Early Republic Evangelicals, Abortion, and the Culture Wars

In 1823, Hugh Lenox Hodge became a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school. Hodge hailed from a well-known Philadelphia family. His father, also Hugh, served as a physician in Early Republic Pennsylvania. The elder Hodge’s sons made their family even more established by the middle of the nineteenth century. Hugh Lenox Hodge graduated from Princeton and became a well-known physician and medical professor; his next youngest brother Charles became a world-renowned theologian and head of Princeton Seminary. Hugh Lenox Hodge also earned ordination in the Presbyterian Church. Hugh Lenox Hodge served on the medical faculty at the University of Pennsylvania for forty years. His theological and social commitments were evangelical and like most evangelicals of his era social causes remained important to him in his professional and religious capacities. Like most evangelicals of the era, he loathed abortion and denounced any attempt to make the procedure legal or more accessible.

In 1839, Hodge—then serving as Professor of Obstetrics and the Diseases of Women at what was widely considered the best medical school in North America—addressed his students on abortion. “Having had my attention as a professional man frequently directed to the subject of criminal abortion, I delivered an Introductory Lecture upon this subject to my class, in the University of Pennsylvania.” In 1854, Hodge deemed “this subject of great importance” and decided to reiterate “the address to a new class of students.” Hodge began his address by noting the public declarations of the Old School Presbyterian Church against abortion. “With great pain,” the General Assembly of the Presbyterian church was “constrained to admit the increasing prevalence, in many parts of our country, of unscriptural views of the marriage relation.” “Unscriptural views of the marriage relations” led to the “obligations of that relation” being increasingly “disregarded by many, and separations of husbands and wives, and divorces for slight and unwarranted reasons are becoming more frequent every year.” The General Assembly could not “shut our eyes to the fact that the horrible crime of infanticide, especially in the form of the destruction, by parents, of their own offspring, before birth, also prevails to an alarming extent.” The evils, warned the Presbyterians, “which these errors and crimes have already brought upon our country, and the worse evils which they threaten in the near future, make it imperative, as we believe, that the whole power of the ministry and Church of Jesus Christ should be put forth in maintenance of the truth, and of virtue in regard to these things.” There were many social causes that “operated to produce a corruption of the public morals so deplorable.” But most prominent among them, warned the General Assembly, was the increased “facility with which divorces may be obtained in some of the States, constant promulgation of false ideas of marriage and its duties, by means of books, lectures etc, and the distribution, through the mails, of impure publications.”

The Old School Presbyterian Church’s confessional commitments and evangelical dispositions did not lead it or prominent members like Hodge to quietism or apolitical religiosity. Abortion and disregard for the sanctity of marriage were intrinsically tied, and it was therefore unsurprising that Hodge sympathetically quoted the General Assembly’s admonition that it was the duty of the Church of Christ to oppose, “in every practical way… corrupting agencies and tendencies” regarding marriage. The gathered presbyters especially urged “upon all ministers of the gospel the duty of giving instruction to the people of their respective charges, as to the scriptural doctrine concerning the marriage relation.” The assembly warned “against joining in wedlock any who may have been divorced upon other than scriptural grounds,” and they enjoined church sessions to carry out “the exercise of due discipline in the cases of those members who may be guilty of violating the law of Christ in this particular.” Respect for marriage, Early Republic Presbyterians believed, was tied to mitigating abortion. The General Assembly regarded destruction “by parents of their own offspring before birth with abhorrence, as a crime against God, and against nature.” Since the increased “frequency of such murders can no longer be concealed, we hereby warn those that are guilty of this crime, that except they repent, they cannot inherit eternal life. They exhorted “those who have been called to preach the gospel, and all who love purity and truth, and who would avert the just judgment of Almighty God from the nation, that they be no longer silent or tolerant of these things.” Indifference or silence from the pulpit about abortion, the General Assembly commanded, was no longer an option. Presbyterians had to “endeavor by all proper means, to stay the flood of impurity and cruelty.”

Confessional Evangelical Protestants of the Early Republic spoke loudly and frequently regarding abortion. In the North this was generally wedded to emancipationist work regarding slavery. The notion that political quietism or silence regarding the natural order ever typified Evangelicals is ahistorical at best, and deliberate obfuscation at worst.[1]


[1] Hugh Lenox Hodge, Fœticide, Or Criminal Abortion: A Lecture Introductory to the Course on Obstetrics and Diseases of Women and Children, University of Pennsylvania, Session 1839-40 (Philadelphia: Lindsay and Blakiston, 1839), 1-9.

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