Donations allow the all–volunteer Partnership to continue its free programs.  You will become a Friend of the Partnership of the Historic Bostons for a donation of $35 or more. 

"Ravishing Affection: Debunking the Myths of the Puritans and Sex"

Francis J. Bremer

Listen and see the presentation here or read it below

Mention the subject of the puritans and sex and the image that likely comes to mind is that of Hester Prynne, walking from the Boston prison to the marketplace where she would stand on the pillory with the letter “A” pinned to her chest, signifying her guilt as an adulteress.  Nathaniel Hawthorne’s vivid description of the event in The Scarlett Letter and his portrayal of Arthur Dimmesdale, Roger Chillingworth and others perhaps did more than anything else to lay the foundation for the image of puritans as censorious, prudish, repressive, and joyless. 


But if Hawthorne’s novel did much to advance this portrayal of puritanism and the puritans, it was the early twentieth century Baltimore Maryland social critic H. L. Menken who most firmly implanted in popular culture the image of the puritans as steeple hatted, sour-faced, repressive, killjoys.  Many of you have undoubtedly heard the Mencken quote that puritanism was the “fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”  But it was also Mencken, conflating what he called the “New Puritanism” of his time with the puritanism of New England, who wrote that puritanism "assum[es] that every human act must be either right or wrong, and that ninety-nine percent of them are wrong."  Statements that the puritans were hostile to sexuality is the particular myth that I hope to dispel today.  Of course, much of what I will argue is not new.  Over the past decades numerous historians such as Edmund Morgan and Richard Godbeer have worked to dispel these myths.  But other scholars have bought into the myths.  Lyle Koehler claimed that the puritans had a “moral distaste for sensual pleasure.”  And Lawrence Stone asserted that English Protestants all believed that “sensuality itself was evil.”

And the myth still persists in popular culture.  Just a few years ago a piece in the Huffington Post claimed that the puritans departed England not because of disenchantment with the Church of England but “unease (and maybe too much temptation) at the general licentiousness of English life,” and that the communities they established were “colonies with dictatorial repression of daily life, mostly of sexual behavior.”  “What the Pilgrims and other Puritans were all about,” according to this, “was sexual obsession.”  And look up the word “puritanical” in a dictionary and you will find that synonyms are “prim,” “priggish,” “moralistic,” and “stuffy.”  Used as an adjective “puritan” is defined as” having or displaying censorious moral beliefs, especially about pleasure and sex.”


So, where to begin? A good starting place is the history of Christian attitudes towards sex, though I want you to realize that I am highlighting certain views for the sake of making my argument; I am not implying that all who were members of a particular faith community subscribed to the views set forth, merely that they were positions that might be seen as “official.” 

Suspicion of sexuality within the Christian tradition starts with St. Paul.  As translated in the King James version (the one most puritans used) Paul writes “It is good for a man not to touch a woman.  Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband.  Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence; and likewise also the wife unto the husband.”  While Paul recognizes marriage and the expression of due benevolence – sexual affection – as a curb on fornication, his starting point is that sex is not good.  Lust was not only one of the seven deadly sins, it was in many ways the most pervasive and dangerous temptation.  Over time various Christian leaders identified as Fathers of the Church asserted that celibacy – the state that we were born in, according to St. Ambrose – was a spiritually superior and desirable state.  Origen went so far to insure his celibacy by castrating himself; Ambrose and Tertullian believed that the extinction of mankind was preferable to furthering the human race through sexual intercourse.  As early as the Council of Elvira in 306 the Catholic Church required clergy to abstain from sexual intercourse.  In 1139 the Second Lateran Council reasserted the spiritual superiority of celibacy by forbidding priests from marrying.  Vows of celibacy were required of women entering religious orders.  As late as the mid-sixteenth century the Council of Trent declared that the view that marriage is superior to celibacy was anathema.  Marriage was accepted for those incapable of living celibate lives but was portrayed by most church leaders as spiritually inferior.

Identified with lust and sin, sex but was acceptable within marriage, allowed for the purpose of procreation, the church having concluded that the birth of future generations of Christians justified marital sex.  But suspicion of the sexual impulse was still present.  The purpose of sex in marriage was procreation; inability to produce children was (and remains) the only automatic grounds for annulment of a marriage.  Contraception to frustrate the legitimate purpose of the act was sinful.  Of course there is ample evidence that from the crudest parish to the corridors of the Vatican the prohibition of celibacy was frequently violated, but presumably with an awareness that this was a sin needing to be confessed.

