There was a great deal of social experimentation in the middle of the 19th century in the United States, which, among other things, encouraged the growth of both celibate and poly groups. The reasons for why this happened are complex, but these groups tended to be most active when the economy was in decline, and in places with good communication/transportation. Upstate New York, which had good communication/transportation thanks to the Erie Canal, and which experienced an extended economic depression in the middle of the 19th century, had a relatively high concentration of Shakers, was where the Church of Latter Day Saints got started, and was the location of the Perfectionists’ most successful community, Oneida.
The Celibate Groups: the Shakers and the Harmony Society
By far the largest and most influential group which rejected monogamy in the 19th Century USA was the Shakers (the Church of Latter Days Saints had less power/influence in the 19th century than the Shakers). The Shakers rejected both sex and marriage. Their founder, Ann Lee, was apparently strongly opposed to sex, and her rejection of marriage flowed from her rejection of sex. However, among Shakers, this view was not universal: there seem to have been some Shakers who felt more strongly about monogamous marriage being wrong than sex being wrong. In any case, sexual abstinence AND not having marriage were both key parts of the Shaker lifestyle and religion.
The second most famous celibate group was the Harmony Society (a.k.a. the Rappites). Though they did not regard sex as being as evil as the Shakers did, they also had religious reasons for believing that celibacy was the best way to live. They also did not practice marriage.
The Theist Poly Groups
By far the most famous and long-lasting poly group from the 19th century was the Church of Latter Day Saints, though they transitioned away from ‘plural marriage’ between 1890 and 1904 (there is more info about this here). ‘Plural Marriage’ was polygyny – one man married multiple women. Unlike some of the other poly groups from the 19th century, the Church of Latter Day Saints always accepted monogamous as well as polygamous relationships, and they obviously supported the institution of marriage.
Another famous theist poly group from the 19th century were the Perfectionists, specifically Oneida Perfectionists. The Oneida Perfectionists practiced ‘complex marriage’. Since it was, indeed, complex, I am not going to try to explain it, but there are two things I want to note. First, it involved both men and women having sex with multiple people. And second – and this is the more important point for me – the Oneida Perfectionists were opposed to ‘special loves’. What was ‘special love’? First of all, if someone showed a strong preference for one sexual partner over others, this could be considered a ‘special love’, and therefore wrong. Ditto for strong romantic attachments between two people. People who showed too much more affection for their own biological children over the other children of the community could also be criticized for having ‘special love’ – the idea was that everyone was supposed to love all of the children.
The Secular Poly Groups
The largest – and most diverse – of the secular poly groups was the Associationists, who were inspired by writing of Charles Fourier. Fourier had many wild ideas, some of which were outright ridiculous. To be fair, some of his ridiculous ideas – such as his prediction that increased human activity spurred by the industrial revolution would eventually increase global temperatures – turned out to be true. Fourier’s philosophy was that people should pursue their passions, especially their sexual passions – for example, people with homosexual inclinations should have sex with people of the same gender. He was a big advocate of well-organized group orgies. The various Associationist groups all chose their own ways of interpreting Fourier’s ideas, and thus the way they were put into practice varied widely.
Another famous secular poly group was the Owenites, founded by Robert Owen. In the 1820s, he was vocally opposed to the institution of marriage (specifically, he said that marriage was one of the “trinity of most monstrous evils that could be combined to inflict mental and physical evil upon [the] whole race.”)
Whereas the theist communities tended to prescribe specific approaches to sexual/romantic relationships (whether that was complete abstinence or having a specific type of poly structure for relationships), the secular communities tended to let people figure that out for themselves, whether it was some form of non-monogamy, or whether they decided to have conventional monogamous relationships after all.
Now that I have introduced some of the prominent non-monogamous groups from the 19th century United States, in the next part I will discuss how their ideas about gender and communal property informed their non-monogamy, as well as how groups with different philosophies related to each other.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Most of the information I have about these 19th century non-monogamous groups comes from the book Paradise Now by Chris Jennings. If you want to know more, I highly recommend reading the books.