Pillar Journal

Puritans on Marital Love

The Puritan view of marital love was overwhelmingly positive because it was informed by the Bible, the written Word of the God who instituted marriage at the time of our creation and regulated it by His commandments.

Edward Taylor (c. 1642–1729), a pastor, physician, and poet of Puritan New England, wrote, “A curious knot God made in Paradise…. It was the true-love knot, more sweet than spice.”1Edward Taylor, “Upon Wedlock, and Death of Children,” in The Poems of Edward Taylor, ed. Donald E. Stanford, abridged ed. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1963), 344. “Sweet” and “sweetness” are used by the Puritans to describe “a pleasant or gratifying experience, possession or state; something that delights or deeply satisfies” (Webster’s Dictionary). Portions of this paper are adapted from Joel R. Beeke, Living for God’s Glory: An Introduction to Calvinism (Orlando: Reformation Trust, 2008); Joel R. Beeke and James A. LaBelle, Living for God’s Glory in Marriage (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2016). I also thank Paul Smalley for his research assistance on this article, which is a slightly expanded version of an address I gave at the Evangelical Theological Society in Atlanta in November, 2015. The writings of the Puritans are sprinkled with declarations of the sweetness of marital love. They delighted in the love of God and in every form of love commanded by God among mankind. In particular, they rejoiced in the love shared by husband and wife, and called married couples to love each other romantically, wholeheartedly, and perseveringly.

This may come as a shock to twenty-first-century minds; not many people today would use “Puritan” and “love” in the same sentence. Though evangelicals have become much more aware of the positive heritage of the Puritans, the common cultural perception of the Puritans remains negative, a perception informed only by what the Puritans opposed. One prominent dictionary defines the noun “Puritan” first as “a member of a Protestant group in England and New England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that opposed many customs of the Church of England,” and second, “a person who follows strict moral rules and who believes that pleasure is wrong.”2“Puritan,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary, /dictionary/puritan, accessed October 10, 2015. We are quick to overlook that fact that perhaps the most well-known sentence ever written by the Puritans is, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”3Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 1, in The Confession of Faith, and the Larger and Shorter Catechisme (London: Company of Stationers, 1651), 157, emphasis added.

The Puritan view of marital love was overwhelmingly positive because it was informed by the Bible, the written Word of the God who instituted marriage at the time of our creation and regulated it by His commandments. As Packer says, “They went to Genesis for its institution, to Ephesians for its full meaning, to Leviticus for its hygiene, to Proverbs for its management, to several New Testament books for its ethic, and to Esther, Ruth and the Song of Songs for illustrations and exhibitions of the ideal.”4Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 263. They let the practices, duties, and ethics of marriage flow out of Scripture.

All duties of a married couple were to be performed devotedly, kindly, and cheerfully.5Gouge, Of Domestical Duties, 85. In particular, the Puritans emphasized that love was the mutual duty of both husband and wife,6For an excellent summary by Richard Baxter of the mutual duties of husband and wife, see Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 263. indeed, the foundational duty of marriage. William Gouge (1575–1653) wrote, “A loving mutual affection must pass betwixt husband and wife, or else no duty will be well performed: this is the ground of all the rest.”7Gouge, Of Domestical Duties, 163. “As for love,” said William Whately (1583–1639), who wrote two books on marriage, “it is the life, the soul of marriage, without which it is no more itself, than a carcass is a man; yea, it is uncomfortable, miserable, and a living death.” Whately described marital love as “the king of the heart,” so that when it prevails, marriage is “a pleasing combination of two persons into one home, one purse, one heart, and one flesh.”8Whately, A Bride-Bush, 7.

