This post is a revision of a post titled “Courtship in Geneva” based on John Witte Jr and Robert Kingdon’s book Sex, Marriage and Family in John Calvin’s Geneva: Volume 1, Courtship, Engagement, and Marriage.
Marriage was done differently 500 years ago than it is today. Today many, if not most marriages are arranged by the two parties with little consideration of what their parents or other adults might think of the proposed spouse. Often the path that leads to marriage is taken by the two parties alone. There is very little parental instruction to the young people on how to proceed. From the youngest years dating dominates our interaction with the opposite sex and usually our closest advisers are peers. This usually means that the choice of a marriage partner is driven by a fluttering heart or an excited body instead of reason, discretion, and prudence.
But it has not always been so. In John Calvin’s time romantic interaction with the opposite sex was supposed to be reserved for when a person could physically and financially marry. When a couple began to seriously consider marriage they were usually overseen by their parents or guardians. In the third chapter of Witte and Kingdon’s book they explore this process of courtship in Geneva.
In Geneva, courtship did not take an exact shape. Calvin gave a few courtship rules such as no sexy dressing, unsupervised trips, overnight stays, dancing, “ribald letters,” and premarital sex. But as to the exact way a courtship worked out there were no strict rules. The parents were involved. There had to be free consent of both parties. There parties were to be honest about their financial state. But the details of courtship were a matter of wisdom. “While the Bible said a great deal about the sins of fornication, it said little about the ethics of courtship.” Since Scripture is largely silent on the specifics of courtship, so was Calvin. This is an important point for modern courtship advocates. I believe courtship is the model most rooted in Scriptural principles. There are general guidelines, which should govern courtship. However, the specifics should be left up to the parents, couple, and church. Those specifics will flex from family to family, community to community, and age to age. To say, “This is how courtship must be done” is to go further than Scripture.
While how a couple courted was left vague, who they courted was not. There were two issues. First, who could they legally and biblically marry. There were “conditions, experiences, or relationships past or present [that] disqualified [certain parties] from courtship and marriage.” It was forbidden for certain people to marry certain other people and in some cases people could not get married at all. This idea is explored in later chapters of the book.
Second, a potential spouse’s moral, physical, and socio-economic status were to be evaluated. Christians were expected to think through these factors before pursuing marriage. A potential spouse’s moral character was most important when determining whether or not to marry. A person with moral failings, such as laziness, a bad reputation, or sexual immorality should not be pursued. Someone of a different class should not be pursued either. An educated man should not pursue an uneducated woman. A rich woman should not consent to marry a poor man. The elders at Geneva would not have necessarily forbidden such a marriage, but they would have strongly counselled against it. They felt marrying in the same class would give the couple the greatest chance of success. Reformers were especially wary of young men marrying rich widows. All of this backs up what Steven Ozment says about the Reformation approach to marriage.
While moral and class issues played a large role in courtship, Calvin did not ignore the physical side of it either.
Physical beauty was thus properly part of the natural calculus of courtship and marriage, Calvin believed. It was not ‘wrong for women to look at men.” Nor was it ‘ wrong for men to regard beauty in their choice of wives’…It was thus essential to Calvin that couples spend some time together before considering marriage…If there was no natural and mutual attraction, there was no use for a couple to go forward toward marriage. Accordingly, Calvin opposed the late medieval tradition of arranged or child marriages, sight unseen.
The authors conclude the chapter with this,
A strong pro-marriage ethic and culture was the new norm of Reformation Geneva…One key to a strong marriage, Calvin insisted, was picking the right mate-a person of ample piety, modesty, and virtue especially, of comparable social, economic, and educational status as well. A mate’s physical beauty could play a part…but spiritual beauty was the salient issue.
There is one funny anecdote in the chapter. Calvin was a bachelor for quite some time. In fact, he had all but given up getting married when someone suggested an Anabaptist widow named Idellette, whom he eventually married. Calvin’s good friend Farel wrote to him saying that she was an excellent wife, filled with all godly virtue and to his surprise she was pretty as well. Was Farel surprised that such a godly woman could be so pretty? Or was he surprised that a man like Calvin could land such a pretty woman? I am betting on the latter, but unfortunately we do not know.