Christian Hedonists or Religious Prudes? The Puritans on Sex

Desiring God 2004 National Conference | Minneapolis


Puritan Stereotypes

What would the Puritans of the seventeenth century think of the new and sensuous Saab 500 coupe? A recent Saab radio commercial considered this matter. “The seventeenth-century New England Puritans,” the deep, velvety voice begins, “were people who devoted their entire lives to work and prayer. They would not have approved of the sensual beauty of the new Saab 500 coupe. The Puritans believed that to have fun was a sin. There was no place in their lives for the pleasure and luxury of a new Saab convertible. For the Puritans, the only reason for living was to sacrifice and prepare for an eternity of holy peace. Aren’t you glad you’re not a Puritan? See your nearest Saab dealer.”

If that is what the Puritans thought about the Saab, we can only imagine what they must have thought about sex. The two words “Puritans” and “sex” almost seem shocking in the same sentence, unless of course one is referring to a “puritanical suppression of sex.” That much we can understand, at least if our understanding of the Puritans is anything like the Saab advertiser’s.

Two of the most commonly asked questions today about the Puritans are, “What ever happened to them?” and “What did they think about sex?” I don’t know if anyone has ever put together their apparent extinction and their reputed prudishness, but the Puritans are certainly viewed as the archetypical religious prudes. Somehow they garnered a reputation for legalism and pleasure-hating that has followed them through the ages. Kenneth Hare wrote that,

The Puritan through life’s sweet garden goes 
To pluck the thorn, and cast away the rose;
And hopes to please, by this peculiar whim, 
The God who fashioned it and gave it him.

(Cited in J.I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness [Crossway, 1990], 259)

Nineteenth-century historian Thomas Macaulay wrote in his History of England that “The Puritan hated bear-baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators” (Macaulay, History of England from the Ascension of James II, [Lippincott, 1879], chapter 3). Early twentieth-century journalist H.L. Mencken said that “Puritanism” was “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy” (Mencken, A Mencken Chrestomathy [Vintage, 1982], 624). And contemporary radio personality Garrison Keillor has continued the tradition by telling us that the Puritans “arrived here in 1648 in the hope of finding greater restrictions than were permissible under English law at that time” (Keillor, Garrison Keillor and the Hopeful Gospel Quartet (CD) [Epic Records, 1992]).

Is there not a reason so many commentators have described the Puritans this way? After all, couldn’t you be fined or placed in the stocks if you kissed your wife in public in colonial Massachusetts? Surely the Puritans were puritanical when it came to sex.

Our Situation Today

We look to the past for wisdom because times change. In God’s providence we live in a day that is challenging for Christians. Every era in a fallen world is challenging, but some eras have respected and reinforced the basic principles of Christian morality more than is the case today. Even in the last fifty years, Christian ideals of sexuality have been eroded by divorce, contraception, abortion, increased levels of cohabitation, higher rates of illegitimacy, and the legitimization of homosexual relationships.

The shame, shock, disgrace, and danger once associated with fornication and adultery have declined. Marriage itself is decreasingly associated with sexual activity. Singleness, in fact, is often viewed as the period for sexual activity and the time to “sow one’s wild oats.” In fact, if we are honest, marriage these days is not viewed as the permanent introduction to sex, but as the temporary limitation of it!

In the pornographic pop hit song “The Bad Touch,” the European group Bloodhound Gang thumps out the refrain, “You and me baby ain’t nothin’ but mammals, so let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel.” In our society people create desires and associate fulfillment with the product they sell. Today people sell sex, and everything else by it. Perhaps we should sing instead, “You and me baby ain’t nothin’ but money, for people and comp’nies that want to sell us their honey.”

“Marriage these days is not viewed as the permanent introduction to sex, but as the temporary limitation of it!”

In a time marked by the rapid dissolution of a Christian understanding of sex, what do the Puritans have to teach us?

The Background of the Reformation

The Roman Catholic Tradition

The Protestant Reformation began against the backdrop of a Roman Catholic church that valued virginity above marriage. Prudery very much characterized the Roman Catholic disposition toward sex. Many in the Roman church believed you could not have sex without sinning, even with your spouse. So Aquinas wrote, “It would seem that impotence is not an impediment to marriage. For carnal copulation is not essential to marriage, since marriage is more perfect when both parties observe continency by vow” (Aquinas, Summa Theologia, supplement, question 58, article 1, objection 1).

In consequence, Roman Catholic theologians suggested abstinence “on Thursday in memory of Christ’s arrest, on Friday in memory of his death, on Saturday in honour of the Virgin Mary, on Sunday in honour of the Resurrection and on Monday in commemoration of the departed” (Derrick S. Bailey, Sexual Relation in Christian Thought [Harper & Brothers, 1959], 13). Their message was clear: sex is shameful; virginity is best.

The Lutheran Revolution

Luther reversed the emphasis. He said that clerical celibacy was a disaster. Apparently, in Luther’s day cardinals who limited themselves to women were championed as saints. Neither parents nor the pope could forbid marriage, Luther said, any more than they could rightly forbid eating and drinking. He stressed 1 Corinthians 7:2 and marriage’s purpose in protecting against immorality, more than its purpose in procreation.

Overall, Luther had a positive outlook on marriage, though he said some things that have cast doubt on his reputation for enjoying life with gusto. He once said, “The reproduction of mankind is a great marvel and mystery. Had God consulted me in the matter, I should have advised him to continue the generation of the species by fashioning them of clay.” Luther was also realistic about the challenges of marriage. He wrote, “Good God, what a lot of vexation there is in marriage! Adam has made a muck of our nature. Think of all the rows Adam and Eve must have had in the course of their nine hundred years. Eve would say ‘You ate the apple,’ and Adam would reply, ‘You gave it to me.’”

