Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers

April 16, 1904

Guest post by Caroline Arkesteyn, undergraduate student at Iowa State University.

An article published in The Appeal—a Minneapolis/St. Paul newspaper—on April 16, 1904, described a growing international phenomenon. “‘Don’t Swear’ Campaign of Bay State Preacher Now International' tells of the anti-profanity movement started by Rev. Roland D. Sawyer “in the hope that he [would] raise the morals of mankind by abolishing swearing.” The article brings us through the life of Sawyer who, growing up in Kensington, New Hampshire, “inherited the lot of the average New England country boy.” When a young preacher came to his hometown, Sawyer was enlightened and began to become religiously involved. While considering the toils of sin in his life, he decided that profanity was the largest sinful obstacle to his religious purity.

After going to university to study ministry and spending time as an associate pastor, Sawyer came back to his home town of Kensington and began to use an old church to hold meetings. It was there that he created a very simple pledge to not use profanity: “I, the undersigned, do hereby resolve to use no more profane language of any kind. May the lord help me to keep my resolve.” This pledge and the message weren’t meant to be forceful or offensive; they simply meant to outline how useless and distasteful profanity was in conversation. He and many young people in the town took the pledge, and as Sawyer moved around, the pledge spread. He began to pass along his message—with help from his friends—by handing the simple pledge out to people via small cards and stickers. Then it grew to signs being hung in places where people commonly swore, such as “groceries, [places] where men and boys sit around in the evenings to talk, shops and factories…and schoolyards where little boys swear.” Those who participated in the movement formed an anti-profanity league, which was able to get ordinances passed to ban swearing in some towns. The movement, at the time of reporting had spread so large that twelve thousand people had signed pledges in forty states, two territories, and six countries. Most notably, the president, President Roosevelt, gave his support to the movement with approval of the work the league had been completing.

The content of this article may no doubt be surprising to some and may raise any number of questions. This movement of banning profanity, although written somewhat lightheartedly as a news story, deals with the issue of censorship. It is for this reason that one could find it fitting that this topic was reported on in an African-American newspaper, which was born from a sort of censorship of African-American life from common newspapers. News of censorship no doubt continues to be an issue relevant to the lives of minority and underrepresented groups. If this movement were as much of an international phenomenon today as it was when this article was published, one would expect that we would see incredible backlash. One must ask how these bans on profanity were expected to be governed when profanity is so subjective, with different words being considered “off-limits” or acceptable by different people. The international traction of this movement allows us to recognize how much we have developed since this article’s publishing, but it also begs us to recognize the ways in which we have not. 

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