Love Among the Zealots

“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.  Love is the law, love under will.”
—Aleister Crowley


Most religions begin as a cult, a small group of acolytes united under a specific belief system.  All of the world’s major religions began this way: Judaism (evolved from Pagan polytheism, specifically Egyptian and Babylonian); Christianity (evolved from Judaism and Pagan polytheism); and Islam (evolved from Judeo-Christian tenets and Pagan polytheism). 

Mondo Nuevo
The Spaniards who first came to the Americas and conquered its natives with diseases, violence, and a new god were members of the world’s most politically and economically powerful religion, the Roman Catholic Church. 

In direct contrast, the handful of East Coast (and overrated) Puritan settlers of New England were members of an offshoot of Protestantism (itself a sect at the time).  Thus, they were members of a cult.  [And, to set the record straight, these people were not escaping religious persecution in England.  They had already done that years before when they moved to the Netherlands.  There, they were completely free to practice their brand of Christianity, and although they were unmolested and somewhat successful there, they grew to fear for their English heritage.  Their children grew up speaking Dutch, learned Dutch customs, and the group of exiles decided to leave for that reason and no other.]

Sociologists recognize stages in any religion’s development.  All begin as “cults” (with their norms different from the accepted).  As membership numbers and influence increase, they are known as “sects”.  Once the number of adherents and its doctrines become widely known and accepted, only then does the sect qualify as a religion. 

The difference between a cult (the 17th Century Puritans) and a religion (the 16th Century Roman Catholic Church) is the difference between a scribbler who occasionally writes doggerel and the literary artist who is an established poet laureate of his or her country.

Controlling Sex
All world religions address sexual congress between its members in one way or another.  Sex and religion, however, have always had an uncomfortable coexistence. 

In some religions sex is denounced as “evil” (regardless of the nature of the activity).  The general tone globally has been to discourage rampant promiscuity, apparently a very bad “sin”.  This prudery has nothing to do with human needs or feelings of “love”.  It is about preserving property and resource rights within a group.  The old adage, “Mama’s baby, daddy’s maybe”, has been, and will continue to be, a truism as long as there are humans.

Sexual promiscuity was discouraged for political reasons, too.  Kings were notorious for spreading their love across their lands, and many had dozens of “illegitimate” children in addition to the ones already at home.  When any king died, a succession crisis could result if any of his bastards decided to force a claim to the empty throne.  [The 100 Years’ War between England and France was caused by just such a tenuous blood tie between a current sitting French monarch and a distant relative in England who thought he was also entitled to be king of France.]

Thus it has been generally in the interest of societies to enforce codes of sexual restraint under the guise of “morality”.  However, the simple truth is these structures help preserve the social order of that society, and in many cases these monogamous mores are perhaps the best behavior since it makes a clear line of descent and inheritance visible.

The Shaker sect enforced strict celibacy from its start in 1747 by the British zealots Jane and James Wardley. 

Believers lived in communes and worked together at assigned tasks.  There was a strict segregation by gender, however and there was neither marriage nor sexual intercourse within the ranks.  Men and women lived in separate communal dormitories, and when they worshipped they did so on separate sides of their meeting halls.  Occasionally, during their religious fervor (which included shaking and spasmodic bodily movements) the women and men were allowed to approach each other’s side of the meeting hall.  This crossing of the gender line was called “The Promiscuous Dance”, and it was as close as the Shakers got to “intimacy”.

Shakers (engraving)Credit: public domain

Unfortunately, in a cult that denies sex, membership was only gained by conversion and by adopting orphans into the cult.  From a peak membership of around 5,000 in 18 communities in the US (with assets in land and other holdings worth about $5 million!) in 1840, numbers dropped to 140 in 1930; by the early 1960s there were only about 50 Shakers left in the US.  Today there are but a handful of elderly women living in what remains of a Maine Shaker commune.

Shaker-made household itemsCredit: Antiques Price Guide 2004, 2003


A Shaker community preserved outside Harrodsburg, Kentucky, is open to the public as a living museum.  The Shaker tradition of skilled craftsmanship, combined with quality and meticulous artistry, has led Shaker home goods(especially that of its heyday) to the upper levels of any collectibles market.  The furnishings are beautifully wrought and durable.

