Were the Puritans Prudes?

Whenever we hear the term “Puritan” we typically get images of cold, repressed, prudish people who didn’t know how to have a good time. In light of yesterday’s review of Real Marriage and what’s sure to be a common complaint that those who are concerned about some content are prudes should know that this is a fairly new phenomenon. Would that we regain the wisdom of the Puritans:

Marital love must be sexual, so that both marital partners can give themselves fully to each other with joy and exuberance in a healthy relationship marked by fidelity. . . . Puritan preachers taught that the Roman Catholic view was unbiblical, even satanic. They cited Paul, who said that the prohibition of marriage is a doctrine of devils (1 Tim. 4:1-3). Even the Puritan definitions of marriage implied the conjugal act. For example, Perkins defines marriage as “the lawful conjunction of the two married persons; that is, of one man and one woman into one flesh.” In contrast with Desiderius Erasmus, who taught that ideal marriage abstained from sexual intercourse, Cotton said in a wedding sermon that those who call for marital abstinence follow the dictates of a blind mind and not those of the Holy Spirit, who says that it is not good that man should be alone. The Puritans viewed sex within marriage as a gift of God and as an essential, enjoyable part of marriage. Gouge says that husbands and wives should cohabit “with good will and delight, willingly, readily, and cheerfully.” “They do err,” adds Perkins, “who hold that the secret coming together of man and wife cannot be without sin unless it be done for the procreation of children.”

Perkins goes on to say that marital sex is a “due debt” or “due benevolence” (1 Cor. 7:3) that a couple owes to one another. That must be shown, he says, “with a singular and entire affection one towards another” in three ways: “First, by the right and lawful use of their bodies or of the marriage bed.” Such physical intimacy by “holy usage” should be “a holy and undefiled action (Heb. 13:4) … sanctified by the word and prayer (1 Tim. 4:3-4).” The fruits of God-honoring, enjoyable sex in marriage are the blessing of children, “the preservation of the body in cleanness,” and the reflection of marriage as a type of the Christ-church relationship. Second, married couples must “cherish one another” intimately (Eph. 5:29) rather than having sex in an impersonal way as an adulterer with a prostitute. Third, a couple should be intimate “by an holy kind of rejoicing and solacing themselves each with [the] other in a mutual declaration of the signs and tokens of love and kindness (Prov. 5:18-19; Songs 1:1; Gen. 26:8; Isa. 62:7).” In this context, Perkins particularly mentions kissing. . . .

The emphasis on romance within marriage (rather than in extramarital relations, as was common in the Middle Ages) has often been attributed to the Puritans. Herbert W. Richardson writes that “the rise of romantic marriage and its validation by the Puritans represents a major innovation within the Christian tradition.” And C. S. Lewis says, “The conversion of courtly love into romantic monogamous love was largely the work of… Puritan poets.”

The Puritans took the matrimonial duty of sex so seriously that failure to extend “due benevolence” by either partner could be grounds for church discipline. There is at least one case on record in which a husband was excommunicated for “neglecting his wife” by not having intercourse with her for a long period of time.

Adapted from Joel R. Beeke, Living for God’s Glory: An Introduction to Calvinism (Kindle Edition)

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  • http://www.boldlion.blogspot.com ‘Guerite ~ BoldLion

    This is a very interesting post to read and how other view what marriage should be. I am still a single woman for Christ.

    Hungry to eat His Word,
    ‘Guerite~BoldLion

  • Simonetta

    I wrote an older post about this – well, not specifically about the Puritans but about different views of modesty in the course of time. 
    http://simonetta-carr.blogspot.com/2009/09/how-puritan-were-puritans.html