The Crooked Lake Review

Fall 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 V: Calvinist Childrearing Methodology (continued)

No evidence is available to establish for each member of the Maternal Association the childrearing methods used by her parents. Yet as previously discussed, orthodox Calvinist childrearing methods required parents to annihilate the selfhood of each infant. Philip Greven has examined the consequences of Calvinist childrearing methodology, providing the basis for inferences regarding the effects of parental attempts to annihilate selfhood on the members of the Maternal Association who we may reasonably assume were subjected to some variant of Calvinism.

In Spare the Child: the Religious Roots of Punishment and the Psychological Impact of Physical Abuse, after providing evidence that as parents sought to destroy the selfhood of infants prior to their beginning to speak, they used physical means of inflicting pain, Greven examines the consequences of such abusive childrearing methods. The negative results are anxiety and fear, anger and hate, apathy, melancholy and depression, obsessiveness and rigidity, ambivalence, dissociation, paranoia, sadomasochism, domestic violence, aggression and delinquency, authoritarianism, and the apocalyptic impulse. Greven's discussion of the lack of empathy resulting from such traumatic childhood experiences is particularly relevant to the discussion of the relation of First Maternal Association's relation to the perpetuation of patriarchy, the subject of this essay.

The commodification of the child, the denial of its subjectivity, was perpetuated most readily by parents with little empathy for the suffering of their offspring. The growth of maternal tenderness acknowledged by the tract represented a growth in empathy. In The Protestant Temperament, Greven found that in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in the United States, those who actually engaged in the severest attacks on the selfhoods of their children tended to be from the poorer classes, while more affluent moderates would verbalize doctrines but in practice ameliorate them, and the gentility ignored them altogether indulging their children's desires. Given the class background of most members of the Maternal Association then we may suppose that they had benefited from some melioration of orthodox childrearing techniques. No evidence is available to enable us to know how vigorously members of the Maternal Association were traumatized, but we can be certain that they were educated to internalize the self-hatred the orthodox doctrine required, and that it is likely that each evidenced some of the disorders the Greven identifies. We do know, for example, that Rev. Aikin's wife, Maternal Association member Delia Aikin, was so mentally deranged at times that her husband interrupted his ministerial duties to travel with her, for only through leaving Utica could she regain her senses.

Peter Gregg Slater has provided a study that is particularly helpful in perhaps determining more precisely theory and practice of childrearing that members of the Maternal Association endured as children and confronted as adults. His work confirms that members' families, even though orthodox Calvinists, probably were ameliorating Calvinist methodology. In his work Views of Children and of Child Rearing During the Early National Period: a Study in the New England Intellect, he writes that

The doctrine of original sin continued to be held with force in the eighteenth century, but was also subject to neglect by certain Calvinist divines, though no open challenge arose before the middle of the century. At that time conflicting tendencies emerged. In some quarters, the depravity of man received heightened emphasis. The seventeenth century Puritans had claimed that considerable remnants of God-like greatness coexisted in man with his loathsome corruption. The claim had been advanced partly for theological-metaphysical reasons, and perhaps partly because in an age and place where religion was the major preoccupation, the lash of total depravity did not have to be wielded with excessive harshness.

This amelioration of Calvinist efforts to annihilate children's selfhood would be then an important factor explaining the emergence of maternal tenderness.

However, Utica's First Presbyterian was a major center for revivals and the doctrine of human depravity was especially emphasized during those events as a means of goading individuals to be born again in the Covenant. Charles Grandison Finney and other revivalists of the Second Great Awakening who came to First Presbyterian emphasized the doctrine of human depravity to terrify individuals into renouncing what positive feelings about themselves that they had managed to achieve. The conversion process was built upon the stage of conviction in which the individual developed the conviction of his/her utter unworthiness and dependence upon divine grace for forgiveness in order to join the saints. Finney, for example, in his lecture, "How to Promote a Revival," tells his audience "to break up your hearts…to bring the mind into such a state, that it is fitted to receive the word of God." That state was to be achieved through self-examination of the following enumerated sins: ingratitude, want of love of God, neglect of the Bible, unbelief, neglect of prayer, neglect of the means of grace, the manner of performing duties—want of feeling—want of faith—worldly frame of mind—so that words were nothing but the mere chattering of a wretch, that did not deserve that God should feel the least care for him, want of love for the souls of fellow-men, want of care for the heathen, neglect of social duties, neglect of watchfulness over one's own life, neglect to watch over brethren, neglect of self-denial, worldly mindedness, pride, envy, censoriousness, slander, levity, lying, cheating, hypocrisy, robbing God, bad temper, and hindering others from being useful. He advises that

when you have gone over your whole history in this way, thoroughly, if you will then go over the ground the second time, and give your solemn and fixed attention to it, you will find that the things you have put down will suggest other things of which you have been guilty, connected with them, or near them. Then go over it a third time, and you will recollect other things connected with these…. Unless you do take up your sins in this way, and consider them in detail, one by one, you can form no idea of the amount of your sins.

