The Crooked Lake Review

Summer 2004

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Authorizing Mothers

A Study of the First Maternal Association of
Utica, New York, 1824 - 1833


Elizabeth Shanklin

Index to Authorizing Mothers

Part IV: Calvinist Childrearing Methodology

The forces of commerce had been eroding patriarchy for a century both in England and the United States. As the growth of markets and the availability of land reduced paternal say over the economic futures of both sons and daughters, an ideology that denied the legitimacy of paternal authority also developed. The ideological origins of the American Revolution can be located in those theories of John Locke which denied the necessity of submission to authority and affirmed the right to self-government. In his Prodigals and Pilgrims: The American Revolution Against Patriarchal Authority, 1750-1800, historian Jay Fliegelman has demonstrated that the widespread revolutionary orientation to filial freedom based on Locke's view of the self as a tabula rasa eroded orthodox Protestantism. In their study of family transformation Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg write that Revolutionary ideology affected families:

The roots of the transformation that had taken place in the American family lay in enlightened philosophical, religious, political, and economic ideas about the rights of the individual. In the years just before the American Revolution, a flood of advice books, philosophical treatises, and works of fiction helped to popularize revolutionary new ideas about child rearing and the family. The most popular books in the colonies on the eve of the American Revolution were not political discourses, such as John Locke's Second Treatise on Liberty, but philosophical tracts on child rearing—such as his Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Emile—and novels, plays, and poems concerned with family relations…. Such works disseminated a radically new sensibility that was to transform American ideals about the family over the next century.

Thus the founders of Utica's First Presbyterian Church at the turn of the century who were seeking to establish a covenanted church founded in the doctrine of infant depravity struggled in the context of widespread Enlightenment views of the self. First Presbyterians built Utica's most impressive church building whose steeple towering over the townspeople was a local wonder, but its fate symbolized the future of orthodoxy itself. The church was torched by an arsonist. Presbyterian ministers were educated at the most prestigious institutions, but a growing number of their fellow Protestants rejected their presumption of superiority deriving from their superior educations, and their superior status.

A local debate was initiated in 1803 by Sangerfield Baptists who wished to examine "both sides of the question," of infant baptism, and invited Congregationalists with their minister to engage in an ongoing discussion. This discussion resulted in weekly meetings over a six-month period which Congregationalists published in Utica in a pamphlet entitled "A Vindication of Infant Baptism …The Rise and Progress of a Dispute Carried on Between Certain Members of the Congregational and Baptist Churches in Sangerfield." The Sangerfield participants, according to the pamphlet, were perplexed over the question of the moral identity of infants and the justi-fication for infant baptism, and wished to examine Scripture and discuss its interpretation for their own guidance.

Congregationalists propounded orthodox covenant theology developed by the founding fathers of New England. "In putting on Christ by baptism, we become Abraham's seed, and heirs of this promise…. Circumcision, and baptism give rise to the same promise-are each a token of the same covenant." Mary Ryan has argued convincingly that in denying infant baptism, "the Baptists expounded, at least for the sake of argument, a doctrine of independence from the patriarchal household." Baptists denied the scriptural authority of convenant doctrine. Their doctrine of independence denied the legitimacy of Abraham's and by extension all fathers' ability to dispose of children's lives as if they were objects, of exercising ownership.

Presbyterians fought a losing battle to preserve the patriarchal ideology and childrearing methodology that, internalized in each individual, insured the continuance of their class hegemony. A detailed examination of relevant "Tracts" published by the American Tract Society will enable us to understand the growth of widely disseminated doctrines that were superceding the Abrahamic Covenant. The American Tract Society distributed tracts to local auxiliaries which then distributed them throughout their areas. Locally, William Williams, husband of Maternal Association member Sophia Wells Williams republished tracts which were methodically distributed throughout the area. Reverend Aikin, husband of member Delia Aikin, was a Director for Life of the society, while local Members for Life included the husbands of Maternal Association members Jerusha Doolittle, Hester Seymour, Harriet Dwight Dana, and Martha Williams Seward.

Whitney Cross found that by 1827, the American Tract Society had printed forty-four million pages, distributed most intensively in western New York State. "In ten years it published thirty million tracts, nearly a million Christian almanacs and over two million miscellaneous magazines, books and pamphlets. Probably not more than a quarter of this output left the confines of the state [New York]." Its fund-raising agent in Utica was the pivotal figure, Sophia Clark, wife of Erastus, and one of the eight founders of the Maternal Association.

