Report of a Female Moral Reform Society


Background Notes

This Female Moral Reform Society was founded in 1834, and it sought to continue on the life work of Rev. John R. McDowell (1780-1868). 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. This report showed the change in emphasis in McDowell's work from only reclaiming fallen women to shaping public opinion. Much of what this moral reform society sought to do was based on the hugely successful model of the temperance movement, which convinced many people of the evils of liquor. McDowell hoped to influence public opinion enough to condemn and stigmatize the "licentious men" who visited prostitutes.

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


             The first Annual Meeting of the N. Y. F. M. R. Society was held in Chatham street Chapel, May 15, 1835.  Wm. Brown, Esq. Treasurer of the American Seventh Commandment Society, officiated as chairman, and C. W. Denison, as Secretary.  Prayer was offered by Rev. Mr. Woodbridge of Richmond, Mass.  The Reports of the Treasurer and Secretary were read by Mr. S. Beman of this city.

            On motion of the Rev. Chas. J. Knowles, it was

            Resolved, That the Reports be adopted and printed under the direction of the Board of Managers.

            On motion of Kev. J. H. Martin, formerly of Buffalo, and recommended by Rev. Mr. Wells of Boston, it was

            Resolved, That it is the duty of ministers of the gospel, to preach God’s word as faithfully on the subject of licentiousness as it is on any other vice or sin.

            On motion of Rev. Mr. Patterson, of Philadelphia, and recommended by Rev. I. N. Sprague of N. York, it was

            Resolved, That the time has fully come, when the attention of ministers and churches of Jesus Christ should be directed to the subject of prevailing licentiousness, as presenting a most formidable obstacle to the spread of the gospel in Christian and heathen countries.

            On motion of Rev. I. F. Adams, of Columbus, N. Y., and recommended by Mr. S. Beman,

            Resolved, That the thanks of the society be presented to the presiding officer and to the speakers.

            The meeting was addressed by the Rev. Messrs. Martin, Wells, Patterson, and Sprague.



            The Board of Managers of the Female Moral Reform Society of the City of New York, in presenting their First Annual Report, feel that some account of the origin and present state of efforts in the cause of Moral Reform, may not be unacceptable to the public.
            The first society in this city for the suppression of licentiousness, of which we have any definite knowledge, was organized in 1830, and styled “The Magdalen Society.”  This society embraced some of the most wealthy and respectable inhabitants of the city.  Its efforts were mainly directed to the reformation of abandoned females, and for this purpose an asylum was opened on Bowery Hill, for such as appeared willing to return to a virtuous life.  Its first report, published in 1831, and giving some account of the existing state of morals in the city, called forth many bitter feelings and much opposition.  Not long after its publication the society ceased its operations and was dissolved.  There was one individual, however, connected with the society, the Rev. J. R. McDowall, who felt that he could not retire from the field.  For a long time he continued to labor alone.  His “Magdalen Facts,” published in 1832, awakened a deep interest in many minds in the cause of Magdalen Reform.  To sustain him in his self-denying labors societies were formed in 1832 among the ladies of the Laight-street and Spring-street congregations.  It was soon felt however, that some more extended efforts were necessary to the advancement of the cause; a meeting of ladies from different churches was therefore called, which resulted in the formation of the N. Y. Female Benevolent Society.  This society soon took under its charge the females who had been received into the family of Mr. McDowall, and the latter devoted himself to the publication of his Journal, which a short time previous he had commenced.  Here again Mr. McDowall stood alone, unsustained by any society, and laboring entirely on his own responsibility, until the American Seventh Commandment Society came into existence in the winter of 1833.  By this time the feelings of many benevolent ladies were deeply enlisted in the cause; and while some connected with the Female Benevolent Society were endeavoring to reclaim the vicious, others felt that a preventive influence might be exerted by united efforts to change the tone of public sentiment in relation to the sin of licentiousness, to one more in accordance with the Bible.  They accordingly formed a society in May 1834, called the Female Moral Reform Society of the City of New York, auxiliary to the American Seventh Commandment Society. 


