You can leave your hat on: Scholar says Puritans were sexy

Letters reveal more passion than prudishness

john-winthrop
Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop

BOSTON (AP) — “Fifty Shades of Grey,” Puritan edition?

The famously strait-laced 17th-century sectarians who helped settle America weren’t nearly as priggish as you might think, a leading Puritan scholar says.

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 Millersville University.

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.

In 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 fervently desires.”

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 strength.”

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 children.

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.

If the average Puritan had posted a relationship status, it surely would be: “It’s complicated.” But Bremer hopes his research will help dispel enduring myths.

“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.”

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