Happy Valentines Day! I hope today brings you and your sweetheart great joy. There is a great deal of misinformation in our society related to marriage, love and sex. Below is a paper I wrote while working on my Ph. D. at Southern. I had always thought that the Puritans were sexually repressed and prudish. Through my research I discovered that was not the case. In fact it was the Puritans’ who first asserted that sex was not evil, but good, and that there was nothing wrong when a husband and wife had sex solely for the purpose of bringing pleasure to one another.
The prevailing contemporary opinion of the Puritans as stern, straight-laced, prudish and distant people in all of their relations is inconsistent with Puritan preaching, practice, and contemporaneous published accounts and therefore should be considered incorrect. The attitude which employs labels such as “puritanical” to describe any effort to express restraint in sexual conduct or modesty in attire, while currently “politically correct,” has little basis in fact. It is true that Puritans stressed discipline and order in all relationships, but scholars have often erred in judging them by the logos of their doctrine while failing to weigh also the pathos with which they practiced their faith. This opinion of Puritans as staid and prudish in their attitudes toward sex is quickly dismissed when one examines their preaching and writings on marriage. The negative emphasis which outsiders place on the Puritans discipline and order within the family also suffers from a failure to weigh the letter of their law against the love with which it was administered.
Puritan Theological Presuppositions Concerning Relationships
The Puritans believed that “when God presented Eve to Adam, he ‘solemnized the first marriage that ever was,’ and in so doing gave his sanction to marriage itself.” The Puritans reacted against the dominant Catholic and Anglican understanding of marriage which viewed sexual intercourse as directly related to man’s fall and accepted Genesis 1:22 as the primary biblical text governing the doctrine of marriage.
And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” Genesis 1:22 (ESV)
This viewpoint made legitimate procreation the main objective of marriage and wrongly elevated celibacy above marriage. For the Puritans, however, the most important biblical passage revealing God’s purpose in marriage was Genesis 2:18.
Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Genesis 2:18 (ESV)
This passage showed that companionship, not procreation, was God’s principal purpose for marriage. The Puritan understanding also rejected the idea that sexual intercourse was the sin that caused man’s ultimate transgression because, by their reckoning, God had established marriage in the garden of Eden prior to the Fall. Therefore, since sexual intimacy in marriage was part of God’s plan for man before the Fall, it could not be less so following the Fall.
Another important aspect of the Puritans’ theology which one must also understand to fully appreciate their concept of marriage and family is their understanding of covenant relationships. Edmund S. Morgan, a researcher of Puritan domestic relations, noted that,
The God of order who made the creatures subordinate to man had arranged human society into a network of dual relationships (relatives) in which one party was usually subordinate to the other: rule and subject, husband and wife, parent and child, master and servant. God had provided these forms, and He had created the men to fill them; but as they came from his hands men enjoyed only one social relationship, the natural one which they bore to their parents. The other forms of social relation had to be filled by the voluntary action of individuals. . . . Such voluntary relations originated in a contract or ‘covenant’ between two parties. ‘All Relations which are neither [natural] nor violent, but voluntary, are by [virtue] of some covenant.’. . . ‘A Covenant, in [general], may then be thus described,’ said Samuel Willard. ‘It is a mutual Engagement between two Parties.
While most social relations originated in a free choice, it did not follow that anyone could choose to remain aloof from those relations. Since God had ordained that men live together in family, church, and state, they must do so. Although Puritans believed that a free consent was essential to a covenant, they also believed that freedom consisted in the opportunity to obey the will of God. The freedom of any individual, therefore, lay only in the choice of what state should govern him, what church he should worship in, and to some extent what family he should live in.
From this one may understand that, for the Puritan, fidelity to God preceded all other social contracts. Therefore, once a covenant was made, it would be kept in all circumstances unless keeping the social contract would in some manner risk disobedience to God.
