Commentary Magazine

Preaching Eugenics by Christine Rosen

Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement
by Christine Rosen
Oxford. 296 pp. $35.00

Charles Darwin was a sickly man whose letters reveal much anguish over the “infirmity” he feared he had passed on to his offspring. Two of his children died young, and the others were in chronically failing health. In this spectacle of illness and death, Darwin saw the hand of nature: the constitutionally weak might perish, but the vigorous and healthy would survive to enjoy life. Though he suspected that inbreeding was a culprit, he doubted anything could be done about it, lamenting to a friend, “What a book a Devil’s Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low & horridly cruel works of nature!”

If Darwin was a cynic, his young cousin Francis Galton was decidedly more optimistic. A polymath and a pioneer of modern statistical analysis, Galton imagined that human beings could wrest control of their hereditary destiny by practicing what he called eugenics—that is, encouraging the reproduction of the fit, and preventing that of the feeble and degenerate. “What nature does blindly, slowly, ruthlessly, man may do providently, quickly, and kindly,” he wrote with almost religious inspiration. Galton saw eugenics not as a devil’s chapbook, but as a catechism for a new kind of faith: faith in the perfectibility of mankind through provident breeding.



In Preaching Eugenics, Christine Rosen documents the spread of Galton’s evangel through the churches and religious institutions of the United States in the early part of the 20th century. In many ways Darwin’s work had prepared the ground. Confronted with the scientific “fact” of evolution, many clergymen felt an acute sense of status anxiety over their role as purveyors of spiritual truth. Traditionalists and conservatives among them took refuge in the reaffirmation of biblical infallibility; for liberal religious leaders, however, the challenge was to embrace the new sciences and embark on a program of social reform—or else face irrelevance.

The initial impetus, as Rosen tells it, came from amateur sociologists like the Rev. Oscar McCulloch, who in the late 1870’s detailed the history of a destitute Indiana clan called the Ishmaelites. Among this family, McCulloch was shocked to discover generations of murderers, illegitimate children, prostitutes, polygamists, and beggars. Similarly appalling reports appeared over the next several decades: about the Jukes of New York, the Kallikaks and the Pineys of New Jersey It seemed that traditional forms of therapy—in particular, the “unlimited public and private aid” dispensed to debauched families like these—only encouraged “the propagation of similarly disposed children.”

To attack the problem at its root, McCulloch conceived a new kind of scientific charity with eugenics as its cornerstone. Although he achieved some success in implementing his ideas, it was not until the early 1900’s that hereditarian thinking gained wide currency among the Christian clergy. Indeed, eugenics became a key precept of the Social Gospel, the reformist Christian movement of that era. Embracing Galton’s science with fervor, religious leaders of all tendencies incorporated eugenics into a broad program aimed at eliminating poverty and rooting out moral degeneracy.

By about 1910, ministers across the United States were pressing for purity reforms, promoting marriage counseling, and giving eugenic child-rearing advice. More coercive tactics were also adopted. Walter Taylor Sumner, dean of Chicago’s Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul and a disciple of the feminist social reformer Jane Addams, decreed in 1912 that he would marry no couple without a “certificate of health” from a reputable physician. As churches and synagogues across the country followed suit, a number of states began to enshrine marriage certification in law. Meanwhile, other eugenically-minded social reformers pressed for laws mandating the sterilization of criminals and the segregation of the “feebleminded” into colonies cut off from the rest of society.

For several decades, efforts like these met with considerable success. The enthusiasm of religious leaders for race improvement culminated in the 1920’s with the establishment of the American Eugenics Society, an organization that explicitly compared its task with the “founding and development of Christianity.” As membership grew more than tenfold in its first decade, the society published a Eugenics Catechism extolling the mystical virtues of the human germplasm and downplaying the unpleasant aspects of negative plans like sterilization.

By the mid-1930’s, however, the eugenics movement had begun to fall into disrepute. Secular eugenicists came under increasing attack from geneticists, who were seen as having greater scientific credibility, and the rigors of the Depression cut into popular and financial support for eugenic schemes. Catholic clergymen involved in the eugenics movement withdrew in 1930 after Pope Pius XI issued Casti Connubi, which condemned, along with birth control, the eugenic regulation of marriage. As ministers confronted economic hardship at home and looming war in Europe, the era of the Social Gospel drew to an end, and with it religious support for the eugenics movement.



