Beacon Street Diary blog

Congregationalists and Sex

Now that I have your attention, here's something to think about. In spite of all the stereotyping about Puritans as repressed, angry woman-haters, we really don't know what they'd make of our world today. I'm guessing they'd be repelled as anybody at the coarseness we now take for granted, the easy vulgarities on public media and in the conversations we overhear during the course of a day. You don't have to be a religious prude, I think, to feel a sense of loss. We do know that the Puritans thought about sex a lot, and I don't mean just the daydreaming kind. They knew it was important, powerful, and needed to be everybody's concern — it had to be a community matter, not shouldered by isolated individuals.

I used to teach women's history and often used A Midwife's Tale, a film based on Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's book about Martha Ballard and her life in rural Maine during the late 1700s. There were a few fairly detailed childbirth scenes in the movie, which I'm sure my young students did not forget easily. I remember one in particular — Martha and the women of the town were attending an unmarried woman and, as was the practice at the time, at the height of labor asked her to name the father. This young girl did, though not with the extra adjectives one would imagine, and everyone took note. But no one was standing with a scarlet "A", getting ready to shame the couple. Naming the father was simply in everyone's interest: a man was now on record in front of the community, and it would be his responsibility, not just theirs, to support the mother and child. And witnesses were there to see that he did.

The twentieth-century descendants of the Puritans didn't have anywhere near their frankness around sins of the flesh, but they did inherit a basic understanding. The two great passions of the Congregational churches, up through the 1950s and 1960s, were ecumenism — cooperation between churches and denominations — and human rights.

They were tireless promoters of Christian unity, even at cost to themselves, and as early as the 1930s in the vanguard of civil rights, worker's rights, the rights of refugees, and the rights of farmers. The Commission for Social Action, established in 1934, was their signal achievement, an agency staffed by rebels and visionaries who would put the average mainline functionary today to shame. They recognized that religion had to be about more than my particular denomination or my personal relationship with God — people of faith had to care about the good of everybody.

And though it might seem a little outside of things for the Congregational Library & Archives to house a collection about the UCC Coalition, a post-1957 organization for gay and lesbian rights, it is historically accurate. We're not, of course, an advocacy organization and we have no political agenda. And I'm sure that there is no single Congregational opinion about the goals of the Coalition, much less the recent Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage. We shouldn't expect one. But there is no brick wall separating the concerns of the present from those of the past. There is instead an internal logic, a tradition of care for the common good — one that the New England ancestors might recognize and, I think, genuinely respect.

-Peggy Bendroth