The Situation in the World of the Puritans

The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries knew much immorality, as can be seen in everything from court records to Shakespeare’s plays, from surviving songs to the lewd books sold on the streets. The Puritan view of sex, in part, was informed by a desire to protect it from such widespread spoil and debauchery. Allen Carden writes, “The Puritans put strict biblical parameters around sex because they valued it, not because they were embarrassed by it or opposed to it” (Carden, Puritan Christianity in America: Religion and Life in Seventeenth-Century Massachusetts [Baker, 1990], 219). The Puritan minister Richard Baxter warned: “Take heed of ribald filthy talk, and Love Songs, and of such incensing snares” (Baxter, Christian Directory [Robert White, 1673], 272). And, “Take heed of a delight in Romances, Play-books, feigned stories, useless news, which corrupt the mind, and waste your time” (Ibid.).

The Puritan Practice of Marriage

Some famous Puritan ministers avoided marriage altogether, like John Knewstub of Cockfield, Suffolk, who maintained that he was content being single. His disciple Richard Sibbes also never married. But most married, and many married again when a spouse died. The Puritans preferred to be married. One Puritan widow remarried within twenty-four hours of her husband’s demise (Cited in John Adair, Founding Fathers: The Puritans in England and America [1982; Baker, 1986], 268). Looking in on a few of the well-known figures from this period can give some idea of what life was like. Probably the Puritans were all aware of the example of Martin Luther.

At age forty-two, Luther married for the first time. He married Katherine von Bora, age twenty-six, in 1525. William Chaderton, bishop of Chester, married off his only daughter Joan, age nine, to a boy of eleven. At age thirty-five, John Milton (1608–1674) married for the first time. He married Mary Powell, a young girl of seventeen, who deserted him within a month and returned home. A few years later, Mary rejoined him, bore him three daughters, and died in 1652. Milton’s second wife died in childbirth. Four years later Milton married Catherine Woodcock. Catherine also died in childbirth.

In 1662 Richard Baxter married Margaret Charlton, who was twenty-one years younger than he. They were married for nineteen years, until Margaret died in 1681. Margaret discovered that Richard had an impatient temper and a sharp tongue (which surprises no one who has read his books). Thomas Goodwin married his second wife when he was fifty years old and she was sixteen. John Owen had eleven children by his first marriage, all of whom died young except one daughter (James W. Bruce III, From Grief to Glory [Crossway, 2002], 86-87). In short, marriage was a common part of the Puritans’ lives.

Puritans were plain people in their lives and in their ceremonies. In 1656, the justice of the peace at Woolwich asked Sir James Halkett if he intended to marry Anne Murray. He answered “yes.” The justice then asked Anne Murray if she intended to marry Sir James Halkett.

She also answered “yes.” The justice concluded, “I pronounce you man and wife” (Adair, Founding Fathers, 225). The plain gold ring was a Puritan-inspired modification from the more elaborate rings that were common before the 1650s. Many Puritans wore none at all. Plainness could adorn even the joys of marriage.

Finding a Wife or Husband

While the idea of marrying for romantic love was present in the seventeenth century, the Puritans typically did not do so. In our day, we think that if a couple falls in love, they should marry; if they do not fall in love, they should not marry; and if they fall out of love once married, they should divorce. Normally, a Puritan decided first that it was time to marry, even though no potential spouse was firmly fixed in mind. With this goal in mind, a Puritan man would then seek out a partner who met certain, generally biblical criteria. He did not simply wait to be smitten by the first woman who made his stomach flutter and his head dizzy and then decide to act. Once married, he would then bend his purposes toward loving his wife entirely. Edmund Morgan put it this way:

Puritan love . . . was not so much the cause as it was the product of marriage. It was the chief duty of husband and wife toward each other, but it did not necessarily form a sufficient reason for marriage. . . . The advice was not that couples should not marry unless they love each other but that they should not marry unless they can love each other. (Morgan, The Puritan Family: Religion and Domestic Relations in Seventeenth-Century New England [1944; Harper & Row, 1966], 54)

London Puritan preacher Richard Steele (1629–1692) expressed it pithily: “Do not first love, and then consider; but first consider, and then love” (Steele, “What Are the Duties of Husband and Wife Toward Each Other?” in Puritan Sermons 1659–1689, [1674; Richard Owen Roberts, 1981], 2:200).

Puritan Thoughts on Marriage and Sex

Reading Puritan sermons — from Richard Sibbes to Jonathan Edwards — we find much “affectionate” language of heart, beauty, and love. And they wrote at length about marriage, but without ever explicitly mentioning its sexual aspects, or if mentioning it, doing so briefly by maintaining that the marriage bed is honorable (see Hebrews 13:4) and perhaps by giving a glancing blow to Rome’s wrong exaltation of virginity and denigration of marriage. One might expect to find such remarks in their sermons on the Song of Solomon, which was a favorite Puritan book. But they uniformly interpreted the book as pertaining to Christ and the church. They preached it often, but only as allegory.

When Puritans do mention marriage, their comments are warm, even sweet. Thomas Gataker (1574–1654) wrote, “There is no society more near, more entire, more needful, more kindly, more delightful, more comfortable, more constant, more continual, than the society of a man and wife, the main root, source, and original of all other societies” (Cited by Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were [Zondervan, 1986], 42).

Over against the traditional Roman Catholic vilification of women as snares, John Cotton (1584–1652) wrote, “Women are creatures without which there is no comfortable living for man. . . . They [referring to the Roman Catholics] are a sort of blasphemers then who despise and decry them, and call them a necessary evil, for they are a necessary good” (Cited in ibid., 52). Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658) wrote to his daughter Bridget: “Dear heart, let not thy love for thy spouse in any way cool thy desire for Christ. That which is most lovable in thy spouse is the image of Christ in him. Look to this and love it most and everything else for this” (Cited by Roland Bainton, Sex, Love, and Marriage: A Christian Survey [Fontana, 1957], 99).

