Luther regarded contraception as among the most wicked of sins. So why had nearly all Protestant denominations embraced the practice by the 1970s?
The Protestant Reformation was in significant part a protest against the perceived antinatalism of the late Medieval Christian Church. It was a celebration of procreation that also saw contraception and abortion as among the most wicked of human sins, as direct affronts to the ordinances of God. This background makes the Protestant "sellout" on contraception in the mid 20th Century all the more surprising, and disturbing.
As the Augustinian monk, theologian, and "first Protestant" Martin Luther viewed his world in the second decade of the 16th Century, he saw a Christianity in conflict with family life and fertility. Church tradition held that the taking of vows of chastity -- as a priest, monk, or cloistered sister -- was spiritually superior to the wedded life. In consequence, about one-third of adult European Christians were in Holy Orders.
Tied to this, Luther said, was widespread misogyny, or a hatred of women, as reflected in a saying attributed to St. Jerome: "If you find things going too well, take a wife." Most certainly, the late Medieval Church saw marriage and children as "hindrances" to spiritual work. At the same time, Luther argued that spiritual discipline had broken down, with vows of chastity frequently not observed. His voice joined lay complaints about certain bishops who kept concubines, monks who caroused in the taverns, and priests who preyed sexually on their parishioners, without serious rebuke.
“Be fruitful and multiply”
In constructing his evangelical family ethic, Luther placed emphasis on Genesis 1:28: "Be fruitful and multiply." This was more than a command; he called it "a divine ordinance [werck] which it is not our prerogative to hinder or ignore." Indeed, Luther saw procreation as the very essence of the human life in Eden before the Fall. As he explained in his Lectures on Genesis: "truly 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 brought sin into this pure, exuberant fertility. Even so, Luther 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].
And so, Luther elevated marriage to "the highest religious order on earth," concluding that "we may be assured that man and woman should and must come together in order to multiply." He stressed that it was "not a matter of free choice…but a natural and necessary thing, that whatever is a man must have a woman and whatever is a woman must have a man." He urged that the convents be emptied, emphasizing that "a woman is not created to be a virgin, but to conceive and bear children." Indeed, Luther's marital pronatalism had no restraints: wives ought to be continually pregnant, he said, because "this is the purpose for which they exist."
Just as important, he called men home to serve as "housefathers" dedicated to the rearing of Christian children. In a wonderful passage, Luther describes 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." Luther then assures him that "when a father goes ahead and washes diapers or performs some other mean task for his child…God, with all his angels and creatures, is smiling…because [the father] is doing so in Christian faith."
The wickedness of contraception
Luther knew that the contraceptive mentality was alive and well in his own time. He noted that this "inhuman attitude, which is worse than barbarous," was found chiefly among the well born, "the nobility and princes." Elsewhere, he linked contraception 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.
In short, Luther's fierce rejection of contraception and abortion lay at the very heart of his reforming zeal and his evangelical theology. His own marriage to Katherine von Bora and their brood of children set a model for the Protestant Christian home, one that would stand for nearly four hundred years.
And yet, by the 1960's and 1970's, virtually all Protestant churches -- in America as in Europe -- embraced contraception and (somewhat less frequently) abortion as compatible with Christian ethics. Pope Paul VI's courageous opposition to these acts in the 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae, won broad condemnation from Protestant leaders as an attempt to impose "Catholic views" on the world. Even leaders of "conservative" denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention would welcome as "a blow for Christian liberty" the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that legalized abortion as a free choice during the first six months (and in practice for all nine months) of a pregnancy. Not a single significant Protestant voice raised opposition in the 1960's and early 1970's to the massive entry of the U.S. government into the promotion and distribution of contraceptives, nationally and worldwide.
The great reversal -- in England
How had a central pillar of the evangelical Protestant ethic been reversed so completely?
Some recent historical investigations offer partial answers. For example, the first formal break came within the Anglican communion, or the Church of England, with the clergy themselves leading the way. In 1911, the neo-Malthusian advocates of population limitation celebrated the results of England's new census, showing that Anglican clergymen had an average of only 2.3 children, well-below their 1874 figure of 5.2. The Malthusians saw this as clear evidence of deliberate family limitation.
The Census results also added fuel to the arguments of dissident clergymen that a solution to England's poverty problems must include the birth of fewer children. These pressures culminated at the Anglican Church's 1930 Lambeth Conference, where delegates heard an address by birth control advocate Helena Wrighton on the advantages of contraception for the poor. On a 193 to 67 vote, the Conference passed 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 Christian principles."
There was an immediate American Protestant echo. In 1931, the Committee on Home and Marriage of the Federal Council of Churches (an ecumenical body that embraced Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregational, and Church of the Brethren denominations) issued a statement defending family limitation and urging the repeal of laws prohibiting contraceptive education and sales.
Even a church body committed to a defense of pure Lutheran orthodoxy -- the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) -- stumbled on this question. As late as 1923, the Synod's official publication, The Witness, accused the Birth Control Federation of America of spattering "this country with slime," and labelled birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger a "she devil". A popular 1932 volume on pastoral theology directly paraphrased Luther in stating that "women with many children are in middle age much more beautiful than those who have few children."
