‘Sexing up’ the Puritans

October 12, 2007

Richard Godbeer, ‘”Love Raptures”: Marital, Romantic, and Erotic Images of Jesus Christ in Puritan New England, 1670-1730’, New England Quarterly, 63 (1995), 355-84.

I read this essay as I was keen to get a better handle on the use of bridal imagery with an individual rather than corporate focus. I am more familiar with the church-as-bride-of-Christ idea than the marriage of the individual soul. I have encountered marriage of the soul in English Puritan writings of the early 17th century and was curious about how this fitted into the wider tradition.

Godbeer points out that Catholic mystics described union with Christ in terms of feelings that they shunned within human society. The picture within Puritanism was complicated by a positive view of sex:

‘This affirmation of marital sex had important implications for Puritans’ use of spousal imagery. Instead of depicting union with Christ in mystical terms that eschewed the impurities of physical desire, Puritans used concrete, earthy language to draw direct parallels between human marriage and the soul’s espousal’ (359).

Earlier spousal imagery tended to centre on the bride’s unfaithfulness and groom’s forbearance. But as the emphasis of late 17th-century preachers shifted from a message of God’s wrath and judgement to one of love and reassurance, the use of spousal imagery also changed, taking on more romantic, even erotic connotations.

There is much in Godbeer’s essay that is useful and he interacts deftly with the literature. The examples he gives will surprise you and I would blush to repeat some of them here. But one wonders if he has perhaps taken his idea too far. For example in describing the ‘gender fluidity’ of Puritan culture he makes much of the language of being ‘a member’ of Christ, interpreted in a phallic sense, as speaking of a potency conferred on women in the church (380-1). He is closer to the mark in rejecting the notion that this spousal imagery alienated male sensibilities, though as is common in such discussions he fails to highlight the importance of biblical bridal imagery in the Puritans’ scripture-shaped outlook. Godbeer’s essay may surprise you, but believe me, it is fairly tame compared to some of the literature surrounding Pietist mysticism, in particular that of the Moravians.

Anyway, just some thoughts. Has anyone spotted examples of individual application of the marriage metaphor in earlier English Puritanism?

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