A major blow against this view was struck by Martin Luther, who asserted that married life was not inferior to the celibate state, and who put an exclamation point on his position by marrying the former nun Katharina von Bora.  In England clerical marriage was still forbidden during the reign of Henry VIII (despite the fact that Archbishop Thomas Cranmer had secretly taken a wife), but the prohibition was officially lifted after Edward VI came to the throne in 1547.  The dissolution of monasteries and houses of female religious eliminated some of the last bastions of mandatory celibacy.


Which brings us to the shaping of puritan attitudes.


Over the course of the latter sixteenth and the seventeenth century puritans were among those Protestants who developed a view of marriage that emphasized its companionate features and lessened the importance of procreation.  As Lori Stokes discussed in a talk at the Boston Public Library last month, puritans emphasized love as the foundation of marriage.  Let me reinforce that point with a few examples.  The English puritan preacher William Whately described love as the “Life and soul of marriage, without which it differs as much from itself as a rotten apple from a sound, and as a carcass from a living body.”  And, he preached, like a well-tuned instrument makes “sweet music whose harmony doth enravish the ear,” so “when the golden strings of true affection” mark a marriage, the partners “harmonize to the comfort of each other.”  Thomas Hooker wrote that “the man whose heart is endeared to the woman he loves, he dreams of her in the night, hath her in his eye an apprehension when he awakes, museth on her as he sits at table, walks with her when he travels, and parlies with her in each place where he comes…. She lies in his bosom, and his heart trusts in her, which forceth all to confess, that the stream of his affection, like a mighty current, runs with full tide and strength.”

Whatley and the other architects of this position viewed sexuality as a gift from God to strengthen the relationship between a husband and wife.  Returning to the seventh chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, they pointed to the third through fifth verses, where the apostle instructed husband and wife in their right to “due benevolence” – a way in which they referred to sexual intercourse – from each other and the duty of each to provide that benevolence to the partner.  Speaking of sexual intercourse, the Elizabethan puritan clergyman Henry Smith saw in Paul’s instructions “a commandment to yield this duty; that which is commanded is lawful; and not to do it is a breach of the commandment.”  The English puritan William Gouge referred to intercourse as “one of the most proper and essential acts of marriage.”  It “must be performed,” he preached, “with good will and delight, willingly, readily, and cheerfully.”  “As the man must be satisfied at all times in his wife,” he wrote, “and even ravished with her love; so must the woman.”  Whately similarly wrote that in intercourse the partners must not “yield themselves with grudging, … but readily, and with all demonstrations of hearty affection.”  Perhaps nothing indicates the puritan emphasis on companionship over procreation than Gouge’s argument that a barren man could fulfill his responsibilities as a husband but an impotent man could not.


The first pastor of this church in which we are gathered (the building is not the original), Thomas Thatcher, indicated that a successful marriage was one characterized by “deep affection, singular contentment, delight in each other … and the mutual acknowledgment of each person’s power [over] each other’s body in conjugal communion.”  And his successor here, Samuel Willard, explained that “conjugal love should be demonstrated through conjugal union, by which [husband and wife] become one flesh.”  An anonymous popular manual of the time, not necessarily written by a puritan but one reflecting the point of view we have been discussing stated that “when the husband comes into the wife’s chamber, he must entertain her with all kind of dalliance, wanton behavior, and allurements.”


Seeking to justify their position, puritans often advanced their celebration of sexual intercourse between spouses by references to scripture.  Quoting Proverbs 5: 15, the puritan clergyman William Gataker urged husbands to “Joy and delight in her.  ‘Rejoice in the wife of thy youth: let her be unto thee as a loving hind, and the pleasant roe: let her breasts or her bosom content thee at all times.’”   The Song of Solomon was a frequent source of inspiration, its erotic passages drawn on both to celebrate sex between partners but also to describe an eroticized view of the relationships Christ and his church and Christ and the individual believer.


Indeed, this use of the same images to depict the love between husband and wife and that between Christ and the individual saint is one of the striking things about puritan discussions of sexuality.  Puritans viewed the soul as feminine and spousal metaphors depicted all believers are prospective brides of Christ.  John Cotton talked to his congregants of how they should desire to meet Christ “in the bed of loves … and … to have the seeds of his grace shared in your hearts.”  Old South’s pastor Samuel Willard preached that while on earth the saints received grace from God “like a Kiss from him, … better than wine, [so that] their hearts were ravished with it,” but that in heaven “there shall be that intimacy that there is between the most loving husband and most beloved wife…. They will not be interrupted caresses which they shall have from him…. The delights which they shall enjoy shall be both full and uninterrupted….  The reciprocal ardors of affection between him and us shall break over all banks and bounds.”  Also evoking the emotions that were experienced in marriage, Samuel Whiting told his congregation that in heaven the saints would be the recipients of Christ’s “sweet embraces … the that Celestial Bride Chamber and Bed of Love.”   


