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Religion, Women, and the Family in Early America

Christine Leigh Heyrman
Department of History, University of Delaware
©National Humanities Center

During the last half century, a growing number of colonial historians have been drawn to studying child rearing practices and gender roles in different Protestant cultures. While their interpretations vary widely, all of these scholars underscore the importance of religious belief in shaping early Americans’ most intimate relationships, those between parents and children, husbands and wives.

The book that initiated scholarly interest in this subject is Edmund S. Morgan, The Puritan Family (1944, rev. ed., 1966). In his view, early New England families embodied the broader Puritan emphasis on hierarchy and order, but they also reflected the values that the Puritans placed on consent and reciprocity. What leavened the great authority over dependents vested in husbands, fathers, and masters was the understanding that each member of the household had certain rights as well as duties. Morgan argues, too, that the premium placed on families influenced New England’s subsequent religious development. The Puritans, he contends, believed that sanctity ran in families—that godly parents were more likely than ungodly parents to produce godly children. That conviction, which Morgan calls “spiritual tribalism,” led ministers to focus their pastoral efforts on culling new church members from families headed by older church members—and to neglect the unchurched.

John Demos reconnoiters some of the same territory first charted by Morgan in A Little Commonwealth (1970), a study of family life in Plymouth Colony. Besides evoking the texture of relationships between husband and wives, parents and children, Demos offers a rich description of early New England’s homes and their furnishings. This builds toward his most intriguing speculation—that the small physical size of households forced family members to repress feelings of anger or frustration toward one another. Instead, those pent-up hostilities all too readily found other outlets—hence the recurring quarrels over civic and religious matters that rent nearly every community and the willingness of neighbors to haul one another into court over the most trivial matters.

In the same year (1970), Philip Greven published Four Generations, the first of his two important studies on religion and the early American family. In this community study of Andover, Massachusetts, Greven portrays New England fathers as patriarchs who, by dint of their longevity and the leverage of land legacies, held enormous influence over even their adult children. But the sway of patriarchy began to wane during the eighteenth century, Greven concludes, as many subdivisions of family farms sharply reduced the acreage that fathers could distribute among their children. And as paternal control over the economic futures of their offspring weakened, young New Englanders became more autonomous and assertive—more willing to challenge the authority of both their natural fathers and their parent country, England.

Which mode of child rearing
does the New England Primer
most reflect—the evangelical,
the moderate, or the genteel?

Library of Congress
Greven subsequently produced what remains the most ambitious effort to link different religious persuasions to modes of child rearing, The Protestant Temperament (1978). Here he posits that three “styles of life” prevailed among Americans between the seventeenth century and the mid-nineteenth century. The first of these temperaments, the “evangelical,” was exhibited by groups like the Puritans, the Baptists, and the Methodists. Evangelical parents according to Greven, were obsessed by human sinfulness and so strove for complete authority over their children and used every means to “break the will” of youngsters. In adulthood, many children reared in such families surrendered any remnant of selfhood in a cathartic conversion experience, a final submission to a demanding deity—onto whom they projected parental characteristics. The second group, dubbed “moderates” by Greven, favored a less drastic approach of molding the wills of their children by pious, moral example. Less preoccupied with human sinfulness than evangelicals, moderates sought to control rather than to annihilate the self. Finally, a third group, whom Greven calls “the genteel,” indulged their children and showered them with affection. That mode of child rearing, in his view, nurtured youthful self-assertion and produced adults who were more at ease with themselves than were either evangelicals or moderates—a well-adjusted lot comfortable with their bodies, their passions, and their ambitions.

Typical of Greven’s “moderates” are the Pennsylvania Quaker families studied by Barry Levy in The Quakers and the American Family (1988). Indeed, Levy starkly contrasts the authoritarian, patriarchal families of the Puritans with the more egalitarian households of the Quakers. In his view, Quaker parents shunned the Puritans’ dogged resolve to break the wills of young children in favor of a gentle, gradual nurture of each youngster’s “Light Within”—a spark of divinity implanted in every individual. Key to their strategy for child rearing was the Quaker notion of “holy conversation,” which meant that parents should set the spiritual tone in their households by serving as exemplars of piety and propriety, modeling for their children the Christian virtues of patience, humility, simplicity, sobriety, and self-denial. But Levy pushes the contrast between Puritans and Quakers farther still, arguing that while the Puritans relied on a variety of other institutions like churches and schools to instill children with Christian values, the Quakers vested that obligation solely in the parents. By emphasizing the moral centrality and self-sufficiency of the household, he believes, the Quakers originated the peculiar understanding of “domesticity” that would come to dominate American culture in the early nineteenth century. In that view, the home is a sort of church, the spiritual center of communal life, a haven from the world in which children receive their most crucial moral and spiritual education—and as much from mothers as from fathers.

