Skip to comments.Children of the Reformation: A Short & Surprising History of Protestantism & Contraception
Posted on 11/13/2011 12:39:39 PM PST by Mrs. Don-o
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.)
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.
[snip] 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 Luthers Protestant family ethic was a broad celebration not simply of marriage but of procreation.
For Luther, Gods 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.
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.
The social order described in Luthers Exhortation to the Knights of the Teutonic Order was as follows: 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. 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.
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 Onans act was even as much as if he had, in a manner, pulled forth the fruit out of the mothers womb and destroyed it.
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 womans work. In the Protestant home, father and mother would share the duties of child rearing to an unusual degree. Inspired by Luthers 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 worlds 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 Synods 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.
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 Pastors 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 pastors family, worked to reshape the culture in family-affirming, child-rich ways.
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 Leaguea strong advocate of contraceptionhad 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 Britains 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. [snip]
In only three decades, the Lambeth Conferences 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 Parenthoods Mary Calderone made the case for universal contraceptive use, while colleague Alan Guttmacher urged the reform of Americas mean-spirited anti-abortion laws.
Not a single voice in the spirit of Luther or Calvin could be heard at this Christian conference.
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.[snip]
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 LAbri, 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, becausewhatever theological distinctions they made between the twothe 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 churchs current teaching and return it to Luthers, 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 Gods 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 pastors 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 texts of the Southern Baptist resolutions on abortion can be found at http://www.johnstonsarchive.net/baptist/sbcabres.html.
Allan Carlson is president of the Howard Center in Rockford, Illinois
My praise and thanks to the Protestant, Evangelical and Non-Denom leaders who are questioning contraception and other perversions of the God-given design of sexuality.
“If only ‘they’ would let priests (and football coaches) marry!”
Wow! That was fantastic. So glad you posted that. How I wish I knew then what I know now.
Very interesting article. It is well known that the 1930 Lambeth Conference in the Anglican Church was a key turning point, leading step by step to contraception, abortion, and the whole sexual revolution.
It was followed in the U.S. by Griswold v. Connecticut (making it a right of married people to buy contraceptives) and then by Roe v. Wade.
God bless the Duggars and ....
who have not only shunned artificial contraception but opened their lives to accept the children God has sent. We have many Catholic families who fit the same profile but these two families have risen above the permissiveness that has permeated the protestant congregations.
The other competing theory was that men deposited tiny human beings in the women who brought them through to birth.
Popular books in the late 19th century continued to push the male only method of reproduction.
So, just like to propose here that the DISCOVERY of the mammalian method of reproduction right down to sperm and eggs was a seminal discovery of profound importance, and that occurred coincidentally with the development of slightly different Catholic and Protestant points of view on these matters.
Remember, we didn't even know what we needed to know about DNA until the 1960s.
The Christian Science people are wrong. Medical interventions in "the natural order of things" are praiseworthy when their intent is to restore natural function: to treat disroders, cure diseases, heal injuries, reshape malformed organs and limbs, and so forth. These interventions are inspired by an affirmative idea of what constitutes "natural, normal, and healthy."
Disease, deformity, disorders and dysfunction occur in nature --- but in the above sense, they are not "natural": because they do not represent God's affirmative intent of an optimal flourishing of the human person.
With me so far?
And so for that reason, the use of drugs, surgeries, and so forth to restore or heal natural function is a good thing.
Contgraception, on the other hand, does not have this justification. Whg? Because its intent is not to heal a natural function, but to sabotage it. It does not cure any disease; its purpose is to split sexuality into component parts (affection, commitment, satisfaction, fertility) and then dispose of one of them (fertility). It drives a wedge between the two meanings which are God-intended in the marital act: the sharing of love, and the openness to life.
This is not to say that married couples have the obligation to have as many children as they can. Of course not. There can be serious reasons why a husband and wife may judge that they are not ready for another pregnancy, or that another baby should be delayed. But they should accomplish that goal without perverting sexual intercourse, whether that perversion is done by withdrawal, or anal sex, or contraception, or other practices which (like the sin of Onan) separate sex from its designed fertility.
