Puritanical attitudes towards sex

Nearly everything you know about Puritans is wrong. The Thirsty Theologian quotes my friend Leland Ryken’s illuminating book on the subject, Worldly Saints:

 Everywhere we turn in Puritan writing on the subject we find sex affirmed as good in principle. [William] Gouge referred to physical union as “one of the most proper and essential acts of marriage.” It was Milton’s opinion that the text “they shall be one flesh” (Gen. 2:24) was included in the Bible “to justify and make legitimate the rites of the marriage bed; which was not unneedful, if for all this warrant they were suspected of pollution by some sects of philosophy and religions of old, and latelier among the Papists.” William Ames listed as one of the duties of marriage “mutual communication of bodies.”

   So closely linked were the ideas of marriage and sex that the Puritans usually defined marriage partly in terms of sexual union. [William] Perkins defined marriage as “the lawful conjunction of the two married persons; that is, of one man and one woman into one flesh.” Another well-known definition was this: Marriageis a coupling together of two persons into one flesh, according to the ordinance of God. . . . By yoking, joining, or coupling is meant, not only outward dwelling together of the married folks . . . but also an uniform agreement of mind and a common participation of body and goods.

   Married sex was not only legitimate in the Puritan view; it was meant to be exuberant. Gouge said that married couples should engage in sex “with good will and delight, willingly, readily, and cheerfully.” An anonymous Puritan claimed that when two are made one by marriage they
may joyfully give due benevolence one to the other; as two musical instruments rightly fitted do make a most pleasant and sweet harmony in a well tuned consort. Alexander Niccholes theorized that in marriage “thou not only unitest unto thyself a friend and comfort for society, but also a companion for pleasure.”

   In this acceptance of physical sex, the Puritans once again rejected the asceticism and implicit dualism between sacred and secular that had governed Christian thinking for so long. In the Puritan view, God had given the physical world, including sex, for human welfare.

HT: Joe Carter at First Things, responding to my post on prayer before sex

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

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  • Booklover

    A teacher at our local public high school proudly sports a bumper sticker on his desk that says:

    “Puritanism: The Haunting Fear That Someone, Somewhere May Be Having Fun.”

    I’ve always wanted to cluck my tongue at him and tell him that he needs to do some educating of himself. Maybe I’ll just hand him Ryken’s book.

  • Booklover

    A teacher at our local public high school proudly sports a bumper sticker on his desk that says:

    “Puritanism: The Haunting Fear That Someone, Somewhere May Be Having Fun.”

    I’ve always wanted to cluck my tongue at him and tell him that he needs to do some educating of himself. Maybe I’ll just hand him Ryken’s book.

  • http://mesamike.org Mike Westfall

    Puritanism is still alive. I find most adherents to be non-Christian, though.

    “Modern Puritanism: The Haunting Fear That Someone, Somewhere, May Not Have Recycled Something”

  • http://mesamike.org Mike Westfall

    Puritanism is still alive. I find most adherents to be non-Christian, though.

    “Modern Puritanism: The Haunting Fear That Someone, Somewhere, May Not Have Recycled Something”

  • http://www.oldsolar.com/currentblog.php Rick Ritchie

    The rehabilitators have a lot of passages they can cite to disprove the common impression of the puritans. But every once in a while I find that the common impression had a lot that could be cited in its favor as well. I tend to believe that both kinds of writers are citing honestly. The puritan’s world was almost certainly more complex than many imagine. I don’t doubt that the ethos varied from circle to circle.

    In Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, historian David Hackett Fischer mentions an unusual Puritan practice. It was Puritan belief that a baby was born on the same day of the week it was conceived. Intercourse on the Sabbath was prohibited. When a baby was born on a Sunday, some ministers refused to baptize the child, inferring that the parents sinned when they had sex. One minister was particularly adamant about his—until the Sunday his wife gave birth to twins. (Fischer, p. 163) Fischer agrees that the Puritans spoke openly about sex and were not ascetic in this area.

    In another application of pseudo science to religion mentioned by Fischer, a one-eyed man owned a sow who gave birth to a one-eyed piglet. The magistrates drew the obvious conclusion that this was an inherited condition and that the man was guilty of bestiality. He was hanged, the piglet being one of the required two witnesses, the recanted confession of the man being the other (Fischer, p. 92).

  • http://www.oldsolar.com/currentblog.php Rick Ritchie

    The rehabilitators have a lot of passages they can cite to disprove the common impression of the puritans. But every once in a while I find that the common impression had a lot that could be cited in its favor as well. I tend to believe that both kinds of writers are citing honestly. The puritan’s world was almost certainly more complex than many imagine. I don’t doubt that the ethos varied from circle to circle.

    In Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, historian David Hackett Fischer mentions an unusual Puritan practice. It was Puritan belief that a baby was born on the same day of the week it was conceived. Intercourse on the Sabbath was prohibited. When a baby was born on a Sunday, some ministers refused to baptize the child, inferring that the parents sinned when they had sex. One minister was particularly adamant about his—until the Sunday his wife gave birth to twins. (Fischer, p. 163) Fischer agrees that the Puritans spoke openly about sex and were not ascetic in this area.

    In another application of pseudo science to religion mentioned by Fischer, a one-eyed man owned a sow who gave birth to a one-eyed piglet. The magistrates drew the obvious conclusion that this was an inherited condition and that the man was guilty of bestiality. He was hanged, the piglet being one of the required two witnesses, the recanted confession of the man being the other (Fischer, p. 92).

  • George A. Marquart

    Reading the diary of the late Fr. Alexander Schmemann, I came across the following entry:
    25 September 1980
    H.L.Mencken: definition of Puritanism: “a haunting fear that someone somewhere may be happy…”

  • George A. Marquart

    Reading the diary of the late Fr. Alexander Schmemann, I came across the following entry:
    25 September 1980
    H.L.Mencken: definition of Puritanism: “a haunting fear that someone somewhere may be happy…”

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    The point is that Mencken knew almost nothing about actual Puritanism. Rick, what you cite is the pseudo-science of the day. You could find similar silliness in medieval Catholicism and elsewhere.

    Another good treatment of Puritanism is in C. S. Lewis, in his Oxford History of English Literature. He points out that the puritans were the liberals of their day–the ones who wanted to change things, who were free of tradition, who re-thought everything, who were the advocates of freedom, the fashionable cutting edge. There are reasons not to like them, but they are not the reasons usually given, which are closer to the opposite of what they really were.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    The point is that Mencken knew almost nothing about actual Puritanism. Rick, what you cite is the pseudo-science of the day. You could find similar silliness in medieval Catholicism and elsewhere.

    Another good treatment of Puritanism is in C. S. Lewis, in his Oxford History of English Literature. He points out that the puritans were the liberals of their day–the ones who wanted to change things, who were free of tradition, who re-thought everything, who were the advocates of freedom, the fashionable cutting edge. There are reasons not to like them, but they are not the reasons usually given, which are closer to the opposite of what they really were.


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