Forget Leaving Room for Jesus: Fornication and Community Control in Transitional New England

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the earliest times to the present day. This month, Frances Norman, a final year undergraduate student at the University of Hertfordshire, shares some insights into pre-marital sexual behaviour and pregnancy in the Atlantic world.

In July 1791 Sally Peirce ‘Swore a Child’ on Jonathon Ballard, the son of Martha Ballard, an eighteenth-century New England midwife who recorded her life across almost 10,000 diary entries. [1] Sally’s child was born in October of the same year and she and Jonathon married in January 1792. The eighteenth-century was a transitional period for sexual control across America and within New England, which was more sexually restrictive than urban areas of the country. [2] Sally’s pregnancy offers insight into premarital sexual relationships, as well as the role of community and familial control in courtship, pre-marital relationships, and the wider policing of sexuality.

The eighteenth-century saw the decline of criminal prosecution for fornication and the transition of sexual control to the private familial and church spheres with courts becoming more concerned with securing support for any resulting children and left sexual discipline more and more to private domains. [3] Daniel Scott Smith and Michael Hindus argued that the rise of premarital pregnancy in the eighteenth-century was due to this transitional in methods of sexual control, and furthermore that sexual control was high both before and after the eighteenth-century but was laxer during this period. [4] Falling at the latter end of this transitional period, Sally Peirce’s pregnancy reveals the culmination of a century of declining sexual discipline. Whilst fornication and premarital pregnancy were still considered sexually deviant behaviours, the sin of fornication was no longer harshly punished in civil courts, nor did it spell ruin for the fornicator’s reputation.

Martha’s diary reflects our understanding of community involvement in premarital and sexually deviant relationships, with Martha hearing about Sally’s pregnancy from a third party. Moreover, another member of the community, Mr Cowen, acted as Jon’s bond man for his court appearance, exemplifying the role that community played both in the observance and reporting of sexual deviance and in its discipline. There is no indication in Martha’s diary that Sally and Jon’s relationship was publicly known before Sally’s pregnancy. Sally was therefore not protected by this community observance of their courtship. By publicly laying the child on Jon, Sally invited community discipline into her pregnancy and created a level of pressure for Jon to provide for the child or to marry her.

As Clare Lyons notes, many Philadelphia mothers sought community intervention soon after they fell pregnant, suggesting that they both did not see the relationship as a long-term one, nor trusted the father to support the child without intervention. [5] Sally’s involvement of the authorities around the six-month mark of her pregnancy indicates that she had been unable to secure a promise of support or marriage from Jon. Jon and Sally do not marry until three months after their son is born, implying that their relationship had not been serious, and that Jon was either not willing to admit his paternity or did not believe that the child was his. Sally’s involvement of the community in her pregnancy reveals how sexual discipline was enforced and the influence of the community over cases of sexual deviance.

Martha’s role in Sally’s pregnancy and delivery exemplifies another aspect of community involvement in sexually deviant relationships. Martha attends to Sally both before and during the birth. In cases of bastardy, midwives would question the mother during labour believing that they would be unable to lie about the father’s identity under duress. [6] Although it is probable that there were few or no other options for a midwife in the area and Martha may have wished to be present at Sally’s delivery in a familial capacity, it is just as likely that Martha wanted to question Sally about the father of her child at a time when she believed Sally would not be able to lie. This may also explain why Sally and Jon were not married until after the delivery of their son; perhaps Martha, Jon, or both were not willing to commit to Jon marrying Sally until they had seen whether she would hold up her allegations against Jon throughout her pregnancy and delivery.

John D’Emilio and Estelle Freedman observed that the regulation of deviance served the higher purpose of establishing marriage as the only acceptable outlet for sexuality, with sexual pleasure as secondary to reproduction. [7] Thus, fornicators who married were accepted within their communities, granted they participated in the punishment rituals which affirmed marriage as the only appropriate setting for sexual relationships. [8] Jon and Sally’s relationship reflects this as Martha’s diary reveals a certain amount of animosity towards Sally before her and Jon’s marriage. Martha visits Sally the day before and the day of her delivery but makes no mention of seeing her outside of this professional setting. Furthermore, Martha makes several comments over the months following the birth of Sally and Jon’s son but before their wedding of Jon having ‘not been at home Since yesterday.’ [9] This discloses Martha’s disapproval of Jon and Sally’s relationship that is likely due to their marital status. Martha formats her diary in three columns, the first indicates the date, the second is where she writes her account of the day and in the third column, she indicates where she spent the day. On the day of Jon and Sally’s marriage, the main body of Martha’s diary entry makes no mention of the occasion, instead, they are relegated to the third column, where Martha writes only ‘Jon a was married to Sally Peirce.’ [10] Just over a month later, however, Martha cites a ‘Pleast Day’, explaining that Jon brought Sally and their son for a visit, a few days later Martha ‘helpt Sally nurs her Babe’. [11] This seeming reformation of familial relationships after Jon and Sally’s wedding reinforces the idea that premarital fornication and pregnancy, although still considered deviant behaviours, did allow room for community acceptance as long as the role of marriage and sexual relationships was reaffirmed by the couple.

