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1957 Article


Marriage is the most intimate form of fellowship between man and woman, with the family the most ancient human institution. Marriage took various forms in the ancient world, was transformed and made sacred in Christianity as unbreakable monogamy. Marriage was taken by Paul (Ephesians 5) as a symbol of Christ's union with the church, and was to be only in the Lord. The relation between husband and wife was to be one of profound Christian love and mutual service, grounded in the relation of each to Christ. It was to be kept absolutely pure. Jesus taught that the indissoluble union of one man with one woman was an original part of God's creation, and could be broken only by adultery (Matthew 9). The equality of man and woman in the church and in the Christian faith as taught by Paul (Colossians 3) had a powerful elevating effect upon the status of woman in marriage and in society. Nevertheless the patriarchal type of marriage and family life continued to be dominant among Christians in the Middle Ages and on into modern times. The developing ascetic ideal of monasticism, by which celibacy was elevated above marriage as holier and preferable, interfered with the full realization of the Christian ideal in marriage. In the Middle Ages also the church developed the sacramental concept of marriage, which contributed to the absolute control of marriage by the church, with prohibited degrees of consanguinity.

The Reformers, while doing away with monasticism and celibacy, also abolished the sacramental concept of marriage. Luther especially pointed to its secular elements. Various ends were to be served. Households were considered fiscal units in the political structure of society. Marriage was a worldly business, so that Christians might even marry unbelievers (Luther, Vom Eelichen Leben, 1522). Anabaptist sentiments were truly in contrast to external interpretations of this sort. In Anabaptist tradition the marriage bond has always been valued as a mystical association and form of piety. This view and Anabaptist-Mennonite insistence on the community-bound order and service of the marriage union in Christian fellowship contributed in its way to the opposition against ecclesiastical controls. Their objection applied to Roman Catholic canon law as it did to later Protestant state church interference.

The Anabaptist emphasis upon personal choice and responsibility in matters of religion on the one hand, and upon strict obedience to the teachings of Christ and the New Testament on the other, strengthened measurably the moral character of marriage. By its consecrated view of life Anabaptism obliterated the sacramental marriage concept. It placed obedience to Christ in the first place, with three significant consequences: (1) because of the separation of the true (Anabaptist) church from the world and all other Christian groups, marriage was restricted to members of the group alone; (2) in case a marriage partner did not follow the spouse in joining the Anabaptists, some felt it would be right and necessary to separate from or even divorce the unbelieving partner, since otherwise there would be an "unequal yoke with unbelievers" (although this was by no means universal); and (3) the Anabaptist missioner felt obliged to leave his family to go on missionary tours if sent by the church. All of these attitudes and practices were subject to severe criticism by opponents in the state churches.

More severe, but unwarranted criticism was directed against the Anabaptists with the frequent charge (Zwingli the first) that they practiced communism of wives, or at least were guilty of gross immorality. These charges were pure inference from the purported Anabaptist teaching of community of goods and arose before Münster (1534-1535), and even before the Hutterite communities were established (1528-1535).

The Münsterites (1534-1535), however, introduced polygamy; but, except for the "King," Jan van Leyden, they were not guilty of the gross immorality which the vivid imagination of their contemporaries and later writers often attributed to them. The Münsterite regulations about marriage were clear and severe. According to the "Twenty-one Münsterite Articles," marriage with unbelievers (i.e., non-Münsterites) was strictly forbidden. Believers were to have a "new marriage," which of course opened the door to separation from "unbelieving spouses." Strict marital fidelity was required. Adultery, also seduction and rape, were punishable by death. Detmer has shown that the introduction of polygamy, although based on the example of the patriarchs and kings of the Old Testament, was due to Jan van Leydan's own personal decision, and that he had to break the opposition of the better elements and the preachers by long days of disputation. It was not a real part of even radical Münsterism. The apocalyptic mood in Münster, which recognized Jan van Leyden as a prophet, gave him great authority. He himself began the polygamy. He prophesied that the people of God must multiply, and enforced the rule that all men and women of proper age must marry and reproduce. The decline of the number of men in Münster made it easy (and necessary if the rule of all marrying was to be obeyed) for polygamy to be practiced.

Another dark case of a different sort which was wrongly exploited by Justus Menius was that of the "Blood Friends" (Blutsfreunde aus der Wiedertaufe) of Northwest Thuringia and nearby Hesse of 1550, which occurred in the latter days of Anabaptism in Thuringia. Led by Ludwig von Tüngeda this small group renounced the regular Anabaptist basic doctrines of baptism and the Lord's Supper, and declared that the true sacrament consists in the fleshly mingling of the brethren and sisters who are united with Christ, which they called "Christerie." Wappler (Thüringia) has shown that it is completely false to consider these apostates as a party of Anabaptists, since they had openly repudiated the main Anabaptist teachings. The Thuringian and Hessian Anabaptists, as Wappler and others have shown, maintained high standards of marriage ethics.

Marriage Among the Mennonites; The Marriage Problem in the "Separated" Organized Congregation; Forms of Courtship

It would be incorrect to call Menno Simons the most outspoken "ethical prophet" of Anabaptism merely because (1) in the stately series of his writings the most conspicuous place is occupied by his rejection of the lumping together of the peaceful Anabaptists with the warlike apocalyptic Anabaptists of Münster, and (2) Menno at the same time teaches the absolute principle of the suffering church. Much rather does his ethical significance lie in the fact that it was under his essential influence that the first congregational organizations arose. It was he who began to order the widely scattered groups according to a unified direction in a world of persecution. The strongly pietistic spirit that sets in with him is no longer borne and upheld by the mighty idealism such as that of the High German Anabaptists. Historically Menno's writings are an honest attempt to prove the innocence of those oppressed by suspicion, and so he is concerned in presenting the true concept of diose first Mennonites about marriage: how they base it entirely on the New Testament. "Every age has its own liberty and usages. Concerning marriage we are directed by the Lord Himself, not to the liberty and usage of the fathers . . . but to the beginning of creation, to Adam and Eve. . . . So we too teach, use, and consent to no other marriage, . . . namely one man and one woman. . . . They are one flesh and they shall not part from this and from one another . . . except for adultery. . . ." "Concerning the shameful vice that we are said to have our wives in common . . . the God-fearing would rather die ten deaths than do such a thing." Menno's contemporaries, such as Adam Pastor, wrote in the same vein.

But it was not this polemic that became historically significant for the Anabaptist position on marriage. Separation from the world, which was still stressed, even if no longer in the first fullness of conviction, took on a certain new stamp. No longer does immoderate enthusiasm stream into the congregations—it was in general broken under the armed resistance of the intolerant public powers. The separation of the congregations from the world in those places where in a sense their existence was assured, meant certainly a selection of those most purified in the Anabaptist concept of Christianity. Very soon this development into which original Anabaptism had been pushed from without and within, was bound also to determine the question of the marriage of members of the congregation.

