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Sex and heaven in upstate New York.

Jesus said: those who go to heaven "... do not marry, for they are not subject to death any longer. They are like angels." This tantalizingly brief description of heaven has prompted considerable debate amongst Christians concerning the nature of the bodily resurrection and afterlife. Speculation was especially lively during the religious awakening that swept across nineteenth-century America, brushing aside pessimistic Calvinism and igniting a new era of religious utopianism. Upstate New York--the so-called "burned-over district"--spawned an unusual number of religious visionaries, each nurturing his or her own distinct vision of the resurrected life.


FOR MOST CHRISTIANS, spending eternity in heaven is the coveted reward for a life of faith and good works here on earth. According to traditional Christian teachings, the souls of the blessed will depart the body and ascend to heaven upon death. These souls will be rejoined with their bodies at the Last Judgement, when all deserving people will witness their bodily resurrection.

There are disputes about the precise nature of the bodily resurrection. It is usually hoped that the body will not just be resurrected, but also "perfected" in the process, freed of any infelicities and baser material needs and functions. Some theologians have suggested that we will regain the bodies we had at the age of 33 (or would have had, for those who die young), since this was Jesus' age when he died.

Whatever the details, heaven is another realm, distant from us, approached only after death. For a few Christians, however, heaven and earth are not so far apart: heaven is something we must prepare for while living, and indeed something we must try to recreate here on earth. Heaven is not the reward for a virtuous Christian life, but the blueprint for such a life.

This thought, which has underpinned many utopian Christian communities, has typically been accompanied by the hope that if such a perfected human community can be created here on earth, this will help bring forward the date of the Second Coming. Creating heaven on earth will kick-start the apocalypse.

This heady brew of utopianism and millennialism appears and disappears throughout the long history of Christianity, resulting in periodic bursts of religious enthusiasm and social experimentation. One of the greatest of these bursts occurred in one of the least expected places--upstate New York. Today's visitor to the area finds an economically depressed and marginal region of America--a quiet, picturesque backwater. In the 1830s and '40s, however, visitors to the same region confronted a hotbed of social experimentation--religious enthusiasm, social reform, utopianism, and charlatanry of every description. Upstate New York was the Berkeley of its day, a magnet to anyone with a vision of a new and better world.

But what would heaven on earth look like? In the spirit of Protestant and democratic individualism characterizing post-revolutionary America, everyone was free to open the Bible and offer his or her own interpretation of what was written there. On the question of the afterlife, however, it was slim pickings. Jesus himself says little about heaven, except for the intriguing Gospel story about the Jewish woman who marries seven brothers. In order to demonstrate the absurdity of the idea of bodily resurrection, a doubter asks Jesus what happens if a woman marries one of the seven brothers, but he dies before the couple has a child. She marries a second brother, as stipulated by Jewish law, so that an heir might be produced. He dies too, so she marries the next brother, and so on, till she has gone through all the brothers. Then she dies. Who will be her husband in the post-resurrection afterlife? Jesus answers:
 Those who belong to this world marry and are given in marriage,
 but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in
 the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in
 marriage. Indeed, they cannot die anymore, because they are like
 angels and are children of God.

(Luke 20:34-6; cf. Matthew 2:15-22; Mark 12:18-27)

This single passage has had profound consequences for Western ideas of heaven. But what exactly does it mean? Laurence Foster aptly describes Jesus' answer as "deft and ambiguous." The traditional Christian interpretation--virtually unrivalled for the first 17 centuries of Christendom--is that there is no sexual activity in heaven, and indeed no family life, and perhaps no gender. Since angels are assumed to be sexless, and we are to be like angels, our sex organs might be one of the "imperfections" that get expunged during the resurrection.

We do not live as families in heaven; we do not go to heaven to "rejoin our loved ones." Rather, we take our place as individuals in the circles of the blessed, closer to or farther from God, according to our individual merit. (And hence husbands, wives and children may well end up in quite different locations.) Our life in heaven consists of being united with God, gazing upon Him. According to Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, we shall see God "face to face" (1 Corinthians 13:12), an idea that grows out of the Hebrew Bible with its plea that the blessed be able to gaze upon the face of the Lord (Psalm 27). Catholic theologians call this the "beatific vision." A fifteenth-century illustration by Jean Fouquet illustrates this God-centric idea of heaven.

