That Terrible Question

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That Terrible Question


By: Moses Hull

Date: 1868

Source: Hull, Moses. That Terrible Question. Chicago: Hazlitt & Reed, 1868.

About the Author: Moses Hull (1836–1907) was a prominent Seventh-Day Adventist preacher in the mid 1800s who later converted to Spiritualism. Hull's revelation that he had committed adultery while on the lecture circuit, and that following adulterous urges was in effect obeying God's law, led some Spiritualist community members to repudiate his philosophies and writings.


Utopian communities in the nineteenth century often deconstructed the institution of marriage, arguing against the traditional, monogamous, economic relationship and instead urging members to explore new ideas for gender roles and sexuality. John Humphrey Noyes (1811–1886) created the Oneida community in upstate New York at the end of the 1840s; his followers experienced a "radical transition in their personal lives from monogamy to celibacy, group marriage, or polygamy," according to Lawrence Foster, the author of Religion and Sexuality: The Shakers, the Mormons, and the Oneida Community.

Families that chose to join utopian communities changed their social structure and at times, kinship ties; couples accepted "free love" ideals to varying degrees, but within the framework of utopian community philosophy, sexual relations outside of traditional marriage was no longer taboo for these followers.

Feminists such as Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906) argued—behind the scenes—that the institution of marriage was patriarchal and inhibited women from exercising their rights; even the eighteenth century philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797), writer Mary Shelley's mother, argued against marriage. The utopian ideal was joined by the socialist and Marxist opinion that marriage—like capitalism—turned women and men into slaves to the institution and capitalist system that relied on marriage for private property continuation through reproduction and inheritance.

"Free love" proponents, utopians and socialists among them, argued for a wide range of actions that gave women greater freedom over their own bodies—and men greater freedom by extension. Birth control, freedom from physical discipline by one's husband, legal equality for legitimate and illegitimate children, and an end to adultery as a moral failing—these principles emerged at the same time as the Victorian Era in England. The clash between the Victorian ideals of modesty, chastity, purity, and sexual restraint and the utopian and socialist ideals was intense.

Moses Hull was a Christian preacher from the Seventh-Day Adventists who began to preach the gospel at the age of nineteen. Drawn to Spiritualism before the age of thirty, Hull believed that God was working through the spirits and trances he observed. By the mid 1860s he was a confirmed Spiritualist. Spiritualism, the belief that spirits of the dead could be contacted via people who could speak to the dead—called mediums—became a popular movement in the latter half of the nineteenth century, with prominent believers such as Victoria Woodhull (1838–1927) and Andrew Jackson Davis (1826–1910). Many Spiritualists were former Christians, disappointed with mainline Christianity's unwillingness to support women's rights reform. In 1868 Moses Hull published That Terrible Question; the following is an exerpt from his writings on love and marriage.


                  Love and Marriage

… Let those about entering wedlock know that a radical change cannot be made in an intended partner. Better try to change the spots on a leopard or the skin of an Ethiopian. Hence, we cannot too strongly urge you to know who and what the one is with whom you are about forming a copartnership for life. As soon as the sensitive partner finds that he or she has been disappointed—that the companion was wrongly generatedo n the start and cannot be regenerated, the feeling of disappointment together with the continual trial occasioned by the singularities of wife or husband, is such a source of trouble that the result is disease, resulting in insanity or death. How many there are now in the Lunatic Asylums who need nothing but finding the other half of themselves to restore them to sanity. Pick up almost any daily paper and read the obituaries.

"Died of consumption at the residence of her husband in—, on—. The deceased was an amiable lady—a respectable member of such a church." Sure enough, the doctor's skill is baffled and the children are left motherless. All the medicine in the world could not save her; consumption was not her disease. She died of wedlock—of being compelled to administer to the passions of a man whom she could not love. Reader, this is no fancy sketch. It is true of fifty per cent of the deaths caused by what is called consumption, liver complaint, dyspepsia, heart disease, etc….


Hull's chief complaint was that marriage, essentially forced on both parties by their parents and the need for a suitable social match in middle and upper-class society, led to unhappiness and even early death caused by malaise and resentment. Within five years, Hull's ideas on marriage and adultery would shock the Spiritualist world and provoke controversy among "free love" proponents.

In 1873, Hull published a letter in Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly in which he admitted to having an extramarital affair or repeated affairs while on the lecture circuit. Hull defended his actions by claiming that sexual urges outside of marriage are given to man by God, and that the greater sin lies in not fulfilling those urges. Hull's wife, Elvira, left him shortly after the letter was published. The "free love" aspect of utopianism and its relationship to Spiritualism was harmed; many prominent Spiritualists denounced Hull and separated themselves from the free love concept. Some more radical spiritualists, however, embraced the concept; Woodhull supported Hull's actions, and declared:

Two persons, a male and a female, meet, and are drawn together by a mutual attraction—a natural feeling unconsciously arising within their natures of which neither has any control—which is denominated love. This a matter that concerns these two, and no other living soul has any human right to say aye, yes or no, since it is a matter in which none except the two have any right to be involved, and from which it is the duty of these two to exclude every other person, since no one can love for another or determine why another loves.

The free love movement had focused on freeing women from oppression within marriage, from coerced sexual relations, and forced marriage; with Hull's letter and the notoriety it gained, the free love movement began to look more like a justification for male adultery than a new philosophy. Free love opponents expressed concern for the family; what impact would the idea of "true marriage" proposed by Wood-hull, in which sexual desire that united a man and a woman was considered a true marriage, above all legal and religious ceremonies, have on the children of such a marriage? If free love proponents believed that they could choose partners at will, as desire changed, opponents questioned what that meant for illegitimate children, property rights, and venereal disease?

By the early twentieth century, free love had migrated from the utopian communities, such as Oneida in New York and New Harmony in Indiana, into the cities. In New York City Greenwich Village was a focus of free love activity; Emma Goldman (1869–1940) and Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892–1950) were part of this urban movement. Many of the philosophical principles of free love were incorporated into society by the 1920s; women had gained a wide range of rights unavailable to them in the 1840s. While Hull's version of free love was controversial in its day, it was part of a larger ideal that aimed to restructure gender roles and sexuality within marriage and the family.



Braude, Ann. Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth-Century America. 2nd edition. Blooming-ton: Indiana University Press, 2001.

Dubois, Ellen Carol. Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women's Movement in America, 1848–1869. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999.

Foster, Lawrence. Religion and Sexuality: The Shakers, the Mormons, and the Oneida Community. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984.

Goldsmith, Barbara. Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull. New York: Knopf, 1998.

Hull, Moses. The Question Settled. A Careful Comparison of Biblical and Modern Spiritualism. By Rev. Moses Hull. Michigan Historical Reprint Series. Ann Arbor: Scholarly Publishing Office, University of Michigan Library, 2005.