A Puritan family


In 2003 Allan C. Carlson, president of The Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society and a notable family scholar, was invited to  give the annual American Studies Lecture at Hillsdale College. The lecture,”Sexuality: A Litmus Test for Culture”, was subsequently published in the Family in America journal (May 2003). In view of claims about sexual repression and sexual liberty that have resurfaced in response to Playboy’s announcement of changes to its content this week, the editors of MercatorNet think Dr Carlson’s historical survey of the subject can be read with profit. Though lengthy, it is divided into seven portraits of the American past, each with its own intrinsic interest.

* * * * * 

One of the assumptions of the contemporary liberal mind is that the history of Anglo-American morals has moved mainly in a linear direction: from repression to liberty. As one author of this mindset explains, the 16th-century English “were known throughout Europe for approaching the whole subject of sex with their well-known capacity for enduring hardship.” But within Elizabethan England, the writer continues, was a group that found even British sexual decorum “repulsive and disgusting.” These Puritans “grew angrier and angrier until finally they could no longer tolerate the degenerate carrying-ons of their countrymen,” and so they set sail in 1620 on the Mayflower for America. Meanwhile, down in Colonial Virginia, the liberal story goes, the similarly twisted creators of the new Jamestown legal code declared that “No man shall commit the horrible, and detestable sins of Sodomie upon pain of death; & he or she that can be lawfully convict[ed] of Adultery shall be punished with death….and he or she, that shall commit fornication,…for their first fault shall be whipt….” The next 400 years, this contemporary liberal reports, would see a struggle to free Americans from the iron grip of Puritanism and the loathsome legal suppression of sexual joy.1

Now I agree with contemporary historians of sex—a new specialty in my discipline — that the story of sexuality in the American experience is vitally important and has been poorly told. I agree as well that sexuality has revolutionary potential…for the good. And I also agree that we Americans have been, in our better decades and eras, a sexually boisterous lot. But on other important matters, I profoundly differ. To begin with, I view sexuality as a natural, powerful, and wonderful human impulse, but one that does require conscious channeling into culturally constructive and emotionally fulfilling paths. Vernard Eller said it well in a 1970 essay for The Christian Century: “Sex is like fire. Harnessed, disciplined, bent to human ends…, sex is indeed a very great good, capable of serving even greater goods than the present generation has dreamed possible. However, if allowed simply to run wild, sex can be a forest fire, a most destructive — and an anti-revolutionary force.”2 I also underscore the profound “discontinuity” of sexual behavior in the American past. Careful study does not show a steady evolution from early repression toward greater freedom or license. Rather, the historical record shows an ebb and flow between periods when religious belief guided and shaped sexuality toward culture-building ends and periods when this religious influence weakened, and sexuality grew troubled or even culturally destructive.

I will tell this story through seven images from the American past.

My first image is “The Puritan Marriage”

Without question, Puritan New England in the 17th Century exhibited a culture where, in two historians’ words, “strong viable churches existed to buttress the authority of the family and to help supervise the rearing of children and youths.” Puritan society also clearly rested on the moral indoctrination of these young through devices such as special catechisms, private religious societies, and covenant renewals, where groups of the young came together on the Sabbath to reaffirm the Christian covenants made by their parents.3

And yet, these Puritans were also a surprisingly frisky and sensual lot. A fine, and still largely unchallenged, source here is Edmund Morgan’s classic study from 1944, The Puritan Family. As he summarizes, the Puritan vision of love “proceeded from Christian charity,” rested on reason and a consciousness of God’s sacred order, and was still “warm and tender and gracious.” It is true that a Puritan marriage began with rational, deliberate choices. The decision to marry commonly came before a partner had been found. Diaries from the era tell of young men setting out to find “a Woman of Merit—a woman of Good Temper and of prudent Conduct and Conversation”…someone who might be “a meet yoke fellow.” Questions of social status and financial bargaining were also involved, for important property issues lay deeply entwined with the Puritan marriage.4

But sexual passion also occupied the Puritan mind. John Withrop’s letters to wife Margaret commonly ended with phrases such as “I kiss and love thee with the kindest affection” and “with the sweetest kisses and pure imbracings of my kindest affection I rest Thine.” Theologian Thomas Hooker, a favorite of the Puritans, compared the relation of husband and wife to that of Christ and the believer, and called the ordinances of the Church “but the Lord’s love-letters.” Regarding the husband, Hooker wrote of him as a woman’s true soulmate:

The man whose heart is endeared to the woman he loves, he dreams of her in the night, hath her in his eye…when he awakes, museth on her as he sits at table, walks with her when he travels and parties with her in each place where he comes….She lies in his Bosom, and his heart trusts in her, which forceth al to confess, that the stream of his affection, like a mighty current, runs with ful Tide and strength.

