In the middle of the room there was a woodburning stove. The small, iron door was open on this chilly day, and the red flames could be seen leaping within as if in time to music. For there was music, too, a marching song, and the little girls who circled the stove marched around it in time. The girls were not happy.

Each girl was holding in her arms her favorite doll. One by one, they marched up to the open door of the stove. One by one, each girl threw her doll into the "angry-looking flames."

The phrase is that of Harriet Worden, a woman who participated in the sacrifice that day and recalled the painful event long after. It was 1851 in the utopian community of Oneida, in upstate New York. What was being burned up that day was an unseemly trait that teachers had observed developing in the little girls of the commune: they were becoming sentimentally attached to their dolls. This was a dangerous tendency.

The founder of Oneida, John Humphrey Noyes, was a sometime Congregationalist minister who ordered the community by the principle of "Bible Communism." No selfish attachments were allowed, not between child and doll—nor between husband and wife. It was Noyes who coined the term "free love." Sexual liberation was the goal of spiritual life, as indicated (he claimed) by Scripture: "In the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels in heaven" (Matt. 22:30).

Unfree, or possessive, love had to be stamped out at the earliest opportunity, so the tender affection a little girl might feel for a special doll had to be burned away. Worden recounts that each girl marched up to the oven door with her "long-cherished favorite" in her arms, then stared as the flames consumed it. "We … saw ...

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