Experiences of committed Christian community can transform lives for the better. Robust, mature, and lasting commitments form a baseline from which we can enact long-term, concrete forms of mutual care, rising even to caritas. Constellations of stable marriages—not humanly flawless, but clearly defined and understood as meant for permanence—support and nurture youth as they aspire to authentic maturity.
Stories that trace this development—both real examples and fictional ones, such as those offered in Wendell Berry’s Port William novels—deserve to be better honored and more widely shared. Yet precisely for the sake of protecting such stories, we need from time to time to observe not only fictional models of exemplary nature, but also roadmaps of what happens when things fall apart. The story that unfolds through Tom Noyes’ 2021 novel The Substance of Things Hoped For serves as such a roadmap, as it follows the real-life cautionary tale of the utopian, perfectionist Oneida community planted in 1848 in upstate New York.
Both in history and in this admirably handled, artful historical fiction, the story of the Oneida believers raises the questions: What becomes of authority when it is exercised not for the good of others but to serve the desires of one claiming special status? It is one thing to be able to know abuse when we see it, still another to be able to do something about it after the fact, and something else again to recognize risks and prevent harm. While with Augustine we affirm that abusus non tollit usum (the misuse of a right does not take away its valid uses), we are left by The Substance of Things Hoped For with hard, concrete questions about the nature of communal authority and the extent of its valid practice.
The novel’s prologue introduces us to the two dominant voices between whose polarities the story’s pressures will oscillate. Both voices are unbalanced, though in different directions. One belongs to the founder of Oneida—one John Humphrey Noyes (hereafter in this review John Humphrey, to distinguish him from the novel’s author, also surnamed Noyes, and John Humphrey’s descendant—about which more later). The other voice belongs to Charles Guiteau, also a real-life figure: a tragically deranged young man, historically noted for assassinating President James Garfield. Guiteau, at one stage a member of the Oneida community, fell briefly under the spell of John Humphrey’s teaching in actual fact, though the extent and nature of that spell has been at least partially fictionalized in the imagined dialogues the novel’s text gives.
Still more speculative, and more hypnotizing, are the chapters that imagine the characterological responses of figures still more deeply obscured by history’s shadows. Among these are Guiteau’s mother Jane; John Humphrey’s lovers Abigail Merwin, Harriet Holton, and Tirzah Miller; the unnamed nurse responsible for minding Oneida’s many children (despite the colony’s stated commitment to limiting births, the continual turnover of new lovers under the name of “group marriage” had its natural results); and finally, near novel’s end, the wives of both Guiteau and Garfield, meditating on their husbands’ divergent fates.
The meditative multivalence of the opening’s tone may lull the reader into anticipating some sort of gentle family saga. Yet the first full chapter brings to mind not so much Berry or Alcott as Dostoyevsky: After a traumatic encounter with “Nature red in tooth and claw,” John Humphrey’s closest brother in age, George, contracts a sudden illness and dies angry at him, in an open and shocking rejection of his plea for forgiveness, and in the shadow of a new infant brother’s birth who will henceforth bear his name. George’s death provides occasion for the question around which the novel’s various threads of inquiry will cluster: “Is there anything more tragic and mysterious than an action born out of grace and selflessness that instead functions to harm and destroy the soul meant to benefit from it?”
The novel bristles with such acts. By the time John Humphrey—now a young man—enters into correspondence with a well-known New England preacher, Charles Finney, he is suspected of insanity and looks to Finney to clear his name. Finney takes John Humphrey under his wing, vouches for him, and launches his career into ministry. This boost, arguably, is the worst thing that could have happened to John Humphrey, who is soon propagating his trauma-born ideas about sexuality, chastity, and Christian “perfection” to wider and wider audiences. Yet however generous his intention, however “born out of grace and selflessness,” his adequation of mind to reality is skewed, and as a result his teaching turns toxic. His ideas about open relationships, though on the surface they too are supposed to be rooted in a spirit of higher generosity, hurt his wife and damage his marriage. John Humphrey holds out to his followers what he gives the name of “freedom,” only for the community to find that such freedom has significant strings attached.
The novel downplays one of the more sympathetic biographical facts of John Humphrey’s life, which is that his stranger ideas about the ideal human reproductive life grew out of a profound sorrow. After watching his wife endure five difficult pregnancies and births, four of which ended in perinatal deaths, the historical John Humphrey felt tormented by his own role in her pain. He asked himself what he could have done to prevent it and ultimately vowed to Harriet that he would not cause another pregnancy without her explicit prior consent. This true story is perhaps the only charitable way to make psychological sense of John Humphrey’s rather illogical ideas about “male continence,” which suggested that frequent sexual intercourse should be encouraged but male climax avoided unless conception was the desired outcome of the act. (The novel’s one comically scatological scene makes symbolic hay of the sheer biological impracticability, bordering on physical cruelty, of this bizarre idea.) Likewise, it is possible to have compassion for the impulse toward equalization of burdens that led the Oneida leaders to insist that children be communally raised, even as very few parents would consent to such an arrangement in practice.
It should seem so obvious as not to need saying that one man’s trauma response should not become the basis for an entire community’s intimate practices in marriage and family life. Yet in the case of the Oneida community this was just what took place. That this overstep of boundaries (to frame it mildly) should have led to further disorders, further extremes, will not surprise anyone who has spent even a little time learning about unhealthy sexual subcultures in ostensibly Christian settings. Noyes backgrounds the harshest historical details and thereby handles the disorder artfully, while still making sure that the reader can see the distortion that the majority of the characters cannot. An acutely affecting scene in which the community’s little girls sacrifice their dolls to the community’s ideals recapitulates, in miniature and without filters, the far more serious pain the community’s women and mothers must have experienced at being expected to detach themselves unnaturally early from questions of their children’s day-to-day wellbeing. Less easily miniaturized is the pain of young spouses in love, shuttled from partner to partner by their community’s leaders in a system of forced pairings and manufactured “consents” that represented an early form of eugenic experimentation—and Noyes’ narration allows us deep insight into this pain as well.
