[Milton-L] PL and the sabbath, etc.

Susan Bissett sbissett at drew.edu
Tue Dec 21 00:11:44 EST 2004

I recall reading somewhere of a minister in New England who chastised couples in his congregation, considering that a child born on a Sunday must have been conceived on a Sunday -until his own wife gave birth on a Sunday.  I wish I could remember the source.    The New England Puritans seem to have included some rather legalistic and literal types.  They are known to have legislated and enforced Sabbath observance.   It might also be relevant that church going was a much longer affair for many Puritans - a long service during the morning was followed by a cold or pre-cooked lunch, and then additional sermons during the afternoon, in some churches.  Certainly no Sunday afternoon games. It doesn't seem to have left much time or privacy for making whoopee.

The implication that sex on a Sunday was wrong would surely not have been the opinion of some of the radical sects 1640-1659, some of whom practiced free love, aspired to sexual equality, and went naked in the belief that pre-lapsarian innocence was attainable by believers in anticipation of the millenium.  A certain Quaker named Naylor comes to mind, as do the Adamites.  The Adamites were accused of wife-swapping in one of the Thomason tracts (illustrated).  I don't know whether they allegedly did this on Sundays or whenever.

Sexual asceticism was an attribute of Catholicism, especially after the Council of Trent; many Protestants (notably Luther and his followers) considered marriage, not the convent or the celibate life, to be normal behavior for Christians.  Puritan clergy, after all, were encouraged to marry, as did Calvin, and Knox.  And, of course, other Protestants disagreed.  Robert Boyle, the chemist, considered the scientist a kind of priest of knowledge, and considered scientific experiments to be a kind of worship, suitable for Sundays.  He also was an avowed celibate, as was Isaac Newton.  Both had Puritan backgrounds; both contributed intellectual support to Anglican latitudinarianism.   It seems quite safe to say that there was a variety of opinion about sexuality during this period, as always, but it seems that radicals were freer than other Protestants, and that the high church tended towards celibacy more than others.  Congregationalists (Independents) and Presbyterians, it seems, have always liked to make rules, and have enforced Sabbatarianism.  That is the kind of character trait that might outlaw sex on Sunday.    

As for Milton...
Milton's references to married love in Paradise Lost are, of course, referring to the unfallen state.  But they are both luscious and full of great dignity. Somehow, sex seems much sexier before the fall, which I suppose to be Milton's intent.   Milton follows Augustine in supposing that Adam and Eve had sex without sin in Eden.  Clearly, Milton puts sex in a more positive light than other commentators, who regarded sex as a result of the fall.  Furthermore, Milton's idealistic portrayal of the possibilities of married "conversation" (with both meanings) in the Divorce tracts, and his disparagement of "grinding" sexual intercourse in an unhappy marriage indicates an emphasis on intellectual and spiritual love rather than physical.  The physical act of love is valued when it is part of a good relationship, and it is devalued when it is purely physical.  This certainly leaves the door open for righteous sex on Sunday, although, poor Milton, it's hard to imagine him actually achieving the kind of relationship he idealized. 

James Grantham Turner, where are you when we need you?

Susan J. C. Bissett
sbissett at drew.edu

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