To divorce like the Puritans, every spouse who behaved badly would be held responsible…highly responsible!
It is believed, by some, that the first recorded divorce in the American Colonies was between Anne and Denis Clark of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1643. The reality is, the first recorded divorce in colonial America was granted 5 years earlier in December of 1639 to the wife of James Luxford.
Why did Mrs. Luxford want a divorce? It would seem that James was, at that time, already married to another woman. James didn’t take seriously the Puritan belief that, as a man, he should strive to live a Godly life. And the second Mrs. Luxford, undoubtedly, didn’t take kindly to the idea of playing second fiddle.
Here is what happened? And, if you’ve ever felt the sting of our modern family court system failing to hold a man responsible for bad behavior, you’re going to love this. Mrs. Luxford requested a divorce and was granted one by a Puritan court in the Massachusetts Bay Colony that protected her and her children by awarding her all of her husband’s property. They fined James 100 pounds and shipped him back to England on the first ship going that way.
A far cry from what happens to a bigamist under no-fault divorce laws! What a distance divorce law has traveled.
It wasn’t until January of 1643 that Anne Clarke requested a divorce on the grounds her husband had abandoned her for another woman. Dennis Clarke openly admitted to abandoning his wife and two children. Denis signed an affidavit before the Quarter Court of Boston, MA stating he was guilty and had no intention of returning to his wife and children.
Anne received her divorce along with her husband’s property and Denis remained with the woman and two children born of that relationship. Society was infinitely different in 1643 than it is now but, the roots of divorce still have many similarities. Just like today, divorce in Puritan, American colonies stemmed from spouses behaving badly.
What would the grounds be if he could divorce like the Puritans?
- Female adultery,
- Male cruelty,
- Failure to provide and,
According to Glenda Riley, author or DIVORCE: An American Tradition, “Puritan leaders hoped that divorce would ultimately preserve the institution of the family. In the Puritan view, the family was the basic unit of society, crucial to social order and continuity. Marriages had to be sound if the community was to be sound. Marriage was also good for the individual, for it protected him or her from vice, especially by providing a setting for sexual activity. Consequently, although most Puritans preferred to keep marriages intact, some believed that irremediable cases should be eliminated by divorce. Rather than harm the family, they hoped to promote it with the safety-valve of divorce.”
I’m not one to encourage divorce, nor do I discourage it in the right situation. If Puritan leaders had, had the ability to look nearly 400 years into the future I do wonder if they might have given a second thought to the idea that “divorce would ultimately preserve the institution of the family.”
Divorce isn’t a modern American tradition, it is an American tradition dating back centuries. A tradition that, in spite of what the Puritans hoped, has done much harm when it comes to preserving the family. On the other hand, individual liberty and the right to pursue “happiness” has never been so easy to obtain. And, if we could still divorce like the Puritans, there would be many, many happy divorced women with ex’s who behaved badly.