Even the religious imagery of the time reveals the sexual side of personal life. John Cotton, in a commentary on the Canticles, compared the worship of God in a church to the marital love of husband and wife:

[The word delights] is an allusion to the marriage bed, which is the delights of the Bridegroom, and Bride. This marriage-bed is the publick worship of God in the Congregation of the Church (as Cant. 3.1).

The publick Worship of God is the bed of loves: where, 1. Christ embraceth the souls of his people, and casteth into their hearts the immortal seed of his Word and Spirit, Gal. 4.19 2. The Church conceiveth and bringeth forth fruits to Christ.

On a less religious note, Morgan shows that “the Puritans were a much earthier lot than their modern critics have imagined.” John Winthrop’s Journal from his Harvard days contained many of the more explicit passages from Cavalier and Elizabethan love poems. Most of the 17th-century Puritans were farmers, too, and made frequent humorous allusions to the reproductive lives of their barnyard animals. John Cotton scornfully condemned so-called Spiritual, or Platonic, marriages; a good sexual life was necessary to the Christian marriage, he preached, for “The Holy Spirit [hath] saith It is not good that man should be alone.”5

In the early 1700’s, it is true, the Puritan system for regulating sexual behavior was breaking down. Penalties had been stern and punishment swift for sexual offenses during the prior century, but there were relatively few violations. By 1730, though, there were many prosecutions for adultery and fornication. Jonathan Edwards railed against the “night walking,” the “taverning,” the “lewd practices,” and the “frolicks” increasingly found among the young of Massachusetts. In towns such as Hingham and Watertown, the proportion of new brides who were already pregnant climbed from 10 percent in 1680 to 40 percent by 1730.6 The cause was largely due to declining church involvement. In 1767 Hingham, for example, the proportion of premarital conceptions was only 18 percent if at least one partner was a church member; but 30 percent if neither was.7 Indeed, one impulse behind the famed Great Awakening of the 1740’s was to bring apostate Puritan youth back to the faith and to urge them to forswear sexual sin. Many teens and young adults did respond, through charismatic conversion and worship that quickly worried their elders for other reasons.8 In any case, even in this time of religious decay and some moral disorder, sex remained firmly attached in expectation and practice to marriage and to marital procreation.

My second image is the backcountry hillbilly

During the 18th century, thousands of Scots and Ulstermen left the British Isles to settle on the American frontier, particularly in the hill country of the Carolinas and Virginia. David Hackett Fisher tells their remarkable story in his book, Albion’s Seed. While usually adherents to a strict version of Presbyterianism, the Scotch-Irish also carried with them an array of older and deeper social customs. These included a strong sense of obligation to kin. Writes Carl Bridenbaugh: “The conquest of the [American backcountry] was achieved by families….The fundamental social unit, the family, was preserved intact…in a transplanting and reshuffling of European folkways.” Around the nuclear family of husband, wife, and their children formed strong concentric rings of familial obligation and protection: the derbfine, which included all kin within four generations; and the clan, related families who lived near each other, who were conscious of a common identity, who had the same surname, who descended from a common ancestor, and who gathered together at times of danger; the Armstrongs, the Maxwells, the Grahams, the Rutherfords, the Crawfords, the Polks, the Calhouns, and—yes—the Hatfields, the McCoys, and the Clampetts.

These backcountry Scotch-Irish also had energetic sexual lives. Along with Calvinism, they brought from the old country a distinctive set of sexual and marriage customs: the abduction or—more frequently in their time—the mock abduction of brides, often involving payments of a “body price” and an “honor price;” bidden marriages and bridewain; wild feasts fueled by homemade whiskey; reels and jigs; the rituals surrounding the wedding chamber; and “the constant presence of Black Betty,” symbolizing the sexual side of marriage.