Not to deny the self was not merely sinful. Finney writes that those who do not practice self-denial "will be in hell!"

But by the nineteenth century, there were three general orientations to the self. In addition to the Calvinist innately depraved self, there was the Enlightenment self as tabula rasa and the sacred self of Romaniticism. In Changing Conceptions of Original Sin, historian Hilrie Smith found from a close study of prominent theologians and others struggling with patriarchal doctrine that they often evidenced contradictory beliefs. In the mid-eighteeenth century, for example, leading Congregationalist minister Jonathan Mayhew who opposed the Great Awakening for its emphasis on innate depravity and who himself denied imputed sin, nevertheless sometimes spoke to youth "as though he believed in the doctrine of native depravity." "Affluent Bostonians," Smith writes, "might continue to repeat the federal doctrine of original sin on Sunday, but they felt more at home with Mayhew's conception of man on Monday."

While it is probable that at least some if not most members of the Maternal Association were subjected to orthodox childrearing methods, and others to less harsh rejections of selfhood, there seems little doubt that each member had been reared to reject herself in some fashion. For within Presbyterian theology parents were instructed that not to lead a child to reject herself would insure her damnation. Whether their wills were broken in infancy or through conditioning during their early years, we can be sure that Maternal Association members had been taught to reject their desires and feelings. Members of the Maternal Association would have inherited not only a negative orientation to selfhood, but a community that demanded selflessness of them. Further, those members of the Maternal Association who became members of First Presbyterian had to have given testimony to that church or a previous one proving that they had renounced their individual wills so as to be born again in the will of God.

Public perception of the 1803 Sangerfield controversy had been in the hands of the Congregationalists who wrote and published the narrative of the "vindication" of infant baptism. They claimed that their positive views of infant depravity and the necessity of infant baptism had won the field. The theological war had not, however, been won. In 1829, five years after the founding of First Maternal Association and three years before Mother's Magazine was first published, public control of a second dispute over orthodoxy was in the hands of the challenger. Dolphus Skinner, pastor of the First Universalist Church and Society in Utica, initiated a public correspondence with Reverend Aikin, then minister of First Presbyterian. A more devastating critique of Rev. Aikin's aristocratic hauteur and his defense of orthodoxy, specifically infant depravity and the necessity of infant baptism, is hard to imagine.

Skinner published the first twelve letters in his Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate. During the course of publishing his letters, Skinner writes that his magazine's readership rose from seventeen hundred to seven thousand. He then republished all twenty-four letters to Aikin as well as six letters to Rev. D. C. Lansing, pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church in Utica in book form in 1833. While acknowledging Aikin's "eminent learning and distinguished talents," Skinner ridicules him as "a stickler" for the Abrahamic Covenant and the "principal leader in the cause of bigotry, intolerance and error" in Utica. Devastatingly, Skinner demonstrated through reasoned discourse that the doctrines of the fall, original sin and covenant were not biblical, but were contradictory and contrary to sound reason and respect for divine will.

Universalism denied the doctrine of imputed guilt descending from Adam and its consequent belief in infant depravity. It denied the doctrine of divine election and reprobation and asserted the possibility of universal salvation. From Skinner's perspective, Presbyterianism degraded divinity and humanity, and Skinner intended his letters to Aikin to expose orthodox leadership and doctrines to public scrutiny. Firmly situated in Enlightenment thought, Skinner argued that Calvinist dogma impeded an understanding of character formation and that individuals needed to be reared free from tyranny of degrading notions of themselves. He correctly denounced Aikin and other Presbyterians for advocating government support for Sunday schools as a means of insuring docile future generations. (Husbands of members of the Maternal Association were leaders of the Western Sunday School Union of the State of New York: In 1827, William Williams was President, and of 27 managers, 12 were married to women in the Maternal Association.) With good reason, Skinner accused Aikin of hopelessly using the Sunday school movement to subvert the Constitution and establish theocracy. Rev. Aikin never answered the letters. "Mr. Aikin," Skinner wrote, "so far as the public and these letters are concerned, remains silent as the house of death." A third orthodox minister of the First Presbyterian Church had lost his public voice. In 1835, Rev. Aikin left Utica to accept a call in Cleveland, Ohio.

Thus, members of the Maternal Association, many of whom would have been traumatized in infancy so as to insure that they repressed their genuine feelings and desires, who in any case would have been reared to repudiate themselves as sinners were being educated throughout the 1820s that the doctrines that their church promoted were deplored by other thoughtful people. At the end of the decade, their husbands and their inherited way of life had been subjected to public scorn. Skinner had thrown down the gauntlet and no one had met the challenge. Contemporary psychologists might speak of the situation that women faced in First Presbyterian Church as one in which there was cognitive dissonance, a situation that generates change.

