Marriage Difficulties in Early British Baptist Life
By Joseph Jackson Goadby, 1871
The Puritans anticipated the Baptists in their dislike of the marriage service enjoined in the Book of Common Prayer. At the Hampton Court Conference in 1604, they objected to the use of the ring, and to the familiar words, " With my body I thee worship." After a brief discussion, the Conference ruled that the objections were frivolous. They did not seem frivolous to the early Baptists. "Why," they asked, "should they follow the Pagan custom of giving a ring as a pledge of affection?" They might, perhaps, have never asked the question, or have thought otherwise, if the explanation quoted with approval by a modern Cambridge professor had only been known to them. "The matter of the ring is gold," says this authority, "to imply how noble and durable our affection is. The form is round; being the properest figure to unite things separated, and to imply our respect shall never end. And the place is the fourth finger, where is a vein which comes directly from the heart, and where it may always be in view; and being a finger least used, it may be least subject to be worn."1
It was not only the compulsory use of the ring that was offensive to the early Baptist, but the ceremonies associated with it. "The man shall give unto the woman a ring," says the Marriage Service in the Prayer Book, "laying the same upon the book, with the accustomed duty to the priest and clerk; and the priest, taking the ring, shall deliver it to the man," &c. "Why this ceremony?" asked the Baptists; "is the ring unfit for use until it has been placed upon the Prayer Book, and passes through the hands of the priest? This is to
1 Bates's College Lectures on Christian Antiquities, London. 1844.
make the priest the vehicle of some special grace; and what is this but flat Popery?" Moreover, the use of the formula, "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost," was objectionable to him; it savoured somewhat of the old Popish notion that marriage was a sacrament, and it was unwarrantable to use such a form of words in an order of service which had not received the Divine sanction. His dislike of the words, "With my body I thee worship," was quite as emphatic and vehement. "The husband was the head of the wife," said he; "but this is reversing the order, even if you only mean by 'worship,' reverence and service. This is to unman a man to gratify a ceremony." But the Baptist had not learnt, like some Anglican divines, that "words have a non-natural sense." He took them to mean just what they said; and to him, therefore, these words — "with my body I thee worship" — were simply revolting. "Did they not make him promise to worship the creature? And that in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost? And what was this, but idolatry capped with blasphemy?"
He even went a step further than the Puritan in his view of the Marriage Service: — "It should certainly be a public service, and according to the law of God and the law of the land; but what need was there for a minister even? The minister did not marry the parties, and could not; that was the proper act of the parties themselves:" at least, so argued the brave old [Thomas] Grantham, in his book entitled Truth and Peace (1689).
The result was inevitable. The Baptists refused to submit to the ceremonies enjoined in the Book of Common Prayer, and unless they conformed to these ceremonies the Established clergy refused to marry them.2 The Baptists, therefore,
2 At the General Assembly of the General Baptists, in 1697, the question was discussed, "Whether a member of our communion may be married by a National minister?" and it decided, "that, provided the minister omitted the ceremonial part thereof respecting divine worship," he might. — MS. Proceedings of the General Assembly, vol. i., p. 12.
adopted a form of their own; the origin of that which is still used by the Society of Friends.
The method of proceeding was thus: — When two persons, free from all other engagements, and qualified according to God's law and the country's, agreed to be married, due notice was given beforehand to the Church of which they were members, that "all suitable inquiries might be made, and that no scandal be created." Sometimes the notice was repeated in two or three separate meetings of the congregation. No valid objection being discovered, the sober and demure bridal party came to the plain brick meeting-house. After a suitable pause, the bride and bridegroom stood up before the congregation, took each other by the hand, and declared, either in the words of the Prayer-book, "as acknowledging them to be very fit for that purpose;" or in words to this effect: "Brethren and sisters — In the fear of the Lord, and in the presence of this Assembly, whom I desire to be my witnesses, I, A. B., do take this our dear sister, C. D., to be my lawful wife, promising, through Divine assistance to be unto her a faithful and loving husband, until it shall please the Lord by death to separate us." The bride afterwards made a similar declaration in regard to A. B. as her " dear brother," and " lawful husband." A certificate of marriage, "drawn upon a properly stamped paper, was then signed by them, and attested by as many of the congregation as was thought convenient." This ran as follows: — "This is to certify to all men that we, A. B., of _____, and C. D., of _____, have, the date hereof, entered into the covenant state of matrimony, according to a solemn contract heretofore made between ourselves, and with the consent of such as are concerned therewith. And we do now, in the presence of Almighty God, and the witnesses hereafter named, ratify the said contract and covenant-act of marriage this day verbally made; in both which we do, in the fear of God, mutually and solemnly, and for our part respectively promise, in the strength
of God, to live together in the state of marriage, according to God's ordinance, from this day forward, to love each other as husband and wife, and faithfully to perform all the duties to which we are bound by God's law, and the good laws of the land, in that case provided, till the Lord by death shall separate us. In testimony whereof, we have hereunto set our hands, the ___ day of _____."A. B."We, whose names are subscribed, do testify that the abovesaid, A. B. and C. D., the day of the year above-said, did mutually take each other into the state of marriage, according to the contract and covenant, and ratifying the same by word and by the subscription hereof, as above said.