Free Love
The counterpart to the Shakers’ celibacy was the Oneida Community’s “free love” stance for its members.  This “free love” was not as “free” as the easily titillated would like to believe, but it was beyond the pale of the times.

The Oneida Group formed a commune in Oneida, New York, after banishment from neighboring Vermont.  Their basic tenets rejected monogamous marriage as practiced then.  Sexually “open” marriages were allowed, but were governed by the community (no man could randomly decide he wanted another man’s “wife” – these decisions were met communally and with the woman’s full participation and approval if she agreed).  Children were raised by the community and educated into the doctrines of the intellect these people followed. [Unlike the Shakers, the Oneida Community could be more likened to an artists’ colony, with loftier cerebral pursuits part of the lifestyle.]. 

The Oneida Community, like the Shakers, was prosperous, but their “marriage” customs were too much for the locals to take.  In 1879, thanks to social pressure, the Oneidans renounced their “open” marriage customs, and their founder fled to Canada, escaping adultery charges. 

The community itself was dissolved in 1881, but survives today on the dinner table.  One of the things for which this pre-hippie love cult was best known was the quality of its finely crafted silverware.  After the dissolution of the cult (with $500,000 in assets!), the Oneida Group reformed as a business venture, Oneida, Ltd., and made itself legendary in the silverware craft.

The antique Oneida flatware and cutlery of their “Community” period are highly sought as collectibles.  Today, Oneida ware is still made and used in many homes. 

Sister Wives
Finally, moving away from celibacy and a solemnly agreed-upon group marital arrangement to draconian polygamy that only benefited men,  the next sex cult prophet was closer to Aleister Crowley (at least in his sexual hedonism and abuse of his ecumenical authority).

Joseph Smith (1805-1844) was the founder of today’s Church of Latter-day Saints (commonly known as the Mormon faith).  Its origins are murky, filled with events of doubtful origins, and made up of dogma created from whole cloth by a megalomaniac.  [Coincidentally, these are the same conditions surrounding the birth of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Smith was no different in that sense.].

However dubious its origins, LDS has grown into one of the world’s more popular and fastest growing religions, and it has established its place within the pantheon of Christian groups (though some “Christians” do not consider Mormons to be Christian at all.  Mormons are Christians; their dogma is based in a belief in the supernatural divinity of Jesus Christ; therefore, they are Christians].

It is rare that a religion’s ascendance has been documented with such detail.  The story of the creation of the Book of Mormon by Joseph Smith is a fascinating lesson in chicanery and public gullibility.  However, the man successfully founded not only a new religion out of whole cloth (with bits and pieces of Judeo-Christian ideology, Occult Egyptian tenets, and gibberish), but he also established a basis for the United States to call itself a nation founded on Christian principles

Some people in the United States in the 19th century (and before then, and even today) have tried to establish grounds that the conquest of the United States by Europeans was pre-ordained by, and rooted in, Christianity.  The desire to find a basis for this was to enforce a specific “religion” of state (never mind that the US Constitution guarantees religious freedom of choice). 

Joseph Smith formed the base for the US to consider itself Christian by default.  He did it by claiming that Jesus Christ did not die from his Roman crucifixion instigated by Jewish religious authorities.  Instead, Smith said, Jesus came to North America and was the evangelical and spiritual leader of the natives he found there. 

He concocted a very rich history of Israel, an amazing account of a boat trip across the Pacific to the US in about 600 BC of a lost tribe of Israel, and many other fantastical stories in support of his cult.  Jesus came later to preach to these migrant, lost-Israelite begetters of Native Americans.  For Smith and his followers it was irrelevant that Native Americans had occupied the continent for millennia and were descended from northeast Asians and not Jews.  

In the beginning, it is unclear what Smith’s motives really were (he was a teenage farm boy from New York state when he had his first “vision” in 1821 or 1822 that led to the writing of the Book of Mormon, published in 1830).  He was even taken to court for his proclamations of his new faith. At 17, he was charged with “being a disorderly person and an imposter” when he openly told the community of his “discovery” of the new “truth” of Jesus.  His “wisdom” was revealed to him on gold plates in 1827 upon which were engraved ancient hieroglyphs which he ably translated while peering into a hat that contained a “seer stone” (which enabled him to interpret and dictate The Book of Mormon).Prophet Joseph Smith (Mormon founder)Credit: public domain

The plates had been buried under a specific rock under which he was directed to dig.  When pressed, of course, he could not produce these gold plates of mysterious writings; magically, he was told they were forbidden for others to view, and they were removed by an angel named Moroni (son of the prophet Mormon for whom the book is named).

