Appeal to women to take part in moral reform


Background Notes

The New-York Moral Female Reform Society (NYFMRS) was founded in 1834, the third in a line of female societies in the city. The NYFMRS was based on the work of the "Magdalen Society" and the "Female Benevolent Society" of that city, both founded in the early 1830s and connected to Rev. John Robert McDowell (1780-1868), as a means to suppress the "licentiousness" (lack of moral restraints) of prostitution found in the city of New York. McDowell was a pioneer in reforming the prostitution found largely in the Five Points region of New York City. He was converted in 1830 by revivalist preaching and work of the American Tract Society. In his diary, he recounted his decision to take up the mission of reforming the licentious women in New York City. McDowell sought to mobilize public opinion against both those who patronized these women and those who were benefitting economically from the practice.

To this end, the purpose of the New-York Female Moral Reform Society was to educate and warn others, especially young women, to avoid those who took part in licentious behavior. They hoped to reform the "abandoned women" (the prostitutes) of New York City, in a great part by going door to door to preach the Gospel to them. The Society also distributed pamphlets and information regarding the state of affairs in that city to gain more middle-class support for their cause.

This pamphlet, produced in 1836 by the New-York Female Moral Reform Society, appeals to a specific set of people in New York and the greater circulation area: "the wives, mothers, and daughters of our land." The pamphlet encouraged these women to learn what they could about the need for moral reform, enabling them to further educate their husbands, sons, and loved ones, to keep them safe from the immoral behavior. The pamphlet also asked for support in the form of money, and the formation of auxiliary societies to expand the reach of the Female Moral Reform Society.

The constitution of the Female Moral Reform Society was printed at the end of the pamphlet, and it detailed how and who would run the organization. Constitution-making was a firm tradition in the early American Republic. It was so ingrained in their way of life since the first colonial charters and compacts, that every organization had something that could be called a constitution. This was an alien idea to most foreign visitors, including such men as Alexis De Tocqueville in his nineteenth-century travels through the young United States.

Transcription of Primary Source


Beloved Sisters:—

We come before you now, not to ask your assistance in an untried experiment, but to give you the high privilege of becoming fellow-laborers with us, in a cause which is already triumphing, and is destined to triumph, until the floods of pollution are stayed, and the whole earth purified by the spirit of the Lord.

In our efforts hitherto, we have had to contend not only, or mainly, with ignorance and vice.—They are our natural foes, and we had counted the cost of their opposition, and made up our minds accordingly. But we had a right to expect the cooperation of the virtuous and intelligent, of all who are seeking to effect the removal of sin and suffering, and the universal prevalence of purity and holiness. Our Society has these great objects expressly in view. It seeks to correct public sentiment by the dissemination of light and truth; to awaken in mothers a sense of their duties and responsibilities, and to save the young and inexperienced by warning them of the snares and artifices of the destroyer. If in the prosecution of these desirable objects it has failed to secure the entire confidence and approbation of any portion of the Christian community, we are confident it is because its claims have been overlooked or misunderstood by them.

You have perhaps considered our object, if you thought of it at all, as one of doubtful tendency, the bare mention of which was calculated to pain the ear of delicacy, and raise a blush on the cheek of virtue. The “Advocate of Moral Reform,” when it has come to you on its errand of love, if it has not been turned contemptuously away, has been read by stealth, and thrown hastily aside, as unfit for the perusal of your family, while iniquity has walked boldly out in daylight, rejoicing to hear her cry of “INDELICACY” echoed by the friends of virtue.

Now, if God is the fountain of purity and honor, then his Word must be the perfect standard of both. And how full and explicit is the language of the Bible, with regard to the sin of licentiousness! It is mentioned so frequently, and in terms of such unmeasured abhorrence, that we could not be ignorant of its estimation in the eyes of a holy God, even if he had not stamped it with the seal of his special displeasure. Shall we, then, “be wise above what is written?” Shall we charge God with folly, by pronouncing it “improper” or “inexpedient” to insist on the keeping of all his commandments?


