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Image Massachusetts Sex Ways: Puritan Ideas of Flesh and the Spirit

Sex among the Puritans was very far from being puritanical in the popular sense. Copulation was not a taboo subject in seventeenth-century Massachusetts, as it later became in the nineteenth. It was discussed so openly that the writings of the Puritans required heavy editing before they were thought fit to print even in the mid-twentieth century.1 But sex in Massachusetts was distinctly puritanical in another meaning. The sexual attitudes and acts of the Bay colonists were closely linked to religious beliefs. Where controlled regional comparisons can be made by a quantitative method, we find that their sexual behavior was distinctly different from the non-Puritan colonies. At the same time, Massachusetts sex ways were remarkably similar to prevailing customs in East Anglia, as distinct from other parts of England.

The Puritans never encouraged sexual asceticism. They did not value chastity in the Roman Catholic sense as highly as other Christians did. The Boston minister Samuel Willard explicitly condemned “the Popist conceit of the excellency of virginity.” John Cotton wrote that “women are creatures without which there is no comfortable living for man: it is true of them what to be said of governments, that bad ones are better than none.”2

Puritans also commonly believed that an intimate sexual bond between husbands and wives was an important and even a necessary part of marriage. Correspondence between Puritan husbands and wives often expressed their love for one another in strong sensual terms. John Winthrop and his wife Margaret wrote often in this way: “My dearly beloved wife,” he began, “ … my heart is at home, and specially with thee my best beloved … with the sweetest kisses and pure embracings of my kindest affection I rest thine. …”3

Sexual relations within marriage were protected by the Puritans from the prying eyes of others, and surrounded with as much privacy as was possible in that culture. A court in New England indicted a man because “he could not keep from boys and servants, secret passages betwixt him and his wife about the marriage bed.”4

Sex outside of marriage, however, was regarded very differently. The Puritans followed the teachings of the Old Testament in believing that adultery was a sin of the deepest dye. They defined an adulterous act in the conventional way as extramarital sex involving a married woman (not necessarily a married man), but punished both partners with high severity. Their criminal codes made adultery a capital crime, and at least three people were actually hanged for it in the Puritan colonies.

When cases of adultery occurred, it was not uncommon for entire communities to band together and punish the transgressors.5 In the town of Ipswich, Massachusetts, for example, a married woman named Sarah Roe had an affair with a neighbor named Joseph Leigh while her mariner-husband was away at sea. Several townsmen warned them to stop. When they persisted, no fewer than thirty-five Ipswich neighbors went to court against them and gave testimony that communicated a deep sense of moral outrage. In this case, adultery could not be proved according to New England’s stringent rules for capital crime, which required two eye-witnesses to the actual offense. But the erring couple were found guilty of “unlawful familiarity” and severely punished. Joseph Leigh was ordered to be heavily whipped and fined five pounds, and Sarah Roe was sent to the House of Correction for a month, with orders that she was to appear in Ipswich meetinghouse on lecture day bearing a sign, “For My baudish

Carnage,” written in “fair capital letters.” In this case as in so many others, the moral code of Puritan Massachusetts was not imposed by a small elite upon an unwilling people; it rose from customs and beliefs that were broadly shared throughout the Puritan colonies.6

In cases of fornication the rules were also very strict. For an act of coitus with an unwed woman, the criminal laws of Puritan Massachusetts decreed that a man could be jailed, whipped, fined, disfranchised and forced to marry his partner. Even in betrothed couples, sexual intercourse before marriage was regarded as a pollution which had to be purged before they could take its place in society and—most important—before their children could be baptized. In both courts and churches, the Puritans created an elaborate public ritual by which fornicators were cleansed of their sin, so that they could be speedily admitted to full moral fellowship.

In New England, unlike other parts of British America, men and women were punished in an exceptionally even-handed way for sexual transgressions. Where differences appeared in penalties for fornication, males suffered more severely than females in New England. The custom of the Chesapeake colonies was the reverse.7

These rules were obeyed. In Massachusetts during the seventeenth century, rates of prenuptial pregnancy were among the lowest in the Western world. In the towns of Hingham, Sudbury and Concord, the proportion of brides who were pregnant on their wedding day approached zero in the period from 1650 to 1680. This pattern was not universal in New England. Premarital pregnancy was more common in seaports on the social periphery of the region and in the pluralist settlements of Rhode Island. Everywhere it tended to increase during the late seventeenth century. But by comparison with other colonies it remained exceptionally low in most parts of New England during the first fifty years of settlement.8

Bastardy was also very rare in the Puritan colonies. Few cases occurred in the first generation, and were punished with great rigor. As time passed, rates of illegitimacy tended to rise throughout New England, but always remained lower than in other parts of British America.9

