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A Short & Surprising History of Protestantism & Contraception
by Allan Carlson
It is a reckless analyst who risks reopening sixteenth-century disputes between Roman Catholics and the Protestant Reformers. I do so in the interest of a greater good, but my purpose is not to say who was right or who was wrong. I would simply like to explore why the Protestant churches maintained unity with the Catholic Church on the contraception question for four centuries, only to abandon this unity during the first half of the twentieth century.
I write as a historian, not an advocate. (I am a “cradle Lutheran,” but one who believes Martin Luther was wrong about what he called the impossibility of lifelong celibacy; I have come to know too many faithful Catholic priests to accept that.)
Orders & Disorders
To understand the change in Protestant thought and practice, we need to understand the Protestant vision of family and fertility, particularly as expressed by Luther and Calvin, and how it has changed over the last hundred years.
Early sixteenth-century Europe was an era very different from ours. The late medieval Church claimed about one of every four adults in celibate orders, serving either as priests, nuns, or monks or in celibate military and trading groups such as the Teutonic Knights.
Over the centuries, the religious orders had, through bequests, accumulated vast landed estates and gathered in the wealth that came through this ownership of productive land. The trading orders held remarkable assets in land, goods, and gold. Many orders were nonetheless faithful to their purposes and vows and used this wealth to tend the sick, help the poor, and lift prayers to heaven.
However, in others, spiritual discipline had grown lax. Indeed, sexual scandals of a sort rocked the church of that era. I draw strictly on Catholic witnesses for this.
For example, the great Dutch theologian Desiderius Erasmus, while always loyal to Rome, complained: “Let them prate as they will of the status of monks and virgins. Those who under the pretext of celibacy live in [sexual] license might better be castrated. . . . [T]here is a horde of priests among whom chastity is rare.”
Philip of Burgundy, the Catholic bishop of Utrecht, admitted that chastity was nearly impossible among clerics and monks who were “pampered with high living and tempted by indolence.” This problem festered until the reform-minded Council of Trent convened in 1545.
God Was Not Drunk
The key figure in developing a Protestant family ethic was Martin Luther. Himself an Augustinian monk and priest, Luther also served as Professor of Theology at the University of Wittenberg. The first element in Luther’s Protestant family ethic was a broad celebration not simply of marriage but of procreation.
For Luther, God’s words in Genesis 1:28, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth,” were more than a blessing, even more than a command. They were, he declared in his 1521 treatise on The Estate of Marriage, “a divine ordinance which it is not our prerogative to hinder or ignore.”
Addressing the celibate Teutonic Knights, he also emphasized Genesis 2:18: “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper who shall be with him.” The “true Christian,” he declared, “must grant that this saying of God is true, and believe that God was not drunk when he spoke these words and instituted marriage.”
Except among those rare persons—“not more than one in a thousand,” Luther said at one point—who received true celibacy as a special gift from God, marriage and procreation were divinely ordained. As he wrote: “For it is not a matter of free choice or decision but a natural and necessary thing, that whatever is a man must have a woman and whatever is a woman must have a man.”
John Calvin put even greater emphasis on Genesis 1:28. He argued that these words represented the only command of God made before the Fall that was still active after God drove Adam and Eve out of Eden. This gave them a unique power and importance.
While occasionally acknowledging in unenthusiastic fashion St. Paul’s defense of the single life, the Reformers were far more comfortable with the social order described in Luther’s Exhortation to the Knights of the Teutonic Order: “We were all created to do as our parents have done, to beget and rear children. This is a duty which God has laid upon us, commanded, and implanted in us, as is proved by our bodily members, our daily emotions, and the example of all mankind.”
Marriage with the expectation of children, in this view, represented the natural, normal, and necessary form of worldly existence.
Marriage with the expectation of children was also a spiritual expression. Luther saw procreation as the very essence of the human life in Eden before the Fall. As he wrote in his Commentary on Genesis:
[T]ruly in all nature there was no activity more excellent and more admirable than procreation. After the proclamation of the name of God it is the most important activity Adam and Eve in the State of innocence could carry on—as free from sin in doing this as they were in praising God.
