The Puritans fled from England to America in large numbers during the 17th century to escape the religious persecution of the Church of England. While the average age of marriage among the Puritans was much older than was typical during this time period -- and not all Puritans got married -- specific ideals were very much established for the institution.
Marriage as a Contract
Puritans differed dramatically from the Church of England on the subject of marriage as a civil -- vs. religious -- contract. Puritans did not see marriage as a religious sacrament or institution, but rather as a legal contract unrelated to one's religious beliefs. As a result, the Puritans believed that a marriage should be performed by a magistrate, or officer of the state, as opposed to a member of the clergy.
Because Puritans did not see marriage as essentially tied to religion, they did not view the end of a marriage as a sin. Rather, they allowed marriages to be ended if the agreements made at the start of the marriage were broken. A divorce could take place in instances that included adultery, desertion or acts of physical cruelty. Some states, such as Massachusetts, also said that a marriage could be ended if there was a failure to provide.
The Puritans did not arrange marriages between young people, and in fact believed that the basis of a marriage should be true love. By Puritan standards, a person needed to give her own free will to be married. Prior to marriage, a couple followed a strict courtship process to get to know each other. The suitor had to ask permission to marry from a girl's parents, and the couple were encouraged to keep a physical distance between themselves during the courting process. Courtship was often supervised as well. Despite these restrictions, the purpose of the practice was still for the pair to fall in love.
Sex Outside of Marriage
Sex was not allowed outside of marriage in the Puritan belief system. The physical distance required during courtship further emphasized this restriction. People who were found to have had sex outside of marriage faced strict punishments, with men facing a harsher fate than women.
Puritan weddings were not lavish affairs, and ceremonies did not feature holy vows or wedding rings. Rather, a wedding was a simple civil process that did not last very long. After the newly married couple signed the court registry, a small dinner would follow.
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