Family, Marriage, and Parenthood

By Howard Becker; Reuben Hill | Go to book overview

Chapter Five
American Families Today: Development and Differentiation of Types

MANFORD HINSHAW KUHN


THE WESTERN HERITAGE

COLONIAL families in America, while reflecting a variety of frontier conditions, were also shaped by historical factors and events which characterized the previous development of Western civilization. Some of these were intricate and complex and even, in some instances, self-contradictory in nature. Others were simpler and more direct and occasionally represented mutually converging trends.

As an example of the former type of historical influence, examine the impact of Christianity on the colonial family. From the teachings of Jesus came certain rather inchoate notions about the equality of the sexes and still others emphasizing the irrevocability of marriage, though the latter are somewhat mitigated by the unmistakable attacks on the formalism of all institutions. From Paul, on the other hand, came a generally negative view toward sex, correlated with notions of the inferiority of women. Paul saw marriage as a mere concession to man's basic weakness. The contrast is more apparent when we remember that the analogies used by Jesus in his teachings were most frequently ones drawn from family life -- fatherhood, brotherhood, and the like -- strong indications from the standpoint of projective psychology, that Jesus put extremely high value on family relationships.

The early Christians followed Paul's teachings in these respects more than they did those of Jesus. Their leaders' attitudes toward sex were strongly negative and women were, in their view, accorded only a subsidiary position. Perhaps it is fairer to say that the position of women in the early Christian groups tended to reflect their position in the larger society probably more than it reflected Paul's views. At any rate, the early Christians, while they were more influenced by Paul, nevertheless continued quite universally to marry and to raise families. It remained for the later church to develop important alternative patterns of celibacy on the basis of Paul's teachings. In fact it was four hundred years before even the clergy were prohibited from marrying. But in these four hundred years the aversion toward sex on the part of the Christian Fathers increased, and with this came a greater and greater identification, in their attitudes, of women with sex, so that as the negative view toward sex grew the status of woman diminished,1 partly in reaction to the contrasting Roman patterns.

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1
For a brief account of this increasing antipathy toward sex and womankind see Willystine Goodsell , A History of Marriage and the Family ( rev. ed., New York: Macmillan, 1934), pp. 160-164.

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