MOTHER! while you are hesitating about your duty in reference to this matter, or it may be, totally regardless of it, think not that the future destiny of the children you so tenderly love will be uninfluenced by your decision. You may consider them safe beneath your sheltering wing, and guarded by your vigilant eye; but facts have taught us the contrary. They are exposed to corrupting influences where you least suspect it, and their minds may be fearfully contaminated, in very early childhood. If our limits permitted, we could lay before you instances of deep and thrilling interest, which show the dangers to which even infant purity is constantly exposed. To you as Mothers, is committed in a special manner the formation of the character of your children; you are their best and safest friend, and to you they look for counsel and example. We ask you, then, in the name of Him to whom you are responsible for this interesting charge, is it not a paramount duty to fortify their minds, against the temptations to which they will inevitably be exposed? Ought you not in the nursery to sow the seeds of chastity and virtue, and to build up a wall of principle around these little ones, which shall stand in coming years, to beat back the surges of corruption? Say not, “The subject is so delicate we dare not meddle with it, lest we should do more harm than good in the attempt.” You are not at liberty to keep back any part of the counsel of God against this sin. He has spoken plainly, and if you refuse to repeat his instructions, it is as palpable an act of disobedience as the transgression of the command, “Thou shalt not kill.” How many have been ruined by disease, and covered with infamy, who might now have been ornaments to society, had their minds been early strengthened against temptations by the prayerful instructions of a tender and judicious mother! The unhappy young man whose case has caused so much excitement in the community, and who, though legally acquitted, must wear through life the brand of suspected guilt, was once an innocent boy, the pride and hope of the parents whose hearts his conduct has wrung with anguish. So appalling have been the developments of this trial, with regard to the state of morals among a portion of the young men of this city, that men who care for nothing but the temporal interests of society, have expressed the most fearful forebodings. When habits and sentiments of such shameless profligacy are openly avowed by beardless boys, the Christian and the patriot may well tremble for the future destinies of his country. Mother! what shall secure your child from the snares into which so many have fallen?


Follow in imagination your darling son from the country, into this great city. He is the child perhaps, of many prayers and tears; but you have failed, from a mistaken sense of delicacy, to caution him against the evils to which he is here particularly exposed. He would shrink from the thought of theft, drunkenness, or profanity, but licentiousness, the sin which kills both soul and body, is passed by in silence. His first step in the downward road is taken with hesitancy and dread; but this barrier passed, his departure from the habits and principles of his father’s house, is fearfully rapid. The broken Sabbath, the midnight revel, the crowded theatre, all say, “The glory is departing.” From the theatre to the brothel, the transition is easy and natural; and now the voice of conscience is silenced, the last restraints of virtue are withdrawn, and riot and murder close the dreadful scene. But the ruin he has brought upon himself ends not here. “Sin kills beyond the tomb.” There is a day of retribution coming—a day that shall bring to light all the hidden things of darkness; and then you will meet your child again. The Son of Man is seated on the great white throne, the books are opened, and the dead, both small and great, are standing before God. See that trembling sinner, as he comes up from his premature and dishonored grave, to meet Him who hath said, “Whoremongers and adulterers God will judge.” The withering frown of an angry God is upon him, and he seeks in vain to escape the searching glance which reads the inmost recesses of the soul. Can you endure the thought of hearing the plea of parental neglect and unfaithfulness urged by your lost child, and urged in vain? Dear sister, you must stand before the judgment seat of Christ, with the children God hath given you; and as you hope for a happy meeting with them there, fail not now to train them up in the “way they should go,” and labor diligently for their early conversion, as the only safeguard of honor and happiness.


We would likewise earnestly and affectionately ask your support and assistance in the arduous work to which we are devoted; and, beloved sisters, we are confident we shall not ask in vain. When you remember the fifteen thousand females annually sacrificed on the altar of pollution, and the dreadful career of crime which reduces the period of their existence to an average of about five years, you must, you will feel the importance of united and vigorous exertion, to roll back this deadly flood, which is threatening to overwhelm all that is dear and valuable. As a Society, we need your influence in the cause of Moral Reform; we need your money to assist in the dissemination of light and truth; we need your talents, and we need your prayers, that we may have grace and wisdom given us from on high. Shall we not have them? If you hold your peace at such a day as this, then deliverance will arise from another quarter; but it may be too late to save you from blighted hopes and ruined expectations.


Upon your regard and attention, dear young friends, we feel that this cause has great and special charms. You belong to the class particularly exposed to the artifices of the destroyer, and in your hands are the principal weapons of defence. While you smile on the fashionable libertine—while you admit him to your presence, and receive his proffered attentions—our efforts to effect a reformation in public sentiment, will be comparatively in vain. Would you associate familiarly with one whom you knew to be a thief, or a murderer? You turn away with disgust from the mere supposition; and is it then in your estimation a crime of less magnitude to steal from the trusting female, the priceless gem of honor and virtue, and expose her immortal soul to all the horrors of the second death?