The fall of Adam and Eve into sin interrupted this pure, exuberant potential fertility. Even so, the German Reformer praised each conception of a new child as an act of “wonderment . . . wholly beyond our understanding,” a miracle bearing the “lovely music of nature,” a faint reminder of life before the Fall:
This living together of husband and wife—that they occupy the same home, that they take care of the household, that together they produce and bring up children—is a kind of faint image and a remnant, as it were, of that blessed living together [in Eden].
Elsewhere, Luther called procreation “a most outstanding gift” and “the greatest work of God.”
Accordingly, Luther sharply condemned the contraceptive mentality that was alive and well in his own time. He noted that this “inhuman attitude, which is worse than barbarous,” was found chiefly among the wellborn, “the nobility and princes.” Elsewhere, he linked both contraception and abortion to selfishness:
How great, therefore, the wickedness of [fallen] human nature is! How many girls there are who prevent conception and kill and expel tender fetuses, although procreation is the work of God! Indeed, some spouses who marry and live together . . . have various ends in mind, but rarely children.
Regarding the sin of Onan, as recorded in Genesis and involving the form of contraception now known as “withdrawal,” Luther wrote: “Onan must have been a most malicious and incorrigible scoundrel. This is a most disgraceful sin. It is far more atrocious than incest and adultery. We call it unchastity, yes, a Sodomitic sin. . . . Surely at such a time the order of nature established by God in procreation should be followed.” Onan was “that worthless fellow” who “refused to exercise love.”
On this matter, Luther was again joined by Calvin. In his Commentary on Genesis, he wrote that “the voluntary spilling of semen outside of intercourse between man and woman is a monstrous thing. Deliberately to withdraw from coitus in order that semen may fall on the ground is doubly monstrous. For this is to extinguish the hope of the [human] race and to kill before he is born the hoped-for offspring.”
A few decades later, the Synod of Dordt would declare that Onan’s act “was even as much as if he had, in a manner, pulled forth the fruit out of the mother’s womb and destroyed it.”
A second element in Luther’s Protestant family ethic was his concept of a divine call to the vocations of husbandry and housewifery.
Emphasizing human frailty, he argued in The Estate of Marriage that a successful union was exceedingly difficult to attain if ungrounded in religious faith. In such cases, the delights of marriage—“that husband and wife cherish one another, become one, serve one another”—would commonly be overshadowed by the responsibilities, duties, and attendant loss of freedom which the married state entailed.
He believed that happiness in marriage depended on recognition that the married estate, with its attendant responsibilities, was “pleasing to God and precious in his sight.” Indeed, he argued that God called women—all women—to be Christian wives and mothers and called men—all men—home to serve as Christian “housefathers.”
In The Estate of Marriage, Luther described the father who confesses to God that “I am not worthy to rock the little babe or wash its diapers, or to be entrusted with the care of the child and its mother.” He responded that “when a father goes ahead and washes diapers . . . for his child, God, with all his angels and creatures, is smiling, because he is doing so in Christian faith.”
In the Commandment, “Honor Thy Father and Mother,” he wrote to the Teutonic Knights, we see that “God has done marriage the honor of putting it . . . immediately after the honor due to himself.” He concluded that “there is no higher office, estate, condition, or work . . . than the estate of marriage.”
The third element of Luther’s Protestant family ethic was praise for parenting as a task and responsibility. In exalting this task, he energized the Christian home as an autonomous social sphere. “There is no power on earth that is nobler or greater than that of parents,” declared the Reformer in The Estate of Marriage. He added: “Most certainly father and mother are apostles, bishops, and priests to their children, for it is they who make them acquainted with the gospel.”
One of his colleagues, Justus Menius, explained the task of parenting in more detail. “The diligent rearing of children is the greatest service to the world, both in spiritual and temporal affairs, both for the present life and for posterity,” he wrote in an advice book on childrearing.
Just as one turns young calves into strong cows and oxen, rears young colts to be brave stallions, and nurtures small tender shoots into great fruit-bearing trees, so must we bring up children to be knowing and courageous adults, who serve both land and people and help both to prosper.
According to Harvard University historian Steven Ozment, in his book When Fathers Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe: “Never has the art of parenting been more highly praised and parental authority more wholeheartedly supported than in Reformation Europe.” Child rearing, in this view, was not just “woman’s work.” In the Protestant home, father and mother would share the duties of child rearing to an unusual degree.
