] desist altogether after marriage,” Watson insinuated that indulging in “heedless emotions” was a particular danger for young women whose sexual drives had not yet been properly channeled and controlled by marriage. The possible spillover from religious to sexual excitement was, he suggested, a constant danger.14
A sympathetic reviewer of Watson’s “friendly Christian advice” seconded his views, urging that those prone to leaping “inquire, whether their emotions are the result of the operation of the divine Spirit, or whether they are not merely the excitement of animal feeling; and the effects of an overheated imagination, or what is equally to be deplored, the delusions of Satan.” In the popular imagination, a distinct association existed between revival behavior and relaxed sexual mores, such that one critic estimated, in 1843, that “there are probably more wrangles by day and debauches by night within one mile of a camp [meeting] of the usual size, than occurred in the whole nation of Israel at seven feasts of tabernacles.”15
That Noyes, tortured by sexual frustration in his adolescent dealings with the opposite sex, should find something congenial in the pent-up sexual energy of a revival meeting is not surprising. Noyes would later offer an explanation for this common confusion of religious and sexual feeling, or the fact that “the most decided manifestations of intercourse with the spiritual world, in whatever sects, are always complicated with social novelties.” Such an overlap was perfectly sensible, given that passionate, receptive natures, open both to influxes of divine love and divine inspiration, are the Holy Spirit’s paths of least resistance in manifesting itself on earth. Just as, “if a gun is over-loaded and bursts in firing, we shall find … that the force of the powder found the weakest spot in the barrel, where there was least resistance,” so it is among “babes in understanding,” those who have not hardened themselves against passion, that “the spiritual world might be expected to break out first.” The revival’s sexual shenanigans were not pure nonsense, Noyes later theorized, but signs—crude and untutored, to be sure, but signs nonetheless—of the coming fulfillment of Christ’s gospel of Love on earth.16
But Noyes had not yet reached the point of fusing sexual and religious inspiration. For the moment, the two remained opposed impulses: his mother’s ascetic piety in pitched battle with his father’s full embrace of worldly pleasures. For the moment, the “meridian splendor” of God’s love had fully eclipsed the seraphic glow of his Chesterfield dancing partners.
* * *
In November 1831, determined now to devote himself to God, John Humphrey Noyes entered Andover Theological Seminary. Freshly plucked from the profane world as he was, he fully expected to find himself immersed in an atmosphere “little less heavenly than a habitation of angels.” Noyes learned to his surprise that his Andover fellows were, instead, an earthly lot, and that “there was, at least, as much levity, bickering, jealousy, intrigue, and sensuality there, as in any equal gathering of young men with which I had ever been connected.” Discouraged by his Andover colleagues’ lack of spiritual seriousness, Noyes decided to pick up stakes and continue his training the following fall at Yale Theological Seminary.17
In New Haven, he threw himself into the cause of antislavery, working among the African American community there and, in the winter of 1832, helping to found the New Haven Anti-Slavery Society. Noyes also joined forces with the New Haven Free Church, one of a number of splinter groups inspired by Finneyite revivals that arose in opposition to the Calvinist orthodoxy of the mainstream churches. Despite his rather conventional bourgeois upbringing, Noyes now sought his natural companions among the unchurched and the disenfranchised. He found they offered a palliative to the professional religious “scholars” he frequented in the cosseted world of the seminary, who, he felt, stifled true religiosity. For such professional churchmen, Noyes argued, “religion becomes … an external business, a prospective means of subsistence” rather than an affair of the heart. Noyes felt strongly that spirituality was not a ratiocinative project but, rather, lodged in the solar plexus, that region of the heart that he would, in later writings, identify as the corporal dwelling place of the soul and the organ through which humans could communicate with the divine.18
But once ensconced at Yale, Noyes found that, while the spirit might be willing, the flesh remained weak. “I cannot send abroad my thoughts in any direction without crossing the track of some polluted image,” he lamented in a diary he began while at Andover, “and a thousand needless suggestions of impurity occur daily to blast my endeavors after holiness.” Noyes wrote of his desire to be cured of sin, comparing it to a cancer for which he desperately wished a magical antidote: “I have been wishing today I could devise some new way of sanctification—some patent—some specific for sin, whereby the curse should be exterminated once for all.” Noyes’s Puritan ancestors had been quite at home with the idea of the natural depravity of man. For them, the curse of Adam, the unregenerate flesh, was the prison house of the spirit, and the constant battle between “The Flesh and Spirit,” in the words of Puritan poetess Anne Bradstreet, was the very stuff of life, not a calamity that might somehow be averted. “Sisters we are, yea twins we be / Yet deadly feud ’twixt thee and me,” Bradstreet’s allegorical “Spirit” warns her sister “Flesh.” While Charles Finney and his revival religion, with its emphasis on loving grace and the possibility of redemption, had worked to soften this Calvinist strain in the American soul, it still did not go far enough for Noyes. To have a soul touched by sin, tarnished by “polluted images,” spotted with imperfection, was, quite literally, unbearable to him.19
From his early days, Noyes was haunted by the story in the third chapter of Genesis of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. That humans should be exiled from Paradise, barred by a cherubim with “a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life” (Genesis 3: 24), appeared to the young seminarian not as a righteous punishment for the transgression of a law, but as an intolerable loss, a source of inconsolable sadness. Was there not some magic potion, he wondered miserably in his diary, some spell that could remove the curse, like the magic kiss in fairy tales? Noyes was peculiarly susceptible to magical thinking. Unable to confront his social fears and insecurities head-on, he often responded to perplexing or painful situations by simply absconding, as he had when he abandoned his first love, Caroline. The same logic was at work in his wrestle with sin: rather than accepting sin as a sorrowful fact of life to be reckoned with, he fantasized that it might, like a bubble, simply vanish into thin air.
