The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History is now available via subscription. Visit About to learn more, meet the editorial board, or learn how to subscribe.

Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, AMERICAN HISTORY ( (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited. Please see applicable Privacy Policy and Legal Notice (for details see Privacy Policy).

Subscriber: null; date: 12 December 2017

Sexuality and American Religion

Summary and Keywords

Both sexuality and religion are terms as vexatious to define as they can be alluring to pursue. In the contemporary period, figuring out one’s sexual feelings, identity, and preferences has become a signal aspect of self-formation. Understanding one’s religious feelings, identity, and preferences may seem less imminent, but is certainly no less complicated. Both terms cause no small amount of confusion. Clearing up some of this confusion requires speaking frankly about delicate matters, and also speaking flatly about enormously complex experiences. Popular media coverage of ecclesiastical sex scandals in America suggests that people enjoy hearing about the profanation of religious duty. Despite the observed, inferred, and accused sexuality in American religious history, or maybe because of it, eroticism suffuses narrative accounts of American religious history and descriptions of religious actors. In U.S. history, sexuality has often been a key lens through which we have understood the nature of religion, the leaders of religions, and the reason for religious commitment.

Keywords: religion, sexuality, identity, gender, eros, taboo, Puritan, Mormonism, Oneida Perfectionists, Christianity, Judaism

Defining Sexuality and Religion

What are we studying when we want to find sexuality? The most obvious answer is that we are studying the ways that human beings have sex. But defining sex is actually quite difficult, since different people define sex in different ways. For example, some people think of sex only as vaginal sex in which a penis enters a vagina. Yet this presumes the presence of those genitals and certain sexual identities associated with them. Such a presumption obscures the wide variety of possible sexual combinations and equally diverse gender identities. There are many acts that can be included when describing sex, including oral sex and anal sex, as well as genital rubbing, masturbation, and massage. If we focus on these terms for sex acts, we will miss significant elements of sexuality. Sexuality is not productively understood as the physical maneuvers people take toward one another’s genitals. It is better understood as the ideas that people have about these activities, as well as the ideas they have about reproduction, family, and intimacy. In this sense sexuality exists as much in the absence of sexual intercourse as its presence. Sexuality is the way we think about our bodies, our pleasures, and our physical, emotional, and biological relationships to others.

Consider, for example, the issue of “sodomy.” This word has been used to describe not merely bestiality—sex with animals—but also the oral and anal sex commonly practiced between two people. Why, then, are there still so many “anti-sodomy acts” on the books in American states? Such laws suggest that at certain points in history, people have found the idea of sodomy unappealing, or inappropriate, or dangerous to society. Why might this be so? The answer probably relates to religion. Theologian Mark Jordan has explained that sodomy became a description of a sin in the 11th century and has never quite been divested of that reference. Sodomy is, he argues, as much a theological assessment as a sexual description. In Europe and America it is a term richly invested with religious notions of sin, responsibility, and guilt. Even when we imagine we are neutrally describing a type of sex act, we may also be inferring a judgment about that act and the morality of its participants.

Telling a thorough history of sexual acts would be quite difficult, since few people left detailed diaries about their sexual practices, and verifying even those accounts is beyond documentary possibility. Telling a history of human sexuality—what people understand their sexual capacities to be relative to their physical, social, cultural, and emotional contexts—is less difficult, but still challenging. Some parts of this history include significant voices from defined religious groups and religious leaders. For example, in the contemporary United States, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards sets policy for the Conservative movement and the rabbis associated with it. A Conservative rabbi curious about what the rabbinical assembly thinks about surrogate motherhood, intermarriage, or homosexuality could consult the series of responses (known as teshuvot), which represent the committee’s legalistic thinking on those subjects. Consulting committee documents will tell us what rabbinical leadership thinks a conservative Jew should regard as the way to conceive of and practice properly Jewish sexuality. However, if we wanted to know how Jews in synagogue pews felt about their sexuality, we would need to go beyond the ideal views held by their religious leaders to determine the members’ range of feelings about sexuality, some of which may be committed to rabbinical precept and others of which might be quite different. As a result, knowing what individuals feel about their sex life is hard to access. Could we know someone’s sexual feeling if we had their diary or listened in on their prayers, conversations, or therapy sessions? Or if we followed them with a camera? If we knew what magazines they read, or what their middle school sex education curriculum was? Could we know someone’s sexual thoughts if we could study their web searches, root through their bedside table, or search through the contents of their trash? Such information might show us more about how their sexuality is expressed or imagined, but it still would not capture fully the intense terrain of cognition and perception summarized by the term sexuality. Sexuality fades from neat description even though it is something for which human history records many words for it.

In this way, sexuality and religion are somewhat similar. It should be easy to offer a simple definition of religion. We could decide that religion is a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe. Immediately, though, some would contest the emphasis on beliefs and choose instead to highlight how religion is a way of life defined by certain rituals and practices. Someone else might argue that we ought to ignore belief and ritual altogether and think instead about mystical feelings that connect human beings to a transcendent experience. But someone could reasonably suggest that such feelings are individually held and not indicative of a social phenomenon. What you decide to designate as religion could be informed by your political sensibility, your family history, or your denominational experience or focus. Even once the scholar has defined religion, though, problems can emerge in deciding what documents best reveal the religion. You could study scriptures, but then some religious people rarely consult them; you could study ritual manuals, but most religious people hardly obey them; you could study hagiographies of religious leaders, but many religious people never pursue such ascribed perfection. Most religious adherents believe, more than anything else, that their experience of religion is relentlessly particular and something largely to be understood as privately held, no matter their community involvement. Suddenly tracking a religious feeling seems as challenging as understanding a sexual feeling.