Luther saw the years from birth to age six as a time when a child’s reason was “asleep.” During these years, the mother took the dominant role in childcare. But at age seven, fathers should take the lead, with special responsibility for the moral and practical education of children. Inspired by Luther’s message and example, publishers turned out dozens of so-called Housefather books, sixteenth-century “self-help” volumes for dads.
How might we judge the success of the Protestant family ethic? For nearly four centuries it worked reasonably well, as judged by its understanding of the divine ordinance to be fruitful and replenish the earth.
Accordingly, the Protestant opposition to contraception remained firm. Writing in the late eighteenth century, for example, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, also condemned the sin of Onan, adding, “The thing which he did displeased the Lord.”
The nineteenth-century Reformed Pastor Johann Peter Lange, in his Christian Dogmatics, described contraception as “a most unnatural wickedness, and a grievous wrong. This sin . . . is [as] destructive as a pestilence that walketh in darkness, destroying directly the body and the soul of the young.”
At their 1908 Lambeth Conference, the world’s Anglican bishops recorded “with alarm the growing practice of artificial restriction of the family.” They “earnestly call[ed] upon all Christian people to discountenance the use of all artificial means of restriction as demoralizing to character and hostile to national welfare.”
As late as 1923, the Lutheran Church/Missouri Synod’s official magazine The Witness accused the Birth Control Federation of America of spattering “this country with slime” and labeled birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger a “she devil.” Pastor Walter Maier, founding preacher of the long-running Lutheran Hour radio program, called contraceptives “the most repugnant of modern aberrations, representing a twentieth-century renewal of pagan bankruptcy.”
On doctrine, then, Protestant leaders held firm well into the twentieth century. The weakness of the Protestant position actually lay elsewhere: in the informal institution of the Pastor’s Family. One possible cause of the change in Protestant teaching not often considered is the changed family life of the clergy themselves.
In rejecting lifelong celibacy, in casting marriage as the highest order and calling on earth, in elevating motherhood and homemaking, in emphasizing the spiritual authority and practical tasks of fatherhood, in refocusing adult lives around the tasks of childrearing, in celebrating procreation and large families, and in condemning contraception, Luther implicitly laid a great burden on Protestant clerics.
They had to serve as examples for their congregations, and specifically, they had to marry and bear large families themselves. Where the Catholic priest or the cloistered monk or nun faced the challenge of lifelong celibacy, the Protestant cleric faced the lifelong challenge of building a model and fruitful home.
Luther again supplied the prototype, in his marriage to Katharine von Bora. By the standards of the time, they married late, but still brought six children into the world, and their busy home served as the inspiration to generations of Protestant clerics.
This special role of the Pastor’s Family was rarely codified in church doctrine, but the Protestant rejection of both celibacy and contraception created a visible expectation. Barring infertility, a faithful Protestant pastor and his wife would be parents to a brood of children.
It was a difficult expectation to satisfy, and would only become more difficult as economic and cultural changes made providing for large families more burdensome and having many children less and less socially acceptable. Not surprisingly, many seem to have turned to contraception to limit their families, and equally unsurprisingly, this affected their articulation of the church doctrine for which they were responsible.
But again, for nearly four centuries, where it held sway, the Protestant family ethic, exemplified in the pastor’s family, worked to reshape the culture in family-affirming, child-rich ways.
Indeed, the large families of Anglican, Lutheran, and Calvinist clergy became something of a problem for relatively poor rural parishes, and something of a comic image for novelists. In Oliver Goldsmith’s 1766 book The Vicar of Wakefield, we find a country pastor with six children who ends up (with his brood of children) in debtor’s prison, only to be rescued from his misfortunes by a benefactor.
As late as 1874, the average Anglican clergyman in England still had 5.2 living children. In 1911, however, just three years after the bishops had condemned contraception, the new census of England showed that the average family size of Anglican clergy had fallen to only 2.3 children, a stunning decline of 55 percent. The British Malthusian League—a strong advocate of contraception—had a field day exposing what it called the hypocrisy of the priests.
