A few years ago, I was listening to a Christian radio station in Dallas when a song caught my ear. I thought it was lovely, a song clearly sung from the point of view of a husband to his wife. I liked it so much that I went home and downloaded it, only to find out that it was actually sung by a father to his daughter. I suddenly felt rather ill and wished that iTunes accepted returns.
Today, we talk about the Purity Movement in its various, current expressions, and we cannot do that without bringing fathers into the picture (forewarning: it gets a little creepy).
There are many ways that this movement is enacted and interpreted, and while I wish I could write a 20,000 word post, I will not do that to you. Instead, we will talk about three things that are actually happening right now in twenty-first century CE America: Purity Balls, Stay-At-Home-Daughters (SAHD), and Courtship.
Not Your Average Daddy-Daughter Dance
Purity balls are almost exactly what they sound like: a lavish event in which fathers take their daughters (usually late elementary age up through their twenties). Vows of sexual purity are made by the daughter while similar vows of authority, strength, and protection are made by the father.
In the documentary Our Lives: The Virgin Daughters, the girls and young women wear formals, have their hair in up-dos, and dawn nice jewelry and makeup. They enter in a grand fashion under crossed swords and are given white roses that they (accompanied by their fathers) lay at the foot of a large cross. Princess language abounds. The dads wear boutineers and tuxes and dance sweeping waltzes with their offspring. An official document is also signed entitled “Purity Covering and Covenant” in which the father promises protection and the daughter promises purity. Mom is usually in attendance, but the stars of the show are the father and their daughter(s).
Swedish photographer David Magnusson was so captivated by the idea that he traveled to Louisiana, Colorado, and Arizona to photograph this unique relationship between fathers and daughters in a collection he simply titled Purity.
Boogie Woogie Bugle Brides
I first learned about the SAHD Movement while reading some sewing blogs of what turned out to be teenage girls sewing vintage frocks to wile away the time waiting to be married. On one hand, the life they portray can seem dreamy to professed DIY-types such as myself: days spent learning new embroidery techniques, baking artisan breads, constructing Edwardian dresses to wear to an English Country Dance, canning fig jam, furnishing a hope chest, blogging about your flower garden, and the like.
One set of sisters even formed a WWII-era singing group that travels to various reenactments and celebrations such as the one in Linden, TN to perform Andrews Sisters ditties while wearing handmade sailor dresses.
However, the life underneath the peonies and half-historic-cosplaying often takes a heavier turn. The SAHD movement reclaims for the modern American the lovely archaic ideal that women are ultimately the chattel of men, a premise hidden under a disguise of protection, chivalry, and romanticism. The basic notion is that a daughter is under the headship and protection of her father. That headship must be maintained until it can be transferred (yes, transferred) to her husband.
There is the staunch belief that a woman’s life is truly to be inside the home. This is not a preference or a choice, but a divine mandate. Many of these young women are homeschooled, and unsurprisingly, college is out of the question. Interestingly, in ultra-conservative communities, college may be out of the question for men as well if the family cannot afford a private, Christian education.
To say that all SAHDs are miserable is a misnomer though. The Boyer Sisters (high school-young adult sisters who make up a wartime-era singing trio), seem to really enjoy their life and feel convicted that God is calling them to live in this way. The only hiccup, it seems, was the dissolved courtship of the eldest daughter Jessica and the soon-following engagement and marriage of the middle daughter, Brigid, to the best friend of Jessica’s ex-suitor. The premise of courtship is to help prevent such heartaches, but the gravitas with which it is intended can often be even more damaging than a casual coffee date.
A Bicycle Built for Two (+ One Chaperone)
Courting is different from dating, and if it sounds outdated, this kind of “courting” generally is. In a traditional courtship among Quiverfull and/or conservative, patriarchal families, the young man might first propose marriage to the young woman before any actual dates are had. Often, this all happens under strict monitoring and arranging by the family. The couple is usually never left alone and is instead watched carefully by a chaperone which is often a sibling. Physical touching is usually limited (even the stiffest of “Christian-side-hugs” can be considered far too sexually charged). In many instances (e.g. any of the Duggar weddings), the first time the couple kisses may very well be on their wedding day.
Courtships can be terminated, but often not without great shame and feelings of guilt. The fact that these relationships often begin with a marriage proposal raises the stakes significantly. There is high pressure to succeed put on these relationships, and any failing could be interpreted as a failure of morals.
More Than a Cupcake
In conclusion, one thing that I would like to continue reiterating is that chastity/celibacy are related but not equal to the Purity Movement. The Purity Movement is akin to the weird, over-zealous uncle. Chastity and celibacy refer to current, present states. They should not have the life-crippling shame attached to them that breaking a “purity pledge” does. Chastity is a gift given to everyone at various points of their lives for various reasons. It is intended to bring the person closer to God and to allow the person better clarity of what God has called them to do, not to set them upon a virginal pedestal.
You can be chaste and not be a virgin. You can be chaste and be a virgin. You can be single and chaste, married and chaste, divorced and chaste, the list goes on. It is not so with purity; in the mind of a purist, once it is gone, it is gone. Beautiful, God-given chastity comes back to us over, and over, and over again in our lifetime.
You are not a licked cupcake. You are not chewed gum. You are not even an apple stabbed repeatedly (see part 1 for that gem). You are a human with many scars, some of which might be related to botched relationships, but the grace extended to the parts of us that lie, cheat, steal, slander, and get angry during rush hour is also extended to the parts of us that get ourselves into damaging romantic entanglements where we make bad choices.
When I see the virgin daughters carry their white roses symbolizing their proud, undefiled selves to the foot of the cross, I think of another “biblical” narrative: the father throwing a lavish party, killing the fatted calf, taking off his rings and putting them on the hands of his son who has returned home with more scars from bad decisions than when he left. Somehow, that seems more in line with the character of the God I am growing to know.
Kristen Hanna serves as an associate pastor at Christ United Methodist Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. A born and bred Texan, Kristen grew up in the Dallas area and received her Bachelor of Music from the Meadows School of the Arts and Master of Sacred Music from the Perkins School of Theology, both of Southern Methodist University. During her graduate work, Kristen served at various local churches in the Dallas area. Kristen grew up in the Southern Baptist Church and was confirmed in the United Methodist Church in 2009. When not planning worship or pondering theological conundrums, Kristen enjoys reading a wide variety of literature, knitting and sewing, solving the world’s problems over coffee with friends, and experiencing the beauty of North Carolina while walking her corgi, Rory.