“Do not first love, and then consider; but first consider, and then love.” –Richard Steele

Cotton Mather (1663–1728) called his second wife “a most lovely creature and such a gift of Heaven to me and mine that the sense thereof . . . dissolves me into tears of joy” (Cited in Ryken, Worldly Saints, 39). Jonathan Edwards’s (1703–1758) last words were of his wife Sarah: “Give my kindest love to my dear wife, and tell her that the uncommon union which has so long subsisted between us has been of such a nature as I trust is spiritual and therefore will continue forever” (Sereno E. Dwight, “Memoirs of Jonathan Edwards,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, [1834; reprint, Banner of Truth], 1974). These are typical Puritan attitudes toward sex and marriage.

Romance Among the Puritans in the Seventeenth Century

At Colworth Church in Bedfordshire, there is a monument erected in 1641 to Sir William Dyer and his wife Katherine. He died first, and carved upon his monument are several lines of verse written by his widow Katherine to him:

My dearest dust, could not thy hasty day 
Afford thy drowszy patience leave to stay 
One hower longer: so that we might either 
Sate up, or gone to bedd together?
But since thy finisht labour hath possest 
Thy weary limbs with early rest,
Enjoy it sweetly: and thy widdowe bride 
Shall soone repose her by thy slumbring side. 
Whose business, now, is only to prepare
My nightly dress, and call to prayer:
Mine eyes wax heavy and ye day growes cold. 
Draw, draw ye closed curtaynes: and make roome: 
My dear, my dearest dust; I come, I come.

(Cited in Adair, Founding Fathers, 259)

Tenacity and tenderness clearly went together in Puritan views not only of divine love but of marital love as well.

Sexual Sin

The Sexual Sin of Wrongful Indulgence

For all of their affirmation of marriage and the sexual nature, much of what the Puritans said about sex was negative. “Toward sexual intercourse outside marriage the Puritans were as frankly hostile as they were favorable to it in marriage” (Edmund S. Morgan, “The Puritans and Sex,” The New England Quarterly [December 1942] 594). There was a lot to declare sinful in the seventeenth century. Edmund Morgan, after extensively researching seventeenth-century New England court records, concluded, “Illicit sexual intercourse was fairly common” (Ibid., 596). And it vexed and mystified Puritan ministers in old and New England why sexual sin should be so prevalent.

John Flavel (1630–1691) marveled, “It is a matter of just admiration, how the sin of uncleanness should grow so epidemical and common as it doth. . . . And yet for all this, to the amazement of all serious observers, never was any age more infamous for this sin, than the present age is; and that under the clear shining light of the gospel” (Flavel, The Reasonableness of Personal Reformation and the Necessity of Conversion, in The Works of John Flavel, [1820; Banner of Truth, 1968], 6:515).

Flavel assumed his age was particularly “unclean” for four reasons: first, the bad examples of great men; second, the near inevitability which comes when individuals are neither able to contain themselves nor marry (much like our own day, and the too-frequent delay of marriage); third, the absence of lawful remedies and the presence of temptations, as with soldiers and seamen; and fourth, decreasing levels of shame surrounding sexual sin due to its commonness (Flavel, The Reasonableness of Personal Reformation, 515-519). With regard to the second point above, it is possible that indentured servitude and artisan apprenticeships, central aspects of the social structure in seventeenth-century old and New England, virtually forbade marriage to young men of all but the most wealthy families.

Jonathan Edwards also believed society was experiencing a moral decline:

The land is vastly corrupted as to this sin within this few years. Young people take more and more of a licentious liberty in their keeping company. . . . And there is not that discountenance of such things as there formerly used to be. It is not now such a discredit; ’tis not accounted such a blot and disgrace to a person. . . . I believe there is not a country in the Christian world, however debauched and vicious, where parents indulge their children in such liberties in company-keeping as they do in this country. (Edwards, “Sin and Wickedness Bring Calamity and Misery on a People,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Sermons and Discourses 1723–1729, [Yale University Press, 1997], 502)

The Sexual Sin of Wrongful Abstinence

On the other hand, one of the most famous facts about the Puritans is that they worked to encourage, and even enforce, sexual relations between spouses. So, “If a husband deserted his wife and remained within the jurisdiction of a Puritan government, he was promptly sent back to her” (Morgan, “Puritans and Sex,” 604). Over sixty years ago, Edmund Morgan’s research unearthed a case in the First Church of Boston where James Mattock was excommunicated because “he denyed Coniugall fellowship unto his wife for the space of 2 years together upon pretense of taking Revenge upon himself for his abusing of her before marriage” (Cited by Morgan, “Puritans and Sex,” 593). Either for engaging in sex with the wrong person, or for engaging too little with the right person, sex was regarded as a matter easily beset by sin.

Their Theology of Sexual Sin

The Puritans were not naïve. They knew that not all pleasures are good. They had read Jesus’ interpretation of the parable of the sower and the seed, where he mentions that “the desires for other things” or “life’s pleasures” could choke out true life (Mark 4:19; Luke 8:14). As Richard Sibbes (1577–1635) said, “Take heed of worldly-mindedness, which will glue thy affections to the earth, and will not suffer them to be lifted up to Christ. Take heed of the pleasures of the world, lest they drown thy soul, as they do the souls of many that profess themselves to be Christians” (Sibbes, “The Spouse, Her Earnest Desire After Christ,” in Works of Richard Sibbes, vol. 2, [1862–1864 Banner of Truth, 1983]). They perceived Bunyan’s city of Vanity Fair not only on the pages of Pilgrim’s Progress, but in their world around them, as well as in their own hearts. They were not stoics, but they were suspicious of pleasure. Citing Eve in the Garden, Benjamin Needler (1620–1682) cautioned his hearers, “Learn to suspect things that are delightful” (Needler, “How May Beloved Lusts Be Discovered and Mortified,” in Puritan Sermons 1659–1689, 1:65).