             The great object of the society was the diffusion of light as to the causes, the extent, and the evils of licentiousness in our land; to warn the young of their danger; to show all their duty in relation to this vice, and to persuade them to do it, with the hope that a barrier might be raised to stop the progress of the evil, and the Redeemer’s kingdom thereby be extended.  The members of the society did not enter on this work because they supposed it easy of accomplishment, or because they thought that females were peculiarly fitted to labor in this cause.  They felt that if ever there was a cause that imperiously demanded the strength and energies of men, it was this.  But they had seen all the men (except those connected with the Seventh Commandment Society) who had entered this field, retire from it disheartened, save one, whom they felt themselves solemnly called upon to rise up and sustain in his self-denying and persevering efforts.  When the husbands and fathers and sons will come up to this work with the noble spirit they evince in other labors of Christian philanthropy, the wives and mothers and daughters will gladly retire from their present prominent station in the cause of Moral Reform, and become, as they were designed to be, the efficient helpers of the stronger sex.


             Immediately after the organization of the society, the Board issued a circular addressed to the females of every religious denomination in the United States, inviting their cooperation in this great work.  To this call not a few of the virtuous daughters of America have nobly responded.  Thirty-one auxiliaries have been reported, all the members of which have pledged themselves not to countenance the man who is licentious, and twenty of these auxiliaries have reported as connected with them, 1444 members, while from eleven no reports of their numbers have been received.  During the summer of 1834, little was effected but through the influence of the circular.  Most of the Board were absent from the city, and the excited state of public feeling on other subjects rendered it difficult to accomplish much in the cause of Moral Reform.  In the fall, the Board felt the necessity of adopting a more definite plan of operations, and of entering upon more vigorous measures for its prosecution.  They sought advice from the executive committee of the Seventh Commandment Society, and upon their recommendation, Resolved to employ missionaries to labor among the abandoned of the city, and to provide a suitable place for the reception of females wishing to reform.  Two missionaries were accordingly engaged, and a house taken, of which the Rev. J. R. McDowall and wife had charge.  By these movements new interest was excited, and a fresh impulse was given to the cause; its friends were stirred up to prayer and the wicked began to tremble.


             The hope of doing good by these missionary operations lay not so much in the expectation of reclaiming profligate females, as in disturbing the licentious in their evil practices; in preventing those who wish to appear virtuous from committing sins which they would be ashamed to have exposed; and in obtaining such information as to the causes, extent and consequences of this evil, as to enable us to warn the virtuous of their danger, and thus exert an influence to prevent our land from becoming a mass of pollution.  This hope has not been disappointed.  The Board have carefully watched the result of these missionary operations, and they have seen enough to be induced to continue them and to aim at extending them, till this and the other principal cities in the United States are supplied with missionaries, acting on a systematic and efficient plan, believing that when this is accomplished, multitudes would be deterred from visiting haunts of iniquity by the fear of exposure, and that consternation and confusion would reign among the shameless.  It is believed that God has stamped with his seal the operations of the past winter, for he has appeared, in more than one instance, both in judgment and in mercy, to verify the declarations of his word.  In one portion of the city to which missionary efforts were principally directed, many of the guilty inhabitants would hide themselves on the approach of the missionaries, and some broke up their houses, and professed to give up their business but perhaps left, only to find another place, where they might carry on their wretched calling undisturbed by the messengers of God.  One man who had been faithfully told of his guilt and warned of the coming judgment if he persisted in his course of sin, after a few days died a sudden and awful death.  Several similar deaths in the same neighborhood, about the same time, caused the guilty to tremble, and many of them to say, They believed God was coming in judgment to punish them for their sins.


             Efforts to reclaim the abandoned females are incidentally and necessarily connected with these missionary operations.  It was the last command of our Savior to preach the gospel to every creature; and while our missionaries have been laboring to do this from house to house, and through the streets and lanes of the city, several females, professing a wish to forsake their sins, have been thrown into their hands and provided for in the society’s house.
            The Board wish to have their sentiments on this point fully understood.  While they consider the reformation of abandoned females to be an important object, and while they hope that many will be reformed, they conceive that even the reformation of thousands would contribute but very little towards checking the tide of licentiousness that is rapidly increasing in our country.  This may easily be shown by drawing a familiar illustration from the temperance reform.  Suppose the main efforts in the cause of temperance had been directed to reclaim those who had given themselves up to beastly drunkenness.  What would have been done compared with what has been done?  Distilleries might now have stood in stately grandeur; the maker and the vender of ardent spirits could still fatten on the tears of wretched wives and starving children; polite Christians could still tip the glass, and drink the health of ministers, and all could have shed tears of sympathy over the wide spread evil, and could have eased their consciences by aiding in the benevolent effort to reclaim the drunkard; and all this without fear that the objects of their charity would have diminished in number, for the drunkard-making machinery would still be in operation to supply the place of those who might be reformed.  Just so in the cause of Moral Reform.  We have not only reason and analogy, but experience and facts to show, that while Christians were engaged in efforts to reclaim abandoned females the machinery of Satan would still be at work to ruin the innocent.  The base seducer would be caressed by the virtuous, and at the same time stab to the heart those who smiled upon him.  Multitudes of the male sex could gratify their passions without fear of exposure, contracting and entailing disease and death.  The conduct of unfaithful husbands would be covered up, and if perchance their virtuous wives should suffer in consequence, not a word would be said.  The shepherds of Zion might remain silent, while they see the lambs of their flock enticed from the fold.  The impure, unmolested, would circulate their obscene books, prints, &c. while all cried Hush, and this work of manufacturing for hell would be carried on with increasing energy.
            To carry this illustration farther: there is quite as little hope in reforming “strange women,” as in reforming drunkards.  Indeed, they are intimately connected, for a “strange woman” is almost always a drunkard.  It is well known that licentiousness has a most debasing influence on the mind.  Many of the poor creatures who are its victims acknowledge that they are going to hell, and weep and tremble when compelled to look at the fact, but like the drunkard, whose mind is under the influence of beastly bodily appetites, they seem not to have the power to break the chains that bind them to their sins.  Very few of those that might be reclaimed, can be induced to enter a Magdalen asylum, while the great majority of those who are willing to seek a refuge there, are sunk so low in vice, as to warrant but little hope of their reformation.  They will readily yield to temptation, and the force of habit, and return like the “dog to his vomit, or the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire.”  Those who are not so debased, flatter themselves with the hope of a voluntary return to virtue at some convenient season, while they go on sinning as it were, “with a cart rope, and drinking in iniquity like water,”  The Board have been led to these conclusions from witnessing the results of their own, as well as other operations, to reclaim abandoned females.  During the last six months, 30 females have been received into the society’s house; of these, 3 have gone to service, 4 have been sent to the asylum of the N. Y. Female Benevolent society, and one who was previously reclaimed, and had entered to obtain a home, being in ill health, having partially recovered, is now taking care of herself.  The others after staying some a longer and some a shorter time have returned to their sins.  No one has been permitted to leave the house without being solemnly warned of the consequences, and told that she was deliberately preferring eternal misery to a life of virtue; and many, as they left would acknowledge that they believed it to be the last opportunity they might have to save their souls, and yet they would deliberately return to their haunts of vice, and take to themselves “seven other spirits more wicked than the first.”  Some pains have been taken to ascertain their history after they left the society’s house, and it has been found that two or three have died sudden and awful deaths.  One, within a few days, three times endeavored to drown herself; and another, of whom the Board entertained strong hopes of amendment, had been turned into the street as unmanageable, by the keeper of the house where she went.
            In attempting to reform this class of females, the Board feel that they must meet with great and peculiar discouragements; and were it not that the gospel has power to save the vilest, hope would be abandoned.  When we remember that the heathen among whom our missionaries are laboring with zeal and success, are almost universally licentious, and that God has promised that they shall be given to Christ for his possession, a ray of light-beams through the darkness, and we venture to hope that these heathen at home may yet be saved.  But why—O, why are his chariot wheels so long in coming?  Our convictions answer, that there is not piety enough in the church at the present day to effect a reformation among this class of sinners; “for this kind goeth not out except by prayer and fasting.”


             The Board would call the attention of auxiliaries and the friends of the cause, to the importance of sustaining a thorough system of missionary operations in connexion with the work of Moral Reform, in all our large cities.  Such operations would do much to prevent the evil of licentiousness in many ways.  By giving religious instruction from house to house, among a numerous, and neglected, and much exposed class of our population, missionaries would exert an influence to prevent many young persons from being ensnared in an evil time.  They could rescue such as were willing to leave their vicious habits, especially such as had recently been plunged into vice, and whose consciences had not become seared, and their hearts hardened by a long course of dissipation.  And what is not less important, such missionary operations, wisely and perseveringly prosecuted, would do much to break up the most abominable traffic, in which depraved man was ever engaged.  With much pleasure, the Board are enabled to say that the missionary labor performed in this city during the past three years in connexion with the cause of Moral Reform, has not been without its effect.  When such labor has been prosecuted with vigor, and made to bear for any length of time on a certain neighborhood, the wicked have evidently been disturbed in their vicious practices.  Men who valued their reputation have been afraid to visit certain places for fear of coming in contact with missionaries and of being exposed.  And in instances not a few, the men and women who carry on this wretched calling, have complained that their business has so declined that they are hardly able to meet their expenses; while these same individuals boast that formerly they were extensively patronized, and sustained in idleness and luxury.  What then, would be the effect of a thorough and vigorous system of missionary operations, perseveringly prosecuted in all our cities?  We earnestly pray that benevolent ladies in Boston, Providence, Philadelphia, Albany, Baltimore and other cities, would turn their attention to this subject, and in connexion with local societies in their respective places, sustain and direct such operations.  The Board confidently believe that the friends of good morals throughout the country will cheerfully contribute to sustain such a system of missionary labor in our large cities, especially when they come to see its influence in cutting off the streams of pollution, which flow out from the cities to many villages in the land.


             Important as missionary operations may be esteemed, the Board feel that the principal hope of the cause of Moral Reform is in the power of the press in communicating to the world light, as to the sin, the causes, and the consequences of the evil of licentiousness.  Indeed it was one primary object in the organization of the society, to give support to McDowall’s Journal, the only publication that had ever dared to speak out, and take a bold and decided stand against this giant sin.  That paper, to which the cause of Moral Reform is indebted for its very existence, has unexpectedly fallen into our hands.  In Dec. 1834, Mr. McDowall, feeling that he must be relieved from some of the responsibilities which rested upon him in this cause, proposed to transfer to the N. Y. F. M. R. Society, his office and his Journal.  To accept of this transfer, and become the conductors of a public journal on the peculiarly difficult subject of Moral Reform, the Board felt was an arduous undertaking.  Again they sought advice from the executive committee of the American Seventh Commandment Society, and that committee recommended the acceptance of the transfer, and the continuance of a paper devoted to the cause of Moral Reform; and further, that Mr. McDowall be appointed the General Agent of the Society.  A paper has accordingly been conducted by the executive committee of the Board, under the name of the Advocate of Moral Reform, which has thus far, it is believed, met the cordial approbation of the friends of the cause.  Mr. McDowall has been earnestly solicited to accept of the station of the General Agent of the society, but for reasons which he has already given to the public, has declined.  He has been, however, and still is connected with the society.  To him and his wife, the Board feel much indebted for their important and gratuitous services, especially in taking charge of the society’s house.
            In undertaking the management of a public journal, your Board are fully sensible that they have undertaken a great work; and that in such a work they need the counsel and aid and prayers of all the friends of truth and purity.  Reluctantly they have entered on the work, and willingly will they give it up, when it can fall into better hands.  As the Board have placed the paper for its support on its own subscription list, designing to expend what donations they receive in missionary and other labors, the friends of the cause are earnestly desired to encourage them in their labors, by becoming themselves, and inducing others to become, subscribers to the Advocate of Moral Reform.