"C. D."E. F.After the signing of this certificate the minister, or any gifted members of the church, offered suitable counsels to the newly-wedded pair, and closed the ceremony by solemnly imploring the Divine blessing upon the union. A record of the marriage was then carefully entered in the church-book. Some of these entries are very brief, and not a little curious. Here, for example, is one from the church-books of Bromsgrove: "At a church meeting, upon the fourteenth day of the tenth month, 1692, the civil contract of marriage was, between John Hayns and Susannah Ducks, solemnised and performed, before the Lord God, angels, and us who were witnesses at the same time, and several members, male and female. John Eckells, sen.," &C. &C.
In order to understand the lawfulness of such marriages, it must be remembered that by the Barebones Parliament in 1653, marriage was made a civil contract; that this act was ratified in the reign of Charles the Second; and that it remained
in force for a century. The scandal created by the Fleet marriages in the reign of George the First, performed by a profligate clergyman and his curate, led to the passing of the Marriage Act in 1753. Jews and Quakers were alone exempted from its provisions, all other Dissenters being compelled to be married at the parish church. The Bill of Lord Russell in 1836 relieved Nonconformists from this manifest injustice.
Many attempts were made by the bitter enemies of the Baptists to put a stigma upon their simple marriage rites, before the passing of the Act of George the First; but more than one action in a court of law brought them to a wholesome, if tardy, repentance. One instance will illustrate many. John Aldridge, a substantial yeoman, living at Barton-in-the-Beans, Leicestershire, married, in 1750, Elizabeth Cooper. A gentleman of the neighbourhood, who had long distinguished himself by his petty persecution of Aldridge and his friends, employing a church-warden as his agent, indicted John Aldridge in the Spiritual Court for living in adultery with Elizabeth Cooper. The base and heartless attempt to destroy the domestic peace and tarnish the spotless name of a worthy and virtuous family, excited the indignation of all good men. A legal gentleman in a neighbouring village volunteered his services to Mr. Aldridge, and greatly helped him by his advice and countenance. The case came to a trial; and after a full investigation, the Court declared that the marriage of Mr. Aldridge was perfectly legal. Fearing a prosecution for defamation of character, the church-warden sued humbly for pardon, which Aldridge cheerfully granted. But this victory, and the humiliation of his willing tool in the case, still further incensed the man who originated the suit, and a mean and cowardly attack was made by him upon the inoffensive yeoman. As Mr. Aldridge and his family were returning one evening in the dark from the house of a friend, this shameless defamer, at the head of a tipsy rabble, waylaid them and offered them the grossest insults. The
ringleader was summoned to the Leicester Assizes in 1751; and, having secured a packed jury, confidently expected an easy escape; but the character of the witnesses, and the equity of the judge defeated their designs.
Eighteen years after this incident, a clergyman in the County of Durham gave a sample of the intolerance with which Baptists were then not infrequently treated. He refused to marry a couple because, having been born of Baptist parents, they had neither of them been christened in their infancy. The young people, finding the clergyman obstinate, and thinking they had no redress, crossed the Tweed, and were married in Scotland. But the "priest" was avaricious as well as bigoted. On their return he demanded his fees for the marriage which he had refused to perform. The Baptists declined to pay any attention to such an unreasonable demand; and the clergyman thereupon threatened them with a citation to a Spiritual Court. The Dissenting Deputies in London were written to; the young people were encouraged by them in their resistance; and the grasping "priest" was at last glad enough to drop all further proceedings.
[From Joseph Jackson Goadby, Bye-Paths in Baptist History, Originally published in London, 1871; republished in 1987, pp. 309-314. The title of this essay has been changed; the original title is "Marriage Service." Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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