In Godly Seed: American Evangelicals Confront Birth Control, 1873–1973, Allan Carlson documents the change from a “no birth control” to “pro-birth control” mentality within the evangelical community. In other words, he notes “how American Evangelicals, so defined, moved from fierce opposition to quiet affirmation of the practice of birth control” (11).
He begins the book by stating:
For most contemporary Americans, contentious questions about birth control are considered a peculiar “Catholic” problem. With the use of contraceptives at some point being nearly universal among fertile adults (and quite common among teenagers as well) and with birth control enjoying a blessing of state and federal governments as the alternative to both “unwanted” births and abortion, only a minority of especially devout Catholics seem to be left to puzzle occasionally over the issue. Even their interest is commonly understood to be a consequence of medieval thinking codified in Pope Paul VI’s reactionary 1968 Encyclical, Humanae Vitae.
Mostly forgotten is the fact that, as recently as one hundred years ago, it was American Evangelical Protestants who waged the most aggressive and effective campaigns against the practice of birth control within the United States; Roman Catholics quietly applauded on the sidelines. It was Evangelicals who—starting in 1873—successfully built a web of federal and state laws that equated contraception with abortion, suppressed the spread of birth control information and devices and even criminalized the use of contraceptives. And it was Evangelicals who attempted to jail early twentieth-century birth control crusaders such as Margaret Sanger. All the same, by 1973—the year the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the abortion laws of all fifty states—American Evangelical leaders had not only given a blessing to birth control; many would also welcome the Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade as a blow for religious liberty. (1–2)
He then very briefly traces the position of the church on birth control from the Fathers to the Reformers, as they argued against both variations of Gnosticism (antinomian and ascetic) that moved against the act of procreation, and then proceeds to note that it was Protestants, not Roman Catholics, who led the charge against birth control throughout history, the last notable figure spearheading the crusade against it being Anthony Comstock, to whom an entire chapter is devoted, and who Carlson calls “the last and—in a certain respect—the greatest of the Puritans” (15).
After discussing the biography and amazing accomplishments of Comstock, as well as the uniformity of all Christendom (Evangelicals and Catholics and even the Social Gospel advocates alike) in what was clearly as much of a hostile environment when it came to sex as our current culture (with the exception of having much support in more civilized places within society as opposed to our current state which sees these things as normative for mainstream society and not just from within the lowest sectors of it), Carlson moves on to discuss the part that the Post-Millennialism (the dominant view held by most American Evangelicals during the nineteenth and early twentieth century), combined with an Anglo-Saxon ethnocentricism, played in the acceptance of birth control in society as a whole.
Carlson argues that this idea, that society was moving, and needed to continue to move, toward a majority of evangelical Christians led to the idea that, although wrong for evangelical Christians, who were largely Anglo-Saxon, stunting the now growing population of other religious and irreligious groups, which were largely made up of the immigrants coming into America, was a part of the work of the kingdom—thus sanctioning the use of birth control for those groups.
Furthermore, birth control had been “silently” accepted within evangelical circles largely due to three main shifts in thinking within the movement:
1. The removal of marriage from an understanding that saw it as a sacred event under God.
2. The Protestant emphasis on the individual that eventually overshadowed seeing the family as the “germ cell” of society and lifted up individual concerns over that of familial ones.
3. The move from defining marriage as primarily for purposes of procreation , and instead, emphasizing the institution as one which was primarily meant to foster companionship.
On the last point, Carlson comments:
While innate to understandings of Christian marriage since at least the time of Augustine, the mutual relationship of husband and wife was always linked, or even subordinate, to procreation. Over the course of the nineteenth century, though, Protestant writers tended to give more emphasis to the companionship ideal. Typical was George Weaver’s The Christian Household, published in 1856: “The grand idea of companionship is unity, and companionship is perfect just in the degree that unity is secured.” Procreation and the nurture of children subtly gave way to a focus on the moral, physical, psychological, and intellectual development of the couple. In turn, this tended to legitimate sexual pleasure as an end in itself, making companionship “a significantly receptive value for conception control” (63).
He also cites an article which noted the shift in attitude within our society when it came to parents with large families. It stated that “once such fathers and mothers [of large families] were considered by the wise, the good, and the great as public benefactors; but now their conduct is not only questioned and censured, but by some they are regarded almost as human monsters” (64).
Hence, despite the call to advance the purity of culture through evangelization and procreation, most nominal Christians had so practiced various forms of birth control that the population that was made up of the descendents of the Puritans was reduced to an “insignificant minority” (67), a phenomenon among these evangelicals that Carlson notes soon gained the designation “race suicide” (68).
The answer of some of these leaders was to elevate the conditions of the lower masses and reduce their population. Carlson notes that this essentially was to “open a crack between Protestant and Catholic leaders and theologians on the birth control question” (75).
Carlson ends his chapter by concluding that “the Christian consensus on the sinfulness of birth control (other than through abstinence) was subtly undermined by Strong’s new ‘law of population’. Margaret Sanger would soon discover how to widen that fissure into a virtual canyon, and so transform America” (Ibid.).