Researching and writing about puritan poet Anne Bradstreet

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Ruling the Home

They say that when William Gouge, author of the 17th-century bestseller Domesticall Duties, preached on the submission of wives, his congregation got restless and unruly. And there's no doubt that he came down firmly on the side of the literal biblical teaching, which when combined with the secular English law of coverture meant that married women had no property rights and had to obey their husbands in all things unless they were asked to do something illegal or immoral. Wives are in subjection to their husbands -- a phrase that Gouge uses freely and repeatedly.

End of story? Not quite. I'm probably doing our buddy Pastor Gouge a disservice here, because I'm ignoring his big First Point and going right for the congregation-aggravating Second Point. That First Point Gouge is emphatic on: in the hierarchy of the home, a wife is in no way on the same level as children or servants. The husband is the king, but the wife is the Prime Minister. He's president; she's chief of staff. And apparently he knows he's going to get some push-back from that, for he addresses objections immediately.

Doesn't that "impair the dignity and authority of the husband?" In that sentence alone, we get a clear look at the ideal of husbands in this culture. They were like CEOs who wore a tie when everyone else was wearing jeans, and to whom you were not supposed to give advice, even if you were right.

But Gouge pooh-poohs such thinking. "We see that in all estates the King or highest governour hath other Magistrates under him, who have a command over the subjects, and yet thereby the King's supreme authority is no whit impaired, but rather better established . . . So is it in a family."

Husbands took care of the really important things in life -- "great and weighty matters of the family," such as providing for the family, leading family worship, disciplining children when they "wax stubborn," managing the male servants, and so on.

But wives are involved in management, too, with the lesser "but very needful" matters, like food preparation, interior decorating, teaching the children, and managing the female servants. The husband was to throw his weight behind her efforts, adding "much authority unto her" so that the family took her commands seriously. Though she is subject to him, she is no servant: "for of all the degrees wherein there is any difference betwixt person and person, there is the least disparity betwixt husband and wife." So even though she's under his authority -- they both wear ties.

The wife could even get involved in those "great and weighty matters" through her support and encouragement. Here's where I had to smile. I am involved in Scouting with my boys. One of the goals of Boy Scouts is to give boys an opportunity to work toward a goal. The ultimate goal is the Eagle badge, and that takes a lot of time and effort and organization -- and for many boys it would not be won if it were not for the help from a parent (often Mom) in the area of, ah, persistent encouragement. We call it, "the Golden Boot."

Four hundred years ago, Pastor Gouge strongly advocated wives to use the Golden Boot on their husbands in the area of family religious devotions. Now bear in mind that women were barred from speaking or teaching publicly.

Gouge says: "Yea further, as the man especially is to perform the very actions of prayer, reading the word, catechizing, and other like duties in the family, so the wife may be a great help in
- putting her husband in mind both of the duty itself,
-and of the time of performing it,
-and encouraging him to do it,
-in gathering the family together,
-and exhorting them to be forward,
-in making herself an example to the rest by her diligent and reverend attention,
- in oft urging and pressing to her children and servants such points of instruction as her husband hath taught[.]"

And then if all else fails, she should take it on herself "when her husband is absent, or negligent and careless, and will not himself do them; or it may be, is not able to do them[.]"
[I formatted the above to make the booting more clear.]

Can you see it? "We're having devotions tonight, right? -- Shall I tell the servants to come now to devotions? -- Tommy, listen to your father when he's reading Scripture! -- You know, what you're saying about that passage of Scripture reminds me of another passage of Scripture -- well, several passages, actually. May I share?" And so on. And if he clean won't do it, she can take over.

And if she is the more talented teacher? Gouge refers to the New Testament couple, Priscilla and Aquila. and how it was the wife, Priscilla, who was the primary spiritual teacher for an up-and-coming leader of the church, Apollos. Women "may, and ought to teach" in their homes, and apparently that did not mean only the kids; it meant male adults in the home as well. That's a step forward in this century.

That's all very well when it comes to family devotions. But it is the areas of money and property that the rubber really meets the road in most families. In England (and in America for the first couple of centuries), married women could not legally buy or sell property, could not possess their own money, and could not enter contracts without their husband's permission. Any loopholes there? Stay tuned.

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