Martyrdom, then as later, created and inspired a conjugal fellowship of consecration unto suffering and death. Here and there, however, groups of Mennonites could establish themselves in refugee settlements or otherwise shielded settlements. Under such less disturbed auspices marriage and its prerequisites were given a more elaborate interpretation and specific directions. As a possible gateway into the religious community marriage was now placed under conditions designed to preserve permanently the purity and resolute "separation from the world" of the congregations. Adam Pastor expresses himself (1 Corinthians 7:39) very precisely in this sense: that one is not to enter into a marriage with persons who are not of the Lord's house (i.e., outside the brotherhood): "That one take for marriage not a renegade partner who is without God but a believing partner who adheres to God." Dirk Philips stresses the importance of this marriage of the mind. He sets the congregation as the judge of one of the most essential problems which was to disturb the future of Anabaptism-Mennonitism for a long time to come. The ground to control the matter decisively grew out of the congregation's right of discipline. It lay in the hands of the "Diener" (elders and lay preachers), who were economically relatively independent of the congregation. This position, energetically defended by Menno, elevated the rules about marriage set by the congregation to a considerable height, guaranteed for the very reason that church discipline had been by that time made a basic regulation.

Under the penalty of the ban, marriage was to be concluded in the presence of the congregation and by its commissioned ministers. They examined the couple to be married, obligating them to the most important articles concerning marriage. Wedded thus "within" the congregation, marriage would undoubtedly be concluded "in the Lord." The fact that they had been married "before God and His holy church" was often enthusiastically affirmed in the confessions of Anabaptist martyr couples. "Outside marriage," i.e., marriage with an "unbelieving person in the world," is a later development fraught with much conflict. Dirk Philips' last writing and one of considerable influence (Van die Echt der Christenen, 1569), deals with the marriage of Christians on a Scriptural basis. In general the Mosaic law (Deuteronomy 7:3 ff.) is also cited by him, in order to confirm marriage with believers as an absolute goal. This regulation was applied with heroic and inexorable Anabaptist moral severity. When it was violated, reconciliation of the offender with the congregation was granted only when the unbelieving partner was "recognized," i.e., was received by baptism into the brotherhood. If this did not happen, the partner who wanted to be reconciled had to "desist from" the unbelieving partner. The Flemish branch (including Dirk Philips) took a position similar to that of the Frisians. They "do not accept those who were married outside the brotherhood however long and sincerely they lament, seek, write, ask, and beseech, but all their life long have to remain separated from their brotherhood, or the unbelieving one with whom one is married must become believing or die." The Waterlander branch did not share this stern concept, having accepted the Wismar resolutions (1554) with their freer spirit: "The persons who marry outside the congregation shall be excluded and avoided until they show an upright and Christian life before God and the brethren; then after a period of trial they shall be received again."

It is conspicuous that "mixed marriage" was always considered as a conflict from within, as a threat to purity, but not as a threat to the existence of the brotherhood. Such a fear did not seem to exist; at least it was not expressed. The concept, spread particularly by the fanatical David Joris, that the marriage of true believers would finally bring forth the kingdom of God, had apparently found a convinced following in the very circles of Menno. Wherever it arose there was, however, no thought at all of the dangers mentioned above. In general, the following contradictory views of marriage can be observed among the Dutch Anabaptists:

(1) One position was the absolute marriage law of the severe Frisian type, oriented according to the Old Testament, in which marriage was allowed only among church members. Not until later did the custom develop of acceptance into fellowship only after they have been rebaptized. At first the expulsion of offending members was relentlessly carried out and this law applied even and precisely against members of less strict congregations.

(2) A second position was a moderated marriage law oriented according to the New Testament, definitive in the sense of the resolutions of Wismar and Strasbourg (1555 f.), represented especially in the Waterlander branch, by which persons marrying outside the brotherhood were again received after giving evidence of "upright Christian life before God and the brethren," and were excluded only until such evidence was produced.

The Concept of Cologne, a document of unification of some (Young) Frisians and High Germans of 1591, to be sure, still breathes the old severity of concept, but also speaks against a ruthless solution and thus approaches the New Testament marriage law: "We confess also out of the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament that no freedom is left to a believer to marry anyone except one who has become with them through faith a member of the body of Christ and a brother or sister. . . . Transgressors ... are worthy of punishment before the congregation and one shall have no brotherly unity with them [to be excluded from communion], unless one feels a worthy fruit of penitence and repentance; they are to be admonished to observe faithfully their marriage vow, neither to leave their spouse nor to conclude a second marriage."

The Dordrecht Confession of 1632 breathes the spirit of the Old Testament law as it does in other points where it represents a violently dominating reaction toward all previous efforts of unification on the basis of milder premises. It says: "Like as the Fathers had to marry among their brotherhood or race, so also believers of the New Testament are permitted no other freedom than to marry among the elect race and spiritual brotherhood of Christ, namely those who are already united with the brotherhood as one heart and one soul, have received one baptism and stand in one brotherhood, faith, teaching, and life, before they are united through marriage." Such unions were then called "marriage in the Lord."

In the Amish congregations in America, among the Mennonites in Switzerland and France, and among the Mennonite Brethren in Russia this last concept had prevailed in part to the mid-20th century. In the negotiations for unification between the Amish and Mennonites in the Palatinate in 1873 a basic stipulation was made that marriage between members of these congregations shall not be opposed by either group. The West Prussian rural congregations practiced the marriage law oriented by the Old Testament until the end of their existence. Thus Article IX of the confession of faith of the Mennonites of Prussia of 1895 says: "When a member marries outside our branch this act is considered a voluntary separation out of our brotherhood. The position of the Gemeindeverband is more moderate. In the case of mixed marriages in the congregations composing it, if the promise to raise the children as Mennonites is not given, the Mennonite partner is considered as excluded from the congregation."

For a considerable part of the Mennonites the confession of Cornelis Ris of 1766 is valid; it became definitive for the Mennonite congregations in Russia, for some urban congregations of North Germany, as well as for the Mennonite congregations of the Palatinate and Hesse. The spirit of its marriage law, completely oriented according to the New Testament (Article XXXI), is as follows: God also controls human marriages "but in such a way that human freedom is not annulled thereby, be it that He institutes it graciously according to His kindness, or be it that He legally permits it in disfavor and for punishment." Marriage is therefore to be "an affair in which man is permitted to proceed in his freedom in so far as God's holy requirements do not limit it; as this is clearly shown in the prohibition of marriage with unbelieving persons. . . ." Further examples are cited from the Scriptures. Incidents of divine displeasure are pointed out, where the evil and the dangers of carnal marriages in which one follows only the impulses of nature are presented. "Therefore it is exceedingly important that whoever wants to enter the state of matrimony shall examine himself well and not decide before he is convinced in faith and with a good conscience that in this decision he is pleasing the Lord Christ. Those who marry thus can with reason hope that it is taking place in the Lord. . . ." If a marriage is thus begun, "the man who is the head of the wife, . . . shall be a worthy image of Jesus Christ in his relationship toward his church . . . the wife will become blessed through bearing of children, her seed will be blessed, and all things will serve them for the best. But to be happy herein we consider it necessary in so far as it is at all possible, to remain in one's own religious brotherhood, in order to avoid the many unpleasant consequences that usually arise out of differing education, manner of living, and points of view in the teaching of children and other things, which is often discovered too late. . . ." For young people it is proper and useful to ask advice of parents, besides God and close relatives, and to obey them, "but all in the fear of the Lord."