The point of the article was that all Christians agreed with this Scriptural and moral perspective until 1930, when the Anglicans broke with an almost 2,000 year Chirstian consensus.
< It's just hard to believe that all Christians understood sexuality wrongly for 20 centuries, until the Anglicans got it right.
< And if the Anglicans were right about that, then they are now right about homosexual sex, i.e. it's OK if it seems right for you. Which is the same argment they used in favor of contracepted sex.
It's very hard to condemn a homosexual sex act (which is turned away from its natural function), if you're already committed to a contracepted sex act (which is turned away from its natural function.)
Contracepted acts radically flatten and shrink our perception of the sanctity of man-woman bodily union.
That has certainly been borne out by experience. a contraceptive culture has no concept of "sacredness" in respect to sex--- none at all. And such a culture is ever MORE abortion-minded. Contraception does not help matters. Contraception and abortion, historically, go up in tandem.
A perspective more fully elucidated here
Did you realize that such populations, with 1/4 the reproduction rate of everyone else, yet the same or even higher death rate, tend not to grow over geologic periods of time?
A tribe could only boost its population through the expedient of passing around the women to see who could get pregnant.
Typically a woman, or a man, facing this dilemma, will have 5 spouses over the course of the normal breeding age.
Charles Darwin was apparently unaware that ran in his family and then he ended up married to a first cousin ~ and half their kids ended up infertile (much to everyone's consternation).
I always take all of the standard arguments (for or against divorce, wife-swapping, contraception, and other sexual matters) and crank them through the logic of this condition.
Onan may well have run afoul of the pro scripts in a population with indeterminate infertility ~ which is why he was killed by a lightning bolt ~ which is a suggestion this is a really, really, really ancient story probably handed down by Ice Age hunter/gatherers who were probably all afflicted with the condition.
(God, of course, is the author of moral prescripts, but with Onan you are looking at a death penalty for behavior he probably didn't invent ~ and it's highly unlikely the Hebrews in Moses' camp were subjected to all that many death penalties for that particular sin ~ hence it's a moral lesson, not a current event).
I find related, and stronger arguments in 2,000 years of Christian agreement (a hermeneutic of continuity with a very strong sensus fidelium), all of it conmfirmed ---strongly ---by the authority of the Church, Natural Law, and the last 50 years of human experience.
Here's something for your reflection:
As late as the 18th and 19th centuries high infant and child mortality was common even among middle-class and wealthy families. Queen Anne had 17 children but none of them lived to adulthood. Catherine of Aragon had many children but only her daughter Mary survived, which is why Henry VIII was so determined to divorce Catherine and try to have a son with another wife.
Only two of Thomas Jefferson's six children lived long enough to marry. Only one of Lincoln's four children lived to adulthood. The decline in average family size in the late 19th and early 20th centuries occurs when the odds of an individual child surviving to adulthood become much better.
Mrs. Don-o wrote:
“This is not to say that married couples have the obligation to have as many children as they can. Of course not. There can be serious reasons why a husband and wife may judge that they are not ready for another pregnancy, or that another baby should be delayed. But they should accomplish that goal without perverting sexual intercourse, whether that perversion is done by withdrawal, or anal sex, or contraception, or other practices which (like the sin of Onan) separate sex from its designed fertility.”
Two things about this: First, you are validating H. L. Mencken’s observation that the Roman pope countenances birth control by means of mathematics, but not by means of physics or chemistry. I have, as a Christian, always found his critique valid, even though he made it as an atheist. He has a point. Second, by arguing as you do, you have invalidated the central - and only logically consistent - argument against contraception. Thereafter all is debate about the how and not the what. I find your argument singularly unconvincing. The real problem with having children or failing to do so is unbelief and selfishness on the part of people. Your argument is only about technological advancement or the lack thereof.
