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Mtnistterial Misdeeds: The Onderdonk Trial and Sexual Harassment in the 1840s Patricia CIine Cohen In late 1844, the Right Reverend Benjamin T. Onderdonk, Episcopal Bishop of New York, was brought to trial before an ecclesiastical court of his peers on nine counts of "immoralities and impurities" committed against Episcopal women. Followed with intense interest by the public and covered with rapt attention in the secular and religious press, the Onderdonk case generated a best-selling trial report and a heated pamphlet war, focusing sharply on questions of correct gender deportment between ministers and female parishioners. To his supporters, Onderdonk was a man wrongfully accused by enemies within his church who really opposed his theological politics. To his antagonists, the bishop was a powerful man who abused his position to prey on women within his circle. The Onderdonk controversy has all the hallmarks of what today would be called a case of sexual harassment. But lacking a concept of sexual harassment to frame the issues, commentators on both sides of the case remained perplexed and at odds about how to interpret Onderdonk's intimate touches. The story unfolded in a place and time already alert to serious charges of misconduct by the clergy. News of an apparent epidemic of clerical vice oozed from the presses in antebellum America, from the urban penny newspapers to the respectable secular and religious papers. The New York Observer, a Presbyterian weekly, ran a series of articles in the summer of 1844, assuring readers that no minister trained properly in a theological seminary had fallen into "gross sins"—which implied, then, a warning about irregularly trained ministers.1 The fixation on clerical sexual sin soon spilled over into fiction, and "reverend rakes" crowded the landscape of popular romances and racy novels in the 1840s. The guilty adultery of Arthur Dimmesdale, the fictional Puritan minister Nathaniel Hawthorne created in The Scarlet Letter (1850), seems tame by comparison to the brothel-haunting ministers in George Lippard's Quaker City (1845).2 To some extent, the attention to sordid sex crimes and fictionalized hypocrites of the 1830s and 1840s was partly a product of new forms of print culture that leaped on sensational stories and played them up. But features of the sociology of antebellum religion promoted a climate of fear about increased sexual temptation. The rapid growth of denominations in the wake of the Second Great Awakening created space for irregularly © 1995 Journal of Women's History, Vol. 7 No. 3 (Fall) 1995 Patricia Cune Cohen 35 trained ministers to make their way in the world; lax educational and licensing requirements inevitably allowed an occasional charlatan to move into a position of trust. An adversarial denominational press eagerly publicized questionable behavior as a way of discrediting the competition. Any amount of sexual sin stood a better chance of being widely broadcast now by rivals. The emotional religious style of the evangelical movement helped to encourage an atmosphere conducive to sexual disorder as well. Evangelism brought passion and sensuality to the fore and privileged the immediate experience of piety over more traditional, ritual-bound forms. A spirituality that manifested itself in ecstatic moments, altered states of being, uncontrolled weeping, or speaking in tongues clearly drew on sources of psychic energy that modern-day skeptics might identify as subconsciously sexual. But the link could well have been a great deal more direct. Camp meetings and all-night revivals provided a new kind of mixed-sex social space where older rules of gender deportment might be held to less rigidly. Emotional religion allowed for more unrestrained touching, embracing, and general physical intimacy among adherents than did orthodox Congregationalism or HighChurch Episcopalianism. Even among the staid unemotional denominations of the period, the renewal of religious fervor and the necessity to compete with charismatic clerics inevitably led to a greater cultivation of ministerial showmanship. Some men might ease into the presumption that their spiritual magnetism, displayed so dramatically in the pulpit, betokened sexual magnetism as well. And finally, in an age where religious styles were increasingly emotional and thus feminized, some clerics might have felt the need to compensate by overemphasizing aspects of traditional masculine prerogatives in their repertoire of gendered behaviors. Ministers...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 34-57
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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