As we've seen, the Puritans had a rich understanding of Christian marriage (part 1, part 2, part 3). In this final post, I'd like to show that they also believed marital love must be sexual. Both marital partners should give themselves fully to each other with joy and exuberance in a healthy sexual relationship marked by fidelity. Reformers such as Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin re-established this aspect of marriage by abandoning medieval Roman Catholic notions that marriage was inferior to celibacy leading to “religious” (clergy, monks, nuns) and “profane” (laity) classes of Christians, that all sexual contact between marital partners was only a necessary evil to propagate the human race, and that any procreative act that involved passion was inherently sinful. This negative view was rooted in the writings of the ancient church fathers, such as Tertullian, Ambrose, and Jerome, all of whom believed that, even within marriage, sexual intercourse necessarily involved sin (see Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 261).
Puritans preachers taught that the Roman Catholic view was unbiblical, even satanic. They cited Paul, who said that prohibition of marriage is a “doctrine of devils” (1 Tim. 4:1-3). Puritan definitions of marriage implied the conjugal act. For example, William Perkins (1558-1602) defines marriage as “the lawful conjunction of the two married persons; that is, of one man and one woman into one flesh” (“Christian Oeconomy,” 419). The Puritans viewed sex within marriage as a gift of God and as an essential, enjoyable part of marriage. William Gouge (1575-1653) said that husbands and wives should cohabit “with good will and delight, willingly, readily, and cheerfully” (Quoted in Ryken, Worldly Saints, 44). “They do err,” added 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” (“Christian Oeconomy,” 423).
Perkins went on to say that marital sex is a “due debt” or “due benevolence” (1 Cor. 7:3) that married persons owe to their spouses. That debt must be paid, 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 bond between Christ and His church. Second, married couples must “cherish one another” intimately (Eph. 5:29) rather than having sex in the impersonal way of 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; Song 1:1; Gen. 26:8; Isa. 62:7).” In this context, Perkins particularly mentions kissing (“Christian Oeconomy,” 423-427).
Other Puritans stressed the romantic side of marriage as they compared the love of a husband to God’s love for His people. Thomas Hooker (1586–1647) wrote, “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” (The Application of Redemption, 137).
Rightfully so, the emphasis on finding romance within marriage (rather than in extramarital relations, common in the Middle Ages) has been attributed to the Puritans. Herbert W. Richardson wrote that “the rise of romantic marriage and its validation by the Puritans represents a major innovation within the Christian tradition” (Nun, Witch, Playmate: The Americanization of Sex, 69). And C. S. Lewis said, “The conversion of courtly love into romantic monogamous love was largely the work of... Puritan poets” (“Donne and Love Poetry in the Seventeenth Century,” in Seventeenth Century Studies Presented to Sir Herbert Grierson [Oxford University Press, 1938], 75). Thus the Puritans emphasized that marital love, in addition to being spiritual love, must also be sexual love. In this way, they embraced God’s gift of marriage as the superlative or highest form of human love known on earth. Though the Puritans honored the sexuality of marriage, they did not reduce marriage to sex. Rather, they maintained a view of marital love as broad as life itself. Marital love must fill every room of the home and spill out into the world.