The Scotch-Irish joined in the practice of “bundling,” as well, where the young, unmarried couple spent a night alone, “bundled up” to prevent too great an intimacy and where—if the knots or stitches failed—the now future groom would be known. You might recall a scene in the Mel Gibson film, The Patriot, where an older son spends a night so bound up with his fiancé. As one anonymous backcountry poem from the late 18th century had it:

Some maidens say, if through the nation,
Bundling should quite go out of fashion,
Courtship would lose its sweets; and they
Could have no fun till wedding day.
It shant be so, they rage and storm,
And country girls in clusters swarm
And fly and buzz like angry bees
And vow they’ll bundle when they please.
Some mothers too, will plead their cause,
And give their daughters great applause,
And tell them ’tis no sin nor shame,
For we, your mothers, did the same.9

And this country exuberance had results: early and prolific marriages. In the South Carolina Upcountry of the 18th century, women married at the average age of 19; men at age 21. No where else in the colonies did the sexes marry so early, or at so nearly the same age. This early marriage was apparently universal, too. In one South Carolina backcountry district containing 17,000 white inhabitants, there was not a single woman at age 25 who was neither wife nor widow. And the families were huge: eight, nine, or ten children per household was the norm. As the Anglican missionary Charles Woodmason reported with only slight exaggeration: “there’s not a cabin but has ten or twelve young people in it….In many cabins you will see ten or fifteen children and grandchildren of one size and the mother looking as young as the daughter.” This might be called sexuality with a purpose!10

My third image is Ben Franklin

In 1755, the American polymath Benjamin Franklin published an essay on “Observations concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, &c.” Writing 45 years before Thomas R. Malthus’s famed essay on population and 20 years before Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations — both of which would use his ideas, albeit in very different ways — Franklin proposed a law of population: “People increase in Proportion to the Number of Marriages, and that is greater in Proportion to the Ease and Convenience of supporting a Family. When Families can be easily supported, more Persons marry, and earlier in Life.” Europe, he saw, had little surplus land and was filled with manufacturers. But in America, “Land being thus Plenty…and so cheap as that a labouring Man, that understands Husbandry, can in a short Time save Money enough to purchase a Piece of new Land sufficient for a Plantation, whereon he may subsist a Family.” These new farmers were “not afraid to marry” for they could look ahead and see that their children when grown up could be provided for as well. In a line that Adam Smith would more or less crib, Franklin continued: “Hence marriages in America are more general, and more generally early, than in Europe.” And such marriages were fertile: eight births to each marriage in America, Franklin estimated, compared to four in old Europe. The true “Fathers of their Nation,” he added, would be “the Cause of the Generation of Multitudes, by the Encouragement they afford to Marriage.” He then laid out a full marriage-policy agenda for these founding fathers-to-be: “effectual Laws for promoting of Trade, increasing Employment, improving Land by more and better Tillage, providing more food by Fisheries, [and] securing Property.” Such laws might be called “generative Laws,” Franklin concluded, for by increasing subsistence, they encouraged early marriage and the creation of large families.11

Franklin exhibited quiet pride in this American difference. Simply put, the emerging American nation was sexually vigorous, a quality focused on the creation of new and fruitful homes. By the 1770’s, America was in the midst of an historically unprecedented Baby Boom. As Franklin intuited, the average age of first marriage for all American women—not just those on the frontier — fell to age 20. The total fertility rate of Americans—measuring the average number of live births per woman over her lifetime — did reach the remarkable figure of 8.0. The natural increase of the population was an extraordinary 2.5 percent a year. The average age of Americans in this demographic hothouse was 16. All the available evidence shows that birth control techniques—although known to people at the time, indeed in every time—faced deliberate rejection by the Americans.12

In all these ways, and more, the American colonies differed from old Europe. America was overwhelmingly rural with 95 percent of the population living on farms or in small villages. Calculation of the net reproduction rates showed colonial American fecundity to be twice as high as that of old Europe. According to one current analyst, this “extremely youthful population” combined with “near universal marriage for women at a low average age” to produce “one of the largest [average] census family sizes ever recorded” in human history.13 Amazingly, this American difference even transcended the lines of race and slavery. As demographic historian Robert Wells reports: “With regard to marriage and childbearing, black and white women in the South were more like each other than like English women by the second half of the eighteenth century.”14 In a later essay, Benjamin Franklin also mused that religious belief could influence the rate of population growth and that here, too, the Americans were very different from Old Europe.15

Britain’s North American colonies contained 250,000 settlers in the year 1700. By 1750, that number had climbed 400 percent, to 1.2 million. Over the next twenty-five years, to 1775, it had doubled again to 2.4 million persons. English authorities grew alarmed: the daughter colonies would soon be more populated than the mother country. Many of the restrictions placed on the colonies after 1750 — no new settlements over the Alleghenies; no new iron blast furnaces; and so on — grew out this primal demographic fear.

