Short history of Protestant contraception

Why did Protestants forbid contraception, side by side with Catholics, for 400 years, only to repudiate this teaching in the 20th century? Allan Carlson, a self-described “cradle Lutheran”, founder and president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society, addresses this question in “Children of the Reformation“, the cover story of the new issue of Touchstone Magazine.


After establishing that Luther, Calvin, and Protestant leaders through the 19th century forbade contraception in the strongest terms, even equating it with homicide, Carlson notes that by getting rid of priestly celibacy, but retaining a ban on contraception, Protestants put the minister into a difficult situation. Protestant ministers were expected to divide their time between pastoral care, and caring for a large family. The Catholic priest, by comparison, was free of the worries and time constraints associated with wife and family, and consequently had more time to devote to study and to his parish congregation. (Whether the Protestant always attended to his family, or the Catholic to his studies with sufficient diligence, is of course another question.)

But while balancing theological study, pastoral care, and the management of a large family was at all times difficult for Protestant ministers, only in the late 19th century did circumstances arise that made it also financially unfeasible to raise a large family on a pastor’s income. So, Carlson argues, the break with tradition at the Lambeth Conference of 1930 was merely a public recognition of a practice that had long been observed within the homes of ministers themselves.

What exactly these “economic and cultural changes” were, he doesn’t specify. But it seems clear that in some cases contraceptive proponents had fallen under the spell of the pseudo-science of Malthusianism, and in other cases, “economy” and Malthusianism were useful pretexts for simply doing what one wanted. I reproduce here what is, to me, the most amazing part of the article:

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.

To the speakers at this conference, contraception is clearly linked with unlimited sexual freedom and the overturning of traditional morality. And also, as Guttmacher suggests, linked with abortion.

Abortion also provides Carlson with the conclusion to his essay: this “celebratory” attitude among Protestants regarding contraception has taken a new turn in recent years, due to their new (or newly intensified) pro-life position. This was exemplified by groups like 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.

The piece ends with a roll-call of Protestant thinkers and groups who are “push[ing] back against the contraceptive culture”, and notes that this gets back to Protestant roots as well as shores up “a common Christian front” on the issue.

I wish I could know how this will play out, and whether Protestants of later generations will regard their 20th-century forebears’ embrace of contraception as a regrettable episode with consequences extending far beyond the Christian family.

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5 Responses to “Short history of Protestant contraception”

  1. Mark Says:

    Wow. Hmm. Well, I don’t think we’ll make have to worry too much about “later generations” if everyone suddenly decides to stop using contraception. There are quite a few people on the planet already, in case you haven’t noticed. Might be a bit of a strain on resources. You think?

    Oh yeah, I suppose that people could discipline themselves and start thinking about sex and procreation in a way that is both moral and responsible. And my flying car should be ready by 2010. How nice.

  2. Curly Says:

    Surprise that Mark is not impressed! I’m not convinced by the Malthusian arguments—strain on resources, etc. My concern isn’t with population, anyway.

    I’m pessimistic about human nature, but not to the point that you are. I believe that teaching good morals and responsibility can yield positive results with many, if not all people.

    Here’s your flying car. Looks like these guys want it ready by 2012:
    http://news.com.com/2300-11389_3-6173182-1.html

  3. Mark Says:

    Yeah, if anyone can get a flying car off the ground, it’s those guys!

    More pessimism, I guess…

    And I’m glad that I continue to surprise you!

    But honestly, your obsession with the evils of contraception is endlessly entertaining. It is amazing how you can think about these things in a Curly-vacuum, casually dismissing tanglibles like “population.” First world economies are based on a reduced birthrate, take that away and you would have some serious lifestyle adjustments that residents of these countries are not willing to make by choice. This is before the Malthusian dilemma kicks in (or doesn’t). And as far as that sort of thing goes, just because we haven’t already screwed the planet out of existence doesn’t mean that we won’t in due time.

    It really doesn’t matter, though, because contraception is now such an integral part of a first world lifestyle that it is not going anywhere. Catholic/Protestant distinctions are secondary to income/class issues. Look at Italy – overwhelmingly Catholic with a birthrate so low that the governement is starting to worry. Simple explanation! The Italians are simply not having sex! What good Catholics!

  4. Curly Says:

    Endlessly entertaining’s good, right?

    Our perspectives are different, clearly. I should point out, though, that the “Curly-vacuum” has a population of more than one . . . Carlson’s article is testimony to that.

  5. Mark Says:

    Yes! Always good! Although, maybe Carlson is in a Carlson-vacuum.

    I just find the proliferation of contraceptive use so utterly unremarkable. A no-brainer, as far as I’m concerned. The expansion of Taco Time restaurants into Southern California? That, my friend, is amazing. Why could we possibly need Oregon’s intepretation of Mexican food here?

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