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The Puritan Divorce Allows Escape From the Chain of Matrimony

A Puritan economic unit

A Puritan economic unit

When Elizabeth Luxford found out her husband James already had a wife, she went to the Court of Assistants in Massachusetts Bay Colony and she got the first-ever Puritan divorce in December 1639.

It was something only the very privileged could obtain back in England. Henry VIII was the rare person who could get four marriages dissolved. The Anglican Church viewed marriage as indissoluble. In England, the only way out of a troubled marriage was a 'bed-and-board' separation.

Not the Puritans. They rejected the Anglican and Catholic view of marriage as a sacrament, thinking it a 'popish invention, with no basis in the Gospels.'  They redefined marriage as a civil matter only. If a marriage partner violated the marriage agreement, the injured party could escape the chains of matrimony with a divorce, with full right to remarry.

Magistrates often ordered harsh punishments for the guilty party in a divorce: fines, whipping or time in the stocks. The guilty party was also not allowed to get married again.

The Puritan Divorce

In 1620, Plimoth Plantation leaders decided marriage was a matter for the courts, not the church, and could therefore be dissolved under certain circumstances. As governor, William Bradford said marriage should be 'performed by the magistrate, as being a civil thing.'

The Massachusetts Bay Puritans decided divorce cases should be heard by the governor's council, known as the Court of Assistants.

That’s where Elizabeth Luxford went to ask for the first divorce not just in Massachusetts Bay but in colonial America. She already had a daughter with James Luxford, and she was pregnant with their second child.

A magistrate not only granted the divorce, but seized James Luxford's property and gave it to Elizabeth. It’s likely that Luxford left his first wife in England, which wasn’t all that unusual. All of his property would not have gone to Elizabeth if his first wife were in Massachusetts, because that would have thrown the first wife into poverty.

His sentence was recorded, and it was a harsh one:

James Luxford, being presented for having two wives, his last marriage was declared void, or a nullity thereof, and to be divorced, not to come to the sight of her whom he last took, and he to be sent away from England by the first opportunity: and all that he hath is appointed to her whom he last married, for her and her children; he is also fined 100 pounds, and to be set in the stock an hour upon a market day after the lecture.

Elizabeth Luxford, who changed her name back to Albone, was well rid of him. He later was later found guilty of 'forgery, lying, and other foul offences' and sentenced to a whipping, to have his ears cut off and to be --again -- banished. He fled to Plimoth Plantation, where he lived in extreme poverty and distress. She remarried and enjoyed the beneficence of the church in Cambridge.

New England Divorces

puritan punishment

The guilty party in a Puritan divorce.

The next divorce was granted nearly five years later, when Anne Clarke’s husband deserted her and was living with another woman.

In Massachusetts between 1639 and 1692, 31 of the 40 petitions for divorce or annulment were granted, mostly for desertion and infidelity. One of those was granted to the great Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards’ grandfather.

Lovelessness could not be grounds for divorce. If husband and wife didn’t love each other, Puritans expected them to stick together as an economic unit

It was a lot harder for a woman than a man to get a Puritan divorce for adultery. In 1655, Joan Halsall was granted a divorce by the Court of Assistants after she charged her husband George with 'abusing himself with Hester Lug' and being 'an uncleane yoake-fellow.' Four years later, George Halsell appealed the divorce to the General Court. The General Court sided with George, voiding the divorce and declaring he could 'have and enjoy' Joan Halsall again.

Connecticut had the most liberal divorce policy in the British empire: The General Assembly ordered that 'no bill of divorce shall be granted to any man or woman lawfully marryed but in case of adultery, fraudulent contract, or willfull desertion for three years with totall negelect of duty, or seven years' providentiall absence being not heard of after due enquiry made and certifyed.'

Rhode Island in 1650 passed a law allowing divorces on the grounds of adultery; later on the grounds of desertion and impotence. Rhode Island would later become the divorce capital of New England.

In New Haven, the law said divorces could be granted for adultery, desertion or a husband's failure to perform his 'conjugall duty' to his wife.

John Vffoote's wife divorced him for 'insufficiency' (impotece) he was charged with fornicating with his father's servant. Vffoote defended himself by saying his wife didn't act 'toward him as she ought' but Martha restored his faith in himself. They were fined for fornicating, but allowed to marry.

In 1768, a free African-American woman named Lucy Purnan asked for a divorce on the grounds of extreme cruelty. He had kidnapped her by force and sold her as a slave. She got the divorce.

With thanks to Divorce: An American Tradition By Glenda Riley.