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Essay

A Puritan Valentine

By February 13, 2016 2 Comments
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I like the invitation Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell posed in this space last Tuesday to “share” (“just share”?) religious terms that we personally want to give a long rest because of their overuse or sorry connotations or imprecision or whatever.

Steve already named my #1 candidate: wrath, as in God’s. This one especially comes to mind during Lent, the long late-winter trudge toward Good Friday. I don’t know if my boyhood ministers actually treated the topic this way, but what I remember—put bluntly—is that God was so angry at us that he beat the hell out of (or would that be into?) Jesus, which should make us feel pretty damn bad; only if we put faith in Jesus we won’t be damned after all. Or, as one of my colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh summarized it: the God of the Bible says, love me or I’ll kill you. Years later, when I was leading my college’s semester in Britain, housed at a very conservative seminary in the Church of England, I heard one of the ordinands pick up the theme in a lunch-time prayer: “Lord, we thank thee for thy wrath!” To which I wanted to respond in full Monty Python mode: “And oh Lord, reward those who most relish it  with plenty of it, in thy merrrrcy.”

But the weather and the foul politics of this season don’t set the mood for a careful, nuanced treatment of how and why divine wrath is deployed in Scripture, so let’s save it for another time. Maybe after theological professionals have steered this amateur to sounder ground. Let’s lighten up. Let’s honor the morrow, Valentine’s Day. Now, your humble author may be the least likely of the scribes on The Twelve to speak publicly of romantic love with any sort of credibility. I’m more likely to provoke ridicule than sweet sighs.

So let the historian take over. Since this is supposed to be a site for Reformed reflection, and since I’m all writer’s-blocked on an essay about colonial New England, let’s bring out a sweet and sober Puritan love poem: “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” by Anne Bradstreet. Puritans and Valentine’s Day may seem just as unlikely a combination as Jim Bratt and the same, but that’s because the public—despite  generations of historiography to the contrary—regards Puritan as prudes and thinks that The Scarlet Letter is about sex instead of honesty and community. (A is for Arthur, folks, not adultery.) How, then, did seventeenth-century Massachusetts attain some of the highest fertility rates in the world? How was it than Anne Dudley herself reared eight children? Sure, she got an early start, having married Simon Bradstreet when she was sixteen. But there was something in the water—and the soil—that made New England one of the healthiest places on the planet (unless you were Indian). New England women truly lived in Lake Wobegon; they were strong and well nourished, and tended to survive the grim reaper of childbirth better than did their counterparts in other places.

But for our purposes the most striking thing was in the air—that is, in the words from Puritan pulpits, amplified by those in print and pastoral conversation. For detail, read the first part of Richard Godbeer’s The Sexual Revolution in Early America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004). You’ll find Puritan ministers strongly encouraging, even celebrating, not just, umm, the output but the input of reproduction. Between husband and wife, of course; extra-marital couplings were something else again. Yet we mustn’t let Hester Prynne’s punishment for that violation distract us from the joyful duty that would have been her right with the Reverend Dimmesdale had they been joined in holy wedlock. “Duty,” indeed. Read in Godbeer of the divorces granted to wives for their husbands’ insufficient attention to, or performance at, “conjugal fellowship.” Just as Puritan churches, along with Quaker meetings, were the only religious assemblies in colonial America that were ready to discipline husbands for spousal abuse as well as wives for straying, so the Puritans established sexual satisfaction as a woman’s right in marriage.

Not that alone, of course. There was to be “holy conversation,” mutuality in child-rearing, faithful attention to household economy, etc., etc. But we can infer from Anne’s poem that Simon done good nights as well as days, making their union a foretaste—as the poem’s final line indicates—of heavenly bliss.

Anne Bradstreet wrote this poem sometime between her migration to Massachusetts in 1630 and the publication of her first volume of verse, The Tenth Muse, Lately Sprung Up in America, in 1650. Prune Valentine’s Day of its papist origins and she would join me in wishing you a happy one.

   “To My Dear and Loving Husband”

by Anne Bradstreet

If ever two were one, then surely we.

If ever man were loved by wife, then thee.

If ever wife was happy in a man,

Compare with me, ye women, if you can.

I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold,

Or all the riches that the East doth hold.

My love is such that rivers cannot quench,

Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.

Thy love is such I can no way repay;

The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.

Then while we live, in love let’s so persever,

That when we live no more, we may live ever.

 

Source: The Complete Works of Anne Bradstreet (1981)

 

 

 

 

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