The Puritans were a group of 16th- and 17-century English Protestants who thought that the Reformation had not gone far enough in its rejection of the Catholic Church. They wanted a simpler, purer kind of worship and advocated a strict form of religious discipline. They were intolerant of any form of sexual activity outside marriage, and yet warmly encouraged it in the marital bed.
The stereotype of Puritans is of a joyless group of religious extremists who regarded all forms of sexual pleasure as wicked. The word puritan is often used today in a derogatory sense and is sometimes applied to those who appear to reject pleasure, especially of a sexual kind, or who are judged to have a too moralistic attitude towards sexuality in general. In fact, historically, Puritan attitudes towards sexuality were more tolerant than this, indeed celibacy wasn't viewed as a superior spiritual state and sex was approved of within certain contexts.
Within the bounds of marriage sexuality was encouraged, in fact, the Puritans saw it as a man’s duty to provide pleasure for his wife. So seriously was this duty taken in New England that, by law, impotence provided a woman with legitimate grounds for divorce. Sex within marriage was a gift from God and as much a rightful expression of love as it was a means to reproduction. The Puritans approved of the stabilizing influence of married life and believed it established conditions conducive to the worship of God.
The Puritans didn’t make any distinctions between sexual orientations, even if they acknowledged different kinds of sexual behaviour. Instead, they understood all sin to descend from an original depravity inherited from Adam and Eve. Anyone who indulged in masturbation, sodomy, pre-marital sex or bestiality was therefore seen to have been tempted by the same dark forces as those who had given in to laziness, disobedience or loss of faith. One kind of depravity was understood to encourage other kinds so that laziness, for example, might lead to adultery.
Unlike other Christians, Puritans didn't regard voluntary celibacy as spiritually more worthy than the married state, nor did they demand celibacy of their ministers. Puritanism refused to celebrate lives of monastic, sexually repressed devotion, but instead demanded lives of moral rigor and constancy within a functioning society.
- University of Notre Dame: Puritans
- Puritans and Puritanism in Europe and America; Francis Bremer
- The Puritan Conscience and Modern Sexuality; Edmund Leites
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