Apocalyptic sex: Lest we forget

Christian history suggests the Church just can’t resolve the flesh/spirit dilemma, past or present.

By Bill Leonard

“Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; so they stitched fig-leaves together and made themselves loincloths” (Gen. 3:7).

In the beginning: sex. These days we might remember that when so many religio-ethical-theological-judicial debates seem focused thereon. The Hobby Lobby and the same-sex marriage folks didn’t introduce the controversy. Christian history suggests that, try as it might, the Church can’t resolve the flesh/spirit dilemma, past or present.

If I knew enough about Scripture or sex, I might offer a course in Bible Earthiness, just to flesh out (forgive me) the way the writers approached sexual implications/complications from the start. The briefest survey illustrates:

• “At my time of life I am past bearing children, and my husband is old,” says post-menopausal Sarah, laughing her head off at pre-Viagra Abraham when a “stranger” predicts her pending pregnancy (Gen. 18:12).

• “When morning came, it was Leah!” And Jacob learned that even after seven years of premarital labor, you still can’t trust your father-in-law (Gen. 29:25).

• “It is better to marry than to burn” (1 Cor. 7:9), St. Paul wrote, touting his own celibate prowess, reluctantly acceding to the smoldering saints around him.

• “In the kingdom of heaven there is neither marrying nor giving in marriage” (Lk. 20:35), Jesus told the religious leaders taunting him about the apocalyptic status of the woman who married seven brothers, all of whom died. (Why they kept marrying her after the third brother croaked still mystifies me.)

Jesus’ effort to clarify marriage and the kingdom intensified Christians’ speculation on faith and sex as evident in two indigenous American movements, the Shaker and Oneida communities. Both offered new revelations regarding Christ’s return, post-conversion holiness, male/female egalitarianism and the community of goods (Acts 2:44). Anticipating American exceptionalism, they insisted that the U.S. was the apocalyptic epicenter, an impending spiritual realm with biological implications informed by multiple miscarriages borne by their early female-founders. Their approaches to such apocalyptic sexuality, however, were radically dissimilar.

The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing (Shakers) arose from the supernatural revelations of Englishwoman Ann Lee to a small band of “Shaking Quakers” united around her belief — after multiple miscarriages — that sexual intercourse triggered the fall of Adam and Eve, the source of original sin. Lee led the group to New York in 1774 and by 1820 Shaker communities spread from Maine to Kentucky.

Shakers proclaimed that God’s nature encompassed both maleness and femaleness, traits revealed first in Jesus and a “second appearing” in “Mother Ann.” Their communities were thus the avant garde of the kingdom, anticipating humanity’s eschatological future. Membership required confession of sin to male and female elders, renunciation of private property and acceptance of “the cross” of celibacy. (No “marrying” in the kingdom.) Ecstatic worship produced continuing revelations from God, angels and spirits of the departed (spiritualism).

With celibacy as norm, Shaker devotees came from revival converts, sheltered slaves, abused women and orphaned children, some of whom joined the order. Ultimately, nature took its course and membership declined. In 1974 I spent a day with the three remaining Shaker women at Canterbury, N.H. They assured me that the kingdom was still at hand even if the Shakers themselves disappeared.

Converted in the Second Great Awakening, John Humphrey Noyes, founder of the Oneida community, became convinced Jesus had returned in A.D. 70, empowering the truly sanctified to live in this world without sin. Noyes claimed that the kingdom, long unheeded, was established by his communitarian movement in 1847 at Putney, Vt.

Gospel perfectionism convinced Noyes that while Jesus said there was no marriage in the kingdom, he did not say that there was no sex. Noyes’ doctrine of “complex marriage” rejected “exclusive love” of traditional marriage for the freedom of kingdom citizens to engage in sexual relations with other sanctified members. Noyes’ spouse, Harriet, sustained numerous miscarriages, a reality that led him to promote “male continence,” man-accountable birth control that enabled women to enjoy sex without fear of unwanted pregnancy. Childbearing required communal approval, with childrearing facilitated by the most nurturing members.

Forced out of Putney because of these controversial practices, the group moved to Oneida, N.Y., gaining economic security through their metallurgy, particularly manufacturing animal traps. Although sexual encounters were regulated by community policy, Noyes was ultimately charged with varying sexual improprieties, forcing exile to Canada. The members abandoned perfectionist practices and incorporated as Oneida Community, Ltd., in 1879, known today for its stainless dinnerware. Noyes summed up his eschatology and sexuality in the classic line: “At the marriage supper of the Lamb, no dish is exclusive.”

Are the Shakers and Oneidaites bizarre exceptions or intriguing illustrations of the inescapable tensions between flesh and spirit, justification and sanctification, love and desire in the world, the church, and perhaps even the kingdom of God? Amid our own fumbling and fussing over sex and gospel we’d do well to admit that others got there before us — even blessed St. Augustine, whose pre-conversion, post-pubescent, fourth-century confession captured the challenge then and now: “Lord, give me chastity, but not yet.” World without end. Amen.

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