Yet a countercurrent was gaining force, with LCMS clergy and theologians in the dubious lead. Similar to the Anglican experience, the average number of children found in clerical families fell from 6.5 in 1890 to 3.7 by 1920. The overall LCMS baptism rate declined from 58 baptisms per 1,000 members in 1885, to 37 in 1913, and 24 in 1932. In the late 1940's, a leading LCMS professor of theology, Alfred Rehwinckel, said that Luther had simply been wrong: the Genesis phrase, "Be fruitful and multiply," was merely a blessing, not a command. Rehwinckel went on to defend Margaret Sanger with a sympathetic history of family planning. By 1964, the Synod officially held that problems of poverty and overpopulation should help guide thinking about family size.
The 1961 North American Conference on Church and Family
Such views spread at a still more rapid pace among the Protestant "mainline" churches. Held near the end of the post World War II "baby boom," when American family life for a brief period again seemed somewhat healthy, the 1961 North American Conference on Church and Family of the National Council of Churches (successor to the FCC) can only be called extraordinary. Setting a radical theme, keynote speaker J.C. Wynn of Colgate Divinity School dismissed existing Protestant books and pronouncements on the family and sexuality as "depressingly platitudinous" and "comfortably dull," a regrettable "works righteousness." A second keynoter praised this conference for its intended merger of Christianity with new insights from the sciences, "a mighty symbol of the readiness of the churches to ground their policy formation in objective, solid data."
Other speakers formed a veritable "Who's Who" of sexual radicalism. Lester Kirkendall said that America had "entered a sexual economy of abundance," where contraception would allow unrestrained sexual experimentation without the burden of children. Wardell Pomeroy of the [Kinsey] Institute of Sex Research explained how the new science of sexology required the abandonment of all old moral categories. Psychologist Evelyn Hooker [sic] praised the healthily 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 speaker spoke in the spirit of the old Protestant pronatalist ethic. Indeed, this ethic now stood as the chief enemy. The conference endorsed development of a new evangelical sexual ethic, one "relevant to our culture," sensitive to the overpopulation crisis, and grounded in modern science.
Member denominations soon complied. In a 1970 Report, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) rejected the old "taboos and prohibitions" and gave its blessing to "mass contraceptive techniques," homosexuality, and low-cost abortion on demand. The same year, the Lutheran Church in America fully embraced contraception and abortion as responsible choices. And in 1977, the United Church of Christ celebrated the terms "freedom," "sensuousness," and "androgyny," and declared free access to contraception and abortion as matters of justice.
The weakness of natural reason confronting the spirit of the age
Yet these historical episodes still beg the question: why? The easiest answer might be to point to the multiple "revolutions" of the last two-hundred years -- industrial, urban, scientific, and democratic -- as creating an overwhelming pressure for accommodation and change, which no religious institution could stop.
And yet, the very existence of Humanae Vitae gives a counter example of a religious body that has mounted a fierce opposition to the spirit of the age. There is no small irony in the fact that it would be the Roman Pontiff who would lead (often painfully alone) the opposition to contraception at the end of the 20th Century. Perhaps the Catholic hierarchical model, reserving final decision on matters of faith and morals to the successor of Peter, has proved more resilient than the Protestant reliance on individual conscience and democratic church governance?
Or perhaps Luther would simply acknowledge that his old enemy, "that clever harlot, Natural Reason," had come back in new guise at the Second Millenium's end. By natural reason, he meant the wisdom of the world, unformed and unregulated by Divine witness in Holy Scripture. As he "quoted" this beast back in 1522:
Alas, must I rock the baby, wash its diapers, make its bed, smell its stench, stay up nights with it, take care of it when it cries, heal its rashes and sores, and on top of that care for my wife, provide for her, labor at my trade, take care of this, and take care of that,…endure this and endure that…? What, should I make such a prisoner of myself?
In our time, these same sentiments might be found on the lips of "the Playboy philsopher," the "female eunuch," or the "sexologist" at an NCC Christian conference. Luther well understood the nature of human sin and the power of fallen "reason" to twist words and science to its ends. He would be disappointed by the near-collapse of his evangelical family and sexual ethic; but he probably would not be surprised.
Resistance and change
And yet there are alternate Protestant Christian models, even in our own troubled age. Scattered bands rooted in radical Anabaptism -- including the Hutterites and the Amish -- have kept "natural reason" and the modern world at bay by the cultivation and defense of separatist, rural identities. Ever open to the transmission of new life, their families are large and their marriages relatively strong. "Fundamentalist" Christians have also held more tightly to a positive view of fertility. A 1958 survey in the Southern Appalachians found that 81 percent of "fundamentalists" believed birth control to be "always" or "sometimes" wrong, compared to only 40 percent of "nonfundamentalists." In 1980, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution raising serious questions about birth control. More recently, Protestant renewal movements count many couples that reject contraception and welcome the children that God sends, in His time.
It is these communities, I suggest, which remain faithful to the authentic evangelical family and sexual ethic, crafted in the 16th Century. The evidence suggesting their growth at the end of the 20th Century may be the sign of a better, more family-centric time ahead.
Allan Carlson, PhD, is the founder and president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society and currently is Distinguished Visiting Professor of History at Hillsdale College. He is a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Dr Carlson is the author of numerous books -- most recently Godly Seed: American Evangelicals Confront Birth Control, 1873-1973, in which he examines how mid-twentieth-century evangelical leaders eventually followed the mainstream into a quiet embrace of contraception, complemented by a brief acceptance of abortion.
The above article was previously published in the journal Family Policy, June 1999.