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University of California Press
Retelling U.S. Religious History / Edition 1

Retelling U.S. Religious History / Edition 1

by Thomas A. TweedThomas A. Tweed
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This collection marks a turning point in the study of the history of American religions. In challenging the dominant paradigm, Thomas A. Tweed and his coauthors propose nothing less than a reshaping of the way that American religious history is understood, studied, and taught.

The range of these essays is extraordinary. They analyze sexual pleasure, colonization, gender, and interreligious exchange. The narrators position themselves in a number of geographical sites, including the Canadian border, the American West, and the Deep South. And they discuss a wide range of groups, from Pueblo Indians and Russian Orthodox to Japanese Buddhists and Southern Baptists.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520205703
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 01/05/1997
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 321
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Thomas A. Tweed is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He is the author of The American Encounter with Buddhism, 1844-1912: Victorian Culture and the Limits of Dissent (1992).

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Retelling U.S. Religious History

By Thomas A. Tweed

University of California Press

Copyright © 1997 Thomas A. Tweed
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780520205703

Sexuality in American Religious History

Ann Taves

During the early decades of the seventeenth century, Anglican Thomas Morton and his friends, British and Native American, erected a huge maypole at Ma-re Mount, in the Massachusetts Bay colony, around which they danced, drank, and otherwise "Revelled." A few decades later, masked Pueblo Indians performed the traditional kachina dances with the permission of a Spanish governor, Bernardo López de Mendizábal, who reportedly said that he too would have danced "if it were not for the necessity of upholding his dignity as governor." In both instances, opponents associated the dances with "paganism" and with sex. In the words of William Bradford, governor of Plymouth colony, Morton and his friends danced around the maypole "many days together, inviting the Indian women for their consorts, dancing and frisking together like so many fairies, or furies, rather; and worse practices."1 "During the kachina dance, the Franciscan inquisition records report that the Indians appeared naked, wearing only "a kind of hood, or mask, having a small hole through which they can see a little." Afterward, again according to the Franciscans, the Indians "sometimes . . .enter whatever house they wishand have carnal intercourse with the woman whom they desire."2 Attempts were made to suppress both dances, the former successful, the latter not,

While the two stories unfold rather differently, we have similar characters—Indians, Christians, and government officials—in each. In the first, Morton, an Anglican layperson, is depicted as the "Lord of Misrule" by the Puritan governor, William Bradford, while in the second, Mendizábal, the Jesuit-educated governor of the colony of New Mexico, is the villain in the eyes of his Franciscan inquisitors. Both Morton and Mendizábal were removed from their respective situations as a result of their flagrant violation of Puritan and Franciscan sensibilities. Nonetheless, the outcome for the respective native peoples was vastly different. In New England, the native peoples were largely exterminated by a combination of displacement, disease, and war at the hands of the Europeans. In New Mexico, however, the Pueblo successfully revolted against Spanish colonial and missionary rule in 1780 and remained independent for many years thereafter. They retained much of their traditional land (the right to which was protected by the Crown and defended by the friars) and religion (although attacked by the friars), and effected a vigorous synthesis between the Pueblo and Catholic traditions which has lasted down to the present.3

Juxtaposing these two stories about the body reveals themes we might not see otherwise. In the story about New England, Indians for the most part die or retreat with the frontier, renegades are "tamed" or expelled with the coming of "civilization," and New Englanders of British Protestant descent maintain a sense of their genetic and religious "purity." In the story about New Mexico, the Indians and their culture survive in place, and the mixing of peoples and religions occurs and is acknowledged, if not applauded, from the start. In time, Euro-American Protestants conquer New Mexico, but the voices of the colonize—Indian and Mexican—do not disappear. When we begin with the body as the site for our story, and specifically with sexuality (biological and symbolic), several themes are highlighted—contact and boundary, "purity" and "mixing."

In the Protestant-dominated histories of American religion, British Protestant attitudes toward sexuality are largely taken for granted and their use of sexual imagery is for the most part ignored. Martin Marty and Robert Handy focus explicit attention on Protestant attempts to forge a Christian America, but do not highlight the role that the regulation of sexuality played in that process. The most recent textbooks of American religion tend to discuss sexuality explicitly only when it "deviates" from the norm. For example, Sydney E. Ahlstrom, Mark Noll, Winthrop Hudson, and John Corrigan all discuss the unusual sexual practices of the Shakers, the Oneida Community, and the Mormons. Ahlstrom alone alludes to the sexual imagery common in nativist writings about Roman Catholics, Mormons, and Masons. In contrast, Catherine L. Albanese's shift to an emphasis on spirituality allows matters of sexuality to surface at regular intervals throughout her narrative.4 In most recent accounts, however, sexuality remains as a persistent but mostly hidden subtext. References to Protestant morality and moral reform encode tacit assumptions about normative sexual practices, while non-normative sexuality surfaces, most often through allusion and association, on the margins of the narrative, as a characteristic attribute of nondominant groups.

To take sexuality as a starting point for rethinking American religious history is to place discourse about the body, and more specifically the sexual body (here defined in terms of the biological capacity for arousal), at the center of the narrative.5 As religious history, the narrative is thus centered at a point where religious traditions engage with human biological capacities. As American history, the narrative is centered on the engagement among traditions within the legally defined boundaries of what now constitutes the United States. Within these parameters, I have structured the narrative around questions of legitimacy. First, what is legitimate (or illegitimate) sex? Second, since legitimate sex is so frequently limited to marriage, what counts as legitimate marriage? And third, to focus on the more symbolic dimensions, who exemplifies or is associated with legitimacy or illegitimacy and on what basis?

I have taken as my task to sketch the outlines of a story that illumines the interconnections between religion and sexuality within a frame-work of state formation. Although such a framework runs the risk of reproducing a traditional narrative structure, I do not see how we can escape at least an implicit linkage between questions of state formation and the task of American religious history in its synoptic mode, since without state formation we have no Americans. What makes the traditional Puritanism-to-pluralism narrative traditional is not its emphasis on state formation, but the way it depicts that process. By beginning the narrative with native peoples and Europeans in New Mexico as well as New England, I try to avoid reading later British-American dominance back into my account of the colonial era. Additionally, focusing on state formation illumines relationships of power in the resolution of questions of legitimacy. Such a framework highlights the law as a quintessential market not only of the "state," but of that which is constructed as normatively "American." Given this task, I argue that although various cultures with diverse laws and customs regarding sexuality came together in what is now the United States, that which has been normatively American until the 1960s has been rooted, though not exclusively, in a heritage of medieval canon law and later attempts on the part of Euro-American Protestantism to maintain its purity and power in the face of pluralism.

The narrative is divided into three sections. The first explores issues of sexuality in the seventeenth-century encounter between Europeans and Native Americans, with a specific focus on New England and New Mexico. The second section traces the impact of racial and gender ideologies on dominant conceptions of legitimate marriage and sex-within-marriage during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and analyzes how mid-to-late nineteenth-century black Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, and Jews, faced with the projections of the dominant culture, as well as their own internal dynamics, variously accommodated, resisted, and divided internally over issues of sexuality. In the third section, I analyze the twentieth-century movement to legalize contraceptives, which, in conjunction with the later civil rights movement, led to a series of legal decisions that began to unravel the intimate relationship between religion, sex, and the law in the United States.