Other American colonists besides Franklin also took pride in their exploding numbers. As one commentator notes:

[A]s early as the 1730’s, some Americans came to look upon the rapid growth of population…as God’s sign of approval for the virtuous lives of the colonists. In view of the role that the idea of virtue played in producing a revolutionary ideology, this perspective on population increase seems of more than passing interest.16

Edward Wigglesworth, professor of divinity at Harvard, told his fellow Americans in 1775 that regardless of the results of the emerging American rebellion, the astonishing growth in American numbers insured that the weight of empire would shift to them by 1825. This confidence inspired by surging human numbers appears to have enabled Americans to risk open confrontation with England over constitutional and economic questions.17 Stated more directly: America’s fecundity — its abundant fertility resting on purposeful sexuality — made possible The Revolution of 1776.

The Peale Family bu Charles Willson Peale (1741 – 1827) via Wikipedia


My fourth image is the Victorian Home

During the early decades of the 19th century, there were signs that America was shedding its virtues. Church membership and attendance were low and falling. Per-capita alcohol consumption soared. There were clear signs, as well, that birth control practices were growing more common in America, starting apparently among the Quakers in Pennsylvania.18

In seeming response, America generated another Great Awakening. There was a dramatic growth in religious participation, particularly among teens and young adults. Formal church membership in America grew explosively from 7 percent in 1800 to 23 percent by 1860. Yet in important respects, this was a new kind of Protestantism taking form. With the demise of established state churches by 1830, dozens of denominations now competed for the allegiance of young members. And while these churches differed in terms of social class and liturgical style, they all affirmed that the regulation of individual morality was a central religious concern. The old Puritan emphasis on Calvinist predestination also gave way to a focus on “free will.” Women took on more prominent religious roles, as well, and absorbed “more completely” the message of sexual restraint.19

The results were stunning. The proportion of American brides who were pregnant when reaching the altar fell from 30 percent in 1800 to 10 percent by 1850. This was not the result of external laws imposed by public authorities, as had perhaps been true among the 17th-century Puritans. This dramatic decline in premarital sex was the consequence of self-control (or abstinence) reinforced by religious belief and enthusiasm. This development underscores a critical point: the discontinuity seen in the sexual history of America. As two historians, Daniel Scott Smith and Michael Hindus, explain: “The sexual revolutionaries of the eighteenth century, if the premarital procreators may be so labelled, were obviously not the vanguard of a sexually liberated nineteenth century.”20

Instead, America witnessed the amazing blossoming of the Christian home in Victorian America, the theme of a solid study by historian Colleen McDannell. She herself focuses on the volume, The American Woman’s Home, co-authored in 1869 by Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe. These sisters described an ideal house church, which would also serve as a home school with a steeple for a chimney and a movable screen to turn the parlor into a nave. In this home would be found an organ for use in hymn sings, samplers on the walls with favorite Bible verses, and Gothic windows pointing toward Heaven. The Catholic version of the Victorian home would feature family oratories, paintings of The Sacred Heart, and the Crucifix on the wall. These domestic articles grew imbued with sacred qualities. As McDannell explains, “both the men and women of Victorian America perceived the sacrality of certain household objects. Women might have made or purchased the objects—family Bibles, wax crosses, Angelus clocks—but popular literature often mentioned the object’s emotional impact on men.” The Christian home in America showed that the divine dwelt in the everyday world. The good home was evidence of divine election and personal piety.

Moreover, this image of the Christian American family took bold, if unintended, steps toward uniting Protestant and Catholic homes, so contributing to a greater sense of unity and nationhood. Protestants and Catholics found informal agreement on a set of home virtues, symbols, and rituals. Paintings of the Madonna and Child could be found in Catholic and Protestant homes alike, as could the emergence of the mother as a kind of domestic priestess. Even the Beecher sisters would have agreed with Father Bernard O’Reilly when he wrote in 1879 that a true home is “a bright temple filled with the light of God’s presence, blessed and protected by God’s visiting angels, and fragrant with the odor of paradise.”21

The effects of this domestic Christianity echoed until the end of the 19th century. Demographer Douglas Ewbank has employed a sophisticated measure of marital fertility to determine whether intentional birth control was being practiced in a given population. As his variable, M, stays at or near 1.0, there is no evidence of intentional birth limitation. As late as 1860, for the whole of the United States, the M value was still at the high level of .91. For the Southern states, the M value for whites remained near 1.0 through 1900. And among 17 primarily rural states in the South and the Prairie region, the M value was at or above 0.9 as late as 1910, a figure showing among many Americans the continued openness of their marital sexual bond to children in God’s time.22

My fifth image is that of the large Catholic family in the suburbs, the year about 1960.

