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Stewart Davenport Publishes New Book Entitled Sex and Sects: The Story of Mormon Polygamy, Shaker Celibacy, and Oneida Complex Marriage

March 24, 2022  | 2 min read

On March 11, 2022, University of Virginia Press published Stewart Davenport’s latest book, Sex and Sects: The Story of Mormon Polygamy, Shaker Celibacy, and Oneida Complex Marriage. In Sex and Sects, Davenport chronicles and analyzes the rise and fall of three “religiously inspired sexual innovations in America”: the celibacy of the Shakers, controlled polyamory of the Oneida Community, and plural marriage of the Mormons. 

The three groups stood at a specific moment in history, protected by the First Amendment in antebellum America, that enabled them to break with orthodoxy. 

“What also bound these three sects together was the time and place in which they rose, institutionalized and fell, relatively simultaneously,” Davenport wrote in the article “The Sects That Rejected Sex in 19th-Century America” for Smithsonian Magazine. “In the 1830s, the federal government was weak, the American frontier seemingly endless, and the opportunities for sectarian start-ups equally boundless.”

Davenport utilizes this focus on marriage and religio-sexual experiments at a specific time to tell a broader story about the institutions of marriage and religion throughout history.

“This book is a story of changing religious beliefs and sexual practices as they relate to the institution of marriage,” the associate professor of history shares. “If my book can get readers to realize that all religions–including theirs–change over time, I will consider that a success. In addition, I hope that readers will learn more about the power of sectarianism, and how religious believers are most emboldened in their identities when they stand defiantly against the hostile powers that be.”

In a narrative history style, Davenport traces these three groups through the nineteenth century, shedding “historical light on the way in which Americans have discussed, contested, and redefined the institutions of marriage and family both in our private lives and in the public realm.” All three religious groups’ experiments “emerged, struggled, institutionalized, and declined” nearly simultaneously, which Davenport took note of.

“I thought that it was just fantastic that the Mormons publicly announced polygamy on the exact same day that the Oneidans publicly re-announced their practice of complex marriage: August 29, 1852,” Davenport says. “No scholar has ever noticed that before, and while I did not notice it until late in the writing of this book, it strongly supports my story about the curious simultaneity of these religio-sexual experiments and their various phases of development.”

To learn more about Sex and Sects: The Story of Mormon Polygamy, Shaker Celibacy, and Oneida Complex Marriage, visit the publisher’s website.