As the league explained, the Church of England continued to view contraception as a sin, and yet its clerics and bishops were obviously engaging in the practice. Apparently only the poor and the ignorant had to obey the church.
There was not much that Anglican leaders could say in response. This propaganda continued for another two decades, and soon some Anglican theologians were arguing that Britain’s poverty required the birth of fewer children.
Pressures culminated at the 1930 Lambeth Conference, where bishops heard an address by birth-control advocate Helena Wrighton on the advantages of contraception for the poor. On a vote of 193 to 67, the bishops (representing not only England but also America, Canada, and the other former colonies) approved a resolution stating that:
In those cases where there is such a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence, other methods may be used, provided that this is done in the light of the same Christian principles.
This was the first official statement by a major church body in favor of contraception. Thus was Christian unity on the question broken. The decision was condemned by many religious and secular bodies, including the editors of the Washington Post. Pope Pius XI responded to it in his encyclical Casti Connubii four months later.
The same stress line emerged in America. For example, in the very conservative Lutheran Church/Missouri Synod, the average pastor in 1890 had 6.5 children. The number fell to 3.7 children in 1920, 42 percent below the 1890 number. Other churches saw a similar decline. Here, too, the Protestant clergy had ceased to be models of a fruitful home for their congregations and the broader culture.
During the 1930s, the Missouri Synod quietly dropped its campaign against the Birth Control League of America. In the 1940s, one of the church’s leading theologians, Albert Rehwinkel, concluded that Luther had simply been wrong. God’s words in Genesis 1:28—“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”—were not a command; they were merely a blessing, and an optional one at that.
A culture infected by neo-Malthusian ideas was reshaping the clerical family. Please note: As in England, so in America, the change in clerical family behavior came before the change in doctrine.
Meanwhile, mainstream American Protestants embraced contraception directly. In 1931, the Committee on Home and Marriage of the old Federal Council of Churches issued a statement defending family limitation and arguing for the repeal of laws prohibiting contraceptive education and sales. Some member churches—notably the Southern Methodists and the Northern Baptists—protested the action, and the Southern Presbyterians even withdrew their membership from the Federal Council for a decade, but they were the minority and even their protests did not last.
In only three decades, the Lambeth Conference’s qualified approval would turn into full celebration. At the astonishing and deeply disturbing 1961 North American Conference on Church and Family, sponsored by the National Council of Churches (successor to the Federal Council), population-control advocate Lester Kirkendall argued that America had “entered a sexual economy of abundance” where contraception would allow unrestrained sexual experimentation.
Wardell Pomeroy of the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research explained how the new science of sexology required the abandonment of all old moral categories. Psychologist Evelyn Hooker celebrated the sterile lives of homosexuals. Planned Parenthood’s Mary Calderone made the case for universal contraceptive use, while colleague Alan Guttmacher urged the reform of America’s “mean-spirited” anti-abortion laws.
Not a single voice in the spirit of Luther or Calvin could be heard at this “Christian conference.” Indeed, the conferees saw the traditional Protestant family ethic focused on exuberant marital fertility as the problem and the act that Luther, Calvin, and others had condemned as the obvious answer.
In a way, though, this celebration of such a diversity of sexual practices followed the Protestant acceptance of contraception, which followed from the defection of the Protestant clergy from the Protestant Family Ethic. Rejecting both lifelong celibacy and contraception, classic Protestant theology required family-centered and child-rich pastors. When those clerical leaders, in the privacy of their bedrooms, broke faith with their tradition, when pastors and their wives consciously limited their families, the Protestant opposition to contraception faced a crisis.
Typical of a less radical development was the 1981 decision of the Missouri Synod’s Commission on Theology and Church Relations, which argued that although “Be fruitful” is “both a command and a mandate,” “in the absence of Scriptural prohibition” contraception was acceptable “within a marital union which is, as a whole, fruitful.” And if contraception is acceptable, “we will also recognize that sterilization may under some circumstances be an acceptable form of contraception.”
A later, additional development only increased the appeal of contraception to the pastors of these churches. The ordination of women by a number of Protestant groups, commonly initiated in the late 1960s and 1970s, struck a nearly fatal blow to the informal Protestant institution of the Pastor’s Wife.