As an adolescent, Noyes had endured humiliation in social interactions with his peers, his burning face and ears becoming as red as the carrot-colored hair about which he was so self-conscious. Acutely sensitive to the sting of social shame, Noyes accordingly felt deeply for Adam and Eve’s shame upon finding themselves naked, as recorded in the enigmatic verse from Genesis: “And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord amongst the trees of the garden” (Genesis 3: 8). To magically reverse the baleful consequences of original sin, to render the “tree of life” once again accessible to humans: this was to become Noyes’s holy grail.
Noyes was to find his antidote to sin soon enough, in the doctrine known as Perfectionism that was percolating within the New Haven Free Church. Perfectionism saw the reformist ethos of the American Protestant revival culture and raised it one: the sinner could not only reform himself by making the right moral choices but also be made “perfect”—free from sin—simply by accepting God’s grace. What mattered was not the letter of the law but the spirit, not outward acts but the inward disposition of the heart.
The Perfectionist claim to be sinless was nothing new; for centuries, the heresy of antinomianism, or the belief that Christians are freed by grace from any obligation to the earthly law, had been a thorn in the side of institutional Christianity. The thirteenth-century Brethren of the Free Spirit, for instance, was a mystical sect that believed that their members constituted an elite cadre of immortal, perfected supermen, the incarnation of the Holy Spirit, who represented the culminating stage of Christian history. Beyond law, and thus incapable of sin, these heretics engaged in promiscuous sex as a token of their oneness with the divine essence and as an affirmation that, to them, all was permitted.
Though the Brethren were dutifully hunted down and burned at the stake by the church, their spirit continued to crop up, here and there, throughout early modern Europe. In seventeenth-century England, amidst the tumult of the Glorious Revolution, the “Ranters” (so-called for their boisterous bouts of drinking, whoring, and cursing) emerged as yet another sect seduced by the allure of sinlessness. Proclaiming the mystical oneness of God, the Ranters argued that the very concept of sin was theologically inconsistent: if God was one and indivisible, then to label anything within His creation “sinful” was blasphemy. In his 1650 tract A Single Eye All Light, No Darkness; or, Light and Darkness One, Lawrence Clarkson explained his theological reasoning: “This to me by Reason is confirmed, and by Scripture declared, That to the pure all things are pure: So that for my part I know nothing unclean to me, no more than it is of it self, and therefore what Act soever I do, is acted by the Majesty in me.” Swearing and praying, whoring and fasting were, in the Ranters’ theological version of the proverbial night in which all cows are black, one and the same thing.20
The claim to be beyond law took on slightly tamer forms in the New World. In 1638 the prophetess Anne Hutchinson, criticizing what she perceived to be the legalistic, bean-counting approach to sin in the Puritan theology of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, declared herself free from law and, instead, bound only by the covenant of grace. Convicted of heresy, she was promptly banished from the colony, ordered by the Reverend John Wilson “in the name of Christ, Jesus and of this Church as a leper to withdraw [her] selfe out of the Congregation.” (Hutchinson found refuge in neighboring Rhode Island, only to meet an unfortunate end some years later when she and all but one of her fifteen children were massacred by Indians at a settlement in eastern New York—a fate that her Puritan persecutors would, no doubt, have interpreted as just deserts.)21
Given his desperate need to feel himself justified in the eyes of others (and since his conversion, in the eyes of the Supreme Other, God), Noyes found in this latest branch of the Christian Perfectionist tree precisely what he was looking for. Immersing himself in a feverish study of the New Testament, Noyes now began to formulate a radical reading of the Gospels that offered scriptural sanction for his newly adopted Perfectionist creed. Noyes insisted that the Second Coming of Christ and His thousand-year reign was not, as the orthodox believed, an event in the future but had in fact already transpired at the time of the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in AD 70, when the members of the primitive church—Christ’s apostles and followers—had been resurrected and raised to glory in an invisible spiritual kingdom in the heavens. Christians had misread the Book of Revelations to interpret the millennium as coming to pass on earth, when in fact it was a heavenly event, restricted to a select circle of Christ’s followers, and was but a prelude to the larger extension of Christ’s kingdom to all humanity. According to Noyes’s calculations, then, the millennial era predicted by the Book of Revelations had ended in AD 1070, and for the past 760 years or so the saints of what Noyes referred to as the invisible world had been twiddling their thumbs, waiting for mankind to be ready for what Noyes imagined as an “annexation” of the visible world to heaven. Now that Noyes had arrived to apprehend God’s secret plan and to explain to his blinded brethren that sinlessness could be achieved in the here and now, that time was at hand.
