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For about 30 years, from around 1900 to the late 1920s, America had an active and popular eugenics movement. Supporters of eugenics argued the public good required removing from the population genes thought to cause low intelligence, or immoral, criminal or anti-social behavior. Beginning with Connecticut in 1896, states passed laws requiring medical exams before issuing marriage licenses to make sure the unfit did not reproduce. (See the New York Times article “Pastors for Eugenics” for an effort to support such laws.) Indiana passed the first compulsory sterilization law in 1907, although other states had tried and failed before. Prominent Americans – among them Theodore Roosevelt, Stanford University President David Starr Jordan, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Margaret Sanger – supported the eugenics movement, as did such organizations as the National Federation of Women’s Clubs, the National Conference of Charities and Corrections, and various religious organizations. State Fairs included Better Baby contests. As the list of its supporters indicates, eugenics was considered a progressive reform, related to the larger Progressive movement by its emphasis on the good of society and the use of science and rationality to achieve it.

Eugenics always had its critics. A referendum authorizing sterilization failed in Oregon in 1913. Some governors refused to sign eugenic legislation. Nebraska’s governor vetoed a eugenics bill in 1913, writing that the legislation was “only an experiment and it seems more in keeping with the pagan age than with the teachings of Christianity. Man is more than an animal.” Not every state legislature passed such legislation. Federal and state courts regularly found forced sterilization laws unconstitutional because they were cruel and unusual punishments or because the application of the laws denied equal treatment. In addition to more conservative Protestants, Catholics and their clergy largely opposed eugenics.

Despite the opposition it faced, eugenic sterilization remained alive in part because of the Supreme Court decision Buck v. Bell, which found constitutional the sterilization of Carrie Buck by the State of Virginia. From the beginning, Buck’s sterilization was intended to be a test case. Supporters of eugenics and sterilization hoped the case would reach the Supreme Court and that the Court would find sterilization constitutional. This would at once supersede all the rulings of state courts against sterilization. Buck’s guardian, appointed by those intending to sterilize her, took her case to Virginia state courts and eventually the Supreme Court. (The lower Virginia court found no grounds to block the sterilization.) The Supreme Court decided that nothing in the U.S. Constitution prevented Virginia from sterilizing Buck. Eight of nine justices joined in the decision, written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, perhaps the preeminent jurist of the time. Holmes’ decision contained the now infamous remark, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” The only dissent in the case came from Associate Justice Pierce Butler, a Catholic.

Sterilization continued as a legal regime even after eugenics ceased to be a popular movement. Thirty-one states eventually had sterilization programs, often adopting the language of the Virginia legislation that the Supreme Court approved, which had been drafted by a lawyer to increase its chances of meeting legal scrutiny. Sterilizations increased and did not cease until the 1960s. (The sterilization program in North Carolina lasted until 1977.) California, a leading Progressive state, sterilized about 20,000 people, a third or so of the almost 70,000 individuals sterilized in the United States.

Toward the end of his discussion of eugenics, G. Stanley Hall wrote of “the kingdom of some kind of superman” to which eugenics might lead. This remark foreshadowed the darkness of the Holocaust and reminds us that Hitler cited America’s eugenics movement and laws as a precedent.

Stanley Hall, “Eugenics: Its Ideals and What It Is Going to Do,” Religious Education 6, 2 (June 1911): 152–159. This excerpt is from pages 156–159. G. Stanley Hall (1846–1924) was perhaps the leading psychologist of his time, when psychology was still emerging as a discipline distinct from philosophy. Raised in a religious family, Hall attended Union Theological Seminary before deciding to study psychology with William James at Harvard, where he earned a Ph. D. in psychology in 1878, the first awarded in the United States. His early teaching career was in philosophy departments at Williams and Johns Hopkins. At Johns Hopkins, he set up a psychology laboratory, perhaps the first in the United States. For many years, he was President of Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. Hall was a well-respected figure in American higher education and intellectual life.

