RELIGION AND SEXUALITY: Three American Communal Experiments of the Nineteenth Century by Lawrence Foster

RELIGION AND SEXUALITY: Three American Communal Experiments of the Nineteenth Century

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Professor Foster (History, Georgia Institute of Technology) searches the histories of three alternative societies for answers to what he sees as our contemporary ""crisis"" in sex roles. Deliberately shunning discussion of comparative social structures, and only barely touching upon theoretical explanations, he concentrates on the personal aspect. What, he asks, was it like for 19th-century believers to trade their monogamous relationships for 1) celibacy among the Shakers, 2) group marriage with the Oneida Perfectionists, or 3) polygamy among the Mormons? Yet he fails to analyze either the complicated emotions involved or the interplay between the structures of the dominant and alternative societies. Thus, for example, he does not really explore the connection between Ann Lee's history of miscarriages and her decision to become ""Mother"" to a community of celibates; or, between John Humphrey Noyes' early rejection in marriage and his latter arrival at a form of group marriage (which granted him the right to sexually initiate young women). Indeed, only Emma Smith's opposition to the polygamy advocated by her husband Joseph Smith elicits critical comment: ""There is genuine pathos in this strong-willed woman's effort to eliminate the humiliating evidence of her husband's most striking social innovation. . . ."" In terms of social structure as well, all is presented in glowing terms: the Shakers offered, according to Foster, a view of a ""functioning spiritual and temporal community life"" combined with the willingness ""to deal frankly and honestly with personal problems""; the Perfectionists supposedly enjoyed great sexual equality despite Noyes' professed belief in inequality because, as Foster glibly explains, ""Noyes was not primarily concerned with male and female authority patterns but with establishing his own personal authority over all his followers. . . ."" In the end, neglect of the structural dimension makes for unilluminating conclusions--the main significance of these communities being, for Foster, ""that they exemplify so starkly the creative tensions between structure and anti-structure, the game of life in all its variety and richness."" Seriously lacking, nonetheless, is the richness to be found in any one community (cf. Flo Morse, The Shakers and the World's People) or that found in analysis of a range of communities (cf. Rosabeth Kanter, Commitment and Community). In short, quite unconvincing.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1981
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press