Thomas Shepard: heart sodomy, 1641

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"Every natural man and woman . . . is born full of all sin"

Thomas Shepard (1605-1649)

The famous Puritan minister Thomas Shepard, pastor of a church at Newtown (now Cambridge), Massachusetts, first published "The Sincere Convert," a religious tract on the difficult way to a "saving conversion."[1]


The obstacle in the path to salvation was original sin, a major theme of Shepard's works. Only by experiencing a deep desire for salvation, and a true belief in God, said Shepard, could the Puritan assure him or herself of salvation.


In this tract the preacher emphasized that "Every natural man and woman," even he or she who appeared to have "lived civilly," might still be guilty of "heart sodomy," and a whole range of other "sins of the heart." "Sodomy," for this Puritan divine, was inner feeling and outer act. That such concepts were not peculiar to this minister alone is suggested by the popularity of "The Sincere Convert." It went through twenty-one editions between 1641 and 1812, and was one of the most famous and well-read doctrinal essays of the early Congregational religion.


That the Reverend Shepard's public comments on the sodomitical stirrings of the heart had roots in his own heart-experience is indicated by his memory of youthful indiscretions at Cambridge College, in England. This was an era, he recalled, in which he "fell from God to loose and lewd company, to lust and pride." He had, he wrote in his private journal,

lived in unnatural uncleanness not to be named and in speculative wantonness and filthiness with all sorts of persons which pleased my eye (yet still restrained from the gross act of whoredom which some of my own familiars were to their horror and shame overtaken with).

The phrase "unnatural uncleanness not to be named" suggests, specifically, sodomy, although Shepard's restraint "from the gross act of whoredom" indicates he may have indulged only in mutually emissive, not penetrative acts.


"Speculative wantonness" was also one of Shepard's concerns in the following tract of 1641. "Every natural man and woman," argued Shepard (citing Romans 1:29),

is born full of all sin ... as full as a toad is of poison, as full as even his skin can hold; mind, will, eyes, mouth, every limb of his body, and every piece of his soul, is full of sin; their hearts are bundles of sin . . . .

Shepard told his readers:

thy mind is a nest of all the foul opinions. heresies, that ever were vented by any man; thy heart is a foul sink of all atheism, sodomy, blasphemy, murder, whoredom, adultery, witchcraft, buggery; so that, if thou hast any good thing in thee, it is but as a drop of rosewater in a bowl of poison.... It is true thou feelest not all these things stirring in thee at one time . . . but they are in thee like a nest of snakes in an old hedge. Although they break not out inlo thy life, they lie lurking in thy heart . . . . [28]

Shepard said that the governor of Plymouth, William Bradford, "would never have looked upon anyone's lewd life" without reflecting on the lewdness within himself, and exclaiming, "In this my vile breast remains that sin" which I could have committed "as well as he." (A sodomitical tendency was not the exclusive possession of a particular group, as a "homosexual" tendency would later be considered.) Such self-scrutiny "might pull down men's proud conceits of themselves," especially the conceits of such men as "comfort themselves in their smooth, honest, civil life," men who think they were "never tainted with whoredom, swearing, drunkenness, or profaneness." Shepard added:

O, consider of this point, which may make thee pull thine hair from thine head ... , and run up and down with amazement and paleness in thy face, and horror in thy conscience, and tears in thine eyes. What though thy life be smooth, what though thy outside, thy sepulcher, be painted? O, thou art full of rottenness, of sin, within. Guilty ... before God, of all the sins that swarm and roar in the whole world at this day, for God looks to the heart; guilty thou art therefore of heart whoredom, heart sodomy, heart blasphemy, heart drunkenness, heart buggery, heart oppression, heart idolatry; and these are the sins that terribly provoke the wrath of Almighty God against thee.

As "fair a face" as a man wears in the world, said Shepard, he had

some time or other, committed some such secret villainy, that he would be ready to hang himself for shame if others did know of it; as secret whoredom, self-pollution. speculative wantonness, men with men, women with women, as the apostle [Paul] speaks. (Rom. i.)

On the day of judgment, warned Shepard,

all the world shall see and hear these privy pranks, then the books shall be opened. . . . there shall be a day of public hearing ... that all the world may see the secret sins of wicked men. . . .


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References

  1. Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay/Lesbian Almanac (NY: Harper & Row, 1983), pp. 82-84, citing Shepard's "The Sincere Convert," in The Works of Thomas Shepard, First Pastor of the First Church, Cambridge, Massachusetts. With a Memoir of His Life and Character, edited by John Albro (Boston: Doctrinal Tract and Book Society, 1853); (reprinted N.Y.: AMS Press, 1967), vol. I, pp. 28-29, 41. The Dictionary of American Biography says "The Sincere Convert" was first published in 1641, but the first publication included in bibliographies of early American literature dates to 1665. Shepard's private journal quoted in Phillip Greven, Protestant Temperament [Research Request: full title, place of pub, publisher, year of pub?], p. 56, from Shepard's God's Plot: The Paradoxes of Puritan Piety: Being the Autobiography and Journal of Thomas Shepard (Amherst, MA: 1972), pp. 41,72.


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