In strict interpretations of this beatific vision, there is little or no interaction between the blessed in heaven: everyone's attention is focused on God. In other interpretations, the blessed have feelings of connectedness to each other, but these are generalized rather than particularistic. The bonds of family and friendship enjoyed on earth are dissolved in heaven, and replaced with generalized feelings of love for all the saints.

IN AN ERA when Christianity is associated with "family values," it may seem surprising that the Christian conception of heaven would be so un-familial. But it shouldn't surprise anyone who has read Jesus' own comments on the family. In the Gospels, Jesus asks and expects his followers to give up their family lives, which only distract them from God. When one disciple asks for permission to go bury his father, Jesus responds, "Follow me, and let the dead bury the dead" (Matthew 8:21-2). When another says, "I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home," Jesus responds, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God" (Luke 9: 61-2).

In case there is any ambiguity about the message, Jesus spells it out explicitly:
 For I have to come to set a man against his father, and a daughter
 against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her
 mother-in-law, and one's foes will be members of one's own
 household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not
 worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not
 worthy of me.

(Matthew 10:35-7; Luke 14:26)

Jesus does not exempt his own family. When he returns to Galilee to preach, his mother and brothers come to see him:
 While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his
 brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone
 told him, "Look, your mother and your brothers are standing
 outside, wanting to speak to you." But to the one who had told him
 this, Jesus replied, "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?"
 And pointing to his disciples, he said, "Here are my mother and my
 brothers!" (Matthew 12:46--9)

In this context, Jesus' claim that there is no marriage in heaven is hardly surprising.

Some Christians throughout the ages have found the official conception of heaven--without marriage, family or sex--incomplete. Female mystics in the Middle Ages sometimes expressed the hope that in return for their life of virginity on earth they might be rewarded with a more intimate relationship with Christ in heaven--visions of "mystic marriages" with Christ abound in the literature.

In the Renaissance, some writers speculated about a split-level heaven. The lower level was a restored garden of Eden, in which the blessed lived with friends and family amidst luxuriant vegetation and friendly animals. However, this was seen as a temporary stage in the move towards the true heaven of the upper level--the celestial city and dwelling place of God--where the beatific vision reigns. In Renaissance illustrations of this split-level heaven, the paradisiacal garden is often central, while the celestial city is pushed to the top corner, and one can't help thinking that many people seem in no great hurry to abandon the earthly delights of the former for the contemplative tranquillity of the latter.

As ideas of romantic love and familial intimacy took root, particularly during the "affective revolution" of the eighteenth century, the idea that families would not be together in heaven for eternity became more unsatisfying, even unthinkable. What is the point of going to heaven if not to be with the ones you love? Protestants started to publish tracts about "rejoining one's loved ones," and Catholics did too, although this sat uneasily with traditional Catholic dogma about the beatific vision. The older idea of separate individuals blissfully gazing on God was replaced with the idea of God and his angels gazing protectively on the blissful interactions of families, as seen in William Blake's "family-centric" depiction of heaven.

Once family life was installed in heaven, the door was open to other mundane human activities and projects. People started to speculate about various forms of work in heaven--such as caring for orphans who had no parents on earth, or serving as guardian angels for those remaining on earth. As Bernard Lang wryly notes, the Protestant work ethic was being introduced to heaven.

But the most dramatic change was the idea that sex might be part of life in heaven. For some people, indeed, this became a central feature of heaven, although perhaps sex in a new and more uplifting form. Charles Kingsley, Queen Victoria's chaplain, even provided helpful illustrations of what this might be like.

FOR MOST nineteenth-century Christians, these competing visions of the role of family and sex in heaven were a matter for leisurely speculation or pleasant daydreaming, often combined with the acknowledgement that we would never know the truth about heaven until our deaths. But for utopian Christians committed to creating heaven on earth, the issue was more pressing. If family and sexual relations here should be modelled on those in heaven, then it becomes a matter of some urgency to figure out precisely what those heavenly relations are.

This was the challenge facing the Christian perfectionist movements that burned through upstate New York in the 1830s and 1840s. And in seeking to answer it, they turned to the Bible for guidance, beginning with Jesus' claim that there is no marriage in heaven. The trick was to figure out what Jesus really meant by this "deft and ambiguous" claim.