Despite its title, the tract To Parents, addresses only fathers as the head and masters of families. One of the earliest tracts, it directs fathers to rear their children for God: "Every parent, every person who has a child under his care, ought to feel that such child is God's committed to him for the express purpose of being trained up for God—for the service and enjoyment of God, in time and eternity…." The tract prescribed the orthodox way to train a child for God's enjoyment:

The first efforts with children, in their moral training, should go to the establishment of complete parental authority over their minds. This is a measure of such vital importance, that without it much success can scarcely be expected; and very much depends on the early establishment of this authority; unless it is established early, it is hardly ever complete. By the time a child is two years of age, he ought to be in the habit of cheerful submission to whatever he knows to be the will of his parent…a ready, cheerful obedience, from the early dawns of reason, while it greatly facilitates every part of after-education is of essential use to counteract the self-will, the obstinacy, and bad temper of a child, before they are confirmed and strengthened by indulgence.

In order to establish authority over infants, parents terrified them through isolation, denial of food and comfort, and through physical assault. Thus, within Calvinist doctrine, the father who attacked the selfhood of his children, who successfully broke the will of each infant did not do so in order to dominate his child and to insure his child's submission to patriarchal economic, political and cultural institutions; rather, the father made his child pliant to serve divine will. The rationalization of this severely traumatic attack upon the self-hood of children as a sacred duty made the objectification of the subjectivity of the child a non-issue. In this way, the doctrine of innate depravity made possible the transformation of child abuse into an act of love. "We came into this world in a lost state, outcasts from God, and exposed to everlasting perdition, unless recovered from the ruin which sin has brought upon us."

Thus, the doctrine legitimated commodification of children through mystifying the actual power relations between parents and children. To claim the right to selfhood within Calvinist theology was to declare oneself a reprobate doomed for eternal torment, that torment would be only too real, for one would be cast outside the community of saints.

The millennial orientation of the tract offered hope for relief from a way of life that advocated the abuse of children, self-abuse, and the abuse of others. Through proper rearing of children, parents were told they might hope to eradicate sin and usher in the millennium. In this view, which assumes the commodification, or objectification, of children, the self is evil; if all selves were destroyed, then there could be a sinless world, the millennium:

Make education what, through grace, it may be made; make it universal; and, through the outpouring of the Holy Ghost, which will not be withheld when duly sought, the millennium will have commenced, as soon as the rebel race of full-grown sinners, who are doomed, for their unbelief, to perish, shall have passed away.

Despite the author's inability to feel positively about his own subjectivity and the selfhood of others, he nevertheless articulated some feeling for human suffering and the desire to end it on earth:

In the course of a few generations, human nature would necessarily undergo a vast improvement: we are unable to say to how great an extent. A general diffusion through society of the wisdom and morality of the Gospel; banishing intemperance, dishonesty, blasphemy, war, and every other baleful, corrupting, and deteriorating influence; and binding mankind together in the bonds of love to God and love to one another; would increase the comfort of living in society a hundred fold; yes, a hundred fold; and if so, would doubtless greatly add to the health and the duration of human life.

A further point establishes the strategy being employed by the writer of the tract to encompass Enlightenment psychology while maintaining a Calvinist framework. Having set forth the doctrine of innate depravity the writer points out that his contemporaries were realizing that first impressions formed character; the writer did not acknowledge any contradiction between this realization and the doctrine of innate depravity; instead, he used Lockean psychology to intensify the need an infant had for parents to prepare it for a second birth by breaking its will at an early age.

While To Parents never mentioned mothers but by implication they were included as subordinates, the tract entitled Maternal Duty constructs the prescribed role for mothers with an intensity that suggests Calvinists' new recognition of their church's dependency on women to overcome any tendency to nurture a child's will. It begins:

The Lord God has conferred an honour upon you in making you a mother; but, with the honour, high and very awful responsibilities are now connected, in consequence of sin. Each child that you bear is born in sin, an heir of wrath, alienated from the life of God, prone, from the very womb, to go astray, and, therefore, needs pardon in the Saviour's blood, and sanctification by his Spirit, to prepare it for admission into the kingdom of heaven. But it is only through the use of means that this blessed change is either to be sought or expected; and, in the use of these means, you, as the mother, are appointed by the Head of the Church, to occupy an honourable and prominent part.