The View of Marriage and Sex as Against which Puritans Reacted
The Catholic and Anglican teaching of the time had essentially remained identical to that set out by Thomas Aquinas. “From Augustine, Thomas has inherited the idea that there are three goods in marriage: fides, faith; proles, offspring; and sacramentum, sacrament.” Fides does not correspond as much to the evangelical understanding of faith in God as it does to the concept of fidelity. Fides refers to the idea of keeping oneself faithful sexually to one’s partner. Proles should be understood to encompass the intention of having offspring, actually having offspring, and raising those offspring to maturity by caring for their needs and seeing to their education. “Proles denotes. . . the entire process of transmitting human life.” Sacramentum refers more to the stability of the union as the parties receive grace from God enabling each to perform their functions, since “a sacrament, in the narrow sense, is a visible sign of an invisible grace.” The sacramental view of marriage makes it indissoluble, because to dissolve it would admit a failure of the sacramental understanding of infused grace. When properly understood, a sacrament does not bring an infusion of grace in and of itself, but rather grace comes when the symbol of the sacrament is carried out with the right intent by the person or persons for whom it is performed. Therefore, “a Christian couple who marry, then, so long as they observe the proper form and have correct intent, are assured of God’s blessing on their life together.”
These purposes of fides, proles, and sacramentum taught by Thomas Aquinas, when combined with Augustine’s previous teaching which had ordered sex and marriage as
permanent virginity . . .  celibacy on the part of those who have had previous sexual experience . . .  sexual relations to procreative acts. . .  the venial sin . . . sex [for] pleasure or love [by] doing nothing to forestall conception. Anything else sexual was consigned by Augustine to outer darkness
led to the establishment of a practical order for the purposes of marriage for Catholics and Anglicans as listed in the Prayer Book was,
- A remedy to sin
It seems correct to accede to Johnson’s argument that Puritan’s reversed the order as listed in the “Prayer Book’s” proposing purposes for marriage to be instead
This argument is based on statements like that of Thomas Gataker who, in a wedding sermon stated, “In the first place comes the wife, as the first and principal blessing, and the children in the next.” One must understand that the Puritans were not monolithic in their views of the proper order of God’s purposes for marriage anymore than they were in their other theological views. Alexander Niccholes took the position of the most conservative Anglicans writing that “the chief end of marriage is proles.” Daniel Rogers, however, in a clear denunciation of those who argued for the superiority of celibacy, especially for the clergy, Rogers points out that
Marriage was honorable in the Church, not among Lay-men only, but (in the old Testament) with the high priest, and all his Tribe (which yet were typical of the pureness of Christ himself) and Moses himself, a man who was conversant with God, and spake to him face to face, was married. . . . Till the mystery of iniquity, which long had bin laid as leven, and began to work, was grown at length to open Doctrine of Devils, in rejecting marriage, and practice of Devils, in playing the Sodomites and whoremongers. Paul Baynes writes in his commentary on Ephesians that the attempt of the Papists to make marriage a sacrament is absurd. Like Rogers and Gataker, others such as Whatley and Milton also elevated companionship in married love above producing offspring. These views, when brought by the Puritans to the colonies, became the dominant understanding of marriage doctrine that would become accepted in most evangelical churches in America today.
The Development of the Puritan View of Marriage and Sex
As stated previously Puritan views of marriage were not monolithic; they developed and progressed over time. The writings of Robert Cleaver, William Perkins, and William Ames began this shift away from a doctrine of marriage that taught procreation to be marriage’s prime purpose to one that emphasized companionship over procreation. Building on their foundation, Thomas Gataker’s A Good Wife and Daniel Rogers’ Matrimonial Honor moved the discussion to include love as a the first duty in marriage. Milton would later carry this argument to its most logical extreme in his divorce tracts.
