We have an image of puritans as cold, severe, hyper-strict and religious people, and while that’s not entirely false, it’s also not entirely true. From the very beginning, early Americans were thinking about sex. The courts were burdened with hundreds of cases in which people broke the laws regarding sexual morality, such as premarital or extramarital sex or pregnancy out of wedlock. There was also a panic around a rise in bestiality!
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Further Reading on Puritans and Sexuality:
Other Episodes of Interest:
- Selling Sex: 19th Century New York City Brothels and Prostitution
- Marie Stopes: Married Sexual Pleasure, Birth Control and Eugenics
- Marquis de Sade: Sex and Violence in the French Revolution
Transcript of Puritans and Sex:
Puritan Sex: The Surprising History of Puritans and Their Sexual Practices
Written and researched by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD Produced and recorded by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD and Marissa Rhodes, MLS, PhD Candidate
Sarah: Today we’re talking about sex and the Puritans. I know … that probably doesn’t actually sound all that sexy. I promise it’s not going to be a boring episode, all about prudes in the missionary position, probably still wearing their black clothes and buckle shoes! The Puritans were far more sexually adventurous that you might suspect, so much so that they challenged traditional family values and caused religious crises. And maybe caused just a leeetle bit of a panic about bestiality. It’ll be fun, I promise.
I’m Sarah Handley-Cousins
And I’m Marissa Rhodes
And we’re your historians for this episode of DIG
Sarah: We have an image of puritans as cold, severe, hyper-strict and religious people, and while that’s not entirely false, it’s also not entirely true. From the very beginning, early Americans were thinking about sex. Even before English people had arrived in the New World, they were envisioning the very land in a sexual way, describing it as “a fair virgin, longing to be sped and meet her lover in a nuptial bed.” In a way, they thought of it as a kind of Eden, a unpopulated wilderness that needed people to procreate.
For example, a book written in the 1600s called The Isle of Pines described a young man named George Pine, who was shipwrecked with several women – a teenage girl, two maidservants, and an enslaved woman. After a while, George and the maidservants start having sex, “at first in private, but after, custom taking away shame, there being none but us, we did it more openly as our lust gave us liberty.” Soon, he was also having sex with the teenage girl and the enslaved woman; before long, he and his nearly 2000 children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren have populated this island.
Marissa: The idea that the New World, and the new Puritan church in Massachusetts, would be a den of sexual deviance was a common theme in England as well. A popular poem published in the 1600s suggested that the new Church was going to make “all things common, to avoid strife,” and therefore “each man may take another’s wife, and keep a handmaid too, if need, to multiply, increase, and breed.” Part of this was just glee at the hypocrisy of the Puritans, who were known for being hyper-strict about sexuality. (I think there are better reasons for this having to do with religious rivalries which led to the English Civil War and the Commonwealth years. Puritans IN England were treated the same way. When someone broke the strict sexual morality laws and news reached the mother-country, they had a field day.) Of course, much of this was exaggerated for a laugh, but even the leading men of the Massachusetts colony had to agree that sexual mores were being broken. William Bradford, who served as governor of Plymouth, admitted that there was a “breaking out of sundry notorious sins.” The courts were burdened with hundreds of cases in which people broke the laws regarding sexual morality, such as premarital or extramartial sex or pregnancy out of wedlock.
Sarah: And some puritans, like Bradford, actually saw this as a good thing. First, the huge numbers of sex cases in the courts testified to the fact, in Bradford’s mind, that the church and authorities were doing a great job rounding up people for breaking laws regarding sex! Second, he saw it as proof that the Puritans were excellent Christians – so good, in fact, that Satan wanted to tarnish them in the eyes of the world by tempting them to bone. Puritan authorities also faced difficulty policing sexuality in Massachusetts because not every single person who lived in the colony was a pious Puritan, especially in outlying rural areas – where people tended to have ad-hoc customs regarding sexuality – and in more urban places, especially sea ports – where proximity to visitors and long stretches with sailor-husbands off at sea meant that many women saw great opportunities in running informal brothels.
