Parental Consent to Marriage in Geneva

Wedding 1

In most cultures parental involvement in a child’s marriage was a given. Children assumed that the approval, especially of the father, was good and in  many cases necessary for a marriage to move forward. Geneva was no different. Eight of the first ten articles in Geneva’s 1546 Marriage Ordinance were devoted to parental consent. The prominence of parental consent issues in this document show the importance of the doctrine to John Calvin. Here is a summary of those eight articles.

1. Any son under twenty and daughter under eighteen years of age had to have the father’s consent to marry. After that age they were free to marry whom they wished though the father’s consent was still desirable.

The age at which a male could get married without consent was 20. For a girl it was 18. However, there was “no minimum age children needed to be to enter into marriage in the first place.” This was flexible. The child had to be able to bear or sire children and thus must be post-puberty. In theory, any time after puberty a child could be given consent to marry. In reality, the maturity of a child played a big role in when consent was given. I will look at this more closely in the next blog post.

2. If the father was dead, a ward or guardian could take the father’s place. Relatives of the child were to be consulted about a child’s marriage choice if the father was dead.

Pretty simple point here.

3, If two people under-age have entered into a secret marriage it can be dissolved at the parents’ or guardians’ request.

4. Secret promises to marry between under-age couples were not valid.

Note that the marriage “can be” dissolved in #3 at the parent’s request. It does not appear that it had to be

The authors make this note. “All the leading Protestant reformers allowed parents to annul their children’s secret engagements. The question that divided Protestants sharply was whether parents could annul their children’s secret marriages, too.”  By 1560 Calvin decided that secret marriages, which had been consummated, could not be annulled just because the couple was under-age.

The authors add

The medieval canonists used sacramental logic: even secret marriages could not be dissolved because they were sacramental. Calvin used prudential logic: Even secret marriages could not be dissolved because that catered to parental tyranny, left despoiled virgins vulnerable to spinsterhood, and consigned any children of the union to the bane of bastardy.

5. A father cannot withhold the dowry if a daughter above age has married lawfully, but against the father’s wishes.

Notice the restraint again on a father’s tyranny.  He could not refuse a dowry just because his daughter married someone he did not like.

6. A father cannot compel a child to marry against their will. If a young person refuses consent the father cannot punish them for this.

Here we have the reverse of #5.  Just as a father cannot refuse consent for petty reasons so a father cannot compel a child to marry against their will. See this post for how important free consent was in making a promise of marriage.

7. If a child rebels against their father’s will and marries badly the father can refuse to provide for the child.

This is the balance to #5 and #6. Children had freedom in who they married, but if it could be proven that they married a wicked or immoral spouse then the father had the right to refuse financial support. In other words, if a father refused consent for a legitimate reason, that is the potential spouse was immoral or wicked, then he could also refuse money. Who decided if it the father was being wise or petty? The Consistory and the civil magistrates.

8. A previously married child is free to remarry without the father’s consent though it is desirable.

Calvin felt that parental consent was essential in making the decision to marry. It gave the child guidance and direction in determining whom to marry. Here are few quotes from Calvin on the matter:

Since marriage forms a principle part of human life, it is right that, in contracting it, children should be subject to their parents, and should obey their counsel. This order is what nature prescribes and dictates.

It is not lawful for the children of a family to contract marriage except with the consent of the parents. And, certainly, natural equity dictates that, in a matter of such importance, children should depend upon the will of the parents.

However, Calvin was no fool and he knew the doctrine of depravity extended to parents as well as children. He often condemned men in the Bible, such as Caleb, for holding out their daughters as prizes of war without consulting them. Here are some quotes that show the balance between the consent of the child and the will of the parents:

Children should allow themselves to be governed by their parents, and that they, on the other hand, do not drag their children by force to what is against their inclination, and they have no other object in view, in the exercise of their authority, than the advantage of their children.

Although it is the office of parents to settle their daughters in life, they are not permitted to exercise tyrannical power or to assign them to whatever husbands they think fit without consulting them.  For while all contracts ought to be voluntary, freedom ought to prevail especially in marriage that no one may pledge his faith against his will.

Here is a quote from Theodore Beza, John Calvin’s successor:

Are children to agree necessarily with those in whose power they are? I reply that they are not forced since a free and fully voluntary consent is a first requirement for marriage. But still the respect owed to parents  and to those who take the place of parents demands that [a minor child] should not disagree with them, except for a very serious reason. But in turn, it is only fair that parents treat their children with moderation and not force them into this or that marriage against their will

Parental consent like individual consent was essential to a valid engagement in Geneva. A few closing thoughts on Geneva’s laws regarding parents involvement in the marriages of their children.

There is a wonderful balance, at least on paper, between the will of the parents and the will of the child. We tend towards extremes. Many evangelical parents have little say in who their children marry. They assume a child can make their decisions with little guidance. In reaction to this many family-centered types have made the will of the child of little consequence. If dad doesn’t like the boy then the daughter cannot marry him even if he is godly. In Geneva, neither the child nor the parent got to dictate. Both were to work together towards a mutually agreed upon marriage. Parents should be involved in whom their children choose to marry, even if the child has left the home. But the will of the parents does not trump the will of the child.

In Geneva, the father had real authority, but not absolute authority. In family-centered/patriarchal churches it is often assumed that whatever dad thinks must go. A father makes decisions about his daughter’s future and assumes there is no one above him to whom he is accountable. But in Geneva fathers would be chastised by the Consistory if they were exercising their power in a tyrannical fashion. Children could appeal to the Consistory if the father refused consent for selfish reasons. It was specifically said that if a child and parent could not come to an agreement then they should go to the magistrate. Beza said, “Severity of fathers in all aspects of their role should be shunned, and likewise fathers must be warned against abusing the power entrusted them by God.”  Patriarchy, as understood by the reformers, meant that fathers were accountable to the elders, the broader community, and the magistrate. The fear some have of patriarchy could be alleviated if there was more authority over fathers and if fathers submitted willingly to that authority. On the flip side, some of those anti-patriarchy folks need to remember that fathers do have real authority over their children. 

The above paragraphs show how Geneva tried to functioned as a community, not a collection of individuals. The decision to marry was not left up to the man and woman only, as is often the case in our society. The parents, extended family, community, state, church, prospective spouses, and of course God speaking in the Scriptures all had a say in who married who.  Today if one person “loves” another person that is assumed to be all that is necessary for a marriage to be formed. But in Geneva that would have been impossible. Outside consent was as necessary as individual consent. The decision to marry was built on the consent of the community not just on the feelings of the individuals involved