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The Puritans and Sex

We all know, don’t we, that the puritans hated sex and considered it to be exceedingly sinful. After all, that is what “puritanical” means, isn’t it? Well . . . maybe not. According to Leland Ryken, that attitude belongs to the Roman Catholics, particularly during the middle ages. Rome taught that sex, although less sinful for some than the alternatives, was always sinful, not in the act itself, but in the driving passions and resulting pleasure. This view was held by no less than our beloved Augustine, who commended married couples who abstained from sex.

The Puritans rejected that attitude wholeheartedly, and made no secret of their opposing view. Ryken writes, “When a New England wife complained, first to her pastor, and then to the whole congregation, that her husband was neglecting their sex life, the church proceeded to excommunicate the man.”


Catholic doctrine had declared virginity superior to marriage; the Puritan reply was that marriage “is a state . . . Far more excellent than the condition of single life.” Many Catholic commentators claimed that sexual intercourse had been the resultof the Fall and did not occur in Paradise; the Puritan comeback was that marriage was ordained by God, “and that not in this sinful world, but in paradise, that most joyful garden of pleasure.”

. . .

Given the Catholic background against which they wrote and preached, the Puritans’ praise of marriage was at the same time an implicit endorsement of marital sex as good. They elaborated that point specifically and often. This becomes clearer once we are clued into the now-outdated terms by which they customarily referred to sexual intercourse: “matrimonial duty,” “cohabitation,” “act of matrimony,” and (especially) “due benevolence.”

Everywhere we turn in Puritan writing on the subject we find sex affirmed as good in principle. [William] Gouge referred to physical union as “one of the most proper and essential acts of marriage.” It was Milton’s opinion that the text “they shall be one flesh” (Gen. 2:24) was included in the Bible

imageto justify and make legitimate the rites of the marriage bed; which was not unneedful, if for all this warrant they were suspected of pollution by some sects of philosophy and religions of old, and latelier among the Papists.

William Ames listed as one of the duties of marriage “mutual communication of bodies.”

So closely linked were the ideas of marriage and sex that the Puritans usually defined marriage partly in terms of sexual union. [William] Perkins defined marriage as “the lawful conjunction of the two married persons; that is, of one man and one woman into one flesh.” Another well-known definition was this: Marriage

is a coupling together of two persons into one flesh, according to the ordinance of God. . . . By yoking, joining, or coupling is meant, not only outward dwelling together of the married folks . . . but also an uniform agreement of mind and a common participation of body and goods.

Married sex was not only legitimate in the Puritan view; it was meant to be exuberant. Gouge said that married couples should engage in sex “with good will and delight, willingly, readily, and cheerfully.” An anonymous Puritan claimed that when two are made one by marriage they

may joyfully give due benevolence one to the other; as two musical instruments rightly fitted do make a most pleasant and sweet harmony in a well tuned consort.

Alexander Niccholes theorized that in marriage “thou not only unitest unto thyself a friend and comfort for society, but also a companion for pleasure.”

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

—Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were (Academie Books, 1986), 42, 43–44.

Posted 2009·09·03 by David Kjos
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Posted in: Alexander Niccholes · Augustine · Church History · Courtship & Marriage · John Milton · Leland Ryken · Papism · William Ames · William Gouge · William Perkins · Worldly Saints
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#1 || 09·09·03··07:11 || Kim in ON

It's rather odd that the Roman Catholic church viewed sex in that way, yet developed such firm positions on birth control.

#2 || 09·09·03··14:38 || David

Yes, the papists are big on don'ts.

Sorry your comment got junked. It must have been the s-word. Darn puritanical spam filter!

#3 || 09·09·03··18:36 || Kim in On

Haha, yes, I caught that. I figured that was what it was. Perhaps I should referred to it as "marital benevolence."

#4 || 09·09·04··07:11 || Mark Olson

You do realize that Paul, not just the Catholic tradition viewed celibacy highly.

#5 || 09·09·04··13:35 || David

   What I realize is that the one statement you're referring to must be taken in its context, as well as interpreted along with the entirety of scripture, with which Paul certainly agreed. Scripture as a whole--and therefore, God--definitely does not elevate celibacy above marriage. Surely you don't want to pit God through Paul (in one passage) against God through the unanimous witness of all biblical authors, including Paul himself?
   Now, if what you mean by "viewed celibacy highly" is that singleness is, for those whom God wills it, as honorable and blessed as marriage for those whom God wills that, then of course, Paul esteemed singleness highly.

