U is for Unmarried Men and Women in Puritan Society

In colonial New England’s well-ordered society, men and women were expected to marry.  The desirable average age for marriage was twenty-three for women and twenty-six for men. Puritans agreed it was best to marry a suitable and Godly partner and love would evolve after the commitment. They tended to be more practical and chose someone suitable after they had decided it was time to marry. It is likely many matches were orchestrated by the families to some degree, but Puritans didn’t necessarily believe in the concept of arranged marriages. Social rank and the size of a woman’s dowry were likely very important considerations when choosing a spouse.

The ideal Puritan man was pious and in charge of the spiritual well-being of his family. He led his family in religious devotions and prayer and ensured that they attended church services every Sunday, which was mandatory in Puritan society. The failings of his family reflected poorly on the Puritan husband and father. Any wayward behavior or outright sin spoke directly to his inability and failure to successfully guide his family along a righteous path.

The young Puritan woman prepared herself for her role as a wife and mother during her unmarried years. She was subordinate to her husband and once married, could not possess property, sign contracts or conduct business. The husband received ownership of any financial resources that were his wife’s before marriage.

Singleness was, therefore, an undesirable state for both men and women. The Puritans believed that Eve’s role in original sin exemplified women’s inherent moral frailty. It was feared that an unmarried woman was more susceptible to temptations and benefitted from the guidance of a husband. If the Puritan woman developed into a virtuous wife, she had fulfilled her God-given duty.

Although marriage was delayed in Puritan society, nearly everyone eventually married. Ninety-four percent of women and 98 percent of men married. This statistic was very different in England where as many as twenty-seven percent of the population reached adult age without marrying. There was great shame attached to unmarried women after the age of thirty. Their singleness was viewed as a sign of God’s displeasure. Older single women were referred to as “thornbacks, ” and there was a grotesque proverb saying “women dying maids lead apes in Hell.”

The Quarterly Court Records from Essex County describe unmarried young men charged with excesses while enjoying the company of their other single male friends at the ordinary. The local ministers often lamented that the single men of their community spent far too much time covertly playing cards and dice as they imbibed in liquid refreshment.

One notorious young Puritan man was the epitome of what might happen if a young man did not follow the dutiful path of matrimony. John Porter Jr. was a prodigal if there ever was one. His name comes up numerous times in the court records. His father, perhaps the wealthiest man in Salem, overindulged John Jr. and even sent him to Barbadoes and London. His father likely wanted to be rid of his son who threatened to kill him. John Jr.’s arrogance and hostile behavior terrified his parents and brother.

The court described John Porter Jr. as a “bachelor” which was meant as a summative insult. At age thirty, the records say he engaged in riotous living and was “instigated by the devil” with a “corrupt heart destitute of the fear of God.” The local ministers surely held up John Jr. as an example of what happens to men who remain unmarried.

Marriage was a civil, not a religious matter, and the engagement was referred to as a “contraction.”  Banns of marriage published at three successive public meetings served as an announcement of the contraction. A written notice could also be posted on the meeting house door. Holy vows or wedding rings were not part of the ceremony, and it was a simple process that did not last very long. The officiant was not the minister but a court magistrate. The couple signed the court registry, and a small dinner often followed.