Love and Marriage Among the Puritans

PilgrimsThe Massachusetts Bay Puritan understanding of marriage was governed by strict laws and customs. Couples were required to publish marriage “banns” – an announcement of their intention at three successive public meetings – or attach a written notice to the meeting house door 14 days before the wedding. They did not consider marriage a religious sacrament, but a civil matter, regulated by the state. The officiant at a wedding was a magistrate, not a minister, a practice that continued until 1686.
Feasting was common after the ceremony, and there was always more than enough cake, rum, and “sack” (fortified wine) to go around. The marriage had to be sexually consummated to be considered valid. If a man was impotent, the marriage was annulled.

Once married, any kind of permanent separation was strictly prohibited. A man who refused to live with his wife was subjected to severe punishment, even flogging. If a man or woman came to the colony and it was discovered they had left a spouse behind in England, they were promptly sent back.

Divorce, though rare, was allowed if it could be proven that either the husband or wife had neglected a fundamental duty. The grounds for divorce included adultery, desertion, and nonsupport by the husband. Massachusetts granted 27 divorces between 1639 and 1692.

ScarletHusbands and wives were not only required to live together, but must do so peacefully. The law forbade them to beat, curse, or quarrel with each other.  Adultery was technically a capital offense, but offenders were executed rarely. More commonly they were fined, whipped, or branded. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter showcases the Puritan practice of public shaming including wearing the letter “A” and on the gallows with a rope around the neck.

Late Summer 061A married Puritan woman gave everything she owned to her husband, and focused on running his household. According to the early Puritan cleric John Cotton, her duties included “to see that nothing be wasted or prodigally spent.” She was completely under her husband’s authority and was expected to be submissive and obedient. She was not allowed to make any important decisions without his knowledge and approval. Husbands were cautioned not to expect too much of their wives, who were viewed as “weaker vessels,” both physically and mentally.

It’s tempting to wonder where love comes into all this. Actually, love was considered central to a Puritan marriage. It was viewed as a duty and an obligation required by God of all who entered a marriage covenant.

However, love was regarded as the product of marriage – not the reason for it. Love was more rational than romantic, and most marriages were arranged. Social rank was more important than affection in deciding who would be a good mate. A proper marriage didn’t start with two people falling in love, but with two people separately deciding it was time to marry and choosing someone suitable.

Contrary to the popular stereotype, the Puritans weren’t prudish, and there’s plenty of evidence that, once married, they thoroughly enjoyed sex and romance. The works of Anne Bradstreet are widely noted as good examples, as is Thomas Hooker’s description of a devoted husband:

“The man whose heart is endeared to the woman he loves, he dreams of her in the night, hath her in his eye and apprehension when he awakes, museth on her as he sits at table, walks with her when he travels and parlies with her in each place where he comes . . .”

What Did the Puritans Have Against the Quakers?

quakersRecently I joined a wonderful book group in Mississippi via Skype and was asked about the differences between the Quakers and the Puritans.  I knew that the Puritans didn’t like the Quakers, and that they persecuted and exiled them from Massachusetts Bay Colony.  But I didn’t know much more than that.  So I did a little digging.

Today Quakers are known as a peaceful people who embrace nonviolence and spiritual principles and who were strong advocates for the abolition of slavery in the 19th century. But in early 17th century New England, they were outlawed, imprisoned, exiled, and sometimes executed.  Why?

Both the Puritans and the Church of England regarded Quakers as “heretics.” In Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Congregational Way (which the Puritans believed was the purified Church of England) was the only legal religion.  Every resident was required to attend Sabbath worship and to pay local taxes to support the minister and church.  Just as in England, it was treasonous to oppose the state religion.

quakers2The Quakers who came to Massachusetts in the 1650’s were as righteous and fanatical as the Puritans.  They knew very well they weren’t coming to a colony where their way of worship would be tolerated.  They were there to make points about their own religion.  And they weren’t quiet about it.  In fact, they were often uncivil and overbearing and not always truthful.  They made a practice of interrupting worship services, and of creating a raucous uproar by yelling and banging pots and pans in the streets.  They shouted people down who didn’t agree with them and humiliated public figures with name-calling and ridicule. Sometimes they even stripped off their clothes in public. The Puritans responded to these outrages with fines, which escalated into more severe punishments, including boring holes in their tongues, whippings, banishments, and even executions.

