By John Lofton
Number 22, April, 1987

One of the biggest of the many big lies we are being told is the big lie that the way America is today is the way we always were.

One of the things that is so insidious about this particular big lie is that it sends a message of despair and hopelessness. And it is a denial of our history. But what is even more egregious about this
big lie is that it also denies the Biblical truth that with God all things are possible. Thus, even if we have always been the way we are, which isn’t true, so what? God can change this. And if we seek
and obey Him, He will change what we are, He has promised.

An example of this big lie I am talking about occurred recently on the Phil Donahue television program. In a discussion about AIDS, when a viewer, a woman, called in to ask whatever happened to having sex solely within marriage, Mr. Donahue grimaced as if this was the craziest question he had ever heard. He asked his caller, incredulously, “So, why don’t we just behave?” When his female caller says, well, yes, Mr. Donahue interrupts, saying: “But we never have.”  He says the idea of having sex only within marriage “won’t work.”

At the end of this program, in one of the most sickening performances I have ever seen on national TV (and I have seen many), Mr. Donahue throws free packages of condoms into his audience as they laugh, shriek in delight, and applaud. All of which causes him to say that we should remember that AIDS is not funny. He says it is a disease that threatens all of us (another big lie, at least at this time). And he says AIDS is a human problem “and sexual preference has nothing to do with this” (another big lie).

Now, in a way, I am glad Mr. Donahue said what he said. Because what he said forced me to read a book I wanted to read anyway, a book titled Sex in Middlesex: Popular Mores In A Massachusetts County, 1649-1699 (University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, 1986) and written by Roger Thompson, a University Reader in the School of English and American Studies, University of East Anglia, Norwich, England. And what this book demonstrates, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is that it is, indeed a very big lie to say that Americans have never sexually behaved themselves.

First, a little background. Middlesex County covered the area north and west of Boston and originally included the towns of Cambridge and Charlestown. Within Middlesex were varied  communities: a seaport, a college town, country villages with and without resident magistrates, frontier settlements, so called “peaceable kingdoms” and feud-wracked settlements. The population of Middlesex in 1647 was about 2,990; by 1699, the population had grown to 12,017. The main source for Prof. Thompson’s study was Middlesex County court records, buttressed by town, church and genealogical records.

Okay. So, what did Prof. Thompson discover? Did he find an epidemic of sexually-transmitted diseases in Middlesex? Did he find homosexuals on the march, vigorously defending their “right” to commit sodomy? Was wife and child abuse rampant? Were unborn babies being slaughtered on demand? Were drugs being abused in a massive scale?

Was it a common occurrence for unwed teenage girls to be getting pregnant? In a word: no, Prof. Thompson did not discover this.

But why? Why weren’t any of these things discovered? Well, as Prof. Thompson explains it: “The churches if Christendom might slaughter each other in their thousands, but they did agree that there was only one proper place for sexuality and that was the marriage bed.  Newlyweds should enter it – ‘a thing undefiled’ – unspotted virgins. The authority of Biblical, canon, and statute law was reinforced with emphatic urgency by countless Puritan sermons, oral tracts, and conduct books. All asserted that the primary agency for enforcing chastity was the family, buttressed where necessary by the community and its officials.” Thus, comparatively speaking, “the ratios of bastardy and pre-marital fornication in Middlesex were low.”

And illicit sex was punished. In the 1680’s a male adulterer was offered the alternative of 30 stripes or a 20 pound fine. Promiscuous women could expect similar treatment. During the 1650’s punishment for pre-marital fornication ranged from 40 shillings to 10 pounds and from six stripes or lashes to 15. Sexual abuse against a woman was almost always dealt with severely. Men could receive at least 20 stripes, sometimes 30 or 40. Often monetary alternatives were not offered; when they were, they were often at the stunning amount of 15 or 20 pounds.

Prof. Thompson observes: “The sheer number of people in each town who were officially responsible for law and order is impressive. Lay officers included any resident magistrate or associate or commissioner for small causes; the constable (some larger towns had two); the town selectmen, who might number seven leading citizens; the grand juryman; the watch, who patrolled the town after the 9 p.m. curfew; and the tythingmen, responsible by the act of 1679 for the moral oversight of 10 families. Among church members, the one or two ministers, the lay ruling elders, deacons, occasional deaconesses and catechisers frequently kept the whole community in oversight.” All of these officials were elected or nominated by their constituents.

Quite apart from law enforcement officials, however, all citizens, especially church members had a duty to maintain a holy watchfulness over their neighbors. Why? Because, Prof. Thompson notes: “People understood that condoning breaches of the moral code would invite God’s wrath in the whole community; the person who turned a blind eye to sin was as bad as the sinnner…. The people of Middlesex therefore had compelling spiritual and material reasons for vigilance.”

And this system worked. Prof. Thompson says that, on the average there were only two cases per decade of sexual abuse and harassment by unmarried males in Middlesex. He says “the evidence in sexual deviance, abuse, and harassment would seem to support the contention that in these areas of potential sexual release the typical youth of the county exercised exemplary self-control…. There were no reported rapes in the legal definition of that term.”