Religion, Sex, and Social Order in the Seventeenth Century


Much in Euro-American understandings of sexuality, both Christian and Jewish, can be traced back to the Greco-Roman world. David Biale notes that rabbinic Judaism often has been singled out for its "moderate, this-worldly affirmation of sexuality," as opposed to the asceticism of Stoics, Cynics, Jewish sectarians, and early Christian church fathers. In contrast to Christian ambivalence on these subjects, marriage was central to rabbinic teachings and sex was commanded within marriage for both procreation and pleasure. Indeed, rabbinic Jewish men were commanded to have sex with their wives even if they were pregnant or past menopause. Nonetheless, Biale argues that the contrast between rabbinic Judaism and other religions of the Greco-Roman world has been overdrawn. He points out that while permitting a variety of sexual practices designed purely for pleasure, the rabbis at the same time forbade intercourse while the woman was menstruating and condemned coitus interruptus and, most vehemently, male masturbation. Moreover, marriage and, for men, the study of Torah were understood as means of channeling or sublimating excessive and potentially disruptive sexual energies. Biale concludes that "although early Christianity took a much more radical course than did rabbinic Judaism, sexuality was deeply troubling for both and had to be subordinated to loftier goals.6

While there were similarities as well is differences between Jewish and Christian understanding of sexuality, it was primarily the complex of Christian teachings regarding sex and marriage codified during the later Middle Ages and transmitted through civil and ecclesiastical law that shaped the legal traditions of the Americas. Some aspects of these legal traditions did have much earlier roots. In the first centuries of the common era, programs of moral reform initiated by emperors, such as Julius and Augustus Caesar, led most inhabitants of the empire, whether pagan, Jewish, or Christian, to expect monogamy and sexual fidelity in marriage from both partners. At the same time secular leaders legislated penalties for violations of this ideal and began to discourage divorce.7 Polygamy, although practiced by the Germanic peoples of Europe, generally was abandoned within a few generations of conversion to Christianity and by the late sixth century had become uncommon.8 The idea that the purpose of marriage was procreation also can be traced to the Roman era. Christianity inherited the idea from a variety of sources, including Hellenistic Judaism, Stoic thought, Alexandrian Neo-Platonism, and Roman popular prejudice. By insisting on the idea "more consistently and vehemently than any other ethical tradition," in time the link between marriage and procreation came to be viewed as a distinctively Christian principle.9

Nonetheless, in a tradition in which celibacy was the ideal and marriage was viewed with considerable ambivalence, it was not until the thirteenth century that the Roman Catholic Church declared marriage a sacrament and developed elaborate canonical rules for performing it.10 By the mid-thirteenth century, a century of intensive efforts to codify canon law resulted in a fairly clear consensus on matters of sexuality. This consensus was grounded in distinctions between what is natural and unnatural. It distinguished between sins against nature (bestiality, sodomy, nonprocreative heterosexual intercourse, and masturbation), which included all acts in which ejaculation occurred apart from the possibility of insemination, and sexual activity outside of monogamousmarriage (fornication, adultery, rape, and incest), which, while not "unnatural" in the narrow sense of nonprocreative, was framed as both sinful and criminal in canon law by the mid-thirteenth century.11 As James Brundage has shown, the legacy of this consensus has listed well into this century in the form of laws proscribing fornication, adultery, sodomy, and bigamy and in the legal rationales underlying marriage and divorce law.12

Although sex and marriage were significant issues for the Protestant reformers, the focus of their attack was the Catholic understanding of celibacy, and particularly priestly celibacy. In attacking celibacy, they did little to undermine Catholic teaching that legitimate sex was sex for procreation within marriage; they simply elevated the value of heretosexual marriage. While the Protestant emphasis on marriage as a source of intimate companionship may have led to an appreciation of marriage for purposes other than procreation and, thus, created a climate ultimately favorable to contraceptives, the first generation of Protestant reformers, like their Catholic counterparts, were inflexible in their condemnation of contraceptive use.13 Advocates of celibacy would surface intermittently in the later history of Protestantism, among them early Methodists, such as John Wesley and Francis Asbury, and Ann Lee, the founder of the Shakers. But marriage remained the norm for Protestants.14


Among the peoples native to the North American continent, sex and marriage were interwoven with cosmology and social relations in ways that made them integral to the maintenance of traditional social orders. Thomas Morton's description of the Massachusetts Indians and Roger Williams's description of the neighboring Narragansett both attempt to counter prevailing English views of Indians by stressing the "modesty" of the native peoples of southern New England. While the bodies of the Narragansett were far more exposed than those of the English colonists, Williams notes that "they seeme to have as much [modesty] . . . as civilized people." By modesty he evidently means a reluctance to expose their genitalia; he indicates that all postpubescent men "hide their secreats of nature," and although prepubescent boys went totally naked, the girls "in a modest blush cover with a little Apron . . . from their very birth." He acknowledges that while indoors both men and women leaveoff their outer "beasts skin . . . and so (excepting their little Apron) are wholly naked . . . Custome hath used their minds and bodies to it" such that they are "free from any wantonnesse." In fact, he concludes, "I have never seen that wantonnesse amongst them, as, (with griefe) I have heard of in Europe ."15

Williams's account further indicates that while sex prior to marriage was "count[ed] no sin," couples were expected to remain faithful to one another after marriage. According to Williams, adultery was much less common among the Narragansett than among the English and, when it did occur, "the wronged party" had the choice of either keeping or "putting away" the offending partner. Although most Narragansett were monogamous, high status men could take more than one wife.16 Williams's observations on modesty notwithstanding, sexuality was undoubtedly less hidden and circumscribed in the native cultures than among the Europeans. Dwellings of the southern New England Indians usually housed two or more nuclear families and were without internal walls.17 Children slept in the same quarters with their parents and could observe their parents' sexual activity and, as Williams noted, parents accepted sexual relations among unmarried adolescents.

While Pueblo, like the Indians of southern New England, were for the most part monogamous, high status Pueblo men also might take more than one wife. Pueblo attitudes toward marriage and divorce appear to have been more casual than those of the Narragansett. According to one early seventeenth-century observer, the Pueblo "make agreements among themselves and live together as long as they want to, and when the woman takes a notion, she looks for another husband and the man for another wife."18 Nor was all sexuality among the Pueblo heterosexual. Early accounts of "berdache," biological males who performed female roles, suggest that they often engaged in homosexual relations. As a third gender, a man-woman who combined male and female, the berdache were often accorded special religious status, particularly among the Indians of the Plains and Southwest.19 Among the Pueblo references to berdache date back as far as the sixteenth century.20

Sexuality and Christian Conversation

The sexual mores of Native Americans and Africans were viewed by European Christians as scandalous and uncivilized, yet not unlike the desires of the unconverted European heart. Because in both cases "deviant" sexuality and heresy were closely linked, the transformation of sexuality lay at the heart of the conversion process for Catholics and Protestants.

Thomas Shepard, a first-generation British-American Puritan, illustrates the widespread Christian use of marital metaphors to depict the intimate relationship between the faithful Christian and God as well as the related use of images of sexual "deviance" to describe the corruption of the human heart. For example, Shepard characterizes the heart as "a foul sink of all atheism, sodomy, blasphemy, murder, whoredom, adultery, witchcraft, buggery." At another point he avers that "though thy life be smooth . . . thou art full of rottenness, of sin, within. . . . guilty thou art therefore of heart whoredom, heart sodomy, heart blasphemy, heart drunkenness, heart buggery, heart oppression, heart idolatry." In Shepard's mind all these sins of the heart could have been subsumed under the heading of infidelity. At a time when he felt estranged from God, he refers to this as a "widow-like separation and disunion from my Husband and my God."21 Marital imagery (the "bride of Christ") was used to describe both male and female converts. Fidelity, with its rich layers of religious, marital, and sexual meaning, was expected of all converts in their relation with God. Heart sodomy, heart whoredom, and heart idolatry were all forms of infidelity or unfaithfulness.22

While Shepard was riot alone in his use of such imagery, in relation to either other Puritans or Christians more generally, his use of these terms was not merely a rhetorical device intended to illustrate the fundamentals of reformed theology. This rhetoric also gives shape to his own conversion narrative. The account begins with an episode of drinking and feasting in a fellow "scholar's chamber" from which he awakes "sick with [his] beastly carriage" and departs in "shame and confusion." In a marginal note, he adds, "I was once or twice dead drunk and lived in unnatural uncleanness not to be named and in speculative wantonness and filthiness with all sorts of persons which pleased my eye (yet still restrained from the gross act of whoredom which some of my own familiars were to their horror and shame overtaken with)."23 The references to "unnatural uncleanness" and "filthiness" short of the "gross act of whoredom" suggest that Shepard was sexually involved, while drunk, with his fellow students without actually committing the act of sodomy. In classic fashion, he indicates that God used these, his worst acts, as a means of bringing him to make his peace with God.

