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The Sex and Puritans in American History


In the paper “The Puritans and Sex”, Edmund S. Morgan (1942) seeks to persuade readers that the American squeamishness regarding the question of physical intimacy is not affected by the religious views of Puritans. In this regard, the author argues that the popular misconception concerning the Puritans’ overly strict attitudes towards sex is wrong. Indeed, a brief literature review reveals that even almost 80 years after the article’s publication, such an opinion is common not only among average citizens but also among scholars (for instance, see Papandrea, 2018). For this reason, the current essay intends to restate the four arguments that prove Morgan’s main assertion and discuss how the paper under review helps to understand American history better. Moreover, it is important to analyze how the author’s interpretation of history applies to the XXI century.

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Puritans’ Real Sex Attitudes

There are generally four major points that Morgan introduces to support one’s initial assertion. Firstly, the scholar maintains that Puritans, in reality, saw sexual intimacy between partners as the natural state of human existence but considered that God allows such kind of relation only between officially married couples. Therefore, it can be concluded that the topic of sex was not deliberately excluded from the social discourse but rather was morally and religiously shaped. Secondly, Morgan argues that physical intimacy between husband and wife was viewed as pleasure similar to eating and drinking and, thus, was not excessively controlled and restricted. The only rule concerning sex restrained people from praising this activity more than the servitude to God.

For this purpose, married couples were motivated to prioritize spiritual connection with each other for the sake of deeper faith more than sexual relations. Yet, the author states that the latter was not negated as unimportant or shameful. Finally, Morgan notes that although people were heavily punished for physical intimacy with someone else except their husbands/wives, the Puritans considered such action as inherent to human nature. Therefore, not only is it evident that solely unlawful sexual relations were viewed as shameful, but also that the negative attitudes towards them arguably did not exceed those towards other sins.

The Paper’s Contribution to My Understanding of History

The paper significantly contributes to my understanding of the historical period under review as it provides a deep analysis of the cases from New England in the XVII-XVIII centuries. The author not only reveals the truth behind misconceptions about Puritans’ attitudes towards sex but also allows the readers to understand the social, religious, and judicial structure of the American cities. For instance, it is shown why adultery and fornication were common among the people regardless of the strict legislature. In this respect, the author states that many people came to America without their partners and, thus, could not satisfy their physical needs in a religiously and morally appropriate manner. Additionally, many servants were unable to marry during their service or without their masters’ consent which led to sexual relations without marriage.

The Paper’s Significance to the Modern Reader

In my opinion, except for the obvious signs of the current research, Morgan’s study reveals how people’s interpretation of the past may be oversimplified. Puritans’ influence in shaping Americans’ attitudes towards sex still seems relevant, but it may not be the main reason or not among the main reasons behind such sentiments (Stone, 2017). Therefore, Morgan yet again shows the readers the importance of careful examination of historical facts and the importance of a critical view of commonly accepted conceptions about the world around them.


Overall, this essay analyzed Morgan’s main arguments regarding the misconceptions of Puritans’ views on sex. It is found that Puritans considered physical intimacy as normal and inherent to human nature and one of the equal pleasures of life with food and drink. Additionally, it is argued that the paper provides examples of the public, religious and judicial structure of the society, which increases the readers’ understanding of the historical period. Finally, it is concluded that the author invites modern readers to be more critical of historical concepts and facts.


Morgan, E. S. (1942). The Puritans and sex. The New England Quarterly, 15(4), 591-607.

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Papandrea, M. R. (2018). Sex and religion: Unholy bedfellows. Michigan Law Review, 116(6), 859-880.

Stone, G. R. (2017). Sex and the constitution: Sex, religion, and law from America’s origins to the twenty-first century. Liveright Publishing Corporation.

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