In order to gain a Christian view of pleasure, I have been helped by meditating on two Puritan ministers who preached and wrote in the second half of the seventeenth century in England: John Flavel (1630–1691) and Richard Baxter (1615–1691). John Flavel said that “Most of those souls that are now in hell, are there upon the account of their indulgence to the flesh; they could not deny the flesh, and now are denied by God” (Flavel, A Treatise of the Soul of Man, in The Works of John Flavel`, 2:607). In his book A Caution to Seamen: A Dissuasive Against Several Horrid and Detestable Sins, Flavel provides a terrifyingly direct, sustained attack on sexual immorality, making argument after argument against it (Flavel, A Caution to Seamen: A Dissuasive Against Several Horrid and Detestable Sins, in The Works of John Flavel, 5:315-324).

Sex outside of marriage cannot please God because it is contrary to God’s purpose and command. And yet, as part of our depravity, Flavel said, we live believing that there is “no fruit so sweet to corrupt nature, as forbidden fruit” (Flavel, The Reasonableness of Personal Reformation, 513). Such self-knowledge must make us be careful. Baxter warned:

When you are looking on the cup, or gazing on alluring beauty, or wantonly dallying and pleasing your senses with things unsafe, you little know how far beyond your intentions you may be drawn, and how deep the wound may prove, how great the smart, or how long and difficult the cure. (Baxter, Christian Directory, 58)

And Baxter was one of the most insightful reflectors and writers on what he calls “flesh-pleasing.” He continues:

Flesh-pleasing is the Grand Idolatry of the world: and the Flesh the greatest Idol that ever was set up against God. . . . That is a man’s God which he taketh for his chief Good, and loveth best, and trusteth in most and is most desirous to please: And this is the flesh to every sensualist. (Ibid., 268)

It [flesh-pleasing] is the sin of sins; the end of all sin, and therefore the very sum and Life of all. All the evil wicked men commit, is ultimately to please the flesh: The love of flesh-pleasing is the cause of all. Pride and Covetousness, and Whoredom, and wantonness, and gluttony and drunkenness, and all the rest are but either the immediate works of sensuality and Flesh-pleasing, or the distant service of it, by laying in provision for it. . . . Cure this sin and you have taken off the poise, and cured all the positive sins of the soul; Though the privative sins would be still uncured, if there were no more done; Because that which makes the clock stand still, is not enough to make it go right: But indeed nothing, but the Love of Pleasing God, can truly cure the Love of fleshpleasing: and such a cure is the cure of every sin, both positive and privative, active and defective. (Ibid., 267-268)

Even more graphically, he warns:

When the skull is cast up with the spade, to make room for a successor, you may see the hole where all the meat and drink went in, and the hideous seat of the face which sometime was the discovery of wantonness, pride and scorn: but you’ll see no signs of mirth or pleasure. . . . Go to the Grave, and see there the end of fleshly pleasure, and what is all that it will do for you at the last. (Ibid., 272)

Baxter continues with this careful advice:

Seek not the ease and pleasure of a little walking breathing clay, when you should be seeking and fore-tasting the everlasting pleasure. Here lyeth your danger and your work: Strive more against your own flesh, than against all your Enemies in Earth and Hell: If you be saved from this, you are saved from them all. Christ suffered in the flesh, to tell you that it is not pampering, but suffering that your flesh must expect, if you will reign with him. (Ibid., 273)

Baxter was typical among the Puritans in perceiving that sexual sins were particularly devastating sins. Matthew Henry wrote, “no sin doth more deface the image of God’s holiness upon the soul, than uncleanness doth, nor render it more odious in the eyes of the pure and holy God” (Henry, Four Discourses Against Vice and Profaneness, in The Complete Works of the Rev. Matthew Henry, [1705; reprint Baker, 1979], 1:105 [83-152]). Some may think that all of these warnings are too ascetic or even stoic, but after reading and meditating on hundreds of pages like this in my own research, I would disagree. Their warnings are simply based upon meditating on the apostle Paul’s caution in 1 Corinthians 6:18: “Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.”

All Pleasures Subordinate to Pleasure in God

So what is the positive Puritan message about sexual pleasure? All pleasures must be subordinate to pleasure in God. Baxter again:

Every pleasing of the flesh, which is capable of being referred to a higher end, and is not so referred, and used, is a sin. . . . That which is not desired as a Means to some Higher end, is desired as our ultimate end itself (in that act). But God only is man’s lawful ultimate end. (Baxter, Christian Directory, 266; emphasis mine [see 1 Corinthians 10:31])

Baxter says that,

Pleasure is so much the End of man, which his Nature leadeth him to desire, that the chief thing in the world to make a man Good and Happy is to engage his heart to those Pleasures which are Good, and make men Happy: And the chief thing to make him Bad and Miserable, is to engage him in the pleasures which make men Bad and end in Misery. (Ibid., 396)

Sexual pleasure is naturally suspect because it can be found so quickly apart from God:

Suspect all that Love which selfishness and fleshly-interest have a hand in. Is it some bodily pleasure that you love so much? . . . We are so much apter to exceed and sin in carnal fleshly mindedness, than in Loving what is good for our souls, that there we should be much more suspicious. (Ibid., 329)

Baxter brings truths down to the practical level:

In sum, All pleasing of the flesh which is lawful must have these qualifications. 1. God’s Glory must be the ultimate end. 2. The matter must be lawful, and not forbidden. 3. Therefore it must not be to the hinderance of duty. 4. Nor to the drawing of us to sin. 5. Nor to the hurt of our health. 6. Nor too highly valued, or too dearly bought. 7. The measure must be moderate: where any of these are wanting it is sin: And where flesh-pleasing is Habitually in the bent of Heart and Life preferred before the Pleasing of God it proves the soul in captivity to the flesh and in a damnable condition. (Ibid., 267)