The place of premarital pregnancy and fornication within sexual deviance shifted over the eighteenth century, in the early 1700s harsh civil penalties were imposed upon couples who committed fornication. However, by the turn of the century, sexual discipline had undergone a ‘privatisation’, and punishment for sexual deviance became the responsibility of the community and church. Sally and Jon’s case reveals that attitudes towards and punishments for sexual deviance varied depending on individual cases, and furthermore, that premarital fornication and pregnancy occupied a grey area within the spectrum of sexual deviance and were often forgiven with the following marriage and repentance of the couple. The concept of sexual deviance in eighteenth-century America was a fluid and ever-changing one.

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Biography

Frances Norman is a final-year undergraduate student at the University of Hertfordshire. Her undergraduate dissertation focuses on female sexual agency and control in Presbyterian Ireland in the first half of the eighteenth-century. She hopes to undertake a postgraduate degree in early modern history and is particularly interested in the study of sex, gender and sexuality. You can find her on twitter, @FrancesLNorman

Endnotes

[1] Martha Ballard’s Diary Online, 19 July 1791, <http://dohistory.org/diary/index.html&gt; [accessed 27 October 2020].

[2] John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, 3rd edn (London: University of Chicago Press, 2012), ebook; Clare A. Lyons, Sex Among the Rabble: An Intimate History of Gender and Power in the Age of Revolution, Philadelphia, 1730-1830 (London: University of North Carolina Press, 2006); Lindsay Moore, ‘Single Women and Sex in the Early Modern Atlantic World’, Early Modern Women, 5 (2010), 223–27.

[3] Cornelia Hughes Dayton, Women Before the Bar: Gender, Law, and Society in Connecticut, 1639-1789 (London: University of North Carolina Press, 1995); D’Emilio & Freedman, Intimate Matters (2012), ebook; Lyons, Sex Among the Rabble (2006).

[4] Daniel Scott Smith, and Michael S. Hindus, ‘Premarital Pregnancy in America 1640-1971: An Overview and Interpretation’, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 5.4 (1975), 537–70.

[5] Lyons, Sex Among the Rabble (2006), p. 66.

[6] Richard Godbeer, ‘Courtship and Sexual Freedom in Eighteenth-Century America’, OAH Magazine of History, 18.4 (2004), 9–13, p. 11.

[7] D’Emilio & Freedman, Intimate Matters (2012), ebook.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Martha Ballard’s Diary, 6 January 1792.

[10] Martha Ballard’s Diary, 11 January 1792.

[11] Martha Ballard’s Diary, 29 February 1792, 2 March 1972.

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Further Reading

Primary

DoHistory, Martha Ballard’s Diary Online, 1785–1812 <http://dohistory.org/diary/index.html&gt; [accessed 27 October 2020]

Secondary

D’Emilio, John, and Estelle B. Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, 3rd edn (London: University of Chicago Press, 2012), ebook

Godbeer, Richard, ‘Courtship and Sexual Freedom in Eighteenth-Century America’, OAH Magazine of History, 18.4 (2004), 9–13

Hughes Dayton, Cornelia, Women Before the Bar: Gender, Law, and Society in Connecticut, 1639-1789 (London: University of North Carolina Press, 1995)

Lyons, Clare A., Sex Among the Rabble: An Intimate History of Gender and Power in the Age of Revolution, Philadelphia, 1730-1830 (London: University of North Carolina Press, 2006)

Moore, Lindsay, ‘Single Women and Sex in the Early Modern Atlantic World’, Early Modern Women, 5 (2010), 223–27

Scott Smith, Daniel, and Michael S. Hindus, ‘Premarital Pregnancy in America 1640-1971: An Overview and Interpretation’, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 5.4 (1975), 537–70

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