The Popist Conceit of the Excellency of Virginity

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. 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.”

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. …”

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.”

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. 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.

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.