"I Now Take Thee" Weddings in Calvin’s Geneva

Wedding 2

Here is another post on Kingdon and Witte’s book on marriage in Geneva. 

Eloping or getting married without a public wedding ceremony has become a trend of late. As the value of our wedding vows have diminished through divorce and fornication so too have wedding themselves become passe. Weddings are still big business, but many couples are choosing to avoid ceremonies all together.  In Geneva there was no eloping.

In Geneva “Marriages without weddings were invalid.”  You could not be married without a public ceremony presided over by the pastor and witnessed by the congregation. “Marriages that had been secretly contracted or improperly celebrated elsewhere had to be announced and celebrated anew in a church wedding in Geneva.” The couple, the church, and the magistrate all had to consent to the marriage before the wedding was performed. Here was the process:

Once the couple got engaged they had six weeks to get married. If they did not get married within six weeks they would be called in to give an account for the delay.

They would take a set of “banns” to get signed by the magistrate. Banns were “written announcements of the pending wedding.” This announced had to be approved by the city of Geneva.

Assuming the magistrate signed the banns they would be read in church for three consecutive Sundays. This would give anyone who had an objection a chance to bring a halt to the wedding or at least post-pone it.

The wedding could be celebrated any day the congregation gathered to hear the Word preached. Preaching happened several times a week. So the couple was not restricted to Sundays, though Sunday weddings were common. Weddings were performed prior to the worship service.

On the day of the wedding, the bride if she was a virgin wore a veil. She could also wear a wreath of flowers unless she had committed fornication with the groom. The groom and groomsmen would go to the bride’s house and collect the bride and the bridesmaids. The bride would have flowers as would the bridesmaids. They would march two by two to the church with the groomsmen in front, the bride and groom in between, and the bridesmaids last. The congregation would assemble at church with the wedding party waiting at the door. When the minister got up front the wedding party would enter. The wedding would then be performed followed by a worship service. Following worship the couple would then go to the groom’s home for a celebration.

“Public wedding ceremonies could be followed by private wedding parties, provided the parties were modest in size and moderate in decorum. Wedding hosts and guests found guilty of excessive dancing, drinking, and debauchery faced firm spiritual and civil sanctions.”

The authors say this, “A central point of Calvin’s marriage theology [was] that marriages were at once public and private, spiritual and temporal, ecclesiastical and political in nature.”

The Same

The similarities between this and modern weddings is striking. Engagement. Announcement. Wedding in a church presided over by a minister. Reception/Private party after the wedding. Approval before or after the wedding by church, state, and often the family. Even though wedding services are not attached to worship like they were in Calvin’s time, they usually include a sermon. All in all the flow is similar to conventional weddings.


However there are also some differences to note.

First, engagements were very short. This was designed to prevent premarital sex. But it probably also curbed excessive spending.

Second, it is interesting that the women wore different things based whether or not they were a virgin or had fornicated with the groom to be. In previous post I noted that if a couple slept together before marriage they had to confess that sin at their wedding. Only a virgin could wear a veil. Even a widow who was remarrying could not wear a veil.

Third, I really like it that the groom goes and gets the bride. While our tradition has the groom not seeing the bride before she comes down the aisle, the symbolism of the groom getting the bride is more Biblical. I am not sure how that would work practically in our culture and time, but the idea is cool.

Fourth, while in our times families, churches, and the government all have some say in a marriage there is not the unity between these parties that there was in Geneva. We have no consensus on what marriage even is, much less who should enter into it. This means different groups are often pitted against one another. The state might say a marriage is fine while the parents and church say no. I am studying how the interaction between the state, marriage, and the church has changed over the years. Not sure much can be done about in our age, but perhaps we can lay the groundwork for a better system for our children and grandchildren.