Premarital Sex in Calvin’s Geneva

I am continuing to work through Kingdon and Witte’s book on marriage in Geneva. At the bottom of this post you can find the other articles.

Chapter 12 addresses how Geneva approached the period of time between engagement and marriage, including how premarital sex was handled, as well as desertion during the engagement. This post will only address premarital sex. 
This time included heightened sexual tension therefore the “Genevan authorities regulated this perilous interval in some detail.”  One of the difficulties Geneva ran into was that they treated this period like a marriage except you could not have sex. For example, if an engaged woman slept with someone who was not her spouse to be, it was adultery, not fornication. To get out of an engagement was like getting a divorce. Yet despite all these trappings of marriage, a couple was still supposed to refrain from sex until the wedding day. 

Geneva tried to curb premarital sex between engaged couples in several different ways. First, you had six weeks to get married once you were engaged. If a couple failed to do this they would be called in to give an account for the delay. If they persisted they could be forced to marry.

If a delay is bad, why not get married immediately? Calvin felt this deprived the community of an opportunity to participate in the wedding. It also gave little time for examination of the marriage in case there were problems that needed to be sorted out, such as previous marriages or financial contracts.

Of all the rules and regulations in Geneva, this is one of the wisest. Long engagements are bad for couples. Today we are more interested in having the perfect wedding than we are in actually getting married. But I also think getting married immediately or eloping is not the best choice.  Many couples, especially conservative Christian couples, think long delays are bad. Therefore they assume that getting married as quickly as possible is the best option. But elopement can leave out the family, the church community, and friends. I am not sure six weeks is the perfect time frame, but even three months sounds good.

The second way Geneva tried to curb premarital sex was that if a couple slept together during their engagement they were fined and put in prison for three days, unless the woman was pregnant. If she was pregnant they made her come into church on Sunday and confess her sins before the congregation and ask for mercy from God. The fact that women got pregnant during their engagement shows that the six week gap was the ideal, but was not always held to.

The third method of curbing this behavior is the most interesting.  Geneva eventually reached a place where if a couple fornicated during engagement they had to confess that sin at their wedding. First, Geneva decided that brides who fornicated would not be allowed to wear the traditional wedding wreath, a sign of purity, upon their heads. This was not enough of a deterrent. So Geneva drafted a resolution stating that if a couple fornicated before marriage the minister would “make a public declaration of their fault” at their wedding and the couple “will acknowledge their offense when they are married in the church.”

This last method employed by Geneva raises awkward questions that most Christians do not want to answer. Should a couple who waited faithfully to have sex until after they were married get treated the same way as a couple who did not wait, but fornicated?  Should there be some distinction made on the wedding day between virgins and those who are not virgins? Should scandalous sins be confessed publicly and if so how should it be done? Are their other ways of indicating unfaithfulness, besides public confession? What role does the forgiveness of sins play in this scenario? Does forgiveness mean the sin is never brought up again? What role does the fear of public shame play in preventing future sins?

Previous Posts
General Overview of the Book
An Overview of Marriage Prior to Calvin
Calvin’s Attack on Marriage as a Sacrament
Consent to Marriage in Geneva
The Desire for Reconciliation Instead of Divorce
The Power of the Consistory in Geneva
Courtship in Geneva
Coercion to and Conditions of Marriage in Geneva
Parental Consent to Marriage in Geneva
Impediments to Marriage in Geneva
Economics of Marriage in Geneva