allan carlson

Godly Seed: American Evangelicals Confront Birth Control, 1873-1973

In philosophy, religion, politics, and other arenas of communal life, we are confronted with choices between radical contraries. We can choose between Aristotle and Nietzsche (according to Alasdair MacIntyre); we can choose between God and Mammon (as Jesus instructs in the Sermon on the Mount), or, as T. S. Eliot reminds us regarding political regimes, if we “will not have God (and He is a jealous God), [we] should pay our respects to Hitler or Stalin.” In Allan Carlson’s latest book, Godly Seed, he points out that in sexual ethics, the choice confronting Americans in the early twentieth century was between Anthony Comstock and Margaret Sanger.  America was at a crossroads then: it could follow Comstock and a nearly two thousand year old Christian sexual ethic that opposed pornography, contraception, and abortion, or it could go the way of sexual liberation and “choice,” epitomized by Sanger in the early twentieth century and, in our time, by Hugh Hefner, other pornographers, and Sanger’s brain child, Planned Parenthood.

Carlson’s book focuses on American Evangelicals in a one-hundred-year period, from 1873 (when the federal Comstock law banned advertising and distribution of contraceptives nationwide) to 1973 (the year of the infamous Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, which, in legalizing abortion, struck down the abortion laws in all fifty states). Carlson shows how these Evangelicals over time began to follow the mainline liberal Protestant churches (Episcopal, Methodist, Congregational, and most Lutherans and Presbyterians) and the secular culture (the Supreme Court, the entertainment industry, and much of corporate America) in accepting first contraception, and then, even abortion.

That most Americans do not know anything about Anthony Comstock is an indication that America chose to follow Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, and Hugh Hefner, father of the mainstream multi-billion dollar pornography industry. In the 1870s, Comstock began waging an all-out war against pornography, contraceptives, and abortion (all three increasingly available on the street as a result of new technologies and medicines). Furthermore, he linked pornography to contraception and abortion—all three promoting a sexual interest actively hostile to procreation. Comstock was the force behind the Comstock Law, adopted in the 1870s, which outlawed possession and use of contraceptives. He also used his office in the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice to destroy literally tons of pornographic and obscene material and to arrest and convict abortionists (over ninety abortionists in New York City alone during the 1870s).

One of the remarkable things about Carlson’s book is its wide-ranging historical perspective. He demonstrates that what Comstock stood for and against was basically what Christians (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant) have stood for and against since the early Christian church in the first three to four centuries after Christ gradually replaced a sexual ethic based upon pagan hedonism and gnostic antinomianism with a life- and family-affirming sexual ethic. Slave concubinage, divorce, adultery, homosexuality, infanticide, abortion—all of these commonly practiced family-and life-denying or life-destroying sexual disorders were rejected by the emerging Christian civilization, which claimed that “the first purpose of marriage is procreation.” When American Evangelicals began to capitulate in the 1960s, first on contraception, then on abortion, they were not only abandoning the “Catholic” sexual ethic, but also, interestingly, the sexual ethic taught by their “Church Fathers,” Luther and Calvin.

Carlson’s wide-ranging historical perspective should provoke interest for other reasons. While Comstock might be called a puritanical killjoy by feminists and pornographers in our day, this was not the case in his time. In his opposition to contraception and abortion, he had the support of the American Medical Association: “Intentionally to prevent the occurrence of pregnancy, otherwise than by total abstinence from coition, intentionally to bring it, when begun, to a premature close, are alike disastrous to a woman’s mental, moral, and physical well-being,’” proclaimed a prominent member of the Association in a prize-winning AMA essay written in 1865. Comstock also had the support of leaders in America’s educational and corporate worlds: Presidents of Amherst College, Yale University, Brown University, and Dartmouth served as Vice Presidents of the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice. Pierpont Morgan, William E. Dodge, Samuel Colgate, Alfred S. Barnes, William Beecher, Andrew Carnegie, and Louis Tiffany are some of the corporate and cultural leaders who supported Comstock’s vision and work. American publishing houses and libraries joined him in censoring or suppressing pornography.

