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Puritans, Sex, and Pleasure

~slong been customary in some circles to vilify the Puritans for


~li,sm, joylessness, an ascetic capitalism, and prudery. But their
~f, 'bravery, and accomplishments have continued to ,draw scholars'
ntion, so that a fairer picture of the Puritans has, with resistance,
p,.emerging.
19 accusations still flow from newer pens. Lyle Koehler claims the
anS condemned the 'toys' of material existence such as fine food
Xltertainment and had a 'moral distaste for sensual pleasure.' 1
nce Stone accused English Protestants. and Catholics of believing
.t:f'sensuality itself, the lust of the flesh, is evil.' Christianity as a
ole, he continued, and the Puritan ethic in particular, maintains that
.~ pleasures of the flesh were peculiarly sinful.'2
.iSince the 1930s Christian and non-Christian scholars have been
'gpring to exonerate the Puritans of such charges. The Puritans, they
~intain, were disciplined and principled, but not legalistic. They
vored moderate enjoyment of food, drink, and recreation, but did not
~m~orse asceticism. The Puritans, their defenders declare, had a
b~althy attitude toward marital love, including sex, and must not be
. )nfused with the Victorians, who were indeed prudish.
1,Some Christian researchers and writers, however, have passed from
e necessary task of rehabilitation to the dubious one of hagiography.
~.~. Puritans' accusers were entirely wrong, they claim. Percy
,:p.ples, alr~~9yin 1933, argued that the appearance of Puritan oppo-
,~iOXl to pleasure stemmed from their sabbatarianism, and especially
i~resistance to King James' Book of Sports, which virtually
.uired Englishmen to engage in games and recreation on Sunday.
J;1,9I~s, after researching Puritan social habits', concluded, 'I have
ed to fmd evidence of their opposing any kind of pleasure as such.'3
...onaid. Frye wrote that classical Puritanism 'inculcated a view of
c~~al life in marriage as the "crown of all our bliss"' such that
Jmritan divines educated England in a more liberal view of marital
J9ve. 4 More recently Leland Ryken has credited the Puritans with
.•• Jx~jecting medieval attitudes toward sex. 'Married sex was not only
Jegitimate in the Puritan view; it was meant to be exuberant.' Sex was
good, created by God for human welfare and even pleasure, and the
~uritans were not squeamish about it, Ryken claims.5
The reader puzzles: how can two diametrically opposed views of the
~lfitans both attract scholarly defenders? Who is right? Or does the
34 Christian Perspectives on Sexuality and Gender Sexuality and the Christian Tradition 35

truth lie somewhere between the extremes? This article will attempt to fathers held that lu.st (hence sin) taints all sexual activity. Hence it
give and substantiate answers to these questions while examining the ould be as restrained and infrequent as possible, even in marriage. 11
Puritans' teaching on sex and pleasure from their first hundred years .~ologians judged virginity superior to marriage, in general, not only
in England. 6 It evaluates the Puritan teaching on the basis 'of their own ose with 'the gift.' Finally, and with much resistance, they
standard and intention: to change their society by proclaiming biblical ired the 'counsel' of chastity for all clergy.
ideas on sex in marriage. edievaJ Catholic, theologians adopted the outlook of the early
'gh.rTaking Thomas Aquinas as their representative, we find the
i;~qualified respect for God's institution of marriage, limited by
I. The Context for Puritan Teachings on Marital Relations
;~>of ;virginity and fear of concupiscence and pleasure. The capac-
We can best understand the Puritans' teachings on physical love if we ,ctgive pleasure was a problem that threatened to condemn the sex
compare them with the teachings of the Roman Church, which they :ven in marriage. Even in marriage Aquinas thought the sex act a
consciously opposed. 7 Asceticism had a long and varied history since .gerous thing, precisely because it was so enjoyable. Aquinas
almost'the beginning of the church's life. Ceded that the marriage act is not always sinful, but, before he
From the second century on, many considered virginity superior to hluded his argumentation, he affirmed that (1) the marriage act is
marriage. Second marriages were sins, third marriages signs of unbe- ways shameful' because always 'connected with concupiscence,' (2)
lief. To' avoid sexual temptation some early Christian men chose desert ,ere,is always excess of pleasure in the marriage act' which absorbs
dwellings that kept them miles and years away from even a glimpse of i\reason and separates one from God, (3) God forbids enjoyment as
a woman. A few slept innocently with women to strengthen themselves astend, and (4) 'the marriage act is evil in itself' although it is an
by enduring temptation. Others applied Christ's words, 'If your hand Lconnected 'only' with punishment and concupiscence and not
causes you to sin, cut it off,' too literally. The marriage of priests was essarily sin. 12
discouraged, then forbidden; [mally, the prohibition was enforced. The ound to accept the force of texts such as 1 Cor. 7:3, 28 and 1 Tim.
church fathers allowed Manichee, Gnostic, and other dualistic varieties Aquinas admitted that the 'marriage act' is not 'altogether
of Greek thought to influence their reading of Scripture and their awfuL' It is lawful only if it is performed ou.t of a sense of duty to
conclusions about the role and value of marriage and sexuality. eget children or to render one's debt to his spouse: 'For if the motive
Generally, the fathers had an emotional embarrassment and a visceral ;dr the marriage act be a virtue, whether of justice that they may
aversion toward coitus. They feared sexual passion and pleasure, espe- ;ender the debt, or of religion, that they may beget children for the
cially the powerful, scarcely controllable sexual impulse. The ~orship of God, it is meritorious. but if the motive be lust ... it is a
animal-like aspect of sexuality repelled them and they condemned the .venial sin.' 13 That is, if the motive is duty to God (children) or man
loss of rational control which accompanied sexual activity. The whole (spouse) the marriage act is meritorious. If the motive is desire, even
affair seemed shameful and lustful. 8 for one's wife, it is sinful.
Several consequences followed. Augustine, Tertullian, Jerome, and ~The views of Augustine and Aquinas remained the orthodox stan-
others concluded that even in marriage, even when man and wife act in Qard until the Reformation and beyond and actively competed with
order to beget children, concupiscence so attends the procreative act Protestant,teachings in the marketplace of ideas. For example, the
that there is always at least venial sin. 9 Many theologians restricted sixteenth;century Spanish Catholic humanist Ludovico Vives had his
coitus even within marriage and nearly all exalted virginity. Instructiqnoj a Christian Woman published in London in 1557. In it
On the' other hand, they had to affirm that God created all things, Vives ex,~.lted, virginity and chastity, asserting that chastity is a
including marriage and the human way of procreation. Since all his woman's chief virtue, saying, 'There is nothing that our Lord
creations are good, no orthodox theologian could condemn matrimony delighteth ,in more than virgins.' Indeed, Vives so esteemed these
and sexuality without qualification. They judged it merely a lesser virtues that he praised them even in' marriage. He lauded one woman
good, virginity being the greater. But the church did seriously main- who lay with her husband but once a month and then only when
tain the goodness of marriage, exalting it as a sacrament and . certain she was not pregnant, approved another who bore one child
condemning its unrestrained critics. So Augustine could even affirm and then ceased marital relations, and praised Mary and others who
that before the fall Adam and Eve were a married man and woman and perpetually remained virgins in marriage. He concluded, 'bodily plea-
that they would have reproduced sexually even if they had remained sure is unworthy [of] this excellent nature of ours ... and therefore
sinless. In God's plan 'the procreation of children [was] ... part of the every body despiseth it ... the more he hath of that excellency of the
glory of marriage, and not of the punishment of sin.' 10 soul. ... Neither will [he] use this pleasure often except it be such as
These ideas, however, are more concessions than main themes. The have but beastly vile and abject minds.' 14
36 Christian Perspectives on Sexuality and Gender Sexuality and the Christian Tradition 37

