Betrothal (Engagement)

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In conformity with general medieval practice Anabaptists expected to supervise and direct the marriage arrangements for their young people. To a medieval European parent the marriage of a son or daughter without his consent was unthinkable. It was not only a piece of folly but in bad taste or even sinful. This view prevailed in many circles till late in the 19th century.

To the Anabaptists, however, marriage like all other human decisions and behavior must conform to the express teachings of the Holy Scriptures. And because no New Testament instance furnished a pattern for the wooing of a wife, some Anabaptist groups accepted the Old Testament example of Abraham's selection of a wife for Isaac to show what is the duty of the parent to his son. Tobit of the Apocrypha still serves the Old Order Amish as a model of betrothal and marriage.

The rules of the Frisian Mennonites prescribed that young men and women should not associate too freely. Among the Swiss Anabaptists in the Vosges mountain region of Alsace the wooing of the bride was carried on according to the most literal interpretation of Genesis 24. The deacon known as the "Stecklimann" took the place of the servant who set out to win a wife for Isaac. In carrying out his mission the "Stecklimann" mounted a horse even though the prospective bride lived near at hand. Then on his arrival at the home, the details of the Biblical story were followed punctiliously even to offering a drink, presenting gifts, and so on. This procedure with minor variations was still the rule among the Old Order Amish in America in the 1950s. The deacon usually served as the "Stecklimann." His ordination charge included the words, "and if there are brethren and sisters who wish to marry, you are to serve them uprightly." One manuscript added the words, "according to the Christian regulation." He undertook these duties in great secrecy. He went to the home of the young woman after all but the parents have retired. After the consent of the young woman and her parents had been obtained and the time for the public announcement decided, the deacon, two weeks before the wedding, announced to the congregation the date of the wedding. Invitations to the wedding were delivered orally and in person by the bridegroom.

Among all Anabaptist-Mennonite groups it was once customary for the preachers or elders to make the marriage proposals. The principal reason for this rule was to insure a "marriage in the Lord," that is, the union of two young people who were members of the church. Anyone who disregarded the rule was subject to church censure. Even such groups as permitted the young people to make their own promise of marriage required them to obtain the consent of their parents. Such practices have now almost universally disappeared in America in favor of the personal proposal by the young man to the chosen one. The change was due to the general adoption of the American concept of romantic love as the basis for marriage. Among certain of the more conservative groups in Europe, however, the parents still in fact have a large share in selecting a marriage partner.

The Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, often called the Holdeman Mennonites, prohibit "dating" for unmarried church members. After he united with the church a young man could see a young woman alone. To go driving with her or to accompany her to the home of a neighbor, he took several members of her family too. When he wished to propose he reported to one of the ministers that the Lord had revealed to him that he should take a certain young woman to be his wife. The minister then made it known to the parents of the girl and secured their consent and hers.

Among the Mennonites of Prussia it was customary into the 19th century for the young man to approach the Umbitter, a sort of deacon, who would consult with the parents and the daughter of the house making known the young man's desire. After they had consented the young man would come to the home of the girl and the engagement took place. (Daniel Chodowiecki's painting "Mennonite Proposal for Marriage" illustrated this.) After some visiting among relatives the wedding would take place, usually in two weeks after the engagement. This practice must have been of Dutch Mennonite background and was transplanted from Prussia to Russia and America. The conservative groups in Mexico and Paraguay still adhered to it in some modified form.

In Europe the betrothal was much more serious than in the United States. Everywhere but Holland it was a religious ceremony almost as solemn as the wedding. In Holland it was announced formally in the church paper.

Author(s) John S Umble
Date Published 1953

Cite This Article

MLA style

Umble, John S. "Betrothal (Engagement)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 20 Jul 2024.

APA style

Umble, John S. (1953). Betrothal (Engagement). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 20 July 2024, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 318-319. All rights reserved.

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