I say this as one who is still Lutheran and have five children of my own. My wife’s brother (still a thorough-going Lutheran) has 13 (all of the same woman, his wife). In our circles, they were not frowned upon, but admired.
Sorry, I don’t buy your argument. The causes of today’s horrible sexual mores lie elsewhere.
Contraception: The Reason Catholics Have Abandoned Confession
U.S. Bishops Publication Urges Priests to Preach on Contraception, Sterilization, IVF
Contraception: The Bitter Pill
Catholic Bishops Warn of Civil Disobedience Over Contraceptives [Philippines]
Relationships Market After 50 Years of The Pill
Contraception: The Bacteria Devouring Americas Soul
Christians examine morality of birth control [Ecumenical/Orthodox Presbyterian]
The Cost of Contraception: Women's Health - Response to CNN
The Connection between Contraception and Abortion
Baby Bust: The Demographics of Global Depression
The Surest Sign of a Decadent Culture
Protestants and Birth Control
The Protest of a Protestant Minister Against Birth Control
Contraception: Why Not?
The Bible & Birth Control
Our Gravest Moral Responsibility: Convert the Contraception Mentality
Contraception and Conversion
Evangelical Leaders are Ok with Contraception
The pill and 50 years of misery [the pill kills!]
The dawn of demonic deception [the birth control pill]
Researcher finds strong link between contraception and HIV
The Birth-Control Riddle
Social Science Proves Humanae Vitae
"Contraception Is Wrong. Now Here's How You Use It . . ."
Suit claims birth control warning not enough
Natural and Unnatural (father of 5 shocks mother of 1)
Planned Parenthood Uses Teens to Distribute Injectable Birth Control in Rural Ecuador
Study: Low-Dose Birth Control Pills Decrease Bone Density in Young Women
Spanish drug agency confirms grave effects of morning-after pill
Another Woman Dies of Hormonal Contraceptive in Switzerland
Study Finds Half of Women on "Birth Control Shot" Suffer Bone Problems
The Re-Birth of Population Control: Human Life Seen as a Carbon Problem
Radio Replies First Volume - Birth Control
Abortion, birth control pill linked to breast cancer, surgeon says
God before contraception (Australia)
Fighting the 'contraceptive mentality'
Birth control pill creator regrets population decline
Polluted Water, Polluted Culture (one more consequence from contraception)
Abortifacients -- The Other Forbidden Grief
NFP and Contraception: Whats the Difference?
Wisconsin requiring Catholic institutions to provide contraceptives coverage
Contraception: The history you may have missed and would rather not know
Why does Pope Benedict talk about Humanae vitae in the new encyclical? [Catholic Caucus]
New Evangelical Documentary Exposes Abortifacient Qualities of the Birth Control Pill, Promotes NFP
In Quiverfull Movement, Birth Control Is Shunned
Press in a Dither Again over Popes Reaffirmation of Catholic Teaching
How Birth Control Changed America for the Worst
If You Are Contracepting, You Are Part of A Very Big Problem
Vatican and Italian government criticize sale of RU 486 in Italy
New Condom Ads Target Catholics, Latinos
St. Padre Pio, Humanae Vitae, and Mandatory Abortion
Responsible Parenthood in a Birth Control Culture, Part Two [Open]
Responsible Parenthood in a Birth Control Culture, Part One [Open]
Humanae Vitae and True Sexual Freedom Part 6 of 6 [Open]
Contraception v. Natural Family Planning Part 5 of 6 [Open]
Sex Speaks: True and False Prophets Part 4 of 6 [Open]
Contraception and the Language of the Body Part 3 of 6 [Open]
Does Contraception Foster Love? Part 2 of 6 [Open]
Contraception and Cultural Chaos Part 1 of 6 [Open]
Priests still suffering from effects of Humanae Vitae dissenters, Vatican cardinal says (Must read!)