Making his peace with God meant confronting the depths of his own"vileness," including his suicidal impulses in the face of unrelenting atheistic and blasphemous thoughts. He emerged from his despair having learned to loathe himself and depend wholly on Christ for his redemption. As he did so, he began to "forsake [his] loose [companions]" and found his heart willing to "receive [Christ] as Lord and Savior and Husband." While in the past, he says, "Christ was not so sweet as my lust. But now the Lord made himself sweet to me and to embrace him and to give myself up unto him." In the end, he says, "I saw the Lord gave me a heart to receive Christ with a naked hand, even naked Christ, and so the Lord gave me peace."24

Presuppositions about marriage and sexuality, following long-standing Christian tradition, were embedded at the heart of the conversion process. Sexual fidelity in monogamous marriage was a primary metaphor for the relationship between the converted Christian and a monotheistic god. Sexual infidelity ill marriage (adultery), nonprocreative sex (sodomy, buggery), and sex outside marriage (whoredorn, fornication) were metaphorically linked to religious infidelity or heresy (blasphemy, atheism, witchcraft).

As Shepard's image of "giving himself up to Christ" suggests, orthodox Puritans did not conceive of the relationship between the convert and God in egalitarian terms. Like the relationship between wife and husband on which it was modeled—and like most relationships in colonial New England—the relationship between convert and God was hierarchical.25 In a hierarchical system, subordination of lower to higher was assumed. In keeping with law and theology, the clergy taught people to submit to God in much the same way they submitted to others above them in the social hierarchy. Within the self, the clergy expected rightly ordered passions (including both sexual desires and emotions) to relate to the soul (reason) in much the same way that they expected wives to relate to husbands and converts to God. Sexual desire was not sinful in and of itself, but became sinful only when "insubordinate."

Placing the marital metaphor at the heart of the conversion process, then, linked the unconverted not only with heresy, but also with illicit sexuality and insubordinate women. If we add to this the presupposition that for most Europeans Christianity, and conversion thereto, lay at the heart of what it meant to be civilized, we have a constellation of ideas in which particular beliefs about sexuality, gender, marriage, and Christian civilization are ultimately linked. This constellation of ideas, albeit overlaid with some later notions, comes down to us in the "traditional family values" rhetoric of contemporary conservativeChristianity. We also can see why European Christians would have a propensity to view the unconverted (heathen) and uncivilized (savages) as inevitably characterized by all the "perverse" sexual desires that plagued the heart of the unconverted and/or unfaithful Christian. Just as conversion subordinated the lustful and atheistic heart of the Puritan to Christ as Lord and Savior and Husband, so too the conversion of native peoples subordinated their heathenism and savagery to the salvific patriarchal dominance of Christian civilization.

In both northern New Spain and the British colonies, the initial social distinctions between "us" and "them" were primarily, but not exclusively, religious and drew on categories that emerged in efforts to conquer Old World enemis—the Moors in the case of Spain and the Irish in the case of Britain. According to Ramón Gutiérrez, "the conquerors were honorable because they were Christians, Spaniards, 'civilized,' and white," while Indians were dishonorably characterized as "heathens, Amerindians, 'uncivilized,' and dark." Sexuality, too, played an important role in defining Indians as "other" than their conquerors, especially in the case of women. "Because," in the words of Gutiérrez, "slave women bore illegitimate children, failed to establish stable unions, were frequently sexually assaulted, and reputedly licentious, to be a Spanish woman, regardless of one's class, was to be concerned for one's sexual purity and reputation, to guard one's virginity, to marry, and to be continent in matrimony."26

The English nanies for the native peoples listed by Roger Williams—"Natives, Savages, Indians, Wild-men . . . Abergeny [aborigine] men, Pagans, Barbarians, Heathen "—indicate that for the English, like the Spanish, the primary distinctions between the native peoples and the colonizers were religious (pagan, heathen), cultural (savage, wild-men, barbarian), and geographical (native, Indian, aborigine). Williams's stress on the modesty of the Narragansett, the relative absence of adultery, and the relative infrequence of polygamy may have been intended to counter the popular English comparison of the American Indians with their other colonial conquest, the "Wilde" Irish. According to Audrey Smedley, in the eyes of the English, "both the Irish and the Indians seemed to lack shame in that they went about naked with little care as to the visibility of even their 'most private parts.' " In addition, both were polygamous and, in the English conception of the cosmos, this combination of nudity and plural marriages was inextricably linked with sexual immorality.27

With a few exceptions—the Jesuits in New France being the mostnotable28 —the evangelization and "civilization" of the native populations were closely linked in the American colonies.29 British, French, and Spanish governments and most missionaries expected Native Americans to convert to Christianity, adopt European customs, and submit to European laws. Conversion and relocation to New England "praying towns," for example, were accompanied by the imposition of civil law with respect to sexuality. Although the civil laws made polygamous marriages, adultery by married persons, and fornication by single persons illegal, it was the last, according to James Axtell, that represented the greatest challenge to local native cultures. New Englanders were disturbed not only by sex outside marriage, but also by unconcealed sex. Thus, they encouraged natives to build larger dwellings such that, in the words of Thomas Shepard, "they may have their partitions in them for husbands and wives togeather [sic], and their children and servants in their places also, who formerly were never private in what nature is ashamed of, either for the sun or any man to see." Finally, at catechetical examinations of sachems or chiefs who had pledged their loyalty to the Massachusetts Bay colony, the native leaders were introduced to the familiar litany of European sexual sins, including "fornication, adultery, incest, rape, sodomy, buggary, or bestiality," and enjoined "to commit no unclean lust."30 Williams's description of native culture would suggest that many of these concepts were new to the indigenous Americans.

The disruption of traditional understandings of sexuality figured centrally in the Pueblo resistance to Spanish colonization and conversion. Native testimony collected by the Spanish in the wake of the Pueblo Revolt in 1780 attests to long-standing Pueblo resentment of the Spanish. Repeatedly the Pueblo testified that in the wake of the revolt Christian baptism, devotional practices, and marriage were rejected. Josephe, a Spanish-speaking Indian, declared that the "apostates," after burning "the God of the Spaniards, who was their father . . . Santa Maria, who was their mother, and the saints, who were pieces of rotten wood . . . they all went to bathe in the rivers, saying that they thereby washed away the water of baptism." The Pueblo captains and chiefs, Josephe went on to say, "ordered that the names of Jesus and Mary should nowhere be uttered . . . that they should discard their baptismal names, and abandon the wives whom God had given them in matrimony, and take the ones they pleased." Then the "estufas" (kivas) were erected and they "danced throughout the kingdom the dance of the cazina [kachina], making many masks for it in the image of the devil."31

Sex, Race, Gender, and Religion in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

Religion and Sex Between the "Races"

European Americans gave explicit articulation to the idea of distinct "races" in the context of the colonial encounter and granted these supposedly innate distinctions between peoples the status of scientific truth in the nineteenth century."32 In its emphasis on innate differences, racialized discourse was at odds with, and eventually undermined, older Christian beliefs in the power of conversion to create "one people." Attitudes toward interracial sex and especially marriage—that is, the possibility of licit sex between persons of different "races"—provides a window into this transformation.

