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Celibacy in the British North American Colonies, c.1600-1750


This dissertation studies singleness in the British North American colonies through the lens of religion. It investigates the fate of celibacy in the Protestant tradition after the Reformation, when critics of the Catholic Church dislodged the requirement of a chaste priesthood and dissolved the monasteries. In instigating these changes, reformers overturned a centuries-old hierarchy that ranked celibacy above marriage. For many Protestant groups, matrimony came to take on special importance; not merely an outlet for concupiscence or a way to increase the church, matrimony became an earthly reflection of the heavenly union between God and his creation, offering spiritually-edifying lessons about the nature of Christ's love. However, as this dissertation shows, even though celibacy lost its place as an ecclesiastical institution within Protestantism, it still remained a feature of Christian life that Protestants would grapple with for centuries. Despite reformers' dismissal of celibacy and elevation of marriage, many believers continued to insist that singleness presented a meaningful spiritual vocation.

Efforts to integrate celibacy back into the Protestant tradition were especially evident in British North America, which served as a refuge for a variety of religious groups from Europe and came to harbor a markedly diverse set of perspectives on the single life. Previous scholarship on early America has emphasized the importance of marriage and the family to the colonial enterprise, but this dissertation shows that colonists in fact carved out various alternatives to normative notions of marriage, family, and procreative sexuality. By studying the different religious groups that mingled on American shores--Puritans, Quakers, Catholics, Anglicans, Pietists, and others--I show how the colonies fostered a thriving conversation about the place of celibacy in the church. That conversation took new form during the Great Awakening, an event that witnessed both a growing interest in celibacy and a backlash against it. Though the reaction against the revivals ultimately helped push celibacy to the margins of American religion, the Awakening nevertheless created a particularly enduring model of singleness, one that opened up yet more space within Protestantism for the celibate practices the Reformation had tried to root out.

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