The similarities between observing sexuality and religion may not be the only things religion and sexuality have in common. For some scholars of religion, eros—sexual desire—is central to their definition and interpretation of religion. These scholars point to the persistently erotic tenor of so many religious actions and experiences. Prayers petition for desires. Worshipping audiences listen riveted to their leader. Reiki moves expert palms over an ailing body. Sikh turbans, Indian saris, and nuns’ habits remove their wearers’ skin from certain gazes. Whether the Talmudic Song of Songs or the Hindu Karma Sutra, whether Buddhist asceticism or Mormon polygamy, the history of religions seems embroiled in erotic images, metaphors, constraints, and manuals. The naming of the earthly body against the holy spirit determine much of historical writings of Christendom and much of the early histories of comparative religions. With Christianity as the baseline against which other religions were compared, 19th-century scholarship on religion inevitably argued that the ideal “religion” was that which proceeded from the “primitive” to the “civilized,” a developmental journey that often began with Hinduism and “progressed” to Presbyterianism. The body-spirit binary in Christianity pervaded this schema posing on one side the body, the primitive and the mystical, while on the other stacking the spiritual, the ecclesiastical, and the properly “religious.” Thus, saying that behaviors and thoughts have erotic or sexual qualities is not to exclude them from the study of religion but to argue that they have been integral to that study as the source of totem and taboo. (Totem and taboo are categories understood by many anthropologists and psychologists as central to religious experience. A totem is a natural object or animal believed by a particular society to have spiritual significance; a taboo is a prohibition often established in relation to that emblem. Sigmund Freud’s Totem and Taboo (1913) argued that the origin of religion was a crime from which a totem was established and a series of taboos surrounding its care.)

It is important to note that a significant strand of historiography has labored successfully to prove that this description of Christianity is wrong—that the practice and theology of Christians since late Antiquity has not been so divided on the relationship between the body and the spirit. Underlining the pervasive import of a body-spirit binary suggests again the way certain concepts of sexuality persist no matter their historical or theological veracity. We see this throughout the present age when there remains an ongoing sense that sexual life resides in one part of human experience, and religious life properly resides elsewhere. Popular media coverage of ecclesiastical sex scandals in America suggests that audiences anticipate revelations about the profanation of sacred eroticism brought to scrutinizing light. Despite the sea of observed, inferred, and accused sexuality in American religious history, or maybe because of it, the erotic suffuses American religious history as a relatively unexplored dynamic. Mass market paperbacks offer “sacred sexuality” for sex-minded spiritual seekers, while a few encyclopedias tally the theologies and rituals at the intersection of “religion and sexuality” for the university set. But in general the subject of sexuality and American religion has a leaner bibliography than other topics, despite the intersection of the subject matter.

The Puritan Origins Thesis

This may be because many historians of American religion seek to write histories of religious subjects that precisely counter pervasive sexualizing presumptions about religious people. In American history, sexuality has often been a key lens through which we have understood religious believers and their leaders. Consider that American Puritans and Victorians have been received in history as metonyms for moral rigidity and sexual prudishness. As early 20th-century journalist H. L. Mencken remarked: “Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”1 Even though this judgment of the Puritan or the Victorian does not accurately depict the 17th-century Puritan colonies or 19th-century Victorian parlors, their images remain. Indeed, discussions of religion in the American media invariably connect them more to subjects within the purview of sexuality, including those of gay rights, abortion, women’s rights, and the related debates about sodomy, birth control, and patriarchy. For many educated Americans, religion remains little more than an icon of regulatory prudery.

Ironically, many historians would attribute this link between religion and sexual prudery as partially connected to the disestablishment of religions and the republican origins of American governance. In the absence of a state religion, one could observe two driving features of American religious participation. First, religion became voluntary, that is, people could decide whether and how they participated in religious organizations. Second, religions themselves became increasingly promotional enterprises. That is, religious leaders could not assume their importance in the life of congregants; they had to advertise and promote themselves as necessary agents in the lives of followers. This played out in complicated ways in the vast sea of religions in America, but one thing became clear: talk about sex, sex practices, and sexual morality became an important way to attract parishioners and retain their anxious presence in the pews. Sex didn’t just sell in the free marketplace of commerce. Sex also sold well in pulpits and religious tracts.

But this hurries our history into the post-revolutionary history of the United States, into that long 19th century of evangelical energy, benevolent societies, and sexually experimental religious utopias. Actually, the origins of America’s sensibility regarding sexual and American religion began earlier, at the moment of initial encounter between colonial settlers and native inhabitants. Some colonists understood America as a purified space in which they could ideally establish their purified religious ideas. Not all colonists were so invested in a theological relationship to the land and their occupation of it. But for those few who did, the narratives they constructed about why their settlement was especially pious lingered powerfully in the American imagination. This account is colloquially understood as the Puritan origins of American sex. Perhaps most powerfully cited during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, but offhandedly cited far beyond that late-20th-century affair, invoking the Puritan origins thesis is to argue that their colonial Protestant forbears made Americans more nervous, squeamish, and willing to moralize negatively about sex than their national counterparts in Europe, Asia, or Latin America, a habit still with us. This account implies that the history of America is determined in part by a persistent murmur of Protestant Christianity, abetted by Catholicism’s traditionally negative views about sex. The 20th-century French theorist Georges Bataille describes the constitution of sexuality through a haunting Christianity. “Christianity’s condemnation of degradation has also been responsible for the attitude that the whole of eroticism is something evil.”2 Those who ascribe to the Puritan origins thesis implicitly agree with Bataille, believing further that the United States has been especially in the thrall of this enduring religious condemnation of sex.