Marissa: One way puritans tried to grapple with this was by blaming England for sending them bad migrants – such as five “beastly sodomitical boys, who confessed their wickedness not to be named” who came across the Atlantic in 1629. The boys were shipped right back to England.
Sarah: But the problem of so-called sexual deviance was homegrown, too. In one way, it was an outgrowth of immigration patterns. While the first Puritan settlers in Massachusetts were extremely devout, as generations went on, younger colonists pushed at social boundaries and created their own cultures. Plus, as years went on, more and more of the people who moved to Massachusetts from England were not Puritans, which diluted the religiosity of communities and also gave younger people non-religious (or less religious) friends and partners. Members of different classes had different approaches to sexuality – servants, for instance, were less worried about Puritan norms. Servants often took advantage of moments when their householders were gone to hook up – during church or militia drills, for example. Of course they also sometimes snuck out and did it on the wood pile at night. One reason for this is that servants were expected to delay marriage and therefore “legitimate” sexual contact until after their terms of service. This was not always practical.
Marissa: Young people also took part in something called “junketing,” which was when a group of young friends – girls and boys – gathered to laugh, dance, tell dirty jokes, and sometimes engage in debauchery. These junkets could often run afoul of colonial and community authorities, but even for Puritans, there was sort of an understanding that young people will do this stuff. When one group of young people got in trouble for carousing in 1676, an older man complained that the authorities were being too harsh, commenting that “a young man could never be made an old man.”
Sarah: That reminds me of petting parties from the 1920s. See, we have these panics about loosening sexual morality over and over – and really, it’s not all that new! That’s why I roll my eyes whenever curmudgeons start with the “kids these days…” because ..puhhhlease you’re not the first generation to complain about the corruption of a younger one and you won’t be the last.
Junketing was most concerning to Puritan authorities because of the dancing, which was seen as hypersexual and too tempting. Increase Mather, one of the famous (infamous?!) clan of Puritan preachers warned his followers that “the very motion of the body which is used in dancing has a palpable tendency to that which is evil.” He also said in sermons, which were later printed and distributed as a book, that “mixed dancing” between men and women “was utterly unlawful,” “a scandalous immorality,” “a recreation fitter for pagans and whores and drunkards than for Christians.” But of course, people kept right on dancing!
(I can’t help but think that Footloose was actually based on Puritan dance panics, LOL.)
Marissa: As we mentioned before, some of the anxiety was also about premarital sex. This wasn’t new. It had long been custom in England that engaged couples could have sex before they were married, which meant a lot of children being conceived before marriage. In New England, marriage, and even engagements, took on a more formal tone than they did in other American colonies such as Jamestown. Couples had to publicly announce their decision to marry, and then be formally married by a licensed individual – eventually, that official became a clergyman (but that wasn’t common until the end of the 17th century!). This didn’t stop people from being intimate before marriage. In fact, sex could often be a form of exchange between a man and woman: a woman would consent to sex if the man would agree to marriage; men who made such promises in the heat of passion could be legally charged for breaking a contract to marry if they went back on their promises! A significant number of the people disciplined for sex crimes were charged with having sex and/or conceiving before marriage, even when they married the person they had had sex with. They often tried to argue that they had been doing nothing wrong, harkening back to the older, English custom of allowing sex with fiancés. In these cases, the courts felt that their role was to bring the accused to the knowledge of their sin, get them to repent, and then publicly shame them in a way that would send a message to the rest of the community.
Sarah: There was also a disagreement between officials and the people who had the authority to formalize a relationship into a marriage. Some New Englanders, especially those living on the outskirts, came to agreements among themselves to be married, to be divorced, and to remarry, without ever coming into contact with the state. There was a case in 1665 of a woman who had been in a long-term relationship and had children with a man who abandoned her. Later, she entered into another long-term relationship with another man, lived with him for almost twenty years. At some point, she was accused of living in a “pretended” marriage and brought to trial. The central question was over whether this couple had the ability to simply declare themselves married. Allowing people to declare themselves married seemed like a slippery slope to sexual abandon.
Marissa: Much later, in the late 18th century, the question of marriage and sexuality led to a sort of middle ground with the practice known as bundling. It became harder and harder to control the sexual actions of the younger generations, and so premarital sex was less often policed. As people moved out into the country, and cities grew, there was less social pressure – your neighbors couldn’t watch you and turn you in, which was a major feature of Puritan culture during the 17th century. Instead of religious and social concerns, New Englanders were increasingly driven by economic concerns. So what does sexuality have to do with this? Well, bundling was a practice where young men and women would court – date- at their parents’ homes. As one English visitor described while traveling through New England wrote, “At their usual time the old couple retire to bed, leaving the young ones to settle matters as they can, who after having sat up as long as they think proper, go to bed also, but without pulling off their undergarments, in order to prevent scandal.” So essentially, these young men and women got all snuggly in bed together, but while still wearing their undies. I think we all know what they were actually doing – and that actually was the point. Puritan parents weren’t fools!
Sarah: When I teach this, it makes my students so giggly and uncomfortable and I love it. It just blows their minds that the Puritans were letting their kids get cozy with their boyfriends and girlfriends in the next room.
Anyway. What was the purpose of bundling? It was actually pretty straightforward: young people were going to have sex. There was little parents, church officials, or legal authorities could do about that – and they had tried for generations. So instead, in an era where economic concerns were more pressing than religious ones, it was really important to be able to ensure that if your daughter wound up pregnant, you knew who to pin it on so you didn’t end up with an extra mouth to feed and an unmarriageable daughter. It was a form of social control without telling kids not to have sex – which as everyone knows, does not work.
Marissa: The historian Richard Godbeer, who is sort of the grandmaster of studying Puritan sexuality, discovered this fantastic song from the late 1700s about bundling. I’m just going to read a couple of quotes here:
“In several places where they’ve heard/their preacher’s bold aloud disclaim/that bundling is a burning shame/this too was cause of direful rout/and talked and told of all about,/that ministrer’s should disapprove/sparks courting in a bed of love/so justified the custom more/than e’re was heard or known before”
They’re sort of acknowledging that the religious authorities hate this and rail against it, but all it actually does is make it more desirable!
Here’s another one:
“A bundling couple went to bed/with all their clothes from foot to head/that the defense might seem complete/each one was wrapped in a sheet/but o! this bundling’s such a witch/the man of her did catch the itch/and so provoked was the wretch/that she of him a bastard catch’d”
I mean, that’s fantastic. And it just totally blows out of the water our ideas about pious and chaste Puritans! Although, granted, we also need to note again the diversity of New England society by the late 1700s; not everyone who lived in these areas was devoutly religious. Plus, after generations, the religious fervor had died down and there was less deference to religious authority.
Sarah: It wasn’t just premarital sex that Puritan religious authorities had a hard time controlling. Sodomy, which could both refer to any kind of same-sex sex , or anal/oral sex between a man and a woman was of course highly taboo, and illegal in Puritan New England.
I want to pause here for just a moment to clarify something and try to get you all – you all out there listening to us – to think like a historian. It’s really important to remember that just because there are laws or strictures against something, does not necessarily mean that that act was rejected by all members or even the majority of a society, and it doesn’t mean that it was ever charged against a person, or whether people were ever convicted. So the existence of laws against sodomy aren’t actually enough evidence for us to be able to say that sodomy was highly policed by the Puritans – but that’s exactly what we often assume about the Puritans!
The only thing that laws against sodomy tells us for sure is that people were doing it. Because people don’t make laws against things that never happen. The puritans were actually not as strict about sodomy as you might imagine. Richard Godbeer offers this great example of a man named Nicholas Sension, who was a relatively well off man in a town in Connecticut. When he was arrested in the late 17th century for sodomy, his long history of soliciting sex from other men suddenly came tumbling out. He had tried to forcibly get men to submit to him, or had grabbed men’s genitals. When he had to share a bed with another man while traveling – which was a very common and usually non-sexual event – he tried to come on to his bed-mate. He had clearly been doing this for a long time – in fact, he had been brought up on charges of sodomy decades before, but nothing had really come of it.
Marissa: So what that actually tells us is not so much that the Puritans were so strict that they had these barbaric laws against sodomy – it actually tells us that people weren’t all that concerned about Sension’s proclivities or aggressive style. He had been arrested in the late 1840s, and then again in the late 1870s – but in the meantime, multiple people eventually testified that he had come on to them, touched them, or whatever in the meantime. Why hadn’t anyone turned him in?
Sarah: Nicholas Sension was a fairly well-off man, he had a position of respect within the community. He was well-liked. Even some of the young men who gave statements about incidents with Sension talked about him fondly. Richard Godbeer refers to this unwillingness to turn Sension in as a desire to not tear the fabric of the community. Because Puritan communities were so close, and people were so tightly interconnected, there was a real desire to maintain that before punishing or ostracizing people. Sension was part of the community; his victims, if you want to call them that, were mostly young and in positions of inferiority. People felt unable to accuse Sension because of his social standing, or felt as though it was none of their business.
This didn’t mean that 17th c. New Englanders were totally down with queer folks, or there were no consequences for people who violated codes of sexual conduct. After all, Sension was arrested, put on trial, and sentenced to a harsh beating. What it does tell us is that there were many factors that went into New Englanders deciding that a sex crime was worth punishing.
I think it’s fascinating how we often believe that at earlier points in American history, there just weren’t gay people because society would have so obviously ostracized or punished them. But that is such an oversimplification of people in previous centuries! Of course there are horrific and numerous examples of how gay people were treated monstrously, but also examples of gay people being tolerated, or even integrated into society. People are complex and always have been.
Marissa: We don’t want to run the risk of painting an overly rosy picture of Puritan opinion on sodomy, though. It was considered a crime against nature. We should also explain something about how the Puritans defined the word sodomy. Today, we use the term sodomy to refer to anal intercourse, generally between two men, but not always. But we only started using that word in that way in the mid to late 19th century. In early America, the term sodomy referred to any sexual act that was aberrant or deviant.
Sarah: Right, and that means that it could refer to more than just anal sex. In fact, the category of ‘sodomy’ included one of the biggest sexual taboos there is: bestiality.
Marissa: Yeah, like you said earlier, when we think about Puritans, we think about chaste, prudish folks – definitely not bestiality.
Sarah: Yep, people doing it missionary, clothes still on, shoe buckles rattlin’.
Marissa: But actually, as many of us might guess, bestiality happens in all societies, and has across time. Alfred Kinsey found, in his famous Kinsey Report, that 8% of his male subjects had had sexual contact with animals, with the number shooting up to almost 50% for men in rural areas! (Yet another element of rural society that cityfolk like myself know nothing about… like 4H and ATVs and burning couches for fun.)
Sarah: Just as Puritans worried that living in the New World would lead to sexual wantonness, they worried that living in the wilderness would lead to increased bestiality. Sexual interaction, or even the suspicion of sexual interaction, between animals and humans had touched off panics in Europe from time to time for centuries. In fact, in the late medieval period and early modern period, animals were often seen as capable of seduction and luring people into sexual acts, and would often be held responsible in actual trials. Many animals were convicted and punished – sometimes by burning at the stake – for the belief that they had lured people into acts of bestiality. Actually, in some of those cases, the animal was executed while the person – almost always a man – was let go because they were too naïve, too stupid, or too otherwise incapable of understanding the weight of their infractions. Our very fine colleagues over at the Footnoting History podcast have a great episode on Medieval Animal Trials, which covers some of these earlier panics. In fact, even having sex in what we might call “doggy style,” and what scholars call the “dorsal position” was punishable by ten days of bread and water because it was too similar to the ways animals have sex, and put the gentleman’s … bits … precariously close to the anus. Sex in this position was considered, at least in medieval Europe, to fall into the category of sodomy.
Marissa: But we shouldn’t overstate the frequency of these events – they were pretty rare in early modern England. Only 11 cases were tried at the Old Bailey in London between 1674 and 1834, which is extremely low compared to Sweden, which charged 1500 people with bestiality between 1635 and 1754, and executed 500 of those. The English were actually more concerned about same-sex sex.
Medieval and early-modern religious authorities were, however, worried about making sure that the line between human and beast was clear. They worried that when humans did certain things that were animal-like, they blurred the lines between human and animal. Humans – men, in their view – were made in God’s image, and God had endowed humans with certain qualities specifically to place them above other living things. There are writings, for example, of theologians advising that people not swim, because fish swim, and humans aren’t fish. They also worried about how certain “uncivilized” environments might blur the lines between human and animal even further. Men should trim their beards, wear proper clothing, and perform work and other activities during the day, all to make sure that they avoided any association with the animal world – wild hair, going shirtless, or even doing things at night were all animal-like. So bestiality wasn’t just rejected because people thought it was gross, or deviant, but because it was, as one judge described it in 1607, “committed against the ordinance of the Creator, and order of nature.” And again, I just want to point out that when this judge described it in this way, the crimes he believed went against the ordinance of the Creator were “mankind with mankind, or with brute beast, or by womankind with brute beast,” so he understood bestiality and same-sex sex as each being the same kind of perversion of God’s plan.
Sarah: So you can see how when English folks landed in North America, and had to live in very close proximity to wilderness, one of their fears was a worry that people would begin to become uncivilized – that they would somehow begin to become more animal-like. And in some ways, their fears were realized. Just a few years after the Mayflower landed and the Plymouth colony was established, an English lawyer named Thomas Morton arrived in Plymouth. Morton wasn’t a Puritan, and he did not appreciate the strict, religious atmosphere of the colony, so he moved a few miles North to another community called Mount Wollaston. He didn’t get along with them either, so he eventually just gave up on finding a community he liked and instead took over Mount Wollaston. How did he do that? It’s a little complicated, but essentially he led a mutiny of indentured servants against the leader of Mount Wollaston, declared this new group the real community, and intimidated the former authorities into fleeing. Morton then set to making this new community, which he named Merrymount, into his own utopia. (You know how we love utopian communities!!) He hated the Puritans, and set about creating a society that was their opposite: the settlers of Merrymount lived with Algonquin Indians, intermarried and had sexual relationships with Native women, and happily brewed and drank a large quantity of beer. Their Puritan neighbors were horrified, and saw this as clear evidence of what happened to people when they failed to resist the lure of nature. Morton was arrested, sent into exile on an island and destroyed the village. William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth colony, even referred to their actions as “beastly practices,” which sort of indicates how they understood living with Native people as not at all different from living like animals.
Marissa: Not long after, concerns about colonists devolving into animals grew into a full-blown crisis. Historians have identified that between 1640 and 1647, New England experienced a bestiality panic, in which 8 men were brought to trial for crimes of bestiality, and 4 were executed. Even after this period, bestiality cases were not uncommon. In 1642, Salem, Mass. authorities brought to trial a young man named Thomas Hackett, who had been witnessed having intercourse with a cow – and not only that, but on a Sunday. (GASP!) Town officials slaughtered the cow in front of Hackett before he himself was hanged. This was a tactic to both shame the convicted party, but also to demonstrate to the community the gravity of the crimes. Also in 1642, Thomas Granger was convicted for having sex with a horse, a cow, two goats, five sheep, two calves, and a turkey.” As part of the trial, Granger had to point out each of the animals he had had sex with, which were then slaughtered in front of him, before Granger was executed. Why kill the animal? It was actually the punishment dictated by the Bible: In Leviticus 20:15, it reads “If a man lie with a beast, he shall surely be put to death, and ye shall slay the beast.”
Sarah: One way that New England officials had of detecting instances of bestiality was the offspring of livestock – occasionally, a foal or piglet would seem to bear a resemblance to its human owner. George Spencer was put on trial, convicted, and executed because one of his pig bore a piglet that had a bad eye, that looked similar to a Spencer’s own disfigured eye. In my favorite case of all time, a poor jerk named Thomas Hogg – yes, Hogg – was accused of impregnating a pig because the piglets appeared like him. Because they didn’t have an eye witness, they instead turned to the pig herself to provide evidence. They brought the pig to Hogg in his prison cell and made him touch her in a sexual manner to see if she would react – and apparently she did. Nevertheless, Hogg refused to confess to the act, and without corroboration, he was not executed.
Marissa: Some historians have drawn comparisons between these bestiality panics and the witchcraft panics that took place in colonial New England, and there are definitely some important similarities. In the book of Exodus in the Bible, witchcraft and bestiality are lumped together as two of the three crimes to be punished with death.
Exodus 22:16-20 reads: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live; Whosoever lieth with a beast shall surely be put to death; He that sacrificeth unto any god, save unto the Lord only, he shall be utterly destroyed.”
Accusations of witchcraft often included animals, the famous “familiars” that seduced women to do the devil’s work, were often described in sexual terms. Historically, women accused of witchcraft were accused of having sex with evil animal-hybrids, like werewolves, demons, or dogs. However, very few women were ever charged with bestiality in colonial New England – instead, these sexual relationships were all understood as part of the path to witchcraft, and most of them were unprovable. There were no eye witnesses to a werewolf or demon having sex with a woman. There’s also an important (and sad) overlap here for women who bore disabled babies or deformed, stillborn fetuses. Often when a woman delivered such a “monster,” they were assumed to have either consorted with the devil or had been impregnated by an animal, and in either case, sometimes accused of witchcraft. Instead, the two charges – witchcraft and bestiality – became gendered ways of controlling colonists. Bestiality was charged against men who challenged sexual norms of Puritan society, while witchcraft was charged against women who challenged authority. (or those who burdened small communities financially.)
Sarah: There’s another important difference between witchcraft and bestiality. After the Salem Witch Trials in 1692, there really were no other significant witch trials in the United States. But bestiality trials continued into the 18th and even the 19th century. In the 18th century, fears about bestiality began to spread out of New England, with a cluster taking place in the 1750s and 1760s in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. And although bestiality trials sort of vanished in the late 18th century as religious morality was gradually replaced with the Enlightenment emphasis on logic and reason, there were suddenly two new cases in the 1790s. Two men, John Farrell and Gideon Washburn, both elderly men in New England, were tried and convicted for committing acts of bestiality. This is pretty weird, because historians have suggested the era of the Early Republic – or what historians call the period between roughly the end of the Revolution and 1850s-ish – was marked by a degree of tolerance of sexual deviance. Now, they weren’t open-minded maybe in the same way today’s society might be, but they weren’t prosecuting people right and left, and they were more willing to look the other way when someone pursued sex, say, with people of the same sex. So why were they convicting old men for apparently having sex with dogs and horses? Well, one theory is that it was part of a reactionary panic to the Enlightenment itself, and the sexual revolution that some believed it was bringing about. Enlightenment thinkers rejected the dogmatic obsession the church (especially the Catholic Church) had with sexuality, and encouraged people to think about sexuality as a healthy and normal part of human nature.
Marissa: This didn’t sit well with everyone – there was a severe reaction in Europe, specifically England, against deviant sexual behavior, with the greatest emphasis placed on same-sex sex. Some English men believed that deviant and promiscuous sexuality had contributed to the French Revolution, and took steps to crack down on any kind of extra-marital sex, even going so far as to propose a bill that would have made adultery punishable by prison time. There was a panic over sodomy, which resulted in more men in England being executed for sodomy than murder in the year 1806. But none of this was really happening in the United States, which was sort of doing the opposite. Even though it was still a capital offense, Americans only very rarely prosecuted men for sodomy or sexual crimes – just to recall back to the beginning of this episode, we talked about the late 18th-century practice of bundling, which was extremely tolerant, for example, of pre-marital sex. The trials of Farrell and Washburn were the result of a fear that Puritan ideals and religious authorities were losing power and influence in New England, and being supplanted by the turn toward reason and secularism. Prosecuting these two elderly men was a way of trying to reach back to the heights of religious power in New England in the 17th century.
Sarah: Policing sexuality is always less about the infraction of the actual act, than it is about larger cultural, political, and religious anxieties – and that was absolutely the case with bestiality in colonial and Early Republic New England.
The Maypole that Infuriated the Puritans http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/maypole-infuriated-puritans/
Richard Godbeer, “Courtship and Sexual Freedom in Eighteenth-Century America,” OAH Magazine of History (July 2004), 9-11.