The New England understanding of marriage differed radically from that in Old England, where marriages were subject to church law, people were wedded by a minister, and divorce was forbidden. In New England, marriage was considered a civil contract subject to state regulation. People were married by justices of the peace rather than by ministers. New England permitted divorce, which fell under the jurisdiction of the civil courts and legislatures. Following what they believed to be the laws of God, these courts and legislatures reversed the situation existing in England: under no circumstance were permanent separations permitted; rather divorces were granted (permitting the person to remarry) when either party to a marriage could prove that the other had neglected a fundamental duty. A consociation of ministers at Cambridge specified the circumstances that might permit divorce: natural incapacities or insufficiencies that utterly frustrated the end of marriage (i.e., procreation); an existing marriage to another; adultery; incest; affinity through fornication before marriage with a relative of one’s spouse; malicious desertion; and presumption of death in the case of a prolonged absence. The number of divorces granted in New England were relatively few, only twenty-seven between 1639 and 1692.
Puritans married after achieving maturity. Men were usually in their mid-twenties and women in their early twenties. Marriage was in part a business decision because the family was an economic unit, especially in agricultural society. Men, women, and children had gendered tasks to perform on the family farm. The survival of the family depended upon them. In describing the husband’s authority and the wife’s submission, it becomes necessary to consider the part love played. Love was indeed, as one minister put it, “the Sugar to sweeten every addition to married life but not an essential part of it. Love was Condition in the married Relation,” but it was more than sugar. The minister did not mean to imply that love was luxury. It was a duty imposed by God on all married couples. It was a solemn obligation that resulted directly from the marriage contract. Yet, husbands and wives were also cautioned to moderate their love for each other in the knowledge that highest love of all Christians was reserved for God himself. When a widow or widower showed immoderate grief at the death of their spouse, it showed that they had not kept their love within bounds. Not all Puritan couples had to worry about limiting their affection. Many found it more difficult to love each other enough than to keep their love within bounds.
Thus, Puritan love was not so much the cause as it was the product of marriage. Puritan diaries and letters suggest that the decision to marry was usually made by a man or woman without reference to any particular match. “Now about this time,” wrote Thomas Shepard, “I had a great desire to change my estate by marriage; and I had been praying 3 yeare before that the Lord would carry me to such a place where I might have a meet yoke fellow.” Thomas Walley showed less concern that Shepard about finding a suitable mate. Once he had decided to get married, finding a wife was simply a matter of going to Boston. He was spared the trip. “As for my Journey to Boston it is spoiled,” he wrote to John Cotton. “God hath sent me a wife home to me and save m[e] the labor of a tediouse Journey. The last day of the last week I came to a resolve to stay at home and not look after a wife till the spring. The next morning I hear Mrs. Clark of the Iland was come to our Towne who had bin mentioned by some of my friends. The providence of God hath soe ordered it that we are agreed to become one.”
After a man had decided to enter the married state, he had to face the problem of choosing a mate. Love, as noted above, had little to do with the matter. The most important factor affecting the choice was the social rank of the persons involved. Ministers warned that “the happiness of marige life consists much in that Persons being equally yoaked draw together in a holy yoak . . . there must be sutable fitness for this Condition equality in birth, education, and religion,” to which one might have added equality in wealth. The affections should not be allowed to attach themselves to anyone of a different social status, and if one were a church member, he should not allow his eyes to roam outside the church.
Parental consent was legally required for a first marriage, and such consent usually depended upon the attainment of a satisfactory bargain with the parents of the other party, each side endeavoring to persuade the other to give a larger portion to the young couple. It does not appear that marriages were arranged, but parents did show a serious interest in the monetary aspect of the union. For example, in 1643, Emmanuel Downing wrote to John Winthrop: “For my Cousin Deane’s business, I see not let nor hindrance but it may proceed with as much expedition as you please, without any further delay than modesty requires in such occasions. The portion, as I understand, is about £200. If you be content therewith, I suppose the quality and person of the maid will not give cause of dislike.” In the case of a second marriage, the bargaining over estates played a more direct part in the procedure of courtship. Widows were popular in colonial New England because of the widow’s third (see below).
Since love formed the chief duty of marriage, and since the unruly affections of fallen man might sometimes fail at once to knit themselves to the chosen object, a period of trial was necessary in which to focus the affections in the proper direction. That period was furnished by the custom of espousals. Espousal was a verbal contract to marry, similar to a modern engagement but more binding. An espoused couple was set apart; they were married as far as others were concerned even though the final ceremony had yet to take place. The banns of marriage were announced at three successive public meetings (usually done by the minister at worship on Sunday) or by written notice attached to the meetinghouse door for fourteen days. An espoused couple who had sexual intercourse was forgiven more easily than others who engaged in simple fornication. The number of cases of couples who confessed to sexual intercourse during their espousal suggests that Puritans possessed no more self-restraint than other human beings. Sexual activity with anyone other than the betrothed was considered adultery.
With regard to property rights, women in New and Old England suffered the same condition. A married woman could hold no property of her own. When she became a wife, she gave up everything to her husband and devoted herself exclusively to managing his household. A widow in New England, like one in the mother country, inherited the use for her lifetime of at least one-third of the land that her husband possessed at any time during their marriage. This made widows particularly attractive to suitors because the husband obtained usufruct of her property, called the widow’s third. In the case of a second marriage, a widow usually stipulated in a prenuptial contract that she should retain the title to any part of her former husband’s estate that came to her by his will, with the right to dispose of it by last will and testament of her own. Her widow’s third, however, reverted to her former husband’s heirs at her death.
In seventeenth-century New England no respectable person questioned that woman’s place was in the home. Her duty was to “keep at home, educating of her children, keeping and improving what is got by the industry of the man.” She was “to see that nothing be wasted, or prodigally spent.” What the husband provided she distributed and transformed to supply the everyday necessities of the family. Even in her proper sphere of housewifery she could dispose of nothing of moment without her husband's knowledge and approval. In all other matters she was to depend on his judgment entirely. Sometimes, though she even took care of the family finances, she was to remember that her place was “to guid the house &c. not guid the Husband.” She still performed the duties fixed for her in England—preparation of meals, milking cows, laundering, tending the kitchen garden, and beekeeping—but her role was no longer limited household chores. Because of the need of labor, she might also help her husband in the fields, especially at planting and harvest times.