Whately observed, “Love is the life and soul of marriage, without which it differs as much from itself, as a rotten apple from a sound [one] and as a carcass from a living body; yea, verily it is a most miserable and uncomfortable society, and no better than a very living death.”9Whately, A Bride Bush, 31. Likewise, Henry Smith (1560–1591) declared, “Unless there be a joining of heart and a knitting of affections together, it is not marriage in deed, but in show and name, and they shall dwell in a house like two poisons in a stomach, and one shall ever be sick of another.”10Smith, Works, 1:22. “Without the union of hearts,” George Swinnock (c. 1627–1673) wrote, “the union of bodies will be no benefit.”11Swinnock, Works, 1:472. William Secker (d. c. 1681) quipped, “Two joined together without love, are but two tied together to make one another miserable.”12Secker, “The Wedding Ring, A Sermon,” 263. Henry Scudder (c. 1585–1652) therefore advised those who were married to “love each other as [their] own souls with a Christian, pure, tender, abundant, natural, and matrimonial love.”13Scudder, The Godly Man’s Choice, 72. In order to survey Puritan teachings on marital love, we will consider three basic emphases: love must be spiritual, superlative, and sexual.

Marital Love Must Be Spiritual

Love must be rooted in the experience of being equally yoked together spiritually as believers. It must be built with Christ as the foundation and cemented with mutual use of the means of grace. Richard Baxter (1615–1691) said that husbands and wives have the responsibility “especially to be helpers of each other’s salvation: to stir up each other to faith, love, and obedience, and good works: to warn and help each other against sin, and all temptations: to join in God’s worship in the family, and in private: to prepare each other for the approach of death, and comfort each other in the hopes of life eternal.”14Baxter, Practical Works, 4:234. Isaac Ambrose (1604–1664) wrote that they must pray for and with each other.15Ambrose, Works, 130.

Although marriage is a universal institution ordained by God for the whole human race regardless of whether they are saved or not, marriage fulfills its deepest purpose and achieves its greatest stability only when grounded in Christian faith and the fear of God. If built on the sandy foundation of physical beauty or exceptional gifts and talents, it can easily be “blown down by some storm,” Whately said, adding that “spiritual love, that looks upon God, rests upon his will, yields to his commandment, and resolves to obey it, cannot change itself, because the cause thereof is unchangeable.”16Whately, A Bride-Bush, 7.

Marital love should be profoundly spiritual because, as Gouge observed, Christian marriage should conform to the pattern of Christ and His church. As Christ loves His church, so the husband must love his wife—love her absolutely (Eph. 5:25), purposefully (v. 26), realistically (v. 27), and sacrificially (vv. 28–29). He must exercise a “true, free, pure, exceeding, constant love” to his wife, nourishing and cherishing her as Christ does His gathered people (v. 29).17Gouge, Of Domestical Duties, 31. In a wedding sermon, Richard Greenham (c. 1542–1594) charged the groom:

You, brother, must learn hereby so to love your wife, as Christ Jesus loved His spouse His church. That is to say, even as our Savior Christ is very patient towards it, and by little and little purges, washes, and cleanses away the corruption of it, so must you in like manner in all wisdom use the means (and with a patient mind wait for the amendment of any thing that you shall find to be amiss in your wife) that the graces of God’s spirit may daily increase in her. Therefore, I charge you in the sight of God and his angels, and as you will answer unto me and the parents of this my sister, before the judgment seat of Christ, that as you receive her a virgin from her parents, so you neglect no duty whereby her salvation may be furthered, that you may present her pure and blameless, as much as in you lies, unto Jesus Christ when He shall call you to account.18Greenham, Works, 291–92.

Such Christlike love, said Gouge, will serve “as sugar to sweeten the duties of authority which appertain to a husband,” and thereby enable his loving wife to submit more easily to him.19Gouge, Of Domestical Duties, 94.

