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Image Massachusetts Marriage Ways: The Puritan Idea of Marriage as a Contract

Marriage customs in Massachusetts were not what one might expect to find in a new country. Despite the vast abundance of land, young people did not rush to tie the knot. By comparison with other colonies, age at first marriage was remarkably advanced. After the first few years of settlement, men tended to marry at the age of 26, and women at about 23. These patterns persisted in the Puritan colonies for nearly a century.1

Another anomaly appeared in the proportion of young people who never married at all. In most societies where age at marriage is advanced, the proportion never marrying tends to be high. This pattern did not appear in New England. Marriage was delayed tenyears beyond puberty but nearly everyone married—94 percent of women, and 98 percent of New England men.2

This pattern which seems natural to us today was very different from western Europe in the mid-seventeenth century. In that rigid and rank-bound society, many young men and women were never able to marry at any age. As many as 27 percent of England’s adult population reached maturity without marrying.3

From the start, things were different in the Puritan colonies. In the town of Rowley, Massachusetts, historian Patricia O’Malley concludes from close research that “almost every child who reached adulthood” in the seventeenth century found a marriage partner. In the first generation, there was only one old bachelor in the town.4 The marriage imperative was strong in this culture. Women who did not find a partner by the age of thirty were called “thornbacks” in Massachusetts—as they had been in England. Worse, Puritans suspected that failure to marry was a sign of God’s ill favor. There was a New England proverb that “women dying maids lead apes in hell.”5

Behind these demographic patterns was a cultural idea of marriage that was unique to the Puritan colonies. The Church of England had taught that matrimony was a sacred union that must be solemnized by a priest. Anglicans also insisted that after the sacred knot was firmly tied, it could never be “put asunder” by mortal hands. Exceptions were allowed for monarchs and great lords, but for ordinary English men and women there was virtually no possibility of divorce in the seventeenth century.6

The Puritans of New England rejected all of these Anglican ideas. They believed that marriage was not a religious ceremony but a civil contract. They required that this covenant must be

“agreed” or “executed” (not “performed” or “solemnized”) before a magistrate, and not a minister. They also insisted that if the terms of the marriage covenant were broken, then the union could be ended by divorce. These attitudes became the basis of regional marriage customs throughout New England. But they were not invented in America, or even in England. William Bradford noted that they were established “according to the laudable custom of the low countries,” with which East Anglian Congregationalists were in close communication.7 They were also briefly introduced in England by Oliver Cromwell’s Civil Marriage Act of 1653.8

The Puritans required in most cases that both parents and children must give their free consent to marriage. Massachusetts courts fined children for an offense called “self-marriage,” which meant marrying without the consent of parents or magistrates. But parents were forbidden to withhold their approval arbitrarily; in some cases, children successfully sued fathers and mothers for refusing permission to marry.9

The process of a covenanted marriage began with complex rituals of courtship that were strictly regulated by law and custom. Diaries kept by Samuel Sewall in Massachusetts and Ralph Josselin in East Anglia described these rituals in very much the same way. By and large, Puritan parents did not arrange the marriages of their children. Suitors carefully sought the consent of parents before beginning a courtship, and sent small presents to ease the way. A suitor of Samuel Sewall’s daughter Judith sent the mother “a present of oranges and a shattuck [a grapefruit, a rare treat in Boston], and to my daughter Judith a Stone-Ring and a Fan.”10

Puritan males made awkward suitors. When Samuel Sewall was courting Katherine Brattle Winthrop, she asked him to help her “draw off” her glove. He bluntly refused, and made a clumsy joke that “twas great odds between handling a dead goat and a living lady.” This specimen of Puritan savoir faire suggests something of the hostility in this culture to the arts of courtship that flourished in cavalier circles.11

But in their bluff and awkward way, the Puritans cherished true love, and insisted that it was a prerequisite of a happy marriage.12 The Puritans used the expression “falling in love.” They believed that love should normally precede marriage. Their courtship rituals were designed to promote this order of events. East Anglian Puritan Mary Josselin refused a suitor partly on the ground that he was “not loving,” and her father acquiesced, even though he strongly favored the match:

Mary quitted Mr. Rhea [Rev. Ambrose Rhea, rector of Wakes Colne, Essex]. Her exceptions were his age, being 14 years older, she might be left a widow with children. She checked at his estate being not suitable to her portion … [and] he seemed to her not loving. It was no small grief to me, but I could not desire it, when she said it would make both their lives miserable.13

Customs of courtship in New England were carefully designed to allow young people privacy enough to discover if they loved one another, at the same time that parents maintained close supervision. This was the purpose of “bundling,” a European custom which became widespread in New England. The courting couple were put to bed together, “tarrying” all night with a “bundling board” between them. Sometimes the young woman’s legs were bound together in a “bundling stocking” which fitted her body like a glove.14

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.15


The apparatus of courtship in New England had a double purposeto combine close supervision by elders with free choice by the young. To that end, New Englanders invented the courting stick, a tube six or eight feet long with an open bell at each end. A New England antiquarian wrote more than a century ago, “in the presence of the entire family, lovers seated formally on either side of the great fireplace carried on this chilly telephonic love-making. One of these batons of propriety still is preserved in Long Meadow, Massachusetts.”

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.

Bundling boards and courting sticks were not merely pieces of amusing social trivia. These two ingenious folk-inventions were instruments of an important cultural purpose. They were designed to reconcile two requirements of New England courtship—the free consent of the young, and strict supervision by their elders. Both of these elements were thought necessary to a covenanted marriage.

After the courtship was complete, the ritual of the wedding in Massachusetts began with a betrothal ceremony which was called the “precontract” in Plymouth and the “contraction” in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Cotton Mather explained: “There was maintained a solemnity called a Contraction a little before the consummation of a marriage was allowed of. A Pastor was usually employed and a sermon was preached on this occasion.”16 This custom was also called the “walking out,” or the “coming out.” It was a great event in a small New England town. The intended bride was commonly invited to choose the text for the minister’s sermon with all the care and attention that a young woman in the twentieth century would select her bridesmaids’ matching dresses and shoes.

Betrothed couples were also required to post their “banns” (a public announcement) at the meeting house on at least three lecture days. Those who failed to do so risked punishment for “disorderly marriage.” If no impediment was found, the wedding was arranged, commonly for a date in November which was the favorite season in Puritan New England.17

The wedding was performed at home by a magistrate in a simple civil ceremony. There were no holy vows or wedding rings—which the Puritans disapproved. A single question was addressed to the bride and groom; when they freely answered in the affirmative, the event was over.18 The couple were required to register their marriage in a civil book kept by the town clerk. Then a small celebration followed—not a great feast, but a modest wedding dinner with bridal cakes and a cup of sack posset. The sober settlers of Massachusetts did not approve of wild wedding parties.

The clergy condemned extravagant display as “vain marriage.” The most important part of the dinner was the singing of a psalm. Dancing was sternly forbidden; so also were excessive dining and drinking.

On the wedding night, the bride dressed in a special gown, and was put to bed by friends who accompanied the couple into the chamber, and then gave them a joyous charivari with much banging and bell-ringing outside the chamber. This custom was commonly kept throughout Christian Europe—both the “chambering” and the charivari. But the marriage ways of Massachusetts in their totality were a unique amalgam of Puritan ideas and East Anglian practices. As we shall see, they differed in many important ways from other regional folkways in British America.

Divorce customs also differed from other English-speaking cultures. The Puritans recognized many grounds for divorce that were consistent with their conception of marriage. The statutes of Connecticut allowed divorce for adultery, fraudulent contract, wilful desertion and total neglect for three years, and “providential absence” for seven years. Massachusetts granted divorces in the seventeenth century for adultery, desertion, cruelty, and “failure to provide.”19 Physical violence was also recognized as a ground for divorce. Husbands and wives were forbidden to strike one another in Massachusetts; there was no such thing as “moderate correction” in the laws of this colony. The courts often intervened in cases of wife-beating, and sometimes of husband-beating too.20

These various grounds for divorce also defined the idea of marriage in Massachusetts. It was to be a close and companionate relationship, a union of love and harmony, an act of sexual fulfillment, and an institution with a firm economic base. All of these requirements were part of the Puritan idea of the marriage convenant, which could be dissolved if any of its major terms were not kept. These Puritan marriage ways were unique to New England in the seventeenth century.

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