We condemn the Puritans for their intolerance and persecution of other religious groups, and rightly so.  But the 17th century Quakers weren’t quite the meek and innocent victims they’re portrayed as.  Even Roger Williams, the early proponent of religious freedom who was banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony, was so irritated by Quaker incivility and lack of respect that he considered restricting their liberties. The Quakers were pretty disagreeable at times.  Not so very different from the Puritans themselves.

A Puritan’s Christmas Chronicles

In 17th century New England it was not atheists or secular humanists who declared a “war on Christmas,” but Christians themselves.  As I noted in my 2013 post, “A Long Time Coming,” [], the Puritans reacted to the elements of excess and paganism in Christmas celebrations by shutting it down.  Samuel_Sewall

Samuel Sewall was a Puritan judge and businessman who lived in Boston.  He kept a diary from the age of 22 until his death.  Knowing that the Massachusetts Bay Colony banned the celebration of Christmas from 1659 to 1681, I spent some time looking at his entries for December 25th.  Though his first mention of Christmas comes four years after the ban was lifted, it’s clear that the practice of “Christmas-keeping” continued to be a concern for pious Puritans.  Sewall takes pains to note that shops were open and commerce was vigorous.

Here are his entries (including his 17th century spellings) between 1685 and 1706.  (Some years are missing because he made no entry for December 25th.)

1685   Dec. 25.  Friday.  Carts come to Town and Shops open as is usual.  Some somehow observe the day; but are vexed I believe that the body of the People profane it, and blessed be God no Authority yet to compel them to keep it.  A great Snow fell last night so this day and night very cold.

Dec. 28.  Cous Fissenden here, Saith he came for Skins last Friday and [there] was less Christmas-keeping than last year, fewer Shops Shut up.

Dec. 31.  Mr. Allen preaches from 2 Tim. 2. 19.  Sasith should pray for the Natives that they may name Christ.  Spoke against Observing the 25 Instant, called it Antichristian Heresie: Spokke against the Name.  Canker began in the Tongue.

1686  Satterday, ,Dec 25.  Shops open today and generally and persons about their occasions.  Some, but few, Carts at Town with wood, though the day exceeding fair and pleasant.

1687  Sabbath, Dec. 25.  Have the Lord’s Supper at the South Church, break up about noon, at which time I heard that Mr. Mater was, on Saturday between 1. and 2. PM, Arrested by Larkin, to answer for trespass on Mr. Randolp, 500 £. damage.  Major Richards and Capt. Turell bound.  Just as Morn-Exercise ends Mr. Cotton Mather’s child dies; yet he preaches at Charlestown in the afternoon.

1691   December 25, 1691.  Mr. Moodey takes his journey towards Portsmouth this day.  Cold and Snowy.  Shops open and business carried on as at other times.

1694  Tuesday, Dec. 25.  Shops are open, men at work; Carts of Pork, Hay, Coal, Wood come to Town as on other days.  Mr. Mccarty’s shop is open.

1696  Dec 25, 1696.  We bury our little daughter.  In the chamber, Joseph in course reads Ecclesiastes 3, a time to be born and a time to die – Elisabeth, Rev. 22, Hannah the 38th Psalm.  I speak to each, as God helped, to our mutual comfort I hope.  I order’d Sam. to read the 102 Psalm.  Elisha Cooke, Edw. Hutchinson, John Baily, and Josia Willard bear my little daughter to the Tomb.

1697   Decembr 25.  97.  Snowy day: Shops are open and Carts and sleds come to Town with Wood and Fagots as formerly, save what abatement may be allowed on account of the wether.  This morning we read in course the 14, 15, and 16th Psalms.  From the 4th v. of the 16th Ps. I took occasion to dehort mine from Christmas-keeping and charged them to forbear.

1703  Dec. 26, Sabbath; very sore vehement Storm of Snow; exceeding high Tide, which did much hurt in Cellars and lower Rooms, and carried many Stacks of Hay quite away.  It seems Roxbury Meeting was held at Mr. Walter’s Dwelling-house.  The Christmas keepers had a very pleasant day, Gov and Mr. Dudley at Church, and Mr. Dudley made a pretty large Entertainment after.

1704  Dec 25. Monday, a Storm of Snow, yet many Sleds come to Town, with Wood, Hoops, Coal &c as is usual.

1705  Tuesday, Dec. 25.  Very cold Day but Serene Morning, Sleds, Slays, and Horses pass as usually, and shops open.

1706  Mid-week, Dec. 25.  Shops open, carts come to Town with Wood, Fagots, Hay, and Horses with Provisions, as usually.  I bought me a great Tooth’d Comb at Dwight’s; 6s.

