From my book:

Although Protestantism did not have the issues of auricular confession or clerical celibacy, its ministers sometimes were suspected of effeminacy, perversity, and over-familiarity with women.

The Whig Sydney Smith had observed there were three sexes, “men, women, and clergymen,”[1] and this witticism about a “third sex”[2] became a standing joke. All clerics had to face the “popular stereotype that men of the cloth were neither male nor female.”[3] The clergy were seen as exempt from masculine trials and agonies; they were part of the safe world of women. As one layman put it, “life is a football game, with the men fighting it out on the gridiron, while the minister is up in the grandstand, explaining it to the ladies.”[4] By the end of the nineteenth century, the weakness and effeminacy of the mainline Protestant clergy had become a commonplace of satire. Thomas Higginson commented on such men:

One of the most potent causes of the ill-concealed alienation between the clergy and the people, in our community, has been the supposed deficiency, on the part of the former, of a vigorous, manly life. There is a certain moral and physical anhæmia, a bloodlessness, which separates most of our saints, more effectually than a cloister, from the strong life of the age. What satirists upon religion are those parents who say of their pallid, puny, sedentary, lifeless, joyless little offspring, “He is born for a minister”…Never did an ill-starred young saint waste his Saturday afternoons in preaching sermons in the garret to his deluded little sisters and their dolls, without living to repent it in maturity.[5]

Lack of masculinity was a sign of a religious personality.

In nineteenth-century New England, ministers of the most important churches were “hesitant promulgators of female virtues in an era of militant masculinity.”[6] But the dominant churches of nineteenth-century New England had long been feminized. Not only was the proportion of women in the churches extremely high, both the milieu and the ministers of the church were far more feminine than masculine. Businessmen disdained the clergy as “people halfway between men and women.”[7] Ministers found the most congenial environment, not in businesses, political clubs, or saloons, but “in the Sunday school, the parlor, the library, among women and those who flattered and resembled them.”[8] Moreover, they were typically recruited from the ranks of weak, sickly boys with indoor tastes who stayed at home with their mothers and came to identify with the feminine world of religion. The popular mind often joined “the idea of ill health with the clerical image.”[9] In the vision of Unitarian minister Charles Fenton (1796-1842), playing Sunday school children have replaced stern Pilgrim Fathers and “adult politics have succumbed to infantile piety, Ecclesia to a nursery. Masculinity is vanquished in the congregation and, even more significantly, in the pulpit.”[10]

The supposed effeminacy of ministers also led to a suspicion that those who were unmarried were probably homosexuals or otherwise sexually perverse. In the Church of England the masculinity of Anglo-Catholics was frequently questioned[11] because they were celibate and fussy about ritual.[12] “Effeminate fanatics” and “womanish men” were some of the milder criticisms of these “not conspicuously virile men.”[13] Punch observed in “Parsons in Petticoats” that “reverend gentlemen ‘of extreme High Church proclivities’ are very fond of dressing like ladies” and gave them advice on how to protect “the muslin, or alpaca, or tarlatane, or poult de soie, or satin, or whatever it is their robes are made of.”[14]

If a minister was heterosexual, he was still immersed in a world of women. Orestes Brownson complained about the “female religion” that Protestantism had become.[15] Ann Douglas described the situation: “The nineteenth-century minister moved in a world of women. He preached mainly to women; he administered what sacraments he performed largely for women; he worked not only for them but with them, in mission and charity work of all kinds.”[16] When the founder of Wellesley College, Henry Fowler Durant, left the bar to become a minister and “forswore the conflict of the court to work for the Lord, he increasingly entered the realm of women.”[17] This realm contained many temptations. A church journal warned of the dangers of giving the clergy, who moved largely in a world of women, unrestricted access to women: “No man in the world has so few conditions imposed upon him at the threshold of society as the clergyman. His passport to social life is almost a carte blanche. Women of both states [married and single] and all ages are his companions, socially and professionally. The rules of social intercommunication between the sexes are, in his case, virtually suspended.”[18] Because of this intimacy, as The Pulpit observed in 1871, “there is no profession, class or avocation, so exposed to or tormented by the devil of sensuality as the ministry. The very sanctity of their office is an occasion of their stumbling. The office is confounded with its occupant, the sanctity of the former is made the possession of the latter. Now, the office is an invulnerable myth; its occupant is a man of like passions with other men.”[19] A Methodist Discipline warned ministers: “Converse sparingly, and conduct yourself prudently with women”; and a minister warned other ministers: “You are men, with the passions of men, exposed to the temptations of men, and in the name of God we charge you to remember this matter.”[20] Some forgot.

A worldly newspaperman, Nathaniel Willis, noted “the caressing character of the intercourse between the clergy and the women in their parishes whose affections are otherwise unemployed.”[21] Another newspaperman, George Thomson, thought that ministers had perfected the art of religious seduction: “So far from a sin, it seems to be an act of duty and of piety to submit to his desires, and when the object is once accomplished, the reward is a devout blessing and thanksgiving, that removes every scruple of conscience and the pleasing duty of comforting a beloved pastor is performed as an act of religious merit.”[22] Between 1810 and 1860, at least twenty clergymen were tried for immorality, and half were convicted. The Police Gazette had a regular column on clerical scandals.[23]

The response of the church authorities was to deny or minimize the accusations. Church authorities simply let the offender transfer to another church or another denomination. The Chicago Times criticized “the extreme laxity which has commenced to govern certain denominations in accepting candidates for holy orders, and the mildness with which lesser offenses that infallibly lead to greater ones are excused.”[24] The Chicago Times also editorialized: “The clergyman, like the physician, has extraordinary facilities for the commission of a certain class of crimes, and those facilities are such as to heap double damnation upon him if he is sufficiently diabolical to make use of them.”[25] William F. Jamieson, a nineteenth-century secularist, recounted scandals involving Protestant ministers, and echoed the criticism that had been made about Catholic clerical celibacy: “The pernicious notion that the imaginary influence called ‘divine grace’ could make the nature of men and women anything else but human nature, has been a prolific cause of crime in ‘holy circles’ because the barriers of self-restraint have been removed.”[26]

[1] Davies, “Curates,” 110.

[2] Lehman, Gender and Work, 20.

[3] Bendroth, Fundamentalism and Gender, 65.

[4] Carter, Another Part of the Twenties, 53-54.

[5] Higginson, “Saints and Their Bodies,”  7.

[6] Barbara Welter, “The Feminization of American Religion,” 22.

[7] Ibid., 42.

[8] Ibid., 43.

[9] Ibid., 89.

[10] Ibid., 19.

[11] See McLeod, “Anticlericalism in Later Victorian England,” 208-214.

[12] McLeod, Religion and Society, 154-155.

[13] Quoted in Reed, Glorious Battle, 211.

[14] “Parsons in Petticoats,” Punch, June 10, 1865, 239.

[15] Quoted in Welter, “The Feminization of American Religion,” 139.

[16] Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture, 97.

[17] Horowitz, Alma Mater, 43.

[18] Jamieson, The Clergy as a Source of Danger, 292.

[19] Ibid., 291.

[20] Quoted by Mathews, Religion in the Old South, 106.

[21] Cohen, “Ministerial Misdeeds,” 99.

[22] Ibid., 102.

[23] Holfield, God’s Ambassadors, 123.

[24] “Clerical Scandals,” Chicago Times, reprinted in The Latter-Day Saints Millennial Star 34 (1872): 557.

[25] Jamieson, Clergy as a Source of Danger, 289.

[26] Ibid., 190.




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