John Adair sums up well the balance Puritans struck by enjoying God-given pleasure for his sake, not for their own:

The Puritan could enjoy a good bed because he knew that the end of all sleep and rest was refreshment for activity. To love sleep and ease for their own sake was to mistake their end. Meat and drink existed not for the purpose of pleasure, but so that we might serve God better. If a man’s mind delights in eating and drinking for their own sake, he has succumbed to the lust of the flesh. In enjoying good things the Puritan kept in mind why they had been ordained. (Adair, Founding Fathers, 253)

The Puritans were not ascetics, but neither were they sensualists. Sensual pleasure was not life’s uppermost goal, but neither did they deny it entirely. Rather, it was always to be subjected to the glory of God.

Baxter again:

Remember still that God would give you more pleasure, and not less, and that he will give you as much of the Delights of sense, as is truly good for you, so you will take them in their place, in subordination to your heavenly delights. And is not this to encrease and multiply your pleasure? Is not health, and friends, and food, and convenient habitation much sweeter as the fruit of the love of God, and the foretastes of everlasting mercies and as our helps to Heaven, and as the means to spiritual comfort, than of themselves alone? All your mercies are from God: He would take none from you, but sanctifie them, and give you more. (Baxter, Christian Directory, 272)

Summary of the Achievement of Puritanism

The Purposes for Marriage

Marriage, for the Puritans, was a theater for godly pleasure. The Puritan understanding of the purpose of marriage is well summarized in the Westminster Confession (1648): XXIV:ii: “Marriage was ordained for the mutual help of husband and wife, for the increase of mankind with a legitimate issue, and of the church with a holy seed, and for preventing of uncleanness.” The Puritans all enunciated this threefold purpose for marriage (see the chapter in the book for list of references).

We might summarize their views this way. If the Roman Catholics tended to emphasize Genesis 1:28 (“Be fruitful and multiply”) and the Lutherans emphasized 1 Corinthians 7:9 (“It is better to marry than to be aflame with passion”), the Puritans tended to go to Genesis 2:18 — “It is not good that the man should be alone.” In other words, the Roman church emphasized procreation, the Lutherans pointed to protection, and the Puritans, while agreeing with both of these, stressed companionship in life and partnership in the service of God.

“Marriage, for the Puritans, was a theater for godly pleasure.”

It was this emphasis that has been taken to be the lasting historical achievement of Puritanism in regard to sex.

Lessons for Today

In conclusion, here are eight lessons for us today — eight marks, you might say, of healthy sex.

1. Sex is supposed to be limited. God created sex, but he has also placed certain boundaries around it. The fact that we have sexual appetites is from God, but those appetites are also fallen (Baxter, Christian Directory, 264). Our culture has a romantic, rosy understanding of human sexuality that is false, and dangerously so. Our depravity affects our sexuality.

We must keep in mind that sex is temporary. It is not an ultimate, life-fulfilling reality. Baxter warns even the newly married that their time in this state will be short. They will soon go to a world in which there is no marriage (Ibid., 486). Do not make a god of sex.

2. Sex in marriage is made by God. It should not be avoided. Matthew 19:10-11 and 1 Corinthians 7:7 clearly teach that not all people either can or should be celibate. The Puritans were not the first ones to see this idea in the Bible, though they did champion it. Thomas Vincent preached that:

There is no uncleanness or unholiness in marriage itself, or in any use thereof; which is evident, because marriage was instituted in Paradise, in the state of man’s innocency; and marriage, being God’s ordinance, must needs be holy, because all God’s ordinances are so. . . . Adultery and fornication, indeed, do both wound and stain the spirit, as well as pollute the body; but there is a real innocency, holiness, and chastity in marriage, and the use of it according unto God’s ordinance. (Thomas Vincent, “That Doctrine in the Church of Rome Which Forbids to Marry, Is a Wicked Doctrine,” in Puritan Sermons 1659–1689, 6:354)

Sex outside of marriage is a temptation to be avoided.

3. Sexual sin can be repented of and forgiven through Christ. In the process of repenting, or turning away, from sexual sin, we must get practical. Richard Baxter offers a list to combat inward lust: 1. Eat less. 2. Don’t be idle. 3. Avoid the tempting object. He went on to give sixteen specific directions to cure inward lust (Baxter, Christian Directory, 400-401). Ultimately, he said one can fight fornication by avoiding the temptation, by “reverencing your own conscience,” and by remembering that God sees and will judge. Beyond that, he says, “If thou be unmarryed marry, if easier remedies will not serve. . . . It is God’s Ordinance partly for this end.”

We must also get humility. Baxter recommends accountability partners. “If less means prevail not open thy case to some able faithful friend, and engage them to watch over thee; and tell them when thou art most endangered by temptation.” If a friend does not work, he suggests telling the pastor, and even asking openly for the prayers of the whole congregation!

Begin thus to crave the fruit of Church Discipline thy self; so far shouldst thou be from flying from it, and spurning against it as the desperate hardened sinners do. . . . If the shame of all the Town be upon thee, and the Boys should hoot after thee in the Streets, if it would drive thee from thy sin, how easie were thy suffering in comparison of what it is like to be? Concealment is Satan’s great advantage. It would be hard for thee to sin thus if it were but opened. (Ibid., 398-400)

The repentant ones who trust in Christ can be assured that God forgives. Beware thinking that moral reformation is all Christianity has to offer: “A Thief doth not become a true man when the Prison or Stocks do hinder him from stealing, but when a changed heart doth hinder him” (Ibid., 271). Christ offers us a new life! God made us in his image to know him, but we have sinned, sexually and otherwise, and separated ourselves from him. We are now the objects of our good God’s righteous wrath. And it is only because of Christ — God come in the flesh, fully God and fully man — that we have hope. He lived a perfect life and died on the cross, taking the punishment that we deserve. He was then raised from the dead as a sign of God’s acceptance of his sacrifice. Christ calls us all to come and know his forgiveness now by repenting of our sins and trusting in him. Then his righteousness, even his sexual righteousness, becomes ours!