In another scene, this one reminiscent of John Updike’s classic short story “Pigeon Feathers” and thus strongly evocative of a context of faith in God, John Humphrey’s lawyer Larkin remonstrates with him: “You need to realize your actions reflect on and affect the lives of others. . . . You must remember it is not only God who loves you.” Ironically, despite the performative communitarianism of the way John Humphrey would communicate and enact his ideas, it is just this deeper concern of charitable love for neighbor that henceforth goes totally missing from his increasingly megalomaniac control of the Oneida community.
It’s worth noticing, too—and Noyes’ diction subtly picks up on and communicates signals of this—that as the story progresses the Oneida community becomes less and less recognizably a Christian or religious undertaking and, increasingly, instead shows features of what literary scholar John A. McClure calls “the postsecular turn.” In this fictional Oneida, John Humphrey has—if only half-consciously—sought to create not a haven for authentic Christian practice, where spouses adhere to each other in chaste fidelity, but what McClure in his book Partial Faiths would call an “enchanted enclosure,” where different rules from those of the surrounding human contexts apply. In enchanted enclosures, heightened states of being—and by the same token, painfully debased states—become not only possible but probable. McClure draws our attention to ways in which certain novels—for example, Toni Morrison’s Paradise and Beloved—at once celebrate and question such enchanted enclosures, which can preserve necessary values against a hostile social context, but which also tend to run tremendous risk of error and rack up steep human costs as soon as they abandon time-honored practices of discernment.
This abandonment, McClure tells us, can take either of two forms. In one scenario, a community gives itself up to emotionalistic, multivalent individualism in pursuit of a state of feeling rather than a state of being, as happens to the community of formerly enslaved persons under the spiritual guidance of Beloved’s Baby Suggs. In the other, the community abdicates the personal responsibility inherent in questions of conscience and blindly places faith in leaders given too much sway, as happens with the self-appointed, discourse-blinded patriarchs of Morrison’s novel Paradise. Either extreme in leadership—too much emotionalism or too much external control—can, and usually does, lead to harm. As we see this expressed in the fictional version of Oneida portrayed in Substance, both dynamics unfold at once due to the intense yet unbalanced leadership of John Humphrey, who himself is at once in possession of too much communal control while also personally abandoned to emotional urges that wear the compelling disguises of spirituality and self-sacrifice.
Accordingly the practice of “mutual criticism,” originally intended as an instrument of confession and correction on a wholesome Pauline model, becomes in John Humphrey’s hands a tool for manipulation and coercion, and Noyes traces this dynamic in detail. It’s implied that John Humphrey’s intense, close, well-intended, yet also off-kilter mentorship of Charles Guiteau may have played a role in heightening Guiteau’s imbalance and precipitating his later devolution into insanity—much as Finney’s earlier attempts at mentoring failed to heal John Humphrey himself, though with far more drastic results. All the while John Humphrey remains occupied with Guiteau’s fate, his own son Theodore first slides away into agnosticism and then fails to take over leadership of Oneida when called upon—a move that at once tracks historical truth and, in Noyes’ hands, feels providential to the degree that it provides narrative relief. The sins of fathers cannot be wholly undone by the principled retrenchment of sons, but the harm can be mitigated, the work of repair begin.
This line of thought leads us to an interesting extrafictional twist: as mentioned, Tom Noyes, the novel’s author, is a distant descendant of the very John Humphrey Noyes whose story the novel follows. It is almost always a fallacious practice—however frequently perpetrated—to read fiction in the light of the author’s biography, except where the author explicitly invites us to do so. Yet in light of this biographical fact about this novel’s author we see the exception that proves the rule. Noyes’ admirable authorial detachment from a story that forms part of his family history, his attentive differentiation and polyphonic balance of each of his text’s many narratorial voices, speaks volumes of his commitment to craft over thesis, craft over commentary. A presumably deep personal investment in subject matter serves rather than prohibits clarity of approach here. This is still more to be admired in light of the fact that, in the 1940s, some of John Humphrey’s descendants burned a portion of the Oneida community’s records, apparently from motives of shame over John Humphrey’s legacy. Despite this, a significant amount of documentation still remains in Syracuse University’s archives. Yet no such archive by itself can fully enliven and quicken interest in the situations of the past, or relate them to perennial human problems and the questions of the writer’s own day, the way good historical fiction does. At its best moments The Substance of Things Hoped For rises even beyond this function to evoke pity and fear as Aristotle tells us tragedy must, as we watch John Humphrey’s self-assured pride win out almost every time over his no less real sincerity of belief that he acts for the good of those in his charge.
Against the problematics of the enchanted enclosure, the novel also compellingly raises two central questions of Christian discernment: To what voices must we listen, and how can we best tell when their origin is divine? In the character of John Humphrey Noyes as presented here, we can see both the lure and the logical harm of various unchecked impulses toward utopia, by which eerie light we can better measure the balance of our own quotidian desires and responses. Reading this novel, we also come alive again to the necessity of humility, charity, and genuine maturity—virtues that are rarely glamorized but that, by the contrast of a heartfelt yet stumbling attempt to attain them, become only the more attractive.