Juvenile Instructor » “Dear Miss Blair”: Correspondence on Birth Control in the Salt Lake Telegram
 


“Dear Miss Blair”: Correspondence on Birth Control in the Salt Lake Telegram

By: Amanda - June 02, 2014

 

Our post today comes from Brooke Brassard, who recently became a PhD Candidate (congrats Brooke!) at the University of Waterloo. Her dissertation focuses on how Canadian Mormons constructed an identity that was linked to but separate from American Mormons.
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When you become perplexed with your problems, ask Betty Blair. She’ll help you find the answer or point the way to a solution of your difficulties,” advertised the Salt Lake Telegram on April 9, 1925, announcing the arrival of advice columnist Betty Blair [1]. Canadian-born Zina Alberta Woolf Hickman began her role as Betty Blair the following day and wrote her own introduction. She asked readers to “make it an “all around” column, a sort of “safety valve,” where we may all learn and exchange ideas and experiences; a column in which we will all be interested in everything in it”[2]. From the beginning, “Come to Heart’s Haven with Betty Blair” was anything but just an advice column. Utahns wrote in to not only ask Betty’s advice on fashion, or to enquire about recipes, but also to express their opinions of current events and social issues. “Heart’s Haven” was a place for readers to anonymously post their opinions and interact with one another. It functioned as both an avenue for readers to mail in their questions, but also as a forum to discuss and debate social concerns. One of these concerns was the matter of birth control.

The progression of the birth control movement, circulation of contraceptive information, and low birth rates compelled the LDS Church to address the issue. Mormon leaders encouraged church members “to “multiply and replenish” the earth and to provide homes for waiting spirits” [3]. Statements from Joseph F. Smith reveal what leaders taught members about birth control. In response to a physician asking about preventing pregnancy, the LDS Church president said, “[T]he answer to this question is an emphatic negative. I do not hesitate to say that prevention is wrong” [4]. Smith revisits the birth control issue in a 1915 essay for Juvenile Instructor, writing, “Can [a woman] be saved without child-bearing? She indeed takes an awful risk if she wilfully disregards what is a pronounced requirement of God” [5]. His speech to the women’s Relief Society in 1917 re-emphasizes the attitude discouraging birth control. Smith states, “I believe that where people undertake to curtail or prevent the birth of their children that they are going to reap disappointment by and by. I have no hesitancy in saying that I believe this is one of the greatest crimes in the world today” [6].

Letters to Betty Blair show that some citizens of Utah disagreed. In her letter published November 22, 1927, “Just a Mother of Four” reveals her religious affiliation with the LDS Church when she discusses “the prophet” ending the practice of polygamy and uses Mosiah 4:24-27 to link free agency to childbearing. She battles the “multiply and replenish” argument against birth control by stating that conceiving one child fulfils God’s commandment to multiply. “Just a Mother of Four” does not hesitate to criticize the notion of having large families. She identifies her church as the cause and promoter of large families because religion “fails to understand the commandment as it has failed to understand most of the gospel.” Even Betty Blair observes that this author is “one thoroughly religious woman.” If “Just a Mother of Four” is an active member of the LDS Church, then openly, although anonymously, criticizing the practices endorsed by her religious institution demonstrates dissent, a loss of control by church authorities, and suggests that religious affiliation does not necessarily dictate positions on social issues. Similarly, contributor “J. K. P.” requests the “elucidation, or rather correction” of what “the Lord” meant by “multiply” in her letter dated December 7, 1927. This author believes that the Bible was written at a time when it was “good and helpful for humanity” to multiply the earth, but now things have changed. “J. K. P.” cannot understand why they must follow such laws made thousands of years ago.

In 1927, Judge Ben B. Lindsey’s book The Companionate Marriage and his popularization of the idea of marriage as companionship without children sparked public debate across the United States [7]. From November to December, Betty Blair received letters from readers expressing their opinions on the matter. However, she admits that she received “few letters arguing against birth control in comparison to those for it,” but she would happily publish letters from either side.