In more recent times there were other reasons than purely religious strivings for preventing marriages outside the brotherhood. In West Prussia release from military duty for Mennonites was limited to those who, for example, could prove that they had for several generations occupied land without military duty. Anyone who married outside the brotherhood lost his Mennonite right to release from military duty. On the other hand the Prussian state also prevented the increase in the number of Mennonites by prohibiting transfer of membership from other groups to the Mennonites. The congregations maintained themselves at a definite limited number. With the repeal of the privilege of release from military duty the greatest part of the congregations of West Prussia were quite ready to permit marriage with members of other Christian creeds. On the other hand it is known that Swiss Anabaptists in the principality of Montbeliard about 1710 married Calvinists in order to be able to stay in the country. To what extent the regulation of the authorities that change in creed be affirmed by an oath was effective (for the Anabaptists who had only apparently become Calvinistic) is unknown.

Two closely related motives determined the nature and manner of courtship by withdrawing the right of the individual to choose his marriage partner and transferring it to the elders or other ministers of the congregation; for the guarantee of a marriage of faith on the one hand, and for the preservation of the moral purity of the congregation on the other hand. "Youths and maidens shall not go about together too freely," says the introductory sentence of the second article of a resolution of a conference of Frisian congregations which had to be announced annually between 1639 and 1716. Another motivation also effective as a pattern was the formal adoption of customs out of the holy Scriptures as was inherent in Anabaptist Biblicism. This was most pronounced among the former Swiss Anabaptists in the Vosges area of France. Their courtship was accomplished in a most complete analogy with Genesis 24. In the place of the servant who went out for Abraham to win a wife for his son, the deacon ("the Steckelmann") mounted a horse for his mission even if the bride's house was the very next one. Then the traditional customs were repeated, such as presenting a drink, gifts, etc. And the result of the commission was indicated by the attitude expressed by the bride. This drastic usage of Biblical imitation has never been found in any other group than in this remote one in the Vosges region.

In all the Anabaptist-Mennonite groups of whatever religious and ethical shading, there was at least the custom that preachers or elders functioned as commissioned wooers. He who did not accept this arrangement was subject to church discipline. This custom was practiced most severely in those places where mixed marriage was opposed with the sharpness of the Old Testament law. Card van Gent reports from the Flemish congregations that about 1600 among them the arrangement of weddings was diligently and dictatorially exercised by the ministers. In the Flemish and Frisian congregations at Danzig the stipulations seem to have been less sharp; there the courtship was not exclusively the affair of the leaders. In 1765 it was announced to the brotherhood that the ancient, praiseworthy habit of using two men to make the proposal of marriage, who after a week or two of time granted the prospective bride for reflection returned for the decision, had fallen into decline. The practice that some bridegrooms proposed for themselves, and others even became engaged without the knowledge of their parents, was punishable. (See Umbitter.)

The decision concerning the so-called "obstacles to marriage" was in the hands of the church or secular authorities, but it was not only conditions of a religious kind which were also decided in the congregations. Thus there was almost everywhere a prohibition of marriage of cousins. There was no lack of efforts to renew this prohibition. The great conference at Groningen in 1683, which argued for two days concerning granting an exception, is well known. Almost half of the over 100 preachers out of 29 congregations had "with concern" voted in its favor. The decision was then left to the congregation concerned. Also the Ibersheim (Palatinate) conference of 1805 had the question of the marriage of cousins on its agenda, but came to no conclusion. At that time the prohibition had already been frequently disregarded.

Relations between the fiancés generally were kept under the severity of church discipline. In harmony with the Mosaic laws offenses against chastity were to be punished as adultery.

The equating of the engagement vow with the marriage vow had already very early given rise to difference of opinion, especially between Adam Pastor and Dirk Philips. The latter was more lenient, saying, "Not the mere vow alone binds the marriage, because things may lie concealed which cause the marriage vow to be ineffective." He recognized the need that there be an inclination and attitude of the heart, but "they shall not be married earlier than is favored by the Lord and His church." That the brotherhood would recognize only a marriage concluded before it and through it was already a strictly executed demand of the Swiss Anabaptists. The solemn modesty of Mennonite marriage customs is pictured in travel accounts out of various Mennonite areas. Another common phenomenon of the Mennonite congregations was early marriage. It is interesting to note, for example, that the enlargement of the area of the city of Krefeld in 1738 was caused in part by this fact. A new building plan was recommended to the king on account of the prospective increase in the number of households, most of whom at that time were Mennonite.

The Anabaptist-Mennonite Attitude on the Indissolubility of Marriage; Divorce; "Marital Avoidance" as a Problem of Church Discipline

The command of Jesus (Matthew 5:32) which names adultery as the only possible ground for divorce becomes a point of judgment repeated in all the Mennonite creeds. The Wismar resolutions give the unfaithful one the right to return to the spouse upon repentance and reform. In the case of "premeditated" (mutwillig) adultery, the innocent party might marry again after consultation with the congregation.

An increasingly serious question was whether unbelief entering into the marriage did, after all, part the marriage. The booklet, Concerning Divorce ("Von der Ehescheydung auss den worten Christi . . ."), attached to the Confession of Schleitheim (1527) says nothing more than that divorce may be based singly and alone on adultery. But it was precisely unbelief that had a decisive effect on a wide circle of South German Anabaptists.

Considering the well-organized and politically isolated communities of the Hutterian Brethren, it seems inevitable that the unbelief of a marriage partner must be recognized as a reason for divorce. About 1550 this was considered as justified, especially in consideration of the need for training children in the "true faith." Now it is very evident that this severity had its source in the threat to the communistic system (Gemeinschaft) imposed by an unbelieving partner. For unbelief means certainly a criticism of this "Gemeinschaft," which was indeed the very heart of the faith of the Hutterites. Divorce was allowed, then, for protection and for resistance. "The believing partner is not obliged by conscience to cling to a renegade from the faith and from the community. If he nevertheless associates with such an one he becomes unclean and ceases to be in the brotherhood." The later compromise also has meaning in this sense: that a living together of believing and unbelieving marriage partners is permitted "only outside and near the brotherhood." In the case of danger to the believer in such a case the shepherds and guardians of the "Lambs of Christ" could then point him back to the brotherhood.

It was inevitable that there where the preservation of the pure "community of the saints" (Gemeinschaft der Heiligen) was striven for with full earnestness, church discipline also began to shape marriage fellowship. But then there could be no more serious consequences of inward and outward division than those phenomena which attended the conflict concerning theory and practice of "marital avoidance" (Ehemeidung). It meant nothing less than that the faithful spouse had to avoid all communication with a marriage partner who had been punished by the brotherhood. The question of being received back again was to be decided by the brotherhood. At times the wedding was repeated. Furthermore children were to be taken away from parents who had both been excluded. Marital avoidance had an effect so much the more ruthless since that punishment of expulsion could be simply the consequence of any offense that had been vainly warned against repeatedly. This kind of divorce for the reason of unbelief was a phenomenon peculiar to Hutterites. The regulation regarding marital avoidance had no connection with it. A reference in the Gemeindeordnungen of 1640 (Ehrenpreis) which were to reform certain lacks, shows that the regulation was finally evaded in practice.

Among the Dutch Mennonites the conflicts about marital avoidance were most violent in the middle of the 16th century. At the Emden conference of 1547 Adam Pastor and Francois (Frans) de Kuiper rejected the application of marital avoidance, whereas Menno Simons wanted to see it applied (though not as a severe general rule). "See to it that in this matter you do not try to bring any one farther than he is taught in his heart by God: In his conscience is able ... to bear and to feel." This is in agreement with Point 3 of the Wismar resolutions. But Menno Simons was not able to put his milder point of view across. Leenaert Bouwens, who actually expelled a woman who wanted to stand by her expelled husband at least spiritually, defeated him and also Dirk Philips.

