The Puritans, Sex, and Pleasure -- By: Daniel Doriani

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 53:1 (Spring 1991)
Article: The Puritans, Sex, and Pleasure
Author: Daniel Doriani

The Puritans, Sex, and Pleasure

Daniel Doriani

It has long been customary in some circles to vilify the Puritans for legalism, joylessness, an ascetic capitalism, and prudery. But their vigor, bravery, and accomplishments have continued to draw scholars’ attention, so that a fairer picture of the Puritans has, with resistance, been emerging.

Old accusations still flow from newer pens. Lyle Koehler claims the Puritans condemned the “toys” of material existence such as fine food and entertainment and had a “moral distaste for sensual pleasure.”1 Lawrence Stone accused English Protestants and Catholics of believing that “sensuality itself, the lust of the flesh, is evil.” Christianity as a whole, he continued, and the Puritan ethic in particular, maintains that “the pleasures of the flesh were peculiarly sinful.”2

Since the 1930s Christian and non-Christian scholars have been laboring to exonerate the Puritans of such charges. The Puritans, they maintain, were disciplined and principled, but not legalistic. They favored moderate enjoyment of food, drink, and recreation, but did not endorse asceticism. The Puritans, their defenders declare, had a healthy attitude toward marital love, including sex, and must not be confused with the Victorians, who were indeed prudish.

Some Christian researchers and writers, however, have passed from the necessary task of rehabilitation to the dubious one of hagiography. The Puritans’ accusers were entirely wrong, they claim. Percy Scholes, already in 1933, argued that the appearance of Puritan opposition to pleasure stemmed from their sabbatarianism, and especially their resistance to King James’ Book of Sports, which virtually required Englishmen to engage in games and recreation on Sunday. Scholes, after researching Puritan social habits, concluded, “I have failed to find evidence of their opposing any kind of pleasure as such.”3

Ronald Frye wrote that classical Puritanism “inculcated a view of sexual life in marriage as the ‘crown of all our bliss’” such that Puritan divines educated England in a more liberal view of marital love.4 More recently Leland Ryken has credited the Puritans

with rejecting medieval attitudes toward sex. “Married sex was not only legitimate in the Puritan view; it was meant to be exuberant.” Sex was good, created by God for human welfare and even pleasure, and the Puritans were not squeamish about it, Ryken claims.

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