For the Pulpit Told Me So
The pulpit is a symbol for a tangible object of power; those who stand upon it shout to unwilling listeners words of intolerance and words used by a Sheppard 2000 years ago. During the colonial period of America, most of the immigrants had escaped from Europe to save themselves from religious persecution, settled down in prime 17th century real estate, created cities and colonies that flourished under their religious values and ideals. Slowly the New World started to share a “tolerant” culture based off of forced, I mean common religious morals, teachings and practices.
The enlightened Americans did not believe in individual private religious lives, the community itself was one united soul and each citizen was able to send their collective soul straight to hell. Due to this community thought, magistrates and lawmakers worked together to create societies where all sins were treated as crimes. Most laws were similarly worded to biblical language. In New Haven, the law listed 14 capital offenses, some examples: murder, beggary, self-pollution, adultery and sodomy . However, sodomy must be examined through a historical lens without modern attitudes applied to it. During this time, any person was susceptible to sins of the flesh, different from today’s perception where only certain individuals can be “gay”. This fluidity of sin and the lack of a supported defined identity of a sodomite proposes that the “act” did not create an “identity” thus theorizing there was no colonial version of a “queer individual.” This paper will argue, however, that through intense religious rhetoric, it unintentionally started to create a queer identity.
In order to understand how religion can formulate a sexual identity, it is pertinent to understand how sexuality can be constructed in the first place. Sexuality is a social construct. It has been altered, defined, and expressed in many different ways throughout human history. According to Jeffery Weeks, “sexuality is a historical construct which brings together a host of different biological and mental possibilities- gender identity, bodily difference, reproductive capacities, needs, desires and fantasies- which need not be linked together, and in other cultures have not.” In relation to the 17th century, sexuality was a delicate act with huge religious significance. It not only united passions between a man and a woman, but also allowed for the sacred act of procreation to commence. This significance however, supported Weeks’ argument because this is a singular meaning within this specific time period and culture. Sexuality can best be examined as a “script,” for it defines a situation, identifies the actors, plots the behaviors- without these specific characteristics- the sexual act is more than “getting-your-rocks-off,” but performing a symbolic cultural act.
Within certain cultures, such as Athenian antiquity, sexuality did not symbolize romantic union, however, it was a symbol of power status. The penetrator represented social dominance and whoever was being penetrated as the inferior. The only faux pas occurred when the superior citizen was submissive to his inferior, creating social imbalance. In modern times, David Halperin best states that sexual categories contain no universal significance; that these categories are cultural productions that emerge and are contingent on their specific context. Sex can never be performed without some form of political, economic, social or religious function.
In relations to colonial America, the regulation of sex came from the magistrates. The rhetorical technique of “fire and brimstone” language incites fear unto those who are listening. During this time, Puritan ministers evoked this style to really create a legitimate reason for the fear of sinning. In particular with sodomy, the Bible was a huge proponent as to the culture’s attitude towards it. Samuel Danforth preached, “If a man lieth with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death, their blood shall be upon them, Lev. 20:13. This sin raged amongst the Sodomites, and to their perpetual Infamy, it is called Sodomy. Against this wickedness, no indignation is sufficient. The Athenians put such to death. Theodosius [the Roman general and emperor] and Arcadius adjudged such to be Burnt.’ Amongst the Romans, it was lawful for a man to kill him that made such an assault upon him.”
Through intimidation and fear of Godly retribution, and even retribution from your other sexually frustrated townsmen, sodomy was categorized as a mortal serious crime. Sodomy was so gross at the time because it violated the “naturalness” of sexuality at this time. Although sodomy did include varying characteristics, for the purpose of this essay, it will be viewed as an umbrella term to encompass any nonreproductive or “unnatural” act committed by human beings.
Written in 1723, an anonymous book Onamia, expressed the possible dangers for engaging in sodomidical acts, "… so heinous a Sin as Sodomy, and by every Body believed to be such, Procreation itself would suffer very much. The Danger of committing so capital a Crime, would render good People cautious beyond Necessity." This use of dogmatic language inflicts great distress to those who have engaged in sodomy. One example of how this rhetoric inflicts this distress is in the case of Reverend Michael Wigglesworth, a “closet-case” Harvard professor “plagued” with the tendency to engage in sodomy.
His diary entries were written as prayers to God, mostly in code, and expressed his agony of his “sinful” nature. In one entry he writes:
“Lord I am vile, I desire to abhor my self (0 that I could!).... I find such unresistable torments of carnal lusts or provocation unto the ejection of seed that I find my self unable to read anything to inform me about my distemper because oj the prevailing or rising of my lusts. . . .”
