Burden of Being a Good Reformer: Protestants and Birth Control

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In the matter of the much-discussed HHS “contraception mandate,” the violation of our God-given, constitutionally protected rights is the principal matter at hand. These rights, of course, are based on our duty to follow the moral law. All individuals of whatever religious conviction should speak out against this coercion by the state that violates our free exercise of religion. Among those individuals, our separated Protestant brethren should acknowledge this as governmental intrusion into the sacred sphere of the conscience. However, it seems that acknowledgment has come sparingly, and that many Protestants are unwilling to see past their disagreement with us on this moral issue to the more egregious error in the health mandate: the deliberate violation of our conscience rights. Illumination of this violation is hindered, I contend, by one’s disagreement with the Catholic prohibition of contraception, so I will attempt to challenge our separated brethren to reconsider their position. Perhaps if their aversion to this Catholic moral teaching is placated, they will come closer to Catholic truth. If you cannot convince a man that his boat is sinking, you can at least attempt to convince him that his shoes are wet.

To appeal to Protestants, one must appeal to the very mode by which Protestantism arose: reform. By reform, I simply mean an understanding of what proper reformation is. Protestants, by definition and by heritage, are reformers, and therefore the import and validity of their beliefs should be contingent upon their participation in reformation. If anyone were to know what true reformation is, it would be a religious movement founded upon it. Protestants should know that there are reasons for reform, and that any sort of reformation does not, or should not occur, because of perfunctory desires to do so. Therefore, I will evaluate Protestants’ belief on contraception based upon their standards. I will attempt to see if their belief on contraception is the result of authentic reformation — reformation prompted by spiritual reasons presented in cogent arguments — or if it is the result of cultural influences.

G.K. Chesterton, a man of immense commonsense, offers a sensible model for reformation, namely, know why something is there before you decide why that something should not be there. In his essay, The Drift from Domesticity, Chesterton contrasts the difference between a modern reformer and an intelligent one (though I am sure not all modern reformers are unintelligent). In encountering a fence erected across a road, Chesterton contends that the modern reformer would walk “gaily up to it and says, ‘I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away’”; contrastingly, to which the intelligent reformer responds to the modern, “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it”.1 In considering any formal tradition or institution, its reason for being must be ascertained before any decision to renounce can be made. More specifically, the reason for any tradition’s rescission must be stated by the person who wants to rescind it. Ignorance of a tradition’s original purpose is not a reason for eradicating it; rather, one must know the original purpose, and then he must decide either that it was a bad purpose to begin with or that the purpose is no longer relevant. Only then, once the reformer decides on the legitimacy of the purpose, can he begin the reform. Thus, the onus of proof is on the reformer to declare his reasons for abolishing a tradition, and those reasons cannot have the phrase ‘because I do not understand it.’ To the contrary, one must understand the purpose before he can decide on its legitimacy. Thus, in the case of contraception, is the onus of proof on Protestants to give a reason as to why the Church’s prohibition on the use of contraception is invalid? Has it been a longstanding tradition within the Protestant tradition that contraception is morally permissible? These are two questions that I will attempt to answer.

Presumably, since the Catholic Church has always opposed the use of contraception, there must be within the Christian tradition a longstanding belief in the intrinsic immorality of contraception. One can consult many of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church to confirm this belief. However, opposition to contraception did not end there. Martin Luther, in his commentary on Genesis, condemns the ‘spilling of semen’ by Onan as a ‘most disgraceful sin’.2 In fact, Luther in his book The Estate of Marriage considered procreation as the ‘greatest good in marriage,’ and prescribed the procreating and education of children as being the primary purpose of marriage.3 John Calvin asserted in his commentary on Onan that it is a ‘horrible thing to pour out seed besides the intercourse of man and woman.4 Matthew Henry, a prominent Protestant figure in England during the 18th century, lambastes Onan’s transgression as ‘sins that dishonor the body and defile it’.5 John Wesley, arguably the founder of Methodism, reiterates Henry’s castigation as well.6 Doubtlessly, Protestant exegetes will employ exegetical sophistry to avoid the obvious fact that these Protestant luminaries denounced the use of contraception. There is no question that Luther and Calvin no longer believed that matrimony was a sacrament, but they made no explicit gainsay of the widely held purposes of marriage—one of which is, of course, procreation. However, it will be best to stay in the historical narrative of the Protestant standing on contraception, and not delve into the muddled discourse of modern exegesis. So now, the task is to trace the historical development of this belief among Protestants. Clearly, any observant person today will see that the prevailing view among Protestant churches and Protestants is that contraception is not immoral. Consequently, this raises the question of when — considering the aforementioned testimony by Protestant figures above — the belief on contraception changed, and, more importantly, what caused it to change?

