Puritan Beliefs About Illegitimacy

A Puritan family taught its children to follow strict moral guidelines.
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Illegitimate children were a problem for the Puritans because they represented an economic strain to small rural communities, as well as an affront to Puritan morality. Illegitimate children were awarded fewer rights under the law and unwed mothers were often ostracized or punished.To discourage the incidence of children born out of wedlock, there were several social sanctions in place. The Puritans maintained a strict moral code and admonished offenders. Marriage was highly valued and there were harsh penalties for sexual activity conducted outside marriage, and especially for giving birth to children out of wedlock. Additionally, young people were taught specific courtship guidelines. Despite these efforts to prevent illegitimacy, the problem continued to grow throughout the 18th Century.

1 Status of Illegitimate Children

According to traditional law, illegitimate children in colonial New England were subject to social and legal discrimination. Illegitimate children were those born of unmarried parents or who were the product of an invalid marriage. In the case of a child determined to be illegitimate, neither the mother or father had any legal rights or duties to the children. Additionally, the children did not have the right to inherit from either parent.

2 Fornication and Bastardy

The Puritans frowned on sexual offenses as evidenced from the number of documented laws and convictions for sexual offenses. The most commonly committed offense was fornication. Typically, the punishment was a whipping, sitting in the stocks or a fine. Bastardy, or producing a child out of wedlock, received more severe punishment. Women were more likely to be convicted than men, perhaps because their connection to the child was more visible. In Massachusetts, bastardy was punished with 39 lashes. Sometimes the penalty was a fine of five to ten pounds. Those who lacked property were forced to suffer whippings. Babies born out of wedlock were a problem throughout the Colonial period. The numbers were said to increase especially toward the end of the 1700s.

3 Marriage

The Puritans valued marriage. Although they did not believe in choosing mates for their children, hasty marriages were often arranged to avoid an illegitimate birth. Perhaps one bride in ten in Massachusetts and one bride in three in Chesapeake Bay was pregnant when she married. Men were expected to marry the woman or provide for the child. The Puritans thought marriage should be a loving and harmonious relationship sanctioned by the church and the couple’s parents. Divorce was permitted in cases of adultery, fraudulent contract, willful neglect, desertion, failure to provide and physical violence, but was not commonly practiced.

4 Courtship

There was little time for romance and no such thing as teenagers in Puritan times. Children were small adults who were treated as adults with fewer responsibilities. Even recreation was work. Neighbors gathered together for harvesting and barn-raising. Courtship might take place at such a gathering, but only under the watchful eyes of a community of parents. Children learned proper conduct in their school lessons as well. The New England Hornbook consisted of the Lord's Prayer and alphabet phrases such as "In Adam's fall, we sinned all" or "The Idle fool is whipt at school." Throughout their upbringing, self-restraint was a pervasive lesson. However, the problem of illegitimacy continued to grow through the 18th and 19th Centuries.

Meg English has been an education professional for more than 25 years. She has taught elementary, middle and high school students in both inner-city and rural schools. She also publishes a weekly newspaper column titled "Education Matters." English holds a doctorate in educational administration from the University of South Dakota.