The High German circles resisted as early as the Anabaptist conference at Strasbourg in 1557: "It is still the sincere wish of the Brethren assembled that they would like to advise that man and wife should separate for reason of the ban, for then more damage and sin would follow than praise to God and the winning of souls." Menno, who had yielded to the influence of Bouwens, based his reply on the heavenly marriages between Christianity and our souls which are to be maintained unbroken. Therefore neither father nor mother, neither husband nor wife, may yield to any disobedience against his word even in the least. God alone should be the master of our conscience, and not our father or mother or husband or wife. Zylis and Lemke, the delegates of the "High Germans," opposed him in person and in writing, basing their argument on the word of the Lord (Matthew 19:5, 6) repudiating marital avoidance as an abomination. In Menno's reply to Zylis and Lemke he complained about this. The break between the High German and Low German Anabaptists was accomplished. Menno is said in his last days to have deeply lamented this fact. The High Germans remained steadfast in their rejection of the effectiveness of church discipline on marriage. In the Frankenthal disputation of 1571 the Mennonites answered the questions whether the ban and unbelief separates a marriage: "We believe that nothing may part a marriage but adultery. But if the unbelieving one for the sake of the believing one wants to part, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7, I let them part. But we believe that the cause for the parting shall not lie in the Christian."

Buruma reports the consequences which the harsh position of Bouwens and his associates produced after Menno's death in Holland. Those who favored banning entered at night the homes of those who had been banned and took the marriage partner away from the screaming children. "Many a man could not for a long time, others throughout their lives, find out what happened to their wives." Then the divisions began. Among the Frisians Lubbert Gerrits represented the opinion, which was soon to become dangerous to him, that the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation contain no confirmation of marital avoidance. Then when he was banned, the party of the Young Frisians formed itself about him, who "no longer wanted to fight against the Word of God." In the older Frisian party the Jan Jacobs group was formed in order to maintain the most severe position in marital avoidance.

In the last decade of the 16th century gradually a general moderation set in. The Concept of Cologne (1591) rejected marital avoidance. The economic consequences of the practice of marital avoidance were lamented in an anonymous document of 1612, the Vriendlijcke Aenspraeck: "How many households have been rained by marital avoidance! How many lost their sustenance . . . because the husband or the wife was penalized and could not go along with the congregation to communion!"

The state soon set itself in opposition to such damage to family life. In 1597 the States of Friesland prohibited the execution of the ban which usually entailed complete divorce, and other avoidances in civic and domestic relationships.

It has not been sufficiently investigated whedier the division of the Swiss and Alsatian Mennonites into Amish and Reist branches was caused in part because of the requirement of marital avoidance, but thus far no evidence has been found to that effect. At any rate that division (1693-1697) revolved around separation according to 1 Corinthians 5:11. Jakob Ammann thought that the "true Christian order was lost to some extent" in this point in the Swiss churches. Feetwashing and avoidance were, at least until 1800, special practices of the Amish, who took them along to America. Among the Old Order Amish in America to this day marital avoidance was practiced in the mid-20th century, though it was relaxed in the milder groups.

Marital avoidance among Mennonites was one of the most peculiar events in the history of Christianity. It meant really a temporary separation, although the defenders of the use of avoidance specifically repudiated this argument. In addition to religious doubts concerning marital avoidance, the danger of adulterous acts was warned against which might break the marriage completely. In general, no definite influence of marital avoidance upon the development of the laws of divorce can be proved.

The Anabaptist-Mennonite Marriage and the Legal Demands of "State and Church." Typically Political-Legal-Religious Conflicts and Their Solution

Only in the occasional struggle in behalf of nonresistance, is there a record comparable with the matter of marriage in the history of religious intolerance of Anabaptist Mennonitism in faith and matters of conscience. Out of the abundance of the facts, to date little investigated, only several typical phenomena regarding intolerance by the state regarding marriage will be presented.

In Zürich, the original Anabaptist area, all means were tried to subdue Anabaptist obstinacy. As early as 1526 an Anabaptist "register" was introduced for people who refused to have their children baptized. A regulation soon followed according to which only those marriages solemnized in the church were to be valid. When the Anabaptists did not concern themselves about this, the government declared the children of marriages not thus solemnized in church as illegitimate and deprived them of their rights of inheritance. This regulation was valid for a long time. Even in 1614 one of the Anabaptist leaders (Hans Landis) was sentenced to death partly on this basis, because he resisted the government by a marriage independent of the government. Bergmann shows that the Anabaptists, through their "solemnizing of marriage," brought about an extensive reform. Until the Zwinglian reformation and after it, marriage was considered legally valid merely by the spouses living together. But then the great morals mandate of 1530 (which was to remove the cause for Anabaptist criticism) ordered a "going to church" before marital association.

Concerning the canton of Bern, Ernst Müller reported similar developments. Even in 1661 when the Anabaptists were called to account for their refusal to have their marriages solemnized in the church they answered, "This isn't necessary." The fact that the authorities regarded their marriages as a concubinage and withdrew the inheritance rights of the children did not trouble them. As late as 1810 the council of Bern invalidated a marriage performed by a Mennonite preacher. The legal rights of domicile, relationship, and inheritance have recently again been made dependent on the proclamation and solemnizing of the marriage by the local state church pastor.

The unconcern with which the Swiss exiles, e.g., in the Palatinate, "allowed themselves to be married in their small conventicles," evoked angry attention on the part of the Reformed Church Council of Heidelberg. One of the first court documents (1655) regarding Mennonites protests that "one very recently dragged a woman into his house under the pretense that she was his wife, although nobody knew where and how they were married." Then the Church Council expected that the Elector would soon prevent such offensive evils. But reports increased, stating that the Anabaptists, in disregard of the mayor and the pastor, without previous proclamation, and contrary to the law of the country, performed marriages. In 1662 an electoral mandate was issued requiring that those who had let themselves be married without a proclamation were to be fined three guilders, and future cases 18 guilders. Soon afterwards this penalty was reduced to 12 guilders, i.e., factually a fee was set at this sum. Somewhat more light on the marriage laws affecting the Palatine Mennonites in the early 18th century is found in connection with the negotiations in the case of several (very few) transfers to the "tolerated religions." "Mixed marriages" did not occur, i.e., "before errors were renounced" no Anabaptist person was permitted to be married to a member of one of the tolerated religions. The result was that among the Mennonites it had actually become a custom to persuade the clerk of the court (Oberamt) to produce proclamation certificates on the basis of which they could perform their own marriages. At least there are no official records of obligations on the part of the pastor, although there were protests against the infringement by "Oberamt" proceedings. A generally valid Palatine regulation for Mennonite marriage affairs seems not to have existed. In general here, too, the ecclesiastical power interest retreated behind the financial interest of the state. Also the distribution of the Mennonites over many areas, each with differing laws of marriage, put them into a varying legal situation though nevertheless into a favorable one. The Mennonites were treated uniformly only in matters of separation such as the Reformed marriage law at Heidelberg. But a strict Mennonite church discipline, and the effort to handle legal problems as much as possible within the brotherhood, prevented such cases from occurring.

