The 16th century reformation & the elevation of women

The Catholic Church’s long held beliefs were rocked by the many changes of the 16th Century Reformation. Puritans in the 17th Century sought continued reform and idealized the church be rebuilt in the purest form of the 1st century, as established by Christ himself.

Martin Luther burning the Papal bull

Puritan theology endorsed an intense individual spiritual connection to God, without the need for the middle man, the priest, so fundamental in the Catholic religion to the ever sought after salvation. The Puritan was considered competent, conscientious and responsible, and believed only he needed await God’s special grace for salvation. Puritan worship was autocratic, hierarchical, and departed ways from the Anglican Church in their diligent adherence to the authority of the bible as God’s written word, which was applied to every aspect of life.


Although traditionally held Catholic views originating with the ‘Book of Genesis’ as to the virtues of women were still demanded under Protestantism, the Reformation elevated the status of women as marriage was seen as the ideal state in the community and raising children the most ‘pious’ of duties. Protestant reformers began commending the Christian values of ‘domestic life’ and the ‘moral authority’ women encouraged in the home. In this patriarchal environment of the 17th Century, the Puritan faith empowered women through their elevated status in the household and the promotion of the idea marriages should be based on mutual consent, respect and entered into for love. 1ec7b631b568225597007e356df89ecd It also provided spiritual comfort in times of trauma, such as the absence of a loved one through war, or childbirth.

Protestant reformers were the first to foster marriage as the normative state and set the family unequivocally above the celibate ideal, praising the husband and the housewife over the monk and nun. The fostering of marriage and family as the normative state was taken further by the Puritans and their ‘church government’ in the early 17th Century in the hope of establishing the basis of English social reform and economic advancement. Puritan ministers in their sermons conducted a process of entwining religious meaning into the hierarchy of marriage, family life and sex to ensure adherence through conscience and guilt to the  new building blocks of society, especially in Massachusetts Bay Colony, New England, where the Puritans were so successful in establishing their political ideas for a new society. By promoting the church and the Christian soul as the eager bride of Christ, husbandly authority and wifely obedience was considered the appropriate context for marriage and as deference to God. Diaries and journals left by Puritan men are our greatest insight into the scope of mutual respect and love between husbands and wives of this faith, as prescribed by the Puritan divines. See what the Puritan preacher Ralph Josselin notes in his diary in 1663:

My wife not with me, and my mind very foolish. I am of wont to see my dear Wife; here to enjoy her delightsome imbraces; her counsel, spiritual Discourses, furtherance, encouragement in the ways of God, I was wont to finde her an help to ease of the burthen and trouble of household-affaires.

Puritans accepted sexual intercourse as the natural consequence of marriage and used the symbolism of the saint’s reception to the love and power of God to sanction sexual pleasure in marriages, although women were expected to submit to their husband’s advances as the head of the household.

Some historians argue that experiences of spirituality and marriage were expressed uniquely through gender. Men in their public role anguished over the perceived ‘problem of weaned affections,’ and struggled to resolve their love for their family against their first love for God and their ultimate submission to his will. Women on the other hand, in their more domestic role, embraced a loving and submissive marriage as the ultimate devotion to God.

In a time before penicillin and where disease was rife, men made sense of wife’s or children’s deaths as God withdrawing or as a punishment for some fault on their part. They also interpreted it as the Lord ‘weaning’ them from the love of the earthly world.

In contrast, the loving and devoted letters and poems left by Puritan women indicate the most important relationship to be that of their earthly husbands. The Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet encapsulates the picture of adoring and faithful wife whilst furthering her self-expression and reflection in her poem ‘A Letter to her Husband’, when she writes, ‘If two be one, as surely thou and I, How stayest thou there, whilst I at Ipswich lye?’ Margaret Winthrop, whilst displaying typical Puritan strength and self-discipline, similarly laments her absent husband when she writes to him in Boston, ‘I knowe not how to expresse my love to thee or my desires of thy wished welfare, but my thoughts are more on our great change and alteration of our course heare’.

The Puritan pre-occupation with knowledge, reason and faith explains much of the self-examination, expression and refection that is seen in the surviving Puritan diaries, letters and poems. A sort of written confession. Doubt of one’s own redemption and the struggle for resolution were integral partners in overcoming a complete self-centeredness purportedly inherited from Adam. Self-examination was a crucial element in fending off the devil and revealing glimpses of inward sin.

In a world dominated by men, an exploration of the works left by Lady Brilliana Harley and Anne Bradstreet contest to a range of self-expression and empowerment subtly wielded through a devotion to their husbands. Wifely devotion, humility and self-effacement could mediate as the appropriate context of espousal to God thereby subtly promoting authority and power within the household and eroding patriarchal dominance.