Africans only gradually came to occupy the bottom rung in the racial ranking system that came to dominate in the United States, a position initially occupied by the Irish and the Indians. In time the rhetoric of heathenism and savagery developed in relation to the latter groups was applied to Africans as well. Thus religious ("heathenism") and cultural ("savagery") differences rather than physical ones such as color provided the first rationale for the enslavement of Africans. By the end of the seventeenth century, however, "dark complexion had become an independent rationale," and during the eighteenth it "became a symbol of savagery and heathenism and all the other negative features that these terms connoted in the English worldview. . . . As the eighteenth century wore on, their [African] savagery became intrinsic and terminal.33 As Jon Butler has shown, eighteenth-century Anglican missionaries anxious to offer salvation to slaves participated in the creation of a racially based worldview by assuring slaveowners that, contrary to popular belief, Christians could enslave other Christians and that baptism liberated the soul but not the body.34 The repudiation of the connection between conversion and physical emancipation marks a significant shift in the conceptual basis of slavery. As long as persons were enslaved because they were heathens, they could be freed through conversion. Once their enslavement was rationalized on the basis of race—on the basis of a "divinely ordained" hierarchy of biologically distinguishable human groupings—then salvation and enslavement could coexist.35

The racial ideology that developed in the United States was more rigid than in the rest of the Americas. This difference has been most apparent with respect to interracial sex and marriage. In 1691 Virginiatook the internationally unprecedented step of banning "all forms of inter-racial marriage by providing that any white man or woman who married 'a negro, mulatto, or Indian . . . bond or free' was liable to permanent banishment from the colony." Other colonies, including Massachusetts, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Georgia, followed Virginia's lead, so that by the mid-eighteenth century six of the original thirteen colonies had made interracial marriage punishable by law.36 Although the reasons for the difference are still disputed,37 it is clear that the degree of sexual intermixing of the various peoples of British America was far less extensive than among the various people inhabiting Latin America and that British attitudes toward interracial marriage were far less tolerant.

Antimiscegenation laws, of course, did not prevent interracial sex. What they prevented was the legitimization of such relationships and the offspring they produced. While these laws applied to free and slave alike, sexual liaisons were especially common between white male slaveowners and their female slaves. Whereas in Latin America, slaves who bore children by their masters often were freed or at least protected from sale, in the United States, laws prevented the manumission of slaves and the legal acknowledgment of the paternity of children born to slaveowners and their slaves.38 The most famous of the female-authored slave narratives, Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), describes a young woman caught in the binds that such a system created. Sexually pursued by her master, who was the father of at least ten children by his first and second wives and at least eleven children by his female slaves, Jacobs initiated an affair with another slaveowner to arouse her master's jealousy and hopefully initiate her sale. All of her master's children by slave women and Jacobs's children by her slaveowning lover were slaves because their mothers were slaves. Neither father recognized his children as his own.39

Jacobs describes the ethic of obedience that permeated the Christianity of white slaveowners, such that her master could join the Anglican Church and even encourage Jacobs to join, all the while pursuing Jacobs sexually and telling her that her virtue as a slave lay in her obedience to him. Jacobs's own understanding of Christianity, by way of contrast, reflected a female-oriented tradition that linked sexual purity, freedom, and justice. This countervailing tradition, passed on to Jacobs by her mother, her grandmother, and her first mistress, seems to reflect the resistance of both slave and free women to the sexual promiscuity of slaveowners. For Jacobs, true Christianity demanded moral purity,but that required a level of personal autonomy antithetical to the slave system. Because slaves had neither the authority to reject sexual overtures outside marriage nor the legal sanction of sex within marriage, men could violate slave women with impunity and deny them access to what they took to be true Christian virtue.40

While prohibitions against interracial marriage undergirded the slave system in the South, prejudice against such marriages was strong in the North as well. Although an assimilationist approach to missions led logically to intermarriage, northern Protestants made it clear that Christianizing and civilizing "heathens" did not mean marrying them. When Elias Boudinot, an exemplary Cherokee Christian earmarked for the Congregationalist ministry, proposed to Harriet Gold, a young Congregationalist woman of British descent from Cornwall, Connecticut, her relatives and her community were scandalized.

This was the second such scandal that had rocked the town of Cornwall. The town was home to an experimental school that was founded by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions and attended by missionized youth like Boudinot. The first marriage involved John Ridge, Boudinot's cousin and fellow student, and Sarah Northrup, daughter of a school official. Although John Ridge's father was a wealthy Cherokee slaveowner and the new Mrs. Ridge became a plantation mistress, Isaiah Bunce, the editor of the local paper, emphasized "the affliction, mortification and disgrace, of the relatives of the young woman . . . to have her thus marry an Indian and taken into the wilderness among savages." He describes Northrup as having "thus made herself a squaw , and connected her ancestors to a race of Indians."41 Here we have the mutable image of the savage-in-the-wilderness assimilated to an immutable image of race, such that all standard markers of "civilization" (class, wealth, education, cultural assimilation) become irrelevant.

Bunce believed Northrup's desire to marry Ridge was a product of the "missionary spirit ," as he referred to it, and held the "agents" or trustees of the school, most of whom were ministers, liable for the "unnatural connection" between the couple. The agents, among them such notables is the Reverend Lyman Beecher, immediately condemned miscegenation and forbade any further marriages at the school across racial lines.42 John Ridge and Sarah Northrup, both apparently unconverted, were at best indirectly affected by the missionary spirit that so disturbed Isaiah Bunce. Harriet Gold and Elias Boudinot, however, fully realizedthe editor's suspicions. In their disregard for the school's newly stated policy forbidding "miscegenation," Gold and Boudinot exemplified both the logic of an assimilationist model of missions and their commitment to bring "civilization" to the "savages."43

The closing of the mission school in response to these and other less provocative challenges to a thoroughgoing assimilationist approach signaled a shift to a missionary strategy that emphasized conversion independent of "civilization."44 While mid-nineteenth century attempts to distinguish between the Christian gospel and Western culture partially undercut the cultural imperialism of the assimilationist approach, they also allowed Christians to step back from the question of intermarriage in an increasingly race-conscious and racist era.

Religion, Sex, and (White) Protestant Domesticity

As the general absence of prohibitions against intermarriage between "persons of color" suggests, the purpose of miscegenation laws was to maintain the purity of "whiteness." Due to patriarchal concerns with property and inheritance, purity also had long-standing associations with the female "virtues" and traditional notions of "femininity." During the course of the nineteenth century, the association of purity with whiteness and femininity was embedded in a wider set of dichotomies—state and church, work and home—brought on by industrialization, urbanization, and disestablishment. European Americans constellated these dichotomies along gendered lines such that the state, work, and men were associated with the public or civil "sphere," and church, home, and women with the private or domestic "sphere." Purity, racial and feminine, linked pure sex to legitimate marriage and thus located it in the domestic realm. These ideological polarizations—public/private, white/black, masculine/feminine, pure/impure—led to private lives that did not necessarily fit their public images. This also encouraged attempts to undercut or diffuse the tensions and produced anxieties about "purity" which were projected on to various "others."