Clear, concise, and meticulous in its scholarship, Preaching Eugenics presents some challenges for the lay reader. The chapters are organized thematically rather than chronologically, making it difficult to follow the timeline of a movement that had a rise, a plateau, and a decline. In focusing largely on the role of religious leaders in the rise of eugenics, moreover, Rosen offers only a fragmentary view of the movement’s other arms: the social and the scientific. She also assumes in the reader a certain familiarity with the social milieu of the early 20th century, dotting her text with semi-obscure references to institutions like settlement houses and Chautauqua tents.

Nonetheless, what stands out from this history is the stark truth that eugenics in this country was a cause célèbre not of fascists and hate-mongers but of a circle that understood itself to comprise the enlightened, the forward-thinking, the best people in the best churches. It was part and parcel of a progressive social program that included temperance, women’s suffrage, labor reforms, the living wage, and birth control. And it was preached from pulpits across the country and exercised broad ecumenical and inter-religious appeal: when the American Eugenics Society sponsored biennial sermon contests in the late 1920’s, entries flooded in from Protestant preachers of various denominations as well as from Reform rabbis and Catholic priests.

Ironically enough, it was the opponents of eugenics, particularly religious fundamentalists, who were derided as ignorant, superstitious, and unscientific. When eugenic legislation was proposed, it was the Roman Catholic Church that mounted the staunchest defense of individual liberty, citing the supremacy of the natural right to marry and procreate over the state’s interest in promoting racial fitness.

The involvement of Jewish religious leaders in the eugenics movement, though relatively minor in scope, also has its ironic twists. Reform rabbis like Max Reichler and Emil Hirsch saw in eugenics a refinement of the talmudic laws governing marriage and child-rearing Others, like Stephen S. Wise, regarded eugenic science as a means of “healing” the world—in other words, as a vehicle of social reform. A number of Reform rabbis remained enthusiastic proponents of the movement even as it exhibited its darker side in the form of academic eugenicists convinced of the supposedly hereditary cunning and shrewdness of Jews, or fretting publicly over their “high survival rate.”



If eugenics as a social movement in the United States was already moribund in the late 1930’s, by the 1950’s it was totally extinguished, the taint of Nazism having cast hereditarian thinking in a permanently disreputable light. Social scientists in the second half of the 20th century came to eschew biological explanations for human behavior, instead regarding the environment as all-determining. Though this reflex has itself gradually weakened, it seems safe to say that no respectable biologist these days would dare speculate about a gene for feeblemindedness or moral turpitude.

In this light, it might be tempting to regard eugenics as a vaguely sinister pseudoscience, like phrenology or Lysenkoism. But in at least one respect, that would be a serious mistake. Although the eugenics movement of the 1910’s and 20’s was replete with unsavory assumptions—not to mention bizarre and dubious theories—the reformers who embraced eugenics with such zeal had only a superficial interest in the supposed details of the science. As Rosen points out, their aim was rather more pragmatic: namely, to cure the hereditary ills of society by promoting physical and psychological fitness.

The eugenic methods of the last century failed to achieve this goal, but the reproductive biotechnologies of the present century may yet succeed. After all, unlike the eugenicists, who lacked a sophisticated understanding of genetics and could only speculate about the heritability of various traits, modern geneticists possess a more formidable armamentarium, including the complete (if not yet completely decoded) sequence of the human genome.

Religious and secular thinkers alike have begun to grapple with the issues posed by recent advances in genetics, exploring the theological and ethical implications of technologies like gene therapy, preimplantation genetic diagnosis, and reproductive cloning. Given the enormous influence religion continues to wield in American life, the response of churches and synagogues will no doubt help to shape the debate. Will religious leaders in the 21st century embrace the new genetic techniques rather than risk appearing intransigent and irrelevant? Or will they stake out principled stands on theological grounds? The science may be new, but Preaching Eugenics reminds us that in an important sense, we have been there before.


About the Author

Kevin Shapiro is a research fellow in neuroscience and a student at Harvard Medical School.

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