The Power of Love

In any organisation, a worthy goal is not sufficient to ensure success; there must also be an agreed means to get there. The Puritans were no different, and they held up biblical love as the fundamental means in reaching their shared goal of God’s glory. In their view, such love had to flow out from the marriage that lay at the heart of the family. This is made abundantly clear in Ephesians 5:22-33:

"Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Saviour. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband."

We have already noted how the Puritans made companionship their first priority in marriage, but it was to be a companionship in love. Love was the first and chief duty of all married couples. This word “duty” is used advisedly, because love to the Puritans was not merely something which you felt or do feel (love is not something which we fall into one day and fall out of the next), but it is an action.

Wadsworth said, “No one should marry unless they can have a real, cordial love to them; for God strictly commands mutual love in this relation.” [1]

Such love was to be eminently practical, focussed on the pursuit of the other’s happiness in every way, as we find in Wadsworth again, “The indisputable Authority, the plain Command of the Great God, required Husbands and Wives, to have and manifest very great affection, love and kindness to one another. They should (out of conscience to God) study and strive to render each other's life, easy, quiet and comfortable; to please, gratify and oblige one another, as far as lawfully they can.” [2]

Baxter said this: “I pray you, next tell me my duty to my wife and hers to me. The common duty of husband and wife is:

  1. Entirely to love each other; and therefore choose one that is truly lovely; and avoid all things that tend to quench your love.
  2. To dwell together, and enjoy each other, and faithfully join as helpers in the education of their children, the government of the family, and the management of their worldly business.
  3. 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 encourage each other in the hopes of life eternal.
  4. To avoid all dissension, and to bear with those infirmities in each other which you cannot cure: to assuage, and not provoke, unruly passions; and , in lawful things, to please each other.
  5. To keep conjugal chastity and fidelity, and to avoid all unseemly and immodest carriage (conduct) with another, which may stir up jealousy; and yet to avoid all jealousy which is unjust.
  6. To help one another to bear their burdens (and not by impatience to make them greater). In poverty, crosses, sickness, dangers, to comfort and support each other. And to be delightful companions in holy love, and heavenly hopes and duties, when all other outward comforts fail.” [3]

Their love was to be enjoyed. While it was never to be passionate in the sense of uncontrolled (the old meaning of the word has an entirely negative connotation, unlike today), it was to be intimate and intense. Only God was to be loved with all the heart, but a man must love his wife for God’s sake and his glory with great affection and devotion. The marriage bed was to be an essential and, again, enjoyable expression of this intimacy and mutual affection. Puritan preachers made constant use of Proverbs 5:18-19

Let your fountain be blessed,

And rejoice with the wife of your youth.

As a loving deer and a graceful doe,

Let her breasts satisfy you at all times;

And always be enraptured with your love.

Thomas Hooker said, “The man whose heart is endeared to the woman he loves dreams of her in the night, hath her eye in his eye and apprehension when he awakes, museth on her as he sits at the table, walks with her when he travels... [4] 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.” [5]

Often letters between spouses when parted showed the strength of their mutual affection, such as the letters of John and Margaret Winthrop. When John hurt his hand in an accident, Margaret wrote, “I will not look for any letters this term because I pity your poor hand; if I had it here I would make more of it than ever I did, and bind it up very softly for fear of hurting it.”  John concludes his letters thus:

“I kiss and love thee with the kindest affection, and rest they faithful husband; so I kiss thee and wish thee farewell; I kiss my sweet wife and remain always thy faithful husband; many kisses of love I send thee – farewell; so with the sweetest kisses, and pure embracings of my kindest affection I rest thine!” [6]

This affection clearly had a sexual expression, and the Puritans were not at all prudish in this, for it is an aspect of biblical marriage. Leland Ryken is helpful here:

“Contrary to a popular misconception, the Puritans were not squeamish about physical or erotic contact between couples. Thomas Gataker said that ‘the Holy Ghost did allow some such private dalliance and behaviour to married persons between themselves as to others might seem dotage.’ Many Puritan writers use Genesis 26:8, which described Isaac’s fondling of Rebekah, to argue that erotic love was legitimate. One of them commented that in marriage ‘a play-fellow has come to make our age merry, as Isaac and Rebekah sported together’, while Gouge cited the same passage to charge husbands who reject such contact as taking no more delight in their own wives than in any other women. Perkins described one of the ways in which couples should show ‘due benevolence’ to each other as ‘by an holy kind of rejoicing and solacing themselves with each other,’ in connection with which he mentioned kissing.” [7]

Such love and affection between husband and wife was designed to be shared with the children. A lovely example of this is revealed in a letter from Samuel Sewall to his daughter Betty regarding a marriage partner:

“If you refuse Mr Hirst (as she had already rejected a number of suitors) it would tend to discourage persons of worth from making their court to you. Yet notwithstanding, if you find in yourself an immovable incurable aversion to him, and cannot love, and honour, and obey him, I shall say no more, nor give you any further trouble in the matter. It had better be off than on.”[8]

This snippet demonstrates the kind of relationship Samuel and Betty had: it was a loving, respectful and close relationship.

Previous Posts in This Series:

Oliver Allmand-Smith is an elder at Trinity Grace Church, Manchester, UKwhere he has been in pastoral ministry since 1998. He has a degree in history from Cambridge University and is a trustee of IRBS Theological Seminary in Mansfield, Texas and Trinity Pastors' College in Nairobi, Kenya. He is married to Alison and the Lord has blessed them with six children.

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Family Worship by Donald Whitney


[1] Wadsworth, W., n.d. Well-Ordered Family. pp.25.

[2] Wadsworth, W., n.d. Well-Ordered Family. pp.25,36.

[3] Packer, J., 1991. Among God's Giants. Eastbourne [England]: Kingsway Publications, pp.345, 346.

[4] Hooker, T., 1659. The Application Of Redemption. p.137.

[5] Hooker, T., 1656. A Comment Upon Christ's Last Prayer. p.187.

[6] Winthrop, J., n.d. Life And Letters Of John Winthrop. pp.161, 163.

[7] Ryken, L., 1990. Worldly Saints- The Puritans As They Really Were. Zondervan, p. 45.

[8] Sewall, S., n.d. "Letter-Book". p.213.

Oliver Allmand-Smith