Likewise, the wife’s loving submission to her husband is a limited expression of her absolute submission to the Lord Jesus Christ. Robert Bolton (1572–1631) wrote that a wife “ought, like a true [mirror], faithfully to represent and return to her husband’s heart, with a sweet and pleasing pliableness, the exact lineaments and proportions of all his honest desires and demands, and that without discontent, thwarting, or sourness. For her subjection in this kind should be as to Christ, sincere, hearty, and free.”20Bolton, General Directions, 279. But conscientious wives must also remember, wrote Ambrose, “that they have a husband in heaven, as well as on earth, betwixt whom there is a greater difference than between heaven and earth; and therefore in case they bid contrary things, they must prefer God before men, Christ before all men.”21Ambrose, Works, 133.

The love of both husband and wife must be ruled and energized by the fear of the Lord. Whately observed,

This is the fountain of most disorders in most families: where God is not feared, what can abound but profaneness and impiety in…the whole household; where people are not taught the knowledge and fear of God, how should they know or fear Him? Where these graces are absent, how should anything be found but rudeness, stubbornness, and undutifulness? Now therefore…let all husbands and wives that fear God be of one mind in the Lord, and let them not fail…[to establish] the exercises of religion in their houses.22Whateley, A Bride Bush, 93. Cf. Jer. 10:25.

Mutual love is preserved and increased by religious exercises. Time spent together with God and in the worship of God will help preserve marital love. Let husband and wife pray together, said Whateley; “let them confer with each other of their heavenly country, let them sing a psalm together, and join in such religious exercises; so shall their hearts be knit together fast and firm to God first, and so to each other.”23Whateley, A Bride Bush, 49. For as they do so, he continued, “bright beams of God’s image will shine forth, and show themselves in each of them, and that is lovely and alluring, and will make them amiable to each other. These will nourish the spirit of holiness in them, and that kindles love.”24Whateley, A Bride Bush, 49.

The spiritual implications of marital love should move people to choose their spouses carefully. Secker warned against choosing a wife merely for her beauty: “If a woman’s flesh has more of beauty than her spirit has of Christianity, it is like poison in sweetmeats, most dangerous.”25Secker, “The Wedding Ring, A Sermon,” 266. Concerning riches, he warned: “Take heed, for sometimes the bag and baggage go together…. When Themistocles was to marry his daughter, two suitors courted her together; the one rich, and a fool, the other wise, but poor. And being demanded which of the two he had rather his daughter should have, he answered…I had rather she should have a man without money, than money without a man.”26Secker, “The Wedding Ring, A Sermon,” 267.

Marital Love Must Be Superlative

A husband and wife are to love each other so dearly that both are persuaded that the other is “the only fit and good match that could be found under the sun for them,” Whately writes.27Whately, A Bride-Bush, 8. Because of parental love, a godly parent would not trade his child for another parent’s child, even if that child were better-looking and had more ability or gifts; similarly, a godly husband and wife would not trade each other for a better-looking and more gifted spouse.28Whately, A Bride-Bush, 8. Whately concludes: “Marriage-love admits of no equal, but placeth the yoke-fellow next of all to the soul of the party loving; it will know none dearer, none so dear.”29Whately, A Bride-Bush, 9.

Surely, a wife is a man’s best companion and friend. Thomas Gataker (1574–1654) suggested that Adam was truly happy in Eden, but he was not fully happy until God had provided him with a wife, and he was joined to the woman as his closest friend and companion in all of life. Gataker said, “There is no society more near, more entire, more needful, more kindly, more delightful, more comfortable, more constant, more continual, than the society of man and wife.”30Gataker, Certain Sermons, 2:161. He was convinced that a house was “half unfurnished and unfinished, and not fully happy but half happy, though otherwise never so happy,” until it was completed with a wife.31Gataker, Certain Sermons, 2:161.

The Puritan ideal of superlative marital love appears in the poems that Anne Bradstreet (1612–1672) wrote to express her longing for her husband when he traveled away from home. She wrote to him,

If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man was lov’d by wife, then thee….
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.32Quoted in Heidi L. Nichols, Anne Bradstreet: A Guided Tour of the Life and Thought of a Puritan Poet (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Publishing, 2006), 118.