What I’ve described as the puritan viewpoint on sex is a reflection of what many clergy wrote and preached.  But did this actually shape the behavior of individuals? 

Certainly not in all cases.  Not all puritans found it easy to buy into these relatively new notions.  Just as those of us who are members of faith communities today can likely identify fellow believers who have differing views on sexuality, so too was this the case in seventeenth century New England.  And at a time of transition many likely clung to older views that were more suspicious of sexuality.  Anyone who has read the diary of Michael Wigglesworth has been exposed to someone who was deeply troubled by his sexual impulses, praying on one occasion that God would “mortify [his] lusts,” and give him “a heart to savor the things of God above all other things.”   The London craftsman Nehemiah Wallington fought against the temptation of adultery, confessing in his diary that he “had an exceedingly burning desire” for another woman, but “I did consider that God did see me though no other did see me.”


Yet there is compelling evidence that “ravishing affection” was what many puritans experienced both in their marriages and in their relationship to Christ.  A few months before his marriage in September 1674, the puritan pastor Edward Taylor sent a letter to his intended in which he wrote that the “love within my breast is so large that my heart is not sufficient to contain it,” and with a more erotic tinge, stated that there was “no fitter comparison to set out my love by, than to compare it to a golden ball of pure fire rolling up and down my breast, from which there flies, now and then a spark like a glorious beam from the body of the flaming sun.” 

There are numerous expressions of such love to be found in the letters between John and Margaret Winthrop, many with sexual overtones.  On one occasion, when John was away in London, Margaret wrote that she longed “for that happy hour when I shall see you and enjoy my sweet and dear husband.”  John, preparing for bed when away from Groton, wrote that he made less haste to go to bed in the absence of his “sweet wife.”

Similar eroticism is to be found in the poems Anne Bradstreet addressed to her husband when he was absent in England on colony business.  When she was with him, she wrote of his “loving mouth” and said she felt neither storms nor frost because “his warmth such frigid colds did cause to melt,” and, lest there be a misunderstanding of this reference to sexual heat, she referred to their children as “those fruits which through thy heat I bore.”

Perusing letters and diaries we find numerous examples comparing the love of a spouse to that of Christ.  Edward Taylor, whom we previously saw writing to his intended spouse of his great love, wrote similarly of anticipating Christ’s love.  His heart was like a “feather bed … with gospel pillows, sheets and sweet perfume,” and hoped that Christ might, “with thy holy oil” make his spiritual fancy “slick till like a flash of lightening it grow quick.”  In early January 1612 John Winthrop recorded a dream in which he found himself with Christ and “was so ravished with his love towards me, far exceeding the affection of the kindest husband, that being awakened it had made so deep an impression in my heart, as I was forced to unmeasurable weeping for a great while, & had a more lively feeling of the love of Christ than ever before.”


            The fact that puritans viewed intercourse as an essential element in marriage is also indicated in a number of cases that were dealt with in both the church and civic realms.  In 1640 the First Church in Boston excommunicated James Mattock for having “denied conjugal fellowship unto his wife for the space of two years.”  {Think of this – the failure of an individual to have intercourse with his wife brought to the attention of their pastor, and when his advice was unheeded, brought before and discussed by their congregation!!]  And this is not the only such example.  Twenty-five years later the Plymouth civil authorities summoned John Williams to answer the charge that he had been guilty of “his sequestration of himself from the marriage bed” and “refusing to perform marriage duty towards her [his wife] according to the law of God and man.”  In 1656 William Clements, Jr., of Cambridge petitioned the Middlesex County Court for a divorce on the grounds that” for several years [she] hath refused marriage fellowship.”  And in 1666 that same court heard a complaint from the widowed Edward Pinson about “false reports that broke his wife’s heart with grief that he would be absent from her three weeks together when he was at home.”  In 1658 the New Haven town magistrates hauled three young men before them for having taken up and spread a “slanderous report” that the wife of William Wilmot “did refuse to lie with her husband.” That colony’s laws specifically provided that if any husband or wife refused matrimonial society – intercourse --  to their spouse the offended party could be granted a divorce.