On November 13, 1927, “Mrs. G. T.” pronounces her disbelief in Judge Lindsey’s theories and admits that she is “for the church and the women’s clubs that think such things ought to be stopped.” She continues to preach, “If the mothers of Lincoln and Webster and other great men had known all these secrets of birth control the world would not be so rich today.” “An Observer” offers the perspective of someone from a smaller family in her letter later that month. She maintains that she and her sister were the most selfish siblings because there were only two of them and they got whatever they asked for. After having four children in six years, “An Observer” claims that she works long days, never gets sick, and does not know what it means to be tired. Nothing depresses her more than to think that she would not have her four children if she and her husband had practiced birth control or used contraceptives.

“Lorna Doone” challenges “Mrs. G. T.” and her claim that women’s clubs oppose birth control with her November 16, 1927 contribution. She believes if you asked members of these clubs that you would find most believe in or practice birth control. “Lorna Doone” says that if she were unaware of birth control she would probably have ended up with nine or ten children instead of her four. She admits she is an active participant in church and civic matters, but it is unclear what church she means. Another critic of “Mrs. G. T.” agrees with “Lorna Doone” that club members preach against birth control, but indeed use it themselves, pointing out the fact that most clubwomen have smaller families. This author, “Delores,” continues and calls for a “much needed reform” of birth control education and practice. Like some members of women’s clubs, some medical professionals supported changing the laws against birth control. “An M.D.” writes to Betty Blair claiming that most doctors practice birth control themselves, believing the public should receive education on the matter.

The opinions of Utahns not only resembled the attitudes of other Americans, but also challenged their churches to adapt and update scriptural interpretations regarding procreation. These examples from “Come to Heart’s Haven with Betty Blair” illustrate characteristics of assimilation in the minds of the Mormon membership.  In particular, acknowledgment that contraceptive methods are acceptable in a time when “to multiply and replenish” may no longer apply. Requests that church leaders reconsider their reasons for discouraging birth control challenged church authorities. Evidence from “Heart’s Haven” suggests that some Mormons disconnected from the institutional LDS Church when it came to positions on social issues. With the case of birth control, the Mormon membership’s separation from church authorities sparked actual change and led to the 1969 official statement condoning individual choice on the matter [8].

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[1] “Come to Heart’s Haven with Betty Blair, Salt Lake Telegram, April 9, 1925, 1.

[2] Ibid., April 10, 1925, 2. In the 1920s and 1930s, most residents of Utah belonged to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; however, an estimated 30,000 Utahns identified as members of other Christian denominations. According to the 1926 census, the largest denomination was the LDS Church with 337,200 members. The Roman Catholic Church had the second largest denomination of 14,595 members. The third and fourth largest denominations were the Episcopal Church and Presbyterian Church with numbers of 3,837 and 2,218 members, respectively. Congregational Churches had 1,594 members and the Northern Baptist Convention had 1,121. These statistics are important because they show that, although about 68% of the population was Mormon, Utah had non-Mormon residents too. The majority of readers of “Come to Heart’s Haven with Betty Blair” were probably Mormon, but the non-Mormon minority might have also read and contributed to the column.

[3] Linda P. Wilcox, “Mormon Motherhood: Official Images,” in Sisters in Spirit: Mormon Women in Historical and Cultural Perspective,” ed. Maureen Ursenbach Beecher and Lavina Fielding Anderson (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 213.

[4] Lester E. Bush, Jr., Health and Medicine Among the Latter-day Saints: Science, Sense, and Scripture (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1993), 153. Bush cites Joseph F. Smith, Improvement Era 11 (1908): 959-961.

[5] Wilcox, “Mormon Motherhood,” 213. Wilcox references Joseph F. Smith, “Motherhood,” Juvenile Instructor 50 (1915): 290.

[6] Bush, Health and Medicine, 153. Bush cites Joseph F. Smith, Relief Society Magazine (1917): 317-318.

[7] Christina Simmons, Making Marriage Modern: Women’s Sexuality from the Progressive Era to World War II (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 121.

[8] Bush, Health and Medicine, 155. In 1969, the First Presidency released a formal statement that Bush summaries as a transference of responsibility from church authorities to individual members to make the decision, after seeking “wisdom from the Lord,” regarding birth control.

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1 Comment

  1. Thanks, Brooke. I’m an avid reader of advice columns, so this was great!

    Comment by Saskia T — June 2, 2014 @ 9:58 am