Unoriginal sins

The unconfessed sins of liberal Protestantism

-Phil Burcham-

It was an off-hand remark that revealed the gulf of miscomprehension between modern Aussies and churchgoers concerning what Christians believe or get up to in their gatherings.

During a quick trip to the tea room one Friday afternoon a work colleague casually asked about my plans for the weekend. I told him I was assisting a men’s breakfast for blokes in my church. Having never heard of such an event, he flippantly asked whether we’d be sitting around watching porn while eating corn flakes. I hastily tried to set him right.

As odd as my workmate’s perceptions were, while digging around the archives of old Australian newspapers recently I’ve unearthed a few accounts of some pretty weird and whacky things Presbyterian bloke’s groups did get up to in the first half of the 20th century – the days when “theological liberalism” dominated Australian Protestantism. In addition to downplaying the supernatural character of Scripture, liberals often displayed a sad affinity for eugenics, the powerful pseudoscientific movement that promoted the preferential propagation of “betterborn” people with “good genes”.

The November 3, 1927, edition of the Lithgow Mercury, for example, reported on a meeting of the Presbyterian Men’s League in their town which featured a church debate involving Government officials addressing the proposition “That the State should prevent the reproduction of the unfit”.

To quote the account, “Mr Wade opened the case for the Government, and was supported by Messrs. Hay, Carter, Baillie, Twadde and Longworth. They claimed that the State should, by whatever means Science may make available, prevent persons suffering from mental and physical diseases from reproducing their kind.”

It turns out the “whatever means” they had in mind hadn’t advanced much past the low-tech methods used by Ancient Spartans when tossing imperfect newborns into ravines; according to the Mercury, the Government speakers argued that “the State should have the right to destroy at birth children born into incurable disease or idiocy.” In their closing statement, the pro-infanticiders exhorted their Presbyterian audience to believe that “the science of eugenics, so carefully and thoroughly practised by stock breeders, should be made to apply to the human race. This would very quickly eliminate all unfit persons”.

Sadly, this wasn’t an isolated event. The September 13, 1929, issue of the Illawarra Mercury reported on a comparable Men’s League meeting at a Presbyterian church in Wollongong. The lecturer, a Mr O’Reilly, worked as a Government Film Censor in daily life but oddly seemed keener to censor births than movies. He began by singing the praises of eugenicists, the “people who aspire to have children well born, their aim being to purge the world of all its undesirables and put in their places stronger, purer and better types of manhood and womanhood.”

Mr O’Reilly proceeded to favourably quote the 19th century father of Eugenics, Sir Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s half-cousin: “Let us encourage worthy persons to marry. Let these marry who have some quality for advancement of the race, as we cannot expect to raise the best stock from degraded parentage, so let there be a survival of the best.” Such thinking clearly enthralled the Film Censor, who darkly noted that we
“take all sorts of trouble to improve the breeding of animals and the cultivation of plants, but we allow ourselves to breed indiscriminately”.

Unlike the infanticide option favoured by the folks in Wollongong, the Film Censor preferred a strategy of training newlyweds to exert “self-control in married life, to try and arrest some of the influences termed ‘moral poison’.” Mr O’Reilly urged Presbyterians to embrace his goal of raising eugenic awareness among couples seeking church weddings, but suggested that the Kirk first discard any traces of the old Westminster theology which viewed sin as the transgression of divinely revealed law. “There is a new sin,” the Film Censor thundered, “a sin against the race — to allow a child to be born into the world who will not be fit to take its place in the future race. Could not Christianity say — Save not the soul only but also consider the salvation of the race. That is my concern, and I hope it will be the concern of many others — ‘the future of the race’.”

The Mercury reporter happily noted that “Mr. O’Reilly created a splendid impression with his hearers” and that a vote of thanks from the minister was “carried by acclamation”. After some cheery congregational singing “tea was served to all in the Church Hall when a nice friendly spirit prevailed”.

Liberal Protestant piety also likely fuelled the energy Millicent Preston-Stanley, an outspoken eugenicist in 1920s Sydney, brought to her crusade of ridding the harbour city of “mental defectives”. During a 1925 speech at Palmer Street Presbyterian Church, the feminist firebrand harangued her hearers with the need to raise the IQs of future Australians. “Although the man of brains was absolutely essential to the future evolution of the world, the world had not been very much concerned in the past with the conditions that produced the man of brains; but it was now known that brains produced brains and that a good nation’s bloodstream meant the production of superior types of men and women, and these, in turn, must `sweep humanity on to a higher level’.”

Such displays of what G.K. Chesterton labelled the “creepy simplicity” of the eugenic mindset were scarcely restricted to NSW; comparable stories suggesting Presbyterian flirtation with such ideas appear in many Australian newspapers during the early 20th century. And we weren’t the only culprits; historian Christine Rosen demonstrates in her detailed Preaching Eugenics (OUP, 2005) that similar ideas were keenly promoted by Protestant church leaders on both sides of the Atlantic during the ’20s and the ’30s.

Something deeply and profoundly antiChristian lurked within these eugenic obsessions. Christianity was founded upon the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, who among His many distinctive features, displayed an unmatched concern for the medically impaired and imperfect. According to the Gospel narratives, Christ’s adult life was a blaze of miraculous activity which brought physical and spiritual healing to the sight and hearing-impaired, the physically immobilised, and those afflicted by disfiguring contagious disease, mental illness or demonic oppression.

Since medical compassion had been encoded within the DNA of historic Christianity by its Founder, whenever and wherever Christian missionaries carried the gospel, their arrival was invariably accompanied by the establishment of mission hospitals, nursing outposts or medical clinics.

And yet, in arguably one of the most ghastly turns in 20 centuries of church history, with the ascendancy of theological liberalism, Protestant churches across the West repudiated this legacy by launching out boldly to surf a tidal wave of medicalised elitism that lent enthusiastic support to questionable State-sponsored endeavours to eliminate undesirables, the feeble-minded, carriers of bad blood, the inferior and the unfit.

Thankfully, contemporary historians have begun shining much needed light upon this sad period. Even more importantly, advances in molecular genetics have demolished whatever flimsy scientific basis might have supportedeugenic delusions that entire populationscan be neatly separated into such crass binary categories as “fit” or “unfit” and “desirables” or “undesirables”.

Yet the need remains for the theological underpinnings of the eugenics craze to be more clearly described. What was it about liberal theology that opened the door to such grubby distortions of Protestant profession and practice? God willing, we will explore such questions in future AP articles. But as a heads-up to impatient readers who don’t mind plot giveaways, our explorations will likely reaffirm the wisdom within the adage that when supping with Charles Darwin, wise Christians use long spoons.


Phil Burcham is a Perth academic and elder in the PCWA.


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