II. Early Puritan Teachings on Marital Relations usage~' entails three things: first, moderation, 'for even in wedlock,
.excess in lusts is no better than plain adultery before God'; second,
The Puritans, like all Protestants, rejected several of the Roman 9ccasional abstinence, such as during fasts and menstruation; and
Catholic principles enumerated here. They affirmed that marriage is ird, prayer, that. God would bless their action with a blessed seed)1
intrinsically as good as virginity and hinted that it might be better. The outlook and advice of Cleaver and Perkins carried over into the
They rejected clerical celibacy and with it the notion that there are rlf seventeenth century. ,In that period a variety of Puritan spokes-
'counsels of perfection,' such as virginity, for which all should strive. ;¢It tmblished sermons or longer studies on the family. Their thought
They opposed Catholic views because they believed they caused forni- tained both maturity and consensus in most areas. They struggled,
cation, 'whoredom,' and even infanticide as priests and nuns attempted )~ever, with the topic of marital relations. They followed Becon's
to destroy the evidence of their sin. IS Protestant thinkers declared .sertion that ,marriage and the marriage bed are pure.. They also
matrimony good because it prevented such sins and produced' a. holy lieved m~rii~,relations have good ends or purposes: the prevention
seed.• But such affirmations do not necessa~ily entail the idea that sex fornication . ,anci the birth of a godly seed. But did they believe
and pleasure are good in themselves. The theologians of the early and rital relations are good in themselves? Did they think God created
medieval church rejected the idea. Contemporary Christian teachers xuaHty, in part, for the enjoyment or pleasure of husband and wife?
affirm or assume it; but the Puritans' view is more elusive.l 6 'lle.Puritans made statements that support either a positive or a nega-
From the first, the Puritans accepted the continental Protestant view iy~ answer, but the next sections intend to show that frequent warnings
that faithful married couples are chaste, that the chaste love of matri- .bout the dangers of sex virtually annulled their affirmations of the
mony is a 'second sort of virginity.' 17 Thomas Becon, writing' in the oodness of sexuality.
mid-sixteenth century, said, 'Wedlock is honorable among all persons
and the bed undefiled.... The very act of matrimony ... is also pure and • Furitan Appreciation of Marital Love and Sexuality
clean in the sight of God.' 18 Becon also refuted an interesting Roman
Catholic argument for celibacy. The church had reasoned that the everal Puritan writers show that the Reformation started to create a
sacraments are holy and pure and must not be touched by an unclean .ew attitude toward love among the godly in England. John Dod,
person such as a man (a priest) rising from his wife's side. Since a profoundly revered in his life time, typifies the genuine but oblique
priest touches the sacraments daily and may not defile them, he would praise: of love in the early seventeenth century. Dod began his discus-
not be free to fulfil his sexual duty to his wife. Hence priests should sion of married love by saying that if we cannot control lust, 'then God
not marry. Becon replied that because the marriage bed is undefiled, hath called us to the estate of matrimony.' Yet marriage alone will fail
'A priest in the fear of God lying with his wife, and having her to subdue lust: '
company may with a good conscience rise from his wife's side and do Every married person must labor for pure and fervent love to his yoke-
whatsoever pertaineth unto his office.' 19 While Becon asserted the ,fellow.... If married persons get fervent and pure love one to the other,
honor and chastity of marriage and the marriage bed and critiqued this will keep them safe. For it is not the having of a wife, but the loving
Roman teaching, he failed to develop his simple affirmation that, of her that makes a man live chastely: but if she have him, and yet hate
within marriage, the sex act is pure. ·him ... she is in danger every day to be defiled. Fervent love must then
The next generation, writing in the late sixteenth century and repre- ;"l:'; be sought for. Not such as flesh can yield ... but pure love is a gift of
sented by Robert Cleaver and William Perkins, began to propound a It GOd. 22
fuller sexual ethic. While still affirming the purity of sex in marriage, So Dod suggested that fervent sensual love helps the married avoid
they initiated a partial return to Catholic attitudes and restrictions adultery. As he put it, those who partake of 'holy delights' will not
governing marital sex. Cleaver advocated a period of betrothal before seek 'ungodly,pleasures.'23 Positive as Dod's remarks are he still
marriage to differentiate men, who can restrain their desire for sexual praised marital. love more for its ability to prevent sin than for its
satisfaction, from brute beasts, who cannot. He warned that couples intrinsic merits.
can pollute and defile their marriage if they use their privilege Thomas Gataker, author of four popular marriage sermons,24 could
'without prayer and soberness.'2o Perkins considered the rendering of be more direct. Among the duties of love a man has toward his wife,
'due benevolence' an essential duty of marriage, adding that it must be Gataker said the fUth duty was to take physical delight in her. Quoting
performed with a 'singular and entire affection.' But he judged the Provo 5: 15, 18-19 in full and taking it at face value, he told the listen-
marriage bed 'indifferent - neither good nor bad.' He amplified, 'This ing husband:
coming together of man and wife, although it be indifferent, yet by the
holy usage thereof it is made a holy and undefiled action.' 'Holy
38 Christian Perspectives on Sexuality and Gender Sexuality and the Christian Tradition 39