Writers who have argued against contraception and who realize that the Christian community has been opposed to it for centuries typically contend that the change in moral policy came from the ruling by the Anglican bishops in 1930 at the Lambeth conference.7 Undoubtedly, there is historical truth to this claim, but it does not fully convey the historical significance of the alteration (which was a slight one at first) of the policy concerning contraception. What is circumvented by beginning with the cataclysmic ruling of the Lambeth conference is the historical opposition to birth control by American Protestants. Save for Robert Owen Daniels’8 efforts to disseminate the idea of population control using contraception, the immorality of contraception was not often contested, especially by American Protestants. In fact, the religious fervor and influence that permeated eighteenth and nineteenth century Americans was largely Protestant, for during this time there was still a prevailing odium toward Catholicism, which was typically ascribed as being anti-democratic.9

Most notably, the efforts of Anthony Comstock and his colleagues in the creation of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice were solely reflective of their deeply held Protestant beliefs. Comstock considered abortion and birth control to be immoral in their substance and in their intent, for he realized an essential component to the sexual act was procreation. His campaign to outlaw the dissemination of obscene materials was financed and supported by Morris Ketchum Jesup, a prominent philanthropist and Protestant who was the president of the New York YMCA (another Protestant organization).10 Because of his efforts, a federal prohibition of mailing any writings containing obscenities — including writings about contraception (which practice was illegal in the United States at the time) — was issued. Other organizations that contributed to the denunciation of contraception, such as Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the Young Woman’s Christian Association, were Protestant as well.11 The point of this historical reminder is not to argue for the rightness of what Comstock accomplished, but rather it is to show that historically the Protestant community in America opposed the use of contraception.

As I mentioned above, the Lambeth Conference in 1930 is typically the event ascribed as changing the contraception debate, especially among Christians. However, the decision by the Anglican Bishops to alter slightly a previously condemned proposition is something worthy of consideration. The resolutions of the conference do not give any reason for the alteration; thus, one is left to wonder why the Anglican bishops changed their minds on this matter. The Lambeth conference in 1920, just ten years prior, contended an ‘empathic warning against the use of unnatural means for the avoidance of conception.’12 Ten years later, however, the bishops contend that sex between a husband and a wife, while still having the ‘primary purpose of procreation13‘, can be done with the use of contraception. This opening, albeit a narrow one, was all birth control proponents needed to infiltrate and precipitate the complete abandonment of opposition to contraception by the Protestant community. One must only read the subsequent resolutions issued by the Lambeth conference to see its language regarding marriage and the family dissolve into conciliatory eugenics with the facade of Christian love.14 An important thing to note concerning this change, however, is the lack of reference to the Christian tradition. It should not be too difficult to discern that any alternation in the moral code should have a moral reason for the change. Nevertheless, no reason is given and thus one is left wondering what influenced the change, and once one determines that influence, he must decide if that influence is congruent with the Christian tradition.

However, if one consults the historical narrative of the contraception movement, he will find that Christians were on the opposing side. The societal and culture influence that undoubtedly had an effect on the Lambeth conference is certainly not amenable to the Christian tradition. In fact, opposition toward contraception in England waned as the result of the Malthusian Leagues gaining public acclaim.15 Furthermore, it is evident that the contraception crusade engendered by Margret Sanger likely had an influence in England as well, for after fleeing the United States, she arrived in England and began promulgating his eugenic ideology, distributing thousands of copies of her pamphlet Family Limitations.16 While she was in England, under the assumed name “Bertha Watson,” she enlisted British radicals, socialists, and feminists to help buttress her justification for contraception. After the arrest of her husband in America, Sanger returned to the United States and began her contraception campaign anew. In the early nineteenth century, Sanger established the American Birth Control League, and opened her first birth control clinic in New York.17 For the next few years, Sanger cultivated a cultural attitude toward contraception, and, even in spite of opposition by Protestants, she succeeded in reversing the stigma: the use of contraception was no longer the shameful thing; rather, opposition to contraception was.