Three of the more radical religious experiments of the day--the Shaker, Oneida, and Mormon communities--illustrate the creative range of interpretation. The Shakers, most in line with early Christian views, took the passage to mean that there would be no marriage, and therefore no sexual activity, in heaven. Ann Lee, founder of the Shakers, believed that sexuality was the cause of our fallen state, and that childbirth enslaved women, preventing them from assuming a full role in the community. (Ann Lee had suffered excruciatingly in childbirth, and bore four children who died in infancy or early childhood--which no doubt influenced her renunciation of sex.) The Shakers "put their hands to work and their hearts to God," creating serene and well-ordered communities in which sexual energy was either suppressed, re-directed towards work, or released through song, dance, and ecstatic religious expression. Family ties, even strong friendships, were discouraged in favour of a communal life with its gaze fixed upon God.

The Oneida Perfectionists interpreted Jesus to mean that there would most certainly be sex in heaven, but it would no longer be contained by the exclusive and legalized bonds of marriage. According to the community's founder, John Humphrey Noyes: "In a holy community there is no more reason why sexual intercourse should be restrained by law than why eating and drinking should be and there is as little occasion for shame in the one case as in the other."

Contrary to many theologians who considered reproduction the sole justification for sexual activity, Noyes distinguished the procreative and amative functions of sex. Regarding the latter, why would God exclude such a pleasurable and joyful activity from heaven, providing love was expressed generally, not exclusively? Oneida Community leaders monitored both the procreative and amative aspects of the sex lives of community members, pushing them towards the perfectionist ideal of love for all. They supervised the rotation of partners, separated partners who formed too close an attachment, and taught men to practice withdrawal and/or continence so that all pregnancies could be planned by the community.

Although Noyes and Lee disagreed fundamentally about the intrinsic sinfulness of sex, there are interesting parallels between the two communities. Both were based on a communist economic structure, inspired by the early Christian movement. Both tried to free women from uncontrolled childbirth. And both suppressed family ties in favour of communal life and communal child-rearing. Since romantic or exclusive love was seen as destructive to community, its eradication was the foundation of the new world order. In the words of Abel Easton, an Oneida community leader:
 No matter what his other qualifications may be, if a man cannot
 love a woman and be happy in seeing her loved by others, he is a
 selfish man, and his place is with the potsherds of the earth.
 There is no place for such in the "Kingdom of Heaven."

The rejection of family life, and monogamous ties, put the Shakers and Oneidans on a collision course with the main currents of religious feeling in which the idealized nuclear family had taken centre stage in heaven, as on earth. Both groups were accused of breaking up families. One critic appealed to state legislators to
 ... stop these Shakers from creeping about, like the Serpent of
 old, destroying many a fair Eden of domestic happiness. There is no
 relation existing in society, of which the law is more jealous and
 watchful, than that which exists between husband and wife ...

The Oneidans, moreover, were accused of encouraging sexual depravity, especially amongst women. What woman, having experienced multiple partners, and sexuality uncoupled from reproduction, could ever be satisfied by monogamy and unrelieved childbearing? The author of Free Love and Its Votaries despaired that
 ... the women have given themselves over to this species of
 debauchery, rarely making any effort to resist their fate. On the
 contrary, the most of them, having their appetites whetted by the
 life they lead, enjoy the variety at their command, and would
 seriously object to any interruption in the rotation system.

THE MORMONS developed a radically different vision. Far from suppressing family life, they made it the cornerstone of their religion. Jesus said there would be no marriages performed in heaven, but earthly marriages, providing they were sealed by Mormon priests ("celestial marriages"), would last for eternity. The Mormons believed that in heaven, as on earth, the patriarch's status would be measured by the number of his righteous progeny. Indeed, celestial marriage was a precondition for achieving the highest status and glory that heaven had to offer. Celestial partners would not only be reunited in heaven, they would continue to have sex and reproduce. Their "spirit children" would eventually enter bodies and populate new worlds, hence fulfilling God's promise to Abraham that his seed would be as numerous as the sand on the sea shore. Polygamy, which the Mormons justified by pointing back to the example of Abraham, Solomon, and other Hebrew patriarchs, was a desirable practice enabling men to maximize the size of their families on earth, as in heaven. (Brigham Young, for example, had 44 children.)

