Iowa History Project
Marriage has always been regarded by the Quakers as primarily a religious compact. “They say”, remarked William Penn, “that marriage is an ordinance of God, and that God only can rightly join man and woman in marriage.”(411) Accordingly the Quakers have held that divorce could be granted only on Biblical grounds, namely, fornication or adultery.(412) To safeguard the sacred institution of marriage the Friends have hedged it about with rules and observances which now appear strange or even fanatical to some, but which, nevertheless, have prevented moral laxness and a multitude of divorce cases.
For the moral teaching of its young people the Society of Friends placed the chief responsibility on the parents, requiring of them by frequent reminders that they “exercise a religious care in watching over their children, and endeavor to guard them against improper or unequal connections in marriage”. On the other hand, when a young man or woman contemplated this serious step, before entering into a formal engagement they were expected first to consult their parents for advice; while older persons independent of parental care were admonished to consult interested friends with a view to learning their judgment as to the propriety of the union. In any case and above all else the parties concerned were expected to solemnly consider the weightiness of the matter, and to seek divine direction before plighting their troth.
As has been suggested, certain prohibitions were laid down as rules—the observance of which, it should be noted, is rather the exception than the rule among the Friends in Iowa to-day. In the first place, no marriages “between any so near as first cousins, nor the children of half brothers or half sisters” were to be permitted. Furthermore, marriage “between a man and his deceased wife’s sister, or between a woman and her deceased husband’s brother” was strongly advised against. Then to prevent unseemly and hasty unions, the Monthly Meetings were usually directed to consider no proposals for re-marriage on the part of any widowed person “sooner than one year after the decease of a former husband or wife.”
Perhaps the most serious difficulty of all, and certainly the one of greatest importance to the Society from the standpoint of later losses, arose because of the prohibition placed on the marriage of members with those not within the Quaker fold. Practically all of the early leaders of the Society attacked most vigorously the system of “mixed marriages”, as they were called, and on grounds highly defensible in the early in the early day but ill-adapted to the broader spirit of more modern times. By them it was contended that differences in religious connection or belief almost invariably led sooner or later to domestic troubles which destroyed the harmony of the homes concerned and reflected discredit upon the Society itself. And so, until well towards the close of the nineteenth century, to “marry out” of meeting almost always brought the stigma of disownment upon the offending party. Moreover, if parents or guardians encouraged such a marriage, or even attended the ceremony, they, too, were disowned. The only way such persons could regain their standing in the church was to come before the Monthly Meeting and publicly declare, either verbally or by written notice, that they were “sorry for their deviation.” This of course rarely occurred.(413)
When “the way seemed clear”, the first definite step to be taken towards a Quaker wedding was for the man and the woman concerned to inform the overseers of the preparative Meeting to which the woman belonged of the proposed union. The two parties next appeared at the succeeding Monthly Meeting, and with evidence at hand that they informed both the men’s and the women’s meeting of their intentions.(414) Thereupon each body of Friends appointed a committee of two of its members; and the men were to investigate the man’s “clearness of like engagements with others”, while the women were to do the same for their sister. This done, at the following Monthly Meeting the committees gave their reports; and, if satisfactory, the parties concerned were then to go together into both the men’s and women’s meeting and there publicly declare their “continued intentions of marriage”—this being commonly called “passing meeting”. When each and all of these acts had been recorded in the minutes, the parties would propose a date for their wedding. Then each of the meetings appointed another committee of two of its members to be present and see that “good order be observed”.
The eventful day having at last arrived with parents and friends the man and the woman proceeded to the little meeting-house where the woman usually worshipped; and there in the presence of the assembled community—which was always interested in these nuptial occasions—they took the marriage vow. On entering the door the parties made their way slowly to the front, and in silence quietly took their seats. A time of worship followed, during which anyone so moved might feel at liberty to speak in exhortation or prayer. At the proper time—indicated by the head of the meeting—the man and woman arose, joined hands, and in an audible and solemn manner said, the man first speaking: “In the presence of the Lord, and before this assembly, I take --- --- to be my wife; promising, with divine assistance to be unto her a loving and faithful husband, until death shall separate us.”(415) The woman having recited the same words, the plain marriage certificate of the Monthly Meeting was produced(416) and signed by the contracting parties and by witnesses. This certificate was then delivered to the clerk of the Monthly Meeting for registry in his records and afterwards returned to the married couple.
After the public ceremony, the relatives and intimate friends repaired to the home of the bride where the joy of the occasion expressed itself in a wedding dinner. Here, however, all due precaution was taken against immoderate feasting or drinking” or “unseemly, or rude discourses or actions”. Some of the overseers were expected to be present, and in case of any noticeable breach they were “to take such [person] aside” and “admonish them to better behaviour”. Neither was the making of “an uproar around a house at night where a couple…. had consummated marriage”(417) allowed; but more than once, so the records show, the boisterous Quaker youth of Iowa violated this ruling and suffered disownment in consequence.
“Why were these people so strict?” and “How did they meet the common provisions of the law?” are questions which have often been asked concerning the old-time Quaker marriages. In reply to the first of these inquiries it may be said, in brief, that when Quakerism arose as a religious institution in England public and private morals were exceedingly corrupt, and to protect both the members and the Society itself no pains were spared by the founders to preserve moral integrity. The second question, however, opens up a broader field and introduces an interesting phase of legislative history, which, from the Iowa point of view, calls for more detailed discussion.
In 1833 the Territory of Michigan passed a law for the benefit of its Quaker inhabitants, which provided that it “shall be lawful for the society called Friends or Quakers…. to solemnize the rites of marriage agreeably to their forms and customs”, accepting at the same time the Quaker procedure of having the intention of such a marriage announced “on two different days of public worship” in lieu of the usual civil license.(418) This law was still in force in Iowa when the Quakers first planted their homes in the Black Hawk Purchase. But in 1840 the Iowa Territorial legislature took up the question of marriages, and saw fit to make an addition to these early provisions which required the clerk of the district court, under penalty of fifty dollars fine in case of failure to comply with the law.(419) Jealous of any civil interference, the Iowa Quakers strenuously objected to this innovation. But greater still was their consternation when they found that with the adoption of the Code of 1851 exemption from the necessity of procuring a civil marriage license had been omitted and the right of “solemnizing marriages” alone had been guaranteed to them.(420)
Protest as they might, the Quakers found no relief until the legislature took up the matter in 1868 and passed an act which freed “the members of the Society of Friends from applying for marriage licenses”,(421) and allowed them again to resort to their ancient order of procedure. Then before long there came another revision of the laws of Iowa upon the report of the Code Commission in 1873. In this report all reference to exemption from the necessity of securing a civil marriage license was omitted, just as it had been I the Code of 1851; and so the battle for exemption had to be fought over again. The chief interest centered in the Senate, where the Judiciary Committee, to which the subject had been referred, recommended that the exemption clause in question be reinserted. Much parliamentary procedure followed, with the result that the Quakers were once more exempted.(422) Finally, came the revision of 1897, accompanied with a similar attempt to place the legalization of marriage purely on a civil basis; but again the undertaking failed. In the Code of 1897 may be found the following provision: “The provisions of this chapter [on marriage], so far as they relate to procuring licenses and to the solemnization of marriages, are not applicable to members of any particular denomination having, as such, any particular mode of entering the marriage relation.”(423)