At 17, John Humphrey Noyes thought a lot about women. An awkward teenager with a gangly neck and slouching shoulders, he fretted over how good looks were the key to success, especially when pursuing women. And he was shy. ‘So unreasonable and excessive is my bashfulness,’ he wrote in his journal, ‘that I fully believe that I could face a battery of cannon with less trepidation than I could a room full of ladies with whom I was unacquainted.’ Little did he know that he would go on to have sex with dozens of women, fathering children with at least nine in a ten-year period.
Noyes was born in 1811. His father was a Congressman for Vermont. His mother worked to instil in her son a religious reverence, hoping that he would become a ‘minister of the Everlasting Gospel’. In 1831, her wish seemed likely to come true. Noyes, then 20, announced that he would devote himself to the service of God’s truth, and entered a seminary in Andover, Massachusetts. Rather than accepting his teachers’ doctrine, however, he became consumed with the revivalist furore sweeping the northeast like a prairie fire. He left Andover for Yale University and started an uproar when he began preaching Perfectionism, the heretical notion that a religious life must be free of sin. Argumentative and charismatic, Noyes became a local celebrity and attracted small crowds of supporters, opponents and gawkers.
It was around this time that Noyes met Abigail Merwin. He was 22; she was 30. It’s hard to find details about Merwin, other than that she was smart, beautiful and modest, and had dark-grey eyes. Many of Noyes’s descriptions of her are saturated with ecstatic religious imagery. During a period when he stopped eating and sleeping and instead wandered manic through the streets of lower Manhattan, he envisioned her ‘standing, as it were, on the pinnacle of the universe, in the glory of an angel’ (although, in his mania, he wondered whether she was actually the devil incarnate).
Merwin was Noyes’s first follower, and he loved her. In his Confessions of Religious Experience (1849), he admitted that ‘she was undoubtedly the person to whom I was attached more than any other person on earth’. He was drawn to her beauty, modesty and boldness but, just as importantly, he drew inspiration from her company. ‘Abigail Merwin was my first companion in the faith of holiness,’ he wrote. ‘It was natural that I should regard her with peculiar interest and confidence.’
Noyes’s instability eventually scared off Merwin. After his manic spell in New York, she deserted him and Perfectionism. Her father later told Noyes to keep away. Yet when Merwin announced her engagement to a man named Merit Platt, Noyes sent her a letter. ‘I loved you as I never loved another,’ he declared, confessing that ‘the thought of marriage was unavoidable’. Sure, she was engaged, but that didn’t bother Noyes. He was convinced that they were joined in divine matrimony: ‘God shall make you know that he has joined us in an immortal marriage, and that what God hath joined together man can not put asunder.’
Merwin and her new husband moved to Ithaca. Noyes followed them, but Merwin refused to acknowledge him. It was then that Noyes began to develop his doctrine of free love, which, conveniently enough, would justify his having a relationship with Merwin. He spelled out the ideas in a letter to his friend David Harrison. Harrison would eventually share the letter, and it would appear in newspapers up and down the Atlantic Coast. It would make Noyes famous and despised. Its final paragraph was the most controversial:
When the will of God is done on earth, as it is in heaven, there will be no marriage. The marriage supper of the Lamb is a feast at which every dish is free to every guest. Exclusiveness, jealousy, quarrelling, have no place there … I call a certain woman my wife – she is yours, she is Christ’s, and in him she is bride of all saints. She is dear in the hand of a stranger, and according to my promise to her I rejoice. My claim upon her cuts directly across the marriage covenant of this world, and God knows the end.
It was an impossible-sounding scheme that attacked a cherished institution. And it rubbed up against the sensitivities of god-fearing New Englanders. Nevertheless, Noyes somehow made it happen.
Today, Noyes is best known for founding the Oneida Community, a religious utopia that, among other ambitions, eradicated traditional marriage. Any man could ask any woman to have sex; each woman could in turn reject any man. The nuclear family disappeared. Couples who developed romantic relationships were criticised, and both property and childcare were communal. The community was so resistant to forms of sticky love that mothers and fathers were condemned for showing special affection towards their children.
The Oneida experiment is one in a long line of anti-marriage crusades stretching from 2nd-century North Africa to 20th-century Israel. And like all of them, it failed. After 30 years of enforcement, 30 years of criticism and religious indoctrination, the impulse for special relationships was too strong to control. Younger members revolted. Some developed relationships in secret; others quit the community and married outside. On 9 June 1879, one resident wrote: ‘The disaffection continues and spreads … There is a great deal of uneasiness and anxiety among the thinking classes. All are waiting for something decisive to happen.’
Noyes’s failure to destroy marriage demonstrates just how resilient the institution is. It suggests there’s something deeply human that inspires us to create and participate in marriage. Yet it’s this – the primality of the institution, its inexorable tendency to exist – that makes the current historical moment so puzzling. Around the world, marriage rates are dropping. Children are born out of wedlock at an unprecedented frequency. Reviewing these trends, one commentator warned that ‘the marriage apocalypse may be coming’. Are they right? Is marriage truly doomed? And if it is, why? What’s killing the world’s oldest institution?