According to Noyes’s revised biblical timeline, Christians were no longer living in the age of prophecy but in the era of fulfillment. On the day of the Pentecost, Jesus said, “If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink. He that believeth on me, as the Scripture has said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. This spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive” (John 7: 37–39). Noyes’s gloss on this verse, however, interpreted it as Jesus’ promise of redemption not at some future time but in the heart of the living present. As Noyes penned in one of his many meditations upon grace, “A great river is flowing in humanity; and whosoever will may drink of it as he pleases. It is not something that is yet to be sent—that we are to wait for and expect in the future—it is a river of life that is now running within easy reach of every one of us.” One had only to partake of this water of the Holy Spirit to become justified—sinless—before God.22
Noyes drank deeply of this river. On February 20, 1834, he preached a sermon at the Free Church on the text “He that committeth sin is of the devil,” taking the verse quite literally: only he who had fully accepted Christ’s river of grace into his heart, thereby cleansing himself of all sin, could lay claim to the title of Christian. Upon lying in bed that night, Noyes received a new baptism of the spirit: “Three times in quick succession a stream of eternal love gushed through my heart and rolled back again to its source. ‘Joy unspeakable and full of glory’ filled my soul. All fear and doubt and condemnation passed away. I knew that my heart was clean, and that the Father and the Son had come and made it their abode.” Washed clean once and for all were the “polluted images” that had formerly “blast[ed] his endeavors after holiness.”23
If in nineteenth-century New Haven Noyes’s claims to be sinless were not enough to earn him death at the stake or banishment, as had been the case with the Brethren of the Free Spirit and Anne Hutchinson, they were sufficient, all the same, to land him in hot water with the heads of the Divinity School. News of Noyes’s heretical sermon soon reached his teachers, and, several days later, the illustrious theologian Dr. Nathaniel Taylor consequently paid a visit to Noyes in his rooms. Named Professor at Yale’s newly created Theological Department in 1822, Dr. Taylor had been critical in forging Yale’s reputation as a haven for progressive-minded Christians seeking a compromise between old-school Calvinist teachings and the gentler theology of revival religion. Countering the Calvinist belief in predestination, Taylor preached the power of Christians to shape their own moral destinies through free will and emphasized sin as the consequence of freely chosen sinful acts rather than the inevitable result of natural human depravity. On the face of it, Nathaniel Taylor was sympathetic to an interpretation of the Gospel that prized grace above the law. Still, Noyes’s claim to have cast off his sinful nature altogether and to have achieved perfect holiness on earth went one step too far.
