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Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Plain and Simple: A Colonial Quaker Wedding

Horsham Friends Meeting – Horsham, Pennsylvania

If you’ve lived in the United States for any length of time, chances are you believe that all weddings in this country are officiated—either by a minister, a justice of the peace, or another qualified individual. It’s the law, right? Well . . . no.

Even today, after 360 years in the United States, the Society of Friends (also known as Quakers) has members who still choose the traditional Quaker route to married life. No minister. No bridesmaids or groomsmen. No walking down the aisle to Pachelbel’s Cannon. In fact, much of their ceremony reflects an interminable tenet of Quakerism: silence.

While some Quakers now choose to marry in a ceremony similar to that of other modern-day Americans, many still hold tight to tradition. So what does a traditional Quaker wedding look like? It actually starts about two months (occasionally more) before the actual wedding. Let’s take a trip back to 1750s Pennsylvania and have a look.

Our young Quaker couple—we’ll call them Isaac and Elisabeth—have been close friends all their life. While Quakers believe that friendship, respect, and companionship is a solid foundation on which to build a marriage, Isaac and Elisabeth’s love has grown into much more than friendship. They decide to marry, and to do so, they must follow prescribed steps to be “married under the care of Meeting” (quotation marks implies traditional Quaker speech, much of which has been used for centuries):
  •         “Parental consent”: The first step is to obtain consent to marry from both sets of parents. Without parental consent, the Meeting will rarely marry a couple. If the parents are in “agreement” with the marriage, the next step is taken.
  •          “Intention to marry”: The couple then writes a letter to their Friends Meeting (or Meetings, if they don’t belong to the same Meeting), declaring their intention to marry.
  •          Business meeting: The clerk of the Meeting(s) reads the letter at the next business meeting (Friends hold “meeting for worship with a concern for business” one First Day [Sunday] of each month), and a “clearness committee” (usually two men and two women) is “appointed.”
  •          Clearness committee: The committee visits with the couple individually and jointly to ascertain that nothing would interfere with the happiness and permanence of the marriage. (If two Meetings are involved, the overall process can take longer since both Meetings must “investigate” their attendee’s spouse-to-be.) If the committee fears that marriage would not work for one reason or another, it would deny the couple the ability to be married under the care of Meeting. The couple’s options are then to not marry, to work with the Meeting’s elders/overseers/clearness committee until it is agreed that the couple may to marry, or to marry “out of unity” or “contrary to discipline” (meaning be married in a non-Quaker church or by a justice of the peace, etc.—during this time period, the couple would then be disowned by the Meeting*).
  •          Business meeting: Assuming the clearness committee (or committees) agreed that the couple should be married, that would be reported to the Meeting at the next meeting for business, which would be the following month. The clerk of Meeting would grant the couple permission to marry, and the committee’s next responsibility would be to “see that the marriage is accomplished.”

Isaac and Elisabeth attend the same Meeting and have been cleared to marry, so the next step is the actual marriage. Traditionally, Quaker marriages were held either on First Day (Sunday) during meeting for worship or during “midweek meeting” (meeting for worship on a Wednesday or Thursday). Invitations would go out, and all would gather in the meeting house on the chosen day. Then the marriage ceremony would take place.

On the day of the wedding, those attending filed into the meeting house and took seats on the benches (during this time period, men and women sat on different sides of the room). Soon the wedding overseers entered the room, and they sat on the facing benches (benches at the front of the room that face the regular benches). Then the couple walked in together, proceeded to the front of the meeting house, and sat on the facing benches. Since Friends believe that each person has a relationship with God and therefore needs no intermediary, no minister marries the couple; they are instead married by God and witnessed by those in attendance.

The wedding would begin with “silent worship,” just like any other meeting for worship. When the couple felt led, they stood and took each other’s hand, simply stated their intentions, and signed the marriage certificate. They would sit down again, and the wedding overseers would read the certificate for all in attendance. Silent worship would continue, and during this time, guests could stand, as they felt led, to speak about the couple or about marriage. After it seemed that everyone who felt led to speak had done so, two of the wedding overseers would shake hands, indicating “the rise of meeting” (meaning that meeting for worship has concluded). Each guest then came forward to sign the marriage certificate.


Isaac and Elisabeth’s marriage has now been accomplished, and that will be reported to the Meeting at the next meeting for business. May they have many years of happiness together!


* Quaker disownment is not the same as Amish shunning. When disowned, Friends could still attend meeting for worship and interact with family and friends. They were just no longer "under the care of Meeting." Disownment was not punishment, but Friends' way of ensuring that those under the care of the Meeting followed rules that contributed to the community's best interests. In most cases, a written apology and changed behavior was all that was necessary to be reinstated in Meeting after disownment.



Bio: Christy Distler lives just outside Horsham, Pennsylvania, which was settled by her ancestors in the early 1700s. She is currently working on a fact-and-fiction novel involving her Quaker family in 1750s Horsham.

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