The Ministers' War

John W. Mears, the Oneida Community, and the Crusade for Public Morality

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Michael Doyle
New York State Series
  • Syracuse, NY: 
    Syracuse University Press
    , March
     248 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Michael Doyle’s The Minister’s War weaves together the stories of two zealous religious figures who become entwined in a battle between their beliefs in the public and private sphere. The focus is on John W. Mears, a stodgy, prudish preacher and professor at Hamilton College who fought against many things, including the Oneida community. John Humphrey Noyes, founder of the Oneida community which practiced communalism in all things, including sexual relationships, becomes Mears’ greatest target. The Minister’s War offers biography as a pathway into viewing the multifaceted issue of religious freedom, or lack thereof, in 19th century United States. 

Doyle centers on the life of Mears, highlighting his use of fiery anger and intolerance to gain attention. Yet, he was “not unique in his exhortations. Rather, he embodied the forces of a nineteenth-century morality at work. His career is illustrative, a case study in zeal” (5). Mears aligned himself with numerous causes, ranging from clean water to the temperance movement. After two unsuccessful stints as a minister, Mears caught a break and found himself as the editor of American Presbyterian. Through Doyle’s research, we see how Mears used the journal to spread intolerance, particularly against Chinese people (53), women’s suffrage (53), Roman Catholicism (55), using streetcars on Sundays, and “insufficiently Christian courts” (54). When the American Presbyterian folded, Mears turned to other publications to voice his ire, such as his letter against Mormons and Oneidans that appeared in The Independent (94-95), to books about pirates and other matters Mears found unsavory in The Courtland Saunders Tract (55). Later Mears went on to teach at Hamilton College, though it appears he was not a well-liked professor. Doyle details the ways that Mears used his role, connections, and his brother’s wealth to pave the way to a public pulpit. In sum, Mears blurred the line between religious teachings with his desire for personal fame and gain. 

Doyle hashes out somewhat comparative biographies, so that Mears’s story is interwoven with that of John Humphrey Noyes. Though both men came from the Christian faith, they arrived at wildly different interpretations of it. For example, John Wesley and concepts of perfectionism were extremely influential for Noyes, and not at all for Mears (21). While Mears is easy to position as a nemesis, Noyes is also depicted as a person riddled with contradictions and shortcomings, creating a relatively balanced standing between the two oppositional figures. To portray Noyes as equally though disparately flawed, the work places a great deal of emphasis on the strict sexual couplings Noyes dictated, and his morally questionable inclusion of teenagers and relatives in the mix. 

As Doyle does not go into much detail about the Oneida Community, gathering a bit of information on them before approaching this book is recommended. Instead, Doyle focuses on the general response the Onedians received, which appears to be largely positive. Thousands of visitors from across the United States, and the globe, toured Oneida. Doyle uses local newspapers to demonstrate support for the community, who found members to be hardworking, clean, thoughtful, well mannered, and excellent entrepreneurs (83-85). Oneida Community boasted many innovative technologies, a considerable library, and even a museum, which fascinated guests. Like many other communal societies at odds with some mainstream social practices, the Oneidans opened their doors to the public in order to create transparency and dispel myths. Since their businesses were so robust, the Oneidans offered many employment opportunities to locals. This mutually beneficial partnership further dispelled concerns and led to a strong support network of local citizens, law enforcement, politicians, and newspapers who favored having the Oneida community in their midst. 

Doyle fills the pages with contextual details, which make the work very enjoyable and engaging. He discusses commonly used prophylactics, the life and influence of Anthony Comstock, popular college pastimes, and conflicting views on women, sexuality, punishment, and childbearing. These historical asides make the work approachable and more meaningful. In terms of evidence, Doyle heavily relies on newspaper accounts in the hope of capturing public opinion on Mears and the Oneida community. It is also clear he spent a lot of time in the Hamilton College archives, finding materials, quotes, and depictions of John W. Mears as professor, colleague, and delinquent home buyer (167). Through snippets of conversations and writings, readers are given a rather unflattering portrayal of Mears, who is at worst a hypocrite, and at best, is like most others, a ball of contradictions. Yet given his religious and college titles, this makes Mears a malevolent or benevolent force, based on one’s perception.

Perhaps the main issue with The Minister’s War is that it does not use the story to raise larger questions about the political nature of religion, or the lack of religious freedom in the United States. The Oneidans are often paired with Mormons as threats to the established social order. To this day, various forms of polygamy are being actively legislated against across the United States, particularly damaging to some Mormon communities. Doyle chooses not to analyze these issues, perhaps allowing them to speak for themselves. Rather, he zeroes in on Mears as a religious and political figure, particularly because he is an unlikeable one (10). Despite the lack of overt analysis in this regard, Doyle does shed light on how complex an issue religious freedom is, particularly when it comes to conflicting ideologies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rahima Schwenkbeck is Adjunct Professor of American Studies at George Washington University.

Date of Review: 
June 8, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael Doyle is a reporter in Washington, DC, for E&E News, covering environmental issues. He formerly reported on the Supreme Court and California for the Washington bureau of the McClatchy newspapers. He has won awards for his reporting from the National Press Club and the Washington Press Club Foundation, among others. Doyle is the author of Radical Chapters: Pacifist Bookseller Roy Kepler and the Paperback Revolution and The Forestport Breaks: A Nineteenth-Century Conspiracy along the Black River Canal.


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