The shift away from the predominant Anglican understanding of marriage has been traced effectively by James Johnson in his A Society Ordained by God. Robert Cleaver writes in his A Godly Form of Household Government that “A Household is as it were a little common wealth which stands of several families, benefited, and all that live in that family may receive much comfort and commodity.” Cleaver maintains a high position for the wife in his writings, making her second only to her husband. He has difficulty, however, separating himself from the old order of the purposes of marriage whenever he enumerates lists, but when discussing marriage in other writings he elevates companionship in marriage over procreation. Cleaver writes
. . . Matrimony, is a lawful knot, and unto God an acceptable yoking and joining together of one man, and one woman, with the good consent of them both: to the end that they may dwell together in friendship and honesty, one helping and comforting the other, eschewing whoredom, and all uncleanness, bringing up their children in the fear of God: or it is a coupling together of two persons into one flesh, not to be broken, according unto the ordinance of God: so to continue during the life of either of them.
Note that Cleaver places bringing up children after the issues friendship, and comfort.
William Perkins kept the order of the Prayer Book making procreation the primary purpose of marriage, but he, too, placed companionship ahead of procreation in his reasons for the excellency of marriage. Perkins’ reasons for the excellency of marriage are
- Its origin before the Fall.
- Its satisfaction of the needs of loneliness
- Its being made directly by God.
- Its being blessed as the vehicle for populating the earth.
- Its being the basis for other unions, particularly those of church and state.
Perkins seems to have difficulty departing from the prayer book in both his doctrine and uses. One area, however, where Perkins clearly departs from the established position of the church is in the concept of conjugal love. Perkins allows for a “man and wife to engage in sexual intercourse without having procreation as their purpose.”
William Ames does not appear to possess any trouble in departing from the accepted order as stated in the Prayer Book. For Ames “the duty of procreation is a poor second to the three kinds of duties of companionship.” These duties of the husband and wife clearly do not meet the current politically correct expectations of frigid passionless Puritan couples. The duties Ames lists are
- A special love, the conjugal.
- Conjugal honor.
- Living together.
- Mutual communication of bodies according to the right ends and limits of Wedlock.
The primacy of companionship in Puritan marriage doctrine was more boldly differentiated from the high Anglican doctrine and further clarified by Daniel Rogers, Thomas Gataker, William Whatley, and John Milton. Due to the constraints of space, only Milton will be considered more than briefly in this paper. Rogers wrote boldly in his Matrimonial Honor that “marriage properly is no Sacrament,” “While companionship is the purpose of marriage and the chief end God had in mind in the institution of it, the sexual desire is admitted as a strong incentive to marriage.”
Milton perceived the concept of marriage as a covenant which would be freely entered into by two consenting parties of the opposite sex and based on love each for the other; however, by over-emphasizing love and happiness, he removed the biblical constraints and brought relations to a humanistic conclusion. James T. Johnson noted in his analysis of the Puritan doctrine of marriage that, “For Milton marriage is instituted for the prevention of loneliness to the mind and soul of man. The other . . . ends of marriage follow from the spouses’ providing meet help to each other.” Milton defines marriage based on Genesis 2:24 and states that,
Marriage is a divine institution joining man and woman in love fitly disposed to the helps and comforts of domestic life. . . . the distinctive feature of Milton’s argument is that love and its effects (the helps and comforts of domestic life) constitute ‘the formal cause it self of marriage.’ God is the efficient cause, but ‘love born of fitness,’ the love which creates domestic peace, is the formal cause. . . . in asserting the primacy of human feeling over contractual rigor he has taken marriage out of the realm of law and placed it in the realm of affective psychology. The Puritan preachers may have been concerned with marital affections as necessary to a happy marriage, but they were by no means willing to assert that these affections were essential to marriage itself. Milton’s argument declares invalid all marriages in which such a feeling — or its possibility — is absent.
Halkett missed the Puritan concept that love is the product of marriage rather than its cause.
As demonstrated above, Milton’s idea of the supremacy of love between the two partners has created a problem for those who took seriously the biblical injunction that two become one flesh or that the marriage covenant was superior to all other social contracts. For a complete understanding of the Puritans concept of covenant marriage the problem of divorce should also be addressed.
