During the Thanksgiving holiday, we inevitably think of America’s first Pilgrims — “Separatists” as those who practiced their strain of Protestantism came to be known.
Though technically the term Puritan refers to Protestants who stayed in England to purify the church there, theologically it describes those early settlers of America, and so we’ve come today to generally think of them as Puritans. In any event, thoughts of the first celebratory feast with the Indians aside, those early settlers who came to the New World seeking “purity” in worship are in modern times regularly characterized as stern, colorless, humorless and certainly sexless people. In short, “puritanical.”
But is this right? “Worldly Saints” by Leland Ryken and “A Quest for Godliness” by J.I. Packer are just two scholarly books in recent years that shed light on who the Puritans really were, and their work is drawn from extensively here.
Did those early Protestants hate sex? Hardly. When a New England Puritan wife complained, first to her pastor then to her whole congregation that her husband was neglecting their sex life, the church excommunicated him!
A leading Puritan preacher, William Gouge, said that married couples should engage in sex “with good will and delight, willingly, readily and cheerfully.” An anonymous Puritan expressed the common view that in marriage a couple “may joyfully give due benevolence (a Puritan term for sex) one to the other.”
Throughout the writings of the Puritans, marriage and the sex act within it are affirmed as gifts from God. This was a progressive view, for it contradicted the prevalent medieval teaching that religious celibacy was more virtuous than marriage and family life. This affirmation of marriage in turn raised the status of women.
Was Puritanism “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, was happy,” as H.L. Mencken put it?