The Puritan’s View of Sex in Marriage

from Feb 14, 2014 Category: Articles

There are many caricatures and misinformation when it comes to how Christians through the ages have viewed sex in marriage. In Dr. Joel R. Beeke’s Living for God’s Glory: An Introduction to Calvinism, he dedicates a chapter to marriage, in which he discusses the Puritan’s view.

Marital love must be sexual, so that both marital partners can give themselves fully to each other with joy and exuberance in a healthy relationship marked by fidelity. Reformers such as Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin established this aspect of marriage by abandoning the medieval Roman Catholic attitudes that marriage was inferior to celibacy, that all sexual contact between marital partners was a necessary evil to propagate the human race, and that a procreative act that involved passion was inherently sinful.

This negative view was rooted in the ancient church and based on the writings of such notables as Tertullian, Ambrose, and Jerome, all of whom believed that, even within marriage, intercourse necessarily involved sin. This attitude toward marital intimacy, which dominated the church for more than ten centuries, inevitably led to the glorification of virginity and celibacy. By the fifth century, clerics were prohibited from marrying. Two classes of Christians emerged: the “religious” (i.e., the spiritual clergy), which included monks and nuns who vowed to abstain from all sexual activity, and the “profane” (i.e., the secular laity), who, being unable to rise to the noble heights of virginity or celibacy, were conceded the right to marry.

Puritan preachers taught that the Roman Catholic view was unbiblical, even satanic. They cited Paul, who said that the prohibition of marriage is a doctrine of devils (1 Tim. 4:1–3). Even the Puritan definitions of marriage implied the conjugal act. For example, Perkins defines marriage as “the lawful conjunction of the two married persons; that is, of one man and one woman into one flesh.” In contrast with Desiderius Erasmus, who taught that ideal marriage abstained from sexual intercourse, Cotton said in a wedding sermon that those who call for marital abstinence follow the dictates of a blind mind and not those of the Holy Spirit, who says that it is not good that man should be alone.

The Puritans viewed sex within marriage as a gift of God and as an essential, enjoyable part of marriage. Gouge says that husbands and wives should cohabit “with good will and delight, willingly, readily, and cheerfully.” “They do err,” adds Perkins, “who hold that the secret coming together of man and wife cannot be without sin unless it be done for the procreation of children.”

Perkins goes on to say that marital sex is a “due debt” or “due benevolence” (1 Cor. 7:3) that a couple owes to one another. That must be shown, he says, “with a singular and entire affection one towards another” in three ways: “First, by the right and lawful use of their bodies or of the marriage bed.” Such physical intimacy by “holy usage” should be “a holy and undefiled action (Heb. 13:4)… sanctified by the word and prayer (1 Tim. 4:3–4).” The fruits of God-honoring, enjoyable sex in marriage are the blessing of children, “the preservation of the body in cleanness,” and the reflection of marriage as a type of the Christ-church relationship. Second, married couples must “cherish one another” intimately (Eph. 5:29) rather than having sex in an impersonal way as an adulterer with a prostitute. Third, a couple should be intimate “by an holy kind of rejoicing and solacing themselves each with [the] other in a mutual declaration of the signs and tokens of love and kindness (Prov. 5:18–19; Songs 1:1; Gen. 26:8; Isa. 62:7).” In this context, Perkins particularly mentions kissing.

Other Puritans stressed the romantic side of marriage as they compared the love of a husband to God’s love for His own. Thomas Hooker writes, “The man whose heart is endeared to the woman he loves, he dreams of her in the night, hath her in his eye and apprehension when he awakes, museth on her as he sits at table, walks with her when he travels and parlies with her in each place where he comes.” He adds: “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.”

The emphasis on romance within marriage (rather than in extramarital relations, as was common in the Middle Ages) has often been attributed to the Puritans. Herbert W. Richardson writes that “the rise of romantic marriage and its validation by the Puritans represents a major innovation within the Christian tradition.” And C. S. Lewis says, “The conversion of courtly love into romantic monogamous love was largely the work of… Puritan poets.”

The Puritans took the matrimonial duty of sex so seriously that failure to extend “due benevolence” by either partner could be grounds for church discipline. There is at least one case on record in which a husband was excommunicated for “neglecting his wife” by not having intercourse with her for a long period of time.