4. Sex is not mainly for ourselves. And,

5. Sex is for ourselves, but only with our spouses. William Gouge (1575–1653) wrote:

One of the best remedies that can be prescribed to married persons (next to an awfull feare of God, and a continuall setting of him before them, wheresoever they are) is, that husband and wife mutually delight each in other, and maintaine a pure and fervent love betwixt themselves, yielding that due benevolence one to another which is warranted and sanctified by God’s word, and ordained of God for this particular end. This due benevolence (as the Apostle stileth it) is one of the most proper and essentiall acts of marriage: and necessary for the maine and principall ends thereof: as for preservation of chastity in such as have not the gift of continency, for increasing the world with a legitimate brood, and for linking the affections of the married couple more firmly together. These ends of marriage, at least the two former, are made void without this duty be performed. As it is called benevolence because it must be performed with good will and delight, willingly, readily and cheerefully; so it is said to be due because it is a debt which the wife oweth to her husband, and he to her (1 Corinthians 7:4). (Gouge, Of Domesticall Duties, 215-216; cf. 234-235)

Puritan Richard Steele taught that,

1 Corinthians 7:3-5 . . . plainly shows that even the sober use of the marriagebed is such a mutual debt, that it may not be intermitted long without necessity and consent. . . . Neither desire of gain, nor fear of trouble, nor occasional distastes, nor pretence of religion, should separate those from conjugal converse and cohabitation, (unless with consent, and that but for a time,) whom God hath joined together. (Steele, “Duties of Husband and Wife,” 275)

He said that they “should be . . . sober, seasonable, and regular in the use of the marriage-bed” (Ibid., 279).

6. Sex should be passionately enjoyed within marriage. The Puritans offered cautions to excess. Too much of anything is a sin. “Put a restraint upon thine appetite: feed not to excess,” Flavel said (Flavel, Caution to Seamen, 323). And so their writings frequently encourage self-denial. Matthew Henry, for instance, suggested that Christians must “Pamper not the body with varieties and dainties, lest it grow wanton, but use yourselves to deny yourselves, so shall it become easy to you” (Henry, Four Discourses, 117).

But there is also the clear biblical theme of delighting in your spouse. In Ezekiel 24:16, the LORD calls Ezekiel’s wife “the delight of your eyes.” And in Psalm 37:4, we are commanded to “Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” John Howe preached a long series on this verse called “A Treatise of Delighting in God” (In The Works of the Rev. John Howe, M.A., [John P. Haven, 1835], 1:349-411). Certainly the Puritans thought pleasure was a good thing.

Even though we assume the human is totally depraved, we do not assume that everything that constitutes human nature, such as sexual desire, is opposed to virtue, especially those aspects of our nature which were created before the Fall and which have legitimate ways for being fulfilled, such as sex within marriage.

Again, the Puritans had a balanced understanding of pleasure and its rightful place. So Richard Sibbes could say, “The more sense we have of the love of Christ, the less we shall regard the pleasures or riches of the world” (Sibbes, “Spouse,” 207). His good friend William Gouge, though, could also say:

The doatage of Stoicks who would have all naturall affection rooted out of man, is contrary to this patterne, and unworthy to finde any entertainment among Christians: for what doe they aime at, but to root that out of man, which God hath planted in him, and to take away the meanses which God hath used for the better preservation of man? That wise man who they frame to themselves is worse then a brute beast: he is a very stocke and blocke. Not only the best and wisest men that ever were in the world, but also Christ himselfe had those passions and affections in him, which they account unbeseeming a wise man. Their doatage hath long since been hissed out of the schooles of Philosophers, should it then finde place in Christ’s Church? Let us labour to cherish this naturall affection in us, and to turne it to the best things, even to such as are not only apparently, but indeed good: and among good things to such as are most excellent, and the most necessary: such as concerne our soules, and eternall life. For this end we must pray to have our understandings inlightened . . . and to have our wills and affections sanctified, that we embrace, pursue, and delight in that which we know to be the best. Thus shall our naturall affection be turned into a spiritual affection. (Gouge, Of Domesticall Duties, 83-84)

And Baxter concludes the point: “Passions are not sinful in themselves; for God hath given them to us for his service” (Baxter, Christian Directory, 327). Therefore:

Turn all your passions into the right chanel, and make them all Holy, using them for God upon the greatest things. This is the true cure: The bare restraint of them is but a palliate cure; like the easing of pain by a dose of opium. Cure the fear of man, by the fear of God, and the Love of the creature, by the Love of God, and the cares for the body, by caring for the soul, and earthly fleshly desires and delights, by spiritual desires and delights, and worldly sorrow, by profitable godly sorrow. (Ibid., 329)

Christ is passionate for his people, and therefore a husband should be passionate for his wife. This has been intended ever since creation. Flavel remarks, “It is not the having, but the delighting in a lawful wife, as God requires you to do, that thou must be a fence against this sin. So Solomon, Prov. 5:19: ‘Let her be as the loving hind, and pleasant roe; let her breasts satisfy thee at all times, and be thou ravished always with her love’” (Flavel, Caution to Seamen, 324). Commenting on the same verse, Matthew Henry writes, “Desire no better diversion from severe study and business than the innocent and pleasant conversation of thy own wife; let her lie in thy bosom . . . and do thou repose thy head in hers, and let that satisfy thee at all times; and seek not for pleasure in any other” (Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible [1710]).