This New England pattern, which differed very much from other colonies, was similar to East Anglia in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Historian Peter Laslett and his colleagues find that the eastern counties in general, and the counties of Suffolk and Norfolk in particular, had the lowest rates of illegitimacy in England.10

The sexual discipline of the Puritan colonies was not achieved by Christian asceticism. Relationships between men and women were highly charged with sexual tension in this culture. It was assumed by the courts that if healthy adult men and women were alone together, they would probably be engaged in a sexual relationship. Married men and women were generally forbidden to meet privately with others of the opposite sex, unless related. Unmarried people were carefully watched by the community, and offenders were publicly denounced. When one wayward Puritan attempted to seduce a woman in 1650, she told him, “I will make you a shame to all New England.” Undeterred, he forced himself upon her, even though her child lay beside her in the bed. Afterwards, she told him, “Put your finger but a little in the fire [and] you will not be able to endure it, but I must suffer eternally.”11

Puritan attitudes were almost maniacally hostile to what they regarded as unnatural sex. More than other religious groups, they had a genuine horror of sexual perversion. Masturbation was made a capital crime in the colony of New Haven. Bestiality was punished by death, and that sentence was sometimes executed in circumstances so bizarre as to tell us much about the sex ways of New England. One such case in New Haven involved a one-eyed servant named George Spencer, who had often been on the wrong side of the law, and was suspected of many depravities by his neighbors. When a sow gave birth to a deformed pig which also had one eye, the unfortunate man was accused of bestiality. Under great pressure, he confessed, recanted, confessed again, and recanted once more. The laws of New England made conviction difficult: bestiality was a capital crime and required two witnesses for conviction. But so relentless were the magistrates that the deformed piglet was admitted as one witness, and the recanted confession was accepted as another. George Spencer was hanged for bestiality.

That case was not unique in the sexual history of New Haven. When a second deformed pig was born in that troubled town, another unfortunate eccentric was also accused of bestiality by his neighbors. Even though he could not be convicted under the two-witness rule, he was imprisoned longer than anybody else in the history of the colony. When yet a third defective piglet was born with one red eye and what appeared to be a penis growing out of its head, the magistrates compelled everyone in town to view it in hopes of catching the malefactor. The people of New Haven seem to have been perfectly obsessed by fear of unnatural sex. When a dog belonging to Nicholas Bayly was observed trying to copulate with a sow, neighbors urged that it be killed. Mrs. Bayly refused and incautiously made a joke of it, saying of her dog, “if he had not a bitch, he must have something.” The magistrates of New Haven were not amused. Merely for making light of bestiality, the Baylys were banished from the town.12

Two people were also hanged for bestiality in Massachusetts, and even jests on that subject were punished ferociously in the Bay Colony. Bestiality was also a capital crime in other English jurisdictions, but New England’s intensity of concern was something special.13

This hostility to unnatural sex had a demographic consequence of high importance. Puritan moralists condemned as unnatural any attempt to prevent conception within marriage. This was not a common attitude in world history. Most primitive cultures have practiced some form of contraception, often with high success. Iroquois squaws made diaphragms of birchbark; African slaves used pessaries of elephant dung to prevent pregnancy. European women employed beeswax disks, cabbage leaves, spermicides of lead, whitewash and tar. During the seventeenth and early eighteenth century, coitus interruptus and the use of sheepgut condoms became widespread in Europe.14

But the Puritans would have none of these unnatural practices.

They found a clear rule in Genesis 38, where Onan “spilled his seed upon the ground” in an effort to prevent conception and the Lord slew him. In Massachusetts, seed-spilling in general was known as the “hideous sin of Onanism.” A Puritan could not practice coitus interruptus and keep his faith. Every demographic test of contraception within marriage yields negative results in Puritan Massachusetts.15 The burden of this taboo rested heavily upon families throughout New England. One minister wrote wearily in his diary, “ … uxor praegnans est; sic semper uxoribus.”16 Samuel Sewall, at the age of 49, recorded the birth of his fourteenth child, and added a prayer, “It may be my dear wife may now leave off bearing.” So she did, but only by reaching the age of menopause.17

This general pattern of sexual attitudes—strong encouragement of sexual love and sensual bonds within marriage, strict punishment of fornication and adultery, a maniacal horror of unnatural sex, and rigid taboos against contraception within marriage—was in its totality unique to New England. By and large, this culture was not a system of sexual tyranny and repression. The sex ways of Massachusetts rested upon an intensity of moral and religious purpose which marked so many aspects of this culture.

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