The Crooked Lake Review

Winter 2005

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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 VI: Women of the First Maternal Association

During the years of the Maternal Association's known existence, from 1824-1840, like other states, New York denied married women the right to own property, the right to make contracts, the right to their own wages, and the right to vote to determine the course of government. In 1836, New York revised its statues to eliminate even the trusts which had been used by concerned fathers to protect their daughter's inheritance, so that from 1836 to 1848, married women in New York suffered increased deprivation of property rights. Under coverture as well, women were denied the right to be guardians of their children. Their husbands possessed the legal right to make all decisions affecting their children not only during their husbands' lives, but also after their husbands' deaths.

To date, no full-length study has addressed this practice, but women's deprivation of the guardianship of their children became a recurrent theme in 19th-century women's rights conventions. Husbands by law might determine how and by whom children were to be "governed"; how they were to be apprenticed and educated; in the event of their deaths husbands possessed the legal right to assign the guardianship of their children to whomever they pleased. These prerogatives were not compromised by drunkenness, violations of moral standards, or, mental incompetence.

In addition to the economic and political institutions which made married mothers legal nonpersons, the women of the Maternal Association inherited a religious ideology that sanctified and mystified their subjugatiion. God had ordained their subordination to their husbands and the institutions they and other men had created and ruled. In order to question their place in the Calvinist family and church, women needed self-assurance. That force was precisely the force that Calvnist childrearing methodology set out to eliminate.

Were the women of First Maternal Association not then attempting to uphold the Abrahamic Covenant and their community when they formed their organization? There is evidence that at least a sizeable number were not. First Presbyterian Church published A Brief History of the Church and Society in 1829. In it there is an official statement regarding the existence and purpose of the Maternal Association. Here is how church officials presented First Maternal Association to the church community:

On the last Wednesday in June, 1824, a society was organized by the name of the Maternal Association, composed of female members of the church; the principal object of which is to devise and adopt the best measures for the instruction of baptized children…. At each quarterly meeting, the members are required to bring their children for examination and instruction; at which time the pastor of the church attends and addresses the members and their children.

This presentation creates the impression that the Maternal Association is under the control of the pastor and church. An examination of the records of the church, the documents of the Association and Mother's Magazine can lead to contradictory conclusions.

First, the church's public announcement states that all members of the Maternal Association were also members of First Presbyterian Church. A comparison of the church's records of admission to membership and the Names of Mothers, the membership list published by the Maternal Association, reveals that there were twenty five Maternal Association members (27%) who never joined the church. This is not by itself especially meaningful, for beginning with second generation New Englanders there had been many who were part of the congregation but not elected to membership. Some of these individuals could have been tormented by their lack of piety. As mentioned earlier, in order to become a member of the Church, as individual had to covenant with God, which is to say that the person renounced her/his worldly self and interests and sought to live a pious, saintly life dedicated to the glorification of God. The acceptance of the covenant with God was the prerequisite for entrance into the covenanted community. When one entered the church community, the member agreed to accept the discipline and court proceedings of the Presbyterian minister and elders to insure that in fact the member was meeting covenanted obligations. Presbyterianism traditionally accommodated those who were covenanted as children but who had not become members or who while hopefully waiting for conversion attended services, and participated in selected activities, but they were unregenerate from the perspective of the church hierarchy. They were part of the Presbyterian Society, but they were not yet members, nor subject to church discipline.

Moreover, we do not know how many of the twenty-five women who never joined First Presbyterian were members of the Maternal Association in 1829; we do know, on the other hand, that one founder, Martha Parker Hastings, never became a member of the church, so that at least one of the Association's prominent members was not a member of the church in 1829. If we suppose that in 1829 only one member of the Maternal Association was not a member of the church, that would mean that in the years between 1829 and 1840 a growing number of Maternal Association members were not members of the church. Even if we assume that all twenty-five devoutly wished for the spirit to move them to conversion, there is a clear discrepancy between the church's view of the Association and its actual relation to church hierarchy.

