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Quote of the Day: Massachusetts Puritans View of Sex by Jason Dikes


Sex outside of marriage, however, was regarded very differently. The Puritans followed the teachings of the Old Testament in believing that adultery was a sin of the deepest dye. They defined an adulterous act in the conventional way as extramarital sex involving a married woman (not necessarily a married man), but punished both partners with high severity. Their criminal codes made adultery a capital crime, and at least three people were actually hanged for it in the Puritan colonies.

When cases of adultery occurred, it was not uncommon for entire communities to band together and punish the transgressors. In the town of Ipswich, Massachusetts, for example, a married woman named Sarah Roe had an affair with a neighbor named Joseph Leigh while her mariner-husband was away at sea. Several townsmen warned them to stop.When they persisted, no fewer than thirty-five Ipswich neighbors went to court against them and gave testimony that communicated a deep sense of moral outrage. In this case, adultery could not be proved according to New England’s stringent rules for capital crime, which required two eye-witnesses to the actual offense. But the erring couple were found guilty of “unlawful familiarity” and severely punished. Joseph Leigh was ordered to be heavily whipped and fined five pounds, and Sarah Roe was sent to the House of Correction for a month, with orders that she was to appear in Ipswich meetinghouse on lecture day bearing a sign, “For My baudish Carriage,” written in “fair capital letters.” In this case as in so many others, the moral code of Puritan Massachusetts was not imposed by a small elite upon an unwilling people; it rose from customs and beliefs that were broadly shared throughout the Puritan colonies.

In cases of fornication the rules were also very strict. For an act of coitus with an unwed woman, the criminal laws of Puritan Massachusetts decreed that a man could be jailed, whipped, fined, disfranchised and forced to marry his partner. Even in betrothed couples, sexual intercourse before marriage was regarded as a pollution which had to be purged before they could take its place in society and — most important — before their children could be baptized. In both courts and churches, the Puritans created an elaborate public ritual by which fornicators were cleansed of their sin, so that they could be speedily admitted to full moral fellowship.

Puritan attitudes were almost maniacally hostile to what they regarded as unnatural sex. More than other religious groups, they had a genuine horror of sexual perversion. Masturbation was made a capital crime in the colony of New Haven. Bestiality was punished by death, and that sentence was sometimes executed in circumstances so bizarre as to tell us much about the sex ways of New England. One such case in New Haven involved a one-eyed servant named George Spencer, who had often been on the wrong side of the law, and was suspected of many depravities by his neighbors. When a sow gave birth to a deformed pig which also had one eye, the unfortunate man was accused of bestiality. Under great pressure, he confessed, recanted, confessed again, and recanted once more. The laws of New England made conviction difficult: bestiality was a capital crime and required two witnesses for conviction. But so relentless were the magistrates that the deformed piglet was admitted as one witness, and the recanted confession was accepted as another. George Spencer was hanged for bestiality.


This hostility to unnatural sex had a demographic consequence of high importance. Puritan moralists condemned as unnatural any attempt to prevent conception within marriage. This was not a common attitude in world history. Most primitive cultures have practiced some form of contraception, often with high success. Iroquois squaws made diaphragms of birchbark; African slaves used pessaries of elephant dung to prevent pregnancy. European women employed beeswax disks, cabbage leaves, spermicides of lead, whitewash and tar. During the seventeenth and early eighteenth century, coitus interruptus and the use of sheepgut condoms became widespread in Europe.

But the Puritans would have none of these unnatural practices.They found a clear rule in Genesis 38, where Onan “spilled his seed upon the ground” in an effort to prevent conception and the Lord slew him. In Massachusetts, seed-spilling in general was known as the “hideous sin of Onanism.” A Puritan could not practice coitus interruptus and keep his faith. Every demographic test of contraception within marriage yields negative results in Puritan Massachusetts. The burden of this taboo rested heavily upon families throughout New England. Samuel Sewall, at the age of 49, recorded the birth of his fourteenth child, and added a prayer, “It may be my dear wife may now leave off bearing.” So she did, but only by reaching the age of menopause.

