V&V Q&A: “The New England Watch and Ward Society:” A Conversation with author P.C. Kemeny

Editor’s Note: The “V&V Q&A” is an e-publication from The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. This latest edition of “V&V Q&A” is an intriguing discussion with author Dr. P.C. Kemeny about his new book: The New England Watch and Ward Society.

Vision & Values (V&V): Dr. Kemeny, this is a fascinating new book on a subject largely unexplored. It’s great to see that Oxford University Press has published it. There’s so much in this book that modern audiences will find counter-intuitive and against our modern expectations. Let’s begin with this question: How did you become interested in the New England Watch and Ward Society?

P.C. Kemeny (PCK): University of Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith invited me to participate in a research project funded by the Pew Charitable Trust on “Religion and the Social Construction of American Public Life.” As I was doing background reading for this project, I was struck by how secular humanists such as H.L. Mencken and Protestant fundamentalists like J. Gresham Machen shared some common criticisms of liberal Protestants. As I started reading Mencken’s work to understand these “strange bedfellows,” I was intrigued by his criticisms of Protestant anti-vice activists, most notably the Watch and Ward Society. That New England’s leading liberal Protestants—Congregationalists, Episcopalians, and Unitarians—formed a vice squad was very odd. Such activities certainly contradicted the popular image that liberal Protestants were progressive, urbane, and tolerant.

V&V: It does indeed contradict that image. People will be very surprised by that. What is the main thesis of your book?

PCK: My study, The New England Watch and Ward Society, offers a sweeping exploration of mainline Protestant efforts to provide a unifying morality for American public culture during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Through their efforts to suppress obscene literature, as well as gambling and prostitution, the moral reform organization embodied Protestants’ efforts to shape public morality in an increasing intellectually and culturally diverse society. The work also explains why the Watch and Ward Society, in particular, and mainline Protestantism in general, lost its cultural authority.

V&V: Why did mainline Protestants want to censor obscene literature?

PCK: Protestants found works such as John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, more popularly known as Fanny Hill, offensive for literary, theological, and moral reasons. Most obviously, salacious works violated their Victorian sensibilities. Instead of inspiring an appreciation for truth, goodness, and beauty, such works, they protested, stimulated a “foul and vicious passion.” Obscene works, they reasoned, also ruined individuals’ character, generated antisocial behavior, and hindered the gradual Christianization of society.

Alone, however, these reasons did not justify the suppression of obscene literature by either the state or voluntary organizations. Protestant moral reformers also insisted that the state must protect people, especially the young, from the corrupting influence of objectionable literature. So, to them, what people read was not a matter of individual liberty. The free market should not determine what was moral or immoral. These Protestant Republicans saw themselves as their brothers’ moral keepers.

V&V: That’s another aspect that will surprise people today: these liberal New England reformers from the mainline denominations were largely Republicans. How significant a problem was obscene literature in the 19th century?

PCK: Obscene literature was popular and its popularity grew exponentially over the course of the century. Several developments fueled the spread of obscene works. Advances in printing technologies, an expanding postal system, and a growing railroad system made it cheaper and easier to distribute licentious works. When federal authorities tried to crack down on the importation of obscene works, they unwittingly helped launch an indigenous publishing industry of erotica. Enterprising American publishers took advantage of the advances in technology to reprint works that were increasingly difficult to acquire from overseas. They also started publishing works penned by American authors.

V&V: Who supported the Watch and Ward Society?

PCK: Prominent liberal ministers, including George A. Gordon of Old South Church and Phillips Brooks of Trinity Church, Copley Square, were among its founders. Distinguished college presidents, such as Harvard’s Charles W. Eliot, and respected professors, including the Harvard philosopher George Herbert Palmer, also served as its officers. Leading progressives in other fields, such as Robert Treat Paine, Jr., the leading force behind Boston’s Associated Charities, Robert Woods, head of Boston’s South End Settlement House, and the wealthy philanthropist Godfrey Lowell Cabot, also served on its board. The Watch and Ward Society was the liberal Protestant establishment in action.

V&V: How did the Watch and Ward Society function as New England’s custodians of literature?

PCK: The Watch and Ward Society employed four closely related tactics to “protect” public morality from obscene literature. First, the society introduced legislation to criminalize behaviors that violated its mores. Building upon the 1873 Comstock Act, which strengthened federal laws against using the postal system to distribute obscene material, moral reformers lobbied New England states to strengthen their own anti-obscenity laws. Second, the organization urged the police to enforce these laws. Third, agents clandestinely gathered evidence against obscenity dealers and then went to either the police or a local court to swear out a complaint or to obtain a warrant for the person’s arrest. Finally, reformers pressured bookstores and publishers to conform to the law.

V&V: How successful was the Watch and Ward Society?

PCK: The Watch and Ward Society was incredibly effective in suppressing works that Victorian Protestants found offensive, such as Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Their work gave birth to the phrase “Banned in Boston.” For more than a generation the organization helped to dictate what kinds of works people could read. In the late 19th century, the organization also started to seek to curtail gambling and prostitution.

V&V: What ultimately happened to the New England Watch and Ward Society?

PCK: In the late 1920s, the Watch and Ward Society experienced a public and very sudden fall from grace. A coalition of secular activists comprised of avant-garde authors, their publishers, and civil libertarians challenged the Watch and Ward Society’s right to censor literature. These activists not only ridiculed the organization in the court of public opinion, they also challenged the state’s obscenity law in the court and won. Most importantly, they successfully lobbied the state legislature to revise the obscenity law. Their successes largely disarmed and discredited the Protestant moral reformers.

V&V: What is the contemporary relevance of the Watch and Ward Society for Christians today?

PCK: The debate over same-sex marriage and LBGTQ+ rights, gun control, the legalization of marijuana, and the host of other contentious issues in contemporary American culture are often a conflict between the Whig-Republican and the Jeffersonian traditions. These two alternative visions of the nature of civil society, the role of the state, personal rights, and the common good still inform the foundational assumptions of culture warriors on both the left and right.

Another aspect of the history of the Watch and Ward Society that still has relevance today is the role that ridicule played in shaping public opinion.

Ridicule, or to use Friedrich Nietzsche’s term, ressentiment, played a crucial role in the demise of the Watch and Ward Society. In his landmark study, To Change the World (2010), sociologist James Davison Hunter argues that ressentiment is the defining characteristic of American political life today. Ressentiment is grounded in a narrative of injury, or perceived injury, in which people have been or are being wronged. It is rooted in a sense of entitlement held by a group, which takes several forms, including a desire to be shown greater respect, exert more influence, or simply enjoy a better life. Mencken masterfully cultivated feelings of ressentiment and used them to mobilize support for the campaign to revise the Massachusetts’ obscenity law and to silence his opponents. Today, politicians across the political spectrum frequently invoke ressentiment to mobilize political support. Hillary Clinton, for instance, described supporters of her political opponents as “deplorables.” In my estimate, however, no one has used it more effectively to get elected than President Donald Trump. If the demise of the Watch and Ward Society teaches today’s culture warriors that ressentiment will ultimately fail to achieve the sort of cultural consensus that serves the common good.

The book is available from Oxford University Press and Amazon.


Watch as author Dr. P.C. Kemeny discusses the “Protestant Campaign to Suppress Prostitution” during the 2018 Center for Vision & Values annual conference: