The day was a thing of late autumn; so full of crisp air and heft and breeze that it had infused the clergyman Frederick Wood—Goucher College chaplain—with such gusto that there was a certain pep to his steps.
It was a Sunday, and this Dr. Wood was to deliver his sermon. He had no idea that, to butcher a Wodehouse metaphor, fate had tipped up behind him on the toes and stood waiting to clobber him over the head with a frying pan.
For the sermon he delivered that day would go on to rank among the most contentious episodes in Goucher’s history; certainly as the most controversial event of Dr. Kraushaar’s tenure as college president. Its consequences include the likes of a column in the New York Times, hundreds of letters from angry alumnae, a decline in admission applications, and the short article I now write.
“The Chaplain’s Sex Sermon” is what the happening is known as these days.
Dr. Otto Kraushaar chose the term, “A bright and attractive young man,” to describe the young Episcopal clergyman Frederick Wood. “Very liberal in his outlook on all questions, including theological ones, Dr. Wood came to us at a time when many young theologians were exploring ‘situation ethics’…their position was that there are no absolute rules or laws governing particular behavior; they proposed that moral decisions depend upon the whole situation and how it affects the various participants in it.”
Dr. Kraushaar was present at Chapel the Sunday morning on which Dr. Wood delivered his remarks. Sat there in a pew, Kraushaar wondered whether repercussions might ensue, and they did.
The sermon concerned right and wrong; Wood’s contention “was that the rightness or wrongness of moral decisions depends upon the sensitivity and responsibility exercised by the parties concerned…while there is no absolute right or wrong in sexual matters, individuals should behave in a thoroughly responsible way with respect to all parties involved.”
Amongst other taboo subjects, Wood made comments regarding homosexuality and premarital intercourse. He sought to challenge the concept of sin, to explore new ways of understanding it; however, many attendees interpreted it as an endorsement of total permissiveness.
Coming home from a trip weeks after Wood’s sermon, Dr. Kraushaar picked up a copy of The Evening Sun and discovered a full column devoted to the incident—Wood always printed his sermons; naturally, a copy had found its way to the newspaper.
Yet that wasn’t the extent: the following morning, The New York Times ran a similar story, stuffed to the brim with direct quotations.
Consequently, for the next two months, Dr. Kraushaar was inundated with hundreds of letters of complaint. “I could find almost no time for my normal duties,” he later wrote, “I had to spend most of my days trying to develop ways to repair the apparent damage. Letters poured in by the hundreds from alumnae and from unknown people who berated the College for permitting such an outrage…This went of for five or six weeks until finally the flood of mail began to abate.”
(The students, conversely, took it all in stride. So too did a few who praised the sermon and its deliverer for speaking out so frankly on a question usually swept under the rug.)
Kraushaar answered every one of the letters and even changed several writers’ view of the situation. Eventually, he made the decision to draft a letter to all alumnae, regardless of whether or not they had contacted him: the reaction was largely positive. “We received notes from older alumnae saying, in effect, that when they were in college they had received absolutely no guidance in the matter of sex, a lack which they considered deplorable.”
A small faction of trustees wanted Wood yanked from the pulpit; Kraushaar resisted. Some trustees would not let the matter rest, and Kraushaar threatened to tender his resignation if any action was taken against Dr. Wood.
The matter was never brought up again.
P.S. By Fred Wood’s account, he had given an identical sermon two years prior at Cornell University, to which no particular attention was paid. Dr. Kraushaar concluded that “the public expected a college for women to reflect a higher standard of morality than it expected from the community in general. Any kind of scandal at a women’s college has far more news value than the same event would have if it occurred in a large coed university or in a college for men.”