In 1824, when Mrs. Erastus Clark, Mrs. William Clark, Mrs. Thomas Emmons Clark, Mrs. Oren Clark, Mrs. Sarah K Clarke, Mrs. Walter King, Mrs. Charles Hastings and Mrs. Thomas Hastings determined to form their own organization, they not only had credibility in the community, they had the support of the most powerful men in the community who were experienced initiators of civic, financial and cultural organizations. The founders also had years of successful organizing experience themselves. Sophia Clark, like her husband Erastus, was a preeminent figure. She was the founder in 1806 of the Female Charitable Society, identified in The Utica Almanac of 1810 as one of four Village Corporations. Ryan refers to the society as representing "an innovation of the frontier and a breach of the customary order of the family and the sexes. The officers of the Female Charitable Society appeared before the public independently of the household head, listed by name, and with such awesome titles as "president," "treasurer," "trustee." It was Sophia Clarke who was elected scribe and appointed treasurer. Among the society's subscribers between 1806 and 1813 were twelve future members of the Maternal Association: Sophia Clarke, Sally Hoyt, Eliza Williams, Abby Wells, Sally Breese (Sarah Breese Lansing), Sophia Williams, Jerusha Wells(Jerusha Wells Clark), Mary Thomas, Abigail Handy, Sally K. Clark, Eunice Camp (Eunice Camp Potter), and Martha Seward.

The Second Great Awakening's revival cycle began in 1799, cresting again in Utica in 1813, 1815, 1819 and 1821 before reaching its crescendo between 1825 and 1837. Ryan argued that women "created the organizational underpinning of the revivals that would follow." In 1814 in the midst of the revival, the charitable society changed its name to the Oneida Female Missionary Society. This was the first such organization in the United States "to be financially independent of the male religious establishment." By 1824, the year the Maternal Association was founded, Oneida Female Missionary society had extended its reach beyond Oneida County, with seventy auxiliaries, and in support of dozens of missionaries, it contributed more that $1,000 annually. While Ryan does not offer detailed support, she asserts that "these women orchestrated the revival" that catapulted Charles Grandison Finney to fame. She concludes that "the organizational and financial sophistication of this women's group invites comparison with the trading networks and political parties [Federalist] of Utica's merchant capitalists" to whom they were married. She emphasizes that

by joining the Female Missionary Society women of the upper class publicly assumed the moral and religious responsibilities of their mercantile households and a major role in social reproduction. By efficiently and successfully fulfilling such social obligations, these women undoubtedly enhanced the elite status of their mates and added cultural and religious reinforcement of the male links in the local trade networks.

On the other hand, Ryan explains that women's benevolent activities redefined public space, expanding women's social role organizationally independent of their husbands. "Although not within the established centers of public power, their self-created societies and offices commanded considerable notice in the press and the community."

Thus when the founders organized First Maternal Association of Utica, Presbyterian women in Utica had long demonstrated their ability to breach Calvinist prescriptions regarding women's silent, passive and subordinate status. The act of forming a maternal association was another step out of passivity, one step in a long road toward self-defined selfhood and the constructions of motherhood for themselves. A woman-constructed motherhood had perhaps greater ramifications even than women's activities in earlier organizations, for in 1824 the descendants of the Puritans in Utica were struggling with a wide range of forces competing for and affecting the orientation of the citizenry toward the self, and clerics and pious men as the result of enlightenment psychology saw that the future of Calvinsim to a great degree could depend upon their controlling how women reared their children. So in taking the step of forming Utica's first Maternal Association, the founders entered a highly charged field of forces contending for control of how the next generation was to be reared. As the founders sought to empower themselves as mothers, they faced a set of established and evolving patriarchal institutions arrayed to block their efforts. These were the same institutions that their husbands commanded and that they themselves were called upon to cherish and support.

Actually, the First Presbyterian Church within which the founders began the Maternal Association was by a wide margin predominantly female. An examination of the Session Records shows that the membership from 1797 to 1850 included 417 males and 784 females, approximately twice as many women as men. In addition, male members stayed fewer years in the church. Men stayed an average of 6.8 years, while women stayed an average of 8.1 years. The members of the Maternal Association seem to have contributed significantly more to the stability of the church than the average member of the church, as measured by length of stay. We have complete information for 57 of the 71 members of the Maternal Association who were also members of the First Presbyterian Church. These 57 women stayed an average of 24 years. The average length of stay for the 41 husbands for whom there is complete information was 20 years. Women were the mainstay not only because they were enduring members, but also, as was discussed earlier, they were responsible for the revivals that increased the membership of the church. The First Presbyterian Church then, filled with Utica's elite, while ruled by men, was dependent upon women. It was within this institution that the first Maternal Association was founded in 1824 by women who were civilly dead.

© 2003, Elizabeth Shanklin
Index to Authorizing Mothers
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