The Problem of Divorce
Divorce provided a peculiar problem for the Puritans. If the underlying concept of marriage as a covenant freely entered into by two consenting parties and based on love each for the other, and not a sacrament (which is indissoluble by definition), why then should the marriage covenant not be dissoluble if one or both of the party’s should decide? William Ames has the best answer for this dilemma among Puritans who attempt to place scriptural strictures on divorce. He writes, “Matrimony hath this privilege above other contracts, not only from Christ’s institution, but also from the Law of Nature . . . . The reason is because Matrimony is not only a Civil, but a Divine conjunction, whose Instituter and Ordainer is God himself.” According to Perkins and Rogers, marriage ends in the cases of death, adultery, and desertion. The Puritans believed that when one partner died, the other was free to marry again. The Puritans also accepted that the innocent spouse after a divorce for the cause of adultery may also remarry. Johnson observed that “the only other ground for divorce Perkins considers seriously is desertion.” In the case of desertion, only the unbeliever is able to leave, and the spouse who is thus deserted is free to remarry. The departing spouse is considered an unbeliever because the Puritans concluded that a believer would not desert the spouse God had given them. While those who came after Perkins would move more boldly than he as regarding the purposes of marriage, they would not surpasses his judgment pertaining to divorce. With the exception of Milton, Johnson’s observation holds that,
The judgment of Puritan orthodoxy at the end of the first quarter of the seventeenth century follows the lines laid down at the beginning of that century by Cleaver, Perkins, and Ames. The view of Cleaver and Ames, that only adultery (besides death) breaks the marriage bond, is reproduced by Gouge, while Whatley before his remarkable about-face reproduces closely the reasoning of Perkins.
In contrast, Milton asserts that the marriage covenant is not a special kind of mutual agreement that cannot be broken. He argues that
the covenant which Zedekiah made with the infidel King of Babel is called the covenant of God, Ezekiel, 17:19 which would be strange to be counted more than a human covenant. So every covenant between man and man, bound by oath may be called the covenant of God, because God therein is attested. So of marriage he is the author and the witness; yet hence will not follow any divine astriction more then what is subordinate to the glory of God and the main good of either party. . . . For as the glory of God & their esteemed fitness one for the other, was the motive which led them both at first to think without revelation that God had joined them together: So when it shall be found by their apparent unfitness, that their continuing to be man and wife is against the glory of God and their mutual happiness, it may assure them that God never joined them; who hath revealed his gracious will not set the ordinance above the man for whom it was ordained.
Once Milton equated the glory of God with the main good of either party, he effectively removed all biblical strictures against divorce, and his doctrine paved the way for incompatibility and irreconcilable differences to be grounds for divorce. Milton’s writings “drive[s] the argument for divorce to its radical extreme.” His position in the divorce tracts have caused some to hypothesize that the idealism of his Paradise Lost must have been shaken by his own unhappy marriage.
The Puritan Understanding of Sexual Love in Marriage
That Christianity has struggled with a doctrine of sexuality long before the Puritans dealt with the subject is illustrated by Robert Briffault in The Mothers as follows,
Bishop Gregory of Nyssa held that Adam and Eve had at first been created sexless, and that the phrase ‘male and female created He them’ referred to a subsequent act necessitated by Adam’s disobedience; had not this taken place the human race would have been propagated by some harmless mode of vegetation. The view was endorsed by John of Damascus. The logical consequences of the advocacy of virginity were faced without hesitation; both Ambrose and Tertullian declared that the extinction of the human race was preferable to its propagation by sexual intercourse.
