Puritans Marriage & Religion

by Meg English

Puritans valued marriage, although some of their views and traditions differed from those of their Anglican predecessors. Unlike the Anglican ritual, marriage was a secular contract -- Puritans did not marry in church. Sex was regarded as essential to marriage, and divorce was allowed for a number of reasons.

Secular Contract

Puritans viewed marriage as a contract between two people who would agree to love each other, rather than as a union sanctioned by the church. In the 1700s, English Puritans passed an act of parliament making marriage a civil rather than a religious contract. They carried this new marriage concept to the New World where marriage was performed by a justice of the peace, not a minister. The Puritans thought marriage should be loving and happy. In her poem, "To My Dear and Loving Husband," Anne Bradstreet, a Puritan wife and mother, described her love for her husband: "I prize thy love more than whole Mines of gold. Or all the riches that the East doth hold."

Courtship

There was little time or need for courtship. Puritans arranged marriages for their children. Social status and wealth were considerations. Under the watchful eyes of parents, a ritual called bundling was often practiced usually in the future bride's home. Bundling allowed a couple to spend a night together, usually in bed, with a board between them to prevent penetration. The board was not always successful -- hasty marriages were sometimes arranged to avoid illegitimate births. Puritan men and women tended to marry at the age of 26, and women at about 23.

Sex

Puritans respected sexuality and regarded it as normal and necessary to a happy marriage. However, the Puritans were not so tolerant of sex outside marriage. Crimes such as adultery and fornication were punished severely usually with either fines or whippings. Parents responsible for illegitimate births were also punished, but not with the same severity as other sexual offenses. Sexual problems such as infidelity were accepted reasons for divorce.

Divorce

Divorce was not widely practiced by the Puritans, but was permitted in cases of adultery, fraudulent contract, willful neglect, desertion, failure to provide and physical violence. The Puritans liberalized divorce laws to prevent marriages that were destructive to family life; divorce was thus seen as a means of improving social order through protection of the family as a fundamental social unit.

About the Author

Meg English has been an education professional for more than 25 years. She has taught elementary, middle and high school students in both inner-city and rural schools. She also publishes a weekly newspaper column titled "Education Matters." English holds a doctorate in educational administration from the University of South Dakota.

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