In the Margraviate of Baden-Durlach the Anabaptists emigrating from Bern (after 1710) found more tolerant conditions than in the Palatinate. In 1729 it was decided that marriages were to be announced to the Oberamt which was to conclude the marriage contract after an examination; this was to be done in writing in the presence of a state church pastor. The pastor thereby was merely to say: "God bless your marriage, and be mindful of your duty," and to abstain from all ceremony and prayer. Under like conditions the Anabaptists were free to be married in a church in any case by a Protestant clergyman. But they seem not to have taken advantage of this privilege.

A "most submissive petition" presented by the Mennonite congregation of Hochberg in 1747 shows graphically how even these mild regulations did not fit the Mennonite religious customs. The fact that they were to be asked officially whether they were thinking of marrying one another "contradicted their regulations, which are ordered only according to Divine Scriptures." "He who was seeking a wife would name to the elders of the congregation the person in whom he had confidence. These should then act as fathers who advise their children. If no serious objections arose it was then decided when the persons in question must make their declaration before the whole congregation. Thereupon after the weal and the woe of the married estate is presented to them from the Word of God they are asked if they are minded to marry one another." If a free "yes" should follow on both sides, then a minister would immediately perform the wedding ceremony in the name of God. Up to this moment the two could still leave one another, "although in such a case the withdrawing party is not without censure of the congregation in order thereby to prevent all libertinism." Against this custom received from their fathers the official decree was in absolute contradiction. "We must previously lead our newly betrothed persons into the chancellory and there have their finished betrothal reported officially before it has actually happened; since a real betrothal on their own authority without reference to the congregation is not free to them, they may not even call it a betrothal." A matter so sacred should be handled only before God; therefore the helpmeet would be sought for them by the congregational leaders. The presenters of the petition added that in their brotherhood no vagabond and unknown people would be married, but only such as were incorporated into their meeting. In this manner all disorder would be prevented. The repeated Mennonite proposal that "immediately after the marriage some of the leaders of our brotherhood obediently announce themselves to the electoral Oberamt and answer all questions concerning the newly married orally or in writing," was "once and for all" rejected by the authorities. Nevertheless within the jurisdiction of Baden-Durlach certain valuable rights of custom were granted to the petitioners. The marriage regulation prescribed to them was applied in only a few localities. Usually an official marriage certificate was drawn up for a small fee, and the time and place of the wedding announced to the clerk. A part of the Mennonites of Baden thus actually enjoyed the right of "civil marriage," more than a century before its general introduction within the German Empire. In marriage affairs the Protestant marriage laws were valid for all the Mennonites of Baden, to be sure. But in the first decade of the 19th century a ducal decree accorded the Mennonites equality and fully released them from any connection with the established church. In so far as at first the marriage registers were kept for the Mennonites by the pastors, the latter performed this duty as state officials and not as church officials. Soon thereafter Mennonite church officials were allowed to keep the records of births and deaths of their members. In the cases of marriage they had to testify to the secular authority the age of the betrothed persons. The betrothed had to appear within the courthouse, and upon a fee received official consent to let themselves be married in their own manner. It is noteworthy that in 1804 in the neighboring (Austrian) Breisgau "six Anabaptist fathers" were denied equal status with their brethren by the government of Baden. Soon the Peace of Pressburg transferred Austrian Breisgau into Baden. The Mennonites in the territories of the Palatinate, etc., owe the benefits of freedom and tolerance principally to the French Revolution of 1789. (See Emancipation.)

In Prussia the entanglement of the Mennonites in obligations to pay church fees was solved much more slowly. The edict of 1789 concerning the future establishment of the "Mennonite concerns" ordered taxes which were paid, in part at least, until the revolution of 1918. Until the Civil Marriage Laws of 1875 were established it remained the legal duty of the state church pastor to keep marriage records, as for instance in Danzig. The Krefeld Mennonites owe their release in 1738 from state church taxes and the right to proclaim marriages themselves, to the mercantile interests of the Prussian king, especially his friendship for the von der Leyen industrialists. In Neuwied the Mennonites did not object to the proclamation of their marriages in the Reformed Church, nor was any obstacle put in the way of the performance of Mennonite weddings.

In the Netherlands, noted for its tolerance, the Mennonites had for a long time little freedom in this respect. The Reformed state church held the sole right of performing valid marriages. To the extent that Mennonite congregations claimed the right to perform legal marriages independently, they were compelled to conform to the state law. Only in a few cities such as Dordrecht, Leiden, Haarlem, and Vlissingen, did the respect for the Mennonites socially gradually give them independence. The first to receive the right for their own fully valid marriages were the Frisian congregations. In Groningen and Overijssel as late as 1601 the right of inheritance was denied to all couples married outside the Reformed Church. Meanwhile, however, the right of performing marriage ceremonies was gradually granted to other creeds. A necessary condition was notification to the magistrate. On Sunday at the city hall the couples of the religions "that were only tolerated" were to present themselves— Catholics, Mennonites, Jews, etc. There a legal marriage consent was then given with the words of the sheriff: "God bless your marriage, don't forget the poor." The strict groups of the Mennonites had the congregational ceremony precede the civil ceremony. Sections of the more liberal groups recognized the official civil marriage of its members without a proclamation or ceremony of their own.

A comparative study of the laws which concerned the legitimacy of Anabaptist and Mennonite marriages up till the time of the recognition of civil marriages could proceed in a unified way in the following manner. First, one would test the legal status in comparison with the degree of freedom of conscience, i.e., the extent to which freedom of conscience had become a positive legal right. Of necessity, in this connection, the actual relationship between the church and the state would need to be clarified. It is by no means the case that the so-called separation of church and state, which on the whole did determine the relationship between the state and the Mennonite congregations, guaranteed freedom of conscience. Thus for example in Prussia the Mennonites were invited for economic reasons, and were "tolerated" in a sort of "law of separation," often, however, under strong objections by the church. Corresponding to these on the side of the state were the efforts for the preservation of the greatest extent of religious unity possible. The relatively tolerant Prussian General Law of 1794 still contains the obligation for the members of merely tolerated religious societies to have their marriages recorded by the privileged churches. A degree of consideration is given the Mennonites in that they were assigned to churches most closely related to them (Lutheran or Reformed). The incorporation of official records of the marriages of the adherents of non-state church groups in the records of the state churches is the main point; the fees charged were another element. Freedom of conscience and religion, as far as it concerned marriage law (marriage obstacles, laws of divorce), found a guarantee in the general laws of Prussia to this extent that the adherents of all creeds were considered equal. In the Palatinate and Baden-Durlach a customary right of Mennonite marriages is to be noted, the grounds of which have not yet been clarified, which recognizes no interference by the state church. The ecclesiastical marriage laws, however, remained unaltered. The attainment of full recognition and equalization by the Mennonites was slow in progress. The law of the German empire of 6 February 1875, recognized the purely civil nature of the registration of marriages, and thus eliminated any control by or favor to the state church.

In 1653 the English Anabaptist "Independents" achieved the same principle. The tolerated continental Mennonites strove for religious independence and responsibility, while subjecting themselves to the regulations of the dominant church concerning the laws of marriage. In the 1870s when there was a struggle in Germany concerning an obligatory civil marriage some of their leaders, especially the West Prussian Mennonites, had some doubts about the introduction of civil marriage laws. The fear of a depreciation of marriage which seemed to be increasing was countered by the favorable experience of the Palatine Mennonites who were subject to the civil marriage regulations of the code of Napoleon. Soon, however, the West Prussian Mennonite congregations decided to consider members as excommunicated who were married only according to civil law. For some time, in consideration of changed circumstances, the Mennonite congregations there were advised to use the marriage formula of the Protestant church synods.

