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Those Sexy Puritans

If there was a sexual revolution in early America, it was not because people had revolutionary ideas about sex. In their new communities the settlers made sex outside marriage illegal, as it had been in the world they left behind. But the New World presented new situations that invited defiance or reconsideration of conventional restraints, and Richard Godbeer looks at the results in a book that shows how sex inside and outside marriage helped to shape American society. In three of the places he examines, the usual limitations on sex outside marriage simply did not work.

On southern tobacco and rice plantations many masters felt that their ownership of slaves carried an exemption from any rules about having sex with them. Thomas Jefferson, we now know, acted as if he had such an exemption, and so did his father-in-law: Jefferson’s wife could count six siblings among her father’s slaves. No one in Virginia offered to defend such lapses and respectable people felt uncomfortable even talking about them. In South Carolina, on the other hand, where the majority of the population was enslaved, the presence of dark-skinned children resembling their owner was too common to cause embarrassment. “Charlestonians,” Godbeer tells us, “discussed this aspect of their sexual lives with a frankness that would have been inconceivable in the Chesapeake.” Both colonies enacted laws forbidding miscegenation as well as extramarital sex, but prosecution of highly placed offenders was unthinkable.

A wholly different disregard for the recognized rules could be found in the Carolina back country, where, in the absence of magistrates and ministers, the inhabitants engaged in do-it-yourself marriage and divorce, or lived, as the Virginia diarist William Byrd observed, “in comfortable fornication.” Since relationships could be made and broken at will, the distinction between marital and extramarital sex was hard to find. Couples who considered themselves married gave little attention to how they got that way. As Godbeer puts it, “The very reason so many couples saw premarital sex as unproblematic was that they considered private declarations to be more significant than public confirmation of their relationship.” They continued to feel that way until eastern institutions of law and order overtook them.

Yet another departure from recognized norms occurred along the frontiers when fur traders made matches with Indian women. Indians recognized marriage, and different tribes had their own rules about what it signified, but an exclusive right to sex was not generally one of them. Traders who took Indian wives in Indian territory were obliged to follow Indian rules.

In some locations the society’s official restrictions gained reinforcement from a fear on the part of whites that intercourse with blacks or Indians might somehow reduce them to the barbaric status they assigned to people of the wrong color. Occasionally some outsider might propound the desirability of intermarriage as a social policy, but those actually engaged in it did not mount a reasoned defense of it or of any kind of sex outside marriage. Indeed there are only sporadic records of what anyone thought about sex in the plantation colonies and along the frontier. In depicting what went on in them Godbeer has had to rely heavily on scattered court records and on the testimony of a few unusual individuals like William Byrd.

The case is quite different in New England, where people never stopped explaining themselves. Godbeer wisely and perhaps inevitably gives his closest attention to their explanations, and his analysis offers fresh insights into the role of sex in the most self-conscious society we have ever known.

Since early New Englanders kept such abundant and detailed records of everything they thought and did, they have already enjoyed more than their share of attention from historians, not least in the past fifty years. Yet in the multiplication of studies, while there has been much ado about “gender,” there has not been much about sex. The word itself will not be found in the index of most volumes. The only previous book on the subject is limited to what went on during half a century in a single Massachusetts county.1 Godbeer’s is the first serious assessment of the role of sex in Puritan thought and behavior. The result will surprise anyone still harboring the popular stereotype of killjoys in steeple-crowned hats or the images of “grizzly saints” and tormented outcasts that darken the pages of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Arthur Miller.

Puritan theology placed a high value on the affections, specifically on the love that Christ excited in believers, and the most intense love that most people knew or felt was sexual. Hence in Puritan sermons the most common metaphor for Christ was the bridegroom. What He did for believers was what bridegrooms did for brides, and ministers did not hesitate to use the word “impregnate” to describe it. Every true believer longed “for the kisses of Christ’s mouth, not for a single kisse, but for kisse upon kisse.” Church services were the “marriage bed,” and “a maid affected with the love of her beloved, is not satisfied without the enjoyment of the marriage- bed.”2 The conversion experience, required for full membership in a church, was nothing short of orgasmic, a possession of the soul so physical that it required carnal metaphors to describe it. Church records show that substantially more women than men enjoyed a saving soul possession, but no one seems to have found anything incongruous in having men become brides for a sexually defined religious experience. The young John Winthrop, for example, could transform himself easily from Mary Winthrop’s husband to Christ’s bride. After Mary’s death, recalling

that entire and sweet love that had been sometymes between us, God brought me by that occasion in to suche a heavenly meditation of the love betweene Christ and me, as ravished my heart with unspeakable joye; methought my soule had as familiar and sensible society with him, as my wife could have with the kindest husbande.3

Anyone who has read Puritan sermons will be familiar with this theological appropriation of sexual love. It can also be found in the very platitudes of Puritan love letters, whose writers habitually remind each other that their earthly passion must not exceed their comparable yearning for Christ. Both kinds of love could be understood only in sexual terms.

