The pro-life condemnation of the Hodge brothers

This article is the last in a four-part series based on the forthcoming book by Marvin Olasky and Leah Savas, The History of Abortion in America: A Street-Level History, 1652-2022.

When two young boys in a family learn that their three older brothers and their father died of yellow fever, how does this affect their thinking about life and death? In the Hodge family two centuries ago, this awareness led one brother to become the pioneering pro-life physician of the 19th century and the other to become a pro-creation theologian who wrote three volumes of systematic theology still read in the seminars today.

The older of the two survivors, Hugh Hodge, graduated from Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania Medical School to become a ship’s surgeon while traveling in India. There, during a deadly outbreak of cholera, he saw the Hindu “burn a widow with her dead husband” atop a funeral pyre. She didn’t resist when the fire was started, and he hoped she was suffocating from the smoke before he felt the flames.

Hodge nearly died when the ship nearly sank on its way back to America. For most of the 1820s, Hodge served as physician to the Philadelphia Hospice Hospital in the poorest part of the city, where sometimes all was well and other times typhus raged: “Few escaped to poison. … Mortality in the house was great. Hodge again nearly died, but later recovered, joined a Presbyterian church, married, and had seven children.

In the 1830s, Hodge became professor of obstetrics and diseases of women and children at the University of Pennsylvania. Every fall, Hodge gave an introductory lecture on midwifery, but he didn’t talk about abortion until three deaths confronted him with that misery.

The first death: Hodge’s firstborn, whom he describes as “active, cheerful, intelligent”, until the “perforation of the intestine” resulted in sudden death. Deaths two and three, widely covered by the newspapers: Eliza Sowers and her unborn child, both victims in 1839 of a surgical abortion.

At a time when many viewed unborn children as lumps of clay during their first four months in the womb, Hodge in his 1839 introductory lecture pointed out that “human existence” begins “from the time of conception”.

He emphasized prenatal and postnatal continuity:

The unborn child absorbs food from its parent through the uterus. After birth, it absorbs the materials necessary for nutrition through the udders or breasts. There is essentially no difference in its physiological properties, or in the independent character of its existence.

Image: Illustration by Mallory Rentsch / Image source: WikiMedia Commons

Hugues Hodge

While Hugh Hodge (1796–1873) exegetes the unborn child, Charles Hodge (1797–1878) teaches at Princeton Seminary and is known for his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. Charles Hodge later wrote further commentaries on Ephesians and 1 and 2 Corinthians. He culminated his publishing career with a three-volume work Systematic theology (1872-1873) still used in seminaries and What is Darwinism? (1874), a vigorous criticism.

The two brothers raced on parallel tracks, the older saying an unborn child indicated intelligent design and the younger extending it to all creatures large and small. Charles Hodge wrote that Darwinian theory “attributes to blind and unintelligent causes the marvels of design and design which the world everywhere exhibits; and … effectively banishes God from his works.

Hugh Hodge emphasized medical science, but contextualized this in theology:

The existence begun in a woman’s ovary, however mysterious and wondrous it may be, is but the beginning of a series of changes, each more wondrous and glorious than its predecessor, to which the same identical human being will be submitted, perhaps for eternity.

Death is not the end but the time “when changes will be effected infinitely greater and more mysterious than those which occur at conception and during gestation”.

Charles Hodge

Image: Illustration by Mallory Rentsch / Image source: WikiMedia Commons

Charles Hodge

Charles Hodge emphasized theology but contextualized it in careful examination of scientific claims. He wrote of Charles Darwin’s admission “that if one species be derived by slow gradations from another, it would be natural [to find] the connection links”, but “such links cannot be found”.

What united the two brothers was faith in the providential works of God, defined as his most holy, wise and powerful preservation and governance of all his creatures and all their actions. Charles Hodge described how the biblical passages “clearly teach (1) that the universe as a whole does not continue to be of itself. He would cease to exist if he were not supported by his power. (2) That all creatures … are maintained in existence not by an inherent life principle, but by the will of God.

The Hodge brothers understood this as a macro-doctrine concerning the immense universe and a micro-doctrine concerning the little children. They did not see the beginning of the universe or the beginning of a child as, in Charles Hodge’s words, “ateleological… the result of random occurrences.”

This understanding led to Charles Hodge’s famous conclusion in his last book: “What is Darwinism? It is atheism. This does not mean… that Mr. Darwin himself and all who hold his views are atheists; but that means that his theory is atheistic, that the exclusion of design from nature is… atheism.

Hugh Hodge also made a categorical statement: Abortion “is a crime against the natural feelings of man — against the welfare and safety of women — against the peace and prosperity of society — against the divine command , ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ It’s murder.”

How relevant is this today? It depends on what we think of the creation and the design. Big and small are either the product of chance or, as the Hodge brothers believed, the work of a Creator. Why did their three older brothers and their father die? It was a mystery. What could they do to preserve life and a reason to live? It was their vocation, and ours.

Content adapted from The History of Abortion in America by Marvin Olasky and Leah Savas, ©2023. Used with permission from Crossroadsa publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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