1/3 of Puritan Women were pregnant when married?

I have read many times that in Puritan New England fully a third of women went to the altar pregnant. Google shows me that there are many sites that cite this “fact”-- but

I can’t discover where it originally came from, on what it is based and if it is true …
Can you?

I think that in the Smithsonian Museum of American History, there’s an exhibit about life in Colonial America where they play some stats on the screen. One of them was that, although it wasn’t just Puritans, it was Colonial Americans as a whole, IIRC.

In A Midwife’s Tale, (a biography/social history of17th century Maine) Laurel Ulrich made a statement that 38% of firstborn children were conceived before the marriage. I am not sure where she got her figure, but she was pretty conscientious, so I suspect she may have documented it.

I have a vague memory of some group of historians or sociologists tracking down numbers throughout the history of the U.S. and finding the numbers high during the early settlement, lowewr around the War for Independence, higher again in the mid-19th century, then dropping until the 1940s. I have not yet been able to find the study or rteports, however.

I heard that figure was derived from an analysis of the banns (announcement of upcoming marriage) and the baptismal records for the first born children.

According to a NYTimes review of her book,


Martha Ballard being the main midwife in a town near Augusta, Maine, who kept a diary. But these weren’t just children conceived by premarital sex. It included incest, etc. So, I’m not sure where that leaves us on the OP.

Remember that a betrothal (or engagement, as we’d call it) was considered almost as binding as a marriage. It was pretty common for betrothed couples to sleep together.

I have found the study (although I do not have access to the links I have looked at, so far).

“Premarital pregnancy in America, 1640-1971”
Daniel Scott Smith, Michael S Hindus, PE Hair.

Found in Marriage and fertility: studies in interdisciplinary history. Princeton, Princeton Univ. Press, 1980. :339-72


The Journal of interdisciplinary history, (1975) 5(4), 537 - 570.
Daniel Scott Smith, Michael S Hindus

It’s time to remind all that the name “Puritan” didn’t denote that they were necessarily all that “pure.” It meant they belonged to the sect that wanted to purify the Church of England from all “popish” influence.

I have no idea about New England, but according to Keith Wrightson’s English Society 1580-1680, English parish records reveal that between 10 and 30 percent of brides were pregnant at the time they married, depending on the parish. So the one-third figure sounds plausible, if on the high end, for that period.

Exactly, modern English has co-opted the word to mean prudish or asexual but Puritanism just refers to their theological doctrine. Compared with other groups of the time I was under the impression that they had some really rather pragmatic and modern ideas about sex.

I have heard that in most cases, the couples in question most likely would have gotten married eventually, and that the pregnancy merely hastened the marriage.

threemae, you’re right that the Puritans were more pragmatic than we often give them credit for. They recognized that people are going to have sex, and they tried to deal with it in a way that maintained the social order. Among other things, they didn’t have a problem with sex in the context of marriage. Married sex was not sinful at all.

One of the things that fascinated me about A Midwife’s Tale was the efforts that were made to track down the fathers of illegitimate children. If I’m recalling correctly, if a child’s father was known, then the father was responsible for paying what we’d now call child support. If the father was unknown, the child received support from the local government.

Did you get your hands on a copy of “Friggin’ on the Riggin’”? :smiley:

In a society where children were an economical neccesity, and marriage was virtually impossible to break up, not even for infertility, it would have made perfect sense not to marry unless the couple had proved to be fertile.

Another factor is that marriages were less formal in colonial times - the compulsary church / priest deal is more 19th century. So many couples would have lived in de facto or self recognized marriages, only bothering to formalise when a child arrived. This did not mean they were living in sin before.

“Most Colonial couples married themselves during the the 17th century, without any sort of religious or civic recognition; there wasn’t a wedding or a record of the marriage. Instead, cohabitation and community acceptance were the evidence of a legitimate marriages (if it ever became an issue, usually in the case of something like pensions or allegations of illegitimate birth)”

from http://www.pobronson.com/factbook/pages/100.html

Getting the definitions right is important. There is a crucial difference between ‘Puritan Women’ in New England and women in ‘Puritan New England’. The nature of the records means that any meaningful statistic is likely to be one about the latter.

Similarly, we need to be clear about which periods we’re talking about. Martha Ballard’s diary is only of any use for the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, because those are the only years it covers. As we shall, the statistics almost certainly varied wildly over time.

The statistics that Smith and Hindus provided don’t really confirm the one-third claim. They found that the rate of premarital pregnancy in the late-seventeenth century was less than 10%. (Defined as being first-births occurring within 8½ months of marriage.) This then steadily increased over the next century peaking at just under 30% in about 1790. The rate then fell steadily back about 10% by the late nineteenth century. So it never quite reached one-third. It should also be noted that the rate was consistently lower than that found in England.

But there are a number of caveats. Calculating such statistics is far more difficult than you might assume and are necessarily based on tiny samples of parishes. This is not just a question of the records having to survive, for they have to record the right sort of details and to do so over long periods of time. But the real issue is that although rough estimates are easy to compile, getting really accurate figures is incredibly time-consuming. This is because the only results historical demographers place much reliance on are ones based on ‘family reconstruction’, which involves reconstructing all the genealogical connections of a parish’s inhabitants. Statistically manipulating parish records in this way was almost impossible before the advent of computers. But once this did become possible in the late 1960s various case studies of individual American and English parishes were undertaken. Those were the results Smith and Hindus mostly used. Although their statistics were for ‘America’, the case studies for earlier periods were (unsurprisingly) all New England parishes, so statistics covering only New England won’t be any different. But studies undertaken since 1975 might have revised their results. That’s the danger of using only a handful of parishes.

It must also recognised that premarital pregnancy statistics have some particular complications. Marriages between couples from different parishes took place, and therefore would be recorded, only in one of those parishes, which might not be the one in which the couple then settled. Moreover, first-time mothers sometimes preferred to give birth at their parental home, which was understandable if that meant that their own mother could be present. So a first birth could be the one least likely to appear in the records of the parish where the couple were normally resident. Then there is the problem of miscarriages. Not every woman who did not give birth within nine months of the marriage had not been pregnant when they married. Conversely, premature births mean that not every case that might have involved premarital sex need have done.