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TheTransformation of Sexual Morality in"Puritan"NewEngland: Evidence from NewHaven Court Records, 1639-1698 R. W.Roetger By allaccounts the itinerant sawyer William Harding who practiced his trade inearlyNewHaven was a "lewd and disorderly person." Although his origins areunknown, Harding made an indelible impression on residents of this puritansettlement and officials entered his illegal activities into court documentsfor posterity. Those records suggest that one of his principal "trades" was corrupting those around him. He was responsible on at least oneoccasion for causing servants to steal. On another, his "pernicious counsel" prompted a young couple to violate the law and be cast out of the plantation. Finally, in 1643,when Harding's misdeeds caught up with him, he wasconvicted of "a great deal of base carriage and filthy dalliances with divers young girls:' For yielding to Harding, Ruth Acie, Jane Andrews and Martha Malbon, whom he entertained at a venison feast, were whipped for theirunrighteous behavior. The licentious sawyer's penalties included a severe whipping, monetary damages to the girls' parents, and banishment from the community. 1 The Harding affair was one of the earliest recorded cases of sexual malfeasancein New Haven, an episode that upset godfearing parents and masters of the recently settled "Wilderness Zion:' By contrast, the behavior ofGideon and Lydia Andrews elicited an altogether different response. Nearly sixdecades after his great-aunt Jane was "corrected" for her dalliance withHarding, the court fined Gideon and his wife for premarital sexual Canadian Review of American Studies, Volume 15,Number 3, Fall 1984,243-257 244 R. WRoetger intercourse. Different attitudes toward sexual misconduct saved the couple from corporal punishment and their offense raised few if any eyebrows. In fact, the Andrews' remained well entrenched in New Haven society forthe rest of their married life; she joined the Church in 1731and he filledanarrav of town offices, including, ironically, the position of tithingman. 2 • Although each of these offenders violated the same law, the handlingof their cases suggests that standards of sexual morality in New Havenshifted during the seventeenth century. The extent to which New England societv changed before 1700has received much scholarly attention in recent decade·s and numerous studies have demonstrated how "Puritan" political, ecclesiastical and familial institutions transformed within a generation or two of settlement. 1 Morality specifically has not received as much notice, although proper moral conduct was considered so important to spokesmen for the "New England Way."Generally, scholars have addressed morality indirectly within the context of larger themes of social change and, as a result, our knowledge of what constituted acceptable moral behavior in seventeenth-century N;w England remains incomplete. Writers have, of course, argued for some time that puritans respondedto sexual immorality with unmerciful sanctions like whipping or social ostracism. In the 1930s Henry B. Parkes advanced this traditional notion usinga qualitative sampling of court records and emphasizing the puritans' uniformlv high moral standards. A decade later Edmund S. Morgan revised thisview b~ showing that even "saints" could approach sex realistically. Among other things, he concluded, magistrates treated offenders with "patience and understanding~' adding that puritanical squeamishness about sex wasmorea product of the Victorian era than an accurate reflection of attitudes shared by early New Englanders. In 1971David Flaherty introduced a chronological perspective lacking in previous investigations. Standards of sexual morality may have been high originally, but they were difficult to sustain over time.In essence, Flaherty described a "moral passage" that began in the late seventeenth century signified by a decriminalization of the existing moral code.4 An analysis of evidence from New Haven court records further illuminates this transformation by clarifying issues touched on, but not fully developed, b! previous writers. Legal documents are well suited to the task because they provide detailed descriptions of sexual practices and reveal patterns of enforcement unavailable in traditional sources. Although sermons such as Samuel Danforth's The C,y of Sodom Enquired Into .... (1674) and Increase Mather's An Arra\\' Against Profane and Promiscuous Dancing .... (1684)openly condemn sexual misconduct, they reflect prescriptions typical of Jeremiads, not actual practice. Similarly, diaries and journals which include references to immorality generally employ sensational examples. Church records are also of limited use because they provide information on sanctions...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 243-257
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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