There are multiple problems with the Puritan origins thesis, however. Historians have demonstrated that Puritans didn’t repudiate sexuality or sexual expression. Rather, they valorized it within restricted domestic contexts of reproduction. If they were concerned about right sexual behavior, it was because they wanted to encourage sexual desire within marriage. Puritans believed that Catholic monastic life and recommendations for abstinence were unscriptural. Sexual engagement was understood to be essential for healthy marital relations, so much so that Puritans disciplined church members who refused to have sex with their wives. Puritan women could also sue for divorce if their husbands were unable to satisfy them sexually. Moreover, the thesis is also dissatisfying as a genealogical concept because it suggests that what the Puritans did in a few small New England colonies created an entire national sexual self-understanding, north, south, east, and west.

Sexuality and American ReligionClick to view larger

Figure 1. Engraved frontispiece from The Whole Duty of a Woman, or a guide to the Female Sex, printed in London, 1735. Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-74068.

The image of the priggish, prudish Puritan as a progenitor of the American sexual self-consciousness endures in part because people want to understand why sexual freedom is not universally acclaimed in the modern period. In contrast, French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault argued that we should focus not on the condemnation of sex, but on the way that this very condemnation produces unending talk about it. What interested Foucault was the history by which we became people who love to hear about sex, diagnose sexual malfunction, classify sexual identities and desires, and solve invented sexual problems. Like Bataille, Foucault saw this as partially a history of religions. In his history of sexuality, Michel Foucault suggested modern people generally understand themselves to be repressed relative to sex. They assume that there is a cultural negation of pleasure that makes any pleasure that they pursue somehow harmful or detrimental to their productivity. This is how infidelity, or any other form of sexual experience, becomes not merely frowned upon, but also something that is understood as necessarily conducted in secret. Foucault pointed to the ways the invention of the Catholic confessional contributed to a feeling that sexual aberrancy should be privately held and secretly confessed. He drew a genealogy from that religious space of confession to modern outlets of confession such as prostitution and psychiatry where “improper” sexual feelings could be articulated and actualized. Foucault was especially arrested by the Victorian period, which is a time marked culturally both by such a repression of sexual feeling and, simultaneously, the expansion of secular confessional spaces such as the psychologist’s or doctor’s office. Even as we imagine the Victorians in America, Britain, and Europe to be profoundly anxious about right sexual behavior, they were far from being silent about it. Indeed, it was during their epoch that the sciences of sexology and related treatments of gynecology, psychology, and eugenics emerged as professional occupations, rendering sexuality as a topic of diagnosis, treatment, and cure. For Foucault, the secularization of government did nothing to diminish the power of certain religious forms, which are reiterated in our moral panics and political prognostications about right families, as well as in the fight for “free love” and sexual experimentation.

Utopian Communities: Mormons and Oneida Perfectionists

Scholars seeking historical descriptions of sexual prescription within America often turn to literature about new religious movements, especially those originating in the early national period such as the Shakers, Mormons, and Oneida Perfectionists, groups that proposed forms of abstinence, polygamy, and polyamory, respectively. While great differences existed between the various utopian communities, each religious society shared a vision of some kind of new living arrangements that bound them in an identifiable community within the broader society. The more familiar non-monastic religious communal movements have generally originated from a deliberate attempt among various Christian sects to revive the structure of the primitive Christian community of 1st-century Jerusalem. For irreligious or modern observers of these groups, two questions seem most pressing: First, why did anybody agree to practice polygamy, polyamory, or give up sex altogether? Second, weren’t all of these organizations just ways to control people? Although in what follows, some answers to these questions will be wagered, it should be clear that even these questions indicate cultural norms about what is sexually appropriate, and what power we assign to sexual relations.

The case of the Latter-day Saints (LDS) is especially provocative on both of these points. Even though polygamy is no longer a condoned Mormon practice, the specter of its practice in the 19th century lingers in any public consideration of Mormon people. There is a massive scholarly analysis of the LDS founding prophet, Joseph Smith, and his intentions regarding the revelation about polygamy. In the actual text of Smith’s revelation, he does not provide a precise rationale for the practice. Rather, he points to the Biblical figure of Abraham as a model for the church and its followers. Abraham embodies the principles of law and covenant that, for Smith, informed his own theology and bound his followers to commit to his prophetic word. Smith’s revelation suggests that Mormon men would be like Abraham and that wives would be provided to multiply and replenish the earth and to bear the souls of men in eternity. Critical observers who see all of this as a ploy by the charismatic Smith miss the elaborate theological frame that situated polygamy as a cohering social practice for this nascent community. It is clear that polygamy was understood by Smith and his followers as a powerfully radical act fusing them together as a cohesive movement markedly unlike all other Christian groups in America and elsewhere. Polygamy was not just about women submitting to the authority of men, but also about women rejecting a world in which their servitude within the normal frames of marriage had no obvious reward and unmitigated reproductive suffering. Polygamy was a way to share the social labor of human survival, and its offered a theology in which the work of reproduction and marital partnership has significant consequences in the afterlife. Its practice also indicated that its participants believed in a world ordered by the immediacy of revelation. If this is what God commanded, then they would do it, and in doing it they would rebuff a society that didn’t offer easier answers to women or men about how to be sexually connected, economically thriving, and socially acceptable. Although Mormons later became 20th-century icons of sexual modesty and prudery, in the 19th century they were, in their own way, occupants of a form of social protest about sexual norms, albeit one deeply indebted to a Biblical model of polygamous patriarchy.