Away with that sickly sentimentalism, which spends all its energies in weeping over fictitious woes, while it looks with utter indifference on the sin and suffering by which it is surrounded. Let us call things by their right names, and shun vice in its alluring, as well as in its most disgusting forms. Much is now depending on the stand taken by young ladies, individually and collectively, upon the question of Moral Reform. If you come boldly out on the side of purity and virtue, your influence will be felt to the remotest corners of our country. Fear not the reproach and ridicule of the world. Depend upon it, he who scoffs at what he calls your “prudish severity,” is secretly trembling for fear of the consequences of your firmness. Satan knows, and his children know, that their only hope lies in the disunion and timeserving timidity of the friends of goodness. Could they now see us united heart and hand, moving on with a firm step to the accomplishment of our purpose, all hell would at once anticipate the result.

Do you ask, what there is for you to do? Suffer us to remind you of your duty in a few particulars, and urge you to a conscientious performance of it.


Two objections are often urged against this course, which have some weight with the truly conscientious. The first, assumes that “young ladies, are not supposed to know any thing of the profligate habits of those with whom they associate.” This objection supposes a degree of ignorance which we believe very rarely exists, and its fallacy is clearly evident from the fact that it is only applicable to the case of the licentious man.” Why not admit the guilty woman, to the same degree of intimacy, sheltered under the same plea? a knowledge of the criminality of the one, involves of necessity, that of the other why then this invidious distinction? no mother would hesitate to warn her daughter against association with the abandoned woman, or to give her reasons for such prohibition, and this warning, to be efficacious or consistent must extend alike to both sexes. The other objection is this, that the course in question, “will be calculated to drive the libertine to desperation and thus prevent all hope of his being reformed and saved.” We say to the objector, that we believe such treatment would have a directly contrary effect on all who were not entirely given up to the dominion of sin, by rendering their situation so intolerable, as to force them to reflection, and perhaps repentance. But even should not this be the result, is it not better that the few should be sacrificed to the welfare of the many? If those now in the way to death, will press on to destruction, shall we not endeavor to save the innocent and unwary from the same awful doom? Let our principles be thoroughly examined and established, and then let us act upon them, whatever may be the result.

“Can one take fire in his bosom and his clothes not be burned?” Association with the vicious, of whatever rank or station, degrades the mind and lowers the standard of morality.

“We are all,” says Locke, “a kind of camelions, that take a tincture from the objects that surround us.” A still wiser man has told us, that, “the companion of fools shall be destroyed.” The example of an associate will exert a powerful influence in the formation of our own character, especially if it is a sinful one, because a bad model, finds in the depravity of our nature, something that prepares it to receive the impression. One evil companion will undo in a month all that parents and teachers have been laboring for years to accomplish. Remember, that the character of your associates, will in all probability be your own. If you do not carry to them a similarity of taste, you will be sure to acquire it, “for how can two walk together except they are agreed?” The more external accomplishments any one possesses, without religious principle, the greater is his power to do mischief, for attracting qualities are like the fair speech, and lovely form, and glowing colors, which the serpent assumed when he attacked and destroyed the innocence of Eve. When you have listened to his wiles, and felt his sharp tooth and the deadly poison of his venom, will it be a consolation that you have looked on his brilliant colors, and been ruined by the fascination of his charms? Shun then, all intercourse with the abandoned of either sex, as you value honor and happiness here, or hope hereafter.


When the ignorance and prejudice of the community are enlightened and subdued, and the overwhelming facts which daily come to our knowledge, are laid before them, we can safely leave the cause to make its own way to their hearts and consciences. For this purpose we commend to your attention the “ADVOCATE OF MORAL REFORM,” and request you not only to take it yourselves, but to assist us in extending its circulation. We do this, believing it to be the most efficient way in which your assistance can at present be given, and one which falls peculiarly within your province. The subject of gratuitous distribution among those who are indifferent to the cause, or unable to become subscribers, is one of great importance to the success of the work in which we are engaged. There are hundreds of females in the factory villages that are springing up over our land, who are peculiarly exposed, by their youth and inexperience, to the arts of those wretches who visit the country to obtain supplies for the haunts of infamy in the large towns. It is ascertained that a majority of the abandoned females in this city are from the country, and who can say they might not have been saved, by the timely warnings of the Advocate? If the streams of pollution that flow from other sources can be dried up, we may then hope that in process of time these deadly waves will be stayed, but this can only be effected by light and knowledge. We can never intelligently combat an evil, until we know something of its extent and characteristics, and it is to supply this information as well as to awaken the public to feeling and action that the advocate is published. Every day brings fresh testimony from all quarters, to the value and usefulness of this paper; and by making it known still more widely, you may do much to reclaim and bless mankind.


