Is marriage over?
Marriage is practised in every society yet is in steep decline globally. Is this it for longterm intimate relationships?
Edited by Sam Dresser
At 17, John Humphrey Noyes thought a lot about women. An awkward teenager with a gangly neck and slouching shoulders, he fretted over how good looks were the key to success, especially when pursuing women. And he was shy. ‘So unreasonable and excessive is my bashfulness,’ he wrote in his journal, ‘that I fully believe that I could face a battery of cannon with less trepidation than I could a room full of ladies with whom I was unacquainted.’ Little did he know that he would go on to have sex with dozens of women, fathering children with at least nine in a ten-year period.
Noyes was born in 1811. His father was a Congressman for Vermont. His mother worked to instil in her son a religious reverence, hoping that he would become a ‘minister of the Everlasting Gospel’. In 1831, her wish seemed likely to come true. Noyes, then 20, announced that he would devote himself to the service of God’s truth, and entered a seminary in Andover, Massachusetts. Rather than accepting his teachers’ doctrine, however, he became consumed with the revivalist furore sweeping the northeast like a prairie fire. He left Andover for Yale University and started an uproar when he began preaching Perfectionism, the heretical notion that a religious life must be free of sin. Argumentative and charismatic, Noyes became a local celebrity and attracted small crowds of supporters, opponents and gawkers.
It was around this time that Noyes met Abigail Merwin. He was 22; she was 30. It’s hard to find details about Merwin, other than that she was smart, beautiful and modest, and had dark-grey eyes. Many of Noyes’s descriptions of her are saturated with ecstatic religious imagery. During a period when he stopped eating and sleeping and instead wandered manic through the streets of lower Manhattan, he envisioned her ‘standing, as it were, on the pinnacle of the universe, in the glory of an angel’ (although, in his mania, he wondered whether she was actually the devil incarnate).
Merwin was Noyes’s first follower, and he loved her. In his Confessions of Religious Experience (1849), he admitted that ‘she was undoubtedly the person to whom I was attached more than any other person on earth’. He was drawn to her beauty, modesty and boldness but, just as importantly, he drew inspiration from her company. ‘Abigail Merwin was my first companion in the faith of holiness,’ he wrote. ‘It was natural that I should regard her with peculiar interest and confidence.’