'Joy and delight in her. Drink,' saith the wise man, 'the water of thine for increasing the. world with a legitimate brood, and for linking the
,:own cistern. Let thy fountain be blessed: ... and rejoice in the wife of thy affections of the married couple more firmly together. These ends of
Lyouth: let her be unto thee as the loving hind, and the pleasant roe: let agiage, at least the two former, are made void without [sic] this duty
her.~r:easts Of her bosom content thee at all times: and delight continu- erformed.
,~lly:!.:. even dote on the love of her.' As if the Holy Ghost did allow
" sOffie such private dalliance and behavior to married persons between it is called 'benevolence' because it must be performed with good will
themselves as to others might seem dotage: such as may be was Isaac's a. delight, willingly, readily and cheerfully; so it is said to be 'due'
sporting with Rebekah. 25 ~~use it is a debt which the wife owes to her husband, and he to her. 29
.Gataker;" believed that it is a tactic of the demonic' to .misrepresent ave quoted at length because there are three breakthroughs, for
Christianity as a damper placed upon the joys of living, or to' portray ~uritans at least, in these paragraphs. First, Gouge has at last
it as opposed .to human happiness. This false picture of Ghristianity, y granted 'due benevolence' a vital independent role in marriage.
says the. Pu,ritan Gataker, is has broken with Aquinas, and surpassed Luther and many of his
an. illusion of Satan, whereby he usually persuades the merry Greeks of
.ers, by saying that due benevolence. is 'an essential act of
the world;' that if they should once devote themselves to the service of iage,' not just something riecessary because of its good results
Jesus Christ, 'that then they must bid an everlasting farewell to all mirth ~pgeny and the prevention of sin). Thus, Gouge was consistent when
and delight; that then all their merry days are gone; that in the kingdom {{later reasol1ed against Augustine and Ambrose (his chosen repre-
of Christ, there is nothing, but sighing and groaning, and fasting and ptatives of Catholicism) that a man may 'know' his pregnant wife,
prayer. But see here the contrary: even in the kingdom of Christ, and in r'conception is not the only end of this duty.'3o
.his house, there is marrying and giving in marriage, drinking of wine, Second, Gouge, albeit with some hesitation, introduced a new end
feasting, and rejoicing even in the very face of Christ. 26 f!1marital relations: the increase of affection between husband and
. ife. (The idea that sexual relations can aid in 'linking the affections'
Several Puritans implicitly addressed the physical aspect of marriage s{ alien to classic Catholicism and at best implicit in a few earlier
when they described the love husband and wife share. Daniel Rogers rotestants.) Third, although Gouge still called marital relations a duty
said the finger of God effects a 'secret sympathy of hearts' between l.1e,believed it should be a delightful duty for both partners. With that
some men and women. Marital love is therefore more than the spiritual peJ'spective Gouge was free to cite Provo 5: 19 adding a liberal qualifi-
affection Christians share and more than the physical attraction even cation: 'As the man must be satisfied at all times in his wife, and even
brute animals experience. It is a 'sweet compound of both, religion ravished with her love; so must the woman.'31
and nature.'27 Rogers evoked the emotional and tactile aspect of It appears, then, that the Puritans began to return the church to a
marriage in a tender description of the devoted wife. 'She joys in his ore positive, indeed more biblical, concept of marital love. To be
presence, mourns in his absence, reposes herself in his bosom, being ccurate, however, we must emphasize the word 'began.' While
asleep, watcheth his waking, follows after him, hangs upon him in his ritan thinking does restore important, previously neglected facets of
departing, longs for his return.'28 iblical thought, even the most progressive writers emphatically quali-
Along with Becon, William Gouge probably did the most to fied their most liberated remarks. So Gouge urged his audience to
promote a positive outlook toward marital relations. The context for remember that Provo 5: 18-19 is metaphorical and hyperbolic. He said
Gouge's longest discussion of marital relations was the prevention of that Christians with ardent affection will 'exceed not the bounds of
the heinous sin of adultery. To stay pure, husband and wife must dili- Christian modesty and decency.' He condemned the insatiable spouse
gently guard their heart, eyes, ears, tongues, lips, hands, feet, ,whose demands are 'provoking rather than assuaging lust' and who
company, diet, apparel, and time, for misuse of any can lead to sin. . insists upon his due at all times, even on days of religious fasting,
Speaking more broadly of marriage, Gouge continued: illness, or menstruation,32 Likewise, the same Gataker who encour-
One of the best remedies [for adultery] that can be prescribed to married aged husbands to take physical delight in their wives also had profound
persons is that husband and wife mutually delight each in the other, and reservations aqout the sexual impulse. Several authors surprise us both
maintain a pure and fervent love betwixt themselves, yielding that 'due with their,., commendations and their reservations about sex. Old
benevolence' one to another which is warranted and sanctified by God's Catholic ideas and unassimilated biblical ideas contested for control of
word, and ordained of God for this particular end. This 'due benevo- their minds.
lence' (as the Apostle stileth it), is one of the most proper and essential
acts of marriage: and necessary for the main and principal ends thereof:
as for preservation of chastity in such as have not the gift of continency,
40 Christian Perspectives on Sexuality and Gender Sexuality and the Christian Tradition 41