Nevertheless, the institutional opposition by Protestant Christians soon began to fade after the subsequent months of the Lambeth conference in 1930. The floodgates were now opened, and cultural and societal influences, influences uncongenial to the Christian tradition, began to permeate the minds of its members. In 1931, a year after the Lambeth resolution, the U.S. Federal Council of Churches, which was comprised of thirty Protestant denominations in the U.S., approved the practice of birth regulation — their reason being to promote the stability of the family by limiting the number of children.18 In 1934, Sanger compiled evidence in favor of the use of birth control and presented it to a U.S. Congressional committee. The Federal Council of Churches was one among many American organizations explicitly to endorse Sanger’s case. The effects of such an endorsement led to a moral malleability within the Protestant institutions in America, causing some churches to devolve before American culture did. In fact, the Episcopal Church in the United States approved of abortion, albeit in limited cases, before it was even decriminalized by a rueful Supreme Court decision.19

It does not take a seasoned historian to speculate on the influences behind these decisions; one need only to consult the writings of Sanger and Malthus and compare them with the rhetoric used in the various resolutions by the churches to see the similarities. As mentioned above, the task of the reformer is to provide reasons for changing the rule; since it has been shown that the rule against contraception has been well established by Protestants throughout history, the onus of proof is on the reformer. However, as one can readily discern from the historical narrative of attitudes toward contraception, the proponents of it were certainly not Protestant in the strictest sense. Therefore, the task of the reformer is to show that Sanger’s thought and Malthusian ideology are amenable to the Christian tradition. Lengthy expositions of these are not necessary to indicate the incompatibility of their thought. For example, Sanger once wrote that the ‘most merciful thing that a large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it.’20 Thomas Malthus, though a member of the clergy, contended that population control was the most viable solution to ending poverty, and that the poor should be encouraged to use contraception in order to have smaller families.21 Contrast Sanger’s sentiments with Johann Peter Lange, a Calvinist theologian in the 19th century, who contended that contraception was ‘the most unnatural wickedness…..destroying directly the body and soul of the young.’22 Or the statement issued by the Lutheran Church/Missouri Synod in 1923 in which the accused the Birth Control Federation of spattering ‘the country with slime,’ and expressing harsh words to its founder, Sanger.23 C.S. Lewis, a celebrated figure among Protestants, understood that the ‘biological purpose of sex is children.’24 More importantly, repudiating the philosophy of Malthus and Sanger, Lewis excoriates the contraceptive mentality as ‘man’s attempt to conquer nature,’ and that it reflects the power of the present generation to control future generations.25

If these two strands of thought, the thought of Sanger and Malthus, were the influential force behind the rescission of an opposition that was centuries old, then the reformer must show that these two strands of thought refute the original intent of the opposition to contraception. If the writings of Sanger and Malthus can cogently refute the traditional Christian opposition to contraception, thus invalidating the original purpose for the opposition, then true reformation can occur. However, it appears evident that the task of the reformer is a difficult one, and it may invariably result in the concession of an insurrection: contending, while attempting to remain within the Christian tradition, that opposition to birth control has always been wrong, and that these twentieth-century revolutionaries uncovered a truth that had been hidden to many in the past. This attempt to show that the Christian tradition has always been in error concerning contraception will prove to be a difficult one while remaining Christian, for the reformers have individuals in their corner that have contributed to the denigration of Christian morality, and the erosion of our consciences. It may be quite difficult to deny the writings of Marx and his contemporaries while remaining Marxist. It may be even more difficult to deny the writings of Marx and then contend the validity of Adam Smith’s writings while remaining Marxist. Likewise, it is difficult to deny the testimony of Christians throughout the ages, the Church’s teachings, the teaching of Protestant forbears, and then subsequently grant credence to the writings of Sanger and Malthus while remaining Christian. If the reformer seriously considers this quandary that he finds himself in, then perhaps it will become abundantly clear that he wishes to change the tradition not because he ‘sees through it, but because he cannot see it at all.’26

Works Cited

Axelrod, Alan, and Charles Phillips. What Everyone Should Known about the 20th Century. Avon, MA: Adams Media Corporation, 1998.

Birth Control and the Christian. Edited by Walter O. Spitzer and Carlyle L. Saylor. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1969.

Calvin, John. Calvin’s Commentaries. Translated by John King. Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Library. Available online: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom02.html.

Carlson, Allen. “Children of the Reformation.” Touchstone Magazine, May 2007.

Chesler, Ellen. Woman of Valor: Margret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Chesterton, G.K. ‘The Drift from Domesticity.’ In A Defense of Sanity. Edited by Dale Ahlquist, Joseph Pearce, and Adian Mackey. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2011.

