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TEXT: Hebrews 13:4
SUBJECT: Puritans #2: Sex
This afternoon, we come to our monthly study of Puritan life. Though I'm drawing from other sources, the book I'm depending on is Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were. The author is professor at Wheaton College, Leland Ryken. The book, I think, is still in print. And I could not recommend it more highly. If you want to read the Puritans-but are intimidated by their language-start with this book.
Last time, we looked at the Puritan view of work. Most people think the Puritans were workaholics, who loved money, and viewed success as proof of their election and eternal life. Wrong on all points! They believed in hard work, but never to the neglect of other things, such as family, church, and community. Making money was one goal of working, of course, but not the highest goal-or even the second or third highest! The chief aims of work were to glorify God, to develop your gifts, and to help others in need. As for the last point, Puritans thought success proved their election, it's simply not true. It may have been true of their descendents-who were mostly secular, but it was not true of the Real Thing. The Puritans had a healthy and balanced view of work.
Now we come to a second topic-and one even more misunderstood than the first: The Puritans on Sex.
When it comes to sex, the Puritans had a lot of hang-ups. They hardly ever talked about it-and when they did, it was always negative. They dressed in long black clothes. And when a woman committed adultery, they sewed A Scarlet Letter on her dress. The word, Puritanical has come to mean uptight and repressive about sex.
On the clothes issue, all I can say is this: If you look at old paintings, you'll see the Puritans didn't dress any differently than Lutherans in Germany, Anglicans in the UK, or Catholics in Paris. It's not as though the Puritan pastor's wife work a full body black bathing suit at the beach, while the Pope's mistress wore an
"Itsy, bitsy, teenie, weenie,
yellow polka-dot bikini!"
That's a stupid criticism meant to score points rather than to carry on a serious debate.
But on the other points, I'll try to show you that the Puritans not only differed from the standard view, but were often the opposite of it!
WHAT WERE THE PURITANS AGAINST?
When it comes to sex, the Puritans were against three things: celibacy, extra-marital sex, and sex in marriage without love.
Celibacy. Puritanism was born within fifty years of the Reformation and that means they spent a lot of time distinguishing themselves from the Roman Catholics.
At the time, the Catholic take on sex was strongly negative-even within marriage! Ryland summarizes it this way,
"The dominant attitude of the Catholic Church
throughout the Middle Ages was that sexual
love itself was evil and did not cease to be so
even if its object were one's spouse. Tertulian
and Ambrose preferred the extinction of the
human race to its propgation through sin,
that is, sexual intercourse. For Augustine,
the sexual act was innocent in marriage. Bit
the passion that accompanies it was sinful.
"These rejections of sex resulted in the Catholic
glorification of virginity and celibacy. By the
Fifth Century clerics were prohibited from
Marrying.Augustine frequently commended
Married couples who abstained from sex.
Jerome said that while there have been married
Saints, they have always remained virgins.
According to Ambrose, married people ought to
Blush at the state in which they are living.
Chrysostom said Adam and Eve could not have
Had sexual relations before the Fall.Bishop
Gregory of Nyssa said that they were not
Created with sexual desire and that if the Fall
Had not occurred, the human race would have
Reproduced itself by some harmless mode
Of vegetation! The tradition culminated in
The Council of Trent's denouncing people who
Denied that virginity was superior to the
The Puritans tore up this doctrine root and branch. Here's a short list of quotations.
"It is accounted a doctrine of devils to forbid to marry."
"It was the devil that brought in a base esteem of
that honorable condition of marriage".
"The marriage bed is itself free from filth (saith
the Apostle), but the spirit of Satan, speaking
by these men-or rather beasts-saith marriage
When someone called marriage a necessary evil, Cotton Mather replied,
"It is a necessary good".
The Puritans knew their Bibles, of course, and believed some men and women were called to singleness. But that was not the norm for Christian living. Most people should marry-they said-and make love to their husband or wife. The Puritans then, were dead-set against Celibacy (except for the few who had special callings to it).
Extra-marital sex. The Puritans were also against sex outside of marriage-either before (which is fornication) or after with someone other than your spouse (which is adultery). This sounds rather naïve to us, doesn't it? As though it were an impossible standard. But the facts are:
Matthew Henry has this to say about extra-marital sex,
"In the enumeration of these commandments, the
Apostle puts the seventh before the sixth, and
Mentions this first: 'Thou shalt not commit
Adultery'; for though this commonly goes under
The name of Love (pity it is that so good a word
Should be so abused) yet it is as really as great
A sin as killing and stealing are, which shows
That true brotherly love is love to the souls of
Our brethren in the first place. He that tempts
Others to sin, and defiles their minds and con-
Sciences, though he may pretend the most pas-
Sionate love, does really hate them, just as the
Devil does, who wars against the soul".
A third practice the Puritans hated was married sex without love. William Perkins and John Milton spoke about it-and they weren't pussyfooting around,
"Nothing is as shameless as to love a wife as
though she were a prostitute!"