By upending and confusing sexual differences and by granting to women the religious functions long held exclusively by men, the ordination of women marginalized the special works and responsibilities of clerical wives, including their task of being model mothers with full quivers of children. Even more than before, contraception became their answer.
The Evangelical Turn
It would be the eventual turn by Evangelical Protestants to the pro-life position on abortion that would for some also reopen the contraception question. When in 1973 the US Supreme Court, in its Roe and Doe decisions, overturned the anti-abortion laws of all fifty states, relatively few Protestants voiced opposition. Indeed, some mainline denominations had already endorsed liberalized abortion.
The prominent Southern Baptist Pastor W. A. Criswell openly welcomed the decision. Representing a position many Evangelicals then took, he claimed: “I have always felt that it was only after the child was born and had life separate from its mother that it became an individual person.” Others drew the line at some point before birth, but few rejected the decisions outright.
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) itself had in 1971 urged its members to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.
However, reflecting the movement of Evangelicalism as a whole (though not mainline Protestantism), in 2003, the SBC declared that this and the 1974 resolution “accepted unbiblical premises of the abortion rights movement, forfeiting the opportunity to advocate the protection of defenseless women and children” and that “we lament and renounce statements and actions by previous Conventions and previous denominational leadership that offered support to the abortion culture.”
An early sign of this shift occurred in 1975 when a young editor at Christianity Today, Harold O. J. Brown, authored a short anti-abortion editorial. From his home in L’Abri, Switzerland, the neo-Calvinist Francis Schaeffer mobilized Evangelicals against abortion with books such as How Should We Then Live?. This campaign grew through the founding of new Evangelical organizations with pro-life orientations, including Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, and Concerned Women for America.
At first, this pro-life Evangelicalism avoided the issue of contraception. However, over time, it has become ever more difficult for many to draw an absolute line between contraception and abortion, because—whatever theological distinctions they made between the two—the “contraceptive mentality” embraces both, and some forms of “contraception” are in practice abortifacients.
A Major Rethinking
“ It is clear that there is a major rethinking going on among Evangelicals on this issue, especially among young people,” R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, recently told the Chicago Tribune. “There is a real push back against the contraceptive culture now.”
In his last years, Francis Schaeffer seemed to be moving toward the historic Christian view of contraception. Since 1980, several resolutions adopted by the Southern Baptists at their annual meeting have criticized contraception. By the close of the twentieth century, the Family Research Council featured special reports on “The Empty Promise of Contraception” and “The Bipartisan Blunder of Title X,” the latter referring to the domestic contraception program in the United States.
Conservative Calvinist publishers are producing books not only against contraception but promoting Natural Family Planning. A movement of Missouri Synod Lutherans is working to overturn their church’s current teaching and return it to Luther’s, and observers report a new interest in the traditional teaching among conservative movements in the mainline churches.
There have been other signs of Protestant rethinking on this question, including individual pastors and their wives who have opened their lives to bringing a full quiver of children into the world. For example, Pastor Matt Trewhella of Mercy Seat Christian Church in Milwaukee concluded that “we have no God-given right to manipulate God’s design for marriage by using birth control.” He had his vasectomy reversed, and he and his wife Clara have had seven more children.
While surely in the minority, the Trewhellas are not alone. In so acting, they are rediscovering their distinctive theology and their heritage, and they are accepting their special responsibility as a pastor’s family to serve as witnesses to the original Protestant understanding of the divine intent for marriage. Importantly, they are also rebuilding a common Christian front on the issue of contraception, one lost in the dark days of the first half of the twentieth century.
The quotations from the Missouri Synod’s Commission on Theology and Church Relations are taken from Aaron Wolf’s “Hating Babies, Hating God” in the June 2003 issue of Chronicles (www.chroniclesmagazine.org). The texts of the Southern Baptist resolutions on abortion can be found at www.johnstonsarchive.net/baptist/sbcabres.html.
Allan Carlson Allan Carlson is President of The Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society in Rockford, Illinois (www.profam.org). His books include Conjugal America: On The Public Purposes of Marriage and The Natural Family: Bulwark of Liberty. He is married and has four children and is a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He is a senior editor for Touchstone.