In 2002, Duncan White of Relate – the largest counselling organisation in the UK – was quoted by the Daily Mail as proclaiming that marriage ‘will be extinct in 30 years’. While that still leaves 12 years and counting, it resonates with current trends worldwide. For the first time in US history, a majority of young adults are unmarried. Last year, the UK Office for National Statistics reported that heterosexual marriages ‘remain at historical lows’. And the rate of children born outside of marriage has exploded in the developed world, exceeding 50 per cent in the Scandinavian countries and many others. As the historian Stephanie Coontz concluded, we are ‘in the middle of a world-historic transformation of marriage and family life’.
The apparent collapse of marriage is staggering because marriage is ubiquitous. Sure, there are (or were) places where women marry sets of brothers, where people can marry ghosts or cross-cousins, where marriage is a hot glue gun that fastens families together in enduring alliances. Sure, in some places a marriage is inaugurated with dancing and feasting, the groom festooned like a prince and riding triumphant atop a horse, his family revelling like freed inmates before him – and in other places with no fanfare at all, a man shares a plate with a woman and now everyone knows they’re together. Sure, marriage is a chameleon that adapts to the norms and expectations surrounding it. Nevertheless, as the anthropologist George Murdock concluded in his treatise Social Structure (1949), no society ‘has succeeded in finding an adequate substitute for the nuclear family’.
But Murdock didn’t know about the Mosuo of southwestern China. Situated more than a mile and a half above sea level, on the lush shores of a turquoise lake snuggled among evergreen god-mountains that stretch higher than Mount Fuji, the Mosuo have become one of anthropology’s most well-known case studies.
The Mosuo are famous for not having marriage. Instead, they have tisese, literally ‘walking back and forth’. In a tisese relationship, a man and a woman live and eat in their own households (there aren’t descriptions of non-heterosexual tisese). When the fancy strikes, the man visits the woman and, assuming she consents, spends the night and leaves in the morning. Although many tisese relationships are long-term, there’s no obligation between partners, no formal ceremony that starts or ends the relationship and, in principle, the partners can have as many tisese relationships as they can manage. It’s similar to casual dating, except that if a woman gets pregnant, the father has few obligations to the child.
Humans are biologically prepared to pair-bond and it appears to be a solution for raising children
In actuality, the Mosuo have marriage too. They’ve had it since anthropologists first arrived, and the practice looks strikingly like marriage in the contemporary West. They call it zhi-chi-ha-dzi, which means ‘drinking liquor and eating meal’ and refers to festivities of spirits and beefsteak that accompany a wedding ceremony. Still, married people are – or at least were – a minority in Mosuo society. When Chinese anthropologists first conducted surveys of more than 1,700 Mosuo adults in 1956, they found that 74 per cent practiced tisese, while fewer than 10 per cent were formally married. Even after wealth, tourism, and acculturation have transformed Mosuo life, marriage remains secondary. When, in 2008, the anthropologist Siobhan Mattison surveyed Mosuo communities frequented by tourists, she found that 13 per cent of adults were married while 23 per cent were in tisese relationships. The other 64 per cent either were single or cohabited with their partners. Marriage has been less conspicuous among the Mosuo than perhaps in any other society on Earth.
To understand why marriage was so weak among the Mosuo, we first need to be clear on what marriage is. It consists of two parts. First is the pair-bond, a longterm relationship in which two people typically have sex, live together, cooperate economically, and produce and rear babies. Humans are biologically prepared to pair-bond and, from the way that we organise the relationship, it appears to be a solution for raising children. This doesn’t mean that humans engage in only one pair-bond at a time, nor does it mean that deviations from typical pair-bonds are wrong or defective. In Indonesia, Minangkabau couples didn’t live together. In West Africa, Yoruba couples presumably didn’t pool their resources into a common household fund. And countless couples, in societies everywhere, don’t procreate or rear children. Instead, my point is that humans are inclined to engage in longterm relationships, and that these provide the basis for marriage.
But a pair-bond alone doesn’t qualify as marriage. It needs to be institutionalised, too. The relationship needs to be wrapped in privileges and responsibilities, with socially recognised rules such as ‘Neither partner can have sex outside the relationship,’ or ‘Any child born from the union is a member of the mother’s group.’ To make it clear when a couple enters this institutionalised status, societies pronounce marriages with unambiguous actions: for example, saying ‘I do’ or smashing a glass in front of everyone.
Both pillars of marriage are weak among the Mosuo. Not only are tisese relationships free of institutional formalities, but they lack the behaviours common to human pair-bonds. The couple have sex, yes, and sometimes even produce babies, but they don’t live together, and their economic cooperation is meagre compared with the resource-pooling characteristic of most marriages.
Why are the Mosuo such outliers? One answer comes from Jiaama, a Mo
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