Activism

The history of American Evangelicals’ opposition to abortion is long

church, Christian, cross, Planned Parenthood, abortion

(National Review) As the pro-life movement remains entrenched among American voters, a new pro-choice talking point has entered the media narrative.

In the new historiography of the abortion debate, the reason that pro-lifers are against abortion is not that they sincerely believe it to be murder. Rather they are operating from a false consciousness, hiding their real motive, racism. That narrative, which now gets repeated by the usual pro-choice advocates in media outlets such as the Guardian and the New York Times, is inaccurate and disingenuous. It is an obvious attempt to manufacture a politicized history.

The narrative is simple: American Evangelicals never were pro-life and were in fact quite pro-choice until, losing their apparent battle in favor of segregation, they decided (for reasons never fully explained) to turn against abortion in their presumed quest for political power. There are several problems with this. For starters, it doesn’t matter. No one’s convictions about abortion have their basis in what some Evangelicals allegedly believed half a century ago. Before someone decides whether abortion is wrong, he doesn’t ask himself, “Wait! What did W. A. Criswell believe?” Moreover, this point ignores both the influence of American Roman Catholics in the pro-life movement and the growing secular pro-life contingent.

The main problem with this account however is its inaccuracy bordering on total falsehood. It ignores the history of Christians opposing abortion for two millennia and assumes that the American Evangelical experience starts in the late 20th century.

READ: Black pro-life leaders: Leading the way and making their voices heard

In his compelling work Abortion Rites: A Social History of Abortion in America, Marvin Olasky, the noted Evangelical journalist, lays out the pre-Roe history of Evangelical Americans’ fight against abortion. From the Colonial era onward, American Protestants, both mainliners and their Evangelical counterparts, took inspiration from the Bible as well as from the ancient, medieval, and early modern church in their doctrine on abortion. Though limited in their scope at first, American Protestants sought to keep abortion criminalized, increasing the pressure as it became more common in the United States. While it is true that Evangelical Americans’ history with abortion is more nuanced than thought in some quarters, the whole story is not one that makes for good pro-choice agitprop.

It’s telling that this chronicle always starts in the early 1970s. A more complete history would start in the ancient Near East, where the early Christians uniformly interpreted their scriptures, replete with texts about the personhood of the unborn, as prohibiting abortion. As early as the first century, Christians taught:

The second commandment of the teaching: You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not seduce boys. You shall not commit fornication. You shall not steal. You shall not practice magic. You shall not use potions. You shall not procure [an] abortion, nor destroy a newborn child. [Didache 2:1–2 (a.d. 70)]

The medieval Church was no different, and the Protestant Reformers were similarly consistent in their stance. Early Americans would be most influenced by the latter, as most were some variety of British Protestant. Early American Protestants would have been informed as well by the British legal environment in which abortion was a serious crime.

To take pro-choice revisionists at their word, one would have to believe that, with Roe, the Supreme Court struck down restrictive abortion laws that came from nowhere and were passed by nobody but merely existed.

On abortion, as Olasky demonstrates, early Evangelicals were no different. One popular 17th-century author argued that “it may be ranked with murder.” Benjamin Wadsworth, pastor of First Boston Church and later president of Harvard, concurred, deeming those who performed abortions “guilty of murder in God’s account.”

Naturally these widespread views had their effect on Colonial and early American law as legislatures adopted abortion codes that had been agitated for by early Evangelicals. By 1811, the Georgia penal code was typical in its declaration that those who assisted with an abortion would be declared accessory to murder.

The true Evangelical history of pro-life advocacy picks up in the early 19th century just as the identity of American Evangelicals was becoming distinct from their Puritan and Presbyterian roots. Olasky notes that, owing to urbanization and industrialization, abortion slowly became more common in the United States.

In response, an alliance of Evangelical doctors, journalists, and reformers pressed for harsher laws to combat what they saw as sinful violence stemming from even more sinful exploitation in the form of prostitution and male abandonment. In the medical field, Dr. Hugh Hodge, brother to the famous Evangelical leader Charles Hodge, instructed his students that the unborn child is “an independent being.” His contemporary, Dr Stephen Tracy, a noted medical doctor and Evangelical missionary to Asia, forcefully taught that “the life of this new human being is sacred and no one but God himself . . . has the right to take it away.” By the mid 19th century, Evangelicals were already forming pro-life rhetoric in a way that is recognizable to this day.

READ: Rabbi says despite claims to the contrary, Judaism is ‘unambiguously pro-life’

Then as now, the pro-life movement took on an ecumenical tone. Olasky outlines how Congregationalists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Episcopalians, and Roman Catholics joined efforts in their cities to abolish “the present scandal” just as they had “rid ourselves of the blight of . . . slavery.” Far from being an invention of the late 20th century, pro-life politics got its start in the Evangelical moral crusades of the early 19th century.

The true Evangelical history of pro-life advocacy picks up in the early 19th century just as the identity of American Evangelicals was becoming distinct from their Puritan and Presbyterian roots. Olasky notes that, owing to urbanization and industrialization, abortion slowly became more common in the United States.

In response, an alliance of Evangelical doctors, journalists, and reformers pressed for harsher laws to combat what they saw as sinful violence stemming from even more sinful exploitation in the form of prostitution and male abandonment. In the medical field, Dr. Hugh Hodge, brother to the famous Evangelical leader Charles Hodge, instructed his students that the unborn child is “an independent being.” His contemporary, Dr Stephen Tracy, a noted medical doctor and Evangelical missionary to Asia, forcefully taught that “the life of this new human being is sacred and no one but God himself . . . has the right to take it away.” By the mid 19th century, Evangelicals were already forming pro-life rhetoric in a way that is recognizable to this day.

The problem? What pro-choice advocates say about the history of Evangelical involvement in the pro-life cause simply isn’t true. To believe this new record is to ignore over two centuries of Evangelical pro-life politics, and nearly two millennia of Christian doctrine and history….

Read this article in its entirety at National Review.

Editor’s Note: This article was published at National Review and is reprinted here with permission.

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