By comparison Ronald Frye’s thesis that “classical Puritanism . . . inculcated a view of sexual life in marriage as the ‘Crown of all our bliss,’ ‘Founded in Reason, Loyal, Just, and Pure,’” stands in sharp contrast to the views of the majority of Christian writers who preceded the Puritans. For Rogers marriage was the “Preservative of Chastity, the Seminary of the Common-wealth. . . the solace of the living, the ambition of virginity.” Speaking of sexual intimacy in marriage, John Cotton told the bride and groom in a wedding sermon that “there is no stricter or sweeter friendship than conjugal; as it was the first in the world, so it is most natural.” In his commentary on Ephesians, Paul Baynes writes, “the bed undefiled, marriage honorable. They do wickedly that accuse it of any sinful filthiness,” and, “is not thy wife to be the delight of thy kisses.” The pastor and poet Edward Taylor wrote his wife “that his passion for her is as ‘a golden ball of pure fire’ and that their ‘Conjugal love ought to exceed all other,’ after which Taylor adds the familiar caveat that their love ‘must be kept within bounds too. For it must be subordinate to God’s Glory.’” Another Puritan writing anonymously wrote that “two who are made one by marriage ‘may joyfully give due benevolence on to the other; as two musical instruments rightly fitted, doe make a most pleasant and sweet harmony in a well tuned consort.’” As demonstrated above, the Puritans’ emphasis on sexual intimacy would indeed lead by necessity to the ordering of relations between the husband and wife and parent and child.
The Puritans understood love to be the foundation on which families related to one another. Everyone was expected to love God and one another. William Gouge wrote, “they are required to be lovers of their husbands, as well as husbands to love their wives: so as it is a common duty belonging to the husband and wife too: and that this is true wedlock, when man and wife are linked together by the bound of love.” He further underscored the theme of love in familial relations writing that “under love all other duties are comprised: for without it no duty can be well performed. . . . It is like fire, which is not only hot in itself, but also conveysh heat into that which is near it”
To adequately understand Puritan society one must first understand that the Puritans understood subjection to God and his divinely inspired ordering of society as a duty to which all must subscribe. They were not attempting to rebel against God but to glorify him in the whole of their lives. Therefore, since Scripture taught that the husband was the head of the Puritan family as Christ is the head of the church, Puritan wives would not think of attempting to do otherwise. The Puritan husband and his wife understood that, prior to her submission, his duty was to submit to God first. Headship came with responsibilities; these were enumerated by Baynes as,
- The superior must honor the inferior.
- They [the superior] must fear them.
- They must serve them, and sometime rather deny their own minds then not please their inferiors.
- They must shew submission in hearing their grievances. Thus all of us are in submission one to another.
Wives were expected to submit to their husbands, but here also one must understand that a Puritan woman understood this submission to be her duty first to God, then to her husband. There were limits to a wife’s subjection. “Gouge . . . recognizes the principle that obedience on the part of the wife is not demanded of her where an action is contrary to the will of God.” For the most part, the wife had no legal right to hold property. The most lenient view of her legal rights came from Richard Baxter who recognized “a kind of ‘joint-property’ [allowing]. . . in the event of death or divorce, she can claim a third of her husbands property.”
Parents had the responsibility to raise their children in a manner that would encourage godliness so that they might learn the principles of God and eventually become members of the church. Fathers were expected to catechize their children weekly and to oversee family worship daily. The parents were responsible for educating their children to the full extent of their means and ability. Children were to submit to their parents, and this submission would be enforced by punishments as determined by the parents. Once the child was an adult they would be married and move into their own home and establish their own family.
The Puritan ideal of marriage, sex, divorce and family, while very much a product of their time, is biblically sound. Today’s society would be wonderfully transformed if every father were seeking to glorify God by submitting to Christ’s rule while honoring his wife, through maintaining regular family worship, and personally seeing to the spiritual education of his own children. Although there were flaws in their doctrine, as evidenced by Milton’s excessive allowance for divorce, and invariably flaws in their character due to their own individual fallen natures, on the whole, contemporary families have much to learn from the Puritans.
Our society would benefit greatly if we learned four simple lessons from the Puritans pertaining to marriage and family. First, we need to realize that married love can be the product of two committed people in a monogamous relationship dependent on Christ. Second, we need to accept, as the Puritans demonstrated, our own gender roles as ordained by God in marriage. Third, once our roles are accepted we must perform these roles as unto God. Finally, our society is desperately in need of parents who will raise their own children in the ways of the Lord.
The Puritan movement began by attempting to purify the church of England and wound up transforming English society for a time. Families committed to the Puritans’ principles of the companionship in married love and fidelity in their relationships to God, each other, and children could transform our churches and eventually our own society.