What Was the Puritan View of Divorce?

Were There Any Puritan Divorces?

 

Although the Puritans wanted to create a godly society in America, they were realistic about abuse, desertion, and betrayal. They were followers of Protestant Reformer John Calvin (and his Geneva Bible translation), who viewed marriage as a civil matter, not a religious matter. Calvin wanted to end clergy celibacy and monasticism practiced by Roman Catholicism. The Puritans carried the Geneva Bible to the New World, and they had multiple acceptable grounds for divorce. (See list at the bottom of this blog post.)

 

Inspired by John Calvin and other reformers, the authorities in Geneva...

"...introduced absolute divorce on grounds of adultery and malicious desertion, and allowed innocent husbands and wives alike to sue for divorce, custody, and alimony. They encouraged the remarriage of divorcées and widow(er)s." —John Witte, Jr., "John Calvin on Marriage and Family Life," In book: The Calvin Handbook, 2008, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co

 

Calvin wanted to protect abused wives.

 

"[The authorities in Geneva] created new protections and provisions for abused wives, impoverished widows, and ravished maidens. Many of these reforms introduced by Calvin and his colleagues in sixteenth-century Geneva were echoed and elaborated in numerous Protestant communities, eventually on both sides of the Atlantic. A good number of these reforms found their way into modern civil law and common law traditions as well." —Ibid. p. 3

 

Calvin's desire to protect abused wives was based on his interpretation of the verse Malachi 2:16 (Geneva Bible), which was consistent with earlier Bible versions:

 

"If thou hatest her, [a]put her away, saith the Lord God of Israel, yet he covereth [b]the injury under his garment, saith the Lord of hosts: therefore keep yourselves in your spirit, and transgress not."

 

Prior to the King James Version (AV), published 40 years after Calvin's death, Malachi 2:16 had never been translated as "God hates divorce."  From 100 BC to AD 1600, it was always translated to be a rebuke of hypocritical men who "hated" and divorced their wives unjustly, without adequate cause. (See chart of major Bible translations from 100 BC to today: Malachi 2:16.)

 

Calvin also condoned remarriage for both the innocent and guilty spouses:

"[Calvin] insisted that the guilty party continue to pay alimony and child support as an ongoing sanction even if the remarried spouse and children were now cared for. Calvin insisted further that the guilty party should eventually be allowed to remarry, too. “[I]t would be harsh to prohibit a man from marrying during his whole lifetime if his wife has divorced him for adultery, or to prohibit a woman who has been repudiated by her husband, especially if they have difficulty with being sexually continent; one indulgence necessarily brings the other along with it." — Ibid. p. 12

 

Table: This chart shows every known divorce among the Massachusetts Puritans 1639-1692. There are 40 divorces listed and the columns give the record location and page, the date, the names of the individuals, the cause of the divorce, the court (the jurisdiction), and the decree (the final judgment)

 

Table showing 40 known divorces among the Massachusetts Puritans 1639-1692

Did the Puritans Divorce, or Did They Have a Utopian Society?

 

The first known divorce in America was on December 3, 1639, when Elizabeth Luxford discovered her husband James Luxford already had another wife and went to the court for justice. The magistrates were not pleased with James. They granted Elizabeth the divorce, took James’s property, gave it to Elizabeth, and— “Next, the court turned its wrath on the deceitful Luxford. Not content with levying a fine of £100 on the bigamist, it sentenced him to ‘be set in the stocks an hour upon the market day after the lecture,’ and to be banished to England ‘by the first opportunity.’”

 

There weren't a lot of divorces in Puritan society, but we do have records of 40 of them.

