A Brief History of Quaker Marriage Practice

The background

When Elizabeth became Queen in 1558 the Anglican Church became the established church. It was not merely a religious organisation, but it was also an instrument of the state, especially in its functions of recording births, marriages and deaths. For more than a century every English person was required to worship in their parish church every Sunday. The few Roman Catholics worshipped in secret and quietly used the Anglican church for purposes such as marriages.

Marriages took place in parish churches. In the weeks before a marriage the "banns" were called (public notice that the marriage would take place). The bride was "given away" by her father. She promised her husband that she would "obey him, and serve, honour and keep him", while he promised to "love her, comfort her, honour and keep her". Although the man said, "with all my worldly goods I thee endow" in fact the wife's property was transferred to the husband. It was not until the Married Woman's Property Act in Victorian times that a married woman was able to own property.

Little changed until the early 1640's, when Puritans suggested that marriages should be conducted by Justices of the Peace as civil contracts rather than religious matters, and they suggested that husband and wife should be equal.

There are always people who are unsettled in any community, who take little notice of church and state. Many of these would live together, and the laws often recognised this as marriage under the common law, although when the church became aware of such arrangements it tried to punish the couple for marrying without a licence.

Quaker marriages begin

After the 1650's many new religious groups were founded, of which only the Quakers and Baptists now survive. Most of these were prepared to recognise the administrative function of the Church of England, and people of these groups married in the parish church. Quakers were an exception, because Quaker principles totally denied the authority of the parish priest.

Quakers might have considered civil marriages, before a Justice of the Peace, but rejected them because they considered marriage a religious matter rather than a civil one. Often people confused Quakers with Ranters, a group which rejected all morality, so Quakers needed to assert their morality and good order.

For this reason they set up their own marriage procedure, to demonstrate to all the world that their marriages were real ones. Whenever two people wished to marry their application was considered by the women's business meeting, and if they allowed the marriage to go ahead it took place publicly in a recognised meeting for worship. Careful records were kept of the event. The marriage took place very much as Quaker marriages do now, with each of the couple making the same promise to each other. This established in practice the Puritan ideal that husband and wife should be equal partners.

Within a very short time the Anglican Church questioned the validity of Quaker marriages, and a court, asked to decide whether a Quaker child was entitled to inherit property, decided that Quaker marriages were valid in law.

Later laws were made which regulated Quaker marriages, but these only permitted one Quaker to marry another Quaker. If a Quaker wanted to marry someone of a different religious group, this was only valid in the parish church, and as Quakers denied the authority of the priest, all of their members who married in a church were disowned. The problem was nothing to do with who the Quaker married, but only because marriage in a church seemed to recognise the authority of that church.

Quaker marriage practice

In the 17th century the number of Quakers grew very rapidly, and some Quakers believed that everyone would see the light and become a Quaker. Within a few years the movement ceased to grow, and it became clear that they would always be a minority. With the exception of a few large towns such as York, Quaker meetings were quite small, most of them 30 people or less, so it was difficult to find marriage partners. Generally marriages occurred within the extended social network.

Each month the Friends from each Monthly Meeting (an area about as large as a county) met together, often staying in each other's houses for a few days, and people from a wider area attended Quarterly Meetings. Once a year many people went to London, officially to take part in business meetings, but some of them went to seek marriage partners. Quakers created an elaborate network of families, businesses and social relationships. Even so, most people had little choice of other Quakers to marry, and so many "married out". It is not surprising that there was pressure to allow the marriage of first cousins, as this was permitted in the Anglican church. The Quakers decided in the 1650's not to allow marriage between first cousins. Thomas Hodgkin challenged this rule in 1840, arguing that it was not forbidden by the Bible and there was no medical reason to forbid it. His appeal was rejected, but marriage between first cousins was eventually permitted towards the end of the 19th century.

The present practice

There is no problem now about non-Quakers using the Quaker form of marriage, nor of Quakers marrying people of different religious groups in other churches. Since the 1940's Quakers have permitted the remarriage of people who have been divorced, although each application has to be considered separately.

Civil Partnerships can only be formalised at a Register Office. We may hold Meetings for Worship to celebrate same-sex relationships, but at present these have no legal effect.