Methodists, Family Life, and Contraception: A History (by Ashley Boggan)

As some of you might know, I have been for several years a copy editor for the journal Methodist History. This peer-reviewed journal regularly has articles on the history of global missions, various aspects of the Wesley families, stories of defunct colleges, and interesting stories about preachers in the Methodist tradition, broadly defined. A few years ago I published an article in the journal on the Methodist Bishop’s declaration of Altizer’s theology as heresy.  In the new issue, I was very much impressed with Ashley Boggan’s article, “A God-Sent Movement: Methodism, Contraception, and the Protection of the Methodist Family, 1870-1968,” a link to the article is below. In particular I appreciated the fresh approach to the history of sexuality being told here within the context of the history of Methodism, particularly in the post-Civil War period, especially in light of the national press that the United Methodist Church has received in the past two years about its teachings on homosexuality.  I asked Ms. Boggan if she would like to write a guest post for AUFS to introduce her research to a wider and different audience.  Ashley Boggan is a third-year Ph.D. candidate at Drew, with a focus on American religious history, and is working as an intern with the United Methodist denomination’s Human Sexuality Task Force.  The following is her introduction to the article.

Methodists, Family Life, and Contraception: A History

When one discusses the United Methodist Church and its position regarding human sexuality what most likely comes to mind is the denomination’s current impasse regarding homosexuality.  For over forty years now, the UMC has upheld its position in the Book of Disciple which states that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.”  However, by looking at a larger notion of human sexuality, one that moves beyond the homosexual/heterosexual binary, academics, clergy, and lay persons can learn what historical events and reasonings, both secular and theological, led to particular stances on human sexuality, why denominations still uphold these stances (or why some have changed their stances), and why many Americans hold certain (and often differing) ideologies of family life and constructions of human sexuality.

I recently wrote an article for Methodist History which uncovers the historical context of past and current positions of the UMC in regards to other notions of human sexuality, specifically the use of artificial contraception within monogamous marriage. “Methodism, Contraception, and the Protection of the Methodist Family, 1870-1968” explores The Methodist Church’s position regarding the use of birth control and how the denomination came to support its use at a relatively early time.  Around 1940, just after the merger of The Methodist Episcopal Church, The Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Methodist Protestant Church, the newly formed denomination called The Methodist Church realized that in order to protect the fragile ideology of the Methodist (read Christian) family, especially in light of the Great Depression and the sexual revolution of 1920s America, the use of artificial birth control must be allowed.

This paper traces how the Methodist denominations (both The Methodist Episcopal Church and later The Methodist Church) used the argument of protecting the Christian family to argue for two contradictory ends. At first, this reasoning was used to argue against the legality of birth control in the 1870s, resulting in the formal ban of artificial contraception in 1873 under the Act for the “Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use,” colloquially known as the Comstock Laws, named after its infamous lobbyist Anthony Comstock.  Many evangelical Christians (which at this time included Methodists) at the end of the nineteenth-century were concerned that increased urbanization and lax sexual mores endangered the morality of young women and young boys.  In order to keep such morality intact and to protect the life and future of young women, evangelical Christians argued for the illegality of the use, sale, and distribution of artificial contraception, among other “obscene” items.  Thus, for the sake and betterment of the family, the use of artificial contraception was banned and many Methodists supported this ban.

Seventy years later, c.a. 1940, using the same argument of protecting and bettering the family, Methodists argued for the use and the legality (within marriage) of artificial contraception (which as of Margaret Sanger’s 1914 coining of the phrase was colloquially termed ‘birth control’).  My article traces the reasons why Methodists began to support birth control by looking at changes in language surrounding the Christian Family within the Doctrines and Disciplines of The Methodist Church, articles from motive Magazine, and pamphlets produced and distributed by The Methodist Publishing House.

Why does any of this matter in today’s context?  With Burwell v. Hobby Lobby in which for-profit organizations use religiously-based reasoning to deny their employees the use of artificial birth control, it is increasingly important to understand how denominations have historically understood the use of artificial birth control. It is also important to understand how the UMC has understood the concept of human sexuality, as something that encompasses more than the heterosexual/homosexual binary.  Understanding our historical construction of human sexuality through a lens of family life can open new avenues for exploring not only our position on the use of artificial birth control, but can also provide us with a more nuanced understanding of the sexuality of single mothers, the ethical reasoning behind divorce, the ethics of sexual intercourse, and ultimately the reasoning for and against same-gender marriage.

To read the full article in Methodist History go to the journal’s citation page at http://archives.gcah.org/xmlui/handle/10516/9734 or go directly to the PDF here.

4 Responses to “Methodists, Family Life, and Contraception: A History (by Ashley Boggan)”

  1. dmf Says:

    it’s an interesting tactic to come at these matters this way but sadly the only folks who seem deeply invested in the possible authority/usefulness of the historical church tend to be the rightwingnuts @ https://theird.org/

  2. Christopher Rodkey Says:

    I am not sure what you mean by “the only folks who seem deeply invested in the possible authority/usefulness of the historical church.”

    Though I do agree that the IRD are nuts; the key being recognizing that their founder/director’s name is “Tool.”

  3. dmf Says:

    I’m just saying that the ever diminishing left in the UMC don’t really care much about (or know/use) the actual history (and workings) of the church, whereas the “coming home” (http://chnetwork.org/) types and those more inclined to attend places like Asbury are deep into the old aspects of governance/doctrine (tho for their own warped sense of the coming revival of the good old days).

  4. Christopher Rodkey Says:

    OK, I hear what you’re saying.


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