 

Notice the causes the Puritans listed for the divorce:

  • Another wife

  • desertion

  • adultery

  • remarriage

  • long absence

  • deficiency

  • cruelty

  • bad condition of wife

  • cruelty of husband

  • disease and impotence of husband

  • desertion, failure to provide

  • bigamy

  • incest

  • affinity (meaning consanguinity, too closely related)

The Puritans rejected the Roman Catholic and Anglican view of marriage as a sacrament and therefore unbreakable. They considered Roman Catholic views to be a “popish invention, with no basis in the Gospels.” They saw marriage as a civil matter, not a religious one. According to the New England Historical Society, “In 1620, [Plymouth Plantation] leaders decided marriage belonged to the courts, not to the church. Therefore, they concluded, the courts could grant a Puritan divorce.” They often granted alimony to the wife if she was the innocent party.

 

John Calvin's Influence on the Puritan View of Marriage

The famous Reformer John Calvin (1509-1564) was angry at men who abused their wives. He thought those cruel husbands should divorce and let their tyrannized wives go free.

 

Here's how John Calvin translated Malachi 2:16 in his Geneva Bible

If thou hatest her[a]put her away, saith the Lord God of Israel, yet he covereth [b]the injury under his garment, saith the Lord of hosts: therefore keep yourselves in your spirit, and transgress not.

So Calvin interprets it to say "If you hate your wife, divorce her," says the Lord God of Israel..."

 

His commentary on Malachi 2, gives this interpretation to Malachi 2:16 (the so-called God-Hates-Divorce verse).

Here John Calvin is talking directly to abusive husbands who try to hide their bullying behavior from God and others.

"What else is this," he says, "but to cover by a cloak your violence, or at least to excuse it? for ye do not openly manifest it: but God is not deceived, nor can his eye be dazzled by such a disguise: though then your iniquity is covered by a cloak, it is not yet hid from God; nay, it is thus doubled, because ye exercise your cruelty at home; for it would be better for robbers to remain in the wood and there to kill strangers, than to entice guests to their houses and to kill them there and to plunder them under the pretext of hospitality. This is the way in which you act; for ye destroy the bond of marriage, and ye afterwards deceive your miserable wives, and yet ye force them by your tyranny to continue at your houses, and thus ye torment your miserable wives, who might have enjoyed their freedom, if divorce had been granted them."

 

Treachery Behind Closed Doors: When A Person Ought to Feel Safe

Notice how Calvin says it's one thing for a robber to kill a traveler in a forest out in the open, where that person knows there is danger. But it's especially treacherous for a robber to offer hospitality and invite a guest into their home and then kill and pillage them. And yet this is what cruel men do to their wives. They pretend to honor the marriage bond, but instead they torment their wife under her own roof, secretly, hidden under a cloak, in the one place that ought to be safe. John Calvin says, God sees it, and he isn't dazzled by clever concealment. In fact, the concealment makes it twice as bad. It would be better to let the tormented wife go and enjoy her freedom.


Link to two Reformed pastors discussing this quote, and why they believe abuse victims have valid grounds for divorce AND links to other pastors and Calvinist pastors/theologians today who believe that abuse is grounds for divorce.

 


Footnotes

Table: This table of every known Massachusetts Puritan divorce was published in the book, A History of Matrimonial Institutions, Vol 2, by George Elliot Howard, 1904. University of Chicago, p. 333.

Puritan view of marriage: “The Puritan Divorce Allows Escape From the Chain of Matrimony,” New England Historical Society (2019), accessed 8/17/19, http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/puritan-divorceallows-escape-from-the-chain-of-matrimony/.

Luxford divorce: Glenda Riley, Divorce: An American Tradition (Oxford: Oxford Press, 1991), 12. Male adultery wasn’t accepted as grounds for divorce in Massachusetts until the late 1700s. In a farming society, female adultery was considered much worse because a child could make a claim to inherit the land. Regarding impotence, in virtually all ancient agrarian societies, even in Jewish society prior to Christ, the inability to bear children was a serious problem. Men were responsible for having at least two children.


Are you going through a life-saving divorce? I’d like to invite you to my private Facebook group, "Life-Saving Divorce for Separated or Divorced Christians." This is a group for women and men of faith who have walked this path, or are considering it. Allies and people helpers are also welcome. Just click the link and ANSWER the 3 QUESTIONS.

 

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