That brings this discussion around to the subject of religion and gender roles. According to Levy, Quaker spiritual egalitarianism made wives and mothers vibrant, authoritative presences in both household and church, enjoying far greater influence in both spheres than did Puritan matrons. Quaker women not only shared with men an equal responsibility for maintaining an atmosphere of “holy conversation” within their homes, but they played prominent public roles—as members of disciplinary committees for Quaker meetings charged with overseeing the behavior of other believers and as traveling missionaries. But for all of their religious influence, as Levy acknowledges, Quaker women seem to have been far less conversant with the business affairs of their households, to have known almost nothing about how husbands conducted the day-to-day economic transactions by which their wheat farms prospered or in what manner accounts and estates would be settled upon their spouses’ deaths.

Curiously enough, Puritan women were far more versed in such worldly concerns. Although subordinate to their husbands in the religious life of both home and church, Puritan “goodwives” played an important role in the economies of their households, and husbands entrusted them with a wide range of practical responsibilities. Such are the conclusions of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in Goodwives (1980), a study of women in early New England which, among other matters, documents the common role of that region’s matrons as “deputy husbands” who were empowered to act for their spouses on a variety of financial and legal matters. Even so, a deep mistrust of women permeated the culture of Puritan New England. Even though husbands regarded their wives as “potentially dependable helpmeets,” as Carol Karlsen argues in The Devil in the Shape of a Woman (1987), most Puritan men still harbored dark suspicions of all women as daughters of Eve, greedy for both power and sexual gratification. This pervasive misogyny, according to Karlsen, made women susceptible to charges of witchcraft, particularly those who stood to inherit large estates that would have endowed them with uncommon economic influence.

As the preceding paragraphs suggest, most studies of the relationship between religion, family, and gender in early America have focused on the North, especially the New England colonies. The best source to consult for the South is The Protestant Temperament, because Greven’s examples of “genteel” Americans are largely drawn from Virginia Anglicans. There is also Jan Lewis’s Pursuits of Happiness (1983), a study of Virginia’s planter elite in the late eighteenth century which argues that the spread of evangelical religion within their ranks promoted ideals of companionate marriage and loving, indulgent modes of child rearing. Finally, there is Christine Leigh Heyrman’s Southern Cross (1997), which explores the ways in which evangelicals like the early Baptists and Methodists aroused popular opposition by challenging prevailing views on the subordination of young people and women, as well as by urging their members to prize religious loyalties more than familial duties.

This scholarship does not lend itself readily to adaptation for most high school classes. But familiarity with this scholarship may assist you in emphasizing to students that religious belief did not occupy some discrete sphere separate from the rest of social life. On the contrary, early America’s varied religious cultures shaped in profound ways the most basic human interactions—how men and women imagined their ideal identities, their relationships with spouses, their approach to rearing children.

Christine Leigh Heyrman was a Fellow at the National Humanities Center in 1986–87. She holds a Ph.D. from Yale University in American Studies and is currently Professor of History in the Department of History at the University of Delaware. Dr. Heyrman is the author of Commerce and Culture: The Maritime Communities of Colonial New England, 1690–1740 [1984], Southern Cross: The Beginning of the Bible Belt [1997], which won the Bancroft Prize in 1998, and Nation of Nations: A Narrative History of the Republic, with James West Davidson, William Gienapp, Mark Lytle, and Michael Stoff [3rd ed., 1997].

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Heyrman, Christine Leigh. “Religion, Women, and the Family in Early America.” Divining America, TeacherServe©. National Humanities Center. DATE YOU ACCESSED ESSAY. <>


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