Studying the sexual practices of religious groups can never be done in a cultural vacuum, whether in America or elsewhere. To be sure, many new religious groups wall themselves away from the world, thus encouraging an outsider’s suspicion of what might transpire inside between the leaders and followers. But those groups cannot be understood without considering how they imagine themselves to be offering a direct reply to that outside world. One of the most interesting aspects of new religious movements is that their descriptions of new sexual life are usually connected to new modes of economic occupation that offer rejoinder to industrial and consumer capitalism. The prescribed celibacy of the 19th-century Rappites, the Separatists of Zoar, and Jansonists of Bishop Hill cannot be understood without examining their rebutting relation to the political economy of the antebellum home that was so determined by reproduction and brute material survival. And perhaps most famously, the members of the Oneida community led by John Humphrey Noyes adhered to something called “complex marriage” which was a kind of polyamory in which Perfectionists considered themselves married to the group and not a single partner. In addition to the interconnected sexual relations they might pursue among all group members, the group practiced “Bible Communism.” Citing the Book of Acts, Noyes developed a concept of society in which “All that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all, as every man had need.” Although the author of Acts depicts this “communism” on the day of Pentecost applying only to goods, Noyes felt that “the same spirit that abolished property in goods would, if allowed full scope, abolish property in persons.”3 The practice of complex marriage extended Noyes’s theory of communism in which property in goods and property in persons were abolished. The Perfectionists in Oneida held communal property, communal meals, and made communal arrangements for the rearing and education of children. The skills of the artisan members were channeled into broom manufacturing, shoe manufacturing, flour processing, lumber milling, and trap manufacturing, the profits for which all returned to a common fund.

Evangelical Eroticism

These sorts of experimental economic overhauls that incorporate religion and sexuality are perhaps not indicative of a very large demographic in American religious history. Yet few participants in American religions evade some kind of obedience to or participation in practices that seek to connect an individual to a broader societal body, often with sexual connotations. Many practices espoused by religious groups directly have direct connections to their members’ physical embodiment in the present world, ultimately including sex. Consider temperance, Sabbatarianism, vegetarianism, and home schooling. All of them typically connect citizens’ individual choices to the health of their home and the moral fabric of the country. This has led, in turn, to comparisons between the healthy and the unhealthy family unit, differentiations that also often denude the healthy family of sexuality, while marking the unhealthy family as heavily sexed. Throughout the history of American nativism and bigotry, such comparisons can be seen time and again: the disciplined, moral person (marked typically as Protestant, Christian, white, heterosexual) distinguishes himself and herself from the undisciplined, carnal body (identified at various times in American history as Mormon, Catholic, black, indigenous, homosexual, child-bearing, or ascetic). Social reform organizations like the Anti-Polygamy Society, the Epworth League, and the Social Purity Alliance made it their mission to track specific behaviors and recommend specific adjustments to one’s embodiment, serving as parachurch agents for the purity of American homes. The 20th-century nonprofit organization Focus on the Family, founded in 1977 by Christian psychologist James Dobson, has diagnosed the parental and interpersonal problems of late-20th-century homes—and, in so doing, often destabilized them—as it enters and intercedes with the home, including its sexuality and educational affects. This attention to the details of family life as indicators of moral health, strongly including sexuality, is a hallmark of American religion.

Evangelical Christianity has produced a seemingly endless supply of recommendations for a regimented physical life, sex, and a pious spiritual life, all in the effort to maintain a simple gender dimorphism and a heterosexual nuclear family. In her book Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity, R. Marie Griffith surveys the historical relationship between religious prescriptions about eating and fitness with spiritual commandments about the sexual body. Among her many detailed case studies is that of the late-20th-century Christian dieting movement, helmed by Gwen Shamblin, whose writings about the healthy body, and the healthy Christian, seethe with desire. Griffith explains that Shamblin “writes about food with erotic abandon.”4 Offering food descriptions akin to pornography, Shamblin ties her dismissal of fatty cuisine with the acquisition of a new lover to replace the flirtatious pleasures of fries. Once Christian women have banished the caloric forbidden, they will be “slim for Him,” ready to achieve final and climactic “erotic fulfillment from pleasing God.”5 In Religion of Fear: The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism, Jason Bivins describes a different, if corollary, dynamic, one in which Hell Houses and the Left Behind series exact a sexual reply to their terrifying fictions of human depravity. Bivins calls this an “erotics of fear” in which socializing religious entertainments exude “a fetishization of the flesh—in sex and in violence—that parallels horrors own.”6 Even as evangelical pastors like Shamblin propose the salvation of Christ, they also dip deeply into postulated opposite of that glory, the darkness of premarital fornication, sodomy, alcohol abuse, and eating a Big Mac. Bivins and Griffith profile contemporary evangelicalism as a sadomasochistic tease in which eroticism is the distance between you, your god, and the hungrily desired something else.


