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Image Massachusetts Family Ways: The Puritan Idea of the Covenanted Family

The builders of the Bay Colony also created special forms of family life which were as distinctive as their speech and architecture. The Puritans were deeply self-conscious in their familial acts. They wrote at length about the family, in a literature of prescription which was remarkably consistent with actual conditions in their households.1

The people of Massachusetts thought of the family not as an end in itself, but as an instrument of their highest religious purposes.

The Puritan writer Jonathan Mitchell declared, “a Christian may and ought to desire many things as means, but God alone as his end.”2 This was their way of thinking about the family in particular, which was also described as “the root whence church and commonwealth cometh.”3

Concern for the family in this culture was also given a special intensity by an attitude which historian Edmund Morgan calls “Puritan tribalism,” that is, the Hebraic idea that the founders of New England were God’s chosen people. The Puritans were encouraged by their ministers to think of themselves as “the saints,” and to believe that grace descended to their children. John Cotton explained this process in explicitly genealogical terms: “The Covenant of God is, I will be thy God, and the God of thy seed after thee” he wrote.4 The Puritan minister William Stoughton went even farther. He prophesied, “ …the books that shall be opened at the last day will contain Genealogies among them. There shall be brought forth a Register of the Genealogies of New-England’s sons and daughters.’”5

This obsession with family and genealogy became an enduring part of New England’s culture. Two centuries after the great migration, Harriet Beecher Stowe observed:

among the peculiarly English ideas which the Colonists brought to Massachusetts, which all the wear and tear of democracy have not been able to obliterate, was that of family. Family feeling, family pride, family hope and fear and desire, were, in my early day, strongly-marked traits. Genealogy was a thing at the tip of every person’s tongue, and in every person’s mind. … “Of a very respectable family,” was a sentence so often repeated at the old fireside that its influence went in part to make up my character.6

New England’s interest in genealogy was not the same as that of high-born families in England or Virginia. It was not a pride in rank and quarterings, but a moral and religious idea that developed directly from the Puritan principles of the founders.

Puritan ideas also had an impact on New England’s family ways in yet another way. The builders of the Bay Colony cast their idea of the family in terms of the covenant theology which was so central to their faith. They believed that God’s covenant with each individual Christian was enlarged into another sort of contract which they called the family covenant. John Cotton explained, “God hath made a covenant with parents and householders,” which bound them not only on their own account, but also in regard to “wives, and children, and servants, and kindred, and acquaintances, and all that are under our reach, either by way of subordination, or coordination.”7

Thus, the covenanted family became a complex web of mutual obligations between husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and servants. The clarity of this contractual idea, the rigor of its enforcement and especially the urgency of its spiritual purpose, set New England Puritans apart from other people—even from other Calvinists—in the Western world.8

Like most of their contemporaries, the Puritans thought of the family as a concentric set of nuclear and extended rings. But within that conventional idea, they gave special importance to the innermost nuclear ring. Strong quantitative evidence of this attitude appeared in their uniquely nuclear naming customs. As we shall see below, the Puritans of Massachusetts gave high priority to the descent of names from parents to children within the nuclear family. This naming strategy was unique to the Puritans, and very different from other cultures in British America.9

Similar tendencies also appeared in customs of inheritance, which were more nuclear in New England than in other American colonies during the seventeenth century. One study of 168 wills in Newbury, Massachusetts, for example, found that only 6.5 percent left bequests to a niece or nephew, and 3.0 percent to other kin. None whatever bequeathed property to a cousin—a pattern different from the Chesapeake colonies.10

The same nuclear pattern also appeared in the composition of households. By comparison with other colonies, households throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut included large numbers of children, small numbers of servants and high proportions of intact marital unions. In Waltham, Massachusetts, for example, completed marriages formed in the 1730s produced 9.7 children on the average. These Waltham families were the largest that demographic historians have found anywhere in the Western world, except for a few Christian communes which regarded reproduction as a form of worship. But they were not unique. In many other New England towns fertility rates rose nearly as high, and the number of children was larger than French demographer Louis Henry defined as the biological maximum in a normal population.11

The number of servants in New England, however, was very small—less than one per family. At any given time, most households in this region had no servants at all—a pattern very different from the Chesapeake and Delaware colonies. In short, the New England household more closely coincided with the nuclear unit, and the nuclear family was larger and stronger than elsewhere in the Western world.

