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Image Delaware Marriage Ways: The Quaker Idea of Marriage as “Loving Agreement”

The Quakers also brought to America a strict set of marriage customs, which specified who one might marry, how and when and where and why. These questions were urgently important to the Society of Friends—so much so that its founder, George Fox, wrote no fewer than sixty epistles about marriage. Other leaders frequently addressed the same themes.

On the question of marriage partners, Quakers strongly condemned what they called “mongrel marriages” to “unbelievers.”1 Outmarriage caused many disciplinary proceedings by Quaker meetings. In 1706, for example, one English meeting recorded the disownment of a member named Bartholemew Mastin:

[He] hath gone and joyned himself in marriage with one that is not one of our profession and that we are altogether strangers to … according to the holy writ that believers should not marry with unbelievers … we do deny and disown the said Bartholemew.2

This Quaker rule against outmarriage was strictly enforced in America. For nearly two centuries, half of all the disciplinary proceedings among Pennsylvania Quakers were about problems of courtship, and marriage with “unbelievers.” The frequency of these cases increased with time.3

The rule against outmarriage was grounded not merely in a negative principle of sectarian exclusion, but in the positive idea that marriages should be founded in true Christian love. To the Quakers, love did not mean romantic attraction, sexual passion or even domestic affection. Their idea of “pure and true love” was not the Greek eros or Roman amor but the Christian caritas and pietas which were thought to be attainable only between true believers.

Quakers insisted that marriage should not be for lust. One Friend wrote in his Commonplace Book:

If thou resolute [sic] to change a single life

And hast a purpose to become a wife,

Then chuse thy husband not for worldly gain,

Nor for his comely shape or beauty vain.

If money make the match or Lust impure

Both bride and bridegroom too shall weep be sure.4

But Quaker moralists demanded that love must be a part of every marriage. They believed that marriage should be a union of “sweethearts,” a word which they often used. Further, they insisted that love should precede marriage, and not merely follow it. But this was to be the pure and undefiled love between Christians, and not a carnal appetite for the flesh.5

Quakers also condemned dynastic marriages which were made for material gain. They forbade first-cousin marriages which were commonplace in Virginia. During the eighteenth century, many Quaker meetings even discouraged unions between second cousins—a major restriction in small rural communities, and an exceptionally difficult problem for the Delaware elite.6 They insisted that a marriage must be acceptable to the family, the meeting and the entire community of Friends. The formal consent of all parents was required; without it permission to marry was refused.7 The approval of a large part of the community was also sought. One Quaker marriage certificate in England (1735) was signed by no fewer than twenty-three supporting witnesses. The marriage of William Penn and Gulielma Springett (1672) was supported by forty-six witnesses, who testified that the couple had “first obtained the good will and consent of their nearest friends and relations.” These customs were also kept in America. Members of the Delaware elite had as many as fifty witnesses; ordinary country folk often had twenty or thirty.8

These various rules were strictly enforced by the Society of Friends. One result was that marriage came late among both English Quakers and German Pietists. Mean age at first marriage was higher than among Anglicans.9

Another consequence was that many Quakers never married at all. One study of the Society of Friends in New Jersey during the eighteenth century found that 16 percent of women were still single at the age of fifty. By comparison with other colonies, these numbers of spinsters were large. In New England and Virginia, 95 to 98 percent of women married during the same period. The difference cannot be explained in terms of sex ratios. It was caused by different cultural ideas of marriage.10

Quaker ideas of marriage were also expressed in wedding rituals, which differed in many curious details from matrimonial customs in Puritan Massachusetts and Anglican Virginia. These practices changed very little during the period of American colonization. A leading authority writes, “The Society of Friends had established its marriage customs in England and … the practices were transferred intact to the New World.” The rituals of marriage within the Society of Friends developed in reaction to the complexities of Episcopal and Congregational observances. But Quaker marriages became so fantastically elaborate that Puritan and Anglican practices seemed simplicity itself.11

A proper Quaker wedding had no fewer than sixteen stages. When a man and woman agreed to marry, their first formal step was to consult their parents, which sometimes they did even before settling the question among themselves. When Pennsylvania Quaker Benjamin Ferris decided to marry, he asked his own parents first, then his future wife, and then her parents—a common sequence.12

If all agreed, the couple jointly announced their intention to marry before the women’s meeting. After an interval which gave the community time to digest the news, a female Friend formally sent a notice to the men’s meeting. The intending couple then presented themselves before the men’s meeting and announced that “with the Lord’s permission and Friends’ approbation they intend to take each other in marriage.” Thereafter, the men’s meeting consulted the parents of both partners. Unless approval was given in writing a marriage could not proceed. If either partner came from another meeting, the men’s meeting also solicited “certificates of cleanliness,” from that body. This process required a second session of the men’s meeting, so that overseers could report on their inquiries.

At this stage a waiting period was imposed—often two meetings in duration—while others were given time to make objections. After the prescribed period had passed, the men’s meeting formally considered the question, and agreed either to approve or forbid the union. This was called “passing the meeting,” and was a great event.

The wedding could now proceed. Another stage followed in which the formal preparations were made. A supper was organized for the families and close friends.13 Then, invitations were sent for the wedding itself, and the date and hour of the wedding were made known. Without this formal announcement, the wedding could not occur. On the appointed day, the marriage at last took place. It proceeded very much like a meeting for worship. People entered quietly and sat in silence, sometimes for very long periods. Those who wished to speak could rise and say what they wished, and some were moved to speak at length. Then, almost as an anticlimax, the intended couple quietly declared their agreement to marry, and spoke promises to one another in words of their own invention. After this exchange, everyone sat silently for a while, and quietly went home.

The newly married couple went to the house of the bride’s father, and lived there commonly for two weeks, receiving visitors every day. After that period had passed, the newly married couple settled in their own home, which was often built for them by friends and neighbors. Then a long period followed in which the newly married couple returned such visits as they wished. This visiting process was conducted with great care, for by returning a visit the couple announced they wished to have a continuing association. By not doing so, associations came to an end.14

The actual Quaker wedding “ceremony” was very plain, but the entire process of marriage became exceptionally complex. It was an agreement not merely between a man and a woman, but between a couple and a community.

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