The “Purity” Movement

Beginning in the 1990s, inspired by books such as I Kissed Dating Goodbye (2003) by Joshua Harris, there emerged among small Christian groups a “purity movement,” which basically attempted to revive Christian courtship as it existed before 1900.

This, apparently, did not go so well. All too often, girls remained “pure,” that is: unmarried. This did not come about, as you might think, because such girls would lose out to girls who would put out without a ring on their finger. Actually, there was a large cohort of similarly-minded young men as well, whose interests lay in Christian virgin brides, rather than the usual degenerate hoes. But, for various reasons, they weren’t able to pair off. An interesting response to this has come out, Courtship in Crisis: The Case for Traditional Dating (2015), by Thomas Umstattd Jr. Umstattd was an eager participant in the “purity” movement, and saw its failures firsthand.

Courtship had two contradictory elements — one was preventing premarital sex, and shooing away unsuitable men; the other was to get the girl married, as young as possible, which usually meant exciting the romantic interest and sexual desire of eligible bachelors. This contrast reached an extreme form in the practice of “bundling,” which apparently came to the American Colonies from the Netherlands and Britain, and which is still practiced among some Amish groups. Basically, a girl and boy were wrapped and tied up in blankets, and then placed in the same bed to sleep (and chat, which was encouraged) overnight. This would, presumably, inspire them to marry each other.

There is a funny passage in War and Peace (1869), where Tolstoy marvels that prim society girls, who would write a letter to the Pope asking permission to do needlepoint on the Sabbath, would also show up at the Opera in clothing so revealing that Tolstoy considered them half-naked. But prim society girls want to get married too, and it was competitive!

“Traditional Dating,” according to Thomas Umstattd, was basically traditional courtship, as applied to the “dating” customs of the 1950s. Some excitement and connection had to be developed among young people. Premarital sex was of course forbidden; but also, interestingly, “going steady” or any kind of monogamous commitment. A girl was not allowed some kind of “half-marriage,” except perhaps in formal engagement. If a girl committed herself to one man, as a “girlfriend,” it obviously excluded other potential suitors; and the courtship process, the process of finding a husband, would come to a halt. Also, once such a monogamous marriage-like commitment was made, as a “girlfriend” and “boyfriend,” the pull toward premarital sex was unstoppable, for any girl past her sixteenth birthday. In short, what Umstattd called “Traditional Dating” was not dating as most people practiced it, in the 1950s; but probably there was still a pretty large group that was following the general rules of Courtship.

Actually, Umstattd suggests a “going steady” (exclusivity) stage, basically as a precursor to engagement. But, this is rather chaste, and nothing much very sexy happens that wouldn’t have happened at a girl’s father’s house in Jane Austen’s time. Nevertheless, the potential couple spends a lot of time together.

The other factor contributing to the failure of the “purity” movement was, I think, a failure to formally abandon the common expectation today that a girl is not really serious about marriage until about age 28, and instead is focused on school and career. In courtship, women marry young, and it is the prime focus of their lives.

Published by proprietor

Happily married, with children.

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