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Puritanism: A Legacy Disdained by Historians and Sullied with the Devil’s Victory in Salem

Puritan Sexuality: Recovering the Biblical Perspective

Ironically and contrary to the caricatures about them, the Puritans were reformers, indeed revolutionaries, against the Medieval Catholic distortions of Biblical sexuality.10 Both Luther and Calvin had ended monasticism and celibacy as central Christian ideals. But the Reformers were quickly overwhelmed with the responsibilities of establishing Protestant life in face of immediate contention and warfare. It was the Puritans, a century later, who had the time to elaborate a new and Biblically centered theology of sexuality.

Puritans reversed the Catholic understanding of marriage as intended for procreation only. For instance, in Medieval Catholic theology it was taught that it was a sin to have intercourse with one’s wife once she was pregnant, because the “intention” of marriage was fulfilled in pregnancy. In fact, for a period the Church declared that normal sexual relations between husband and wife could be a “venial sin”—a minor sin.11 Puritan thinkers and theologians, to the contrary, argued that marriage was for companionship (sexual) and friendship, plus procreation. Puritans cited the fact that in Genesis the first reason for the creation of Eve was companionship for Adam, only after which came the command to procreate (Gen. 2).12 Puritans writers also helped create a revolution in the Western ideal of romantic love. In the Middle Ages, the theme of romantic love, or “courtly love” as it was called, was invariably associated with adulterous relationships. This was due partly to the prevalence of arranged marriages (recall the plot of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliette). But English Puritan writers, and other Anglicans, served at the forefront of refocusing the romantic love ideal to “eligible singles” and between husband and wife.13

The greatest Puritan poet of all, John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, rightly understood that traditional Catholic suspicion of sexuality and the allegorical (and de-sexed) interpretation Song of Solomon were wrong.14 In Paradise Lost he presented the sexuality and love between Adam and Eve as representing God’s original intention and a model for Christian marriage.15 Thomas Hooker (1586-1647), New England Puritan pastor and founder of the Colony of Connecticut, wrote about the love between husband and wife in terms no Catholic cleric would dare.

The man whose heart is endeared to the woman he loves…dreams of her in the night, hath her in his eye and apprehension when he awakes, museth on her as he sits at the table…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.16 All this points to the fact that Puritans celebrated love and marital sex in a way that was, affirming, Hebraic and biblical. They even encouraged remarriage after the loss of a spouse. They did, however, draw biblical bounds around sexuality, and, for instance, abhorred any type of public display of sexuality. For this belief in modesty modern writers continue to berate them as prudes and anti-sex.

Puritanism and the Biblical Work Ethic

John Calvin made major contributions to the recovery of a biblical work ethic for the Christian layperson—the very thing absent in the Medieval tradition of spirituality. The model community he established in Geneva was controversial, but it was a success in an area Calvin did not imagine. Its biblically centered theology of work began to disperse the anti-commerce prejudices of traditional theology and established the pattern for the coming prosperous Europe. Christians could pursue the devout life and labor in any lawful craft without guilt that they had missed the “way of perfection” of celibate, monastic life.

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Category: Church History, Pneuma Review, Summer 2013

About the Author: William L. De Arteaga, Ph.D., is known internationally as a Christian historian and expert on revivals and the rebirth and renewal of the Christian healing movement. His major works include Quenching the Spirit: Discover the Real Spirit Behind the Charismatic Controversy (Creation House, 1992, 1996), Forgotten Power: The Significance of the Lord’s Supper in Revival (Zondervan, 2002), Agnes Sanford and Her Companions: The Assault on Cessationism and the Coming of the Charismatic Renewal (Wipf & Stock, 2015), and The Public Prayer Station: Taking Healing Prayer to the Streets and Evangelizing the Nones (Emeth Press, 2018). Bill pastored two Hispanic Anglican congregations in the Marietta, Georgia area, and is semi-retired. He continues in his healing, teaching and writing ministry and is the state chaplain of the Order of St. Luke, encouraging the ministry of healing in all Christian denominations. Facebook

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