IV. Puritan Restrictions of Marital Love and Sexuality passions. are of themselves moved, then must they take the benefit
their estate to assuage them, that they may not be troublesome to them
The Puritans' affirmed that God created human sexuality, that sex , of religion and of their callings. 36
pptentially has certain God-pleasing results, and that the marriage bed
iSJ)qre. We . have seen that they even began to appreciate the physical ~~';'f'i,he warned, weakens the body and shortens life, enflames
ang:.,tomcmtic. aspects of married love. But they formulated so many ij9!!,l\?and disposes to adultery. It breeds satiety, disables, and
warnings arid restrictions that their protestations of the goodness and ~,J."~tifru.itfulness. So Christian prudence requires the temperate
puritY of sexuality lost their force. 'ment of God's ordinance. 37
\'\<Let'us consider three restrictions the Puritans placed on sexual €:;iPuritans ;often said that passionate lusts and lustful deeds reduce
activity within marriage. First, they warned against lustful, intemper- opth,e level of a beast. Nicholas Byfield linked 'excesses of concu-
ate~ and animal-like sex. John Robinson asserted that, though marriage c.e', with 'brutish sensuality.' Rogers railed against men who live
can prevent adultery, that benefit can be lost through abuse: rutebeasts' in that 'their will is their law.'38
ond, Puritan preachers restricted the times of sexual relations.
As a man may surfeit at this own table or be drunken with his own drink; .
bestial behavior led some to advocate a period between
so may he play the adulterer with his own wife, both by inordinate affec-
tionand action. For howsoever the marriage bed cover much thal and marriage to demonstrate that man does not copulate like
inordinateness this way: yet must modesty be observed by the married, limal. The Puritans also restricted the times of sexual activity in
lest the bed which is honorable, and undefiled, Reb. 13:4, in its right .rriage. They asked their hearers to adhere to the Levitical restric-
use become by abuse hateful, and filthy in God's sight. 33 . s:(lgainst sexual relations during menstruation. 39 The Puritans also
ised listeners about .the frequency of marital relations. Whately said
Robert Bolton also gave then took away. He said the marriage bed is ~ZWmarriage bed 'must be used as seldom and sparingly as may stand
undefiled, but added that married couples have a duty to preserve their ~~\~e need of the persons married.'40 Daniel Rogers, observing that
conjugal chastity and their marriage bed as follows: we.. Greek philosophers set numerical guidelines for frequency,
."gested:
It ought by no means to be stained with sensual excesses, wanton
speeches, foolish dalliance, and other incentives of lust, which marriage say not as they say once weekly or thrice monthly ... because I know
ii
should quench, not inflame. Even in wedlock, intemperate and unbridled ere can be no set rule for all persons, seasons of marriage and varieties
lust, immoderation and excess is deemed, both by ancient and modern of 'bodies ... but ... if heathens could rove at such a mark '" I should
divines, no better than plain adultery before God. think it rather meet that Christians, especially in years, should rather aim
at being under the line than above it.
He' cited several authorites including Augustine who said: 'As a man
may be a wicked drunkard with his own drink; and a glutton, by exces- .ogers qualified himself at length, emphasizing Christian freedom and
sive devouring of his own meat; so likewise, one may be unclean in the ~d]mpossibility of a 'punctual' decision, but the impression remains
immoderate use of the marriage bed.' Not that Bolton absolutely at Rogers sided with the Greeks and Catholics rather than Luther
opposed pleasure, but the pleasure of marriage, he taught, 'must be ho thought twice a week was ideal. 41
mingled with some severity ... and serious pleasure.... It ought to be a hird, the godly brethren limited the spontaneity of sex by requiring
delight conscientious and circumspect.'34 e/Iltlarried tQpray before intercourse. Bolton advised newly married
·In one passage Gataker evinced a view of marital sexuality ·akin to uples that they should 'for two or three days ply prayer, that they
Aquinas. He conceded that the human inclination to 'nuptial conjunc- y: have good children, and please the Lord in their marriage
tion' is not 'at all evil simply in itself,' but added that since the fall ties.'42 Whately said that before relations husband and wife must
'this affection is not only tainted and mixed generally with much filth, nsider that their action is lawful, then thank God for it.
but it is grown so violent, impetuous and headstrong ... with the most "As therefore it were a brutish profaneness, for any man to sit down to his
that it is ready to break forth into grievous inconveniences.'35 table, as a horse to the manger, and cram himself with viands, without
William Whately also opposed excess passion and even resisted cra.ving the blessing of God first .,. so it is likewise a great licentiousness
approving pleasure: for married people ... to come together in marriage, forgetting or
The married must not provoke desires for pleasure's sake, but allay neglecting to receive the Lord's blessing and to give him due praises. 43
desires when they provoke themselves. They must not strive by words i~

and gestures to inflame their passions, when they are cool. But when nV5\o'J.~, Clea\~~r,
'and Hieron also told married couples to pray before
sexual activit:/and consider the legality, purpose, and need of blessing
42 Christian Perspectives on Sexuality and Gender Sexuality and the Christian Tradition 43

for their activity. 44 Condemnation of Extramarital Relations


Some historians have said the chief motive behind the Puritans'
interest in governing sexual relations was their desire to prevent adul- Puritans" denunciations of extramarital sexual sin showed an
tery and the 'disturbance of the social order through bastardy or 'ecedented virulence and volubility. Becon opened our era with a
ill-advised marriages. But if we take the Puritans at their word, their ibe' against whoredom which called it a sin, an abomination, a
chief goal was to please God and to be pure before him. They give no ltal· offense, and an act which brings God's most extreme temporal
credit to those who remained clean only through lack of opportunity to ternal judgment. 51 Rogers closed it with a sixty-page appendix to
sin or fear of the consequences. 45 imoniall Honour 'discovering the just vengeance of God upon all
Bolton observed that some use the marriage bed intemperately, efHers of marriage.'52 The adulterer, Rogers warned, 'is drowned
knowing they are free from human censure. Yet, he solemnly warned i~,;own perdition and cannot get out.... Your damnation sleeps not!
they' should not think this gives them license for any behavior, for shall come upon you .... Hell fire and all do smell sweet in his
'assuredly God's pure eye cannot look uPQn them; but without repen- trils.'53 Byfield said the sin of whoredom 'consumes men's
tance will certainly plague them.' The 'plague' that Bolton threatened ngth, wastes men's substance, compasseth men with evil in the
would fall' on children begotten during uncontrolled sexual activity. He stof the congregation; is worse than theft; destroys the SOUl, both
warned husbands and wives who abused the marriage bed with carnal .ng men without understanding, and sending them to hell.' 54
love ,'.' or> excessive passion that 'divine justice doth many times ougefound no sin to be so notorious and heinous in all Scripture.
deservedlyichastise it ... with miscarriages, barrenness, bad chil- ltery attacks God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, the spouses of
dren.'46·Hieron agreed that 'God usually punisheth men's distempered, adulterers, the children, the friends, the town, the nation, the
unbridled,anddisordered lusts, in their posterities.'47 Cleaver was iIrch, , and the guilty parties themselves. Perhaps worst, adultery
most explicit and terrifying: ins marriages. 'For by it husband's and wife's affection ... is so
Christians therefore must know that when men and women raging with 'enated, as seldom it is reconciled again.' God hates, denounces, and
boiling lust meet together as brute beasts, having no other respect than to ndemns adulterers. 'Whoremongers, and adulterers God will judge.
satisfy their carnal concupiscence when they make no conscience to ow consider what a fearful thing it is to fall into the hands of the
sanctify the marriage bed with prayer, when they have no care to increase iving God.'55'Buch strong words arouse our curiosity. Why did the
the church of Christ ... it is the just judgment of God to send them either ritans have such animus toward sexual sins? Why did they deem
monsters or fools, or else such as ... one most wicked, graceless and em worse than all others? What do their protestations reveal as we
profane persons. 48 :l:Huate Puritan attitudes toward sex and pleasure?