Ten Little-Known Facts about New England Puritans

1. They opposed the use of musical instruments in worship services, especially organs. They believed such music distracted worshipers from their spiritual concentration.

2. A Puritan’s certainty of salvation was a sign he or she was probably damned. Uncertainty about salvation was a core doctrine.

3. Early Puritans were hostile to traditional funeral rituals. The dead were buried quickly and matter-of-factly, without ceremony or mourning.

4. All able-bodied men owed their town several days’ labor on roads each year.

5. Men socialized more often than women did.

6. Clergy did not officiate at weddings; magistrates did. The Puritans did not consider marriage a sacrament.

7. Moderate alcohol consumption was seen as socially beneficial. They drank alcohol regularly at meals.

8. Fishing was their most popular sporting pastime.

9. The Puritans enjoyed playing cards. The most popular card game was whist. They also played cribbage, quadrille, all-fours, and piquet.

10. They believed that married partners should have sex for pleasure. Sexually pleasing one’s spouse was a duty. Impotency was grounds for divorce, and women were expected to have orgasms.

The Puritan Meetinghouse

The iconic spired, white-clapboard churches that overlook the green in so many New England towns bear little resemblance to the first houses of worship erected by the Puritan colonists.  They didn’t call them churches, preferring instead the term “meetinghouse.”  It was a descriptively accurate term,  for they did indeed use the same building for both civil and religious meetings. They were so focused on stripping away everything that reminded them of the Church of England and Roman Catholicism that they even refused to display a cross—the chief symbol of Christianity for centuries.

By Timothy Valentine [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Old Ship Meetinghouse, Hingham, MA, By Timothy Valentine [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

The exterior of a meetinghouse was indistinguishable from the houses that surrounded it.  The first meetinghouse in Haverhill, Massachusetts, was only twenty-six by twenty feet.  As the colony grew, they built larger meetinghouses—square, unpainted wooden buildings.  Sometimes, if the town had enough money, they were topped with a small turret containing a bell.  A prime example of this Puritan architecture is the “Old Ship” meetinghouse in Hingham, Massachusetts.

The meetinghouse was the center of the community, not only spiritually but physically as well. Early colonists were required by law to build their homes within half a mile of the meetinghouse. Though that law was no longer enforced as more and more Puritans migrated to New England, the centrality of the meetinghouse in community life did not change.

Often the top of a hill was the chosen location for the meetinghouse, which served as a watch-house and a landmark.  Sometimes the hill was so steep that horses had to be tethered at the bottom of the hill, requiring congregants to walk up a precipitous path to attend public meeting.  There were no trees in the immediate vicinity, since they had been cut down because of fire danger, so they were usually blazing hot in summer and freezing in winter.

Pulpit - Plimoth Plantation

Pulpit – Plimoth Plantation

People were summoned to the meetinghouse by a beating drum.  Inside they sat on backless benches (box-pews came later) facing an elaborately-carved raised pulpit over which hung a sounding board.  To reach the pulpit, the minister had to climb a flight of narrow stairs.  The pulpit Bible would sit on a cushion of green velvet with long tassels hanging from its corners.

Meetinghouses were not considered sacred.  They were simply places to assemble.  On Sunday, people gathered to hear the word of God.  On town meeting days, they gathered to vote on public issues.  They believed that God’s presence was an all-encompassing experience and could not be separated from ordinary life and relegated to special places and times.  Though their stringent regulations didn’t last, their sober piety had a long-lasting impact on the New England character. This impact is still reflected today in New Englanders’ respect for hard work, community, and pragmatism, as well as their appreciation for unpretentious architecture.





The Praying Towns, Part II

john_elliot_praying_indians3It seemed obvious to English Puritans that Christian natives would need to be “civilized.” Conversion would require them to abandon their nomadic lifestyle and commit to living in permanent villages. They would have to cut their hair in the English manner, and wear English-style clothes. They would be obliged to divide labor along the established English gender lines – men would have to give up hunting and farm the land. The women, who had previously done the bulk of the agricultural work, would be “freed” to practice English housewifery.

The General Court enacted laws to regulate native behavior. They stated that, while it was improper to “compel either by force or by poenall [penal] laws” the Indians to profess Christianity, they couldn’t in good conscience, allow Indians to continue to exhibit certain behaviors they deemed offensive and/or pagan.

Blasphemy was number one on their list – they declared that it would not be tolerated and that any offense would be considered a capital crime, punishable by death. They also outlawed “powwowing” which they saw as the worship of false gods. This was the same as heresy, and subject to severe fines. Natives were required (like the English) to attend public worship on the Lord’s Day, as well as public thanksgiving and fasting days. (There were a lot of fasting days.)