#6 || 09·09·08··07:10 || Mark Olson

I'm unclear on how you expect anyone to be able to say anything in response to "scripture taken as a whole", for certainly one could use that as a statement to justify virtually anything.

Look, it wasn't just Paul. Can you name one of the church fathers who didn't teach dispassion and celibacy as praiseworthy? I would claim that "the patristic tradition as a whole" would argue for that. Gregory of Nyssa (a married man) penned a strong homily on celibacy, are you pretending his discussion didn't ground itself in Scripture?

Paul also spoke highly of celibacy within marriage. Jesus spoke of "this sort can only be rid of though prayer and fasting". Do you imagine prayer and fasting should be accompanied with lots of sex for the married faithful as they turn their hearts to God?

#7 || 09·09·08··08:00 || Brendt Waters


Ryken says that it helps us to be "clued into the now-outdated terms" that the Puritans used for, er um, the act that might be censored by your spam filter.

Well, I obviously need a clue on one of those. ;-) Perhaps there's something that Ryken wrote that you didn't quote here or some other familiarity that you have with the subject that might speak to my question.

How does one rectify a quote like Gouge's ("with good will and delight, willingly, readily, and cheerfully") with the term "matrimonial duty"?

I can very easily see how people would have an incorrect view of the Puritans' view of, er um, you know what, based on that one four-letter word.

#8 || 09·09·08··09:26 || David

   Yes, that's true. I'm not sure I can reconcile the apparent conflict. That yielding our bodies for the satisfaction of our spouses is a duty is undeniable (1 Corinthians 7). But it is also a delight, and in a godly marriage, the duty aspect should be unnecessary and all but forgotten. Ryken wrote,

   To regard sex in marriage as a duty was not, however, to make it a joyless thing. William Whately encouraged marriage partners to love each other "with a ardent love" and admonished them that they must not "yield themselves with grudging and frowardness, but readily, and with all demonstrations of hearty affection." [Worldly Saints, 46]
That word "affection" played an enormous part in the Puritan's thinking on marital intimacy. Friendship and fellowship were foundational to the marriage relationship. Spontaneous, joyful intimacy would have been an unavoidable consequence.
   Incidentally, the letters exchanged between John and Abigail Adams are an excellent example of the Puritan idea of marital affection. I don't know Adams's relation to the Puritans, but he fits the mold in many ways, especially this one.

I'd encourage you to read the book. Or, Google Books has a preview here, with pages missing, of course.

#9 || 09·09·08··10:37 || David

   Yes, scripture is often used to prove many things it doesn't. The difference is that I don't have to tear it out of context and twist it around to prove that celibacy is not superior to marriage.
   The patristic tradition is not relevant here. I'm only interested in what the Word of God says about it. You write as though the fathers are equal to scripture, that their tradition must be biblical, as if the biblical character of Gregory's homily must be assumed a priori . Nonsense! Tradition gave us the papacy, the immaculate conception, the perpetual virginity of Mary (what utter foolishness!) and the whole system of Mariolatry and saint worship, and a whole system of heresies. Sola Scriptura is the rule here. My reference to Augustine, with the exclamation point, was to demonstrate that even one whom we Reformed Christians admire can be stupidly wrong, so we'd better be careful about setting men on pedestals. I couldn't care less what "the patristic tradition as a whole" would argue for, if scripture says something else. Now, if you'd asked if I could name any prophets or apostles "who didn't teach dispassion and celibacy as praiseworthy," at least that would have been relevant.
   As for Paul, both of your references refer to exceptional circumstances, demonstrating that abstention is to be exceptional, not normative. That abstention is not spoken of as superior or inferior, only as appropriate under particular circumstances. Paul never "spoke highly of celibacy within marriage." He never spoke of celibacy within marriage at all. Fasting is not starving, nor is temporary abstention celibacy.

#10 || 09·09·08··16:29 || Mark Olson

(one aside, I'm not Roman Catholic, I'm Orthodox and we at least don't hold to the papacy, immaculate conception, or the worship of saints ... and base our idea of the perpetual virginity of Mary on (ahem) Scripture ... but that is getting off topic). As Orthodox, counter to what you would do, where you write "I couldn't care less what 'the patristic tradition as a whole' would argue for, if scripture says something else." this is exactly what we Orthodox indeed do because we also find that what patristic tradition "taken as a whole" suggests is exactly what scripture prescribes.

