Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Economics Nota Bene The Natural Family

Cotton on Marriage, Again

A bit later in the sermon to which I’ve referred a couple of times previously, John Cotton details what he thinks the phrase “help meet” in Genesis 2 means. I suspect that the simple act of copying and pasting this is enough to make most contemporary Christians, including not a few who classify themselves with the uncouth neologism “complementarian,” lose their minds. All I can say is that I’m like Fox News up in here; I report, you decide.

Cotton uses a threefold division of ends to describe the way in which “[t]he Woman is or should be an help meet for the man”: natural, oeconomical (which here, as almost always in older writings, means “pertaining to the household”), and theological. He writes:

The Woman is or should be an help meet for the man in these following respects. Scil.

As She answers natural, oeconomical and Theological ends; and how she doth each, I shall show presently: but I must first take notice, that the word here rendred Meet, is in the Original, As before him. Jerom reads it, Like to him: the Seventy, According to him: as before him. i. e. In his Image of his own kind, like to him, which should be as it were, a Second self, Graceful in his eyes; grateful to him, alwayes as it were in his sight, and assistant in the work of his life; lifting as it were over against him, as the word is rendred, over against him. Josh. 5.13. So that it issues in what it is here rendred, Meet for him. Brutes are an help to man for many ends, whence they are called Jumenta, but they are not a meet help in this sence; they don’t agree with him specie, they be not associated with him. &c. The woman is made to be and is a meet help to man.

1. As She answers natural ends, and so is,

1. A most sweet and intimate companion, and an entire friend; there is no stricter or sweeter friendship than conjugal; as it was the first in the world, so it is most natural.

2. Is helpful in the propagating of mankind. Ruth 4.11. She helps build up the House.

2. As She answers oeconomical ends, and so is assistant in Family affairs, in the Government of the House, ordering things within doors, especially (for the house is her Center) and she should be an help as before him, should be a keeper at home. Tit. 2.5. Not a rash wrambler abroad: the Shell-fish is an Hierogliphick hereof, which carries her house on her head: like which therefore the painter drew Venus. The woman should keep at home, Educating of her Children. Prov.1.8, 9. 1 Tim. 5.14. Keeping and improving what is got by the industry of the man. The wise man finds a glass wherein good Wives may see themselves. Prov. 31.

3. As She answers Theological or Divine ends.

1. And so is an assistant to him in his Piety, and Honesty, a promoter of that; the Apostle supposeth them Praying, yea & Fasting together. 1 Cor. 7.5. 1 Pet. 3.7. So the man and woman, as one saith, are a Domestick Church. Indeed Julian the Apostate, Scoft at the Woman’s being a meet help in this respect, in that she was the person that drew man into Sin, that seduced him: It is true, She being seduc’d her self, seduced him; but it doth not follow, but that She was given for another end, and often attains it, and the missing it then should make Women the more wary for the future: And though the Apostle doth suppose them in a Married Estate, more involved in the cares of this life. 1 Cor. 7.32, 33, 34. Yet he supposeth them likewise helpers forward of each other in Faith & Love. verse 16. & 1 Pet. 3.1, 2.

2. So an helper of his Infirmity, a remedy of unlawful Love; to avoid Fornication, saith the Apostle, Let every man have his own wife, &c. 1 Cor. 7.2. So that Satan tempt not for incontinency, verse 5. The woman is a meet help as she answers these ends.

A few brief remarks:

  1. Cotton uses “natural” in this passage a bit differently from how I used the term in the previous posts. Here the “natural” end of marriage is friendship. It is clear that for Cotton man is naturally sociable, and so marriage answers to the natural desire or instinct for companionship.
  2. What I previously called “natural” or “creational,” i.e. the “propagating of mankind,” is here classed as “oeconomical.” There is an important point implicit in this subdivision: the propagation of the species cannot be reduced to the physical act of begetting or bearing children. As we all know, it is possible to do those things without truly being a “father” or a “mother.” There are rather subsequent duties associated with the “propagating of mankind.” These include government and the education or rearing of children, as well as wise management of provisions.
  3. The theological end of the “help meet” is particularly interesting: man and wife are a “domestick Church,” Cotton says, and thus must help one another in piety. Cotton elevates the reciprocity of such helping in response to snarlings of Julian the Apostate.
  4. Only then does he come to the use of marriage as a way of restraining sexual immorality–and this too is a thelogical or divine end of the man-and-wife relationship. Why? Because it is only necessary given sin, and so it cannot be primary, any more than corrupted nature can be primary to uncorrupted and original nature. The natural and oeconomical ends of this relationship, and presumably also the first of its theological or divine ends, would have been the same irrespective of the Fall, but this last end would not have. Thus, for Cotton, when one thinks about marriage that should not be the first consideration, but instead should be seen in its proper place and relation to the other ends for which man and wife are united.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.