In another poetic letter, Bradstreet compared her longing for her husband to that of a deer racing through the woods with ears alert to the sound of her mate. She signed it, “Thy loving love and dearest dear.”33Quoted in Nichols, Anne Bradstreet, 122–23

Husband and wife are to love each other with a fervent and steady love that does not wax and wane with the tide of beauty, dress, or riches, or fluctuate with the emotions and lusts of the flesh. This love, wrote Ambrose, is “loving and tender-hearted pouring out of their hearts, with much affectionate dearness, into each other’s bosoms.”34Ambrose, Works, 130. It is an entire love, a full love, a love that pours itself out between spouses constantly and without reservation in a variety of expressions, gestures, looks, and actions. This love, Daniel Rogers (1573–1652) wrote, is not “raised suddenly in a pang of affection, ebbing and flowing… but a habitual and settled love planted in them by God, whereby in a constant, equal, and cheerful consent of spirit they carry themselves [towards] each other.”35Rogers, Matrimonial Honour, 137–38. Bolton therefore defined this duty of mutual love as “a drawing into action, and keeping in exercise, [the] habit of conjugal affection and matrimonial love.”36Bolton, General Directions, 265, emphasis added. If this mutual love is eclipsed for but a day or even an hour, said Baxter, the husband and wife are “as a bone out of joint; there is no ease, no order, no work well done till they are restored and set in joint again.”37Baxter, Practical Works, 1:431.

Such love is nurtured by guarding each other’s honor and reputation instead of complaining and grumbling against each other. Secker put it this way: “Who would trample upon a jewel because it is fallen in the dirt? Or throw away a heap of wheat for a little chaff? Or despise a golden wedge because it retains some dross? These roses [i.e., wives] have some prickles. Now husbands should spread a mantle of charity over their wives’ infirmities.”38Secker, “The Wedding Ring, A Sermon,” 263.

A husband must do his best to see that no one know his wife’s faults but himself and God. He should be unwilling to voice them to anyone but God, to pray that she may be pardoned for them and reformed from them. Likewise, a wife must do her best to keep her husband’s struggles and sins to herself, as matters of prayer and not gossip. Neither spouse should be surprised by the sins of the other, for each of them is well aware of their own sins. Can it be helpful to uncover faults in public and fling mud in each other’s face? Will this help a husband reform or a wife to repent? And which is more displayed in such a case, the spouse’s faults and weaknesses or the gossip’s unkindness, indiscretion, backbiting, and folly? Does not the family dog behave better than this when it barks at strangers but not at members of the family?39Whateley, A Bride Bush, 78.

Moreover, if ill speech behind the back of an enemy is a sin, how much more grievous is ill speech behind the back of a spouse, who should be to us as our own flesh? Whateley wrote:

To hear a husband largely declaiming against his wife, and… aggravating her sins, as if he took delight in nothing so much as in branding her forehead with the black mark of infamy is a testimony of so much hatred, where there should be most love, and of so bitter unkindness, where nature itself requires most tender kindness, that no speeches almost can sound more harsh in the ears of wise men. So again for the woman to be clattering amongst her gossips what a foolish husband she has…and to be…making proclamation of his faults, as if she feared nothing but that they should not be known to people…is a most irksome and hateful folly and untrustworthiness.40Whateley, A Bride Bush, 77, emphasis added.

Love for each other must strive to cover sins much as bandages cover sores so they can heal. Swinnock advised that “to procure a quiet life, the husband must be deaf, and the wife blind. Sure it is, the man must not bear to declare it abroad, nor the wife see to say it among her gossips whatever is amiss at home, if they would live in peace.”41Swinnock, Works, 1:476. A breach between a husband and wife is half reconciled when it is kept indoors where love and prayers can be repeatedly administered to it; but if it is announced outdoors in the ears of others, it will be like a festering sore that can hardly be healed.42Swinnock, Works, 1:476.