As in To Parents the writer immediately legitimates patriarchal commodification of children: the child belongs to God. However, in Maternal Duty the writer defines the subservient role constructed for women from the dawn of written records: "the Lord God solemnly addresses you, in the language of Pharoah's [sic] daughter to the mother of Moses: 'Take this child and nurse it for me.'" Yet the tract focuses upon Calvinists' need in the early national period to compensate for men's defection from the orthodox way. The writer acknowledges that "the God of Nature originally ordained…[the husband] the head of the family," but if a husband is remiss in establishing a family altar, the mother must no longer be submissive, but must take the lead. She is advised to try to convince her husband with scriptural arguments (provided), but if to no avail, then she is to establish the altar and conduct religious practices in the home, which are to inculcate the trope of guilt and redemption:

Can we imagine any thing more happily suited to impress the tender hearts of youth with a sense of their dependence on God, of their obligations to fear him, and love him, and live for him, of the purity of his law, or the enormity of sin, than family religion? When they hear their sins confessed, and their mercies devoutly acknowledged as 'coming down from the Father of Lights,' and altogether undeserved; when they hear portions of the Scriptures read as 'given by inspiration of God,' and designed to regulate our conduct for this world, and 'make us wise unto salvation' in the next, how often has the youthful heart been impressed and awed, and constrained to ask, 'What meaneth this service?' and imperceptibly led to seek the Lord God of its father or mother, as its portion.

After giving examples of exemplary family religion, the writer addresses "Ye mothers in Israel…. Their children were as much enmity to God by nature as yours either are or can be; but through the Holy Ghost working omnipotently with their instructions, they were called into the family of grace, and sanctified as eminent instruments of glory to God, and usefulness in their generation…. Let the worth of the souls of your children, and the miseries of that hell which is to be avoided, and the joys of that heaven which is to be attained, all combine to excite in you the deepest solicitude for their salvation."

In To Mothers, the writer confronts the problem of women's feelings and admonishes women to feel that their children do not belong to them. He provides an exemplary narrative and informs women that "this mother felt that she received her children from God, and was accountable to him for the manner in which she trained them up." This admission that women's feelings are a factor to be reckoned with in prescriptive models of mothering is significant for it implies that women have achieved some feelingful contact with themselves despite Calvinist childrearing methods which attempted to repress subjectivity and excoriate it when expressed. The tract writer also recognizes that mothers are evidencing unique feelingful ties with their children. The writer seems to recognize that those ties are in conflict with the rejection of the child's selfhood that is required by Calvinism, and admonished women to serve the Calvinist diety:

thrice happy must be that mother, who, in the fear of God, and in reference to eternity, has thus performed her duty. There are feelings in a mother's bosom, which are known only by a mother: the tie which binds her to her children, is one compared with which all other ties are feeble.

Significantly, the writer makes no effort to persuade women to break the wills of their children. Instead, he appeals to women's tender sensibilities and suggests that in the earliest moments of an infant's life, a mother can begin gentle instruction.

The writer then offers mothers a sense of superiority: they are more important than the most powerful men, such as legislators and generals, for mothers are in charge of their children's souls: "That child has a soul, worth more than a million globes of gold." Within the framework of the tract, in exchange for alienating their children from themselves and from their mothers, women are offered self-esteem. It is tempting to hypothesize here that acceptance of tenderness between mothers and children is probably resulting from the increasing absence of the father from the home as men participate in the growth of commerce and industry, and the trend toward reduced family size that Daniel Scott Smith has demonstrated throughout the nineteenth century in the United States.

Filial Duties, a tract that explains that hell's torments await children who have "wantonly" offended their parents seeks to establish a biblical framework for obedience to parents and respect for their authority. However, as the word "wantonly" suggests, there is no attempt to argue absolute parental authority as earlier Calvinists did. In this sense, the child is granted the right to use his/her own judgment, always of course within a dictated theological framework.

Thus, the ideology of the American Tract Society sought to structure and use the maternal relation so as to insure the next generation's subservience to church doctrine and code of behavior. The Tract Society seeking to include many Protestant denominations made no mention of the Abrahamic Covenant and the divisive issue of baptism. Instead, it constructed motherhood within a patriarchal theology that upheld female subservience, innate depravity and the need for second birth. Yet the tracts evidenced a shift.

Enlightenment psychology had made childrearing more important; the growth of commerce and industry leading fathers out of the home made it very important for Calvinists to construct motherhood. Yet, writers could no longer depend upon harsh doctrines to engage and shape women's relations with their children; they appealed to women's feelings to engage and control them. Within the tracts then there was a shift in emphasis, tone, and doctrine. The authoritarian family mastered by the father who seeks complete authority over the minds of his children through annihilating children's wills was replaced by the pious mother tenderly inculcating words of wisdom so as to lead her children to follow divine dictates.

Utica's Tract Society was established in 1816. In 1825, The American Tract society was founded in New York City. In its 1827 Annual Report, there is notice that the Rev. Samuel C. Aikin of Utica, was made a Director for Life, by virtue of payment of $50.00, by the ladies of the First Presbyterian Church.

© 2003, Elizabeth Shanklin
Index to Authorizing Mothers
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