Henry, Matthew. Complete Commentary on the Whole Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Library. Available online: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/henry/mhc.pdf.

Kemeny, P. C. “‘Banned in Boston’: Moral Reform Politics and the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice.” Church History 78, no. 4 (November 27, 2009): 814. http://www.journals.cambridge.org/abstract_S0009640709990539.

Lewis, C.S. The Abolition of Man. New York: Harper Collins, 1944.

——. Mere Christianity. New York: Harper Collins, 1952.

Lockwood, Robert P. “The Evolution of Anti-Catholicism in the United States.” In Anti-Catholicism in American Culture. Edited by Robert P. Lockwood. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2000.

Luther, Martin. ‘The Estate of Marriage.’ In Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings. Edited by Timothy Full. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2000.

——- “Lectures on Genesis.” In Luther’s Works. Edited by Jaroslav Pelikan and translated by Paul D. Pahl. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1965.

Malthus, Thomas. ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population.’ London, 1778. Available online: http://129.237.201.53/books/malthus/population/malthus.pdf.

Sanger, Margret. “The Wickedness of Large Families.” In Woman and the New Race. New York: Truth Publishing, 1920.

Wesley, John. Explanatory Notes on the Whole Bible. 1765. Available online: http://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/wesleys-explanatory-notes/genesis/genesis- 38.html.

 

Endnotes

  1. G.K. Chesterton, ‘The Drift from Domesticity,’ in A Defense of Sanity, ed. Dale Ahlquist, Joseph Pearce, and Aidan Mackey (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2011), 174.
  1. Martin Luther, “Lectures on Genesis,” in Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and trans. Paul D. Pahl, vol. 7, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1965).
  1. Martin Luther, “The Estate of Marriage,” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, ed. Timothy Full (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2005), 147-149.
  1. John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, trans. John King (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Library) http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom02.html.
  1. Matthew Henry, Complete Commentary on the Whole Bible, (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Library) http://www.ccel.org/ccel/henry/mhc.pdf.
  1. John Wesley, Explanatory Notes on the Whole Bible (1765) http://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/wesleys-explanatory-notes/genesis/genesis-38.html.
  1. Allan Carlson. “Children of the Reformation,” Touchstone Magazine, May 2007.
  1. Birth Control and the Christian, ed. Walter O. Spitzer and Carlyle L. Saylor (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1969), 449.
  1. Robert P. Lockwood, “The Evolution of Anti-Catholicism in the United States,” Anti-Catholicism in American Culture, ed. Robert P. Lockwood (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2000), 15-18.
  1. P.C. Kemeny, “’Banned in Boston’: Moral Reform Politics and the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice,” Church History 78, no. 4 (December 2009): 814-846.
  1. Birth Control and the Christian, ed. Walter O. Spitzer and Carlyle L. Saylor (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1969), 452.
  1. Lambeth Conference, Resolution 68 (1920) http://www.lambethconference.org/resolutions/1920/1920-68.cfm.
  1. Ibid. Resolution 13 (1930) http://www.lambethconference.org/resolutions/1930/1930-13.cfm.
  1. Ibid. Resolution 115 (1958) http://www.lambethconference.org/resolutions/1958/1958-115.cfm. The resolution states, “Responsible parenthood….requires a wise stewardship….and a thoughtful consideration of the varying population needs and problems of society and the claims of future generations.”
  1. Birth Control and the Christian, ed. Walter O. Spitzer and Carlyle L. Saylor (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1969), 450.
  1. Alan Axelrod and Charles Phillips, What Everyone Should Know about the 20th Century, (Avon, MA: Adams Media Corporation, 1998), 63-65.
  1. Ellen Chesler, Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992).
  1. Enclyopedia of Birth Control, ed. Vern L. Bullough (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2001), 41.
  1. Ibid.
  1. Margret Sanger, “The Wickedness of Large Families,” Woman and the New Race (New York: Truth Publishing Company, 1920), 30-35.
  1. Thomas Malthus, “An Essay on the Principle of Population,” (London, 1778) http://129.237.201.53/books/malthus/population/malthus.pdf.
  1. Allan Carlson. “Children of the Reformation,” Touchstone Magazine, May 2007.
  1. Ibid.
  2. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: Harper Collins, 1952), 95.
  3. C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, (New York: Harper Collins, 1944).
  4. G.K. Chesterton, ‘The Drift from Domesticity,’ in A Defense of Sanity, ed. Dale Ahlquist, Joseph Pearce, and Aidan Mackey (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2011), 176.

 
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