The twentieth-century assumption that the Victorian language of purity correlated with sexual repression or "passionlessness" in practice has been widely questioned by historians. A number of recent studies stress the gap between the public rhetoric and the private practice among middle-class Victorians. Indeed, some interpreters have suggested that the history of sexuality in the United States from the Victorian era to the present is less a history of progressive sexual liberation than a progressive narrowing of the gap between public discourse and private behavior.45

The gap between public and private is most apparent in relation to the use of artificial contraceptives. Publicly, the first wave of the women's movement rejected both abortion and contraceptives because these practices separated sexuality and reproduction, a separation associated with prostitution. The fundamental problem was economic. In an era when "respectable" women depended on marriage for financial security for themselves and their children, many women believed that a publicly sanctioned link between sex and reproduction provided an incentive for men to marry and stay married.46 Nonetheless, there is considerable evidence from diaries, letters, and declining birth rates that native-born Euro-American married couples privately used contraceptives and abortifacients and understood sex as a means of marital intimacy, not just reproduction. Historians have speculated that the passage of the Comstock law in 1873, which labeled drugs for abortions and materials used for contraception as obscene and limited their importation and distribution, was passed in response to concerns about the widespread use of both by American women.47

The love letters of Pasadena clergyman Robert Burdette and his wife, Clara, a prominent clubwoman, encoded the split between the public and private. Publicly, Robert was described in the newspapers as one whose "language was as clean as his thoughts are pure." Privately, the letters written during the couple's courtship reveal an unabashed sexuality and a frank enjoyment of bodily pleasure, up to and including sexual intercourse before Clara accepted Robert's proposal of marriage. Although Robert suggested burning their letters and Clara later censored them extensively, enough uncensored material survived to provide a startling contrast to Clara's account of their courtship in her published autobiography. Karen Lystra argues that this disjunction was less a matter of hypocrisy than evidence of the Victorian emphasis on limiting the full disclosure of passionate feeling to the private sphere.48

Such letters show how the ideal of romantic love flourished in the private sphere during the nineteenth century and, due to its emphasis on sex as an expression of love and intimacy, tended to undercut the association of sex and reproduction. Moreover, if we do not equate sexuality with intercourse, we find that the emphasis on romantic love encouraged a broad range of passionate, erotically tinged relationships, not only between courting men and women, bill also between personsof the same sex. Whether these relationships are best described as "passionate friendships" or erotic relationships depends both on the relationships themselves and on the definitions we bring to them.

However such relationships are characterized, it is clear that they provided an emotional infrastructure that animated both the radical and the evangelical wings of the nineteenth-century woman's movement. Frances Willard, active Methodist lay woman and the second president of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), comments in her autobiography that "the loves of women for each other grow more numerous each day" and memorializes a series of "attachments . . . so much less restful than friendships, that [she] cannot fairly call them by that consoling name." Recent research on her diaries reveal that the first great love of her life was her friend Mary Bannister. While Mary went on to marry Frances's brother Oliver, the intensity of feeling Frances had for her own fiancé paled in comparison to her feelings for Mary and led her to break off her engagement. According to Carolyn DeSwarte Gifford, Willard rejected marriage partly because she believed herself to love women, rather than men, with the depth necessary for marriage and partly because she was unwilling to sacrifice her ambitions to a husband's aspirations in the way that she felt that married women should.49 While many married women maintained intimate friendships with other women, such friendships provided primary relationships for many single women such as Willard and freed them to devote their lives to careers in church work, social reform, and teaching.50

The idealization of romantic love also infused the theology of Henry Ward Beecher, the mid-nineteenth century's most popular Protestant preacher. According to William McLoughlin, it was Beecher's great achievement to "amalgamate Romanticism, religion, and science . . . [with] a firm faith in the national destiny of Anglo-Saxon America." Beecher's romantic Christianity replaced the stern and distant Calvinist God of his childhood with a God known through nature and manifest as love. Although he avoided systematic theology, he laid out his theological views in his best-selling novel Norwood , which McLoughlin describes as "the first fully developed statement of Liberal Protestantism to appear in popular form."51

In Beecher's theology, romantic and divine love merged. As in the love letters studied by Lystra, falling in love took on the language of conversion and being in love the language of worship.52 Although the language of romantic love has an egalitarian ring to it, it was rooted in the reality of gendered social spheres. For men, romantic love was apart-time activity, embraced when they entered the privacy of the home, whether literally or metaphorically. Women, literally and metaphorically associated with domesticity and motherhood, "loved" as a full-time occupation. Love, even romantic love, had its roots for Beecher and many other nineteenth-century Americans in maternal love.

The conflation of romantic and maternal love underscores the difficulties involved in interpreting the seemingly erotically charged language of intimacy. Indeed, some nineteenth-century women and men expressed confusion as well. According to McLoughlin, Beecher offended some of the reviewers of Norwood with what sounded to them like "coquettish and almost incestuous love play" between a male character and his widowed mother. Sounding rather naively pre-Freudian, Beecher responded that "not every angel even is given to know the full meaning and sacredness of a mother's and son's inner most communion, in a love utterly without passion , without color of selfishness, deep as life and stronger than death."53

In true or higher love, according to Beecher, sexual passion is absent, as in the case of parents and children, or strictly controlled, as in the case of adults. Not all people, in his view, had the same capacity for love in its highest forms. Just as he thought love in its highest forms developed slowly even with persons of a higher nature, so too the capacity for "higher" love was understood to evolve as "less-civilized" classes, cultures, nations, and races were progressively civilized and Christianized.54 The selfless love associated with a mother's love for her children was most fully realized, of course, in the self-sacrificial love of Jesus. Belief in the purity of the Protestant home, in the crucifixion of Jesus as an act of self-sacrificial love, and in the hierarchies of race, class, nation, and culture provided the ideological underpinnings for late nineteenth-century Protestant efforts to Christianize America and civilize the world.55

While in private, and especially within the confines of marriage, romantic love aspired to link love and sex and infuse both with an air of purity and sacrality. Yet fears of unchecked lust and unprotected womanhood loomed large in the public rhetoric of nineteenth-century Protestant missions and social reform.56 At midcentury, images of "barbarism" and "lust" were gendered. Popular fiction and social reform literature depicted men as the threat—in accounts of priests violating young women in the confessional and convent, lustful slaveowners raping their female slaves, brutal Indians capturing innocent white women, and polygamous or alcoholic husbands degrading their wives.57 Thetwin themes of this literature—tyranny and sexual exeess—defined the antetypes of Christian and heathen, Protestant and Catholic, free and slave, wife and husband. They also tacitly linked Protestantism with freedom and femininity. European American Protestants associated most of these images with missionary or social reform movements—the common school movement, abolition, Indian removal, anti-Mormonism, and temperance. Some of these images were specific to northern Protestants and some had Republican overtones. The image of the lustful slaveowner, for example, while popular in abolitionist literature and Republican rhetoric, obviously did not play well among southern white Protestants.

The crusade against polygamy illustrates the rhetorical overlaps and disjunctions that could occur. The Anti-Polygamy Society, organized by Protestant women in Utah in 1878, was consciously modeled on the antislavery societies of an earlier era and, following the Republican party, linked slavery and polygamy as "twin relics of barbarism."58 Harriet Beecher Stowe gave her support to the movement, describing Mormonism as "a slavery which debased and degrades womanhood, motherhood, and family," while Frances Willard compared the Utah territory to Islamic Turkey, "doubtless the most debased country on earth," and lamented that the United States, "the 'bright consumate flower' of Christian civilization," should allow this "montrous lust" to continue in its midst. A New England paper invoked the specter of "Romanism" when it editorialized that, as in the case with slavery and the South, it soon will be "discovered . . . that the essential principle of Mormonism is not polygamy at all but the ambition of an ecclesiastical hierarchy to wield sovereignty; to rule the souls and lives of its subjects with absolute authority, unrestrained by any civil power."59 From these superimposed rhetorics of slavery and freedom, heathenism and Christianity, tyranny and restraint, we learn little about Mormonism and a great deal about Protestant perceptions of themselves as free, Christian, and republican.

