What is “traditional” marriage? From past generations, we have inherited the idea of marriage as an institution between one man and one woman. The short, cogent work What is Marriage? defines the “conjugal” view of marriage as a permanent and exclusive union between a man and a woman. This view rests on the biological cooperation that results in children.
Written by Robert George, et al., What is Marriage? expounds on the biological grounding of the conjugal perspective and how it entwines with public policy. In particular, it references the practices of other historical cultures to show that this understanding of marriage arises organically from human nature. For instance, Ancient Greece was a pre-Christian society that celebrated homosexual activity. Nevertheless, it understood marriage rooted in the biological complementarity of one man and one woman’s reproductive systems as a distinct relationship and a sensible legal institution.
While What is Marriage? highlights the prevailing philosophical core of marriage across human history, the actual practices of the past reveal a startling variety within this consistent structure. This caught my attention when I was reading through David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed (entertainingly summarized and reviewed here), a historical work concerning the four British subcultures carried into the New World that charted the course of American history. In its discussion of the “folkways” of those four subcultures, Albion’s Seed comments on how each viewed and practiced marriage. Reviewed in light of George’s What is Marriage?, these different traditions testify to the continuity of conjugal marriage, but they also show that such an understanding is anything but parochially unimaginative or overly rigid.
Searching for Single Persons
In Albion’s Seed, Fischer begins his history with the Puritans, a bunch of Separatist Calvinists so famously and distinctively quirky that they survive in popular America’s imagination today. Before diving into Puritan marriage proper, I should stress the importance of the family to this community. Fischer reports, “The provinces of Connecticut and Plymouth also forbade any single person to ‘live of himself.’ These laws were enforced. In 1668, the court of Middlesex County, Massachusetts, systematically searched its towns for single persons and placed them in families.”
According to Fischer, the Puritans considered marriage “not [as] a religious ceremony but a civil contract.” The ceremony itself (if it even deserves the name) involved no holy vows nor an exchanging of rings. Rather it was a simple affirmative answer given to a magistrate, typically at home, while the participants registered with the town clerk to record the proceedings.
This contrasts with the prevailing Anglican ideas left behind in England, where a minister “performed” or “solemnized” marriages with virtually no grounds for divorce. The Puritans preferred their marriage “executed” (like a contract), and they had more expansive grounds for divorce than most during that time period. Of course, this was still worlds away from the ease with which current laws enable people to dissolve marriages. The Puritan version of “expansive grounds”, as described by the Connecticut statutes, allowed for divorce in cases of “adultery, fraudulent contract, wilful [sic] desertion and total neglect for three years, and ‘providential absence’ for seven years.” Fischer also cites court proceedings that record divorces happening over cases of physical violence.
Neither Cold, Wooden, nor Loveless
Despite their covenantal perspective on marriage, Fischer stresses that the Puritans were not cold, wooden, or loveless in their marriages. They used the expression “falling in love,” and they sometimes prevented marriages out of concern for a lack of love. The Puritans balanced this priority with their emphasis on family by giving young people the privacy necessary to foster love, while keeping them under supervision. One custom involved a tube that allowed two people to converse with each other when surrounded by company. This framework also applies to the Puritan practice of bundling courting couples.
As another facet of their joint prizing of love and family authority, Puritanical laws required parental consent for marriage. They even criminalized “self-marriage,” their derogatory term for marriage without such consent. On the other hand, they also prohibited parents from withholding consent arbitrarily, an attempt to weigh all relevant considerations.
The demographics of this legal and cultural framework played out in an unusual way: the typical Puritan age for marriage was higher than other early American cultures, Puritan men tending to marry around twenty-six and women around twenty-three. It is usually the case that when a culture delays marriage until deeper maturity (much like our own), the proportion of never married people climbs. Not so with the Puritans. About ninety-four percent of women and ninety-eight percent of men in New England eventually married. Doubtless this had something to do with their particular theology, which, for all their contractual ideas, “suspected that failure to marry was a sign of God’s ill favor.”
The Puritanical View
The Puritanical conception of marriage was civil and contractual, while also incorporating human emotion as an important prerequisite. It further recognized God’s general and particular role in the institution. As it was a quintessentially legal matter, the Puritans found more leeway (relatively speaking) to design escape clauses. They certainly felt no need to parade marriage with the trappings of even contemporaneous festivities such as dancing. It was a near-essential component of a good Christian life that people could put off until total maturity, an arrangement that arose from the decision of the participants but within the judicious context of their families.
For all these distinctive characteristics, the Puritanical view of marriage followed common historical practice by enshrining sexual exclusivity, calling for broad domestic sharing of goods, and expecting the rearing of children. It aligns with the institution that What is Marriage? calls “traditional” marriage: a designed-to-be-permanent legal relationship between a man and a woman.