Weird History

Interesting Facts About the Sex Lives and Beliefs of the Puritans  

Kellen Perry
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What did the Puritans think of sex? Was it all just like The Scarlet Letter? Actually, the sex lives of the Puritans were more progressive than you might think. As long as sex was happening between two married straight people, the Puritans, in fact, thought that sex was literally a gift from God. That might not sound super-progressive in the 21st century, but as historian Richard Godbeer puts it, "It's an important and radical departure from traditional Catholic teaching, which then saw sex, even within marriage, as morally tainted, as almost a necessary evil."

But sex in puritan New England was also all about procreation, with any “non-procreative” acts outlawed. So Puritan sex beliefs centered on two straight people trying to make babies. But within that limited realm, the Puritans thought sex should be enjoyable and loving. Read on for some more interesting facts about the sex lives and beliefs of Puritans.

Wearing 'Scarlet Letters' Was, In Fact, a Thing
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Photo:  Boston Public Library/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

While Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter may not be a totally historically accurate book (it was written in 1850, after all), convicted Puritan adulterers did, in the words of one historian, “forever display the nature of their crime upon their person.” The 1658 law reads like this (historical “misspellings” corrected for clarity):

“Wear two capital letters, namely A D, cut out in cloth and sewed on their uppermost garments on their arm or back; and if at any time they shall be taken without the said letters while they are in the government so worn, to be forthwith taken and publicly whipped.”

While the initial legislation didn’t specify the color of the letters, one known court case specified that the letters be red. In addition to the public shame, the law specified that the adulterer be “severely punished by whipping” twice.

Married Sex Was Meant to Be 'Exuberant'
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Photo:  John Dunstall/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

As long as it was between a married man and woman, the Puritans actually thought sex was pretty great. Leland Ryken, author of Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were, says that “Married sex was not only legitimate in the Puritan view; it was meant to be exuberant.” There are a ton of quotes from prominent Puritans expressing the joy of sex. One anonymous Puritan said married sex is like “two musical instruments rightly fitted" that "make a most pleasant and sweet harmony in a well tuned consort.”

Clergyman William Gouge (pictured) referred to married sex as “one of the most proper and essential acts of marriage” and said married couples should have sex “with good will and delight, willingly, readily, and cheerfully.” Puritan writer Alexander Niccholes in 1615 said that in marriage “thou not only unitest unto thyself a friend and comfort for society, but also a companion for pleasure.”

Premarital Sex Was Severely Punished
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Photo:  Internet Archive Book Images/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Historical documents from the Plymouth Colony show that a couple having premarital sex was worthy of harsh punishment. One couple, Thomas and Joane Pynson, was caught in 1640, but it’s unclear how. They may have gotten pregnant only a few months after getting married, which was a common telltale sign. Their punishment? “Thom to be whipt at the post, and Joane his wife to sit in the stocks.”

Bestiality Would Get You Hanged (and the Animal Slaughtered)
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Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The Puritans took what the Bible said about bestiality very seriously. In fact, the only person put to death for a sex-related crime in the Plymouth Colony was a teenager named Thomas Graunger, who was hanged in 1621 after admitting to "buggery” with “a mare, a cow, two goats, five sheep, two calves and a turkey.” What does Leviticus 20:15 say about the crime?  "And if a man shall lie with a beast, he shall surely be put to death: and ye shall slay the beast." So that’s exactly what the Puritans did, making Thomas suffer the further indignity of pointing out which of the animals he had relations with. How else would they know which ones to slaughter and bury in a pit?