. . . Galton1 and his followers would have eugenics proclaimed as the new religion of the future, the religion of this rather than of another life. The slogan of eugenics, a new religion, the religion of this world, not of another, has caught the imagination and won the applause of many who are critical if not hostile to Christianity. It does indeed suggest a creed and a cult which modern culture and especially science and most of all those who serve the great biologos or spirit of life, would place as the supreme end of man. But I ask in closing why call it a new religion? Is not all of it simply a legitimate new interpretation of our Christianity? Is it not all latent in our Scriptures? Was anything more characteristic of the ancient Hebrews of Old Testament days than their purity and to keep the purity of their blood, than duties of parents to children and vice versa, and is there any trait more peculiar to the Jews in our day than that they excel all races save perhaps one in fecundity? The very covenant of Yahweh with Abraham, the great cattle-breeding sheik who founded the Jewish nation, was that if he kept God’s law his seeds should be as the stars of heaven for multitude, as if that were indeed the chief human felicity. This means according to the newest and highest psychogenetic criticism that Jehovah’s laws are at bottom those of eugenics. The supreme criterion of virtue indeed is[:] living in every item for the interests of posterity.  The world is for the chosen, the best. It belongs to those who come after us, who will be in number like the grains of sand upon the shore. That their seed fail not is the supreme blessing. The entire Old Testament from the myth of Eden to the latest prophets needs a new eugenics exegesis; while the dominant theme of the New Testament is love, the strongest thing in the soul of man, centered upon service and welfare of the race. Love and serve God and man; that is the quintessence of our religion. We only need to turn a little larger proportion of the love and service we have directed toward God, who does not need it, to man who does, and we have eugenics, for who serves mankind so much as he who transmits the sacred torch of heredity, which is the most precious of all wealths and worths, undimmed to later generations by bringing more and better men and women into the world and rearing them to the fullest possible maturity! Every human institution, family, school, state and church are in their last analysis, graded and measured by what they contribute to this all-comprehendingness.  I can merely say it in bare phrases here but think it out for yourselves, think seriously; read in this field and you will see only what has so long lay in concealed Christianity standing forth here revealed. The beatitudes are full of it. The meek inherit the earth on the simple biological law that over-individuation is at the expense of genesis and beyond a certain point inversely as it. Nothing was ever so pedagogically potent in quenching youthful passion as hell-fire when it was believed in. The better elements of the gross phallic religions that once covered the whole earth are all retained and sublimated in Christianity. Do you clergymen falter in your belief in total depravity or are you unsound on the doctrine of the unpardonable sin? If so, you only need to hear as I sometimes do youth who have lost all control of their passions and feel that the possibilities of normal parenthood are forever lost to them or that they are tainted with venereal disease and that their ancestry must end with them, in order to realize that the ancient makers of this new life in all the intimacy of the confessional had at their disposal both a diagnosis and a psychotherapy that we have well-nigh lost. Mr. Northcote, the author of Christianity and Sex Problems,2 is right. Those who know not sex and eugenics know not the essence of Christianity.

Christianity has never said all that it meant. It is not yet all revealed to man. Scholarship on the one hand and religious experience on the other are constantly finding deeper, larger things in it, things not read into but evolved out of it. Since Darwin showed how much of the whole process of selection by which ever higher forms of life were unfolded was sexual and that many of the best things from flowers onward and play activities up were secondary sex qualities, and again since psychotherapy has shown the hither-to undreamed-of potency of this factor in human nature to make health and disease, sex also is becoming more and more long-circuited and spiritualized or literally transfigured with new potency until now we have in it almost a new organ of apperception for moral and religious experience, confirming much that some had begun to doubt and reviving much that we were well on toward forgetting. Love rules the court, the camp, the grove, for “love is God and God is love” might be the watchword of the new eugenic aspect of Christianity. To separate religion and sex does great wrong to both, for to teach sex, at least to the young, without religion is to leave out the motivation which is most practical and effective and to conceive Christianity without sex is to lose some of its choicest and deepest insights. In fine, sex and reproduction have played a more and more important role in each of the following fields, in some of which they are already dominant; in natural history since Darwin’s sex selection; in anthropology and sociology from McLennan to Havelock Ellis; in criminology since Lombroso; in medicine since Krafft-Ebing, Tarnowski and Moll and the advocates of prophylaxis; in psychology beginning with Freud and his followers; in morals since Sutherland’s biological ethics; in religion since Ferguson, Furlong, Inman, Morse and Northcote.3 In all these fields sex is a common ground of larger and larger dimensions. It gives them more interest in each other and may be destined to bring them into a new and higher unity. The time for this scientific synthesis has not yet come and may be long delayed, inevitable though it seems sooner or later. Meanwhile, eugenics draws upon all these domains and has pointed out many and will, let us hope, find out many more practical ways of improving the human stock and helping the world on towards the kingdom of some kind of superman to which the men of to-day may some day prove to be only a transition, a link which with all that absorbs us now may be lost sight of and possibly become a missing link.

  1. 1. Francis Galton (1822–1911), an English polymath, invented the term “eugenics” to describe the effort he encouraged of improving humans through control of their breeding.
  2. 2. Hugh Northcote (1868–1933), was an Anglican priest. Christianity and Sex Problems appeared in 1906 (Philadelphia: F. A. Davis and Company, 1906; 2nd edition 1916).
  3. 3. John Ferguson McLennan (1827–1881), an anthropologist who wrote about marriage; Havelock Ellis (1859–1939) a physician who studied human sexuality; Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909), a physician who argued that criminal behavior was inherited; Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840–1902), a psychiatrist who studied sexual pathologies; Benjamin Tarnowski (1837–1906), a doctor who studied human sexuality; Albert Moll (1862–1939), a psychiatrist who studied human sexuality; Alexander Sutherland (1852–1902), author of The Origin and Growth of the Moral Instinct (1898). Inman is perhaps Thomas Inman (1820–1876) a physician and writer on religious topics. Morse is perhaps Josiah Morse (1879–1946), a professor of philosophy who wrote on religion, including Pathological Aspects of Religion (Worcester: Clark University Press, 1906). We have not identified Ferguson and Furlong.
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