Whately agreed that God has the power to give monstrous, wicked, or
cursed or diseased children to punish parents for prayerless or lustful (Analysis
conjunctions. Indeed he said that a child conceived through an 'unsea- 'he> Puritans intended to radically reform Christian thinking on
sonable .[menstrual] conversation ... must needs inherit numerous arriage and. S,exuality, in order to bring thought and practice into
diseases.' 49 armony with the Bible. They and their most ardent supporters believe
The Puritans intended their warnings to motivate Christians to crave ey succeeded. Their critics believe they modified but continued to
God's blessing for their reproductive activity. And, happily, Richard aintain oppressive Greek or Christian ideas of sexuality and plea-
Greenham uttered the balancing word of encouragement that children ure.
sought of God by their parents often excel in natural and supernatural The preceding exposition has attempted to show that neither the
gifts. 50 Nonetheless, the unintended consequences of the Puritans' lritans' detractors nor defenders accurately portray' the Puritans'
teaching make one shudder. If their hearers took it seriously, it surely theology of sex and pleasure in marriage. They neither judged sexual
brought helpless and unassuaged guilt, remorse, and recrimination crown of married bliss nor expressed an exuberant attitude
when handicapped children were born or babies died in infancy. sex in marriage. But it is not quite right to say they believed
To sUInmarize, the Puritans never attacked sexual activity in itself, is evil either.
but they rarely praised its intrinsic value. Further, they so restricted are several ways to account for the contradictory interpreta-
sexual activity that, if the man in the pew believed the preachers, spon- of the Puritans' views of 'Sex and pleasure. Some appear to have
taneous, passionate, physical love would be almost impossible. To the Puritans tendentiously, looking for and seizing upon evidence
complete the portrait of Puritan attitudes toward sex, we need only confirm a preconceived thesis. These scholars disregard counterevi-
describe their attitude toward extramarital sexual activity. dence and falsely (not to say deliberately) claim statements for their
44 Christian Perspectives on Sexuality and Gender Sexuality and the Christian Tradition 45

case. The writer who depends on tendentious secondary sources is, QW then do the Puritans measure up against their own rule, fidelity
obviously, doomed. 56 $i,Bible? First, the godly brethren gave undue prominence to extra-
But. even if problems with method and integrity were solved, it .. ~~lsexual sin. Unlike the Puritans, biblical writers do not declare
would be difficult to describe the Puritans' views. Their views resist sins· to be. peculiarly soul-threatening. To be sure, habitual
generalizations because they struggled . . with an internal tension ffenders will· not enter the kingdom of God, but then neither
jnconsistency in their own thought. laters~ thieves, drunkards, slanderers, or swindlers (1 Cor.
:The godly preachers accepted several ideas that, if failing to contra- Rom~ 1:26-32).
jdict,' at least conflict with each other. First, the Puritans maintained Puritans' warnings against sexual sin in marriage are
.that God created marriage and sex. Both are pure and holy because .entally unbiblical. The Bible does not regulate sex in marriage,
created by. God, even before the fall. Second, due to the strength of rough general principles such as love and self-sacrifice. The
human sexual appetites (as well as God's desire for progeny), God nly commands that relations continue (1 Cor. 7: 1-5). The
makes it a duty for couples to communicat~ their bodies to each other, ers' advice about the quantity and quality of marital sex proba-
except for occasional, brief, and mutually agreeable separations. ·two sources. From Catholicism they had a lingering discomfort
Sexual activity is, therefore, pure and an ongoing part of a normal eXland passion; from the entire European intellectual world they
marriage. Third, sexual relations have beneficial products: offspring, itedan emphasis on sobriety, moderation, and temperance.
the. prevention of fornication, and, a few said, the promotion of love deration was a universal ethical principle applied by theologians
and communion between man and wife. But fourth, the Puritans could oralists of every persuasion to the use of all kinds of earthly or
not. rid themselves of the Greek and Roman Catholic idea that lust cal goods: sex, food, drink, sleep, recreation, celebrations, cloth-
taints the procreative act so that it is shameful. They feared the power ad even familial affection. Among non-Puritan moralists John
of sexual desire, its spontaneity, its capacity to resist the will, and its nham said temperance is 'of' all the virtues the most whole-
pleasure, so intense that it overwhelms the consciousness. Human ..e';i~8 Richard Brathwaite added, 'there is no virtue which doth
sexuality reminded theologians of man's separation from God. (It is :e~i'adorn or beautify man than temperance or moderation.'59
impossible to contemplate God during intercourse, they said.) ~lish physicians also extolled the virtue of moderation. 6O The
Mankind's rebellion against God and internal disorder were central- hans . also used the principle of moderation extensively. For
ized in human sexuality. pIe, Robinson said: 'And he that is not sober in himself, using
The Puritans never fully articulated such Greek and Catholic ideas; .t~desiringmoderately, the good things of this nature life, as meat,
they might even have rejected them if presented for their scrutiny. But ink, apparel, sleep, pastime, credit, and the rest: will neither
the preachers' writings show that they at least subconsciously adopted nverserighteously with men, nor piously with GOd.'61 Perkins often
them. Since the first of the three ideas enumerated above clash with d;the principle of moderation in his casuistry and called it the first
the fourth, Puritans authors contradict themselves, or at least make .ciple for the right use of the marriage bed. 'This is the judgment
incompatible remarks. Therefore even honest and skilled researchers $~ ancient church, that intemperance, that is, immoderate desires
can formulate' Puritan views differently. n'between man and wife, are fornication.'62 Bolton concluded a
Two critical questions must be answered in order to make a just .fty-page discussion of moderation that warned against excess in meat,
critique of the Puritans. To evaluate the preachers on their own terms, Qnk, apparel, recreation, and sleep this way: 'Christians are in more
to judge them according to their own agenda and standards we must @1ger of being spiritually undone by a sly insinuation ... and immod-
ask: How did, their teachings on sexuality measure up against the t~tion in ... lawful things than by gross assaults of four sins.'63
Bible's? If they promoted unbiblical ideas, why did they do so? In In, commending moderation, therefore, the godly brethren
choosing this agenda we do not deny that other valid critical "onformed to prevailing ideas. The idea of moderation seems to have
approaches exist. A scholar might, for example, examine the social one from Greek thought to Aquinas through Aristotle. Through
consequences of Puritan ideas and discover that Puritan notions quinas it became part of the mental furnishings of the ethical mind of
promoted social order. But the exposition of God's word and judg- urope. Broadly speaking, the advocates of moderation believed it
ments stood foremost in their minds. We see this in their references to 'equir1ed self-limitation and the avoidance of extremes. Their discus-
God's judgment of secret acts and in their relative disregard for social sions show that they commended several forms of moderation: (1)
norms concerning the age of marriage. (For example, they said parents self-control with regard to the 'Senses and sensual pleasures including
should arrange marriages for their children when sexual needs require lothes and sleep as well as food, drink, and sex; (2) modesty or
it and basically ignored the possible results of poverty and overpopula- dignity in conduct, so that one does not show extreme emotion, enthu-
tion.)57 isiasm or devotion to anything, whether it be work, play or loved ones;
46 Christian Perspectives on Sexuality and Gender Sexuality and the Christian Tradition 47

