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Remember the pro-censorship Unitarians?

Boston's elite saw censorship as part of their larger social reform agenda.
By Christopher L. Walton
Winter 2010 11.1.10

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Cover of 'Banned in Boston'

Neil Miller, who teaches journalism at Tufts University and writes occasionally for UU World, tells the story of the Watch and Ward Society in Banned in Boston: The Watch and Ward Society’s Crusade against Books, Burlesque, and the Social Evil (Beacon Press, 2010). Launched by upper-class Yankees in 1878 as the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice and renamed in 1891, the Watch and Ward Society policed Boston’s bookstores and theaters, gambling parlors, drug dens, and brothels from 1878 to 1948, when it finally abandoned its role as censor.

Unitarian Universalists will be especially interested in the role Unitarians played in forming and supporting the society early on: The Rev. Edward Everett Hale, a prominent Boston minister who later served as chaplain to the U.S. Senate, was one of its first vice presidents. In 1898, the Rev. Dr. Francis Greenwood Peabody, a Harvard Divinity School professor who was an early advocate of the “social gospel,” compared the society’s work to engineers monitoring a city’s pipelines for signs of “pestiferous” gases.

Miller highlights the hypocrisies and ironies of Boston censorship, but he also describes the period of intense social change that made the old Yankee elite so nervous about moral collapse. The post-Civil War period saw rapid population growth in Boston, with immigration, industrialization, and urbanization shaking up the social order. The liberal Protestant establishment—the Congregationalists, Unitarians, and Episcopalians who created the Society—fought gambling, prostitution, drug use, and obscene or salacious books and magazines with the same zeal they had brought to other social reforms.

In a final irony, Beacon Press and the UUA’s program staff are now housed in the building the Watch and Ward Society occupied from 1933 to 1959.

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