Victorian values regarding home, family, and sexuality began to crumble in America around 1900 (although such images would linger in publications like The Saturday Evening Post for decades). Rebellion against supposed “repressive” sexual values was in full swing by the 1920’s. Religion again seemed to be losing its influence on American life. The Scopes “Monkey Trial” embarrassed American evangelicals into a retreat from the public sphere. Church membership figures sagged, as did reports of weekly attendance. The “flapper” symbolized young women’s rebellion against supposed domestic constraints: short skirts; short hair; cigarettes; no children. The total fertility rate for whites fell from 3.9 children per woman in 1890 to only 2.2 by 1933, barely above the replacement rate.

But something extraordinary began to happen in the 1940’s. During World War II, marriage and fertility rates started to rise. Church membership rolls also began climbing again; indeed, by decade’s end, nearly half of Americans were attending church or synagogue on any given weekend, an increase of 60 percent over the 1930 figure. The Protestant churches began once more to show a familistic spirit. Back in 1931, the Federal Council of Churches — representing the so-called Protestant mainline — had broken faith with over a thousand years of Christian consensus and had endorsed birth control. In 1946, though, the FCC argued instead that “[f]or the individual family, there is nothing more satisfying, even though it may involve real sacrifice, than to have at least three or four children.”

The American marriage rate soared in the late 1940’s and 1950’s. Just as during the 18th century, marriage came early and became nearly universal. And, just as in the 19th century, liberated sexuality was reigned in by self-control and the married state. The average age for first marriage fell to 20 for women and 22 for men, very close to the astonishing numbers found among the Carolina backwoodsmen of 1750. By the early 1960’s, over 95 percent of American women had married before age 40. And the American birthrate climbed: from a total fertility rate of 2.3 children per woman in 1940 to 3.8 in 1957, an increase of 73 percent in less than two decades. Protestant Sunday schools were swarming with children again, and the greatest era of new church construction in American history commenced out in the child-rich suburbs.

The real revolution, though, was among Catholics, where the fertility increase was far more rapid and complete. Indeed, one might actually see the American Baby Boom as primarily “a Catholic thing.” For example, the total fertility rate for married non-Catholics was 3.15 in 1953 and 3.14 in 1963, essentially unchanged; among Catholics, however, the respective figures were 3.54 and 4.25 in 1963: the latter figure 35 percent above the non-Catholic one. More telling was the return of the large Catholic family. In a survey conducted during the early 1950’s, only 10 percent of Catholics under age 40 had four or more children, very close to the 9 percent found among Protestants. By the late 1950’s — a mere six years later — the Protestant figure was still 9 percent, but the Catholic number of large families had more than doubled to 22 percent.

More surprisingly, this surge in Catholic fertility was most pronounced among Catholic women who had attended college, a fact which violated a presumed law of sociology. The commitment to large families was also concentrated among younger believers. Through 1965, each new cohort of young Catholics was more pro-natalist than the group before. In addition, more frequent attendance at Mass was related to higher fertility.23

Why did this happen? Part of the answer lies, I believe, with a then-unified Teaching Church which—from the Pope on down—focused on the holiness of family creation. As Pope Pius XII told an audience in 1958: “Large families are most blessed by God and specially loved and prized by the church as its most precious treasures.”24 Part of the answer also lies with the new opportunities for early marriage and family creation that came as young Catholics poured out of urban ghettoes for new homes on spacious lots in the burgeoning suburbs: a process that Benjamin Franklin had himself anticipated 200 years before.

My sixth image is dark and pornographic

In recent years, some American scholars have argued that sexual variety and liberation are constant themes in American history: that homosexuality, pre- and extramarital sex, and pornography have always been closer to the American mainstream than folks have usually thought. One recent example is Richard Godbeer’s volume, Sexual Revolution in Early America, from Johns Hopkins University Press in 2002. Yet, on examination, it seems that this scholarship usually takes either marginal or universal events and weaves an argument that is seriously flawed. Godbeer, to choose one episode, makes much ado about a 1744 complaint from Jonathan Edwards that young people in his parish had met to pour over “immoral books.” In fact, they were looking at 18th century gynecological manuals (“books written on the business of midwives”) with drawings showing “parts of a woman’s body.”25 Is this something startlingly new, part of a true sexual revolution, as Godbeer contends? Or is it rather something as old as time: the natural curiosity of the young about their bodies and about sex.

