Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

These repeated accusations of licence make it difficult to distinguish between charitism and phallic worship, but it seems pretty clear that they spring from nothing more than the prurience of those who, obsessed by sex as they were, could not imagine that two persons of opposite sex could pass a night together without sexual dalliance. The likelihood of such an interpretation would evidently be even greater if the persons concerned were married but not to each other; and in fact there emerged the concept of a spiritual marriage which was independent of any pre-existing legal marriage. (The kinship with the ideas of the Romantics is obvious.) In the Ebelian sect, such marriages could apparently be polygamous. Ebel’s spiritual household comprised three women, to one of whom he was legally married, and one of whom was married to someone else. He seems to have had fleshly relations with none of them, and the three ladies are described as having felt towards each other a peculiar love and tenderness. Ebel held that

“man must be purged of the lust of the heart and the pride of the eye . . . in the presence of a living woman he must be trained to feel as if he were standing by a wall of stone”.

Nevertheless he was charged with immorality by the husband of one of his flock, and was condemned after a lengthy trial to be degraded from his office of Archdeacon and to be confined in an institution. On appeal to the supreme court, Ebel was cleared of the charges of immorality, but his removal from office was confirmed, presumably because he was felt to be a disturbing influence by the Church. (66)

Such sects have continued to be founded and refounded up to recent times. In 1832 there was a religious revival in New York State and New England, based on a doctrine commonly called Perfectionism, the main tenets of which were the leadership of women, chastity and spiritual wifehood. The “innocent endearments” which the Rev. Simon Lovett first practised with Mary Lincoln and Maria Brown received the name of “bundling” from the practice (which had been brought to New England from Scotland) of permitting unmarried couples to do their courting in the wall-bed with the lower part of their bodies secured in sacks. Father Noyes quotes one Elizabeth Hawley as saying,

“Simon Lovett first brought the doctrine of spiritual wifehood among the New Haven perfectionists, after his bundling with Maria Brown and Mary Lincoln at Brimfield. He claimed Abby Fowler as his spiritual wife . . .”

Because it was recalled that St. Paul had travelled on his missionary journeys with a “wife who was a sister to him“, the movement adopted the name of ‘the Pauline Church’. And the dim figure of St. Brendan arises in our minds when we discover Dr. Gridley boasting that he could

“carry a virgin in each hand without the least stir of passion”. (66)