Such descriptions focus on evangelical expressions of eroticism. Yet the same dynamic matrix for inevitable desire and religiously prescribed distance may be found in other religious contexts. In Doubting the Devout: The Ultra-Orthodox in the Jewish American Imagination, Nora Rubel relates how contemporary depictions of ultra-Orthodox Jews in American culture by non-haredi Jews convey conflicts within American Judaism about gender identity, family culture, and religious leadership. The fictional writings of Allegra Goodman, Tova Mirvis, Pearl Abraham, Erich Segal, and Anne Roiphe supply representations of erotic intimacies manifested by the haredi social system in which enforcing modesty and virtue requires multiple restrictions, prescriptions, and new definitions of desire. In Naomi Ragen’s Sotah (1992), Rubel finds this description of one woman, Dina, and her attraction to Noach, a neighbor in such a community:

He held open the car door to the front seat for her. He was very tall and slim, and his black overcoat was a fine, pure wool, the kind she had seen on wealthy kollel men and yeshiva boys from England. As she brushed past him, she smelled the musky scent of something very male and very clean. The hands on the door handle were impeccable in their unblemished whiteness, unsullied by any physical labor. They were the hands of a scholar, she told herself.7

We find Dina ruminating in the gap between herself and the passenger seat, on the distance between Noach and any form of physical labor, on the space between her and him, connected by a polite gesture, a musky smell, and a brush past. Here Noach is the representation of a certain subject—the scholar—composed of multiple erotic signifiers including slender build, good wool, and white hands. The religious idioms of his composition—the appeal of the scholar, the familiarity of his fabrics—are implied in a fiction designed to arouse its readers through their presumptive invocation. When we think about the sexuality of American religion, these idioms illustrate the ways religion offers symbols for eroticism as it seeks to contain and control sexual feeling. Just like Shamblin’s food descriptions and evangelical Hell Houses, the Jewish fictions depict encounters between human beings that are sexual precisely because they are not supposed to be carnal: they are supposed to be thin, to be afraid, and to resist sexual feeling. The expectation of sacred obedience elaborates the eroticism of encounter.

Sexuality and Autobiography

Confessions and autobiographies also offer sources for understanding relationships between sexuality and American religion. In his writings on the history of sexuality, Foucault cast suspicion on the problematic production of confession, suggesting that the confessing person’s articulation always dramatizes experience to serve the teleology of salvation. Yet abundant autobiographies of religious transformation offer insight into the human scale of such theological intervention. The intimacy of pastoral confession is recreated in them through the author and the reader, as well as the author and the set pieces of her experience. Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) offers an example. In a 1987 article, historian of religions Ann Taves demonstrated how this text reiterated Jacobs’s spiritual purity and sexual shame as she processed her strategic sexual choices during enslavement. Pursued by her rapaciously procreative master, Jacobs initiated an affair with another slave owner in order to—by her accounting—arouse her master’s jealousy and, optimistically, incite her sale to that other household. In Jacobs’ rendering, the ironies of the relentlessly sexualized original owner supply an opportunity for a critique of his religious hypocrisy. Her master could, she recounted, join the Episcopal Church and cajole Jacobs and other slaves to join it while simultaneously sexually pursuing Jacobs and other slaves. Jacobs identifies an ethic of obedience in sex as a core dynamic of white slave owning, an ethic that included not only her obedience to her master, but the obedience of her master to church membership. In this way, Jacobs thus situates the entire history of slave owning as performances of pious public obedience and private sexual disobedience.

Meanwhile, Taves illuminates another cognizance of obedience in Jacobs’s internalization of a countervailing spiritual ethic embodied by matriarchic figures. While enslaved in the South, Jacobs would not join a church because of its double standard to black and white women. She saw, clearly, the economies of purity that allowed a white man to protect his wife from certain forms of defilement while committing adultery against her with black slaves, whose impurity could be assumed. Jacobs repeatedly explains that the slave women subject to this gaze were more than dominated subjects, as indicated by Jacobs’s own pursuit of an alternative household. “I know I did wrong,” Jacobs would write, “The painful and humiliating memory will haunt me to my dying day. Still, in looking back, calmly, on the events of my life, I feel that the slave woman ought not to be judged by the same standard as others.”8 Jacobs’s self-estimation invites the exploration of a multilayered erotic within a fraught structure of desire, need, religiosity, and imprisonment. When Jacobs finds she is pregnant, she seeks comfort from her grandmother. Initially, she is rebuffed. Her grandmother calls Jacobs a disgrace to the memory of her dead mother, reclaiming the wedding ring that Jacobs’s mother had bequeathed her. Symbolically deracinated from the legitimating institution of marriage, and dismissed from the buttressing moral hearth of black matriarchy, Jacobs wanders seeking comfort. Ultimately, she sends for her grandmother again. Jacobs asks, “Had she utterly forsaken me? No. She came at last. I knelt before her, and told her the things that had poisoned my life; how long I had been persecuted; that I saw no way of escape; and in an hour of extremity I had become desperate . . . And she did pity me. She did not say, ‘I forgive you’ but she looked at me lovingly, with her eyes full of tears.”9 It is important to note that Jacobs does not feel sin in front of everyone; her feelings of sin are, as Ann Taves argues, “relationally specific.” She is not weeping or seeking absolution in front of a white man. Instead, it is in Jacobs’s relationship with her grandmother that extracts the greatest articulated need, most sincere prostration, and emergent salvation.