Let me be more direct. There were periods in the American past of greater regulation of sexuality (as in the 17th and 19th centuries) and lesser regulation (as in the 18th and early 20th centuries), as my own analysis here acknowledges. But for the whole sweep of American history, two things had never changed: the sex act remained normatively tied to the procreation of new life; and the normative focus of the sex act was in marriage….

…Until the 1960’s. In this decade, we do face a sweeping and destructive sexual upheaval: one focused relentlessly on severing sexuality from both babies and marriage. Propriety and my jovial spirit keep me from a deep analysis of this event. Yet I will share with you some passages from one of the more illuminating books on the question.

It is called The Rape of the A*P*E*, the letters A…P…E, or APE meaning appropriately the American Puritan Ethic. The book, published in 1973, claims to be “The Official History of the Sex Revolution.” And although not written by a credentialed historian, the claim does have a ring of truth, for the publisher is none other than Playboy Press. Moreover, in its own nihilistic way, the book is honest and accurate.

So, in brief, here’s the historical account of the 1960’s from The Rape of the APE:

First, the challenge: “To win this Revolution, we would have to disorganize the most organized society in the world, neutralize its armed forces, profane its Great Institutions. We would have to defile the world’s most antiseptic culture and corrupt the world’s most respectable citizenry. We would have to turn its immutable Supreme Court around, 180 degrees (p. 75).”

Then, the actors: “[The Revolution] called for grown men and women, determined, dedicated and dirty-minded beyond the call of duty (p.11).”

Next, the campaign: “[My generation] produced and sold rock’n’roll records with risqué lyrics; we invented the term ‘wonder drug,’ and hailed LSD as the true panacea, pushing it at the kids in the hallowed atmosphere of Harvard. My generation wrote and read best sellers with nothing more to recommend them than a half-dozen paragraphs of old-fashioned smut. My generation manufactured T-shirts and novelties with cute suggestive sayings and sold them to our own children. We invented or at least perfected wife swapping. We performed illegal abortions (p. 11).”

Then, the ultimate triumph: “[O]n April 8, 1966, Time magazine appeared in a solid black cover. Emblazoned on it in enormous red letters were three words: IS GOD DEAD? A shocking, brain-reeling blow [to the APE]. In 1970, four years later almost to the day, Pope Paul VI declared from Castel Gondolfo, Italy: GOD IS NOT DEAD. HE IS MISSING. The APE’s strongest ally, missing in action (p.343).”

And finally, the consequences of the sex revolution for America: “Everything got devalued. Not just the dollar, but everything in American life. The American flag was devalued. Marriage was devalued. Virginity. Love. God. Motherhood. Mom’s Apple Pie. General Motors has less value now, and so does the Bill of Rights….The quality of men available to lead was devalued. Our technology was devalued; our institutions and our customs were devalued; the worth of an individual was devalued. All the Pleasures were devalued. [Sex] too. Especially too (p. 389).”

So sayeth The Playboy Press.

Which leads me to my seventh, and final, image: the 21st-Century Amish Family on its Farm.

The Sexual Revolution of the 1960’s and early 1970’s resulted in vast human casualties, from 45 million legally aborted babies to an uncounted number of squandered and joyless lives. In 2003, we still live in the loud echoes of that event. As examples:

  • Rod Dreher, visiting his small hometown in Louisiana recently, reported finding the local women there gathering, not to buy Tupperware, but for “sex-toy parties,” promoted by the Spice It Up Parties Corporation;26

  • “The Bridget Jones Syndrome,” named after the best selling novel and film, describes British [and American] women with great careers, “single girls over thirty. Fine physical specimens. Can’t get a chap.” As Bridget explains after submitting on the first date to a young man’s advances and waiting by the phone for him to call: “How can it be that the situation between the sexes after a first night remains so agonizingly imbalanced? Feel as if I have just [taken] an exam and must wait for the results.”27

  • Caitlin Flanagan reports in The Atlantic Monthly about the latest trend among wealthy, two-career couples in Manhattan: people “too exhausted and resentful [toward each other] to have sex,” creating a bizarre modern form of celibacy within marriage;28 and