             One great object to be effected in the work of Moral Reform is, the formation of a public sentiment, that will place the licentious man on a level with the licentious woman.  The crime is as great, and we venture to say in a majority of cases greater, in the male than in the female.  We see no reason why either should be exempt from merited disgrace.  When men are guilty of this sin, let them lose their character as women do, and much of this abominable vice would be done away at once.  This change in public sentiment we humbly conceive it is in the power of virtuous females to effect; and the way to effect it is, to induce virtuous females to look down on licentious men as virtuous men now look down on licentious women.  Let virtuous women band together to keep such men at a distance and the work is done.  Until they will do this, they must expect to see their daughters ruined and covered with infamy, while the base villain who has done this work, is regarded as a gentleman, received into respectable society, and thus encouraged to go on in his deeds of villainy.  We have heard of one young man who penned down the names of thirteen young ladies, whom he deliberately determined to seduce in succession.  He succeeded with the first, and then if he had lost his character in estimation of the virtuous twelve, his powers to harm them would have been at an end.  But while the victim of his treachery would be spurned by the virtuous of her sex, they would receive and caress her betrayer as a gentleman.  O, if woman would stand for her rights, and insist upon it that the licentious man should be put down on a level with his guilty paramour, what good to the human race and to the cause of Christ would be the result?  Daughters of America, why not let this good work begin with you?  Why not marshal yourselves in bands, and become a terror to evil doers?  Already have more than 1444 virtuous females pledged themselves that they will not associate with licentious men.  Let this number be increased so that it will include every virtuous female in the land, and then licentious men can associate only with their kind.  If our efforts can be instrumental of awakening an interest in the minds of the virtuous daughters of America on this subject, and of inducing them to array their influence against a vice so destructive to the happiness of their sex as licentiousness, we shall feel that we have done a great and noble work.


              The Board hope also to be able to stir up parents and teachers and ministers to the importance of instructing children on this, as well as the other evils to which they are exposed.  It is confidently believed that the general neglect of instruction on the subject of the seventh commandment, is a principal cause of prevailing licentiousness.  If the same course had been pursued in relation to the vice of lying or stealing, we should have expected that the land would be filled with liars and thieves.  If our efforts are successful in inducing ministers and parents and teachers, to do their whole duty to those under their charge, we shall feel that we have done another great and noble work.


             The Board have ascertained that there are annually brought into the larger cities from the country, a large number of young women under various pretences, but really for the purpose of supplying the market of sin.  Some are brought in under the promise of marriage; and here, friendless and destitute, their seducers abandon them to infamy to hide their own guilt.  Others, in coming to the city, are committed by their anxious mothers, to some gentleman for protection, but who gives them the protection the vulture does the dove.  And others on visits to their friends are drawn into her doors, whose “house is the way to hell, going down to the chambers of death.”  Our operations are bringing to light more and more of the secrets of this abominable traffic, carried on in all its departments almost as regular as the trade in dry goods.  To every anxious mother and every virtuous daughter throughout the land, we would raise the loud note of alarm, and cry, Beware of unprincipled men in the garb of gentlemen.  If the Advocate of Moral Reform can be made subservient to this warning, and thus save the exposed from being ensnared in an evil time, we shall feel that it is not published in vain.
            In short, the field of usefulness in the cause of Moral Reform is opening wider and wider every day.  It remains for the Christian community to say whether it shall be occupied.  We earnestly invite to our aid in the difficult and self-denying work, the influences of the minister of the gospel, and the virtuous of every class; and we doubt not, if we labor prayerfully and diligently, that God will succeed us in our labors, and permit us to see the triumph of virtue over vice, AND TO HIM BE ALL THE GLORY.



             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.


Licentiousness - lacking legal or moral restraints; especially, disregarding sexual restraints

Magdalen – a reformed prostitute

Benevolent - organized for the purpose of doing good

Philanthropy - goodwill to fellowmen; especially: active effort to promote human welfare

Auxiliary - offering or providing help, aid, support

Profligate - completely given up to dissipation (being wasteful and foolish) and licentiousness

Distilleries - the place where alcoholic liquors are made

Curator Notes

Exact Title: 
First annual report of the Female Moral Reform Society of the City of New York, presented, May 1835.: With the constitution, list of officers, names of auxiliaries, &c.
16 pages
Female Moral Reform Society of the City of New York
William Newell
Place of Publication: 
New York
American Antiquarian Society
Catalog Code: 
InNyL NewY F329 Annu 1835