7. Sex is ultimately for the glory of God. Sex is a merciless master and a super servant! We need to re-couple sex and the glory of God as part of our evangelism. When we use another person for money or for a one-night stand, when we use pornography, we de-couple sex from its intended purpose. Whenever we use other people to achieve our own gratification and ends, we idolize ourselves and our appetites. However, God set up good sex as part of evangelism. That does not mean we practice evangelistic dating, let alone evangelistic mating. It means that the sexual intimacy of marriage helps our spouse to love God, it helps us understand how Christ loves the church, and it builds a marriage that is distinct from unfaithful and non-Christian marriages. Baxter writes, “When Husband and Wife take pleasure in each other, it uniteth them in duty, it helpeth them with ease to do their work, and bear their burdens; and is not the least part of the comfort of the married state” (Baxter, Christian Directory, 522). In short, sex within marriage helps display the Christian gospel by teaching us how to love and how we are loved by One who is different than ourselves — by God himself.

8. Sex is a preview of everlasting love. Baxter sensibly admits, “The intending of God’s Glory or our spiritual good, cannot be distinctly and sensibly re-acted in every particular pleasure we take, or bit we eat, or thing we use: But a sincere Habitual Intention well laid at first in the Heart, will serve to the right use of many particular Means” (Ibid., 266). How can you form such “a sincere Habitual Intention”? Grow as a Christian, and join a healthy local church. Believe it or not, this will help your sex life. As Baxter says:

Dwell in the delightful Love of God, and in the sweet contemplation of his Love in Christ, and rowl over his tender mercies in your thoughts, and let your conversation be with the Holy Ones in Heaven, and your work be Thanksgiving and Praise to God: And this will habituate your souls to such a sweetness, and mellowness, and stability, as will resist sinful passion even as heat resisteth cold (Ibid., 328). The greatest of all means to cast out all sinful Love, is to keep the soul in the Love of God. (Ibid.)

Heaven is what Jonathan Edwards once called “A World of Love,” while Richard Sibbes observed love’s tendency to always increase and desire more: “The nature of true love . . . is never satisfied. . . . there is a continual desire to have a further taste and assurance of his love” (Sibbes, “Spouse,” 204). Perhaps this gives us some indication of what Heaven will be like.

“Do not make a god of sex.”

In this body, what comes through our eyes goes directly into the soul. So Adam’s banishment from the vision of God in the Garden constituted the center of his punishment. And thus Moses was unable to see God, as has been the case with all of Adam’s progeny. But there is hope. In Isaiah 33:17 we read the prophecy, “Your eyes will behold the king in his beauty.” God promises his people that he will restore their sight of him. This restoration began in the Incarnation, and now the body of Christ, the church, is called to present a reflection of that glory in this world.

So Jesus taught his disciples, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. . . . Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14, 16). The climax of the Bible is found in Revelation 22:4, where we read the promise, “They will see his face.” If you are a Christian, do you not look forward to that day when we are done with hearing and faith, and can return to the unmediated seeing of God that we were made for?

And what about feeling? In heaven, there will be no marrying or giving in marriage (Matthew 22:30). But what senses will our resurrected bodies know? We can only imagine what our good God has in store. And to do this kind of meditation and heart-setting, few can help us like the Puritans. Certainly not our local Saab dealer.

Recommendations for Further Reading

Four books that you might read, if you want to pursue this conversation further:

  1. J.I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness (Crossway, 1990)
  2. J.I. Packer, A Grief Sanctified (Richard Baxter’s Memoir of His Wife) (Crossway, 2002)
  3. Elisabeth Dodds, Marriage to a Difficult Man: Jonathan and Sarah Edwards (Westminster, 1971)
  4. Doreen Moore, *Good Christians, Good Husbands? Leaving a Legacy in Marriage and Ministry (on the marriages of Wesley, Whitefield, and Edwards) (Christian Focus, 2004)

Appendix: Academics on the Achievement of Puritanism

After the Puritans, the Restoration comedies of John Dryden and others from the 1660s on were based on “all the old hackneyed truths or half-truths — familiarity breeds boredom, the same person cannot excite someone year after year, one cannot be excited when sexual relations are a marital duty. . . .” (Edmund Leites, The Puritan Conscience and Modern Sexuality [Yale University Press, 1986], 14) God’s plan for love was submerged in a romantic revolt, and the Puritan understanding of marriage and sexual love was among the chief casualties. Today, centuries later, we still labor with the disinformation that has been circulated on the Puritan view of sex. Literary figures from William Shakespeare to Nathaniel Hawthorne have contributed to these misunderstandings.

How did the Puritans change society’s attitudes about sex? Did they in fact succeed in spreading the seeds of sexual repression in all of us? The middle of the twentieth century saw important new research on the Puritans on this important topic. Edmund Morgan’s important 1942 article, “The Puritans and Sex,” was a crucial call for a reevaluation of the Puritans based on Morgan’s own careful work in some New England primary sources (Morgan, “Puritans and Sex,” 591-607; reprinted in, “The Puritans and Sex,” in The American Family in Social-Historical Perspective, [St. Martin’s, 1978]).

Morgan concluded that they concentrated their efforts on prevention more than on punishment. The result was not a society in which most of us would care to live, for the methods of prevention often caused serious interference with personal liberty. It must nevertheless be admitted that in matters of sex the Puritans showed none of the blind zeal or narrow-minded bigotry which is too often supposed to have been characteristic of them. The more one learns about these people, the less do they appear to have resembled the sad and sour portraits which their modern critics have drawn of them (Morgan, “Puritans and Sex,” 607).