  • The March 26, 2003, oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court, which saw pro-family advocates, defending a Texas anti-sodomy statute, actually resort to a defense of the merits of fornication as the best legal argument still available to them.29

But there is another side to America in The Year of Our Lord, 2003. Indeed, if one looks about, there are remarkable signs of renewal. Since 1980, the proportion of Americans attending religious services on a weekly basis has been climbing again, reaching 45 percent by the turn of the millennium. Social science research is showing that, just as during the 1600’s, the 1800’s, and the 1950’s, religious faith can protect youth from destructive premarital sexual activity. A 1998 article in The Journal of Marriage and Family, for instance, reports that while the percentage of all white American female adolescents who were virgins fell from 51 percent in 1982 to 42 percent in 1988, the percent who were virgins among fundamentalist Protestants rose by a third, from 45 to 61 percent over the same six years. The authors credit this to the positive influence of TV preachers, church sermons, and Sunday school.30 Meanwhile, abstinence education programs spread across the country, showing powerful and positive results. For the first time since 1957, the American marital fertility rate is climbing: since 1995, an increase of 16 percent. And the United States of America, in the year 2003, is the only developed nation on earth with a total fertility rate over 2.0. The Economist magazine predicts that Americans will number half-a-billion by this century’s end, while depopulating Europe shrivels into part cultural museum/part old folks home. American exceptionalism relative to population—the theme of Ben Franklin—has returned.

A few commentators have ventured to suggest that America may in fact be in the throes of another Great Awakening, a new burst of evangelical fervor seeking the religious, moral, and familial renewal of the nation. That is a huge idea, which I leave to future historians to judge. But I think it may be true.

Now this is the 21st century, the so-called post-modern age; this is the United States of America; this is a College Campus; and I have been invited here to speak on sex. Accordingly, before I close, I would be doing less than my duty if I failed to provide to the students here some concrete advice about sex. I have turned to an impeccable contemporary source: Weekly World News, the tabloid you find at supermarket checkout counters everywhere. This is the periodical unafraid to tell the truth: for example, in recent reporting, that “60 Members of the U.S. Senate Are In Fact Space Aliens;” and that “Reality Is a Lie: We’re All Living In The Matrix.” Well, like all such truthtelling tabloids, Weekly World News also provides romantic advice. One article caught my eye the other day, and I would like to share it with you.

Entitled “Improve Your Sex Life Tonight—The Amish Way,” the article quotes Dr. Milton Ayres of The Society for the Cross-Cultural Study of Sexuality. “The best sex,” Dr. Ayres reports, “starts with getting down to the basics — and there are few societies on Earth more basic than the Amish….[T]he Amish go to bed early and get up early. They have plenty of energy, alertness and enthusiasm for their sex lives….Amish sex is a purer, deeper kind of sex than what we are used to. You really haven’t lived ’til you’ve tried sex Amish style.” And Dr. Ayres also provides specific tips:

  •  “Turn off all the lights in your house. The Amish have no electricity, which means every sexual encounter takes place by romantic candlelight.”

  •  “Wear plain, modest clothing, which covers up most of your body. All the more to intensify the feeling of discovery….”

  •  “Turn off all radios and TV’s. Hide any movies or mainstream newspapers or magazines—so there’s no comparison between the ‘perfect’ media fantasy people and your own romantic partner.”

  •  “Purchase some farm animals to keep around your yard. The Amish are constantly around farm animals that are reproducing. This reinforces the fact that sex is natural.”

  •  And, most important, “Regularly read the Bible, a book which encourages a healthy sex life between husband and wife.”31

My friends, these are the modern secrets to sexual fulfillment. Moreover, the odd truth is that if the American media of 1776 had felt a need to offer sex-advice columns, these are precisely the tips that the women and men who founded this country would have read…and believed.

Allan Carlson is the President of the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society. This article was first published in The Family in America, May 2003. Dr Carlson is the author of several books, including Godly Seed:American Evangelicals Confront Birth Control, 1873-1973 (2011) 


1 From: Allan Sherman, The Rape of the A*P*E*: The Official History of the Sex Revolution (Chicago: Playboy Press, 1973): 28-29.

2 Vernard Eller, “Sex, Power, and the Revolution,” The Christian Century (March 11, 1970); at http://www.hccentral.com/eller1/ cc031170.html.

