Sexual Politics in the Archives

As an incoming MA student at Union, having previous experience working libraries as well as a Master of Information & Library Science degree under my belt, I’m excited to join the student staff at the Burke Library for this next step in my academic studies in theological librarianship. My  area of research is ethics, specifically around issues related to the role of church institutions and the rights of gender and sexuality minorities, and I was surprised to discover in the archives a letter written by Anthony Comstock—one of the principal villains in the story of America’s war on “obscenity” and author of the highly conservative Comstock Laws, which criminalized the dissemination of information regarding contraceptives, abortion, and erotica—in one of my first-ever projects in the Burke Library.

This project was for the papers of James Morris Whiton (1833-1919), a Congregational minister who preached and taught in New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Jersey. Whiton wrote back and forth with Anthony Comstock, and this correspondence has remained buried in his papers for about a hundred years—it was unlisted in the handwritten contents list accompanying Whiton’s papers. Its significance emerged gradually as I refoldered and rehoused these documents.

series 5, box 1, folder 3

James Whiton

You may be wondering why we have the James Morris Whiton Papers. He is not an alumnus, and he never taught or worked at the Seminary. One possibility is that Whiton served as Chairman of the New York State Conference of Religion for several years around the turn of the century, alongside William Adams Brown, Presbyterian minister, systematic theologian, ecumenist and UTS professor. As colleagues, Whiton and Brown may have shared and influenced one another’s ideas. Perhaps someone felt that the Whiton Papers would be a good addition to collections that reflected the history of this intellectual circle.

Whiton held this prestigious position of Chairman when he was an older man; however, for most of his life, Whiton seems to have been thwarted in many of his attempts to achieve prosperity in his career. Although his diaries reflect a deep-seated sense of ambition, he resigned or was forced to resign from multiple positions as minister to various congregations and dean of various preparatory schools and seminaries. Whiton often complained of shortage of income; the reason for these unpleasant career shifts is not explicitly mentioned in his writings.

Anthony Comstock

Anthony Comstock

Whiton kept detailed personal diaries and maintained a comprehensive collection of his correspondence (including the Comstock letter) which spells out his unfortunate career trajectory. In 1872, when Whiton was the pastor of the North Church in Lynn, Massachusetts, he apparently wrote to Comstock to ask his assistance in his principal aim: eliminating the practice of passing-around of erotic books and other materials within the community of Lynn via the mail. (The Comstock Laws targeted the dissemination of information regarding contraceptives, abortion, and erotic materials by prohibiting these items being sent via U.S. Post.) Comstock replied to Whiton offering his assistance by any means necessary.

By this time Whiton had a reputation for his devotion to squeaky-clean moral standards in every community he led. However, some apparently found his tenacity overbearing; in Lynn, he recalls in his memoirs, he was viewed as being overly strict when he served as a member of the school board, advocating for stringent disciplinary measures to be taken against pupils. (He would later be ousted from his post as schoolmaster of Williston Seminary in 1878 in response to an outcry by parents that he was too strict in his scrutiny of pupils’ dormitories, imposing surprise inspections of the boys’ footlockers in search of contraband, leading to so many suspensions that the parents found his rule intolerable.) In Lynn, Whiton recalls, a local woman in his congregation once even spat on him in the street. It would be four years of tense relations with the community in Lynn before Whiton was forced to leave his post.

Was Whiton ousted because members of his community found his conservative attitude over-the-top? Did he feel alienated as the strict schoolmaster, and as minister in the town where he sought the assistance of Anthony Comstock—an unpopular figure even in his own time—in cleaning up the post office and ridding his citizens’ mail of lewd materials through search-and-seizure, to the point of being forced to resign from his position as minister? These documents paint a picture of a strict moral leader, hardworking and dedicated, whose efforts nevertheless led to alienating himself from his religious communities to the point of rejection. Further understanding of Whiton’s archives and research into his life and work may likely yield new insights into this complicated character.

But what a find for a new student staff member, incoming Seminary student, and early-career librarian in her first month at the Burke! The Comstock Laws have always held a particular fascination for me. Comstock clashed with Margaret Sanger and civil liberties groups because of his radical position on sending “lewd” materials through the post, including information about contraception and family planning. It would be interesting to read more of Whiton’s and Comstock’s correspondence to get further insight into Whiton’s theological position on these issues, and the theological position of the Lynn community who rejected the pastor partly for his too-strict enforcement of his conservative ethics. (Perhaps a Union student could conduct an investigation of the role of the pastor in terms of theological engagement and civic action vis-à-vis the U.S. Postal Service in the 19th century?) I’m more excited than ever to continue my studies here at Union and dig deeper into the Burke Library’s special collections in my academic endeavors.

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