This self-loathing for his actions started to create a type of rhetoric for in which he sees his sinful actions as some form of a condition or “spiritual disorder,” similar to chronic masturbation or communism. In another entry he states, “when thou showest me my face r abhor myself. Who can bring a clean thing out of filthiness. I was conceived bred brought up in sin.” His language suggests that his lust has somehow taken chronic control over him. This need for a “cure” can be examined that his actions are now starting to become part of his identity. He feared his school boy crushes were not just snare’s of the devil but his own natural desires. In another entry he fears that his condition cannot be cured by marriage, and fears even more that marriage will only make it worse or even harm someone else’s morality.
“To continue in a single estate, Is both uncomfortable many ways, and dangerous (as I conceive) to my life, and exposeth to sin, and contrary to engagement of affections, and Friends' expectations, and liable to the harsh censure of the world that expecteth the quite contrary…change my condition endangers to bring me into a pining and loathsome disease, to a wretched life and miserable death and consequently 1 fear it would be injurious to another besides my self…”
According to the use of his language, it starts to appear that his understanding of his sodomidical tendencies are so “vile” that they have consumed him, they have somehow become a part of who he is and he is able to spread it, like small pox, also rampant at this time.
Another example of a person who started to view their sodomy as a sort of condition was that of Nicholas Sension. Nicholas Sension was a prominent landowner within Windsor, Connecticut. In 1677 he was accused of Sodomy, only after about 20 years of “random” attempted sodomy claims. Apparently it takes two decades for “a goodman to cry sodomite” and be taken seriously. George Griswald, a local townsman, confessed in his disposition, “I was in the mill house ... and Nicholas Sension was with me, and he took me and threw me on the chest and took hold on my privy parts.” Many townsmen after this had come forward to express that in some way Sension had attempted to also grab their privy parts, in Sension’s classic subtle style. Another man named Jacob Gibs had a similar experience, “came to me and ... untied my shirt and uncovered me, being uncovered himself, [and] strove to close his body with mine. After much striving I told him that if he would not let me alone, I would cry for help...” Although Nicholas Sension was obviously trying to keep his “come-ons” discreet, he somehow managed to keep escaping Windsor law.
In order for a sodomy claim to be brought to court it must have a least two witnesses. In this case the only person to testify against him was Daniel Saxton who brought forth charges after seeing Sension engage in sodomy with a servant named Nathaniel Pond. At the end of his trial his estate was held in bond for good behavior and historical records do not reveal anything more. Such a lackluster ending for such a friendly citizen
In Richard Godbeer’s (1995) essay, The Cry of Sodom, he reveals through his own research that when asked by a neighbor, William Phelps, why Sension continued with his actions he referred to them as a “long practiced trade.” This use of the word “trade” signifies that it has moved beyond just constant sinful actions, but has transgressed into an expression of identity. This expression of identity, as Godbeer later elaborates, are the beginnings of the transition from sodomy being just another sinful act to actually becoming the identity of this specific sinner.
Around the same time as the Sension trial, a subculture was starting to emerge in England that would start to change this time’s period perception of sodomy. Men and women had started to embrace their same sex acts and started to gather in parks, pubs and other meeting places where they shared similar “deviant” characteristics. Men would speak in effeminate voices, kiss each other, refer to each other as “my dear,” and sometimes even cross-dress, and thus came to be the birth of gay bars [sic.] This transition of self-expression is then the stepping-stone for these acts to in some way formulate an identity.
The dogmatic nature of religious language was used to try and save souls from the grips of the devil. Every man, woman and child was susceptible to sins of the flesh. Creating laws worded after religious language only reinforced the general attitudes of lawmakers and magistrates. The legal tactics also allowed for a community to self-monitor itself and encouraged citizens to report those who engaged in sodomidical practices.
However, this use of religious rhetoric started to counteract itself. Individuals started to find their constant involvement within sodomy to start to define their identity. In the case of Michael Wigglesworth, he saw his sin as a condition that not only afflicted him daily but also even prevented him from marriage out of fear of spreading his “condition.” At the same time, Nicholas Sension, who had been attempting to engage in sodomy with many male citizens over; and over; and over; and over; and over again, self-identified his actions as his “trade.”
In conclusion, religious rhetoric has an extremely important role in the transition of sodomy being viewed as an “act” to an actual “identity.” Individuals who were “afflicted” with constant sodomidical engagements, such as Mr. Friendly Nicholas Sension, started to see their behavior as something chronic and thus formulating a piece of who they were. Not only did religious attitudes almost force these people to view themselves this way, like sad Wigglesworth, but as Richard Godbeer theorized, pushed people to create a subculture, or a colonial version of the Castro, where their deviant behaviors where allowed to be expressed away from the judgment of magistrates and other citizens. In the end, this religious rhetoric could simply be the foundation of the modern understanding of a queer identity.