If we were to write only about Jacobs’s history of sexual acts, we would never see the role that this scene with her grandmother plays in her sexual and religious identity. Reading her autobiography, we don’t see accounts of acts. Rather, we find Jacobs working to understand multiple sexual and erotic situations: first, the eros of the slave plantation and its white-black hierarchies of pursuit and obedience; second, the strategic erotic applications of Jacobs herself, as she plies her subservience as a form of transferable capital with another master; third, the erotic dynamic with her grandmother to whom she turns for spiritual validation. Within the slave economy, Jacobs represents titular moral authority not in the church, nor even within her authorial voice, but through a deferential piety to her ancestors, to the dead, and to those women who embody the remembrance of and preservation of those dead. Her submission to them is her richest personal experience of piety. The confession to her grandmother—placed dramatically at the end of chapter 10 in Jacobs’s Incidents—is not erotic because of what Jacobs admits to have done, but because it is a gathering place for ritual return and temporary escape. Her grandmother does not rescind the sin—she confirms its existence. Her grandmother does not supply diagnosis or therapy—she listens in silence. Her grandmother merely acknowledges the suffering, a climactic touch paired with a recognizable labeling. The next chapter is entitled “A New Tie to Life.” Yet every act of confession—of disclosure and acknowledgment, of narration and avowal, of creed and confirmation—is a tie to the next: to the next life, or the next confession, or the next discourse. The connective tissue of desire is the need for connection not only for the desired, but also for the reiteration of desire. In describing the confessional compulsion, Foucault could have been describing Jacobs: “It may well be that we talk about sex more than anything else; we set our minds to the task; we convince ourselves that we have never said enough on the subject, that, through inertia or submissiveness, we conceal from ourselves that we have never said enough on the subject, that, through inertia or submissiveness, we conceal from ourselves the blinding evidence, and that what is essential always eludes us, so that we must always start out again in search of it.”10

Sex Scandals and the Media

Perhaps due to this ceaseless search for sexual articulation and identity, sexual scandal has served an important function in the history of sexuality and religion in the United States. In 1872, women’s rights advocate Victoria Woodhull published an article accusing Henry Ward Beecher, a widely popular Brooklyn, New York, clergyman, of adultery. She charged that, in the late 1860s, Beecher had conducted an affair with Elizabeth Tilton, wife of Theodore Tilton. Both Tiltons were members of Beecher’s Plymouth Church, and Tilton was editor of the journal Independent, which Beecher had formerly edited. In 1873, Plymouth Church withdrew Theodore Tilton’s membership in the church, owing to his attacks on Beecher and implying a relationship (of whatever nature) with Woodhull. By this time, various documents and letters relating to the matter had appeared in the press. Articles then appeared in the Independent, now no longer edited by Tilton, that were highly critical of Tilton and his accusations against Beecher. Angered, Tilton published replies in several major papers, and the matter became the subject of intense public interest and detailed publication, especially during an 1875 trial in which Tilton brought suit against Beecher, with salacious testimony that became a national sensation.

Over one hundred years later, the Drudge Report released a story suggesting that a White House intern named Monica Lewinsky had engaged in an affair with then–President Bill Clinton. The news of this extra-marital affair and the resulting investigation eventually led to the impeachment of President Clinton in 1998 by the U.S. House of Representatives and his subsequent acquittal on all impeachment charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in a twenty-one-day Senate trial. As with the Beecher-Tilton scandal, coverage of the story was extreme, with news outlets devoting the majority of their energies to the production of stories detailing their relations to a rapt public, all leaning on the religiously imbued notion that Clinton as well as Lewinsky had offended the national moral sense.

Many observers point to these moments of excessive reportage, moral outrage, and prurient interest as indications of the puritanical posture of the American public toward sexual experience. After all, even if every accusation against Beecher and Clinton were true, they still had only committed adultery, not murder, crimes between husband and wife hardly worth national notice. To explain both the national obsession with sexual moral outrage as well as the voyeurism inherent in Americans’ pursuit of details about intimate encounters we turn to our religious judgment—that of the Puritan—and explain our voyeurism upon the marital mishaps of powerful men as a signal of our own sexual repression.

Yet the autobiography of Harriet Jacobs invites us to think again about whether this is the most insightful way to understand interpretations of sexual indiscretion made public. So much of sexual life occurs in a transactional privacy. Glimpses into these spaces may be about judgment of others, fear of difference, and aggressive modesty. But it also may be that these spectacles offer moments when a purportedly secular culture can consider what its ethical contradictions might be. Harriet Jacobs’s case reminds us of the violence, psychological struggle, moral equivocation, and power negotiations of sexual expression. Within this frame, religion is both our source of judgment and of self-justification; it is the private plea for forgiveness and the public face of our deception. It may be that our obsession with sexual scandal is just a way to reckon again with our concepts of sexuality because our given norms, perceptions, and practices are so dissatisfying to our deeply-felt longings and confusions about the relationship between our sexuality and our social lives. This is why it is impossible to think about sexuality without also thinking about communities, covenants, rituals, precepts, and personal imperatives. Thinking through sexuality in public is just one way that Americans think religiously in a secular age.

Discussion of the Literature

There are several especially helpful overviews of the state of the field of religion and sexuality in American history.11 What those surveys suggest is that since the year 2000, the study of religion and sexuality in American history has expanded significantly.12 Prior to that date, there were a handful of substantive articles and significant comparative studies, the majority of which addressed either new religious movements in America or the history of sexuality as it connected to the history of Christianity.13 Scholars who have examined the history of new religious movements are especially informed by the sociological study of religion that has sought to provide accounts of sexual decision-making in religious contexts.14 Likewise, scholars interested in the history of Christianity often explore the rich bibliography addressing sexuality in medieval Christianity, including studies of devotional relationships to art, poetry, and architecture from the medieval and early modern period.15 Few scholars who explore the history of religion and sexuality evade an encounter with queer theory, and to that end several works have focused exclusively on the assessment of queer religions in the United States.16 Work published in the last fifteen years has included studies that consider the relationship between sexuality, race, and religion in the United States; sexuality and religious politics in the 20th century; and the sexuality of evangelical authority, among many other subjects.17

