It was Bob Dylan who sang . . . You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. If he wrote the song today the line might be, You don’t need to watch Desperate Housewives to know marriage is in trouble.
As the ribald limerick has it, If you get the milk for free. . . why buy the cow? It seems that the abundance of the free milk of un-committed sex is taking its toll on the institution of marriage. The “pill,” the “patch,” abortion and antibiotics have all but severed the connection between sex and marriage and disease. So-called “reproductive technologies” have made it possible for women to prevent, with a high degree of precision, an unwanted pregnancy. The same technologies allow men un-tethered dalliance in their rutting twenties. Thus young people in our society are having sex earlier while postponing marriage until later in life. Marriage itself is going out of style.
The marriage rate (the percentage of people per 100,000 who get married in a given year) has dropped 43% since 1960. According to one university study, more than half of those who do get married live together beforehand. Throw no-fault divorce into the mix and what we call “traditional marriage” is virtually a vestige from the past. “Relationships” now come in gradations and marriage is the second-to-last step in a couple’s commitment to one another: dating—mating—cohabitating—civil union—marriage. . . and then comes divorce, the final coordinate in the parabola of a modern romance.
Oh that we could be romantic like the Puritans. Say what? Weren’t the Puritans stuffy, fussy and, well, puritanical? Weren’t the Puritans the ones who never committed a pleasure? Didn’t they get into trouble for amorous behavior? Weren’t they Christians of old who didn’t want anyone to have any fun? Admittedly, the Puritans were a bit different than we are. But when it came to love and marriage they could teach the most romantic among us.
Consider the words of Cambridge Puritan Thomas Hooker:
The man whose heart is endeared to the woman he loves…dreams of her in the night, hath her in his eye and apprehension when he awakes, museth on her as he sits
at the table, walks with her when he travels. . . . 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 Puritans, you see, were rescuing marriage from the shackles of the Middle Ages. The medieval church lacked high regard for marriage and largely reduced its purpose to the bearing of children. As Leland Ryken points out in his book Worldly Puritans, the church of the Middle Ages praised virginity and disparaged marriage. Ambrose, for example, said that married people ought to blush at the state in which they are living. Chrysostom claimed that Adam and Eve didn’t have sex until after they sinned in the garden. My favorite is the notion proffered by Bishop Gregory of Nyssa. He claimed that sexual desire was a consequence of the Fall and that had the first couple not sinned, the human race would have reproduced itself by some harmless mode of vegetation. (One can only imagine what Saturday Night Live might do with that. . .)
Early in the 16th century the Purtians begin to appear and with a united voice they praised the virtues of sex and marriage. In a sense, the Puritans restored the notion of friendship to marriage. Henry Smith said a man must chose his love, and then he must love his choice. Daniel Rogers said, Husbands and wives should be as two sweet friends, bred under one constellation, tempered by an influence from heaven. . . saying, see, God hath determined us out of this vast world each for other. William Whately wrote, As for love. . . it is the life, the soul of marriage. Of course this seems self-evident to us, but friendship and love was far from the minds of 16th century husbands and wives. The Puritans brought friendly intimacy back into the home.
The Puritans went on to rescue sex from procreation. After a millennium of prudery these pastors and theologians praised sexual pleasure within marriage. In one New England Puritan church we even have a record of a man receiving church discipline when his wife complained to the elders that he was neglecting their sex life. In the end, he was excommunicated! The terms “conjugal duty,” “cohabitation,” and “due benevolence” all come from the Puritans. Each of these terms speaks of the goodness, and necessity, of sex in marriage. William Ames said one of the duties of marriage is the mutual communication of bodies. William Gouge understood intercourse between a husband and a wife to be one of the most proper and essential acts of marriage.
Yes, these quotations from the Puritans are funny. Gouge went on to say that marital sex was to be conducted with good will and delight, willingly, readily, and cheerfully. Funny, yes, but the Puritans were on to something that is pertinent to our times. I saw a cartoon recently which portrayed a couple in bed, each working feverishly over their laptops. The caption was a play on D.I.N.K.S., double income no kids. It said, D.I.N.S. (Double Income, No Sex).
On the one hand the Puritans extolled marriage, but on the other they were very realistic. They spoke of a family being a “little church.” A family was to function joyfully, and beautifully. But the Puritans understood the challenge of marriage. John Oxenbridge said that men and women should prepare for marriage by limiting the expectation and by recognizing that everyone marries a child of Adam, that is, a sinful human being.
To those of us who are married, let’s make it a habit in our unions to practice “due benevolence” in the broadest meaning of that term. Let those of us who are husbands cherish our wives as Christ cherishes the church. Let those of us who are wives submit to our husbands as the church submits to Christ. One anonymous Puritan writer said that in marriage we. . . may joyfully give due benevolence one to the other; as two musical instruments rightly fitted do make a most pleasant and sweet harmony in a well tuned consort.
Are you married? Let the music play. Let it play loudly for all to hear. Are you unmarried? Make it your ambition to prepare for and to pray for what the Puritans called the “holy estate of matrimony.” Marriage is not ultimate and life can be very good without it. We will, indeed, be happy in God for eternity without earthly marriage (Matthew 22:30). But the proverb is right; He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord (18:22). Yes.