Fundamentally the Anabaptist-Mennonite view of marriage reflects and represents the concern for the voluntary "community of the saints." In this perspective marriage is seen as its germ cell. It is cared for and cultivated as a religious "Gesinnungsehe," a community of the spirit. Marriage and the family are submitted to rules of conduct arising from the New Testament and are also dedicated to the principles of the Sermon on the Mount. The example of persecuted and martyred couples and families has, from the beginning of Anabaptist-Mennonite history, testified to their religio-ethical traditions, discipleship, and discipline. Issues of various kinds sprang from contacts and conflicts with the "world." Insistence on a community-bound Christian fellowship in marriage and family caused strong congregational measures for protection and preservation, including orders of separation (marital avoidance).

The Anabaptist-Mennonite Marriage concept, positions, and conflicts in relation to it, the customs and folklore of many cultural backgrounds constitute other (external) aspects of study and evaluation.

Marriage and family life within the full scope of the Anabaptist-Mennonite movement still awaits its historian. Archival and other documentary records, numerous monographic including biographic inquiries are now put at the disposal of researchers into expanded or new fields as at no other moment in historiography. Important criteria testing the essence of pertinent principles have been provided in H. S. Bender's classic Anabaptist Vision, Here then are the prerequisites needed to overhaul, to construct, and to reconstruct an edifice of world-wide Anabaptism's contribution in the history of Christian culture.

As these remarks are to stress that which is genuinely meaningful in the concept, status, and custom of marriage in Anabaptism, reference is also made to Robert Friedmann's signal work on the Hutterian brotherhood. He has assembled and studied nearly all the essential sources. The article Ehe (Mennonitisches Lexikon I) in some little measure gave attention to the central role of the Hutterites. Friedmann's separate treatment of the views and practices of their Haushaben society is a deeply appreciated substitution for my endeavors in the early 1920's. Finally, it should be said that the above article deals chiefly with the European continent. The original study touched on the English Anabaptist influence on religious and secular developments. Irvin Horst's discussion of the Anabaptists in England (Mennonite Encyclopedia II) has opened the way for a thorough exploration of the Anglo-Saxon significance of the view of marriage, the family, and laws pertaining to the status of women.

Mennonites in North America

The European Mennonite immigrants to America brought with them their well-established marriage ideals and practices. But since the restrictions and regulations imposed by the state churches in Europe upon the "sects" were not imposed in the new free world of Pennsylvania and the other states of the United States and the provinces of Canada into which the later immigrants came and to which internal migration took place, there was a noticeable evolution in regard to marriage. While the prohibition of outside marriage was long maintained, it has now disappeared among most Mennonites of all branches; it is still maintained in all the most conservative groups, and in the 1950s even in such a progressive group as the Bergthal Mennonite Church in Manitoba. In practice most marriages were within the group, but where more outside marriages take place, weakening influences upon essential Mennonite doctrines and practices have been observed. Courtship customs have likewise changed to free selection of partners through a period of relatively free and unchaperoned courtship.

High standards of marriage fidelity and lifelong monogamy were maintained in the mid 20th century, with divorce almost unknown and separation rare. Marriage laws varied from state to state, and also in the Canadian provinces, but the European custom in some countries of having a civil and a religious ceremony was unknown. Everywhere a religious ceremony performed by a clergyman was permitted, and in fact a civil marriage was almost unknown among Mennonites. In earlier days, in certain regions, such as the province of Ontario, Mennonite ministers seldom secured the right to perform marriage ceremonies, so that Mennonites frequently went to authorized clergymen of other faiths for the ceremony. In Ontario also the publishing of the banns (advance announcement in the church of the intent to marry) was long required. This custom was long prevalent in the 18th and 19th centuries among both Mennonites and Amish in the eastern states, and is still followed by the Old Order Amish. Prohibition of marriage between cousins has at times been the subject of church regulations in various Mennonite groups. Among the Old Order Amish the rule is still maintained that only bishops may perform a marriage ceremony. This has been true among other groups as well, but in modern times it is common to permit ministers without the full bishop or elder authority to perform the marriage ceremony. -- Ernst H. Correll and Harold S. Bender

(See Divorce; Family; Marriage, Hutterite Practices; Marital Avoidance; Intermarriage; Weddings.)

1990 Update

In order to discuss contemporary Mennonite marriage beliefs and customs it is important to recognize the considerable variations among the 20 separate Mennonite, Amish, Hutterite and Brethren in Christ denominational bodies. These variations stem from the degree of modernization that has transpired. The most conservative groups still hold to traditional norms of belief and behavior, while the more liberal groups conform to much of the prevailing culture of the larger societies within which they are located.

It is helpful to conceptualize a conservative-liberal continuum along which the separate bodies can be arranged, with Hutterite, Old Order Mennonite, and Old Order Amish groups at the conservative end and such groups as the General Conference Mennonites, the Mennonite Brethren Church, and the Evangelical Mennonite Church at or near the more liberal end. In between are the Beachy Amish Mennonites, Old Colony Mennonites, Conservative Mennonite Conference, Sommerfeld Mennonite Church, Mennonite Church, Brethren in Christ, Church of God in Christ (Holdeman Mennonite), and the several additional small groups.

In North America, customs originating in the 19th century and earlier (e.g., parental approval of choice of spouse and publishing the banns) are still found among the most conservative groups, while most of these customs have been lost among the liberal groups.

It is also necessary to recognize variations in beliefs and practices within each Mennonite, Amish, or Hutterite group, primarily among the more liberal groups which tolerate wide variations. For example, recent empirical studies reveal a lack of uniformity among church members as to the meaning and permanence of marriage. Whereas conservative members tend to reject divorce completely, the more liberal members and groups accept divorce for reasonable cause and, in some cases, accept remarriage by a divorced person while the former spouse is still living.

The Anabaptists rejected the sacramental view of marriage but held the marriage covenant in high esteem, basing their views on New Testament passages which compare marriage to the mystical union of Christ and the church (Ephesians 5). The marriage covenant was seen as second only to the spiritual covenant between the person and God. Even today, the practice of the ban among the Old Order Amish still includes, in the case of a wayward or unbelieving spouse, the marital avoidance rule, which signifies that the marital covenant is subservient to the person-God relationship as interpreted by the church authorities. In a Hutterite wedding ceremony the young man must promise that in case he should lose his faith and leave the colony, he will not cause his wife to follow him.

Among less conservative groups, however, marriage of a Mennonite to a non-Mennonite, although formally or informally discouraged, does not invalidate the Mennonite spouse's church membership. Indeed, among the most liberal groups, the spouse's commitment to the Christian faith is viewed as more important than membership in the same denomination, reflecting recent greater openness to ecumenical views.

In the Mennonite Church (MC) in the first half of the 20th century the writings of Daniel Kauffman attempted to elevate marriage to one of the "ordinances" of the church. However, the 1963 Mennonite Confession of Faith (MC) did not refer to marriage as an ordinance, but states simply that God instituted marriage, and that "It is God's will that marriage be a holy state, monogamous, and for life." The Confession of Faith in a Mennonite perspective (1995) has an article on "Family, singleness and marriage" but also avoids the concept of "ordinance."