We need not enlarge on the superior advantages of organized effort over individual exertion. The minds of the community are in some degree awake to the importance of the subject, and our hearts are cheered by the frequent intelligence of the formation of new societies. Still, while we thank God and take courage, we would not disguise the fact, that comparatively little has yet been done. The field is wide enough for the exercise of the most expanded benevolence, for it is, literally, “THE WORLD.” Wherever the blessed Gospel is carried by the heralds of the Cross, it meets this monster sin, crushing in its poisonous folds all that is good and lovely, and presenting at this hour the greatest obstacle to the spread of the religion of Jesus. The constant and open violation of the great law of purity is of itself sufficient to ruin, and if not prevented, will ruin all hopes of Zion’s advance against the powers of hell. And not on heathen ground alone. In our own land, the stain of guilt is red as crimson. But this state of things, though gloomy, is not hopeless. The world will be purified and renovated, for God has decreed it; and he gives us the high privilege of becoming co-workers with Him in the accomplishment of this glorious object.

Finally, dear sisters, we urge this subject upon your consideration, by the remembrance of your obligations to that Grace which has alone made you to differ from the thousands who inhabit the antechambers of hell. By all the blessings that Christianity has conferred on our sex; by all that is pure and of good report in this life, and all that is desireable in the world to come; by the solemnities of the judgment, and the retributions of eternity, we urge you to awake to duty, and do with your might whatsoever your hand findeth to do in this cause. But a few more days, and we who are laboring in this work must stand before God, with those who have opposed and derided our efforts. Of what consequence will it be to us, then, that our names on earth were cast out as evil, if we have been made the instruments of saving even one soul from death? “They that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness, as the stars, for ever and ever.”




Whereas, The sin of licentiousness has made fearful havoc in the world, “corrupting all flesh,” drowning souls in perdition, and exposing us to the vengeance of a holy God, whose law in this respect has been trampled on almost universally, not only by actual transgression, but by the tacit consent of the virtuous, and by the almost perfect silence of those whom He has commanded to “cry aloud and spare not;”

And whereas, It is the duty of the virtuous to use every consistent moral means to save our country from utter destruction: We do, therefore, form ourselves into a Society for this object, to be governed by the following



This Society shall be called “THE NEW-YORK FEMALE MORAL REFORM SOCIETY,” auxiliary to the “American Society for Promoting the Observance of the Seventh Commandment.”


This Society shall have for its object the prevention of licentiousness, by diffusing light in regard to the existence and great extent of this sin, by showing its fearfully immoral and soul-destroying influence; by pointing out the numberless lures and arts practised by the unprincipled destroyer, to seduce and ruin the unsuspecting; by excluding from social intercourse with us, all persons of both sexes who are known to be of licentious habits; and by such other means as the Society shall from time to time deem expedient.


This Society shall consist of those ladies who cordially approve of its object, sign its Constitution, and pledge themselves not to admit into their society any persons of either sex known to be licentious, and who statedly contribute to its funds.


The officers of this Society shall be, a first and second Directress, a Treasurer, a Secretary, and a Board of Managers, composed of the above, and not less than twelve other members of the Society. They shall be annually elected by the members of the Society, and five shall constitute a quorum.


The Board of Managers shall annually elect an Executive Committee, consisting of five members, who shall have power to enact their own by-laws, fill any vacancy in their body, employ agents, and determine their compensation, direct the Treasurer in the application of all moneys, and call special meetings of the Society—hold stated meetings, and adopt the most energetic measures in their power to advance the objects of the Society.


The first Directress shall preside at all meetings of the Society, or in her absence, the second Directress, or in their absence, a Directress pro tem. The Secretary shall conduct the correspondence of the Society, notify all its meetings, and the meetings of the Executive Committee, and keep records of the same in separate books.

The Treasurer shall collect the subscriptions, make payments at the direction of the Executive Committee, and present written audited accounts to accompany the Annual Report.


The annual meeting of the Society shall be held each year, at such time and place as the Executive committee may direct, when the accounts of the Treasurer shall be presented, the Annual Report read, appropriate addresses delivered, the officers chosen, and such other business transacted as shall be deemed expedient.


This Constitution may be amended at any annual meeting of the Society, by a vote of two-thirds of the members present, provided the amendments proposed have been previously submitted in writing to the Executive Committee.

Curator Notes

Exact Title: 
An appeal to the wives, mothers and daughters of our land
12 pages
New-York Female Moral Reform Society
Female Moral Reform Society
Place of Publication: 
New York
19 cm.
American Antiquarian Society
Catalog Code: 
InNyL NewY F329 Appe 1836