"Provoking reflection" (Contrasting views on Humanae Vitae)
Humanae Vitae The Year of the Peirasmòs - 1968
Catholics to Pope: Lift the Birth Control Ban
[OPEN] The Vindication of Humanae Vitae
Catholic Clergy Challenge Colleagues to Reacquaint Themselves and Their People with Humanae Vitae
White House proposes wide "conscience clause" on abortion, contraception
THE EX CATHEDRA STATUS OF THE ENCYCLICAL "HUMANAE VITAE" [Catholic Caucus]
A degrading poison that withers life
Australia Study: 70 Percent of Women Seeking Abortions Used Contraception
[Fr. Thomas Euteneuer] In Persona Christi: The Priest and Contraception
A Challenging Truth, Part Two: The Day the Birth Control Died
A Challenging Truth, Part One: How Birth Control Works
Ten Challenges for the Pro-Life Movement in 2008
The concept of the "intrinsically evil"
Pope Tells Pharmacists Not to Dispense Drugs With 'Immoral Purposes'
Massive Study Finds the Pill Significantly Increases Cancer Risk if Used more than Eight Years
Birth Control Pill Creates Blood Clot Causing Death of Irish Woman
Seminarians Bring Churchs Teaching on Contraception, Sexuality to YouTube
Abortion and Contraception: Old Lies
History of Catholic teaching on Contraception
Pope: Legislation "Supporting Contraception and Abortion is Threatening the Future of Peoples"
Contraception: Why It's Wrong
On Fox News Fearless HLI Priest Takes on Sean Hannity (may be indebted for saving his soul)
VIDEO - SEAN HANNITY vs REV. THOMAS EUTENEUER (must see!)
The Early Church Fathers on Contraception - Catholic/Orthodox Caucus
Pope on divine love vs. erotic love
Conjugal Love and Procreation: God's Design
Being fruitful [Evangelicals and contraception]
The 2,000 years of Christian agreement really hasn't had all that much time to come up with solutions to the problem. In fact, there's a danger that this difficulty ~ which definitely has all the hallmarks of a genetically directed process ~ will be swept under the rug as just another reproductive problem readily addressed by modern science. Obviously modern science doesn't deal with this either.
'Amazing Grace for Those Who Suffer'
Natural and Unnatural (father of 5 shocks mother of 1)
NFP It Aint Your Mommas Rhythm
Responsible Parenthood in a Birth Control Culture, Part Two [Open]
Responsible Parenthood in a Birth Control Culture, Part One [Open]
Contraception v. Natural Family Planning Part 5 of 6 [Open]
Journey to the Truth (Natural Family Planning) [Open]
Enslaving Women One Pill at a Time (Birth Control Pills and Natural Family Planning)
New Study Shows Natural Family Planning Technique More Effective Than Contraception
Fargo) Diocese set to require pre-marriage course in natural family planning
Making Babies: A Very Different Look at Natural Family Planning
Clerical Contraception (Important Read! By Fr. Thomas J. Euteneuer)
(Fargo) Diocese set to require pre-marriage course in natural family planning
Natural Family Planning Awareness Week, July 25, 2004
IS NATURAL FAMILY PLANNING A 'HERESY'? (Trads, please take note)
Thanks Doc: More (and Younger) Doctors Support Natural Family Planning
Couple say Natural Family Planning strengthens marriage
Reflections: Natural family planning vs sexism
British Medical Journal: Natural Family Planning= Effective Birth Control Supported by Catholic Chrch
Natural Family Planning
Actually, you can document it pretty well.
First the pastors starting using it, and it filtered on down to the congregation, around the turn of the century.
You can find letters from the Church fathers condemning contraception.
Of course, the way NFP is used and taught, it is Catholic contraception.
Jesus told us to tend to the problem in our own eye first.
Now, regarding the use of condoms, that appears to have an origin at least 1800 years ago, and maybe more.
The full scientific understanding of procreative processes has barely more than a century's worth of history. Previously it was simply speculation ~ or total mystery. Obviously people were into sex for the marginal entertainment value ~ if they'd known what we know now they'd behaved themselves wouldn't they?!