Ushering his former mentor into his rooms, Noyes proceeded to accuse him, through a series of annoyingly passive-aggressive syllogisms, of being “of the devil”: “Thereupon I asked him if he did not commit sin,” Noyes recounted of his confrontation with Dr. Taylor. “He admitted that he did. I then repeated the text—‘He that committeth sin is of the devil.’ ‘You say then (said he) that I am of the devil, do you?’ ‘No, (said I;) you said you committed sin, and I only quoted the words from the Bible, ‘He that committeth sin is of the devil.’ ‘Well (said he) you are a sinner now, if you was not when I came in, for you have not treated me courteously.’” But Dr. Taylor’s bruised feelings did not deter Noyes from the path he was blazing toward perfect holiness.24
Despite Noyes’s offer to relinquish his minister’s license, Dr. Taylor and the Yale Department of Theology not only formally stripped him of his right to preach but demanded as well that he evacuate the seminary premises immediately. Sympathetic friends gathered round Noyes, asking whether he intended to continue preaching now that his license had been revoked. To which Noyes replied haughtily: “I have taken away their license to sin, and they keep on sinning. So, though they have taken away my license to preach, I shall keep on preaching.”25
Noyes had now lost his position and his reputation, and his friends were “fast falling away,” he would recall in later years. But he was not completely friendless, claiming at least one supporter: a young woman named Abigail Merwin, who, having heard of Noyes’s reputation through the Free Church, requested an interview with him. “She appeared to be in perplexity, and eager for the truth,” Noyes wrote of his first meeting with Abigail. Noyes proceeded to a full conversion: “I put to her the question, ‘Will you receive Christ as a WHOLE SAVIOR, and confess him before the world?’ She answered promptly, ‘I will.’ Immediately a manifest change came over her spirit. Her countenance began to beam with joy. She said afterward that she received at this time baptism of the glory of God, which so overwhelmed her that she seemed on the point of passing to the other world.” Abigail Merwin’s ecstatic near-death experience mirrored the “waves of liquid love” testified to by Finney, and the “stream of eternal love” rolling three times through the heart of John Humphrey Noyes. The next day at the Free Church meeting, Abigail publicly professed holiness with Noyes by standing up and singing aloud from the hymn “Welcome, welcome, dear Redeemer, / Welcome to this heart of mine.”26
In his Confession of Religious Experience, Noyes would romanticize Abigail as his partner in the battle for Perfectionism, bravely standing in the front lines of their adversaries’ fire in the early days of the movement: “Her power of argument and her position as my first convert placed her with me in the front of the battle and in the full glare of the public gaze, and she nobly sustained the trial.” Noyes’s image of himself and Abigail, arm in arm in a halo of Perfectionist glory, nobly sustaining each other in the “full glare” of their enemies’ contempt, reveals the prized place Abigail filled in Noyes’s later heroic recasting of his life. More important, Noyes’s decision to fully embrace the persecuting gaze of the unholy provided him with a means to evade the ever-threatening eye of judgment. Unable to stand the scorching social gaze that shamed him in public, he simply reversed it so that the persecuting “gaze” of contempt served instead as a measure of his own elevation. In other words, Noyes took the unbearable image of himself as the target of a social mockery and turned it on its head: others’ disdain served only to measure his divine election and the “eminence” toward which “God [was] calling and leading [him].” Persecution, whether social or religious, would only serve to magnify the glory of Noyes’s eventual triumph.27
It was soon after Abigail’s conversion that Noyes had another important spiritual conquest: this time, over Charles Weld, a fellow Perfectionist to whom he had been recently introduced and whose tendency to strike a paternal pose toward Noyes irked the young preacher. For if Noyes had been exiled from the respectable circle of orthodoxy, it now became of the utmost importance for him to jockey for a position of prominence among the ragtag band of preachers who had clustered around the New Haven Free Church and were starting to give shape to the fledgling Perfectionist movement. Here, as in the case of the persecuting gaze he suffered heroically alongside Abigail, power would work itself out in Noyes’s mythical imagination as an epic battle of glances between him and his enemies.
Noyes narrates, with some relish, his ocular domination of Weld during the course of a Free Church meeting. As he was preaching his recently discovered doctrine of perfect holiness, Weld was apparently cast into a sudden paroxysm: “In the midst of my discourse I was interrupted by a strange sound. I looked around and saw Weld sitting with his eyes closed, his countenance black with horror, his hands waving up and down, and his lungs laboring with long and rattling breaths.” The shocked congregation ran to the man’s aid until, at last, the fit passed. When Weld met Noyes’s eyes, the latter “looked at him steadily … [until Weld’s] countenance softened into a smile, and he dropped his eye.”28
Having “dropped his eye” in this battle of gazes with Noyes, the stunned Weld was later able to explain the onset of the seizure: “From the beginning of [Noyes’s] discourse, the words of [his] mouth, he said, were like fire to his spirit. They scorched him more and more, till he could endure no longer, and he thought of rising and smiting [Noyes] in the pulpit. Instantly upon this, the word came to him—‘Touch not mine anointed, and do my prophet no harm.’” In his Dartmouth and Chesterfield days, on the chivalrous field of courtly love, Noyes’s “competitors in gallantry” might have blocked him from the “pinnacle of felicity” he seemed continually on the edge of achieving. But here, in his conquest of Weld, Noyes had lighted upon an antidote to help him cope with the pesky problem of gallant competitors, both sexual and religious: he invented for himself a supereye that could literally stun and paralyze his enemies, knocking them clean out of the ring and clearing the field for his total domination.29
In Abigail Merwin, Noyes had a muse to guide him along his journey toward the eminence God had marked out for him. But if every Christian odyssey requires its Beatrice, it demands as well a ritual passage into the underworld. And so, stripped of his preaching license, cut off from Yale, and slipping into the role of an outcast, by the spring of 1834 Noyes began his descent.
Copyright © 2016 by Ellen Wayland-Smith