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How the invention of the sofa may have contributed to Jonathan Edwards’ firing, part 1

By Elizabeth Prata

Jonathan Edwards. Puritanical. Bundling. Church. American Colonial era. Youth. Furniture. It all ties in.

The Puritans founded New England after they departed the European Continent in the early to mid 1600s. Though they are often painted as severe, fun-denying, holier-than-thou type folks, the Puritans were actually leisure-loving folk who took personal holiness seriously. Or, they were people who took holiness seriously, but also knew how to have fun. However, a common practice in Early New England distressed Northampton, Massachusetts preacher Jonathan Edwards to no end: it was called bundling.

As any youth pastor knows, youths’ level of frivolity and hijinks can rise to unmanageable levels in a heartbeat. And it was no different in the mid 1700s when Edwards preached in Northampton. In fact, there were many laws enacted in Massachusetts during that time regarding “nightwalking,” youthful frivolity and hijinks in town which resulted in curfews for youth and fines against parents who allowed their teens to roam at night causing ‘disorder’ and ‘damages’. If the youth’s parents could not give a satisfactory explanation as to the reason for the disorder ‘in the night season’, they’d be fined $17.

Bundling was another custom among the youth, but this time, with parents’ approval. Edwards delicately termed it “company-keeping,” a weird practice that put a courting couple into the same bed together at bedtime, clothed or mostly clothed, sometimes with a board slotted between them, in which they talked and visited with each other through the night. I know. Weird. What were they thinking!? But keep reading, in context, it (might) make sense. At least, it did to the Colonials.

It especially grieved Edwards that these various frivolities often occurred after the Holy Day’s sermon, on Sunday evenings. He blamed the parents, strongly, for being too lenient. In his 1729 lecture “Sin and Wickedness Bring Calamity and Misery on a People,” Edwards said,

And parents are very much to blame in its being thus. There are those practices that parents commonly allow of that lead to uncleanness, that is so evident to the common light of mankind … I believe there is not a country in the Christian world, however debauched and vicious, where parents indulge their children in such liberties in company-keeping as they do in this country…. Such things as are commonly winked at by parents here, trusting in their children that they won’t give way to temptation, would in almost any other country ruin a person’s reputation and be looked upon as sufficient evidences of a prostitute.” Source- The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia, Harry S. Stout Editor.

Whoa. Rough. But true. Not one to give up, Edwards capitalized in his 1741 funeral sermon on the community’s shock of a youth’s sudden death, “Youth Is Like a Flower Cut Down”. He urged the listening youth to take holiness seriously, for the number of one’s days may be short. He said,

not only the gross acts of lasciviousness, but such liberties as naturally tend to stir up lust: that shameful lascivious custom of handling women’s breasts, and the different sexes lying in beds together— the custom of frolicking, as it is called; [and] of the so general custom of being absent from family prayer and being out very late in the night, and those of different sexes sitting up great part of the night together

He said almost the same when he reformatted that sermon and delivered it on the occasion of the death of his own daughter, Jerusha, in 1748. Edwards had reason to consistently rail against the widespread custom of bundling. Unwed pregnancies even in strict Northampton where Edwards preached rose to 10%, and the rate of pre-marital pregnancies was much higher elsewhere. “The percentage of couples with a first child born within eight and a half months of marriage jumps from 10 percent from 1720 to 1740 to 49 percent from 1740 to 1760,” writes John Demos in “Families in Colonial Bristol, Rhode Island: An Exercise in Historical Demography” of the folks in Bristol, RI, source below. Any Chaperone to a youth lock-in knows the risks.

John Demos’s research shows a dramatic increase of pre-wedding pregnancies in Bristol, RI, in the heyday of the bundling practice:

Source: The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Jan., 1968), pp. 40-57 (18 pages)

Premarital sex was becoming commonplace, thanks to bundling. Even when the parents placed a sack and tied it about the gal’s waist, and left the couple to bundle, sometimes pregnancy still resulted. Imagine that.

Worse, when it resulted in pregnancy, no one thought much about it as long as the couple got married. No stigma was attached. Jonathan Edwards was concerned not only with the bundling practice that resulted in fornication and pregnancy, but the lax attitude regarding these sins. He saw it as a decline in holiness within the family- and said so.

His efforts worked. The sudden death of the youth Billy Sheldon shocked the town’s youth and they gathered with Edwards for prayer meetings and Bible study. He pastorally talked with them and they began to take holiness- and Jesus- seriously. This was the germ of the Great Awakening taking root, which as we know, flew fervently into many hearts in the 1730s and 40s. Praise the Lord for that!

However as the decade of 1740s waned, so had Edwards’ influence.

By 1750, the people of Northampton had grown tired of Edwards’ consistent emphasis on morals and personal holiness. They remembered his stance against bundling, the bad books incident arose, and finally, his refusal to follow the Halfway Covenant (baptizing unconverted children of unconverted parents), caused the the congregation to vote Edwards out in 1750. His stance against bundling is often specifically cited as one of the main reasons for his ouster, as we see from this source-

Fourth, Edwards faced dismissal from his church because of certain moral stands he took while in Northampton. One occurred over bundling, a traditional courtship ritual designed to test the compatibility (and virtue) of a young man and woman by allowing the couple to spend a night together in bed, clothed, usually with only a board between them. While the awakening essentially began as a movement among the youth of Northampton, Edwards’s demise also rested in their affairs. Source: from The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia, Harry S. Stout Editor.

The New England folks were certainly attached to the bundling custom. But where does the sofa come in? Part 2 tomorrow!


Christian writer and Georgia teacher's aide who loves Jesus, a quiet life, art, beauty, and children.

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