Impediments to Marriage in Calvin’s Geneva

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

A new concept to me in this book was that of impediments to marriage. It means exactly what it sounds like: reasons that prevent someone from getting married or can be used to annul an engagement or marriage. Chapters 6-9 cover various impediments to marriage. Here they are in my own words:

1. Children who have not reached puberty could not marry.
2. The insane or mentally impaired could not marry.
3. Someone engaged to one person could not marry another.  This was polygamy.
4. Lack of presumed virginity could prevent a marriage.
5. Contagious & incurable disease that would be passed on to the spouse and children could prevent marriage.
6. Men or women incapable of having sex could not marry.
7. Wide disparity in age could also prevent marriage.
8. People too closely related (incest) could not marry.

I am not going to work through all of the material in the book, but I wanted to bring up a few points from the reading. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Consent, Coercion, and Conditions to Marriage in Geneva

Marriage certificate

“In Calvin’s Geneva, as much as today, marriage was a contract between a fit man and a fit woman of the age of consent.  It was, of course, much more than a contract: it was a spiritual, social, natural, and economic relationship that could involve many other parties besides the couple. But marriage was never less than a contract. It could not be created unless both the man and woman consented voluntarily to this union.”

So begins Witte and Kingdon’s fourth chapter on marriage in Geneva. In this chapter the authors explore how Geneva dealt with coerced marriages or false promises of marriage that were never fulfilled. Continue reading

Choosing the Right Spouse in Geneva

Courtship

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.

The Power of the Consistory in John Calvin’s Geneva

Here is the latest post in a series I am doing on John Witte and Robert Kingdon’s excellent book Sex, Marriage and Family Life in John Calvin’s Geneva. This post more than others is simply historical, giving a basic outline of what the Consistory was and how it worked. If you want further explanation you can read chapter 7 in Calvin’s Company of Pastors. 

In 1538 John Calvin was exiled from Geneva. For the next few years he lived in Strasbourg where he learned from Martin Bucer and preached. In 1541 the city of Geneva asked him to return. One of the demands he made if they wanted him back was the creation of a institution to oversee the Christian discipline of the population of Geneva. Calvin’s request led to the creation of the Consistory, a church court that oversaw the discipline of the citizens of Geneva. The Consistory became the primary ecclesiastical tool to deal with the sins of the people.

The Consistory was made up of around 2 dozen men, which included pastors, elected officials, and Calvin,the moderator. It met every week on Thursday with sessions that could last for several hours. The Consistory had spiritual authority, but no civil authority. It could and often did recommend that the civil authorities look into a situation. Some situations, such as murder and rape, never came to the Consistory, but went directly to the civil magistrate.  Continue reading