The strength of the nuclear unit was merely one of many special features of New England families. Another was a strong sense of collective responsibility for maintaining its individual integrity. The people of the Bay Colony worked through many institutions to preserve what they called “family order” and “family government” within each nuclear unit. Other cultures also shared these concerns, but once again Puritan New England did things in its own way, with a special intensity of purpose. The selectmen and constables of each town were required by law to inspect families on a regular basis. Where “good order” broke down within a household, their task was to restore it. In nuclear families that were persistently “disorderly”—a word that covered a multitude of misdeeds—the selectmen were required to remove the children and servants and place them in other homes. Thus, in 1675, Robert Styles of Dorchester was presented for many sins, and ordered to “put forth his children, or otherwise the selectmen are hereby empowered to do it, according to law.”12

In the second generation, responsibility for inspecting families passed from selectmen to special town officers called tithingmen. A statute in 1675 ordered that each tithingman “shall take charge of ten or Twelve families of his Neighborhood, and shall diligently inspect them.” This office did not exist in Anglican Virginia or Quaker Pennsylvania. But it was not a New England innovation. Tithingmen had long existed as parish functionaries in East Anglia and other parts of England. Here again an old English custom was taken over by the Puritans and given a new intensity of purpose.13

So important was the idea of a covenanted family in Massachusetts that everyone was compelled by law to live in family groups. As early as 1629 the Governor and Deputies of the colony ordered that:

For the better accommodation of businesses, we have divided the servants belonging to the Company into several families, as we desire and intend they should live together. … Our earnest desire is, that you take special care, in settling these families, that the chief in the family (at least some of them) be grounded in religion; whereby morning and evening family duties may be duly performed, and a watchful eye held over all in each family … that so disorders may be prevented, and ill weeds nipped before they take too great a head.

The provinces of Connecticut and Plymouth also forbade any single person to “live of himself.”14

These laws were enforced. In 1668 the court of Middlesex County, Massachusetts, systematically searched its towns for single persons and placed them in families.15 In 1672 the Essex County Court noted:

Being informed that John Littleale of Haverhill lay in a house by himself contrary to the law of the country, whereby he is subject to much sin and iniquity, which ordinarily are the companions and consequences of a solitary life, it was ordered … he remove and settle himself in some orderly family in the town, and be subject to the orderly rules of family government.

One stubborn loner, John Littleale, was given six weeks to comply, on pain of being sent to “settle himself in the House of Correction.16

This custom was not invented in New England. It had long been practiced in East Anglia. From as early as 1562 to the midseventeenth century, The High Constables’ Sessions and Quarter Courts of Essex County in England had taken similar action against “single men,” “bachelors,” and “masterless men.” The Puritans took over this custom and endowed it with the spiritual intensity of their faith.17

Family order was an hierarchical idea to the people of the Bay Colony. In that belief they were typical of their age. But the structure of that hierarchy had a special cast in their thinking. In Puritan New England, the family hierarchy had more to do with age, and less with gender and rank, than in other English-speaking cultures. The evidence appears not only in prescriptive literature, but also in the ordering of daily functions such as eating and sleeping. Families in Massachusetts did not dine together. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich discovered that in New England “servants and children … sat down to eat after their master and mistress.” This, as we shall discover, differed from table customs in other Anglo-American cultures.18

The same hierarchy of ages also appeared in sleeping arrangements. Adults and heads of families slept on the ground floor in rooms called the parlor or principal chamber. Children commonly slept in upstairs, in lofts or low rooms. Architectural historians find that this arrangement was typical of East Anglia, but not of other regions in England. “In East Anglia,” writes Abbott Cummings, “the sleeping arrangements for adults were confined almost entirely to the ground floor.” Cummings discovered that in the west of England, adults and children slept in upstairs chambers, but “by the early seventeenth century, in southeastern England at least, the parlor had become the principal ground floor sleeping room and this continues to be its chief function in Massachusetts as reflected in inventories for houses with a plan of two or more rooms … the ground floor parlor remained the master bedroom for the head of the family into the eighteenth and even in some cases into the nineteenth century in some rural areas.”19

This hierarchy of age within the family was written into the laws of Massachusetts, which in 1648 required the death penalty as a punishment for stubborn or rebellious sons over the age of sixteen who refused to obey either their father or mother. The same punishment was also provided for children who struck or cursed their parents. No child was ever executed under this law, but several were fined or whipped by the courts for being rude or abusive to their parents. Some of these errant “children” were in their forties, and their parents were of advanced age.20

At the same time, other laws ordered that younger children who were “rude, stubborn and unruly” and could not be kept in subjection by their parents, should be removed and placed under a master who would “force them to submit to government.”21

The intensity of these Puritan beliefs in the covenanted family as an instrument of larger purposes, and in the instrumental family as primarily a nuclear unit, and also in the nuclear family as a hierarchy of age all distinguished the family customs of New England from other cultures in British America. The Puritans also developed these ideas in elaborate detail, with regard to relations between husband and wife, children and elders, marriage and divorce, sex and death.

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