Original Joiners ~ Harriet Mathews

Oneida Community Work Bee

On February 4, 1848, John Humphrey Noyes decided to move his small group of followers from Putney, Vermont to Oneida, New York.  The move was not exactly voluntary.  The previous November an arrest warrant had been issued for Noyes charging him with adultery with two women ~ Fanny Leonard and Achsah Campbell.  They were members of the Putney Association, Noyes’ first attempt to create a Bible Communist community.

Fearing mob violence from the citizens of Putney outraged to discover a group of people practicing” free love” within their village, Noyes fled to New York seeking refuge and a new start among his supporters in Oneida.  By the following year, 1849, there would be 87 members of the newly established Community along the Oneida Creek in what is now Madison County.  It would be called the Oneida Community.

These members and individuals and families that joined the Oneida Community in the first years of its existence are considered the “Original Joiners.”  They were persuaded to give up their former lives and live in the “wilderness,” at the edge of what was considered civilization in the 1840s and 50s, in what is now Central New York.  Noyes attracted many of his followers through the publications of his writings and accounts of the progress of the religious communities he was creating.  Harriet Matthews was one of the original joiners.  She was born on February 21, 1820 in North Brookfield, Massachusetts.  At 15, she joined the Congregational Church, but it was thirteen years later that she would make a spiritual decision that would determine the course of her life.

Here are excerpts from a diary account of Harriet Matthew’s spiritual journey into the wilderness.

Harriet Matthews

“I went to New York City in March 1848.  Mr. Cragin met with me at the residence of Mr. Horace Greeley, the Editor of “The Tribune,” and after becoming acquainted somewhat with Mr. Noyes and learning something of the nature of the Association, I concluded to join.”

She decided to join the Oneida Association on March 23, 1849, and moved to Oneida five days later.

Harriet Matthews, like many women in the Oneida Community, kept a diary to record her thoughts and experiences as she struggled with her faith.  Her account captures feelings of being tested and at the same time liberated while attempting to live according to the principles of Bible Communism.

“August 12, 1855.  I feel as if I were indeed born again.  It seems as if during the past summer I had been going through an emptying process, till I was entirely emptied of everything and had a deep consciousness of my own weakness, nothingness and entire inability to do anything of myself.  And this I realized was favorable to Christ’s taking possession of me.   As Paul says, ‘when I am weak then am I strong.’”

Harriet Matthews joined as an individual, leaving her family behind.  However, the relative security of living among an extended family of hundreds was attractive to many Community members and their families facing the uncertainty of life in the world outside the Oneida Community.

“October 2, 1855.  I received a letter from my father.  He has at last and much against his will taken refuge in the poorhouse.  He also stated that sister Hannah’s husband is in the hospital hopelessly insane leaving her with three little children to support; and that Sarah’s husband, who was rich, has failed and she has buried her two youngest children this summer.  My youngest brother James is in very feeble health, not able to take care of himself.  The whole family is in great tribulation.  There is a great pressure on every side from those in distress wishing to join us, to get out of trouble at the present time.”

It was not an easy task for Harriet Matthews and the other members to live under constant scrutiny by the Community, expressed by individuals in regular criticism sessions, where one was expected to sit quietly as your faults were told to you.  One member described it as having your skin peeled before your eyes.  Harriet recorded the criticisms of her character by the Community in her diary.

“December 31, 1855.  Today, I received a sincere criticism, and in a way I felt that it came from God, in regard to my relations to my brothers.  I was criticized for lack of meekness and respect, for assuming superiority and making them feel small. I believe it has been a quality of my spirit that I have been nearly unconscious of it.  I think I inherited it from my mother.  I think it is a hateful spirit & contrary to the will of God.”

Early on in the history of the Community, women broke with social constraints and customs – cutting their hair short and wearing pantaloons or bloomer dresses, as they came to be called.  It was part of their struggle against vanity and part of their effort to liberate themselves from the cumbersome dresses and corsets that kept women from participating fully in work usually reserved for men.

“April 29, 1856.  I commenced working in the garden as a regular hand.  Yesterday I had my hair cut short.  Both of these things are answers to prayers offered long ago.  I have worked all day in the garden with the men and was considerably tempted to be tired, stiff and lame, yet by opening my heart to faith I am not so, but feel bright and good tonight.”

Picnic at the Cascades

What made her struggle worthwhile was her trust in Noyes,  a strong belief in Christ and in the family of the Oneida Community.

“May 22, 1856.  I have had a good day, worked out nearly all day.  We ate supper under the tree and then marched round and round the yard and flower garden.  I thank God for trials and temptations, for experience, which humbles me, turns me inward, makes me poor in spirit and makes me feel my need of Christ, in Him alone is salvation.  How vain is any arm of flesh to lean upon.  O that I may love Him and trust Him as I ought.”

Harriet worked as a dressmaker and a housekeeper in the Community.  She had one Community child with Charles Olds, whom she married at the breakup of the Community in 1880.  Her daughter, Shirley, was born on March 23, 1859, and died the same day.

Harriet Matthews died at the age of 85 on December 9, 1905, and was remembered as a woman of untiring faith, hearty spirit, and as a “charming writer of diaries.”  She has no descendants in the Community.

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3 Comments

  1. lisa leary said,

    February 20, 2011 at 12:06 am

    The will and spirit Harriet speaks of, once seemingly branded as a weakness or evil, now is prided upon regarding women of our generation; and in my opinion, is often times the root of hostility and even divorce.I think the communals were onto sumthin…

  2. katie said,

    March 4, 2011 at 1:03 am

    yeah nice

  3. November 11, 2014 at 6:27 am

    Wow, what an incredible figure! Her struggle is certainly something for modern day women to consider…


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