The common practice of publishing each other’s faults must therefore be put far away from every spouse; it is treachery and looks more like the hatred one might show to an enemy than the love demanded in a marriage. “What mutual love can there be in such?” asked Gouge. “Howsoever their hands have been joined together, surely their hearts were never united, so that it had been better [if] they had never known one another, unless the Lord do afterwards knit their hearts and unite their affections more nearly and firmly together.”43Gouge, Of Domestical Duties, 182. In extreme cases, it may be necessary to acquaint a close and trusted friend with the faults of one’s spouse for the purpose of prayer and sound counsel. But that is far different from publishing little flaws and idiosyncrasies to any company and for no other purpose than murmuring, complaining, and gossiping. “Know therefore, and practice this duty, O husbands and wives,” concluded Whateley, “spit not in each other’s faces, disclose not each other’s faults, but conceal, hide, bury and cover them so much as truth and equity will allow.”44Whateley, A Bride Bush, 79–80.

Superlative love requires a steady effort to be pleasing to each other. According to Whateley, this “pleasingness” is “a disposition of the will and earnest desire of the heart to give all content [satisfaction] to each other, so far as they may possibly do it, without sinning against God.”45Whateley, A Bride Bush, 54. If husband and wife perform this duty, which 1 Corinthians 7:33–34 commends, with all diligence and faithfulness, then they will experience a great harvest of blessings to the whole family. No good or happiness can be enjoyed by that couple who live as enemies on the field when they are companions in one house and bed. Whateley advises, “Next to the pleasing of God, make your main business to please each other.”46Whateley, A Bride Bush, 59.

Marital Love Must Be Sexual

Marital love must be sexual. Both marital partners should give themselves fully to each other with joy and exuberance in a healthy sexual relationship marked by fidelity. Reformers such as Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin re-established this aspect of marriage by abandoning medieval Roman Catholic notions that marriage was inferior to celibacy, that all sexual contact between marital partners was only a necessary evil to propagate the human race, and that any procreative act that involved passion was inherently sinful. This negative view was rooted in the writings of the ancient church fathers, such as Tertullian, Ambrose, and Jerome; all these believed that, even within marriage, sexual intercourse necessarily involved sin.47Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 261. This attitude toward sex in marriage held sway among the church’s leaders for more than ten centuries, and inevitably led to the exaltation of virginity and celibacy. By the fifth century, deacons, priests, and bishops were prohibited from marrying.48Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 40. Two classes of Christians emerged: the “religious” (i.e., the spiritual clergy), which included monks and nuns who vowed to abstain from all sexual activity, and the “profane” (i.e., the secular laity), who, being unable to practice the exalted virtues of virginity or celibacy, were conceded the right to marry.

Puritan preachers taught that the Roman Catholic view was unbiblical, even satanic. They cited Paul, who said that prohibition of marriage is a “doctrine of devils” (1 Tim. 4:1–3). Puritan definitions of marriage implied the conjugal act. For example, William Perkins (1558–1602) defines marriage as “the lawful conjunction of the two married persons; that is, of one man and one woman into one flesh.”49Perkins, “Christian Oeconomy,” 419. The Puritans viewed sex within marriage as a gift of God and as an essential, enjoyable part of marriage. Gouge said that husbands and wives should cohabit “with good will and delight, willingly, readily, and cheerfully.”50Quoted in Ryken, Worldly Saints, 44. “They do err,” added Perkins, “who hold that the secret coming together of man and wife cannot be without sin unless it be done for the procreation of children.”51Perkins, “Christian Oeconomy,” 423.