(3) the general avoidance of passion. ,eD'e that the preachers had good intentions as it is to say they were
'Several questions can lead us into an evaluation of the Puritans' .ii.Just this matters: the Puritans' insistence on moderation as a
concept of moderation. Is moderation a biblical concept? If so, what I principle for behavior is unbiblical, as are their threats regard-

does the Bible mean by moderation? If moderation is a biblical notion, pnsequences of passion.
great, general'principle for life or a relatively minor one that conclusion compels us to ask why the godly brethren insisted
"fit under more important ones? Further, how might the concept ~r~tion and restraint of passion. Ronald Frye has argued that
of moderation apply to sexuality in marriage? I!~ked lust in marriage because immoderate love had a violence
>')}i;!),Ey~m,though most modern translations lack the term 'moderation' 'precluded it from maintaining the stability necessary for
~dthetlaVuses it but once, the concept is biblical. Self-control is a [he Puritans feared immoderate love,could degenerate into
fniitofthe Spirit, and a mark of righteousness and ,maturity that iii:t,;i~atiety, or a self-centered displeasure. Frye shows that the
.,.Proverbs I and the letters of Peter and Paul often require. The wicked ,s I'~i~wed lust as a destructive perversion that ruins marriages
and the Joolish, on the other hand, fail to restrain their anger, their ~JJ.ds ·God. 64 Frye's answer is incomplete, however~ The most
tongues, and their passions for physical 'pleasures. The Puritans rightly -quotations he adduces for his answer condemn lust as the
observe that even familial love can be immoderate, as David's indul- diJ(or choosing a spouse and entering marriage. The Bible
gent devotion to Absalom proves. So the concept of moderation, in the Y. teaches, with the Puritans, that physical Or sexual attraction
first sense, is biblical. .a.sis for marriage. But the fundamental issue is not passion as a
The second and '. third senses of the Puritan concept of moderation fQi::lllaI'fiage but the legitimacy of passion. within marriage. The
must be questioned, however, for the bible approves some instances of gn,is, assuming a couple marries for companionship, partner-
extreme, ~motion, devotion, or even passion. For example, Michal ld progeny, can they go on to enjoy 'immoderate,' passionate,
despised David's passionate d~nce of joy before the Lord in 2 Samuel love?
6.;'But the Lord, Samuel's author lets us know, approved David's n Frye draws his conclusions he says the Puritans treated phys-
','immoderate' celebration (2 Sam. 6:23). Jesus and Paul both praise :~,as good and pure in itself, no matter how ardent it might be,
"immoderate' generosity (Luke 21:4; 2 Cor. 8). The book of Numbers 'epudiating lust defined as 'immoderate, unstable affection and
praises the zeal, the passion, of Phinehas, grandson of Aaron, who ran '~~ding idolatry.'65 But the problem cannot be solved by a definition:
his spear through an Israelite man and a Moabite woman while they .~l;ltlove' is good; 'immoderate affection' is bad. Does ardent love
sinned (Num. 25:1-13). Zeal for the house of God consumed David" !~~e ardent sexual love or is sexual passion always immoderate? In
and his greater Son, Jesus (Ps. 69:9, John 2: 17). t;words, "while the Puritans have biblical grounds for guarding
Moreover, the authors of the Bible require believers to have a ·lp.st lus~, especially as a basis for marriage, they never specified
zealous,single-minded (Le. passionate) devotion to God's kingdom <;ponstitu!e.s lust within marriage. They failed to distinguish the
that wi.ll often lead to immoderate action (Luke 12:31-34; 14:25-27; ~Ilses of lust: (1) strong desire, as a neutral thing depending on its
Rom. 12: 11) . Finally, Provo 5: 18-19 and the Song of Solomon appear ,t;, and (2) inordinate passion, especially for something forbidden.
to approve and even command the very marital 'immoderation' that "sure, one can lust for his or her own spouse. When a man treats
the Puritans .so frequently denounced. These and other similar texts ife, as an object for his selfish pleasure or gratification, or when
demonstrate that Scripture sees nothing intrinsically wicked about an controls her husband, keeping him for her own use, there can
extremes in emotion, devotion, or passion. Moderation, in other ~!. But does that mean all strong sexual desires are sinful? Or is
words, is not a,n absolute value. We must deny moderation the standing istill a pla,ce for healthy passion in marriage? The Puritans never
of an absolute ethical principle. The moderation of passion may be ,ressed ,that .precise question but their treatment of the Song of
good, bad, or indifferent, depending on the object of the passion, the Jomon and i>rov. 5: 18-19 suggest they would not endorse passion in
manner of its expression, and the nature of the situation in which the .rriage. They dismissed the passions of the Song of Solomon by
passion might be expressed. c~ting the idea that it is an allegory of Christ and the church, not a
. The Puritans' belief in the necessity of moderation contributed to re',song. Further, they added a dozen glosses to Proverb 5, all
their striking assertion that marital lusts cause the birth of deformed or oding its plain sense. Finally, they insisted, citing 1 Tim. 4:3-5, that
evil children. We must bear in mind that, although the idea may seem. xual relation,s be consecrated with prayer. It is one thing to assert
repugnant or foolish today, it was 'scientifically' sound and theologi- .at sexual relations always may be consecrated with prayer; it is
cally accepted then. Men reasoned that if lust deforms the soul during Qther to say or imply that they always must be. One needs only a
conception, that deformity can be pased on to the soul or body of a .ttle imagination to see how this precept, if obeyed, would restrict
child conceived in that meeting. It is as irrelevant for our critique to 'tal passions.
48 Christian Perspectives on Sexuality and Gender Sexuality c:nd the Christian Tradition 49