In all Mennonite denominations marriage is celebrated as a religious event and as a spiritual covenant, performed by an ordained minister, bishop, or elder, and viewed as coming under the aegis of the church. The degree of control over marriage varies with the degree of conservativeness of the specific Mennonite denomination. Among Mennonites in North America a civil marriage ceremony is almost unheard of, if it occurred it would generally be assumed that the principals were not in good standing with the church, as in the case where the remarriage of a divorced person was not approved. In northwest Europe typically the state requires a civil ceremony. Mennonites comply with this requirement, but normally follow with a religious ceremony under the auspices of the church.

Where churches have been established as a result of Mennonite missions in Africa, India, and southeast Asia, the church has struggled to bring marriage under its auspices and control. Traditional marriage is controlled by the family and kinship group, and western ideals of Christian, church-sponsored marriage ceremonies have been accepted only gradually, to a greater extent in some areas (e.g., East Africa) than in others. Western missionaries, including Mennonite missionaries, rejected polygamy, and African church leaders have generally accepted this, although not always wholeheartedly. Western missionaries were less united in opposition to the African custom of giving bride price, often tending rather to work toward reducing and standardizing the price in order to eliminate or minimize the more commercial aspects of traditional marriage negotiations between the families of the bride and groom. Parental control over mate selection has been gradually reduced under church influence, although this, as well as the giving of bride price, still continued to some extent in the 1980s.

North American Mennonite views on the permanence of marriage were revealed in the results of surveys in 1972 and 1989 of members in five Mennonite and Brethren in Christ denominations (Kauffman and Harder, 1975; Kauffman and Driedger, 1991). In 1972 77 percent of the respondents viewed marriage as "a lifelong commitment never to be broken except by death"; this slipped to 72 percent in 1989. In 1972 another 22 percent checked "a lifetime commitment, but may be broken only if every attempt to reconcile disharmony has failed"; this increased to 27 percent in 1989. Only 1.3 percent took a more liberal view, holding that marriage may be terminated if the couple is not compatible or one partner wished to break the marriage. This percentage remained constant between the surveys.

Mennonite marriages are exogamous with respect to close kinship as required by law. No state or province in North America permits first cousins to obtain a marriage license; some states deny a license to "first cousins once removed." Cousins of more distant relationships occasionally marry, especially in communities (such as the Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonites) where kin groups are large and lines of descent are more intertwined. Hutterites actually prefer to marry one of their distant relatives rather than a person who is unrelated.

Among Hutterites and the Old Orders, marriage to a person who has not joined their group is not permitted. Less conservative Mennonite and Amish groups discourage intermarriage with persons of other faiths, but the more liberal Mennonites are less likely to make this a serious issue. All groups urge their members to "marry in the Lord," meaning a person of similar faith.

The more liberal Mennonite bodies have declared themselves as accepting interracial and interethnic marriages, so long as the parties are of similar faith. Nevertheless, such marriages often have rough traveling, due to the informal prejudices that exist in local churches and communities and to the cultural differences that exist between the spouses themselves. When asked about marriage between Christians of different races in the 1972 five-denomination survey, 16 percent responded that it is always wrong," and 44 percent considered it sometimes wrong." With respect to the "marriage of a Christian to a non-Christian" the responses were 42 percent "always wrong" and 45 percent sometimes wrong."

Marriage Rates

Data on marriage rates among North American Mennonites is limited, but support the following conclusions: (1) Mennonite men marry in larger proportions than men in comparable national populations, (2) Mennonite women marry in somewhat lower proportions than women in national populations, and (3) the proportion of Mennonite women who never marry is high but declining in recent decades. Of the responding 1972 church members over the age of 45, 1.6 percent of the men and 9.3 percent of the women had never married. A 1982 census of Mennonite Church (MC) congregations yielded proportions never married, for person 45 years and older, of 2.5 percent for men and 12.5 percent for women. Apparently more men than women leave their Mennonite backgrounds, by marriage outside or otherwise. Among the Hutterites few persons remain unmarried. For the population aged 30 years and over as of 1950, only 1.9 percent of the men and 5.4 percent of the women had never married.

Age at Marriage

The median age at first marriage of the 1972 American Mennonite church members was 23.1 years for men and 21.6 years for women; for Canadian Mennonites it was 24.3 and 22.7 years. The national medians in 1971 were 23.1 and 20.9 for the population of United States, and 24.9 and 22.1 for Canadians. Hostetler reports that the median age at first marriage among the Old Order Amish is just under 22 years for women and just over 23 years for men. Thus the Amish marry at average ages very similar to American Mennonites. The median age at marriage for Hutterites who married prior to 1950 was reported as 23.5 for men and 22.0 for women, only a few months older than for the Amish and Mennonites. In all three groups, the average age difference between husbands and their wives is 1.5 years. The age of marriage in the 1989 survey dropped slightly both for men and women.


As in most societies, Mennonite, Hutterite, and Amish weddings are high occasions -- high in religious meaning and in social celebration. Among the Hutterites the marriage ceremony is appended to the Sunday morning worship service, following the preaching. The couple is called to the front of the congregation where they respond to several questions put by the bishop or preacher, receive the blessing, and are pronounced husband and wife. The wedding meal follows and the congregation continues to visit throughout the afternoon. The wedding is simple, in that no special clothing or formalities are required, no money is spent for decorations, special musicians, or photography. The social interaction, however, is elaborate, as it includes relatives from a distance, and it is a great time for the young people to interact, even to court. It is significant that the wedding ceremony always conforms to the traditional pattern and the couple has little to do with the arrangements or the content of the proceedings. Tradition and group prerogatives leave no place for individualistic preferences.

Old Order Amish weddings are all-day celebrations, occurring normally on a weekday, often Thursday, which allows more time for elaborate meal preparations. The marriage vows follow a long forenoon worship service, and the remainder of the day and evening is spent in informal festivities, visiting, and playing of games by the youth.

Among the more modernized Mennonite groups, weddings tend to take on the special features of typical Protestant church weddings. The wedding is a ceremony unto itself, often on Saturday, and requires much preparation and some practice, so that all the proceedings may be executed with precision. The couple tends to carry the major responsibility for planning the wedding, with the counsel and assistance of the bride's parents, friends of the couple, and the officiating minister. Elaborate preparations will be made with respect to the attire of the couple and their attendants, flowers and decorations, arrangements for photography, special music during the wedding and reception, and all the food service preparation that accompanies the reception. The couple in some cases may even write and deliver their marriage vows, so as to seemingly control the content of the pledges they make to each other. This is a matter of concern in some churches, lest the marriage ceremony avoid a pledge to be faithful "until death do us part."

Among the more traditional groups the marriage officient will be the bishop or other head minister. In the more modernized groups, the couple is permitted the choice of the officiating minister, who may be a relative or friend of the couple, and not necessarily the pastor of the congregation in which the marriage takes place. Most weddings are performed in the church building, although occasionally in a home or special chapel. Traditional weddings highlight the sermon, which often emphasizes the pitfalls and problems of marriage and the need of divine help to sustain a faithful marriage until death terminates the union. More modern weddings tend to shift the sermon to a short meditation, with emphasis on the themes of love and communication in marriage, enabled by the love of God and his indwelling spirit.

