Free Love Didn’t Come Cheap

[Christianity Today, October 6, 1997]

In the middle of the room there was a woodburning stove. The small iron door was open on this chilly day, and the red flames could be seen leaping within as if in time to music. For there was music, too, a marching song, and the little girls who circled the stove marched around it in time. The girls were not happy.

Each girl was holding in her arms her favorite doll. One by one, each girl marched up to the open door of the stove. One by one, each girl threw her doll into the “angry-looking flames.”

The phrase is that of Harriet Worden, a woman who participated in the sacrifice that day and recalled the painful event long after. It was 1851, in the utopian community of Oneida, in upstate New York. What was being burned up that day was an unseemly trait that teachers had observed developing in the little girls of the commune: they were becoming sentimentally attached to their dolls.This was a dangerous tendency.

The founder of Oneida, John Humphrey Noyes, was a sometime Congregationalist minister who ordered the community by the principle of “Bible Communism.” No selfish attachments were allowed, not between child and doll—nor between husband and wife. It was Noyes who coined the term, “free love.” Sexual liberation was the goal of spiritual life, as indicated (he claimed) by the scripture, “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels in heaven”[Mt 22:30]. (There’s a new angle for a trendy angel book.)

Un-free, or possessive, love had to be stamped out at the earliest opportunity, so the tender affection a little girl might feel for a special doll had to be burned away. Worden recounts that each girl marched up to the oven door with her “long-cherished favorite” in her arms, then stared as the flames consumed it. “We…saw them perish before our eyes.”

As America wakes up from our long intoxication with “free love,” we are shocked by the doll-burning story. But Noyes had read human nature accurately; such measures are indispensable if “Bible Communism” is to succeed. It’s hard to share your body when your heart keeps getting in the way. Successful disciples had to deliberately harden their hearts.

The sexual revolution that began in the 1960’s was not as logical; it saw affection as an unlimited resource, multiplied by dispersal. Those old enough may remember “The Harrad Experiment,” the Robert Rimmer novel that imagined an intentional programme of sexual freedom being staged on a college campus. The musical “Hair” and “Make Love, Not War” buttons were among the many expressions of this onrushing revolution. It wasn’t just racy stuff (though it was that), it was also a seriously-advanced philosophical position, an example of progress marching on. As at Oneida, the sexual revolution was welcomed as an attribute of utopia.

So why didn’t it succeed? A few decades later, the current crop of teens and twenties seems to be staging their own revolt, postponing sexual involvement, embracing chastity, just-saying-no to their elders’ prescription for groovy holistic oneness. Did anyone notice a concerted media/entertainment/education effort to discourage teen sex during those years? Me neither. Mysterious. Did these kids somehow get the idea they have the right to think for themselves?

Other studies support this decline. A 1994 Roper Starch-SIECUS survey pegged the number of sexually-experienced high schoolers at only 36%. Many of those who had wished they hadn’t: 62% of sexually experienced girls, and 54% of all experienced high schoolers, said they “should have waited.” A yearly UCLA study questions 250,000 college freshmen. In 1987 approval of casual sex stood at 52%; by 1996 it had dropped to 42%. (Approval of abortion is dropping as well; those most likely to call abortion “murder” are between the ages of 18 and 29.) Younger Americans are somehow finding the resolve to turn sex down, even if it’s “free.”

It happened at Oneida too. Thirty years after they burned the dolls, John Humphrey Noyes was an aged man, fleeing the grounds of the commune under cover of darkness. He’d heard rumors that Oneida defectors were telling federal investigators that he had been having sex with underage girls; these charges were true. Noyes hid in exile and wrote exhortatory letters home, but without his stern presence the old longings for fidelity and marriage began re-emerging.

Virgins began refusing to be initiated into sex by the older men, as the custom had been; they were holding out for marriage. Women who had borne children out of wedlock now began refusing further sexual relations, likewise demanding a wedding ring and exclusive fidelity. Teenaged couples were falling in love and forming affectionate bonds, against all the rules. The dream of Bible Communism was ending.

Free love is like free ice cream—it looks attractive, but sooner or later too much indulgence makes you sick. The body has an impulse to health, and can’t live on ice cream alone. Pretty soon people start looking around for healthier fare. In the process they are apt to find each other, settle down, and form families once again. And in the heart of many a healthy family is a little girl holding a doll.

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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