Joseph Smith was perhaps a grifter at heart.  He managed to attract a number of followers, though, and among them were many women.  [One author went so far as to describe him – at 6 feet tall, with piercing blue eyes, and long black lashes – as “looking like Elvis”]. 

His cult was not understood, and they moved westward to Ohio.  He founded a bank issuing Mormon scrip (at a time when the country had no federal currency, banks issued their own paper money).  One of his followers, however, reported the Mormon scrip was backed by cash boxes filled with sand, nuts and bolts, and with a layer of coins on the top of each to attract investors.

Fleeing ahead of angry investors – scammed out of their money – Smith and his followers made their way to Missouri.  As early as 1831, Smith was beginning to espouse the idea of polygamy.  By 1837, one of his followers strongly suspected Smith was having an inappropriate relationship with one of his household servants.  Smith did not deny it but claimed since they were “married” the charge of adultery could not be levied.   However, the Mormons were persecuted, and when they were expelled (Missouri’s governor issued an extermination order!), they crossed east over the Mississippi River into Illinois.  They founded a community on the Mississippi’s shore in Hancock County.  Smith called it, “Nauvoo”.  [This was only more gibberish from him.  He claimed the word meant “beautiful plantation” in Hebrew; the Hebrew language has no such word in it. The town still exists under that name, however].

Joseph Smith (1805-1844)Credit: Doubleday, 1997It was here that Joseph Smith, a hedonist, developed his religious basis for Mormon polygamy. He took a yen for a particular girl, and when his legitimate wife was away on a trip to St. Louis in late April 1843 (taking her brother with her, leaving Smith alone at home) he approached this girl and told her of his desire. 

Smith, however, carried the taint of Puritanical conservatism in his soul, so he could not simply justify having sex with her for its own sake (which was adultery in his mind).  He then told her he had conveniently been given a vision from God commanding that he should marry this girl.  Thus, for Smith, if she was his wife he could “legally” have sex with her without committing adultery.

She waffled, but finally caved in. The girl, Lucy Walker, was seventeen, motherless, and living in Smith’s home at the time of the proposal.  They married in secret the day before his real wife, Emma Hale, returned from her St. Louis trip.  Smith clearly took advantage of this powerless girl – if she refused to submit, he said she would be forbidden from Heaven (realistically, he also threatened her with removal from his home). He also in succession secretly married three other women who were living in the his home. Emma was having none of his “visions” commanding him to take more wives when she learned of it.  Eventually, she caved in and accepted that her husband would have other women.

The polygamy practice flourished among the Mormon male élite.  However, it was not embraced by all in the Mormon community.  In 1844, The Nauvoo Expositor, the “voice” of the Mormon community, posted headlines denouncing some of Smith’s practices (including polygamy, but also listing land speculating, and tyranny among his offenses).  Smith was enraged at the ongoing editorial assault, and he destroyed the paper’s printing press. This was the excuse needed for Illinois to take action – they had looked for a reason to expel the Mormons, now they had one.  Freedom of the press was considered inviolate – destroying a printing press was seditious.  

Illinois’ governor ordered Smith’s arrest, and he was carted off to a jail in Carthage, Illinois.  A mob stormed the jail, Smith was shot, and he tumbled out a second story window and died.  He was 39 years old.  Brigham Young took up the mantle of Mormon leadership and moved the group to Utah’s high-mountain desert, unwanted scrubland where they thought they could live in peace.

Polygamy was informally practiced by Mormons until 1852 when it was officially sanctioned.  Then, in 1890, the Mormon President, embarrassed by the negative publicity and continued harassment the practice brought, issued an order banning it.  Many still did it, though, so in 1904, the Mormon leadership issued with finality a statement that anyone practicing polygamy would be excommunicated.

Today, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, while acknowledging its founder’s too human failings, has distanced itself from the sensationalism and titillation of polygamy as perceived by the public. It is a condemned practice which only a handful of hedonists, like Smith, use for their own personal satisfaction.


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