What he means by this is treating your wife like a dog all day long and wanting her to be a wildcat in bed! That's playing the part of a prostitute-pretending she's crazy about the man while, in fact, she disgusted by the whole dirty business. That's Perkins' take on loveless sex. Milton's is even earthier,
"When love vanishes, the fleshly act indeed may
continue, but not holy, not pure, not beseeming
the sacred bond of marriage, being at best an
Passion without love is like dogs mating in the street!
And so, what were the Puritans against? They were against celibacy (for most people); they were against sex outside of marriage, and they were against sex without love, even in marriage.
WHAT THE PURITANS WERE FOR
Having said what they were against (in sex), we need to go on to ask what the Puritans were for. Some of this has already been implied, but let me quickly mention a few things the Puritans were for.
In the first place, they believed in companionship. Most Puritans wanted to have children, of course, but they did not think pregnancy was the only or even the highest purpose for making love. John Milton says,
"God, in first ordaining of marriage taught us to what
end He did it-to comfort and refresh him against the
evils of a solitary life, not mentioning the purpose of
generation till afterwards".
This is a comment on Genesis 2:18, which doesn't say, "It is not good that man should father no children, therefore I will make him a helpmeet." What is says is this,
"It is not good that man should be alone".
Marital lovemaking is good for other things, too. But its Number One purpose is fellowship-close and endearing fellowship between one man and woman-"Till death does them part".
This explains what's wrong with pre-marital sex, adultery, pornography, and so on. It's not that God wants to take all our pleasure away from us, but that He wants to maximize our pleasure. And that can only be had-not in a series of shallow couplings, but in lifelong fellowship. When it comes to sex, the Puritans were for companionship, loving and growing companionship. That's Number One.
In the second place, they were for romance in marriage. To most people, "Romantic Puritan" sounds like "Towering Pygmy". But, in fact, the Puritans strongly advocated romance in marriage.
Expounding Proverbs 5:18-19 (which compares a wife to a loving deer and a graceful doe), a pastor said,
"The deer and doe were chosen because they are
most enamored of their mates.and even mad in
their heat and desire for them".
Another Puritan, William Seckers wrote a book on marriage and compared husband and wife to
"Two instruments making music
and two streams in one current".
One of the big Puritans was named Thomas Hooker. He wrote,
"The man whose heart is endeared to the woman he
loves dreams of her in the night, has her in his eye
when he awakes, muses on her as he sits at the table,
and walks with her as he travels.
She lies in his bosom and his heart trusts in her,
Which forces all to confess that the stream of
His affection, like a mighty current, runs with
Full time and strength".
The Puritans saw sex, therefore, not as a biological thing (to have babies) or a dirty thing (to satisfy wicked men), but as an expression of romantic love.
In the third place, the Puritans were for privacy. In recent years, the word privacy has gotten a bad rap. If something is private, it must be ugly or shameful. The argument then goes, sex is not ugly or shameful, therefore, we can pretty much put it on display-in the way we dress or walk or flirt and so on.
The Puritans did not equate private with wrong. They said sex was very good, but bringing out in public made it worse, not better. One of the great things about marriage is the man can know his wife is his alone. But if she hangs out all over for everyone to see, he loses something very precious to him. You don't have to go to the extreme of wearing a veil or dark, baggy dresses that reach the floor.
But modesty is important. And, rather than sucking all the life out of sex, it makes it far better. Maybe some of you remember a band back in the 70's. It was called The J. Geils Band. Geils was a wicked man who had as many women as he could get his hands on and various public affairs, and so on. Yet even he somehow felt the value of modesty. He liked gawking at other men's women, but he wasn't so crazy about other men looking at his! The song title explains his problem,
"My angel is a centerfold".
A fourth thing the Puritans were for is frequency. They did not think an annual roll in the hay was good enough for most people. The warned couples of the dangers of abstinence; they urged men to not be away from home too often or too long. And, in one of the most surprising things I've ever read, Ryken says,
"When a New England wife complained first to her
pastor and then to the whole congregation, that
her husband was neglecting their sex life, the
church proceeded to excommunicate the man".
A fifth thing the Puritans were for is realism. They thought marriage was a wonderful thing, but they knew that no husband or wife was perfect, and that at times you have to take your husband and wife as is!
"Look not for perfection in your relation, God reserves
that for another state where marriage is not needed".
"Prepare for the rigors of marriage by limiting your
expectation and by remembering that you marry a
child of Adam".
This all means,
"Husbands and wives must exercise patience and meekness,
forbearing, forgiving, and forgetting provocations".
The Puritans taught high ideals for marriage. But they were realistic enough to know we wouldn't always meet them, and sometimes, we have to accept what is instead of what ought to be.
One last thing: The Puritans were for sanctification (or holiness). A good marriage can be wonderfully fun and pleasant and exciting, but ultimately, it's about something more than fun, pleasure, and excitement. John Cotton said,
"Beware lest you make the end of marriage no higher
than itself, but to be better fitted to God's service and
to bring you and your wife nearer to heaven".
In other words, marriage is a means of grace. It is one way that God fits us for the world to come. Negatively, by making us more patient and forgiving. Positively, by giving us a hint of what Loving Fellowship can be. And will be forever with Him!
That's the Puritan View of Sex. We'd do well to study it and to follow it too.
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