In Lady Harley’s numerous surviving letters, the obsequiousness she lavishes towards her husband is her foremost written concern, upon conclusion of which, she turn’s to her own needs or that of her children. In request of a new religious companion she writes, ‘her name is Buckle, if you like of it, I would thinke of haueing her; for I haue no body aboute me, of any judgment, to doo any thinge’.   Her continual devotion and submission to her husband and his prolonged absences ensures her position of ruler of the household.

Some have argued Anne Bradstreet was initially an unwilling participant in her notoriety as a female poet and that her poetry was ‘appropriated’ and published by her male relatives in order to celebrate her as an abstract figure of male Puritan culture and argue Bradstreet’s poetry must be read through a male perspective due to the influence they had over her works when published. Regardless of this, the self-reflection and expression of her poetry is indicative of an empowered individual who thinks and experiences the world around her through in an intensely religious way. Is her self-deprecation to her gender, her husband and the almighty authority of God perhaps accommodation, rather than submission? Either way, she knows how to gain respect as a poet and a wife in a man’s world. In ‘To my Dear and Loving Husband’, she bemoans, ‘If ever wife was happy in a man, Compare with me ye women if you can…..Thy love is such I can no way repay’.

Basic comprehension and reflection of spiritual doctrine did advance education for Puritan women in the 17th Century, and allowed them personal space for reflection. Preaching and the exchange of ideas in a public setting proved more dangerous. The famous Puritan Anne Hutchinson’s public preaching and subsequent exile from Massachusetts was indicative of how women who stepped outside the domestic sphere were treated. As the Puritan John Winthrop notes in his journal, displacement spelled ‘tragedy for women and chaos for men.’ Hutchinson was later tried as a witch.

For most women, however, the idea a pious and charitably life lived lead on a path to salvation and a joyous reunion with Christ provided much comfort and empowerment, especially those facing childbirth or the imminent prospect of death. Death was viewed in many different contexts, sometimes as punishment from God as seen through Thomas Shepherd’s eyes on the death of his wife, but also as a reward for a life well lived and as release from the trials of the earthly existence.

The Puritan Jane Turell indicates in her written memoir, ‘Improve the Time of Health, ‘tis the only Time for doing the ‘great work in’. When smallpox threatens her village, she notes in her journal, ‘……pardon my sins for Christ’s sale. Let my soul be precious in thy sight. Give me an entire Refignation to thy Will and Preperation for Death; and let me be found among thy Children at the Great Day’.[25]

In John Winthrop’s moving description of his wife Thomasine’s final days of life, much anguish was written on account of her assurances of salvation when he declares, ‘She said that the Devil went about to persuade her to cast off her subjection to her husband’. In spite of this, the Reverend Thomas Nicolson, ‘seeing her humbleness of mind & great comfort in God, said that her life had been so innocent & harmless as the Devil could find nothing to lay to her charge’. In her final hours her belief and comfort in the joys of the afterlife were so great Winthrop claimed, ‘that if life were set before her she would not take it’. In the seventeenth century, childbearing was so dangerous that each pregnancy produced a ‘crisis of faith’. Prayer offered some consolation to the anxious sole as seen in this, ‘prayer for a women with child’, which implored, ‘Thy fatherly pity to strengthen me in this my dangerous labour and travail, and grant me speedy deliverance and joyful beholding of my child, that being a merry mother I may render thee wonder, laud, praise and thanks’. Anne Bradstreet reconciled the loss of  her son through the idea he is God’s child in the first. ‘Persuade my heart I shall him see/Forever happified with Thee’,even if Bradstreet is doing some soul searching to come to terms with the idea her son is better off with Christ.

Women in the 17th Century were living in a man’s world. They were considered inferior, weaker and for the majority confined to domesticity for the sake of financial security. As John Winthrop so “eloquently” phrases it when he notes in his journal, ‘if she had attended her household affairs, and such things as belong to a women, and not gone out of her way to meddle in such things as are proper for men, whose minds are stronger, she may have kept her wits in the place God had set her’.Under these conditions, women’s options were limited. The Puritan faith nurtured women, namely in the household and in the fostering of loving marriages. Historiography of the last decade touch on the difficulties of defining Puritanism, whether it was a ‘movement’ or if they were just the more radical of Protestants. Regardless of this, Puritan theology in the 17th Century fostered education and self-expression for women. It allowed comfort in the emotional release of diaries and letters and empowered them in times of trauma through their devotion to God and the security of the afterlife.

Some references

If you’d like to read Anne Bradstreet’s poems or more from John Winthrop see:

Bradstreet, A., ‘Poems’, in T.H. Johnson and P. Miller (eds), The Puritans: A Sourcebook of Their Writings’, Newburyport, Dover Publications, 2014, pp. 1235 – 1280.

Winthrop, J., ‘Death and Dying’, in Bremer, F. J., and Webster, T.,  (eds.), Puritans and Puritanism in Europe and America: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia, California, ABC-CCLO Inc, 2006, p. 616 – 620.


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