Birth Control and the Church Part 2
In the first article I wrote about the historical stance of the protestant church. The view, held by the reformers was the only view in Christendom. In this article I will attempt go over the time when Protestants changed from this view. From the time of the reformation to the 1930s all protestant denominations viewed contraceptives of any kind as sinful. The first recorded instance (which I was able to find) of a protestant denomination taking a different view of birth control other than outright rejection was the Anglican Church/Church of England in 1930.
The Lambeth Conference , which is similar to a synod or meeting of churches in a particular federation, met in 1930, and “Resolution 15” marks the first point in history where a protestant denomination approved of artificial birth control. Note the overwhelming vote in favour:
Where there is clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, the method must be decided on Christian principles. The primary and obvious method is complete abstinence from intercourse (as far as may be necessary) in a life of discipline and self-control lived in the power of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless 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, the Conference agrees that other methods may be used, provided that this is done in the light of the same Christian principles. The Conference records its strong condemnation of the use of any methods of conception control from motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience.
Voting: For 193; Against 67.
Now, the striking thing is that this same conference, only 10 years prior, outright rejected artificial birth control with very harsh words. Here is the statement of the 1920 Lambeth Conference:
“We utter an emphatic warning against the use of unnatural means for the avoidance of conception, together with the grave dangers — physical, moral, and religious — thereby incurred, and against the evils with which the extension of such use threatens the race. In opposition to the teaching which in the name of science and religion encourages married people in the deliberate cultivation of sexual union as an end in itself, we steadfastly uphold what must always be regarded as the governing consideration of Christian marriage. One is the primary purpose for which marriage exists — namely, the continuation of the race through the gift and heritage of children; the other is the paramount importance in married life of deliberate and thoughtful self-control.”
The next year, The Federal Council of Churches The Federal Council of Churches, in March 1931, reinforced this view by the Anglican Church when it stated, “the careful and restrained use of contraceptives by married people,” while at the same time acknowledging that “serious evils, such as extramarital sex relations, may be increased by general knowledge of contraceptives.”
The initial reaction of many churches to the Anglican Church and the FCC statement was nothing short of awesome. Immediately following the FCC 1930s, preists and pastors from the Catholic Church and many other denominations spoke out in many cases in direct conflict with their own churches view.
The thing that stuck out to me here is that these men and churches who stood up to oppose birth control in the 1930’s made some ominous predictions. The prediction was essentially that easy access to artificial birth control would lead to abortion and the destruction of the family. I actually wept as I read some of the statements from 80 years ago. These men believed that Protestantism had taken the irreversible first step on a slippery slope to the destruction of marriage, life and family. And looking around us, I have to say that we as a society have got to be close to the bottom of that slope! Here are some statements by major denominations condemning the FCC pro-contraception stand.
Birth Control, as popularly understood today and involving the use of contraceptives, is one of the most repugnant of modern aberrations, representing a 20th century renewal of pagan bankruptcy.
Dr. Walter A. Maier, Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri.
The whole disgusting [birth control] movement rests on the assumption of man’s sameness with the brutes … Its [the Federal Council of Churches] deliverance on the matter of birth control has no authorization from any churches representing it, and what it has said I regard as most unfortunate, not to use any stronger words. It certainly does not represent the Methodist Church, and I doubt if it represents any other Protestant Church in what it has said on this subject.
Bishop Warren Chandler, Methodist Episcopal Church South, April 13, 1931.
[The Federal Council of Churches] recent pronouncement on birth control should be enough reason, if there were no other, to withdraw from support of that body, which declares that it speaks for the Presbyterian and other Protestant churches in ex cathedra pronouncements.
The Presbyterian, April 2, 1931.
The amazing thing is that the secular press could see what was going to happen and the church could not.
Carried to its logical conclusion, the committee’s report, if carried into effect, would sound the death-knell of marriage as a holy institution by establishing degrading practices which would encourage indiscriminate immorality. The suggestion that the use of legalized contraceptives would be “careful and restrained” is preposterous.
The Washington Post, March 22, 1931.
By 1961, the National Council of Churches declared a liberal policy on contraceptive use, subject to mutual consent between couples. Thus the prediction made by the secular newspaper was complete. It was by this date that most protestant denominations had taken a liberal stand on artificial contraceptive use.
Reformed churches were the last stronghold of a conservative view of birth control in Protestantism. But even we eventually gave in. The Christian Reformed Church (CRCNA) was one of the last hold outs on approving birth control:
In response to an overture from Classis Grand Rapids East, Synod 1934 appointed a committee to study the issue of birth control in view of its widespread practice and the concern of church members regarding the Lord’s will in this matter. In an era of birthrate decline, Synod 1936 appointed a special committee that wrote the “Birth Control Testimony,” which synod adopted. It called married church members to fulfill one of the purposes of marriage, which is to beget children. It also testified against the “growing evil of selfish birth restriction” and “indiscriminate dissemination of contraceptive information.” In 1971 three individuals overtured synod to reconsider the church’s position on birth control in light of the concern about overpopulation, the possibility of governmental population control, the use of birth-control devices, and the need for a clear witness to the world. Synod defeated a recommendation to appoint a committee to study the matter but urged those with special competence in these subject areas to serve the church with published articles showing a biblical perspective.
In later years, practice regarding birth control changed considerably. Synod 1999 considered an overture to study abortion and pregnancy-related issues along with an overture regarding ethical and theological issues in bioscience; in response synod appointed a study committee “to examine the biblical/theological/ethical issues raised by the increasing capabilities and recent discoveries in bioscience and genetic engineering” (Acts of Synod 1999, p. 578). In response to an overture presented in 2003 (and in contrast to the decision made in 1936), synod declared “that a married couple’s decision whether or not to use birth control to prevent the conception of a baby is a private, disputable matter,” urged that married couples “consider the size of their families prayerfully before God,” and encouraged couples “in their family planning, to be motivated by a desire to glorify God and to further his kingdom and not by selfish reasons or fear of the future” (Acts of Synod 2003, p. 648).
So suffice it to say, pretty much all denominations in Protestantism accept the use of artificial contraceptives. With the first two articles I have shown the history of some churches stances on this issue. Next time I will attempt to correlate the philosophical, scientific, societal and cultural events that occurred around the time of the shift that may shed some light on the “why” this drastic change in views happened.
I hope I did not put you to sleep! Stay tuned for part 3.