Preaching Eugenics

Brian Larnder, bless his soul, has written an overview (maybe a book review) of Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement

From Brian:

… the concept of eugenics found a very welcome home among the christian faithful of the day from the late 19th Century through the first few decades of the 20th Century. The American Eugenics society sponsored an annual contest for the best eugenics sermon of the year and apparently many clergymen participated, readily supplying biblical quotations to make the case for eugenics.

AHA! I say! (see)

Go and read Brian’s post! He concludes with…

To blame it all on Darwin (and by extension all of modern biology) is ridiculous and deceitful. To take that a step further and insist that without Darwin, Hitler would never have carried out the holocaust is the absolute height of dishonesty.

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0 thoughts on “Preaching Eugenics

  1. To take that a step further and insist that without Darwin, Hitler would never have carried out the holocaust is the absolute height of dishonesty.

    The problems don’t start with eugenics. The start with the idea that the Germans are a special, chosen people. When these special people lose a war, they need a scapegoat. Hitler gave them one with the already unpopular Jewish minority in their midst. The idea of the “Jewish problem” in need of a “solution” derives more from Martin Luther and Gerhard Kittel than from Darwin.

    In his sterilisation of the “feebleminded” and in his attempts to get the best of the German youth to breed with each other, Hitler was implementing the standard eugenic ideas of his time. Without Darwin, that might not have happened. But the Holocaust is the fault of the Church and the Industrial Revolution, which gave people the tools to commit mass murder efficiently and out of the public view.

  2. Christine Rosen (2004), Preaching Eugenics, p 18:

    “Most of the Protestant leaders who supported eugenics found their way through to the movement through their earlier social service work, which was initially an outgrowth of this social gospel impulse.

    The same influences that inspired Progressives and Social Gospelers encouraged campaigns for social justice by Reform Jews, and Jewish leaders who became involved in the eugenics movement were overwhelmingly from that tradition.”


    My comment:

    Some churches (and synagogues) were enlisted in promoting eugenics. But many of vanguard eugenicists – scientists, major theorists – were agnostic or atheistic. Lothrop Stoddard, David Starr Jordan, Karl Pearson, many, many more. And they tended to view themselves as Darwinists, even given the ‘eclipse of Darwinism.’

    (David Starr Jordan coined the term “dysgenic.” His freethinker statement “When a dog barks at the moon, then it is religion; but when he barks at strangers, it is patriotism!” is sometimes quoted today.)

    A number of prominent progressive freethinkers of the era, including Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw, Jack London, and Emily Murphy, were eugenicists.


    Stay Free magazine interview with eugenics history expert Daniel Kevles, 2005:

    SF: “How important was religion to eugenics?”

    Kevles: “Well, I don’t think it was fundamental. Eugenics was essentially a secular religion. In the late 19th century, evolution posed a serious challenge to Christianity, so people began searching for some kind of substitute and a number of them found it in science.”

    SF: “But weren’t some eugenicists religious and enthusiastic about science?”

    Kevles: “I wouldn’t say that they were religious in a conventional Christian sense. A lot of them were agnostic, some were atheist.”


    Excerpts from Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race (which SJ Gould called “The most influential tract of American scientific racism.”):

    “Religious teachers have also maintained the proposition not only that man is something fundamentally distinct from other living creatures, but that there are no inherited differences in humanity that cannot be obliterated by education and environment.”

    “Early ascetic Christianity played a large part in this decline of the Roman Empire, as it was at the outset the religion of the slave, the meek, and the lowly, while Stoicism was the religion of the strong men of the time. This bias in favor of the weaker elements greatly interfered with their elimination by natural processes, and the fighting force of the empire was gradually undermined. Christianity was in sharp contrast to the worship of tribal deities which preceded it, and tended then, as it does now, to break down class and race distinctions. Such distinctions are absolutely essential to the maintenance of race purity in any community when two or more races live side by side.”

    “Before eugenics were understood much could be said from a Christian and humane view-point in favor of indiscriminate charity for the benefit of the individual. The societies for charity, altruism, or extension of rights, should have, however, in these days, in their management some small modicum of brains, otherwise they may continue to do, as they have sometimes done in the past, more injury to the race than black death or smallpox.”

    Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the impact of Christianity.

    On the other hand, Grant writes “For evidence as to the blond characters of Christ and the indications of His descent, see Haeckel, The Riddle of the Universe …”

    For all of his denigration of Christian influence, Grant believed that Christ was Nordic. Haeckel himself was no Christian.


    Three possible narratives of the eugenics movement:

    1) Eugenics (more specifically, dysgenics and its solution of eugenics) is an inevitable implication of evolutionary biology.

    2) Eugenics was an ideologically informed applied science (more precisely, an applied pseudoscience). Scientific interpretation of data biased by older racist and classist views was placed in the intellectual framework of early genetics and evolutionary biology to justify malign social policies.

    3) Eugenics was a nonscientific ideological movement, wholly based on non-Darwinian sources and fueled by Christian conservatism, that some scientists happened to get caught up in because of their ideological biases.

    1) is the creationist view. It is also the view of scientific racists. The former thinks this invalidates Darwinism; the latter believes that this supports eugenics. I think 2) is most congruent with the historical record.

    I have been interested in the history of eugenics for a long time. But until your earlier post, I hadn’t given much thought to the religious views of key eugenicists. Did many Christians – including a number of clergy – support eugenicists, and did their traditional class, race, and religious bigotries play a role in this acceptance? Absolutely. But the major theorists of eugenics can hardly be said as a group to be Christian or driven by Christian imperatives.

  3. I presented much of the above information earlier on the thread of Respectful Insolence’s response to your post on Christian eugenics.

    Another important issue: the distinction between American and German eugenics.

    Daniel Kevles, review of Edwin Black’s War Against The Weak (2003), New York Times, 10/5/03:

    “Many American eugenicists opposed the Nazis outright, and even the most avid enthusiasts of sterilization turned against them after the proclamation of the Nuremberg Laws. Black basically argues that because the mad beast had some American markings, its chief features must have all been bred in the United States. But as he himself acknowledges, the nations of Europe had their own, indigenous eugenics movements. Notions of Nordic superiority had strong, independent roots abroad, and so did ideas of racial improvement through measures like sterilization. The Nazis did draw on American precedents, but Black neglects to weigh the impact of the imports against the force of native impulses.”

    A distinct feature of Nazi racism and eugenics was the Aryan myth and the notion that German were Aryan, influenced by the writings of Blavatsky, Haeckel and Steiner. A number of prominent American racist-eugenicists, like Madison Grant, also promoted the view of a Teutonic, Nordic, or Aryan superior race under threat by race mixture, Jews, and nonwhite hordes. One of these, Lothrop Stoddard, criticized Nazi race theory, dismissing the idea that Germans were essentially Nordic.

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