The church also asserted that the purpose of the Association was to discuss childrearing methods for baptized children. This presentation then communicates that the members of the Association, members of the church, were pious followers of the Abrahamic Covenant. However, there is evidence that many members of the Maternal Association were not complying with the Abrahamic Covenant.

The Names of Mothers which lists the living and deceased members of the Maternal Association in 1840 also specifies the number of living children for those members alive in 1840. When we compare that number against the baptismal records of the First Presbyterian Church, we find that 41 of 94 members (44%) of the Maternal Association did not baptize any of their children in the First Presbyterian Church. As this list includes women who transferred into the Church by letter from their previous congregation, they may have offered their children in covenant in their previous churches. The list also includes one woman who died the year following her entrance into the church. It includes women who were past the typical childbearing age. When the number of women not baptizing their children in First Presbyterian Church is adjusted to exclude these women, then there remain thirty-two women who were members of the Maternal Association, but who did not baptize any of their children in the Church (34%).

The Names of Mothers of the Association also provides us with the number of children alive in 1840 for members who are also living. When this number is compared with the number of children baptized in the First Presbyterian Church, we find that 33% of members' children living in 1840 were not baptized in the First Presbyterian Church. Adjusting this figure for those who transferred into the church after their children were born, and assuming that the children were baptized in their earlier congregations, forty-eight children alive in 1840 had not been baptized (19%).

Acceptance of the Abrahamic Covenant among members of the Maternal Association does not appear to be correlated with class. Among the twelve artisans, four baptized 100% of their children, four baptized 0%, two baptized 50%, one baptized 60% and one baptized 80%. The distribution does not vary significantly from the entire group.

Support for the covenant does not appear to be correlated with age. Of the twenty-nine members whose age is known, sixteen were born before 1800. Of this group, five baptized all of their children while five baptized none and six baptized some. This distribution is similar to the group at large. Eleven members are known to have been born after 1800. Of this group five baptized all their children, while three baptized none and two baptized some.

Nor surprisingly, the practice of infant baptism among members of the Maternal Association was correlated with church membership. Of the thirty-four members of the Maternal Association who did not baptize any of their chidren, sixteen were members of the Church while eighteen were not.

The Presbyterian Church records appear to have been dutifully and conscientiously kept as documents of the community. There are errors and, rarely, missing parents' names, however, the likelihood of omitting the baptisms of 84 children given the church's interest in infant baptism does not seem a tenable hypothesis. It seems appropriate to conclude that a significant number of members of the Maternal Association and their husbands resisted the Covenant. Husbands could, of course, have baptized their children against the wishes of their wives. Whether that was the case in many instances is unclear. Typically, session records identify the child and parents' names. Whether both were present or happily so cannot be inferred. What can be inferred with some assurance, however, is that 84 unbaptized children in the church community represnted a challenge to prescribed practice. It meant that parents had not given their children to God. In one sense, their children's selfhood had not been alienated and placed under the control of clergy. It must be emphasized that we do not know that the mothers were more or less responsible for the lack of baptism than the fathers, but we can confidently say that these parents had not relinquished authority over their children to the minister and ruling male elders. This pocket of resistance in the citadel of Calvinism suggests that both women and men were determinedly thinking for themselves. What they were thinking has yet to be demonstrated, but their resistance surely reflects their growing confidence in their ability to rely upon their own judgment, and implies a conviction that they could examine for themselves their parental function, the nature of the child, and childrearing methodology. The refusal to accept the Abrahamic Covenant cannot by itself be taken to mean that women were protecting their children's right to a positive sense of themselves. Baptists argued that the covenant was objectionable because infant baptism desecrated the sacrament by sancitfying an unregenerate soul. It was necessary for each individual to renounce her/his worldly self, which an infant could no do, and it should not be awarded salvation because of paternal piety.

2003, Elizabeth Shanklin
Index to Authorizing Mothers
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