Prof. Thompson says that while the adolescent culture of that time might have made waves, it did not produce floods, it did not revolutionize values. He says: “The wide range of adolescents in the
Middlesex records do not come across as brainwashed, willbroken robots. They chose to conform as they entered the adult world.” And, he notes, everyone in Middlesex was required to live in a family.  Most would live in at least three families during their lifetime: their family of birth or orientation; the family where they were put out as servants to be trained; and the family of marriage or procreation. Some young people served in more than one of these families.

But it is the crucial role played by the Christian faith that comes through over and over again in Prof. Thompson’s excellent book.

And what he has to say deserves quotation at length. Rejecting the idea that it was tyrannical fathers that made people behave themselves, he writes: “If not patriarchal despotism, what then
produced such comparatively high moral standards? A major factor, encountered time and again in this study, was popular piety. The great majority of men and women encountered in the court records were, quite literally, God-fearing. Their threatening and unpredictable world was theocentric: God controlled their uncertain destinies. A young man faced with death at sea makes a vow to God to mend his ways if He will save him. Another, meeting resistance to his advances, desists because “God smote him with a trembling.” A threatened woman tells her abuser that “God sees, if nobody (else) sees, for God sees in the dark.” Confessors describe how “God withdrew His protection” or “Our great and crying sin cries aloud in the ears of God for vengeance.”

A woman who successfully resisted attack explained that “‘it pleased God to keep in me a resolution not to yield.” And the phrases “as God is my witness” and “as in the presence of God” and “before God and man” reinforced solemn assertions or denials; they were not empty phrases. A suspected liar is told “God and his conscience did know how far he was guilty.”

Prof. Thompson points out that the devil and hellfire were just as real as God to the people of Middlesex. He says: “Indictments in the superior court conventionally spoke of the accused as “not having the fear of God before his eyes and being instigated by the Devil.”

Individuals referred to “this beast he tare (God’s commands) in pieces” or to “Satan’s temptations in persuading me to deny it.”  Those who swore by the devil were liable to prosecution. The
invisible world was real enough to such people.

Prof. Thompson says this spiritual world was real even to those apparent subversives, seducers and harrassers who violated God’s law. On more than one occasion such transgressors spoke of their crimes saying that what they had done “was no evil” or “it was a small sin and might be repented of.” Indeed, “there is little evidence in Middlesex of a thriving counter-culture to Puritan values,” he writes.

Prof. Thompson also reports that the ordinary men and women in the pews were not mere passive listeners to a “speaking aristocracy.” Far from it. He says that there was no chasm between ministers and their congregations. Instead, the rhetoric of clerics was intrinsic to a collective mentality they shared with ordinary people.

Religiosity pervade everyday life in fact as well as prescription. The servants, farmers and housewives…. were in part the makers of their own faith…. The plebian of Middlesex saw themselves as conscience-armed against the wiles of the devil.”

The only riot in Middlesex was in favor of the status quo, against a hated symbol of English folk culture, the maypole. Says Prof. Thompson: “Without this social cohesion, the magistrates’ task
would have been impossible. As it was, their burden was lightened by the pervasiveness of informal community control. Middlesex was well- stocked with moral monitors who did not miss much in the goldfish-bowl existence of daily life. The very use of the word ‘uncivil’ to describe immoral behavior suggests it was regarded as an offense not only against God but also against civic standards. A court appearance, then, was often a last resort for the intractable.”

And few people went to jail more than once. Prof. Thompson writes: “Examples of recidivism were rare. Many convicted young women went on to marry; many convicted youths later served their communities in elected or appointed offices. Even such an unspeakable young rogue as Jerathmeel Bowes eventually became a representative in the General Court. Where the object of justice was not simply punishment or protecting society from criminal behavior, but also the reform of the criminal in which society had a vested interest, breaches of the moral law would be reduced, and the growth of criminal class deterred.

Prof. Thompson says certain crimes actually declined over time, notably domestic violence, and after the 1680’s marital infidelity. He says the social “odiom,” the “scandal and reproach,” and “the lash of the law” were feared and felt in new communities as much as the old, and in the 1690’s just as strong as in the 1650’s. And he says the statistics of criminality show that New Englanders in general, and Middlesex people in particular, were markedly more law-abiding than people in the old country from which they came.

In conclusion, noting that “the silent majority behaved themselves and sustained the New England Way,” Prof. Thompson writes that “far from being a brutal, suspicious, intolerant, and bigoted
crew, most of the people of Middlesex were concerned, considerate, and cooperative. Consensus and common sense helped to make it a law-abiding place.”

He says: “The remarkably high standards of popular mores in this Massachusetts county in the second half of the 17th Century owed far less to oppressive patriarchalism than we have been led to believe.  This conclusion coincides with the findings of other recent studies on both sides of the Atlantic. Modern relationships and group dynamics would be far less alien to our early modern ancestors than has been suggested. The provocative and challenging theses of the 1970’s (which have disputed this – J.L.) simply do not stand up under detailed testing and examination.”

Amen! So put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mr. Donahue! God works, Mr.Donahue! His righteousness does exalt a nation, Mr. Donahue!

Indeed, there was a time when Americans behaved themselves, Mr. Donahue! All things do work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to God’s purposes, Mr. Donahue!  To God be the glory for all good things! And I pray that, once again, God will make us a good, well-behaved people.

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