As we ended last week, President Roosevelt was addressing the 1908 General Conference in regards to birth control. To further his commentary…”No human being has a greater title to respect than the mother who does her full duty, who bears and rears plenty of healthy children, so that there shall be national growth and not national decadence, so that in quality and in quantity our people shall increase.” [“Motherhood Lauded by the President”, Washington Times (May 16, 1908) Page 1]. Probably most Methodists agreed. Washington Bishop Earl Cranston hailed Roosevelt as a “born Methodist” and foe of iniquity who had been “ecclesiastically misplaced early in life.” Roosevelt responded, “I do feel mighty kin to you.” [“Speaks to Methodists”, New York Daily Tribune (May 17, 1908) Page 7].
But in 1931 the New York Annual Conference endorsed birth control, urging “greater freedom to physicians, hospitals and clinics in extending to needy persons such information as would be in accord with the highest principles of eugenics and the best health of the individuals.”[“Methodists Decry Corruption in City”, New York Times (April 14, 1931) Page 23]. Prominent New York Methodist pastor Ralph Sockman declared that the “new woman” has a “right of self-realization” that “demands control of the birth rate.” He advocated a “healthy control of the birth rate among those classes of society which need it most.” [“Dr. Sockman Favors ‘Companion’ Unions”, New York Times (January 21, 1931)]. That same year, Atlanta Bishop Warren Candler denounced as “most unfortunate” the Federal Council of Churches’ endorsement of birth control. [“Bishop Candler Condemns Council Birth Control Vote”, New York Times (April 12, 1931)]. The 1933 California Annual Conference supported “scientific limitations of family” to support “enlightened parenthood.” [“Methodist Group for Birth Control”, New York Times (June 18, 1933)].
The 1936 General Conference, meeting in Columbus, Ohio, considered support for birth control, as urged by the California, Michigan, Wisconsin, New England and Northeast Ohio annual conferences. The proposal came from prominent Methodists such as future Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam, Ralph Sockman and the dean of Boston School of Theology. “Ethical birth control within the sacred limits of marriage relationship is a moral right of husband and wife, so as to space their children to safeguard the health of the mother and assure each child a fair start in life” they declared. Additionally they complained that federal laws banned the mailing of contraception. [“Birth Control Plea Put to Methodists”, New York Times (May 7, 1936)]. The General Conference failed to pass it on. (I question whether they were addressing birth control through contraception or abortion?)
In 1947, New York Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam told a Planned Parenthood gathering that religious leaders who condemn birth control were “no doubt as sincere as their forebears who tortured Galileo.” Pointing at Roman Catholicism, he declared: “The obscurantism of one branch of the church must not discredit the intellectual and moral standards of other branches of the church.” [“Oxnam Assails Ban on Contraceptives”, New York Times (October 22, 1947)]. As bishop of the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference, Oxnam told the 1954 Methodist Church Conference on Family Life that birth control opponents “commit sin” by criticizing “Christian men and women who take wise steps.” He insisted that “Christian parents are morally obligated to plan for the coming children,” and “the proper spacing of children is an expression of love and therefore is a religious obligation.” [“Oxnam Defends Birth Control”, Washington Post and Times Herald (October 9, 1954) Page 13]. (So if you have to ‘murder’ one or two along the way it is really an act of love.)
The 1956 General Conference, meeting in Minneapolis, endorsed birth control, declaring: “We believe that planned parenthood, practiced in Christian conscience, may fulfill rather than violate the will of God.” (So the will of God includes the ‘murder’ of the unborn? ) A Massachusetts clergy delegate had urged the stand, opining how “helpful” it was for Methodism to disagree with “one church” and to think “differently” by asserting that Methodism does “not agree that birth control is against God’s laws.” [“Methodist Church OKs Birth Control”, Los Angeles Times (May 6, 1956) Page A]. In 1959 Connecticut had a state prohibition on contraceptives that was challenged by Methodist clergy.
In 1966, Baltimore-Washington Bishop John Wesley Lord, speaking through the Methodist Board of Christian Social Concerns, urged disseminating contraceptives through public welfare agencies. He noted that “women on public welfare who wish to limit their offspring are often unmarried and out of touch with the clergy or medical profession.” [“Methodist Bishop Urges Birth Control Advice”, Concern (January 1, 1966) Page 15]. (There is another way to limit offspring but who wants to be bothered with that method?)
Testifying to a US Senate committee, Bishop Lord urged more US support for international birth control. “Failure of the government to act on this matter will amount to a much more serious curtailment of individual freedom.” he insisted. Feeding the hungry “will be in vain unless fertility can be controlled in Asia and Latin America,” the bishop added. He boasted that Methodism was “perhaps the first Protestant body to affirm not only the right but the duty to control conception.” [“Birth Control Essential”, Christian Advocate (June 2, 1966) Page 21]. He insisted that our attention needed to be diverted away from the ‘local skirmish’ in Vietnam and focused on a threat of the new dark age barely fifteen years away. [“Bishop Supports Birth Control Legislation”, Concern (June 1, 1966) Page 14].
Others were more cautious. Responding to a Pennsylvania birth control program for welfare clients, Philadelphia Bishop Fred Corson warned, “The state may be sincere in its motives, but I am not sure that the state has the proper safeguards.” He suggested birth control should be prescribed only for married couples after consultation with their religious advisors, if they were associated with a religious body. Corson worried, “Making it easy to secure an over-the-counter product will create an evil brood of moral deterioration as well as economic and social problems.” [“Bishop Recommends Caution on Birth Control”, Christian Advocate October 11, 1966) Page 22].
The 1968 General Conference reiterated: “Families in all parts of the world should have available to them necessary information and medical assistance for birth control.” It also emphasized that “sexual intercourse outside the bonds of matrimony is contrary to the will of God.” [The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church , 1968 (Nashville, United Methodist Publishing House, 1968) Pages 54, 58]. At this point advocacy for government birth control moved the Methodist support for liberalized abortion laws. ( That was the next set after birth control got ‘its foot in the door’.)
It did not take a ‘rocket scientist’ to see where the church was moving. While Christians are called to share God’s Word and Will with the world, once that effort crosses into the bounds of man’s law the church has moved into the world of politics. It can deny it all they want but politics was clearly integrated into the church and church leadership was right in there with the politicians determining the laws and policies citizens would be subjected to. As much as we may hate to admit, not all people are Christians and therefore our nation must have some principles on which to establish legal policy. The contention has been from the beginning of the nation that our guiding principles are Judeo-Christian based. I support Christian church involvement in establishing laws through the political process. I do not support the church denying that involvement.
Next week we will see how the church finally came to accept abortion…murder of the unborn. Maybe the time is coming for congregants to decide what exactly they want the church they attend to stand for. There is no such thing as “half Christian and half person of the world.”
– Bob Munsey
“If you do not know where you are going be careful, you just might get there.”