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