            Court proceedings also reveal the other side of the puritan attitudes towards sex, the one that feeds the myth.  Puritans believed that all of God’s creation was initially and necessarily good, and this involved men and women’s sexual organs and drives.  The divine plan was that these be used to bring men and women together to love and support one another – as Adam and Eve before the Fall.  Intercourse was a means of forming and strengthening a loving marital relationship through intercourse.  Any other expression of that sexuality was deemed a defilement of marriage, a misuse of God’s gift and a sin.  And sexual sins were punished in early New England, examples of this providing what critics argue is evidence of puritan hostility to sex. 


New England colonists passed laws that allowed the death penalty to be imposed on those who committed adultery, rape, incest, sodomy, and bestiality, though it was rare for that verdict to be imposed, largely because their judicial process required either confession or the testimony of two witnesses to find an individual guilty.  Thus, to cite two well-known examples from the New Haven records, the aptly named Thomas Hogg was not convicted of illicit intercourse with a sow, but William Potter, having been discovered by his son in the act of bestiality, because he confessed to wickedness with two sows, two heifers, an adult cow, three sheep and an old mare was hanged.  While Hogg could not be convicted of bestiality, he was found guilty of other various forms of lewdness, including walking around town with his penis hanging out (for which there were numerous witnesses) and whipped.


Puritan churches were often lenient in dealing with illicit sex between unmarried men and women, especially if they had agreed to marry.  In the Second Church Boston Cotton Mather argued that public acknowledgement of such an offense before the congregation should be sufficient.  The Dorchester congregation generally did not even censure such individuals if they “acknowledged the sin of fornication before marriage.”  A case that reveals both the fact that no one was above temptation and that there were limits to congregational tolerance was that of John Cotton Jr., the son of the revered Boston clergyman.  He was excommunicated from the First Church Boston in 1664 “for lascivious unclean practices with three women and his horrid lying to hide his sin,” though on his confessing and doing penance a month later he was readmitted to the communion.  There were, of course, other offenders who, when excommunicated, refused to repent and were not readmitted.


Just as standing up to acknowledge an offense before the church was a form of shaming ritual, so too were some of the ways in which civil authorities punished sexual offenses.  In 1639 John Davies was whipped for “gross offences and attempting lewdness with diverse women” and was ordered to wear the letter “U” – for unclean – on his shirtfront for six months.  Another offender, in 1676, was made to stand on a block in the Boston marketplace with a sign hanging around his next proclaiming that it was “For Lascivious Carriages Towards Young Women.”  We can see where Nathaniel Hawthorne got his inspiration.


            I could give a whole talk on sexual offenses in early New England, but that isn’t what we are here for.  To return to the theme of puritans as advocates for “ravishing affection” between husbands and wives, I want to close with some observations about its significance.  If these ideas merely explained relations between men and women almost four hundred years ago it would be of some interest, but only if it could be shown that their views influenced the evolution of American culture.  That could be argued, but I want to suggest a greater significance.


As John Winthrop and those who were to accompany him in the so-called “Winthrop fleet” in 1630 prepared to depart, Winthrop addressed them about their mission and how they should comport themselves in the New World.  They should live exemplary lives, he urged them, so that they might become as a “city upon a hill” demonstrating the Christian Charity enjoined on them by God in a way that others would seek to emulate.  In the course of this lay sermon he set forth his vision of a godly society, one in which all individuals were as members of a single body, knit together by Christian love, so that “they must partake of each other’s strength and infirmity, joy and sorrow, weal and woe.”  “Sensibleness and sympathy of each other’s condition will necessarily infuse into each part a native desire and endeavor to strengthen, defend, preserve, and comfort the other.”  There was, he argued, a “near bond of marriage” between the colonists and their God. And in expounding on this he drew upon his experience of marital love and his marriage-like relationship with Christ.


Enriching his social philosophy by reference to the love between husband and wife, Winthrop referred to Adam and Eve as the prototype of a married couple.  United with Adam, he discussed how Eve saw him as “flesh of my flesh, … and bone of my bone.”  “She conceives a great delight” in him, and desires “nearness and familiarity” with him.  If, as a wife, she hears her love “groan, she is with [him] presently; if she finds [him] sad and disconsolate, she sighs and mourns with [him].  She hath no such joy as to see her beloved merry and thriving” and sets no bounds on her affections.  The care of others which he called for – “we delight in each other, make others conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together” – was not to be undertaken simply through a sense of obligation.  Rather, they were to “love one another with a pure heart, fervently,” just as they responded fervently to their spouses and to Christ himself.  Christian charity – love – made puritans passionate about their God, their spouse, and also the fellow members of their community.

Follow Us On: