I have recently encountered two independent assertions that Puritans were not prudes like I and most of society think they were. Either society's view of Puritans is revisionist, or the two sources I read are wrong.

The Victorian era is responsible for the false caricature of Puritanism, portraying them as cold, passionless, and unromantic. This neo-puritanism of the nineteenth century, marked by prudery and frigidity was actually a product of the anti-Christian 'Enlightenment." The rise of humanistic rationalism exalted reasoning an denigrated other aspects of the human person; feelings and emotions were repressed beneath a facade of stylized manners and rationality. Anything was permitted for the rationalist elite so long as it was appropriately concealed.

John Calvin in particular taught that the primary purpose of marriage and sex is not merely propagation of the human family but social intimacy.

The Puritans were really responsible for the elevation of the significance of sex and romance within marriage in Western culture. Spring 2013 Jubilee Magazine p. 20

The second source is the book, "Love is a Choice" p.230, which says, "Only in the last few hundred years, since the French Revolution, have reasoning and logic come to dominate the mindset of mainstream Western civilization." The book goes on to mention how Puritanism was founded on verses such as Proverbs 3:5-6, which says "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding."

Which view of Puritans is accurate? Were they Prudes or Progressives?

  • These are two sources with agendas. Jubilee is dedicated to recovering a Christian system of thought (combatting humanism). "Love is a choice" is self-help for codependents. Agendas are fine, but they facilitate confirmation bias.
    – MCW
    Jul 8, 2013 at 13:06
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    @MarkC.Wallace - fair enough, but a typical humanities and/or social sciences professor also has an agenda of painting Christianity in the blackest possible light. As far as I know, the prudishness was introduced in Victorian times; but I don't have good sources handy so no answer.
    – DVK
    Jul 8, 2013 at 16:30
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    What do you mean by Progressives? Jul 8, 2013 at 16:59
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    @FelixGoldberg I am not entirely sure what I mean by progressive there. The purpose of this question is to address which historical narrative is accurate. Only then may the meaning of progressive be explored.
    – Dale
    Jul 9, 2013 at 4:48
  • In some ways they were rather strict, you can read some of that yourself in the memoirs of Anne Hutchinson or Roger Williams. The Massachusetts Puritan colony was not averse to expelling those who did not keep with their beliefs.
    – MichaelF
    Jul 10, 2013 at 12:37

3 Answers 3


In their book, "Generations,"William strauss and Neil Howe describe the Puritans as both, "progressive" when young, "prudes" when old. This is more or less true of the so-called "Idealist" generational types, the latest of which is the Baby Boomers.

The Puritans (and other Idealists) are born after their parents have waged and won a successful war (Armada War with Spain for the Puritans, World War II for the Baby Boomers.) These children are born into a halcyon "New Age" time, and given free rein for intellectual exploration, while their parents (a different, "civic" achetype), try to make the world "work." Such Idealist generations are therefore "progressive," in their thinking (for their time), and narrow gender differences, allowing their women more participation in society than their mothers enjoyed. Idealists, including Puritans, are therefore more "romantic" than other generations.

As rising adults, Idealists, tear down society with "Great Awakenings, such as those of the 1640s, 1730s, 1830s, and 1960s, having morphed from youthful "free thinkers" into "radicals" distrusted by their immediate elders and juniors. They then spend their midlives building a new society, creating a "perfect" world (for them), and warning their children against too much "change." Their aging process takes a longer time than is true for other generations, and they become prudes at the end.

Young 19th century "Victorians" remembered the older, not the younger version of the 17th century Puritans, which is to say the more prudish one.

  • Bold analysis - I like it. Jul 10, 2013 at 21:15
  • I question the assertion that the parents of the Puritans had won a successful war against the Spanish, because the year after the Spanish Armada was defeated the English suffered a similarly crushing naval defeat of the "Counter Armada."
    – Dale
    Jul 10, 2013 at 21:37
  • @JoeHobbit: Drake and Howard won the one that counted. Otherwise we'd be speaking Spanish today.
    – Tom Au
    Jul 10, 2013 at 21:43
  • @TomAu: You only say that because of the hype surrounding the "Spanish Armada," which arises from it being the only invasion attempt of Britain in hundreds of years. Napoleon "conquered" Germany... and Germans still speak German.
    – Dale
    Jul 10, 2013 at 21:54

Dr. Peter Gay of Yale University has described the Puritans' standard reputation for "dour prudery" as a "misreading that went unquestioned in the nineteenth century." He commented that Puritans were unpuritanical and rather in favour of married sexuality, and opposed to the Catholic view of virginity/celibacy.

Gay, Peter (1984), The Bourgeois Experience: The Tender Passion, W. W. Norton & Company, p. 49, ISBN 9780393319033

Note: Progressive today carries a connotation that is much more permissive than the puritans, but that doesn't mean Puritans deserved the label Prude: Catholics and Victorians could definitely be called Prudes though. Catholics can likely trace their celibacy arguments back to Augustine, while Victorians were strongly influenced by the Enlightenment as the articles in the question mentioned. For their time Puritans could be considered progressive, but in our modern context I would describe them as balanced, which is neither prudish nor progressive.

It is fascinating that the abstinence movement of today mirrors both the Victorians and the Catholics. Puritans would be more likely to advocate healthy sexuality as God's sacred design, which would involve verbal and relational intimacy leading up to marriage instead of saying "sex is bad".


Dualism: the belief that thing of the flesh are inherently sinful while spiritual things are holy seems to be the foundation of the "sex is bad" view.

The following excerpt is from p.48-49 of Gay's book as I found it on Amazon preview.

Heine, self-appointed public defender of the flesh who excoriated "unnatural" Christianity for inventing both sin and hypocrisy, thought that in its beginnings the "Christian-Catholic world view" had been necessary as a salutary reaction against the horrifying colossal materialism that had developed in the Roman Empire and threatened to destroy all of man's spiritual splendour." Asceticism had bee the appropriate antidote to unchecked erotic self-indulgence. "Flesh had become so imprudent in that Roman world that it may have required Christian discipline to tame it." After Trimalchio's dinner, that splendid and horrifying orgy that is the centrepiece of Petronius's Satyricon, men needed a "starvation diet like Christianity."

This, if rather slapdash, is a brilliant intuition. The attitude of Christianity toward sex, after all, was not without its own ambivalent history; some theologians, at least, had defined sensuality, prudently circumscribed as the impulsion to innocent and even praiseworthy activities. Principled advocates of sacerdotal celibacy set the clerical elite who followed the call to self-denial apart from the faithful whose place was in the world, to beget more good Christians. Many chose to remember St. Paul's saying that it is better to marry than to burn; ascetics who thought it better to burn than to marry always remained in the minority. St. Jerome, to be sure, had denounced as an adulterer the husband who has passionate loving intercourse with his wife, and his ferocious pursuit of lust into the very lair of lawful marriage found disciples through the ages. But there is little evidence that it made much difference in the sexual practices of sound Christians. That churches of most denominations reprobated sensuality; even married sensuality, cannot be dismissed as malicious slander spread by disrespecting unbelievers. But thousands of pious men and women seem to have found it possible to combine the most unquestioning submission to religious doctrine with a considerable measure of erotic satisfaction.

This matters to any analysis of nineteenth-century love, for Christian values continued to dominate the lives of millions of nineteenth-century bourgeois. Certainly Christianity found many ways of adapting its ascetic ideals to the exigencies of human nature. The old Roman Catholic belief of Mary's immaculate conception, significantly raised a to dogmatic status by Pope Pius IX in 1854, is a historical piece of denial. It freed at least one woman from the burden of original sin, even though her parents, St. Joachim and St. Anne, had conceived her in the ordinary human manner. Coupled with the dogma that Jesus' mother remained a virgin and that his father was God, these legends clustering around Mary must be the boldest, most picturesque family romance ever concocted. They embody, and deftly elaborate, children's typical refusal to believe that their parents engage in sexual intercourse and their favourite secret fiction that, in any event, their parentage is supremely exalted. Yet secular literature written in the Catholic centuries was often an energetic, sometimes coarse tribute to the pleasures of sexuality. Andreas Capellanus's much0quoted treatise, De amore, which sums up chivalric notions of love, flatly describes the erotic emotions as a physical passion, a keen suffering, generated by looking and thinking about the body of a person of the other sex; Capellanus insists that only those "capable of doing the work of Venus" are fit for love. This was one view, a secular view, characteristic of the French cour circles late in the twelfth centruy; around the same time, Peter Lombard, teh celebrated Italian theolgian, could voice distaste for all, even for married sensuality by echoing the stringent words of St. Jerome: "All ardent love for one's own wife is adultery." (Catholic) Christian reflections on love moved between these two poles (acceptance and asceticism), though there was in the prescriptive literature, unremitting emphasis on the sinfulness of sex. Hence sexuality remained, even for the devout, something of a problem. Centuries before Andreas Capellanus and Peter Lombard, St. Augustine, whom no one would accuse of relaxed morals after his conversion, had argued that sexual intercourse itself has once been innocuous enough, in the Garden of Eden. It was only after Eve's disobedience, with the Fall, that lust came into the world; before that, Adam and Eve had copulated without sin, without any admixture of concupiscence.

Protestants would make their own accommodations. The Puritans, for all their reputation of dour prudery (a misreading that went unquestioned int he ninteenth century) did not frown on married joys; they were not puritanical intheir view of love. "The Use of the Marriage Bed," wrote one early massachusetts divien, Deward Taylor, is "founded in mans Nature"; others, like John Cotton, entheusiastically seconding Taylor, ridiculed the Catholic cult of virginity.

Asceticism had been the appropriate antidote to unchecked erotic self-indulgence (in the Roman Empire).

  • ...just to clarify for me, the Puritans would still have been against physical intimacy (ie sex) before marriage, yes? Jul 9, 2013 at 17:25
  • @Clockwork-Muse yup.
    – Dale
    Jul 9, 2013 at 19:22
  • "... in favour of married sexuality". And Catholics were not? Can you quote verbatim what Gay said? Jul 9, 2013 at 20:05

The answer is a qualified "Puritans were not prudes." That isn’t to say they had anything resembling a “progressive” approach to sexuality. They encouraged teens to have topless sleepovers, but they considered masturbation a capital crime.

Puritans were frank about sexuality to the point that Victorians censored their writings:

Sex among the Puritans was very far from being puritanical in the popular sense. Copulation was not a taboo subject in seventeenth-century Massachusetts, as it later became in the nineteenth. It was discussed so openly that the writings of the Puritans required heavy editing before they were thought fit to print even in the mid-twentieth century.

They saw sexuality as an unambiguously valuable part of life:

The Puritans never encouraged sexual asceticism. They did not value chastity in the Roman Catholic sense as highly as other Christians did. The Boston minister Samuel Willard explicitly condemned “the Popist conceit of the excellency of virginity.” John Cotton wrote that “women are creatures without which there is no comfortable living for man: it is true of them what to be said of governments, that bad ones are better than none.”

But sexuality was only valid within marriage:

Sex outside of marriage, however, was regarded very differently. The Puritans followed the teachings of the Old Testament in believing that adultery was a sin of the deepest dye... Their criminal codes made adultery a capital crime, and at least three people were actually hanged for it in the Puritan colonies.

People took prohibitions on premarital sex seriously, as Massachusetts had one of the lowest rates of prenuptial pregnancy in the Western world. And almost all Puritans eventually married: 94% of women and 98% of New England men.

Love was an important Puritan value, so they did encourage couples to court before marrying. One device for this is quite quaint:

Another regional custom was the “courting stick,” a hollow pole six or eight feet long, with an earpiece at one end and a mouthpiece at the other. The courting couple whispered quietly to one another through this tube, while members of the family remained in the room nearby.

... yet another might be somewhat shocking to even some modern sensibilities. The Puritans encouraged topless sleepovers:

Other folk inventions were the bed board, bundling stocking and bundling apron. A courting couple were securely “bundled” together in a bed with a wooden board between them. Sometimes the young woman’s legs were securely fastened together in a bundling stocking, or wrapped in a bundling apron which left the upper body exposed.

An old New England ballad tells us:

But she is modest, also chaste / While only bare from neck to waist / And he of boasted freedom sings / Of all above her apron strings.

Finally, the Puritans had little use for sexuality that couldn't lead to contraception:

Puritan attitudes were almost maniacally hostile to what they regarded as unnatural sex. More than other religious groups, they had a genuine horror of sexual perversion. Masturbation was made a capital crime in the colony of New Haven. . . And they condemned contraception, coitus interruptus, and basically any form of sex that couldn’t lead to contraception with more urgency than did other groups.

And they saw bestiality everywhere. In some New England towns, the birth of deformed piglets convinced the townsfolk that someone must have committed bestiality. They'd generally end up hanging a man of poor reputation.

In short, Puritan sexuality needs to be understood in its own terms, as it can't be described by any modern attitudes to sexuality.

Source: David Hackett Fischer, Albion's Seed

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