Mormon women, not surprisingly, mobilized soon after the formation of the Anti-Polygamy Society, declaring that they had been "misjudged and misrepresented . . . by those in our midst of our own sex, in regard to our most sacred rights . . . of wife-hood and mother-hood." One male observer commented that "the speeches gave evidence that . . . the so-called degraded ladies of Mormondon are quite equal to the Women's rights women of the East."60 While mainstream Protestant activists such as Willard and Stowe had little positive to say about Mormon women, leaders of the more radically oriented National Women'sSuffrage Association (NWSA ) forged a link with Mormon women after they were enfranchised at the state level in 1870. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony both traveled to Utah shortly after the vote was granted, and some years later Mormon delegates began attending NWSA conventions. While Anthony and the NWSA did lobby against proposed federal antipolygamy legislation that would have disenfranchised Utah women, the most vehement, but ultimately ineffectual, support for the Mormon cause came from southern Democrats, who turned Republican rhetoric on its head and defended polygamy on the grounds of states rights.61

By century's end, Protestant sexual rhetoric was less gendered, less regionally polarized, and more overtly racist. Theories of social evolution and "scientific" racism allowed Protestants to project their fears of unchecked lust on to animal-like "primitives." This racialized stereotype, although most persistently associated with black men, also was applied to Indians, southern and eastern Europeans, Mexicans, and Asians.62 Rebecca Latimer Felton, a member of the WCTU and the Women's Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, illustrates the depths to which Protestants could descend in their defense of "white womanhood." In a letter to the editor of an Atlanta paper, Felton refered to black men as "half-civilized gorillas" and advocated lynching if that was what it took to "protect woman's dearest possession from the ravening human beast."63

At the same time, women of color, non-Protestant women, and working-class women, often cast as victims in the earlier literature, increasingly appeared as sexually degraded by virtue of their race or class rather than innocent by virtue of their gender. The presence of a substantial mixed-race population, for example, no longer was linked to the depravity of slaveowners and the sexual vulnerability of slave women, as it had been in some abolitionist literature, but to the innate promiscuity of black women. According to Evelyn Higginbotham, "racist representations of black women as unclean, disease-carrying, and promiscuous conjoined with representations of black households as dirty, pathological, and disorderly" to make black women the turn-of-the-century icon of sexual and domestic deviance to which others were assimilated.64

While white Protestants most commonly associated their fears of unchecked lust and unprotected womanhood with nonwhite or non-Protestant "others," newspapers still reported allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of Euro-American Protestant clergy throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These allegations occasionally resulted in spectacular trials, such as that of Methodist minister Ephraim Avery in the 1830s, charged with seducing and murdering Sarah Cornell, and that of Henry Ward Beecher in the 1870s, charged with "criminal conversation" or sexual intimacy with Elizabeth Tilton, wife of his longtime friend Theodore. M. E. Billings, a nineteenth-century freethinker who assiduously compiled newspaper reports of clergy crimes, the majority of which turned out to be sexual, viewed ministers' access to their parishioners' homes as providing much the same opportunity for criminal conduct as the confessional allegedly provided Catholic priests. According to Billings, "the danger of such 'pastoral visits' [was] strikingly exemplified in the Beecher-Tilton scandal."65

Despite widespread public belief in the guilt of both Avery and Beecher, jurors acquitted both in civil and ecclesiastical trials. In the latter case, modern historians have remained as divided in their verdict as the nineteenth-century jury. Suspicions regarding guilt or innocence tend to loom large in interpretations of the incident. Altina Waller, for example, presents Beecher as unequivocally guilty; in her reading, rumors of previous affairs are taken as fact and Beecher is implicitly cast in the modern mold of the charismatic minister who repeatedly seduces female parishioners. More recently, Richard Fox downplayed the issue of guilt, emphasizing that all agreed that whatever the relationship may have become, it undoubtedly began as, and may have remained, the sort of "passionate spiritual romance . . . enlivened with physical affection . . . that was common in their circle among friends of both sexes." While Waller's reading makes it hard to avoid accusations of hypocrisy, Fox's reading raises the possibility that Elizabeth Tilton's own vacillation regarding her guilt or innocence may reflect less on the weakness of her character than on the fuzziness of the boundary between romantic friendship, spiritual romance, and marital infidelity.66

Accomodation, Resistance, and Conflict among the "Others"

For a variety of reasons, some internal and some external to their traditions, sexual issues came to the fore among black Protestants, Mormons, Catholics, and Jews during the latter part of the nineteenth century. In each case, issues of "Americanization," or adaptation to thedominant Protestant culture, loomed large. Faced with the projections of the dominant culture, as well as their own internal dynamics, these traditions accommodated, resisted, and split.

Within the bourgeois black church tradition, Baptists and Methodists—and especially Baptist and Methodist women—identified Christianity with "temperance, cleanliness of person and property, thrift, polite manners, and sexual purity."67 The emphasis on respectability was a rhetoric simultaneously of resistance and of accommodation to white stereotypes and norms. In claiming the high ground of "respectability," black women, according to Higginbotham, "boldly asserted the will and agency to define themselves outside the parameters of prevailing racist discourses," while also revealing their "assimilationist leanings." The emphasis on "respectability" created a bridge between "respectable" black church women and progressive white women, while tacitly distancing them from the masses of urban blacks still steeped in rural traditions that they sought to reform.68

The writings of journalist and African Methodist Episcopal church-woman Ida B. Wells attest, as did the writings of Harriet Jacobs, that the association between Christianity and sexual purity was not simply a product of the postwar period. Wells recounts that she encountered a black clergyman, while traveling through the South after the Civil War, who opined that "there were no virtuous [black] southern girls," presumably due to the legacy of slavery. Challenged by an outraged Wells, he apologized from the pulpit and quoted Wells to the effect "that many a slave woman had fought and died rather than yield to the pressure and temptations to which she was subjected." She commented that growing up, "I had heard many tales of such and I wanted him to know at least one southern girl, born and bred, who had tried to keep herself spotless and morally clean as my slave mother had taught me."69

Wells, however, is best known for launching the crusade against lynching. Her research, based on published newspaper accounts, led her to conclude that not all persons lynched were males and that the majority of persons lynched were not actually accused of rape. Moreover, in the minority of cases where there had been involvement of a black man with a white woman, she came to the highly inflammatory conclusion, given the prevailing racist mythology, that the involvement was frequently voluntary on the part of the woman. Wells's largely single-handed crusade was taken up by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the teens and by reform-mindedwhite southern church women in the thirties. The involvement of the white women, whom lynching was ostensibly supposed to protect, marked a turning point in the movement. Because doing so challenged their self-perceptions, it took white women some time, even after they became involved in the movement, to acknowledge white women's voluntary sexual involvement with black men.70

If the struggles of black Protestants were rooted primarily in differences of color, and to some extent culture, Catholic struggles were rooted primarily in theology. The flashpoints for Protestant fantasy and projection about Catholicism—the celibate priesthood, secret confessional, and enclosed convent—were grounded in fundamental theological disagreements. These undergirded Protestant and Catholic differences with respect to the value and indeed the possibility of celibacy and the number and definition of the sacraments. In contrast to classical Protestantism, which created a radical conceptual gulf between matter and spirit, Catholic theology, in the words of Peter Gardella, "pictured God bringing people to redemption through the physical world, teaching about invisible things by means of the visible, and imparting grace through material objects in the sacraments." What Protestants viewed as a shocking (and simultaneously titillating) interest on the part of Catholics in sexuality was, in the eyes of Catholic theologians, a logical outgrowth of a natural theology that assumed a purpose for all aspects of the created order, including genitalia. Traditional Protestants assumed that matter, including the material body and its sexual organs, while not evil, was nonetheless without positive religious significance; Catholic theologians meanwhile developed highly specific doctrines to illumine its positive meaning and purpose.71