Why is the patristic tradition not relevant. After all, you get the scriptural canon from the patristic traditions. What I don't get is where you think that the entire monastic tradition with its emphasis on celibacy, from Antony and Cassian for example, is not one which they based on Scripture. I'm not "assuming" their Scriptural basis for their holding their normative practices "a priori" but based on their writing and teaching, which continually uses Scripture to ground its practice.

Furthermore, this can't be right.

As for Paul, both of your references refer to exceptional circumstances, demonstrating that abstention is to be exceptional, not normative.
You forget the era in which this was written. Certainly you would agree that celibacy is what is upheld as normative for the unmarried in the Christian tradition. Yet, being unmarried in the society of the early church, especially one which (following Scripture you'll note) looked down on second (and more) marriages. Lifespans were short and childbirth was a leading cause of death for women. It would be rare that both husband and wife survive to old age together ... what, if not celibacy, would be normative?

#11 || 09·09·08··19:04 || David

Since you claim to agree with the patristic tradition because it agrees with scripture, then you're not really going counter to my statement dismissing tradition "if scripture says something else," are you? We just disagree about what scripture says. So, if the fathers could really argue the superiority of celibacy from scripture, you should be able to do the same.

Now, on to what is normative.

When I referred to "both of your references," I was thinking you had referred to 1 Corinthians 7:5. I can't now see where you did that, so I must have read it into your words myself because that's what I would have cited. Anyway, it should be obvious from that passage that abstinence is not to be normative in marriage, and is in fact, under normal circumstances, sinful.
   Concerning the reference you did make (the only reference to scripture I can find in your comments), Matthew 17:21, cf. Mark 9:29 (and I'm not even going to bring up the textual problems with the inclusion of "and fasting" in Mark, and the whole passage in Matthew), I have to wonder how you can be serious! The 1 Corinthians passage is at least on topic. So please explain how a passage on demon possession teaches us anything about normative marital relations.
   Finally, you can't seriously be equating celibate widowhood with celibacy within marriage. A widow isn't married anymore. So, for widows, "what, if not celibacy, would be normative?" Well, as Paul would say, "I want younger widows to get married" (1 Timothy 5:11-16).

#12 || 09·09·08··21:56 || Mark Olson


So, if the fathers could really argue the superiority of celibacy from scripture, you should be able to do the same.
Hmm. Newton famously said, "If I have been able to see further than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants." This is why we read the patristic writings and look to the practices of the first centuries for they had not only Scripture but were far closer to the living example of those who were taught directly by those prophets and apostles ... and those whom we cite as the patristic writers were (for us) those giants (and I daresay this is why a Reformed Christian might read the Institutes and not just Scripture alone). Why would you expect that I might defend celibacy better than the likes of John Cassian, Ephraim the Syrian, and Gregory of Nyssa, on that claim I will demur. Or ... are you speaking from ignorance and have not even read any of their writings? It certainly feels that way. I would recommend you read the Gregory of Nyssa treatise (you can find it here).

I haven't been a Christian for long enough (about 5 years) to be facile enough at quoting Scripture as you seem to. Yet, I'll offer one example. John the Baptist is called in Orthodox tradition, the forerunner. He is seen as the greatest and highest (if you will) of the prophets, for he got to proclaim and baptise the one toward whom all the previous prophets hinted and pointed. He was celibate and much in the vein of the later desert monastics. Why do you consider his example not one of a higher calling?

You are also ignoring (or disregarding) the elephant in the room. For 1400 years until the Reformation, celibacy was seen as a higher calling by every Christian. Suddenly it is claimed that is all wrong, calling into question about a millennia and a half of praxis. It seems like the burden of proof lies on your shoulders (unless you think that it took 1400 years for Christians to take Scripture seriously, in which case I'll suggest you actually read some of those early Christians and you'll find that's certainly not the case).

I (and Orthodoxy as I understand it) agree with you that sex within marriage is very good. I'm not disputing that. But, in your words, celibacy is exceptional. I take this in both meanings of the word, i.e., rare and laudable. It isn't "normative" in the sense that every person is expected to strive for that as a personal goal. It is a heroic undertaking.

