|William Penn marries Hannah Callowhill, 1696|
Centuries before Tina Turner belted out, “What’s love got to do with it?” members of the Society of Friends (Quakers) were, in a sense, asking the same question with regard to marriage. Their answer? Everything and nothing.
In colonial times, marriage in America looked quite different than it does now. Today, most people “marry for love” (romantic love), and there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as other forms of love accompany and bolster it. In the eighteenth century, however, while some couples certainly married for romantic reasons, many more built their marriage on a foundation based on necessity. Gender roles were generally prescribed, and many aspects of adult life required (or were at least easier) with a spouse or other family member of the opposite gender to carry their part of the workload.
Quakers were no different, with companionship and friendship being paramount in a marriage. Romance certainly played a part in relationships as well, but primarily in the milieu of shared devotion to the Lord. Many times, companionship and friendship coupled with shared devotion to God resulted in romantic love, creating a formidable bond.
Of course, that’s pretty much where the commonalities between colonial marriage and colonial Quaker marriage ended. As early as the seventeenth century, many Quakers embraced revolutionary ideas about marriage and gender roles. Leader George Fox wrote that for those living in the Light and perfected by Christ, husbands and wives could be equal “helpmeets.” This was quite radical considering that male leadership was implicit in American culture, and not all Quakers agreed with Fox. Even so, Quaker life was steeped in the spiritual equality of all; many women became traveling ministers, leaving behind their families to acclimate to periods without them—all with their Meeting’s blessing.
Some other facets of colonial Quaker marriage?
Men and women chose their own spouses (there were no arranged marriages), although to be married by the Meeting, parental consent was required. Without parental consent, the couple could not go to the Women’s Meeting (the women’s leadership for the Meeting, which handled vetting marriages as part of their responsibility) for its consent. And without the Meeting’s consent (Women’s Meeting and then the Men’s Meeting), there was no marriage—unless the couple decided to go to a minister of a non-Quaker church or to the justice of the peace. That was highly discouraged, however, and it always resulted in “disownment,” or expulsion from Meeting for “marrying out of order” or “contrary to discipline,” as Friends called it. (Not to worry. Once the expelled couple acknowledged their transgression and proved that they intended to be obedient Quakers going forward, the Meeting reinstated their membership.)
Marriage to non-Quakers was never condoned. Friends were expected to marry within their own religious community, and any Friend who married a non-Quaker (by a minister or justice of the peace) was automatically disowned. However, members who were disowned could still worship with Friends, and eventually, with acknowledgment and proven behavior, could regain membership. (Long before modern-day worship songs, Quakers were proclaiming that God is a God of not the “second chance” but the “another chance.”)
So what did love have to do with Quaker marriage in colonial times? Well, that depends on what kind of love you’re talking about. Love in a spirit of companionship, friendship, and shared devotion to Christ? Everything. Love in a spirit of romance and pleasure? Often nothing. Or perhaps nothing at first. But with God, all things are possible and love never fails.
Though I speak with the tongues of men and Angels, and have not love, I am as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I had the gift of prophecy, and knew all secrets and all knowledge, yea, if I had all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and had not love, I were nothing. And though I feed the poor with all my goods, and though I give my body, that I be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing.
—1 Corinthians 1:1–3 (1599 Geneva Bible)