The Puritans on Marital Love: Introduction
December 9, 2016
Edward Taylor (c. 1642–1729), a pastor, physician, and poet of Puritan New England, wrote, “A curious knot God made in Paradise…. It was the true-love knot, more sweet than spice” (“Upon Wedlock, and Death of Children,” in The Poems of Edward Taylor, ed. Donald E. Stanford, abridged ed. [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963], 344). The writings of the Puritans are sprinkled with declarations of the sweetness of marital love. By “sweet” and “sweetness” they meant to describe “a pleasant or gratifying experience, possession or state; something that delights or deeply satisfies” (Webster’s Dictionary). They delighted in the love of God and in every form of love commanded by God among mankind. In particular, they rejoiced in the love shared by husband and wife, and called married couples to love each other romantically, wholeheartedly, and perseveringly.
This may come as a shock to twenty-first-century minds; not many people today would use “Puritan” and “love” in the same sentence. Though evangelicals have become much more aware of the positive heritage of the Puritans, thanks to scholars such as J. I. Packer and his book, A Quest for Godliness, and literature produced by publishing houses such as Banner of Truth Trust and Reformation Heritage Books, the common cultural perception of the Puritans remains negative, a perception informed only by what the Puritans opposed. One prominent dictionary defines the noun “Puritan” first as “a member of a Protestant group in England and New England in the 16th and 17th centuries that opposed many customs of the Church of England,” and second, “a person who follows strict moral rules and who believes that pleasure is wrong.” We are quick to overlook that fact that perhaps the most well-known sentence ever written by the Puritans is, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q&A 1).
The Puritan view of marital love was overwhelmingly positive because it was informed by the Bible, the written Word of the God who instituted marriage at the time of our creation and regulated it by His commandments. As Packer says, “They went to Genesis for its institution, to Ephesians for its full meaning, to Leviticus for its hygiene, to Proverbs for its management, to several New Testament books for its ethic, and to Esther, Ruth and the Song of Songs for illustrations and exhibitions of the ideal” (A Quest for Godliness, 263). They let the practices, duties, and ethics of marriage flow out of Scripture.
All duties of a married couple were to be performed devotedly, kindly, and cheerfully (William Gouge, Of Domestical Duties, 85). In particular, the Puritans emphasized that love was the mutual duty of both husband and wife, indeed, the foundational duty of marriage. William Gouge (1575–1653) wrote, “A loving mutual affection must pass betwixt husband and wife, or else no duty will be well performed: this is the ground of all the rest” (Of Domestical Duties, 163). “As for love,” said William Whately (1583–1639), who wrote two books on marriage, “it is the life, the soul of marriage, without which it is no more itself, than a carcase is a man; yea, it is uncomfortable, miserable, and a living death.” Whately described marital love as “the king of the heart,” so that when it prevails, marriage is “a pleasing combination of two persons into one home, one purse, one heart, and one flesh” (A Bride-Bush, 7).
Whately observed, “Love is the life and soul of marriage, without which it differs as much from itself, as a rotten apple from a sound [one] and as a carcass from a living body; yea, verily it is a most miserable and uncomfortable society, and no better than a very living death” (Whately, A Bride-Bush, 31). Likewise, Henry Smith (1560–1591) declared, “Unless there be a joining of heart and a knitting of affections together, it is not marriage in deed, but in show and name, and they shall dwell in a house like two poisons in a stomach, and one shall ever be sick of another” (Works, 1:22). “Without the union of hearts,” George Swinnock (c. 1627–1673) wrote, “the union of bodies will be no benefit” (Works, 1:472). William Secker (d. c. 1681) quipped, “Two joined together without love, are but two tied together to make one another miserable” (“The Wedding Ring, A Sermon,” 263). Henry Scudder (c. 1585–1652) therefore advised those who were married to “love each other as [their] own souls with a Christian, pure, tender, abundant, natural, and matrimonial love” (The Godly Man’s Choice, 72). In order to survey Puritan teachings on marital love, we will consider three basic emphases: love must be spiritual, superlative, and sexual.