As for second and third marriages, did not Jesus offer that re-marriage was ordained because of our "hardness of heart" (Matthew 19). Are you suggesting this is laudable?

Finally, you can't seriously be equating celibate widowhood with celibacy within marriage.
You cited celibacy as not normative. I noted it only to point out that is normal and the ordinary and that marriage was the ordinary, hence celibacy was not as extraordinary as you claim. This is not the case in today's society, where married life is (and I think remains) dominant largely because of medical advances.

I had thought my last comment was rejected ... and have written about this as well on my blog.

#13 || 09·09·09··18:58 || David

I seldom reject comments. As long as commenters are serious, reasonably civil, and not spouting damnable heresy (e.g., anti-trinitarianism), I publish. This topic just brings out words that my spam filter doesn’t like, and rather than adjust the filter and invite filth, I’m just dealing with the inconvenience as it comes. I also try to respond at least until I think there’s nothing more to be said, but that takes time, too, so you’ll have to be patient on that count as well. I’ll come back to this as soon as I can.

#14 || 09·09·09··21:19 || Mark Olson

As I noted on my blog, I think a better place to start to try to unpack this is not at celibacy but apathaeia (dispassion). For my part, I'm going to try to unpack the many arguments for dispassion from my knowledge of patristic writings. Once you've accepted dispassion as being Scripturally based ... celibacy comes as a corollary.

You're in my feed. I'll am looking forward to future correspondence. :)

#15 || 09·09·10··19:37 || David

   I've read a very little of the Apostolic Fathers and Augustine. Beyond that, I've read nothing of the Early Church Fathers. I stand on the shoulders of giants, too; but my giants don't stand between me and God's Word. I try never to read opinions about scripture without first studying the passage myself. And then, when I've read (or heard) the opinions, I try to do what Luke called "noble": search the scriptures "to see whether these things were so" (Acts 17:10-11). Much as I love the Reformers, Puritans, and some contemporary teachers, they are fallible, and just flat wrong at times. I need to be able to say xyz is true because God said so, not because some mortal men said so, because those men, no matter how intelligent, wise, and pious, are still only fallible men.
   I will take up the challenge to read Gregory's treatise when I can, but man, that thing is long! In the mean time, I'll try to answer your last comment as fully as possible.

On The Baptizer's example:
   John the Baptist is indeed the forerunner, and called the greatest of prophets. He was called to be a Nazarite, and so also never drank wine or cut his hair. Beyond that, he also wore camel's hair and ate locusts. Consider also Hosea, commanded to marry a prostitute, or Ezekiel, instructed to cook his food over a fire fueled by human waste. How far are we to go in imitating these men? Or can we gather that the unusual things they were given to do served a purpose and were not intended to be imitated?

On the elephant in the room:
   I disagree that celibacy was seen as a higher calling by every Christian until the Reformation. It took the church 1500 years to degenerate to the condition it was in at the time of the Reformation. Luther was not overturning first century Christianity; he was calling an apostate church back to it. If we want to know what first century Christians believed, we need go no further than to the original Fathers (the Apostles), and the New Testament. They, after all, are the only ones who wrote the very words of God.

On the exceptional nature of celibacy:
   Here you keep mixing involuntary singleness (widowhood) with intentional celibacy. And celibacy is heroic? I hardly think so. I'd be interested in any scripture passage that says so. The closest it comes, I think, is Matthew 19:12, which says some can or must (live unmarried), some can't. If you can, do it, if you can't, don't. There is no call to singleness or praise for those who are.
   As for the statistics on marriage vs. singleness in New Testament days, I really wouldn't know. What I call uncommon is the call to singleness, not the occurrence thereof.

On remarriage:
   Divorce was allowed due to hardness of heart (Matthew 19:7:8). Remarriage of widows was expected (Matthew 22:23-30). Refusing to fulfill his responsibility to his brother's widow is what got Onan in trouble (Genesis 38:8-10). And need I repeat 1 Timothy 5:14?

There is more to be said about this, particularly concerning "dispassion" (I think your priest is seriously wrong on that, and am saddened to think anyone is taking his words to heart), but it's getting late, I'm tired, and, not being celibate, have children yelling in the background.

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