How far we have come since 1915, the year Comstock died! Then, only “free-love” liberals advocated pornography, contraception, and abortion. Now this sex- and person-disregarding trinity is supported or advocated by America’s courts and by much of corporate and academic America. Godly Seed tells other interesting and sometimes disturbing stories: how postmillennial Protestants and even a few Catholics flirted with and promoted eugenics, believing it would usher in the Kingdom of God by eliminating the impious and promoting Anglo-Saxon fertility; how Protestant churches officially opposed contraception until what Carlson calls the  “Lambeth Breakthrough,” the 1930 Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops which ended the 1,800-year old Christian consensus on birth control; how Margaret Sanger courted mainline Protestant Churches and eventually turned birth control into a “Catholic problem’” by disingenuously claiming that repressive Catholics were forcing their puritanical morality on all of America. Another chapter shows that many mid-twentieth century American Evangelicals, “using peculiar Biblical exegesis, eventually followed the ‘mainline’ into an acceptance of contraception.” After initial opposition, even Christianity Today, the flagship publication of American Evangelicals, “not only embraced birth control as permissible, but also as a positive good.”  In an editorial discussing birth control and Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, Christianity Today “scrupulously avoided any mention of nearly 450 years of Protestant opposition to birth control.” And the magazine also published a consensus statement of twenty-five Evangelical leaders on “A Protestant Affirmation on the Control of Human Reproduction.”  This statement was permissive regarding abortion.

In the last chapter of his book Carlson tells the encouraging story of an Evangelical Awakening. Outspoken Evangelical leaders Harold O. J. Brown, Francis Schaeffer, and C. Everett Koop publicly and effectively denounced the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. They influenced other Evangelical leaders, who in turn influenced many of the rank and file. The final chapter also tells of the “Quiverfull movement” (Protestant groups happy to have a quiver full of children–see Psalm 127) and gives demographic information showing a “consistent, nationwide positive correlation between ‘Protestant-Evangelical’ and fertility.”

However, not everything in Carlson’s final chapter is encouraging. Sad to say, demographic data indicates that non-Hispanic Catholics in America do not have higher fertility rates than mainline Protestants and Jews.[1] As for the nation at large, it has returned to the pagan hedonism and gnostic antinomianism the early Church opposed. Carlson imagines what Anthony Comstock and his Evangelical supporters would think of America in 2011:

They would, no doubt, be appalled by the dominant sexual ethics of this, the Age of Hustler, Norplant, and Viagra. Legalized abortion, ever more refined methods of contraception, ubiquitous pornography, the broad commercialization of sex, the celebration of nonprocreative sexuality, fourteen-year olds on birth control, same-sex marriage: all would confirm their worst fears.

Carlson concludes that Comstock would see things that clearly justify his linkage of pornography to birth control and abortion and “his equation of birth control with abortion. All of these things were of one package.”

In all of his work, Allan Carlson defends the person, marriage, the family, and wholesome community life. Godly Seed joins From Cottage to Work Station (Ignatius, 1993), The New Agrarian Mind (Transaction, 2000), The “American Way” (ISI Books, 2003), and Third Ways (ISI Books, 2007) in discussing social, economic, technological, political, religious and cultural forces that threaten persons, families, and communities, or, alternatively, traditions and policies that promote human flourishing. Carlson, the President of the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society, is the founding editor and publisher of The Family in America (a pro-family quarterly) and the initiator of The World Congress on the Family—five congresses have occurred; the sixth is slated for March 2013 in Sydney, Australia. Anyone interested in learning more about the traditional family, what has undermined it, and what can be done to keep it alive and prospering should acquaint himself with Carlson’s multifaceted scholarship and activity. For a look at traditional or Christian sexual ethics and what has undermined them, Godly Seed is a good place to start. This book might persuade some readers, like the wayward Evangelicals, to come back into the fold.

Books by Dr. Allan Carlson can be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore


1. In some Catholic communities, or at least among some Catholic families, a decidedly higher fertility rate is evident. Among my Catholic colleagues at Hillsdale College, I note families with the following number of children:  11, 7, 6, 6, 6, 5, 4, 3, 3, 3, 3, 3, 3. Some of these are young Catholic families that will likely produce more children. Needless to say, the average number of children in these 13 families (4.84) is significantly higher than the national average.

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