This quick overview of the available literature does not explain, first, why there was so much silence on this subject in the historiography of American religions prior to the 21st century and, second, what is the consequence to the study of American religious history of this tremendous uptick in scholarship on sexuality. To the first question, the simplest answer would be to point to the same research that examines the reasons why opinions have changed so rapidly on the subject of gay marriage.18 The main reason is a demographic shift: gay rights is overwhelmingly supported by members of the millennial generation, who joined the electorate (and the professorate) as older voters who hold more conservative views on the issue die off. But as one political commentator has explained, this demographic shift has a history, one very tied to the history of LGBT rights. Public opinion was shifted within the millennial generation due to two historical factors: The purposeful effort by gay leaders in the 1970s and 1980s to urge gays and lesbians to “come out,” and the decision a decade ago by a handful of gay leaders to re-frame the gay marriage issue.19 Activists made the personal experiences of a particular group of sexually-identified actors a political issue, and, in doing so, brought to public conversation the idea of sexuality as defining of contemporary public morality.20 It is not coincidental that the vast majority of scholarship written in the last fifteen years on religion in American history has been authored by a younger generation of faculty and graduate students curious about the longer histories of these public present-day campaigns for personal sexual freedom.

The answer to the second question—the consequences of this uptick in scholarship—remains unclear. Scholarship on the history of sexuality seems to suffer the same fate that scholarship on race and gender did before it, namely that it initially is produced by and within a narrow community of experts without influencing mainstream accounts of American history or American religious history. The next generation of scholars will benefit from the success of this enormous bibliography such that hopefully subsequent synthetic accounts of American history will be unable to avoid reckoning with the effect certain ideas about sexuality have had in the formation of the religious subject, political and otherwise, in the American experience.

Links to Digital Materials

Further Reading

Bataille, George. Erotism: Death and Sensuality. San Francisco: City Lights, 1986.Find this resource:

    Berlant, Lauren, and Lisa A. Duggan. Our Monica, Ourselves: The Clinton Affair and the National Interest. New York: New York University Press, 2001.Find this resource:

      Bivins, Jason C. Religion of Fear: The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

        D’Emilio, John, and Estelle Freedman. Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.Find this resource:

          Doniger, Wendy. The Bedtrick: Tales of Sex and Masquerade. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.Find this resource:

            Fessenden, T., Nicholas F. Radel, and Magdalena J. Zaborowska, eds. The Puritan Origins of American Sex: Religion, Sexuality, and National Identity in American Literature. New York: Routledge, 2001.Find this resource:

              Feuerstein, Georg. Sacred Sexuality: The Erotic Spirit in the World’s Great Religions. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2003.Find this resource:

                Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.Find this resource:

                  Foster, Lawrence. Religion and Sexuality: The Shakers, the Mormons, and the Oneida Community. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984.Find this resource:

                    Foster, Lawrence, and George Noyes. Free Love in Utopia: John Humphrey Noyes and the Origin of the Oneida Community. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001.Find this resource:

                      Fox, Richard Wightman. Trials of Intimacy: Love and Loss in the Beecher-Tilton Scandal. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1999.Find this resource:

                        Griffith, R. Marie. Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.Find this resource:

                          Jordan, Mark D. The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.Find this resource:

                            Machacek, David Wayne, and Melissa Wilcox, eds. Sexuality and the World’s Religions. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2003.Find this resource:

                              Morgan, Edmund. “The Puritans and Sex.” New England Quarterly 25 (1942): 591–607.Find this resource:

                                Rubel, Nora. Doubting the Devout: The Ultra-Orthodox in the Jewish American Imagination. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

                                  Taves, Ann. “Spiritual Purity and Sexual Shame: Religious Themes in the Writings of Harriet Jacobs.” Church History 56 (1987): 59–72.Find this resource:


                                    (1.) H. L. Mencken, A Mencken Chrestomathy (New York: Vintage, 1982), 624.

                                    (2.) George Bataille, Erotism: Death and Sensuality (San Francisco: City Lights, 1986), 136.

                                    (3.) George Wallingford Noyes, ed., John Humphrey Noyes: The Putney Community (Oneida, NYL George Wallingford Noyes, 1931), 117.

                                    (4.) R. Marie Griffith, Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 213.

                                    (5.) Griffith, Born Again Bodies, 222.

                                    (6.) Jason C. Bivins, Religion of Fear: The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 221.

                                    (7.) Quoted in Nora Rubel, Doubting the Devout: The Ultra-Orthodox in the Jewish American Imagination (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 91.

                                    (8.) Quoted in Ann Taves, “Spiritual Purity and Sexual Shame: Religious Themes in the Writings of Harriet Jacobs,” Church History 56 (1987): 67.

                                    (9.) Ibid., 68.

                                    (10.) Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 33.

                                    (11.) Linell E. Cady and Tracy Fessenden, “Gendering the Divide: Religion, the Secular and the Politics of Sexual Difference,” in Religion, the Secular and the Politics of Sexual Difference, ed. Linell E. Cady and Tracy Fessenden (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 3–24; Rebecca Davis, Gillian Frank, Bethany Moreton and Heather White, “Believe It: Finding Religion in the History of U.S. Sexuality,” NOTCHES: remarks on the history of sexuality (24 November 2014); Bethany Moreton, “Why Is There So Much Sex in Christian Conservatism and Why Do So Few Historians Care Anything About It?” Journal of Southern History 75 (August 2009): 717–738; and Ann Taves, “Sexuality and American Religious History,” Retelling U.S. Religious History, ed. Thomas A. Tweed (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 27–56.