Elsewhere, Morgan writes:

In short, the Puritans were neither prudes nor ascetics. They knew how to laugh, and they knew how to love. But it is equally clear that they did not spend their best hours in either love or laughter. They had fixed their eyes on a heavenly goal, which directed and informed their lives. When earthly delights dimmed their vision, it was time to break off. Yet even this side of the goal there was room for joy. (Morgan, Puritan Family, 64)

Probably the best book on the Puritan view of marriage is by James Turner Johnson, professor of religion at Rutgers University in New Jersey, called A Society Ordained by God: English Puritan Marriage Doctrine in the First Half of the Seventeenth Century (Johnson, A Society Ordained by God: English Puritan Marriage Doctrine in the First Half of the Seventeenth Century [Abingdon, 1970]). He describes the Puritan idea of marriage as a covenant that is ratified, or signed, by the couple’s sexual union.

Leland Ryken, professor of English literature at Wheaton College, helped rehabilitate the Puritans’ reputation more popularly in his book Worldly Saints (Ryken, Worldly Saints [Zondervan, 1986]). He quoted earlier scholars — such as C.S. Lewis — who wrote in a more balanced fashion than the Puritans’ many detractors. And J.I. Packer worked to repay his own intellectual and spiritual debt to the Puritans by pulling together a number of earlier articles, and writing some new ones in his book Quest for Godliness, cited earlier in this chapter. His chapter on the Puritans and marriage is particularly helpful.

In Worldly Saints, Ryken points out that “The Puritans rejected asceticism because of their firm grip on the doctrine of creation. In their view, it was God who had created people as sexual beings” (Ryken, Worldly Saints, 44). Sexuality was not a consequence of the Fall, as some Roman Catholic writers suggested. He writes, “The Puritan doctrine of sex was a watershed in the cultural history of the West. The Puritans devalued celibacy, glorified companionate marriage, affirmed married sex as both necessary and pure, established the ideal of wedded romantic love, and exalted the role of the wife” (Ibid., 53). Ryken notes that while procreation and protection from sin were considered legitimate and important ends of sexual union in marriage, companionship became the leading end. As Edmund Leites summarizes the Puritan understanding of marriage: “In marital love, with its sexuality, we find a true friend and companion, a second self: we are redeemed from our loneliness” (Leites, Puritan Conscience and Modern Sexuality, 89).

So, most fundamentally, the Puritans believed marriage is a positive gift of God. And most fundamentally, they believed sex in marriage is a positive gift of God, to be used and enjoyed in moderation with the glory of God as the ultimate end. They clearly disagreed with the medieval Roman Catholic preference for virginity above marriage, and they particularly disliked the Roman Catholic prohibition against priests marrying. A couple of significant qualifications have been added to this rehabilitated understanding of the Puritan view of marriage and sex.

First, Margo Todd has offered a historical qualification, by asking whether the move away from the medieval Catholic view should be attributed to the Puritans. She argues that a larger movement toward Christian humanism was the source of changed attitudes toward sex, with Puritanism blossoming as one expression of this new fascination with the ancient texts including the Protestant recovery of the primacy of Scripture (Todd, Christian Humanism and the Puritan Social Order [Cambridge University Press, 1987]. For Luther’s influence, see Justin Taylor’s chapter in this volume).

A second significant qualification has been made by Daniel Doriani (Doriani, “Puritans, Sex, and Pleasure,” 125-143. Doriani here deals only with the years 1542–1642). Doriani points out that Puritans do not deserve to be entirely exonerated from their cautious tone toward all pleasures, not least of which was sexual pleasure. The Puritans warned against excess in the marriage bed. And so they placed several restrictions on the sexual relations between marriage partners: sex should not occur during menstruation, and it should not occur too frequently (Ibid., 134).

Doriani also argues that Puritans sometimes required prayer before intercourse, and would even recommend special seasons of prayer for some days before (Ibid., 135). “The Puritans never attacked sexual activity in itself, but they rarely praised its intrinsic value. Further, they so restricted sexual activity that, if the man in the pew believed the preachers, then spontaneous, passionate, physical love would be almost impossible” (Ibid., 136).

Doriani concludes that the typical Puritan cautions about sex inside marriage sound more like Aristotelian moderation, and less like the Bible. Also, the Bible does not give the prominence to sexual sin the Puritans did, for example, by characterizing it as the worst of sins. Aristotelian “moderation” can be described as biblical insofar as it pertains to self-control, yet it is unbiblical insofar as it entails an avoidance of zeal and passion. “The question is, assuming a couple marries for companionship, partnership, and progeny, can they go on to enjoy ‘immoderate,’ passionate, sensual love?” (Ibid., 141) Clearly, Doriani assumes there is a place for healthy passion in marriage. Still, he agrees that “Puritan preachers successfully attacked the worst errors from the Middle Ages and began to restore biblical thinking about sexuality to Reformation and post-Reformation England” (Ibid., 143).

Doriani is undoubtedly correct in some of his concerns. Yet Todd’s work of placing the Puritans within the larger historical context of a Christian humanist recovery of ancient teaching is applicable here as well. It was typical throughout Christian Europe to call for moderation. Luther wrote, “It is indeed true that sexual intercourse in marriage should be moderate, to extinguish the burning of the flesh. Just as we should observe moderation in eating and drinking, so pious couples should refrain from indulging their flesh too much” (WLS 2812).

Calvin taught, “Let not married persons think that all things are permitted to them, but let each man have his own wife soberly, and each wife her own husband. So doing, let them not admit anything at all that is unworthy of the honorableness and temperance of marriage” (Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.8.44). And yet Calvin, too, saw a place for pleasure: “Did he [God] not, in short, render many things attractive to us, apart from their necessary use?” (Ibid., 3.10.2) Further, if Doriani’s research had gone beyond 1642, he would have found more positive words about passion, as some of the quotations in this chapter evidence.