The moral theology elaborated in Latin textbooks read by priests and seminarians was disseminated widely, as Protestants suspected, through the confessional. Bishop, later Archbishop, Francis Kenrick's Theologia Moralis ( 1843), the first major American handbook of moral theology, stated that a husband who did not remain sexually active until his wife reached orgasm committed a venial sin of omission, that a wife who distracted herself during intercourse in order to avoid having an orgasm sinned mortally, and that a wife who did not reach orgasm during intercourse had the right to bring herself to orgasm manually afterwards.72 Such passion, in keeping with an orthodox line of reasoning running from Thomas Aquinas through Alphonsus Liguori, was free from sin only in the context of marital intercourse "informed by rational purpose," that is, intercourse for conceiving children, fulfillingduty, and avoiding sin. Sex simply for the sake of pleasure still was considered sinful.73 Although Kenrick's frankness about sexuality was in keeping with tradition, he recognized that the publication of such a book in the American context left him vulnerable to criticism. Resisting Protestant norms, he defended his discussion of marital sex against those who, "pretending to moral purity, abhor scrutiny of the facts of marriage."74

Ironically, American Catholic moral teachings on sexuality became more conservative, just as liberal Protestants began to find positive meaning in married sexual passion. This new conservatism was apparent in the second major treatment of moral theology by an American Catholic, St. Mary's Seminary professor, Adolf Tanquerey, whose recommendations were published during the first decade of the twentieth century and remained influential for many years thereafter. The prudish tone of Tanquerey's moral theology reflected a more conservative reading of Liguori than either Kenrick or the European moral theologians of his day and, at the same time, an accommodation to the anti-Catholic and antisensual character of late-nineteenth century American public discourse about sex.75

With or without plural marriage, the Mormon understanding of marriage was theologically distinct from that of both Protestants and Catholics. Unlike Protestants, who viewed marriage as a civil contract, Mormons sacralized it; unlike Catholics,who sacralized marriage but valued celibacy more highly, Mormons privileged marriage over singleness. For Mormons heterosexual unions, "sealed for time and eternity" by the church, assumed a central place in Mormon theology in the wake of Joseph Smith's revelation on plural and celestial marriage in 1843. While civil marriages ended with death, marriages sealed by the Mormon priesthood bridged the material and spiritual worlds and structured human relationships in heaven as they did on earth. Such marriages provided the means by which humans could progress to the highest heavenly status and ultimately to godhood. Within this theological framework, plural marriage modeled on that of the Hebrew patriarchs was a particularly exalted form of eternal marriage. The intimate connection between sealed marriage and full salvation meant that in some cases women were sealed as plural wives in marriages that never were consummated sexually.76

Recent studies of the diaries of the nineteenth-century Mormons who entered into Plural marriages suggest that their primary motives for doing so were religious and that they had to abandon the romanticnotions popularly associated with monogamous marriage in order to maintain these unions. Plural marriage required women to relinquish exclusive claims to their husbands and required husbands to avoid favoritism. Plural marriage, along with the extended absence of husbands involved in missionary work, subordinated sexuality within marriage to overarching religious ends.77 The maintenance and defense of plural marriage can be viewed as the primary manifestation of a general subordination of personal aims to the building up of a distinctive corporate religious life in the Great Basin Kingdom. While this weighed most heavily on the highly placed minority who actually entered into such relationships, the legitimacy of plural marriage and the distinctiveness of the kingdom was maintained collectively, not individually. It was the collective assent to the moral legitimacy and theological centrality of plural marriage that, according to Jan Shipps, "explains why all the citizens of the kingdom—those who were involved in plural marriage and those who were not—were willing to defend to the last possible moment the practice of polygamy that kept them set apart."78

Within Judaism divisions over sexuality were as wide-ranging as within Christianity. Reform Jews, products of the German Enlightenment and well assimilated to American culture, dismissed newer, generally more religiously conservative eastern European immigrants as backward and superstitious. The newer immigrants, in turn, viewed their more established compatriots as having abandoned the tradition. Disagreements about sexuality surfaced with respect to marital practices, specifically the traditional practice of early marriages arranged by a matchmaker, or shadkhan . These disagreements concerned gender roles, and more fundamentally, the nature of Judaism.

Within the Orthodox Judaisms of eastern Europe, the yeshiva movement and Hasidism shared an emphasis on the sublimation of sexual energies in service of God. For the yeshiva movement, Judaism revolved around the study of Torah. Young men, typically in their first years of marriage, would leave home often for several years at a time to study at the yeshiva. One description of an eastern European yeshiva described the young men as "reject[ing] all the pleasures of life before they have had a chance to enjoy them. Their young, beloved wives stay at their parents' homes and take pride in their husbands."79 Young married men within the Hasidic movement entered into a similarly intense relationship with a Hasidic holy man or tzaddic , often again at some distance from their wives and families. The unusually strong drive within Hasidism toward sexual asceticism within marriage was balanced by a mystical theology that emphasized the erotic union between the Hasid and God. Drawing on the Song of Songs, the Baal Shem Tov taught that prayer, the central act of the Hasidic Jew, is "a form of intercourse with the Shekhinah and just as in the beginning of intercourse one moves one's body, so it is necessary to move one's body at first in prayer. . . . The power of his movement causes a great arousal, for it causes him to think: 'Why am I moving myself?' [And he answers himself:] 'Because perhaps the Shekhinah is actually standing in front of me.' And from this great power, he comes to a great passion."80

As Ann Braude has pointed out, gender roles within Orthodox Judaism were inverted relative to Victorian Protestant norms, such that men fulfilled most of the religious obligations for the family, while women supported the family materially, as well as supporting men in the fulfillment of their religious obligations.81 Reform Judaism, a product of the Jewish Enlightenment, rejected the traditional practice of early arranged marriages and rejected traditional Jewish gender roles. According to David Biale, "while the maskilim [Enlightened Jews] directed their polemics against a specifically Jewish system of marriage and family, their goal was the same as that of other nineteenth-century advocates of domesticity—upholding such values as privacy and chastity."82 Within the American context, the Orthodox, although not static in their approach, retained more traditional understandings of sexuality and marriage, while Reform Jews conformed most closely to the norms of the dominant culture. Moreover, the Jewish Enlightenment combined with the traditional value placed on sex for pleasure within marriage prepared Reform Jews to take the lead, along with the most liberal Protestants, in publicly advocating the legalization of contraceptives for use within marriage.

Religion, Sex, and Society in the Twentieth Century

Divisions Over Contraceptives

The twentieth-century movement to legalize contraceptives for use within marriage marked a turning point in the history of religion and sexuality in the United States. Its significance lay not in making contraceptives available, since, as indicated earlier, they were widely used throughout the nineteenth century. Nor did it lie simply in increasing access to contraceptives. Rather, the drama lay in the explicit and publicattempt to sever the legally protected and religiously sanctioned connection between sex within marriage and reproduction. While the romantic emphasis on sex within marriage as an expression of love had been undercutting private resistance to the use of contraceptives for decades, especially within the more liberal wings of the various traditions, the movement to legalize contraceptives forced religious traditions marked by profound ambivalence with respect to the role of sex within marriage to take public stands on the issue. The way they responded set the tone for the rest of the century.