They required that the laws must be read by a court appointee (helped by an interpreter) to all Indians at least once a year. “One or more” magistrates were appointed as circuit court judges whose job it would be to travel from town to town to hear civil and criminal cases and to :carefully endeavor to make the Indians understand our most usefull laws, and those principles of reason, justice, and equity whereupon they are grounded.”

The third praying town, Hassanamesit, was established in 1660, under the following laws:
1. If any man be idle a week, or at most a fortnight, he shall pay five shillings.
2. If any unmarried man shall lie with a young woman unmarried, he shall pay five shillings.
3. If any man shall beat his wife, his hands shall be tied behind him and he shall be carried to the place of justice to be severely punished.
4. Every young man, if not another’s servant, and if unmarried, shall be compelled to set up a wigwam, and plant for himself, and not shift up and down in other wigwams.
5. If any woman shall not have her hair tied up, but hang loose, or be cut as men’s hair, she shall pay five shillings.
6. If any woman shall go with naked breasts, she shall pay two shillings.
7. All men that wear long locks shall pay five shillings.
8. If any shall kill their lice between their teeth, they shall pay five shillings.
These laws likely reflect the behaviors that the English found most repugnant. It’s worth noting how many of them focus on personal grooming.

Of course there’s no way of knowing how many of these laws were actually enforced. The law designated that power to the village sachems, along with the power to make judgments, impose and collect fines.

Could it be that the Puritans were more concerned with how the laws looked “on the books” than how faithfully they were followed?

The Law of the Land


When the Puritans migrated to Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th century, they brought their English legal mindset with them.  Between 1630 and 1700, they enacted hundreds of laws, ordering people’s lives from cradle to grave.  Everything from the proper gait of horses in Boston to the wearing of lace was regulated.  As they saw it, these elaborate rules helped them create an orderly, Christian society.  Today we find many of their laws amusing for their outdated and controlling perspective.  But some are surprisingly progressive in their focus on protecting the weak and less fortunate members of their communities.  Overall, they give us a glimpse into the Puritan mind and help us better understand the society they were trying to build.

Here are just a few, with updated spellings.  (Note: the monetary fines are in British currency; “s” stands for shilling; “d” stands for pence; and £ stands for pound.)

  • No surgeon, midwife, or physician shall practice on any without consent of the person or nearest relation.
  • All persons not worth 200 £ wearing gold or silver lace, or buttons, or bone lace above 2 s. per yard, or silk hoods, or scarves, may be presented by the Grand Jury and shall pay 10 s for every offence.
  • The selectmen of every town may assess those who dress above their rank, at 200 £ estate, and make them pay as those to whom their dress is suitable, except the magistrates, their wives and children, officers, civil or military, soldiers in time of service, or such as had had a high education or are sunk from a higher fortune.
  • All parents to teach their children to read, and all masters to acquaint their families with capital laws on penalty of 20 s., and to catechize them once a week.
  • A son of 16, accused by parents of rebellion and other notorious crimes, shall be put to death.
  • Fornication is to be punished by compelling marriage, fines, or as the Court sees fit.
  • Everyone to fence according to his proportion of the corn-field in common, and not to put in cattle while any corn remains.
  • Every householder has free fishing and fowling in any river, bay, etc., within the precincts of the town where they dwell, so far as the sea ebbs and flows, unless it be appropriated by the Freemen.
  •  No horse to be sold to an Indian, on penalty of 100 £.
  • Any may pass on another’s land, not trespassing on corn or meadow.
  • Whoever publishes a lie to the prejudice of the public, or any private person, pays 10 s or sits in the stocks two hours for the first offense, for the second 20 s. or whipped ten stripes, for the third 40 s. or fifteen stripes.  Every new fault increases 10 s. or five stripes.
  • Lands in the jurisdiction not improved by Indians is the property of the English.
  • None to sell the Indians a boat, skiff, or canoe, on forfeiture of 50 £.
  • No Court can punish with above forty stripes.
  • No man must correct any under him with cruelty, or be cruel to a beast.
  • No dancing in public houses, on penalty of 5 s.
  • No one to gallop a horse in Boston, on penalty of 3 s. 4 d.
  • Married persons must live together, unless the Court of Assistants approve of the cause to the contrary.
  • No work to be done on the Sabbath on penalty of 10 s, for the first offence, to be doubled for every following one.
  • To travel to a Meeting not allowed by law is a profanation of the Sabbath.
  • Witches suffer death.