In giving meaning to religious experience, sexual union in return acquired a religious blessing. It was, of course, conferred only on sex in marriage. Christ was a bridegroom, not a libertine. But marriage without sex was as hollow as religion without the fulfillment of Christ’s union with the soul. Marriage carried an entitlement to the joy of sex. Women as well as men, Puritans believed, had a right to “that pang of pleasure” which came from intercourse. The laws of New Haven, the strictest of Puritan colonies, allowed a wife to divorce an impotent or unperforming husband, regardless of whether or not she was “fit to bear children.” And Godbeer cites the case of a Massachusetts woman, aged fifty-four, who left her husband on the grounds that he was not giving her the sexual gratification that marriage entitled her to.

Surviving court records attest that not all New Englanders waited for marriage to sanctify the experience. Many unwed mothers and fathers endured fines or whipping for their haste. But the purpose of the punishment, as for all crimes and misdemeanors among the Puritans, was redemption rather than retribution. It was axiomatic that sin lay deep in every human heart. People who led outwardly model lives differed from criminals only in the favor God had granted them by withholding temptation or opportunity. They were all guilty of lust if not of fornication, of greed if not of theft, of hate if not of murder. Judges therefore had to keep in mind that only the grace of God saved them from standing in the place of those they judged. And as God forgave penitent sinners, they too should forgive penitent lawbreakers. Couples who succumbed to their erotic urges too soon had only to demonstrate a proper repentance to escape with light sentences and recover their standing in the community.

The courts had also to deal with people who thought that sex before marriage should be permissible for some couples. Marriages in New England were commonly preceded by formal espousals, often public, and sometimes lasting several months. Many people felt that espousals were a sufficiently binding commitment to justify intercourse and acted accordingly. In doing so they were not rejecting the substance of Puritan doctrine. Rather, as Godbeer sees it, they constituted an independent popular subculture that grew alongside and within the official one. From the beginning this extralegal set of attitudes and beliefs affected what the courts enforced, not only in the timing of marriage but also in the tolerance of deviant behavior.

People sensed, Godbeer says, “that official ideology was of limited use in making intelligible their actual experience and observations.” Sex of all kinds was observable in the close quarters of seventeenth-century houses. Unusual practices and appetites could become common knowledge without anyone feeling obliged to alert the authorities. The people of a neighborhood might even thwart the prosecution of a person whose sexual offenses did not offend them. Testimony in prosecutions for sodomy, a capital crime, revealed that New Englanders were sometimes “well informed about sodomitical behavior in their midst” and found it not as horrifying as the laws expected them to. Godbeer’s most telling example is the case of Nicholas Sension of Windsor, Connecticut. When he was charged with sodomy in 1677, his neighbors freely disclosed that they had known of his “sodomitical actings” for thirty years. Though the prosecution of his crime went forward, in the absence of willing witnesses the court could find him guilty only of attempted sodomy. In the New England colonies it was equally difficult to obtain testimony concerning the only other capital offenses, adultery and bestiality. Convictions for any of these were rare, because the laws required “that no man shall be put to death without the testimonie of two or three witnesses” who had actually seen the act committed.

In the course of the eighteenth century the courts accommodated more and more to popular standards, and by the 1780s popular standards had stretched to give young New Englanders a sexual freedom that was probably greater than any generation enjoyed thereafter for another century or more. It was symptomatic that by the 1750s the courts had lost interest in punishing premarital sex, despite a growing number of pregnant brides, amounting to 30 or 40 percent in some towns by the Revolutionary era. When young men went acourting now, they did not necessarily wait for permission from the girls’ parents. Parents allowed their sons and daughters to frolic unchaperoned in late-night sleigh rides, corn huskings, and dancing parties. And the young made the most of the opportunities offered them.

