Posted in theology

How the invention of the sofa may have contributed to Jonathan Edwards’ firing, part 2

By Elizabeth Prata

Part 1 here

Yesterday I looked at the custom of bundling in New England of the 1600s and 1700s. Jonathan Edwards of Northampton, Massachusetts was grieved over this, and preached against it. 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.

Bundling made sense to the folks of the time because Sunday was the only day that busy farmer boys could have time off to court women, candles and wood were precious, and since practically the only furniture in the house was a bed, which wasn’t in a bed room by itself, they allowed courting couples to lay on the bed clothed and talk through the night.

So where does the sofa come in?

A 1600s and early 1700s rural home did not have much furniture in it. And nothing was upholstered. People sat on a trunk, or a plank, or the bed, which was rarely sequestered into its own private room. The fireplace provided the only heat, so that’s usually where the bed or trunk or plank was. Additionally, there wasn’t really any place for two people to sit together. If someone had made a chair, it was for one. Sofas were not invented yet. There were no inns or hotels in rural colonial America. Travelers and visitors slept with an accommodating family.

As for courting couples, the visiting beau left the church service, he would be invited to the gal’s home and they would eat supper and visit. Perhaps he would also return with her family to the evening service. By then, it was dark, cold, and late. He would be invited back to the house to visit some more. There was no other time to court women, the farming community was all systems go every other day from dawn to bedtime. Sundays were it.

So as the day drew to a close, they’d continue to court by bundling together in bed. Rather than stay up and use costly candles or precious firewood for visiting into the late night, the courting pair would be allowed to lay down fully clothed under the covers of the bed, which was in view of the family who lived there. Some bundlers had a board slotted between them to discourage bundling too close. The couple could talk into the night and determine if they were compatible.

That was the idea anyway.

You would think that New Englanders would be happy not to have their unmarried sons or daughters lying abed with their courting pal. But no. They deemed it normal.

Atlas Obscura says, “In the heyday of bundling, ideas surrounding marriage and bedrooms were far removed from the privacy we currently hold dear. Bedrooms were semi-public spaces until roughly the late 18th century, and were used for anything from giving birth to entertaining guests. Bundling, which usually involved adolescents, just added one more ritual to the bedroom’s list of uses. Contemporary preacher Jonathan Edwards outwardly spoke against bundling as a risky practice teetering on the edge of dangerous promiscuity.”

Then in New England between 1670 and 1730 there was a burst of creativity with furniture design. Almost every kind of American furniture we commonly see today was invented then, including the upholstered sofa, where two people could sit together and talk intimately.

New Englanders do cling to their traditions, and bundling was, dare I say, embedded in the community. No one blushed and every community that practiced it (usually in rural areas where no hotel or inn or tavern existed) thought nothing of it. Where else would a traveler or a visitor sleep? But then Jonathan Edwards came along and firmly spoke against bundling. We know he did in sermons in 1729, 1741, and 1748 for sure.

Then the sofa was created. It had been making inroads into living rooms in Europe – but New Englanders considered it too racy for people to sit on it! Why? The New York Times article “Couched in History” explains-

“These [illustrations and] prints also show off something that evolved along with the new furniture, a kind of sofa attitude. The ladies drape their arms over the back, stretch out their legs, tuck up their feet — hardly conventional poses for noblewomen of the 1690s. The images seem to suggest that sofas could make people freer, more relaxed, sexier even.” (Source)

That was a big NO for the Puritans. So the bundling continued.

Below- Lorette, Courtesy of Joan DeJean “Woman of Quality on a Canapé.“ Engraving, French, 1686. Canape was an early word for sofa.

The mindset was that daytime furniture that held more than one person at a time was too new to be trusted. Furniture that allowed for daytime reclining was off the charts mind blowing. And so bundling actually continued through the mid 1800s. It was a 160 year old custom that made total frugal sense to the frugal Yankees.

Eventually the Northamptonites became tired of being preached to about personal holiness. Yankee communities deeply guard their traditions, and take offense to being told to abandon them. Jonathan Edwards was fired in 1750, and one of the reasons often cited is due to his speaking against the bundling issue, among several others. I noted this in the part 1 of this 2-part series.

The takeaways here are:

From the vantage point of the Bible reader or any reader of history, it’s important to look at the context of a particular ritual or custom. It’s not an excuse, but they are often born of necessity and people cling to them for a reason. We shouldn’t judge too harshly or without contextual facts at least.

Maybe we in this day and age should re-think Youth Lock-ins or the Passion Conference…

History moves along in interconnected webs that are spurred along by inventions, discoveries, and world events. The interconnectedness of the New England custom of bundling, Jonathan Edwards’ continual push for personal holiness among his pastorate, and the invention of the sofa combined to make a particular situation in 1750 Northampton come to a head. Researching this reminded me of a 1978 PBS program called Connections. This show presented how-

“discoveries, scientific achievements, and historical world events were built from one another successively in an interconnected way to bring about particular aspects of modern technology”

and further, for example in one episode called “Distant Voices“, the educator looked at

two strands on developments in horse technology. The first on warfare, from the use of stirrups, improving saddles and moving to larger, stronger horses for carrying knights. The high costs of these led to a hereditary chivalry. The second strand, arising from the end of the 9th century with the development of the wheeled plough, the invention of the horse collar and the horseshoe, and the three-field system. The increased ability to use horses for both work and transport opening up the possibility of creating an agricultural surplus, and moving it for sale…

The invention of the stirrup in one part of the world founded a national economy in another. Nothing happens in a vacuum. That’s the takeaway.

If you think about it, that is how the Bible presents God’s work. Three deaths and a famine in one part of the world caused Naomi and Orpah and Ruth to move back to Naomi’s native Bethlehem, where Ruth met Boaz due to the custom of gleaning, and where Ruth and Boaz became part of the genealogy of Jesus in the same field where shepherds centuries later would see angels announcing the birth of the Savior… By the way, adherents of bundling in the 1600 and 1700s used Ruth and Boaz as the original example of chaste bundlers, perhaps stretching the Bible a bit to cover their custom.

God uses all things for the good of those that love Him, but also for His own glory. Therefore, to God be the glory!

Part 1 Here


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