On a Sunday morning in March 1835, a small group of evangelical missionaries entered a brothel in New York City’s notorious slum, the Five Points. Their intention: to chastise the inhabitants and clients for their wickedness and persuade them to abandon their lives of sin. For the New York Female Moral Reform Society missionaries, brothel visits were part of a strategy to eliminate sexual immorality from society. Members viewed prostitutes as hapless victims of male license and of a cruel double standard—both of which they railed against—and they aimed to rescue women from lives of perceived degradation. Missionaries met with a variety of responses to their efforts, ranging from open reception to threats of violence. On this particular Sunday, all but the keeper of the house were willing to converse. As the missionaries attempted to read aloud from the Bible and pray, they later reported that the madam of the house “kept about her work, washing dishes, and making an almost deafening noise . . . scraping an old platter with a huge knife.”2
This excerpt is valuable in two ways. First, it hints toward the environment of a certain class of American antebellum brothel, in which domestic activities were not far removed from the entertainment of guests. Second, and more importantly, it illustrates some of the tensions inherent in the contact [End Page 226] between missionaries and those they sought to reform. Such descriptions are a part of the missionary reports in the Advocate of Moral Reform, the main publication of the New York Female Moral Reform Society (FMRS). The Advocate, which had 16,500 subscribers by 1838, was one of the most widely read evangelical papers in the country.3 By printing lurid tales of seduction and abandonment, the society intended to shock the public with the prevalence of vice in their midst and impress upon them the plight of exploited women. The society’s reform strategy, as articulated in the Advocate, was twofold: prevention of immorality through education and the reclamation of those already “abandoned.” Whereas reclamation involved the rescue of prostitutes from brothels, prevention efforts included stressing the importance of proper decorum, particularly to mothers and unmarried young women. The pages of the Advocate are rife with instructions on the raising of morally pure children and entreaties to ostracize sexually profligate men. Indeed, the society was radical in its critique and denunciation of male license as the basis for society’s sexual ills.4
Because addressing sexuality—particularly in a public forum—was considered highly improper for women in nineteenth-century America, FMRS members often suffered moral condemnation themselves from both peers and society at large. Yet the reformers understood their actions as part of the female prerogative of “True Womanhood.”5 While the ideology of True Womanhood was largely based upon a woman’s rightful place in the home, it also granted Christian women the moral authority to move beyond the domestic sphere. The FMRS was the first female society formed for the elimination of sexual vice, and it became a platform from which members vociferously denounced male license, imagined a cross-class community of women, and called for a single standard of behavior between the sexes. Yet despite their pioneering goals, the members’ own backgrounds limited their ability to understand gender roles and relations different from their own. For example, because female asexuality or sexual “purity” formed a cornerstone of the reformers’ ideology, they were all too frequently preoccupied with seduction, abandonment, and the consequent exclusion from respectable society as the primary events that preceded a woman’s entrance into sexual commerce.6 As one historian has summed up in a slightly different context, [End Page 227] “middle-class reformers could not grasp the motivations, moral codes, and survival strategies” of the women they sought to help.7
While women ran the society and its publication, it is important to recognize that men also held positions as missionaries, a fact that has been less explored by historians. John McDowall, the controversial founder of the short-lived Magdalen Society, was influential to...