While Free Methodists during the Progressive Era were known for following stringent Holiness lifestyle guidelines. (For example, simple dress, no instrumental music during services, refraining from any leisure activity that was deemed “worldly.”) Many Pentecost Band members took Holiness living to an entirely new level. One of the most fascinating and controversial of these beliefs was the practice of marital purity (more commonly called social purity). Most band workers were single and served in bands with workers of the same sex. However, a few married couples co-led different bands, including Vivan and Ida Dake, Minnie Baldwin Shelhammer and E.E. Shelhamer. I haven’t been able to confirm that every married couple in the bands practiced marital purity, but both the Dakes’ and the Shelhammers’ did and were among the most influential early couples in the bands.
Simply put, marital purity was the practice of abstaining from sex except for the purpose of procreation. Sexual desire, even in marriage, was seen as a potential stumbling block to lead to lust and other ungodly thoughts and practices. Just like Dake’s beliefs on justification and sanctification, his theological views on marital purity were not mainstream Free Methodist doctrine. However, some Free Methodists did practice marital purity, and the Free Methodists featured several original contributions debating the practice in the late 1890s.
What marital purity looked like in practice has been difficult to trace, but an 1898 Free Methodist series on the topic does provide some insight into what adherents believed and followed. In addition to articles in The Free Methodist, E.E. Shellhamer’s writings also shed some light on how marital purity was practiced and will be explored in a future post.
The January 4, 1894, Free Methodist featured part one of a two-part series by Henry Babcock, a defender of marital purity. While Babcock denied personally adhering to the practice, he outlined a favorable argument for it. Opponents noted that nowhere in scripture was marital purity discussed or promoted. However, Babcock said that Methodists followed many Holiness lifestyle practices that also were not outlined in scripture- no dancing, theater, circuses, horse races, etc. All those activities had become perverted and sinful, even if that was not the original intent. As Babcock argued, like those activities, sex within marriage had also become corrupt and no longer “glorified God.”1
Making the case that sexual relations should only occur for procreation, Babcock outlined a plan for marital abstinence (aka purity) for at least two years after the birth of a child. The two-year plan was to allow the last child at least two years of breastfeeding without competition from younger siblings. Furthermore, Babcock argued that the experiences of a mother during gestation leave a permanent stamp on unborn children or, as he phrased it:
“Allowing that children are never born in closer proximity than once in two years, the normal period, there is (I blush to say it) a worse curse placed upon the helpless infant. It is generally well known that impressions made upon the mother during gestation are more or less indelibility stamped upon the child and that I may influence its whole future life. If at the time the mother be subject to sexual excite, is it to be wondered at that the child develops a tendency to lust?”
Insisting he was taking a scientific approach to marital purity, Babcock noted many animals only engaged in pro-creation on a seasonal basis. They could peacefully cohabit with others of their specifics the rest of the year without desiring sexual relations. As Babcock argued, “We fail to see why in the highest species of animal life God should reverse the rule and make to be right what is a lower standard than he set for animals incapable of acquiring intelligence.”
In concluding his arguments, Babcock condemned Christians who judged those practicing marital purity, warning readers that discounting the benefits of marital purity would lead them down a dangerous spiritual path. “Lovers of (sensual) pleasures more than loves of God” rejoice when they read that which justifies their position, and Satan approves. We are fully persuaded that when husband and wife of free choice agree to maintain as high a standard as the brutes afford, physical, mental, and spiritual health will be increased thereby.”2
The belief that marital purity would help individuals focus on their ministry and avoid carnal distractions seems to be one of the main reasons couples such as the Dakes and Shelhamers followed the practice. 3 However, the philosophy of marital purity extended beyond Holiness circles as reformers such as British theologies J.B. Lightfoot attempted to make social purity a reform movement, establishing the White Cross Army in the U.K. in 1883 to promote social purity.4 (Sidenote: There needs to be more research on this movement, but I already see comparable rhetoric in the present-day evangelical purity culture, which I believe we can probably trace back to the White Cross Army as the first time this theology was organized into a social movement.)
1 Henry Babcock, “Marital Purity,” The Free Methodist January 4, 1898, p. 2
2 Henry Babcok, “Marital Purity Concluded,” The Free Methodist January 11, 1898, p.2
3 Geo. P. Wilson, “Social Purity vs. Fanaticism,” The Free Methodist, January 13, 1892, p.3
4 E.R. Shephard, (1889) True Manhood: A Manual for Young Men