In an effort to regain a degree of control, New England families adopted a custom that has puzzled moralists ever since. They encouraged the young men courting their daughters to spend the whole night at it under their own roofs. After the old folks retired the couple slept together unattended. They were supposed to do no more than slumber, but did anyone really expect that a young man and young woman in bed together would simply whisper sweet nothings to each other before dozing off? However shocking to outsiders, the practice had the advantage of giving parents some influence in their daughter’s choice of a husband. Or, as Godbeer concludes,

If couples were forced to find secret venues in which to have sex, families and neighbors would have to rely on rumor and guesswork in figuring out who had impregnated their daughters.

The practice was common enough to be given a name, “bundling,” and there may have been recognized protocols for carrying it on but no solemn ceremonies to spoil the fun. All in all, despite the Revolutionary War, the 1780s and the 1790s in New England were a lighthearted time for the young.

How long it lasted is not clear. That it happened at all seems to have been owing to a number of perhaps unrelated developments: an increased regard for privacy, a loosening of close community ties with a corresponding decline of neighborly nosiness, and—Godbeer emphasizes this—a spirit of personal independence derived from the collective independence from Great Britain. These doubtless brought a general loosening of sexual relations in all the new United States (though relations could scarcely have become looser than they already were in the Carolina back country). Everything tightened up in the early nineteenth century with the exaltation of women as the repository of republican virtue and their simultaneous degradation as prostitutes in urban areas, complex developments that Godbeer traces in his last two chapters.

It is difficult to see any of these developments as a sexual revolution. Most people probably still confined their sex lives to their husbands or wives. What Godbeer leaves unsaid in his consideration of the various departures from the norm is the exclusion of the church and clergy from the powers they had enjoyed as custodians of morality in England and most of Europe. Membership in American churches was mostly voluntary and expulsion from membership (excommunication) in congregationally organized churches was the prerogative of the congregation, not the minister. The Anglican Church failed to ordain an American bishop, and without one the church courts that monitored sexual relations in England could not exist. Secular courts often undertook to fill the gap by punishing sexual offenses, but the clergy were barred from participation. In the early seventeenth century they had exerted a powerful influence in New England, which has often been called a theocracy. But the existence of real theocracies in the Near East today should call our attention to the care that New England Puritans took not to create one. In the rest of America the absence of clerical powers may have been at first accidental; for the founders of New England it was a matter of fundamental principle.

It could be said that the Puritans left England to get away from theocracy. In England clerical and political power were scarcely distinguishable. The king was ex officio head of the church, and the whole population were automatically members of it. The church parish was the unit of local government. Bishops sat in Parliament to make civil laws and presided over courts that dealt not only with moral offenses but also with the probate of wills, collecting lucrative fees at every step. Only clerics could perform marriages, and divorce was impossible except by act of Parliament.

The founders of New England, both laymen and clergy, had suffered from this system, and they were determined to bar churches and churchmen from any kind of political power in the new colonies. A “Body of Liberties” adopted in Massachusetts in 1641 prescribed that no action by a church could affect a man’s tenure of political office. In that colony during the seventeenth century, when all political offices were elective, no minister was ever elected to one. Ministers could not even perform marriages, which were sacred but secular. Ministers could preach against sexual license, but that was the most they could do.

This reining in of the clergy as a matter of principle among the most devout Americans accorded with the attitude that other Americans acquired from the multiplicity of sects that developed during the colonial period, each of them fearful of a power that might be given to others. The prospect of an Anglican bishop in the 1760s drew a storm of protest not merely from New England but from laymen everywhere who wanted to continue running their churches by themselves.

Because of this disarming of church and clergy, when the young people of New England began to kick up their heels in the last decades of the eighteenth century there was no church power to do more than scold them. The real sexual revolution in early America was the secularization of morality. American sexual mores have sometimes been absurdly strict as regulated by law and custom. But until the current campaign to rearm the church as a dispenser of welfare (which I believe to be unconstitutional), the role of the church has been limited to talk. Secular morality has given us a freedom we have long taken for granted, because it prevailed for a century and a half before it was enshrined in the First Amendment. It saved us from the religious wars of the seventeenth century which devastated Europe. It saved us for long from the modern religious wars of the Middle East. Those wars have now spilled over upon us. We are threatened by theocratic morality, which has never excluded war, terror, and slaughter of the innocent as a means of extending religion and religious morality. The First Amendment has never looked so good.

  1. 1

    Roger Thompson, Sex in Middlesex: Popular Mores in a Massachusetts County, 1649–1699 (University of Massachusetts Press, 1986).

  2. 2

    John Cotton, A Brief Exposition… Upon the Whole Book of Canticles (London, 1655), pp. 4, 66.

  3. 3

    Winthrop Papers (Massachusetts Historical Society), Vol. 1 (1929), p. 202.

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