Divorce and Reconciliation During the Reformation

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Here is a quote on how marriage and divorce was handled in Geneva from Kingdon and Witte’s book. 

A marriage, once properly contracted, consecrated, and celebrated was presumed permanent. The married couple was expected to maintain a common home. Both parties could be called to account for privately separating-particularly if there was suspicion of adultery, harlotry, concubinage, or sodomy. Couples who ‘wrangled and disputed with each other’ were to be admonished by the Consistory to ‘live in peace and unity’-with severe cases of discord reported to the congregation for popular reproof or to the Council for criminal punishment. Husbands were forbidden to ‘ill treat,’ ‘beat,’ or ‘torment’ their wives, and were subject to severe criminal if they persisted. These sanctions became increasingly severe in later years as the Consistory and Council sought to clamp down on domestic abuse. The [Marriage] Ordinance made no provision, even in extreme cases, for the traditional halfway remedy of separation (without divorce). An ethic of perpetual reconciliation of husband and wife coursed through the Ordinance, with ministers, magistrates, and members of the broader community all called to foster this end.

What is meant here is not that the rulers would allow a wife to stay in a physically dangerous situation. What he means by “separation” is the freedom to live apart from one another without ever getting a divorce. This was common in the Middle Ages because the Roman Catholic church believed divorce could not be granted for any reason. Therefore husbands and wives often separated without ever divorcing. Protestant leaders would remove a woman from a dangerous situation, but this was not a permanent solution, unless it led to divorce. In every case, the assumption was the parties would either reconcile or divorce. 

In another Robert Kingdon book, Adultery and Divorce in John Calvin’s Geneva, he examines four cases of divorce in Geneva and what they can teach us about how views on divorce changed during the Reformation. Prior to the Reformation divorce was impossible. There were various ways to get out of a marriage including annulment and legal separation. But there was no official divorce.  Calvin and other reformers, including Beza and Vermigli, changed this during the 1500s. However, while divorce was permitted it was still extremely difficult to get one. The only reasons for divorce were adultery and desertion. Here are some thoughts from the concluding chapter of Kingdon’s book.

Divorce was now possible in Protestant Geneva, however, it remained difficult. A petitioner for a divorce always had to make a compelling case that adultery or desertion had occurred, a case that could withstand the scrutiny of a full trial.  It was never enough for a husband and wife simply to declare that they had become incompatible and no longer wished to live together…Furthermore, an attempt, sometimes quite strenuous was almost always made to persuade the couple to resolve their problems without divorce, to forgive each other, and in token of this fresh agreement to participate in a formal reconciliation ceremony.

Kingdon goes on to note that most divorces took a long time to be approved. In the four cases described in the book, one took two years, one petition for divorce had to be filed twice, nine years apart, and one man was separated from his wife for eight years before divorce was granted.  During Calvin’s ministry in Geneva (1541-1564) only twenty six divorces for adultery were granted and far less for desertion. In other words over the span of 23 years you had on average less than 2 per year. In other Protestant areas divorce, while allowed, was almost unheard of. Basel had less than three per year. Neuchatel had less than one per year . Zurich was around 5 per year. Kingdon goes on to say that from 1500-1592 there was .57 divorces per 1,000 people per year in Basel. In 1910 the rate was 55.8 divorces per 1,000 people per year. The point here is that despite Protestants opening the door for divorce it was still almost impossible to get one. Kingdon cites one author who says that widespread divorce rates did not take hold on continental Europe until the early 1800s.

All Protestants felt the innocent party in a divorce was free to remarry. Many, especially Beza who wrote a book on divorce after Calvin’s death, felt that the guilty should remarry as well. It would keep them from sexual immorality.

Kingdon adds that the death penalty was occasionally used on notorious adulterers, which would of course be a de facto divorce. However, this form of punishment was not common in Protestant or Roman Catholic circles.

Two points to note from this historical survey. First, how did we get to a place where divorce among Christians is rampant? We have lived with this for so long that we forget how odd it is historically and how terrible it is for children and society. Other issues such as abortion, sodomy, and the economy have crowded divorce out.  Still there are few things that would transform society as quickly as substantially lowering the divorce rate. No doubt it will take a long time (generations?) and a lot of work to walk it back, but the effort would be worth it in our homes, churches, and communities.

Second, why are reconciliations rare and abandoned so easily in our age? I think it is right to assume that the ease of divorce also lowers the reconciliation rate.  Yet even for those who are more liberal on divorce why isn’t reconciliation pushed? All the studies show that homes with the biological parents are better for the children. Just this should be enough to press reconciliation. Yet conservative and liberals alike give up so easily on reconciliation. The assumption is that if a couple is thinking about a divorce they are already too far down the path to be saved. We need to do better at putting on the brakes when it comes to divorce and laboring diligently to see husbands and wives reconciled.