Perkins goes on to say that marital sex is a “due debt” or “due benevolence” (1 Cor. 7:3) that married persons owe to their spouses. That debt must be paid, he says, “with a singular and entire affection one towards another” in three ways: “First, by the right and lawful use of their bodies or of the marriage bed.” Such physical intimacy by “holy usage” should be “a holy and undefiled action (Heb. 13:4)… sanctified by the word and prayer (1 Tim. 4:3–4).” The fruits of God-honoring, enjoyable sex in marriage are the blessing of children, “the preservation of the body in cleanness,” and the reflection of marriage as a type of the bond between Christ and His church. Second, married couples must “cherish one another” intimately (Eph. 5:29) rather than having sex in an impersonal way. Third, a couple should be intimate “by an holy kind of rejoicing and solacing themselves each with [the] other in a mutual declaration of the signs and tokens of love and kindness (Prov. 5:18–19; Song 1:1; Gen. 26:8; Isa. 62:7).” In this context, Perkins particularly mentions kissing.52Perkins, “Christian Oeconomy,” 423–27.

Other Puritans stressed the romantic side of marriage as they compared the love of a husband to God’s love for His people. Thomas Hooker (1586–1647) wrote, “The man whose heart is endeared to the woman he loves, he dreams of her in the night, hath her in his eye and apprehension when he awakes, museth on her as he sits at table, walks with her when he travels and parlies with her in each place where he comes.”53Thomas Hooker, The Application of Redemption…the Ninth and Tenth Books, 2nd ed. (London: Peter Cole, 1659), 137. He also said, “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.”54Thomas Hooker, A Comment Upon Christ’s Last Prayer (London: Peter Cole, 1656), 187. I am indebted to Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 265, for the last two quotations.

Rightfully so, the emphasis on finding romance within marriage (rather than in extramarital relations, as was common in the Middle Ages)55William Haller, The Rise of Puritanism (New York: Harper, 1957), 122. has been attributed to the Puritans. Herbert W. Richardson writes that “the rise of romantic marriage and its validation by the Puritans represents a major innovation within the Christian tradition.”56Herbert W. Richardson, Nun, Witch, Playmate: The Americanization of Sex (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), 69. And C. S. Lewis says, “The conversion of courtly love into romantic monogamous love was largely the work of…Puritan poets.”57C. S. Lewis, “Donne and Love Poetry in the Seventeenth Century,” in Seventeenth Century Studies Presented to Sir Herbert Grierson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1938), 75. Thus the Puritans emphasized that marital love, in addition to being spiritual love, must also be sexual love. In this way, they embraced God’s gift of marriage as the superlative or highest form of human love known on earth.


Though the Puritans honored the sexuality of marriage, they did not reduce marriage to sex. Rather, they maintained a view of marital love as broad as life itself. Whateley and Gouge emphasize other mutual duties in marriage. A husband and wife must be faithful to each other and help each other in every possible way, including seeking each other’s spiritual growth, healing each other’s faults, and steering each other away from sin. They must pray for each other, compliment each other, appreciate each other, and, together, “keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.” They must cultivate true friendship and take an interest in each other. They must be sympathetic to one another in times of distress, sickness, and weakness. They must each promote the other’s reputation, never speaking ill of each other in the presence of others. They must be confidential, not revealing each other’s secrets. They must be industrious in their callings, working diligently as a team for one another, for their family, and in hospitality to others, especially the poor. For these reasons, they must manage their money judiciously.58Whateley, A Bride-Bush, 11–16; Gouge, Of Domestical Duties, 165–90. Marital love must fill every room of the home and spill out into the world.

The true secret to living happily in marriage is to love—not the exercise of a mere feeling but fulfilling a calling to follow Christ with all that we are and all that we have. Ezekiel Hopkins (1634–1690) wrote, “It is love which ought at first to tie the marriage knot, and it is love alone which can afterwards make it easy.”59Ezekiel Hopkins, The Works of Ezekiel Hopkins, ed. Charles W. Quick (Philadelphia: Leighton Publications, 1874), 1:414.

Though the Puritans lived in a difficult age when plague, persecution, war, and the frequent deaths of children darkened their lives, they nevertheless marveled at the goodness of God in seasoning life with such a sweet spice as the love shared by husband and wife. In our own more prosperous but also more cynical age, we can learn much from them.

by Joel Beeke and Paul Smalley
Volume 12, Number 1 • January 2020