                                    (12.) In the year 2008 alone, more journal articles and book chapters appeared on religion and sexuality in American history than had been published cumulatively in the entire decade of the 1980s. See Marie Griffith, “The Religious Encounters of Alfred C. Kinsey,” The Journal of American History 95.2 (September 2008): 349–377; E. Patrick Johnson, “Gayness and the Black Church,” Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 182–255; Kathryn Lofton, “Queering Fundamentalism: John Balcom Shaw and the Sexuality of a Protestant Orthodoxy,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 17.3 (2008): 439–468; Molly McGarry, “‘The Quick, the Dead, and the Yet Unborn,’: Untimely Sexualities and Secular Hauntings,” Secularisms (Durham, NC: Duke University, 2008), 247–279; Jon Roberts, “Psychoanalysis and American Christianity, 1900–1940,” When Science and Christianity Meet (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 225–244; Thaddeus Russell, “The Color of Discipline: Civil Rights and Black Sexuality,” American Quarterly 60.1 (2008): 101–128; Andrea Smith, “‘Without Apology’: Native American and Evangelical Feminisms,” Native Americans and the Christian Right: The Gendered Politics of Unlikely Alliances (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 115–199; and Heather White, “Proclaiming Liberation: The Historical Roots of LGBT Religious Organizing, 1946–1976,” Nova Religio 11 (May 2008): 102–119.

                                    (13.) A significant author on the subject of American new religious movements is Lawrence Foster, Religion and Sexuality: The Shakers, the Mormons, and the Oneida Community (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984); see also Lawrence Foster, Women, Family, and Utopia: Communal Experiments of the Shakers, the Oneida Community, and the Mormons (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1992). For works discussing sexuality in American Christianity published before 2000, see, for example, George Chauncey, “Christian Brotherhood or Sexual Perversion? Homosexual Identities and the Construction of Sexual Boundaries in the World War One Era,” Journal of Social History 19.2 (December 1985): 189–211; Didi Herman, “Devil Discourse the Shifting Constructions of Homosexuality in Christianity Today,” in The Antigay Agenda (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 25–59; Peggy Pascoe, “Gender Systems in Conflict: The Marriages of Mission-Educated Chinese American Women, 1874–1939,” Journal of Social History 22.4 (1989): 631–652; and J. Waller, “‘A Man in a Cassock Is Wearing a Skirt’: Margaretta Bowers and the Psychoanalytic Treatment of Gay Clergy,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 4.1 (1998): 1–16.

                                    (14.) For a sample of classic sociological studies in this vein, see William Sims Bainbridge, “The Religious Ecology of Deviance,” American Sociological Review 54.2 (April 1989): 288–295; E. Wilbur Bock, Leonard Beeghley, and Anthony J. Mixon, “Religion, Socioeconomic Status, and Sexual Morality: An Application of Reference Group Theory,” Sociological Quarterly 24.4 (1983): 545–559; J. Timothy Woodroof, “Premarital Sexual Behavior and Religious Adolescents,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 24.4 (December 1985): 343–366; and Andrew K. T. Yip, “Dare to Differ: Gay and Lesbian Catholics’ Assessment of Official Catholic Positions on Sexuality,” Sociology of Religion 58.2 (1997): 165–180.

                                    (15.) Lisa M. Bitel and Felice Lifshitz, eds., Gender and Christianity in Medieval Europe: New Perspectives. The Middle Ages (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008); Michael Camille, Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art (London: Reaktion Books, 2004); Carolyn Dinshaw, Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999); Dyan Elliot, Spiritual Marriage: Sexual Abstinence in Medieval Wedlock (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995); Carla Freccero, Queer/Early/Modern (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006); April Harper and Caroline Proctor, eds., Medieval Sexuality: A Casebook (New York: Routledge, 2008); Karma Lochrie, Heterosyncrasies: Female Sexuality When Normal Wasn’t (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005); Karma Lochrie, Peggy McCracken, and James A. Schultz, eds., Constructing Medieval Sexuality (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997); Richard Rambuss, Closet Devotions (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998); and Leo Steinberg, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).

                                    (16.) Kathleen Talvacchia, Mark Larrimore, and Michael Pettinger, eds., Queer Christianities: Lived Religion in Transgressive Forms (New York: New York University Press, 2014); Queer Religion, 2 vols., ed. Donald L. Boisvert and Jay Emerson Johnson (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2012); and Daniel Boyarin, Daniel Itzkovitz, and Ann Pellegrini, eds., Queer Theory and the Jewish Question (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).

                                    (17.) Jane Dailey, “Sex, Segregation, and the Sacred after Brown,” The Journal of American History 91.1 (June 2004): 119–144; Thaddeus Russell, “The Color of Discipline: Civil Rights and Black Sexuality,” American Quarterly 60.1 (2008): 101–128; Edward E. Curtis IV, “Islamizing the Black Body: Ritual and Power in Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam,” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 12.2 (July 2002): 167–196; Neil J. Young, “‘The ERA Is a Moral Issue’: The Mormon Church, LDS Women and the Defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment,” American Quarterly 59.3 (2007): 623–644; Gillian Frank, “The Color of the Unborn: Anti-Abortion and Anti-Busing Politics in Michigan, 1967–1973,” Gender and History 26.2 (August 2014): 351–378; Janet R. Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini, Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Tolerance (New York: New York University Press, 2003); and Tim Retzloff, “‘Seer or Queer?’ Postwar Fascination with Detroit’s Prophet Jones,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 8.3 (2002): 271–296.

                                    (18.) “Changing Attitudes on Gay Marriage,” Pew Research Center (24 September 2014),

                                    (19.) Carrie Wofford, “Why Equality Is Winning,” U.S. News & World Report blog (26 March 2014).

                                    (20.) This is the subject of Anthony Petro’s excellent new volume, After the Wrath of God: AIDS, Sexuality, and American Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).