The Mormons, even more than the Shaker and Oneida communities, were vilified by their contemporaries for alleged sexual depravity. One of the fears expressed was that it wouldn't be long before women, too, demanded the same rights to multiple partners granted to men under the system of polygamy. More fundamentally, outraged critics warned that any tinkering with the monogamous basis of society would endanger the very survival of the republic. One appeal to Congress stated that polygamy:
 ... is not Republican.... monogamy is the true basis of all
 Democratic institutions.... Search out the cause of decay of
 every perished Republic, and you will find it was licentiousness,
 or the desecration of the primal law of marriage, which was the
 canker-worm at the root of the sacred tree of liberty, causing its
 fall, and thus crushing out the life of free institutions by
 destroying the fundamental basis on which civil freedom must rest,
 to wit, justice and purity in the marriage relation.

The Mormons took flight from their critics, moving first to the Midwest, where Joseph Smith and his brother were murdered by an enraged mob. Under a new leader, Brigham Young, they removed to greater isolation in Utah, but continued to be harassed until they finally abandoned the practice of polygamy in 1890.

The fires of religious experimentation eventually burned out in upstate New York. Most efforts to create "heaven on earth" failed after only a few years, but the Shakers, Oneidans, and Mormons, more successful than most, have all left their footprint in the upstate region. Shaker communities flourished for much of the nineteenth century from Ohio to New England, but their rejection of sexual activity was not without consequences. Unable to regenerate from within, they eventually petered out--although Shaker-style furniture, perennially popular, seems destined for an eternal afterlife. At Sodus Bay, just east of Rochester in northwestern New York, there is a small museum dedicated to the Shaker community that settled the area in the late 1820s. It is an unspoiled setting of gentle green hills, with the shining waters of Lake Ontario in the distance. You can still see some of the original Shaker buildings, and appreciate something of the simplicity and tranquillity of the community that flourished here, farming and selling its prized seeds to the outside world.

John Humphrey Noyes' perfectionist community at Oneida, a small village a few miles east of Syracuse, flourished for about 40 years. The community was economically astute, supporting itself through several successful business enterprises, including the manufacture of animal traps, straw hats, mop sticks, and silverware. By 1880, the businesses were still going strong, but the community was split by internal divisions. The remaining 226 members chose, by unanimous vote, to dissolve their communal experiment and restructure the business as a joint stock company. Today, Oneida Limited is the world's largest maker of stainless steel and silver-plated flatware. Ironically, given its anti-marriage origins, Oneida flatware has become a very popular wedding gift.

As for the Mormons, despite a rocky start, it seems they have reaped the rewards of their pro-family vision. The Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints boasts millions of adherents today. And they haven't forgotten their roots in upstate New York. Near the town of Palmyra (just south of Rochester), the Mormons have meticulously restored the early family home of Joseph Smith, their founder. You can also visit a monument at nearby Hill Cumorah where Smith received from the angel Moroni the golden tablets which he translated into the Book of Mormon in 1830. The church has purchased various other properties in the area, and is building an enormous complex of temples and centres to celebrate its birthplace.

THE Mormon, Shaker, and Oneida communities represent the radical end of a spectrum of religious and social change that transformed nineteenth-century America. This change was spearheaded in the mainstream by the Baptists and Methodists. Unlike the Calvinists, with their doctrine of predestination, the new evangelical religions preached that individuals could take steps towards their own (not to mention their neighbours') salvation. By the 1820s, education and prison reform, temperance societies and other attempts at mass "uplift" were launched. Some veterans of these religious-based reform movements would go on to join Christian utopian communities, having decided that the best way to transform society as a whole was by setting an example as a model community. Others would direct their energies towards the abolition of slavery and the struggle for women's rights--and American society would never be the same. This massive mobilization of energy to "perfect" human society would continue to grow, outstripping its religious origins--but it surely owes some of its inspiration to changing conceptions of heaven, and earthly communities modelled on those heavenly visions.

SUE DONALDSON lives near Kingston, Ontario. Her vegan recipe collection, Foods that Don't Bite Back, has just been published by Whitecap Books.

WILL KYMLICKA is a professor of philosophy at Queen's University. His most recent book is Politics in the Vernacular: Nationalism, Multiculturalism and Citizenship (Oxford University Press).
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Author:Donaldson, Sue; Kymlicka, Will
Publication:Queen's Quarterly
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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