GreasyJoan over at Keel the Pot sent me this very interesting article about the history of contraception and protestants. Here are some excerpts:
Children of the Reformation
A Short & Surprising History of Protestantism & Contraception
by Allan Carlson
It is a reckless analyst who risks reopening sixteenth-century disputes
between Roman Catholics and the Protestant Reformers. I do so in the interest of
a greater good, but my purpose is not to say who was right or who was wrong. I
would simply like to explore why the Protestant churches maintained unity with
the Catholic Church on the contraception question for four centuries, only to
abandon this unity during the first half of the twentieth century.
I write as a historian, not an advocate. (I am a “cradle Lutheran,” but one who
believes Martin Luther was wrong about what he called the impossibility of
lifelong celibacy; I have come to know too many faithful Catholic priests to
The key figure in developing a Protestant family ethic was Martin Luther.
For Luther, God’s words in Genesis 1:28, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth,” were more than a blessing, even more than a command. They were, he declared in his 1521 treatise on The Estate of Marriage, “a divine ordinance which it is not our prerogative to hinder or ignore.”
Addressing the celibate Teutonic Knights, he also emphasized Genesis 2:18: “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper who shall be with him.” The “true Christian,” he declared, “must grant that this saying of God is true, and believe that God was not drunk when he spoke these words and instituted marriage.”
Except among those rare persons—“not more than one in a thousand,” Luther said at one point—who received true celibacy as a special gift from God, marriage and procreation were divinely ordained. As he wrote: “For it is not a matter of free choice or decision but a natural and necessary thing, that whatever is a man must have a woman and whatever is a woman must have a man.”
Marriage with the expectation of children, in this view, represented the natural, normal, and necessary form of worldly existence.
Marriage with the expectation of children was also a spiritual expression. Luther saw procreation as the very essence of the human life in Eden before the Fall. As he wrote in his Commentary on Genesis:
Elsewhere, Luther called procreation “a most outstanding gift” and “the greatest work of God.”
Accordingly, Luther sharply condemned the contraceptive
mentality that was alive and well in his own time. He noted that
this “inhuman attitude, which is worse than barbarous,” was found chiefly among
the wellborn, “the nobility and princes.” Elsewhere, he linked both
contraception and abortion to selfishness:
How great, therefore, the wickedness of [fallen] human nature is! How many girls there are who prevent conception and kill and expel tender fetuses, although procreation is the work of God! Indeed, some spouses who marry and live together . . . have various ends in mind, but rarely children.
Regarding the sin of Onan, as recorded in Genesis and involving the form of contraception now known as “withdrawal,” Luther wrote: “Onan must have been a most malicious and incorrigible scoundrel. This is a most disgraceful sin. It is far more atrocious than incest and adultery. We call it unchastity, yes, a Sodomitic sin. . . . Surely at such a time the order of nature established by God in procreation should be followed.” Onan was “that worthless fellow” who “refused to exercise love.”
On this matter, Luther was again joined by Calvin. In his Commentary on Genesis, he wrote that “the voluntary spilling of semen outside of intercourse between man and woman is a monstrous thing. Deliberately to withdraw from coitus in order that semen may fall on the ground is doubly monstrous. For this is to extinguish the hope of the [human] race and to kill before he is born the hoped-for offspring.”
A few decades later, the Synod of Dordt would declare that Onan’s act “was even as much as if he had, in a manner, pulled forth the fruit out of the mother’s womb and destroyed it.”
In only three decades, the Lambeth Conference’s qualified approval would turn into full celebration. At the astonishing and deeply disturbing 1961 North American Conference on Church and Family, sponsored by the National Council of Churches (successor to the Federal Council), population-control advocate Lester
Kirkendall argued that America had “entered a sexual economy of abundance” where contraception would allow unrestrained sexual experimentation.
The Evangelical Turn
It would be the eventual turn by Evangelical Protestants to the pro-life position on abortion that would for some also reopen the ontraception
question. When in 1973 the US Supreme Court, in its Roe and Doe
decisions, overturned the anti-abortion laws of all fifty states, relatively few
Protestants voiced opposition. Indeed, some mainline denominations had already
endorsed liberalized abortion.
The prominent Southern Baptist Pastor W.
A. Criswell openly welcomed the decision. Representing a position many
Evangelicals then took, he claimed: “I have always felt that it was only after
the child was born and had life separate from its mother that it became an
individual person.” Others drew the line at some point before birth, but few
rejected the decisions outright.
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)
itself had in 1971 urged its members to work for legislation that will allow the
possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of
severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of
damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.
However, reflecting the movement of Evangelicalism as a whole (though
not mainline Protestantism), in 2003, the SBC declared that this and the 1974
resolution “accepted unbiblical premises of the abortion rights movement,
forfeiting the opportunity to advocate the protection of defenseless women and
children” and that “we lament and renounce statements and actions by previous
Conventions and previous denominational leadership that offered support to the
An early sign of this shift occurred in 1975 when a
young editor at Christianity Today, Harold O. J. Brown, authored a short
anti-abortion editorial. From his home in L’Abri, Switzerland, the neo-Calvinist
Francis Schaeffer mobilized Evangelicals against abortion with books such as How
Should We Then Live?. This campaign grew through the founding of new Evangelical organizations with pro-life orientations, including Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, and Concerned Women for America.
At first, this pro-life Evangelicalism avoided the issue of contraception. However, over time, it has become ever more difficult for many to draw an absolute line between contraception and abortion, because—whatever theological distinctions they made between the two—the “contraceptive mentality” embraces both, and some forms of “contraception” are in practice abortifacients.
A Major Rethinking
“ It is clear that there is a major rethinking going on among
Evangelicals on this issue, especially among young people,” R. Albert Mohler,
Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, recently told the
Chicago Tribune. “There is a real push back against the contraceptive culture
In his last years, Francis Schaeffer seemed to be moving toward
the historic Christian view of contraception.
have been other signs of Protestant rethinking on this question, including individual pastors and their wives who have opened their lives to bringing a full quiver of children into the world. For example, Pastor Matt Trewhella of Mercy Seat Christian Church in Milwaukee concluded that “we have no God-given right to manipulate God’s design for marriage by using birth control.” He had his vasectomy reversed, and he and his wife Clara have had seven more children.
For more on this topic see my archives
here (a discussion with a Protestant mom on the topic in depth)
and a bit on logical fallacies here and birth control here.