3 Gerald F. Moran and Maris Vinovskis, Religion, Family, and the Life Course: Explorations in the Social History of Early America (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992): 150-51.

4 Edmund S. Morgan, The Puritan Family: Religion and Domestic Relations in Seventeenth-Century New England (New York: Harper & Row, 1966 [1944]): 54-60.

5 Morgan, The Puritan Family, pp. 60-64, 164.

6 See: Daniel Scott Smith and Michael S. Hindus, “Premarital Pregnancy in America 1640-1971: An Overview and Interpretation,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 5 (1975): 537-39.

7 Smith and Hindus, “Premarital Pregnancy in America,” p. 547.

8 Moran and Vinovskis, Religion, Family, and the Life Course, p. 154; and Richard Godbeer, Sexual Revolution in Early America (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002): 240-45.

9 Found in Smith and Hindus, “Premarital Pregnancy in America,” p. 548.

10 Excerpts from David Hackett Fisher’s Albion’s Seed, found at: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~UG97/albion/amarriag.html; afertili.html; and aclan.html.

11 Benjamin Franklin, “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind,” in Leonard W. Labaree, ed., The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Vol. 4 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961): 225-34.

12 See: H. Temkin-Greener and A.C. Swedlund, “Fertility Transition in the Connecticut Valley, 1750-1850,” Population Studies 32 (March 1978): 31; and Robert V. Wells, Revolutions in Americans’ Lives: A Demographic Perspective on the History of Americans, Their Families, and Their Society (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982): 80-81.

13 Daniel Scott Smith, “The Demographic History of Colonial New England,” Journal of Economic History 32 (March 1972): 165-67.

14 Robert V. Wells, “The Population of England’s Colonies in America: Old English or New Americans?” Population Studies 46 (1992): 95.

15 In: Labaree, The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Vol. 9, pp. 59-100.

16 Robert V. Wells, The Population of the British Colonies in America Before 1776: A Survey of Census Data (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975): 285.

17 See also: Wells, Revolutions in Americans’ Lives, p. 78; and Robert V. Wells, Uncle Sam’s Family: Issues in and Perspectives on American Demographic History (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985): 30-37.

18 Robert V. Wells, “Family Size and Fertility Control in Eighteenth-Century America: A Study of Quaker Families,” Population Studies 25 (1971): 80-82.

19 Smith and Hindus, “Premarital Pregnancy in America,” p. 551.

20 Ibid., p. 553; also pp. 537-39.

21 From: Colleen McDannell, The Christian Home in Victorian America, 1840-1900 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986): xiii-xvii, 1-14, 16, 151-54.

22 Douglas C. Ewbank, “The Marital Fertility of American Whites Before 1920,” Historical Methods 24 (Fall 1991): 146, 153-54, 164-66.

23 See: Lincoln H. Day, “Natality and Ethnocentrism: Some Relationships Suggested by an Analysis of Catholic-Protestant Differentials,” Population Studies 22 (1968): 27-30; Gerhard Lenski, The Religious Factor: A Sociologist’s Inquiry (New York: Doubleday, 1961): 219-22, 226; and Leon Bouvier and S.L.N. Rao, Socio-religious Factors in Fertility Decline (Cambridge, MA: Ballinger, 1975): 1-4, 84-91, 156-58.

24 Pius XII, “The Large Family Address, Jan. 19, 1958,” The Pope Speaks 4 (Spring 1958): 363-64.

25 Godbeer, Sexual Revolution in Early America, p. 239.

26 Rod Dreher, “Rampant Rabbit, Licking Lizard: The Ladies Aren’t Selling Tupperware Anymore”; email correspondence.

27 Quotations from: James Tooley, The Miseducation of Women (London and New York: Continuum, 2002): 1-4.

28 Caitlin Flanagan, “The Wifely Duty: Marriage Used to Provide Access to Sex. Now it Provides Access to Celibacy,” The Atlantic Monthly (Janurary/February, 2003): online edition.

29 See: Andrew Sullivan, “Unnatural Law: We’re All Sodomists Now,” The New Republic (March 24, 2003): 22-23.

30 Karin L. Brewster, et. al., “The Changing Impact of Religion on the Sexual and Contraceptive Behavior of Adolescent Women in the United States,” Journal of Marriage and Family 60 (1998): 493-503.

31 Found at: http://www.weeklyworldnews.com/features/revelations.cfm?CFID=6018981&CFTOKEN=82273791.