BOSTON — “Fifty Shades of Grey,” Puritan edition?
famously strait-laced 17th-century sectarians who helped settle America
weren’t nearly as priggish as you might think, a leading Puritan
Letters penned by Puritan forefathers including
Colonial Gov. John Winthrop evoke more passion than prudishness, said
Francis Bremer, a professor emeritus of history at Pennsylvania’s
Bremer is presenting his latest research
next week at Boston’s Old South Meeting House, at an event dubbed
“Ravishing Affection: Myths and Realities about Puritans and Sex.”
“The Puritans believed that everything God created was naturally good —
including intercourse,” he said. “They weren’t hostile to sexuality.
They saw sex and love as important factors to help a man and a woman
form a passionate relationship and strengthen it.”
He points to a love letter that Winthrop wrote in 1618 to his wife, Margaret Tyndall, as an example of Puritan passion.
the letter, Winthrop — one of the founders of the Massachusetts Bay
Colony — speaks of “being filled with the joy of thy love, and wanting
opportunity of more familiar connection with thee, which my heart
Thomas Hooker, a Puritan who founded what would become Connecticut, was even more explicit.
“The man whose heart is endeared to the woman he loves, he dreams of
her in the night, hath her in his eye an apprehension when he awakes,
museth on her as he sits at table, walks with her when he travels, and
parlies with her in each place where he comes ... She lies in his bosom,
and his heart trusts in her, which forceth all to confess, that the
stream of his affection, like a mighty current, runs with full tide and
Not that New England’s Puritans were swingers.
Scholars agree they clung to decidedly conservative Calvinist beliefs
about love and marriage. H.L. Mencken defined Puritanism as “the
haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
Lisa Wade, a
sociologist at Occidental College in Los Angeles and an expert on
sexual culture and gender, says the Puritans viewed marriage — always
monogamous and never same-sex — primarily as a means of producing
It wasn’t until two centuries later, at the twilight of
the Victorian era, that the notion of romantic love as a key reason to
pair off took hold.
Even so, Bremer — who has written
16 books about Puritanism — says letters and sermons suggest the
Puritans were eager and attentive lovers.
The Puritans got their
name from their desire to “purify” the Church of England, which they
thought was corrupt. Yet they openly discussed sexuality and freely
expressed passionate longings toward their spouses, and their sermons
likened an intense and affectionate marriage relationship to Christ’s
love for the church.
“One thing that surprises the heck out of
everyone is that people were charged — both in church and civil cases —
with NOT engaging in sex with their spouse,” Bremer said.
average Puritan had posted a relationship status, it surely would be:
“It’s complicated.” But Bremer hopes his research will help dispel
“It becomes very easy to say, ‘Oh, well, they
didn’t like sex at all,’” he said. “The myths lead people to say these
are individuals we don’t want to know anything more about. But the
Puritans have a lot to teach us.”
Follow Bill Kole on
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