Young Quakers were under surveillance from courtship through members’ approval and witnessing of the ceremony. A Quaker’s spouse had to be another member of the Society of Friends.
Quakers believed non-Quaker marriage ceremonies were improper because a human was presented as God’s authority, vested with the power to perform a marriage. They felt that only God could form so sacred a union.
Courtship a Community Concern
Courtship was under a watchful eye. Most “worldly” entertainment was forbidden. Courtship usually took place in the parents’ home or at gatherings of the Society of Friends. One girl was disciplined for “encouraging a man to court her…too soon after the death of his wife.”
Once a couple decided to wed they needed approval from all the parents. That consent gained, the couple went before the Quaker women’s meeting; later, that meeting sent formal notice to the men’s meeting. Next the couple announced intent to marry before the men’s meeting. Then the men’s meeting consulted with parents and got their written approval.
If one partner came from a different meeting, the men’s meeting got from that group a “certificate of cleanliness” stating there was no previous engagement or moral turpitude. At a second men’s meeting, a committee reported its findings. This started a waiting period during which men could digest the findings and members could state objections. The marriage was often approved at a third men’s meeting. This was called “passing the meeting” and meant wedding plans could proceed.
The Quaker Wedding
The wedding was usually a modest affair. During a mid-week meeting, bride and groom would rise. Taking his bride’s hand, the groom would recite: “In the presence of the Lord and this assembly, I take thee____, my friends, to be my wife, promising through divine assistance to be unto thee a faithful and affectionate husband until death separates us.” The bride made an identical pledge and they signed a wedding certificate in the presence of an elder.
The certificate was read aloud and everyone present signed it. Signatures of the parents were usually at the top of the right column. Certificates were filed with public authorities and recorded in minutes of the next Monthly Meeting.
Not Fit for Marrying
There were times when a couple was denied the privilege of marrying. This was often because a prior engagement was discovered, a couple was too closely related–marriages between first cousins not being allowed–or because one of couple was not a Quaker. Some second marriages were aborted because one spouse had not been widowed long enough. A one to two-year mourning period was the norm.
If there were children from a first marriage, a committee made sure their inheritance was protected. If permission to marry was not granted and the couple was married by a Justice of the Peace, they were often disowned. Sometimes the couple could come back to the meeting, condemn their misconduct, sign a statement acknowledging wrong-doing and request the meeting’s pardon. If it was accepted, they would be reinstated and their children born into the meeting.
With all these hoops the couple had to pass through, chances of finding records of a Quaker ancestor’s marriage or disownment are very good.