More and more writers—most recently Jamelle Bouie—are confidently asserting that Evangelicals were once pro-choice, but under the influence of Religious-Right organizations like Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority became prolife. This interpretation of the Evangelical position largely stems from Jonathan Dudley’s memoir of his own journey as an evangelical in the Midwest. The book led to a brief exchange between Dudley and Mark Galli at Christianity Today (see here, here, and here). An accurate reading of history tells a different tale—one of longstanding (though not exceptionless) Evangelical opposition to abortion.

Dudley’s work is more memoir than historiography. There is little attempt to address questions of why certain positions were held and the historical factors that led to them or their antecedents. Intentionally or not, there is also a tendency to reduce Evangelicalism to the realm of Dudley’s own experience. Thus Evangelicalism comes off as a Midwestern variety of white Christianity. It is a Reformed-Baptist arc that Dudley wants his readers to see in evangelicalism because it serves the overall narrative of a “white” Christianity that excludes women, etc. 

Dudley’s claim that Evangelicals played little role in the establishment of anti-abortion laws in the late nineteenth century occurs in four short paragraphs. Quotations buttress his conclusions rather than any sustained analysis. Part of the challenge is how one defines Evangelicalism at this time. Does one classify Horatio Robinson Storer the Congregationalist whose writings were behind the push for anti-abortion laws as an Evangelical or not? Many Congregationalists were, like D. L. Moody or Cyrus Scofield. Indeed the most famous was Anthony Comstock, who almost single-handedly got state legislatures to put into place obscenity laws that remained on the books until the 1960s.

In addition, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the largest organization of women in the nineteenth century, protested against the sale of abortifacients and contraceptives. So did the YMCA, in which Comstock got his start. This is because, as Francis Willard never tired of pointing out, women’s rights and issues surrounding human sexuality were bound up together. As a staunch Methodist who had participated in the holiness movement, Willard joined the social purity movement in protest against reducing the age of sexual consent for girls. She preached against a “culture of impunity” in which men could abuse women, especially young girls, without fear.

What Dudley’s account fails to consider is the way in which issues surrounding birth control and abortion in the late nineteenth century were part of a larger push for social holiness. There remain organizations like the Salvation Army (conveniently forgotten as an Evangelical institution) that still place a fundamentally pro-life stance in the context of a push to deal with cultural, social, and economic factors that lead women to terminate pregnancies.

Dudley’s account leaps from the late nineteenth century to the late 1960s without bothering to investigate the Evangelical position during the intervening decades. What is clear is that writers like the Lutheran Radio Hour preacher Walter Maier were not only writing against abortion, they were writing against birth control. The same holds true for Oscar Lowry who was teaching at Moody Bible Institute in the 1930s and ’40s. Maier summarized the feelings of Evangelicals when he said, “many regard the coming of a child as a social and economic calamity, an unwelcome infringement upon the activities of husband and wife.” He attacked the mantra “fewer children, better children” that he saw in Margaret Sanger and her allies.

The consistent Evangelical position through the 1950s across denominational lines was that abortion was morally wrong. The question, then, is how to account for the clear shift toward a more lax view on abortion by the end of the 1960s. There are multiple causal factors, one of which was the birth defects crisis that followed the authorization of thalidomide in the late 1950s and 1960s. Thousands of babies were born with severe defects as a result of doctors administering thalidomide during the early stages of pregnancy.

A second factor was renewed concerns about overpopulation that had Evangelicals reconsidering their position. Finally, there was a concerted effort to resist Catholic notions of natural law as part of determining the Evangelical position. The result led to a more lax position on abortion in some Evangelical organizations like the Southern Baptist Convention and the symposium on birth control sponsored by Christianity Today in 1968.

Nevertheless, this lax view was not universally held even at the time. Methodist ethicist Paul Ramsey argued against abortion in Fabricated Man in 1970. His thought influenced the Wesleyan wing of Evangelicalism because of the historic connection between Methodism and the holiness movement.

During the 1970s Evangelicals debated their positions on abortion and birth control. While this debate ended with an Evangelical reaffirmation of a pro-life position, it was not without a problem. The catalyst for a return to a staunchly pro-life position was Whatever Happened to the Human Race? by Francis Schaeffer and C. Everett Koop. When one reads Koop’s and Schaeffer’s account the pro-life position becomes embedded in a larger argument about world view and scientific naturalism.

This represented a shift away from placing a pro-life position in the context of sexual ethics and marriage. For the Wesleyan-holiness family of Evangelicals, a pro-life position is best understood as part of an overall ethic about the treatment of women, human sexuality, and marriage. In other words, it was about holiness of life. This approach to life had much in common with the Catholic perspective and the return to virtue ethics one can find in the writings of Arthur Holmes at Wheaton.

Dudley’s memoir simply does not take into consideration the contextual factors or the history of Evangelical thought on abortion. Moreover, Dudley is content to deal with the Reformed-Baptist wing of the movement while leaving out the Lutheran and Wesleyan contributions. To say Evangelicals were latecomers to opposing abortion represents a selective reading of history, and a false one.

Articles by Dale M. Coulter

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