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 that “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.”
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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 This becomes clearer once we are clued into the now-outdated terms by which they customarily referred to sexual intercourse: “matrimonial duty,” “cohabitation,” “act of matrimony,” and (especially) “due benevolence.”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 Bibleto justify and make legitimate the rites of the marriage bed; which was not unneedful, if for all this warrant they were suspected of pollution by some sects of philosophy and religions of old, and latelier among the Papists.
William Ames listed as one of the duties of marriage “mutual communication of bodies.”
So closely linked were the ideas of marriage and sex that the Puritans usually defined marriage partly in terms of sexual union. [William] Perkins defined marriage as “the lawful conjunction of the two married persons; that is, of one man and one woman into one flesh.” Another well-known definition was this: Marriageis a coupling together of two persons into one flesh, according to the ordinance of God. . . . By yoking, joining, or coupling is meant, not only outward dwelling together of the married folks . . . but also an uniform agreement of mind and a common participation of body and goods.
Married sex was not only legitimate in the Puritan view; it was meant to be exuberant. Gouge said that married couples should engage in sex “with good will and delight, willingly, readily, and cheerfully.” An anonymous Puritan claimed that when two are made one by marriage theymay 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.