Advice number 7 of the Elders at Balby
7.-That as many as are moved of the Lord in his light to take a brother or a sister in marriage, marriage being honourable in all, and the bed undefiled, let it be made known to the children of light, especially to those of the meeting of which the parties are members: that all, in the light may it witness to be of God. And being by the light made manifest to be of God let them be joined together in the Lord and in his fear, in the presence of many witnesses; according to the example of the holy men of God in the Scriptures of truth recorded, which were written for our example and learning; that no scandal may rest upon the truth, nor anything be done in secret; but all things brought to the Light that truth may trample over all deceit, and that they who are joined together in the Lord, may not by man be put asunder, whom God hath joined together. That there may be a record in writing, (witnessing, the day, place, and year, of such things) kept within [that meeting] of which one or both of them are members; under which writing the witnesses present may subscribe their names, or so many of them as be convenient; for the stopping the mouths of all gainsayers, and for the manifesting the truth to all that are without.
Comment: To take a "brother or sister" in marriage meant, of course, taking another Quaker in marriage, not a biological sibling. It is my understanding that in this period only marriages within the established church were clearly recognized in law. That presented a problem for Friends, who regarded the established church as not a true church and not competent to perform or witness marriages. Some critics of Friends began to say that the Quakers were sexually libertine and that they "went together like rude beasts" as George Fox reported some had said. The Friends themselves, however, believed in marriage as a deep and solemn commitment that should be made before God and also in public. It was decidedly not enough that two Friends simply believed themselves to be married or that they made a private commitment between themselves. Rather they were to declare themselves to the meeting, and to proceed only if the meeting could "it witness to be of God". The wedding, when it took place, should also be public, and the parties should actually sign the promises they made to each other. This was not to be a temporary or provisional arrangement, nor to be lightly undertaken. It was to be done in the presence of God and "in his fear" and it was understood that those thus joined by the Lord could not "by man be put asunder".
Echoes of all this survive in the Quaker marriage meetings of today, in which the couple's promises to each other begin with the words "In the presence of God and these our Friends..." The degree to which the underlying assumptions of the early Friends are still understood and accepted may vary from Friend to Friend and meeting to meeting. I have sometimes (not often) felt that couples who came to my meeting looking for marriage have thought of the approval process as more or less a formality. I also know of some Quaker couples who have begun to regard themselves as married without ever seeking either legal status from the state or recognition by the meeting. Divorce, of course, is common and separation even more so. In this we share much with our non-Quaker neighbors. A rigid enforcement of the 17th century discipline would hardly solve these problems, only change their form. Yet surely something has been lost. This 7th advice seems to me one of the most challenging to Friends today. (And no, I do not think that marriage between people of the same gender is anywhere close to being our problem).
Labels: Balby advices