Marital Relationships

It is generally agreed that modernization (urbanization, industrial and technological development, and rationalization) has made a significant impact upon Western family systems. The gradual extension of the principles of democracy and social equality has affected the family in many ways, notably in the decline of patriarchy and the advocacy of sexual equality in marriage. Urbanization and the extensive employment of married women have promoted greater overlapping of husband and wife roles. The immediate rewards of career development outside the home have, for many women, supplanted traditional status achievement through homemaking and childrearing.

Farming societies tend to be patriarchal, since farming is a family enterprise headed by the husband-father whose leadership, if not domination, tends to permeate family affairs both on and off the farm. Until the middle of the 20th century, Mennonites were largely farmers, and patriarchy naturally prevailed, supported by many societal customs and laws that circumscribed the roles which women were allowed to fill. Urbanization, the decline of patriarchy, and the increased employment of wives have affected the quality of husband-wife relationships.

Over the past 60 years family sociologists and psychologists have made many empirical studies of the quality of marital relationships. Burgess and Wallin (1953) pioneered in developing models for the investigation of husband-wife relationships. Following their lead, Kauffman (1960) studied the quality of husband-wife and parent-child relationships in 149 Midwest Mennonite (MC) families. A principal objective was to determine the extent of patriarchy among Mennonite families and to discover whether the trend to equality in marriage was beneficial or detrimental to family interpersonal relations.

Kauffman's survey data revealed that about one-third of the Mennonite families were definitely patriarchal (husband-led or husband-dominated), almost a third were slightly patriarchal, and in another third the husbands and wives claimed equal sharing of authority. A few families may be described as mildly matriarchal, in that the wife tended to make more of the decisions than the husband. On the average, farm families were more patriarchal, while non-farm families evidenced somewhat more democratic and equalitarian characteristics. Decision-making patterns varied widely within both residence categories, indicating that factors other than residence were important also in determining the distribution of authority. It can be concluded that Mennonite marriages are gradually becoming more equalitarian, particularly under the influence of recent societal emphases on sexual equality both within and outside marriage.

A principal finding of the survey was that scores on the husband-wife relationship scale tended to average somewhat higher for equalitarian marriages than for patriarchal ones. Similarly, scores on a child-parent relationships scale averaged somewhat higher in the more equalitarian families. Thus it was concluded that, insofar as family interpersonal relationships are concerned, the trend away from patriarchy is beneficial. Other findings indicated that the child's perception of parental love was more important in the child's positive development and success in life than the level of parental control (whether strict or lenient) which the child experienced.

Mennonite marriages appear to be more successful than marriages generally in the national populations. At 1980s divorce rates, approximately 40 percent of all first marriages in the United States will end in divorce. Canadian rates are lower. Data on Mennonite families is very limited, and completely lacking outside North America. The 1972 church member survey indicated that fewer than two percent of all married church members had experienced divorce. This increased to almost 4 percent in 1989. Probably some persons who divorced have left Mennonite churches. The 149 Midwest Mennonite marriages studied in 1956 were revisited in 1979. Only one couple had divorced, and another had separated, in the intervening 23 years. As of 1979 these families had 554 living children, aged 15 to 41. Of those who had married, 11 percent had divorced or separated from their first spouses. Of those married children who were members of Mennonite churches, 7 percent had divorced. Of those ever married children who were not members of any church in 1979, 39 percent had divorced, about equal to the national rate. It is clear that divorce rates among Mennonites are increasing and that the rates are inversely related to church-relatedness.

From the responses of the 149 Mennonite couples in 1956, it appeared that about 10 percent were less than happy in their marriages. This is substantially less than the percentages (around one-third) indicating unhappiness in studies of married couples by Burgess, Locke, and other investigators in the United States. Areas of disagreement between husbands and wives were probed in the 1956 study; the most frequently mentioned were "wife's working outside the home," "disciplining the children," and "ways of dealing with relatives."

Another area of frequent disagreement was "sharing household tasks." This adds to the evidence that, as in marriages generally, Mennonite spouses are caught up in the prevailing debates over sex role identities and gender equality, both within and outside of marriage. Two views can be posited as to how the goals of sex equality might be ultimately achieved. The prevailing view among North American activists is that gender equality in marriage can only be achieved when wives share equally with husbands in career development outside the home. For wives to achieve this, husbands need to share heavily in household tasks and in child care (if there are children). It may be that full gender equality can never be achieved in this manner, due to a combination of gender differences in biological functions (childbearing in particular) and gender prejudices and preferences, particularly on the part of tradition-minded husbands.

Another alternative would be to continue traditional division of labor between the sexes while contending that homemaking and childrearing are equally praiseworthy, rewarding, and status-conferring with career development outside the home. This traditional view holds that motherhood and childrearing are a high calling to be preferred to "having to work outside the home." In view of current widespread sentiments, this traditional view would be regarded by many as curious, if not ridiculous, particularly by parents who have concluded that childrearing is troublesome at best and more likely annoying or frustrating.

Have Mennonite sentiments been swept along with these currents of thinking in the larger society? Unfortunately we do not have solid evidence to answer this question definitively. There are signs that traditional values are still preferred, particularly by the Amish and other conservative groups. Familism is still strong in those quarters, but the social forces of urbanism, individualism, and secularism appear to be molding the sentiments of more liberal Mennonites, particularly in educated circles, in favor of career development and self-enhancement of both husbands and wives over the traditional sentiments of "family first."

What conclusions can be reached in regards to the relationship between sex role identity and marital success? If permanence of the marriage bond is the highest virtue, then traditional patriarchal societies rate best. If the quality of husband-wife relationships is of greatest importance, then the more modern equalitarian type of marriage rates highest. Permanence of marriage in traditional societies appears to be bought at the price of circumscribing the role and authority of women in marriage. Equality of sex roles appears to be purchased at the price of ever-rising divorce rates. Already ultraconservative religious voices want to preserve marriage solidarity by restoring more patriarchal and, as they see it, more biblical norms of husband-wife relationships. At the other extreme are the voices of Christian humanism who emphasize self-development and sex equality in marriage without looking seriously at their possible effects on marital stability. Like others, Mennonites are caught up in the dilemmas of these often contradictory viewpoints. The debates are likely to increase rather than diminish.

Is there a middle way -- a Jesus way? Can somehow the best elements of both views be brought together? If God is love, the infilling of his spirit should enable all persons of spiritual commitment to permanently maintain their marriages. Even if a marriage is threatened by some wrongdoing, the invocation of divine and human forgiveness should prevent the disintegration of a marriage among those who claim to be God's children. Mennonites have sought to be peacemakers and finders of middle ways. The challenge is to find marital permanence through spiritual means -- the practice of love, tenderness, and service as modeled by Jesus, avoiding the self-seeking, power-seeking human inclinations to dominate others. -- J. Howard Kauffman

See also Divorce from Unbelievers


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Author(s) Ernst H. Correll
Harold S. Bender
J. Howard Kauffman
Date Published 1987

Cite This Article

MLA style

Correll, Ernst H., Harold S. Bender and J. Howard Kauffman. "Marriage." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1987. Web. 30 May 2024.

APA style

Correll, Ernst H., Harold S. Bender and J. Howard Kauffman. (1987). Marriage. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 30 May 2024, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 502-510; v. 5, pp. 539-543. All rights reserved.

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