Margaret Sanger, a Catholic by upbringing, a nurse by training, and a pragmatic sexual radical by disposition, was well positioned to lead the movement for the legalization of contraception. Having witnessed the lethal effects of illegal abortions on poor women during her nursing career, Sanger sought to give poor women equal access to contraceptive information and supplies by establishing birth control clinics. Sanger's fellow Catholics were the first to mobilize in response, and according to Ellen Chesler, birth control became "a vehicle for the church's institutional organization and political empowerment in this country." Father John A. Ryan, Catholic spokesperson on issues of public policy, began writing against the movement in the teens. In 1919 in their first joint pastoral letter, the American Catholic bishops prohibited Catholics from using artificial means of family limitation, and in 1930 Pope Pius XI followed with the encyclical Casti Conubii codifying official Catholic opposition.83

The mainstream consensus around sexuality began to show signs of disintegration in the thirties when Reform Jews, Unitarians, and Universalists in the United States followed the Anglican Lambeth Conference of Bishops in endorsing the use of contraceptives by married couples. Shortly thereafter a widely publicized committee report of the Federal Council of Churches also broke ranks with Catholics to support the legalization of contraceptives, although the member bodies of the council were sufficiently divided to prevent its formal endorsement.84 While denominations influenced by the currents of theological modernism, such as the Congregationalists and Presbyterians, lent their support to the movement, more conservative denominations resisted. By mid-century, however, few Protestant denominations vehemently opposed the use of contraceptives by married couples.85 Within Catholic circles, the changes wrought by the Second Vatican Council and the introduction of the birth control pill, both during the sixties, empowered a highpercentage of the American laity to ignore papal teachings on contraceptives.86

The Secularization of the Law

The fight over legal access to contraceptives eventually led to the Supreme Court and to a series of legal decisions that began the process of unraveling the intimate relationship between religion, sex, and the law in the United States. In a 1965 decision in Griswold v. Connecticut , the Supreme Court overturned a Connecticut law banning the sale of contraceptives. In doing so they articulated "a right to marital privacy," later extended to two consenting adults, that was to serve as the basis for the Court's decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973.87 Two years after Griswold , the Supreme Court overturned a lower court ruling that defended the state of Virginia's right to prohibit miscegenation, ruling that persons could not be prevented from marrying solely on the basis of race.88 This case, aptly titled Loving v. Virginia , subsequently formed the basis for Judge Stephen Levinson's ruling in what has come to be known as the "gay marriage case" brought to the Hawaii State Supreme Court in May 1993. The judge, noting that Virginia had unsuccessfully tried to defend its long-standing ban on interracial marriage by declaring that the "Deity" found such marriages "unnatural," argued that the state of Hawaii could not prevent persons from marrying solely on the basis of gender.89

While laws limiting access to contraceptives and banning abortion and miscegenation have been ruled unconstitutional, sodomy laws have proved the most resistant to change at the national level.90 In 1985, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals declared the sodomy law of Georgia to be unconstitutional in the case of Bowers v. Hardwick , on the grounds that "homosexual activity is a private and intimate association that is beyond the reach of state regulation" based on the precedents established in Griswold v. Connecticut and Roe v. Wade . The following year, however, the Supreme Court overturned the lower court ruling in Bowers v. Hardwick and refused to extend the right of privacy to sexual activity between consenting adults of the same sex.

The state of Georgia in its case and Chief justice Warren Burger in his support of the majority view appealed to Christian tradition to support their position. Burger wrote that "decisions of individuals relating to homosexual conduct have been subject to state intervention throughout the history of Western civilization. Condemnation of those practices is firmly rooted in Judeao-Christian moral and ethical standards." In a powerful dissent Justice Harry Blackmun argued that "the assertion that 'traditional Judeo-Christian values proscribe' the conduct involved cannot provide an adequate justification for [the Georgia law]." He concluded that "far from buttressing his case, petitioner's invocation of Leviticus, Romans, St. Thomas Aquinas, and sodomy's heretical status during the Middle Ages undermines his suggestion that [the Georgia law] represents a legitimate use of secular coercive power." Noting the "almost uncanny" parallels with Loving v. Virginia , he declared that "a State can no more punish private behavior because of religious intolerance than it can punish such behavior because of racial animus."91

Religion and Competing Social Visions

The primary opposition to the Supreme Court rulings that repealed laws restricting marriage and sexuality has been religious. Repeal has been viewed rightly as a process of secularization. This does not mean, however, that secularization of the law has not received religious support. In fact, the polarization within religious traditions around issues of marriage and sexuality highlights a thoroughgoing shift in attitudes toward sexuality within the more liberal wings of these traditions.

Since the sixties, the focus of controversy within Christian and Jewish religious bodies has been first on the legitimacy of sex outside marriage, then abortion, and most recently homosexuality. For most religious groups these are not peripheral issues. As James Davidson Hunter has noted, "conflict within traditions has extended beyond the realm of theology and ecclesiastical politics to embrace many of the most fundamental issues and institutions of public culture: law, government, education, science, family, and sexuality."92 Conflicts over sexuality have generated the most emotion and underlie many other issues of concern. Convictions about the nature of legitimate sex (homosexuality and pre-marital sex) and the control of fertility (contraception and abortion) presuppose definitions of the family and assumptions about gender roles that often play a part in controversies over education, science, law, and government.

As in the nineteenth-century crisis over slavery, congregations have mobilized on either side of the issue. Religious bodies have been threatened with schisms, and new denominations, such as the United Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, have been founded in protest. "Parachurch" organizations dedicated to advocacy on these issues have multiplied among Protestants, Catholics, and Jews since World War II. Moreover, as Hunter and others have argued, unprecedented alliances have formed across traditions to resist or promote change. Orthodox Catholics and Evangelical and Fundamentalist Protestants have aligned with one another as well as with Mormon and traditionally oriented, Jewish organizations. Similar alliances, while not as unusual, have formed to link progressives across the lines of traditions."93

Two fundamentally different worldviews regarding the nature and purpose of sexuality and its relation to the sacred surface in these opposing alliances. The "orthodox" alliance would highlight the continuity between its own views and those of the Old World and the impact of "paganism" on liberal, feminist, and liberation theologians. The "progressives" would emphasize the ever-changing nature of theological traditions and the negative connections between orthodox beliefs and the creation and maintenance of patriarchal systems of race, gender, and class oppression. Both positions are oversimplified. The "orthodox" often fail to recognize either the pagan roots of many Christian and Jewish traditions or the range of opinion historically present within their traditions, while the "progressives" often underplay the radicalness of their break with the past or the extent to which traditional beliefs have been mobilized against the forms of oppression they oppose. Granting such oversimplification, nonetheless there is from a historical perspective considerable truth in both points of view.

If what has been normatively "American" with respect to religion and sexuality has been rooted in medieval canon law and later attempts by Euro-American Protestants to maintain their "purity" and power in the face of American heterogeneity, the secularization (and effective liberalization) of the law with respect to sexuality reflects and codifies changes within and among America's religious traditions. Within traditions, publicly expressed positions on sexuality are now far more diverse and contentious. In the relations among traditions, Euro-American Protestant sexual norms no longer hold their once privileged position. For many Americans, perhaps most, matters of religion and sexuality still are tightly linked, but the nature of those links is of less concern to the state.


Excerpted from Retelling U.S. Religious History by Thomas A. Tweed Copyright © 1997 by Thomas A. Tweed. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Thomas A. Tweed, Introduction: Narrating U.S. Religious History
Ann Taves, Sexuality in American Religious History
Tamar Frankiel, Ritual Sites in the Narrative of American Religion
Ann Braude, Women's History Is American Religious History
Roger Finke, The Illusion of Shifting Demand: Supply-Side Interpretations of American Religious History
Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp, Eastward Ho!: American Religion from the Perspective of the Pacific Rim
Joel W. Martin, Indians, Contact and Colonialism in the Deep South: Themes for a Postcolonial History of American Religion
William Westfall, Voices from the Attic: Crossing the Canadian Border and the Writing of American Religious History
Catherine L. Albanese, Exchanging Selves, Exchanging Souls: Contact, Combination, and American Religious History

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