— Jason Dikes, Adjunct Associate Professor of History, Austin Community College, Massachusetts Sex Ways


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    As I read these tales of fanatatical deluded belief from years gone by, I naturally find myself wondering why churches like that of Doug Wilson, overlord of a sick church in Moscow, Idaho, are not included and then I realize that religious freedom-to-abuse is still tax-free in the Western Hemisphere and that it is still frowned upon to publicly point out the excesses of the Wilsons’s of the world.
    But there will come a time, sadly too far down the road, when people will look back on a church like Wilson’s in the same way they now view the witchhunt Puritan churches of the colonies. We will be more broadly aware of how much damage is routinely done to children who are forced to experience evangelical zeal, whose parents give them over to God. We will see the huge offense to women and will wonder how such an abuse could be commonplace.
    The greatest challenge is to overcome the great fantasy of God, that wolf is sheep’s clothes. While it is necessary to cry out the truth as we see it, that the evangelical church harms and is a template for harm, it is just as important to look beyond the wolf in the world and know how readily we carry on the lie, how much people need to continue the harm of the ages. The church continues as a successful predator because we are still fearful, we still flee the pain at the center of our persoanal harm.
    It is a very sad thing that children are terrorized with hellfire and brimstone, with corporal punishments and shame. It seems so heartbreaking to have to sit with an adult who has lived through this kind of thing and gently remind them they did not deserve to be abused, they did not ask for abuse, that they are free to be and that the weight they feel so heavily on them is not sin but the pain of long abuse they never earned.
    At my work the other day, I was talking to two fairly liberal evangelicals who were kidding with me about my non-belief. Well, you know where you’re going after it’s all over, ha ha…
    When I pointed out that fundamentalist evangelical religion was more harmful in the world than good in my view, they were truly confounded and shook their heads. The woo-gas overtakes them whenever somebody points out the harm routinely done in God’s name.
    You atheists question a God who gave his only son!
    Well, yes, we certainly do… Why wouldn’t anybody question such a barbaric thing.

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      Exactly…I am worried about the regression society is facing. People don’t seem to take the threat seriously. I worry about people losing so many of their rights that others have fought long and hard for, and that are now taken for granted.

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    John Arthur

    Hi Bruce,

    Capital punishment for masturbation. How barbaric can religion get? It’s totally inhumane. Never mind! Their barbaric book is full of inhumanity. How would they know if someone masturbated, if it was done in private? How did they prosecute such suspected cases? What constituted evidence? If the semen was still on them, what would happen if they pleaded that they had a ‘wet dream’? Were they disbelieved and hanged?

    This dangerous cult of Fundamentalist, Calvinistic Puritanism is still with you Americans even if it is diminishing rapidly with the rise of the ‘nones’. People need to read the so-called ‘Holy Book’ and see how much cruelty is in it done in the name of its violent god, Yahweh. ‘Heaven help you’ if the dominionists and Theonomists gain political power. It will be pure tyranny.

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    In medieval England laws were not much different than the puritans aside leaving out speculation that they may have been more motivated to populate the land sooner rather than later. Some puritan laws later became disregarded and enforcement would often lead to conflict thus causing a move towards a more enlightened period. The puritans in history were a enlightened people when compared to the church of england and the corrupted aristocracy who could get away with violations of the law even rape with or without sheepskin gut but the populace had to abide by all laws of the king and parliament. Parliament claimed to support puritans but in reality they supported the aristocracy. The failure of parliament to stop the kings execution of Catholics for practicing their religious rituals they learned from birth are just one example. The civil war in england was chaos of religious leaders were not gods and the enlightened people knew that but the most popular books and methods for learning were works about religion and that is all people knew. If someone who is 40 years old impregnates a 20 year old they would hang for it a cry still alive today but if he were to marry her it would be legal even in those days. A kind of check on society because things like that make a man murderous. Easier to have a professional handle something that a father would do anyway. that is why it required two witnesses. If someone does not lust or think about something they shouldn’t do then they probably would not do it. If a person were to make eye contact with everyones woman, man, or person until your souls link then of course something might come from that but out of respect for fellow man people don’t do that because its hurtful and could potentially lead to violence. So they established laws not puritans not catholics not pagans or phonecians or whatever superstitious cult claiming god but man, woman, or persons which is where god resides.

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