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Mayflower, Day by Day - Monday, 18 October 1621

18 Oct 2021 3:56 AM | Soule (Administrator)

Fornication

The eradication of sin was seen as the goal and role of both ecclesiastical and civil authorities. A sin prosecuted with great frequency was fornication — a sin that, in the words of New Haven magistrates, “shuts out of the kingdom of heaven, without repentence.” This was both a sin and a crime, as it not only defiled the perpetrator and the community, but ran the risk of a child born out of wedlock becoming a burden on the community’s already tenuous resources.  Large numbers of single women were punished for getting pregnant, and many young couples prosecuted for having a child less than nine months after they were married. In New Haven, a defendant and his wife were whipped “for their filthy dalliance together”; two servants were prosecuted “for diverse unclean filthy dalliances”; and a third servant whipped “for defiling himself by diverse unclean passages with one of his master's children.” Similarly, in Plymouth a young couple was whipped “for unclean practices each with other.” On the other hand, when Jane Powell explained that she had committed fornication with an Irish servant out of “hope…to have married him” and thereby escape her “sad and miserable condition by hard service,” the Plymouth court ordered her “cleared for the present” and sent her home to see if she was pregnant.

On 3 March 1662/3, Elizabeth Soule (daughter of the pilgrim George) and Nathaniel Church were fined £5 for fornication.  Elizabeth Soule thereafter sued Nathaniel Church for failure to marry her and won a partial judgement of £10 and costs in October 1663.  The charge of fornication does not necessarily imply that the woman was pregnant; the fact that Nathaniel Church refused to marry Elizabeth Soule, and was not required to provide any child support or give any money to Elizabeth for any reason other than breach of contract, would indicate that there was a miscarriage, stillbirth, or an early infant death.  There is no record of any birth of a child to Elizabeth Soule at or around this time.  On 2 July 1667, Elizabeth Soule was again charged with fornication and was sentenced to be whipped; no male partner was named.

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