Premarital Sex in Calvin’s Geneva

I am continuing to work through Kingdon and Witte’s book on marriage in Geneva. 

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 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 generally bad. Today we are more interested in the perfect wedding than we are in getting married. However, getting married immediately or eloping is not the best choice. 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.” In other words, the wedding would get a lot more awkward.

This last method employed by Geneva raises questions that most Christians do not want to answer. Should a couple who waited to have sex until after they were married get treated the same way as a couple who fornicated?  Should there be some distinction made on the wedding day between virgins and those who are not virgins? In Geneva, even widows could not wear the traditional wedding wreath. 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? Why in the church is the fear of public shame for scandalous sin so low?

Fornication is not the end of the world, but it is a sin and a major one in the church these days. It should be publicly repented of in some way. I am not sure confession at the wedding is ideal. A regular worship service would work better. The fear of public shame by other Christians should be part of the equation. We have lost the value of shame in our age. Today Christian couples openly fornicate with little fear of shame or repercussions. At the very least they should try to hide it. Some might think open confession would lead to all sorts of long term shame. A friend might keep bringing it up. But a public confession would be a way of putting the sin behind them and moving on. Confession is a ways of getting rid of sin. Fornication is not adultery, but it is serious. There should be a public confession of sin. Beyond that we should think more carefully about how to curb sexual immorality in the church.

One thought on “Premarital Sex in Calvin’s Geneva

  1. This is absolutely absurd. Sex just is marriage.

    The Bible is very clear on that. You take her into your tent and she’s yours.

    If you have sex with your fiancé, it’s now your wife.


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