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Some Phases of Sexual Morality and Church Discipline in Colonial New England   By: (1835-1915)

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CAMBRIDGE: JOHN WILSON AND SON. University Press. 1891.


In the year 1883 I prepared a somewhat detailed sketch of the history of the North Precinct of the original town of Braintree, subsequently incorporated as Quincy, which was published and can now be found in the large volume entitled "History of Norfolk County, Massachusetts." In the preparation of that sketch I had at my command a quantity of material of more or less historical value, including printed and manuscript records, letters, journals, traditions both oral and written, etc., bearing on social customs, and political and religious questions or conditions. The study of this material caused me to use in my sketch the following language:

"That the earlier generations of Massachusetts were either more law abiding or more self restrained than the later, is a proposition which accords neither with tradition nor with the reason of things. The habits of those days were simpler than those of the present; they were also essentially grosser. The community was small; and it hardly needs to be said that where the eyes of all are upon each, the general scrutiny is a safeguard to morals. It is in cities, not in villages, that laxity is to be looked for." But "now and again, especially in the relations between the sexes, we get glimpses of incidents in the dim past which are as dark as they are suggestive. Some such are connected with Quincy.... The illegitimate child was more commonly met with in the last than in the present century, and bastardy cases furnished a class of business with which country lawyers seem to have been as familiar then as they are with liquor cases now."[1]

Being now engaged in the work of revising and rewriting the sketch in which this extract occurs, I have recently had occasion to examine again the material to which I have alluded; and I find that, though the topic to which it relates in part is one which cannot be fully and freely treated in a work intended for general reading, yet the material itself contains much of value and interest. Neither is the topic I have referred to in itself one which can be ignored in an historical view, though, as I have reason to believe, there has been practised in New England an almost systematic suppression of evidence in regard to it; for not only are we disposed always to look upon the past as a somewhat Arcadian period, a period in which life and manners were simpler, better and more genuine than they now are, not only, I say, are we disposed to look upon the past as a sort of golden era when compared with the present, but there is also a sense of filial piety connected with it. Like Shem and Japhet, approaching it with averted eyes we are disposed to cover up with a garment the nakedness of the progenitors; and the severe looker after truth, who wants to have things appear exactly as they were, and does not believe in the suppression of evidence, the investigator of this sort is apt to be looked upon as a personage of no discretion and doubtful utility, as, in a word, a species of modern Ham, who, having unfortunately seen what ought to have been covered up, is eager, out of mere levity or prurience, to tell his "brethren without" all about it.

On this subject I concur entirely in the sentiments of our orator, Colonel Higginson, as expressed in his address at the Society's recent centennial. The truth of history is a sacred thing, a thing of far more importance than its dignity, and the truth of history should not be sacrificed to sentiment, patriotism or filial piety. Neither, in like manner, when it comes to scientific historical research, can propriety, whether of subject or, in the case of original material, of language, be regarded... Continue reading book >>

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