To summarize, the Puritans' vague discomfort with passion and oughts by relaxing the fear of pleasure, stressing cohabitation and
pleasure .descends from the Greek and Catholic dualism with its deni- ompanionship, in marriage, and requiring spouses to perform their
gration of ~d antipathy toward the body. The godly brethren found it :~lal duiies. '. Soon enough Milton was asserting the intrinsic benefits
very difficult to make a complete break with that tradition, even over rital relations.
'several generations. 'e' have found, therefore, that neither the Puritans' detractors nor
~r~JBut?we must put the Purit:;ms' shortcomings in perspective. JrLl;hampions are entirely right. We have ascribed the difficulty in
!:Although they failed in the explication, they did reestablish and defend ,erpreting Puritan sexual thought to the Puritans themselves, who
the essential purity of Inarital relations. Their views, though imperfect, 'Ovy. to restore pure scriptural teaching to England but could not
were more healthy and biblical than those of the Catholic Church from 'ak free from all their cultural and intellectual bonds. While readers
Jerome to Aquinas to Vives. For example, while they imposed sundry ~r!find flaws . - some of them frightening - in Puritan thinking easily
limits·' on sexual expression in marriage, the Roman Church forbade ough, there' is room for charitable judgment. Puritan preachers
relations during menstruation, pregnancy, and lactation; during ccessfully attacked the worst errors from the Middle Ages and began
seasons of fasting and on certain festival days; for forty days before restore biblical thinking about sexuality to Reformation and post-
Easter,' Pentecost, and Christmas; and for three to seven days before formation England.
communion. Further, casuists recommended abstinence 'on Thursday In conclusion, then, the Puritans intended to bring radical reforma-
in memory of Christ's arrest, on Friday in memory of his death, on n of Christian thinking on marriage and sexuality. While they failed
Saturday in honour of the Virgin Mary, on Sunday in honour of the ,,that goal, they did achieve a real, if incremental, advance toward
Resurrection and on Monday in commemoration of the depaited.'66 storing biblical teaching in the Christian community.
By contrast the Puritans were sexual realists and liberators. They too tes
forbade sex during fasts but they recognized no annual fasts, only Lyle Koehler, A Search for Power (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1980), 10.
extraordinary ·fast days for special purposes. Another questionable Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex & Marriage in England, 1500-1800 (New York: Harper
prohibition, that against sex during menstruation, can at least claim & Row, 1977),499, 523.
Percy Scholes, The Puritans & Music (London: Oxford University Press, 1934), 304-12.
biblical warrant. On that, the Puritans can be criticized Jor failing' to Ronald Frye, 'The Teachings of Classical Puritanism on Conjugal Love,' Studies in the
apply the already known concept of the ceremonial law to annul the Renaissance 2 (1955), 149, 153-55.
Levitical dictum. Still the Puritans granted far more freedom than the Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 43-45.
This article uses sources to represent the Puritan position on the basis of the defmition
Catholics. articulated by Patrick Collinson in The Elizabethan Puritan Movement (Berkeley: UniverSity
Furthermore, the Puritans stayed closer to the Bible than other of California Press, 1967), 13, 22-27, and Peter Lake in Moderate Puritans and the
Protestant Englishmen. There is a remarkable instability in much of Elizabethan Church (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 1-12, 279-92. Both
deny that· the Puritans should be defined as a party opposed to the Anglicans. They were,
the writing 'of the latter, far surpassing that of the Puritans' vacillation instead" ferv~~t believers, 'the hotter sort of Protestant,' men and women who actively
between biblical and Catholic ideas. For example, Richard Brathwaite for,godliness and were personally convinced of the truths of Protestant Christianity.
praised chastity and virginity yet left room for discreet extramarital artic1ec,onfines itself to English Puritans before the civil war, specifically from
Thomas Becon's work on matrimony published in 1542 to Daniel Rogers', published in
affairs in his English Gentlewoman. 67 They also !nixed serious marital 1642.
advice with bizarre sexual tales and titillating stories, while others For a thorough, balanced, and meticulously documented overview of Roman Catholic atti-
entertained readers with vapid poetry and misogynist ravings. 68 tudes toward sex from the Patristic age to the Council of Trent, see Derrick S. Bailey,
Sexual Relation in Christian Thought (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959), 19-166,
Autobiographies, court records on sexual offenses, and demographic 179-80. The following five paragraphs depend somewhat on pp. 19-102 of his book.
studies of bastardy and prenuptial pregnancy prove that the biblical ":fc;See e.g. Augustine, The City of God (New York: Random House, 1950), 14.16-18, 23, 26.
position needed English spokesmen~ Fornication and adultery were 9. Bailey, Sexual Relation, 44-58.
10. Augustine, City of God 14.21.
common, while desertion, spontaneous divorce, and bigamy were not M~· . Some praised marriages in which husband and wife agreed to remain virgins permanently.
too rare. 69 12. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologica (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1922), Q41, A3; Q49,
When compared to continental Protestants, the Puritans do not fare A4.
Ibid., Q41, A3-4.
badly either. Luther and Lutherans stressed the negative role of marital Ludovico (or Juan) Vives, The Instruction of a Christian Woman (London, 1557), D4, H4,
sex, the remedy for fornication. Calvin was more successful at freeing Aa3. .
himself from antipathy to pleasure in itself. Yet he shared the univer- Thomas Becon, The Worckes of Thomas Becon (London: J. Day, 1563), 585r. Becon
inveighed against clerical celibacy for over eighty pages (575v-616r).
sal belief that excess passion amounts to lust, hence sin, even in the See Ed and Gaye Wheat, Intended for Pleasure: New Approaches to Sexual Intimacy in
marriage bed. 70 Neither Luther nor Calvin emphasized that pleasure or Christian Marriage (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1977), 19-23 passim. The title says enough.
even the enhancement of marital affection was a purpose of sex. The John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (LCC; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960),
4.12-28 and 3.19.7-11.
Puritans, also silent except for Gouge, were preparing the way for such Thomas Becon, The Catechism of Thomas Becon with Other Pieces (The Parker Society
50 Christian Perspectives on Sexuality and Gender Sexuality and the Christian Tradition 51

Publications 3; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1844), 103-4. Throughout this Richard Brathwaite, English Gentleman (London: J. Haviland, 1630), 305-6.
article spelling has been modernized in quotations but not in titles. See Stone, Family, 512.
19. Becan, Worckes, 609v. Robinson, Works 3,128.
20. 'Robert Cleaver, A Godley Forme of Household Government (London: T. Creede, 1603)" Workes 3.689.
140, 158,' 182. BoIton, Walking 154-206.
William Perkins, The Workes of William Perkins (3 vols; Cambridge: J. Legatt and Cantrell Frye, 'Love,'. 156-58.
Legge, 1616-18), 3.689. Ibid., 159.
22. John Dod, A Plaine and Familiar Exposition of the Ten Commandments (London: F. Bailey, Sexual Relation, 133-34.
,Kingston, 1612), 287, 290-91. Richard Brathwaite, The English Gentlewoman (London: B. Alsop and T. Fawcet, 1631),
23. Ibid., 291. 1-26, 138, 147.
24. " The length of two sennons indicates that he inserted additional material for publication. See, respectively, Richard Brathwaite, Ar't Asleepe Husband? (London: R. Bishop, 1640);
25;'; thomas Gataker, Certaine Sermons (2 vols.; London: J. Haviland, 1635), 2.206. Thomas Overbury, His Wife with Additions of New Characters and Many Other Witty
26: (Thomas Gataker and William Bradshaw, Two Marriage Sermons (London: W. Jones, 1620); Conceits (London: I.I., 1627); and Thomas Swetnam, The Arraignment of Lewde, Idle,
14. .Forward & 'Unconstant Women: or the Vanitie of Them, Choose You Whether (London: T.
27;',', Daniel Rogers, Matrimoniall Honour (London: T. Harper, 1642), 146-50. Norris, 1645).
28.. ; Ibid., 188-89. Stone, Family, 546-622.
29.' William Gouge, Of Domesticall Duties (London': J. Haviland, 1622), 221-22. Calvin, Institutes 2.8.44; 3.10.2.
30.' Ibid., 224.
31. , Ibid., 217.
32." 'Ibid., 360-61, 223.
33.1 John Robinson, The Works of Robinson, the Pilgrim Father (London: John Snow, 1851), 3.
241-42.
34. Robert Bolton, Some Generall Directions for a Comfortable Walking With. God (London:
Legatt, 1634), 242-44.
35. Gataker, Sermons 2.165.
36. William Whately, Directions for Married Persons (ed. John Wesley; Christian Library;
London: T. Cordeux, 1821), 12,265. This edition is Wesley's abridgement of A Bride Bush:
Or a Direction for Married Persons (2d expanded ed.; London: B. Alsop, 1623).
37. Ibid.
38. Nicholas Byfield, A Commentary on the Three 1st Chapters of the 1st Epistle General of St,
Peter (London: M. Flesher and R. Young, 1637),600; Rogers, Honour, 178, cf. 164, 177.
39. Robert Cleaver, A Godly Forme of Household Government (London: T. Creede, 1603), 157;
Gouge, Duties, 224, inter alia.
40. Whately, Directions, 265.
41. Rogers, Honour, 177-80. Luther, for contrast, suggested biweekly relations as a guide; see
Steven Ozment, When Fathers Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe (Cambridge, MA;
Harvard University Press, 1983), 119.
42. Bolton, Walking, 384.
43. ' Whately, Directions, 262-63.
44. Cleaver, Godly Form, 158; Rogers, Honour, 179; Samuel Hieron, The Sermons of Master
Samuel Hieron (London: J. Legatt, 1624), 410.
45. Rogers, Honour, 173.
46. Bolton, Walking, 243-44.
47. Hieron, Sermons, 410.
48. Cleaver, Godly Form, 301.
49. ( Whately, Directions, 263, 266.
50: Richard Greenham, The Works of Richard Greenham (London: H.H., 1605),277.
51. Becon, Catechism, 643-50. The text is from a sennon, 'An Homily Against Whoredom.'
52. Rogers, Honour, 327 ff. '
53. Ibid., 344, 351, 348 respectively.
54:' Nicholas Byfield, An Exposition upon the Epistle to the Colossians (London: James Nisbet
and Co., 1868), 359-60 (first published in London, 1615).
55. Gouge, Duties, 219-21.
~6. For example, both Frye and Ryken, on the basis of brief remarks open to different interpre·
tations, claim Whately, who probably had the most negative attitude toward sex, for their
case that the Puritans were liberators. both also quote a statement from Gataker permitting
playful and pleasurable contact betwen couples, but neither cites an equally powerful and
vivid (hence quotable) admonition against lust and license in marriage. I believe Frye,
Stone, and Koehler fell into the first error mentioned. Ryken surely committed the second.
57. For God's judgment of secret acts, see Bolton above (note 46). For marriage at the time of
sexual need, see Gouge, Duties, 564-65.
58. John Bodenham, Politeuphuia or Wits Commonwealth (London: J. Flesher, 1647), 74.