Quaker Marriage

An article by J. Glynn Douglas

For the right joining in marriage is the work of the Lord only, and not the priests’ or magistrates’; for it is God’s ordinance and not man’s; and therefore Friends cannot consent that they should join them together; for we marry none; it is the Lord’s work, and we are but witnesses.
George Fox, 1667

George Fox circulated a paper to Friends in 1653. This, with an epistle of Margaret Fell in 1656 and Advices from various General Meetings, established the basis of Quaker marriage procedure early in the days of the Society of Friends.  The procedure stressed the three principles of adequate preliminaries, an open ceremony (including an exchange of declarations and the signing of a certificate), and an efficient method of registration.

Two years after the restoration of Charles II in 1660 came the Book of Common Prayer, the Act of Uniformity and the restoration of the Church Courts with their responsibility for proving Wills.  Quaker marriages were not legally recognised by the established church and their doubtful status was liable to be disputed by non-Quaker relatives anxious to prove the illegitimacy of children and thus claim an inheritance.  All marriages according to Friends usage are recorded in the registers which have been kept, along with registers for births and deaths, since the 1650s.In Ireland this started in 1669 with the setting up of Men’s and Women’s Meetings.

From 1661 onwards Friends had secured successive civil law judgements upholding their marriages as good in law. Nevertheless, the precarious position of Quaker marriage made Friends very careful to ensure that they could demonstrate adequate preliminaries, an open ceremony and efficient registration procedures.These early preliminaries were cumbersome: both parties had to appear before the Women’s Monthly Meeting and then before the Men’s Monthly Meeting and, if there was no objection, Friends were appointed to report on clearness from other engagements, on parental consent and if the man belonged to another Monthly Meeting on a certificate from that body.The couple had to appear and declare their intentions a second time.If there were objections to be overcome the couple might have to appear at ten or more meetings.When finally agreed the marriage could be solemnised at the mid-week Meeting for Worship in the Meeting House to which the woman belonged.

The social and legal problems associated with clandestine marriages in the 17th and 18th Centuries were notorious.Wealthy young men were plied with liquor and paired off with unsuitable girls. Unfortunate heiresses were abducted and married under duress to scoundrelly adventurers.Even Quakers were not immune. Mary Pike of Cork, became a cause célèbre in 1797 when subjected to this treatment.

Lord Hardwicke’s Act of 1753 regularised the situation in England and Wales.The Act provided that all marriages, other than those of the royal family or covered by special licence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, should be conducted in the parish church and publicity was ensured by public banns or common licence.There were two exceptions, the Act did not apply ‘to any marriage amongst the People called Quakers or Persons professing the Jewish Religion where both Parties to any such marriage shall be of the People called Quakers or professing the Jewish Religion respectively’.Quaker marriage was thus recognised implicitly in England and Wales and eventually explicitly in the Marriage Act of 1836.

Things were very different in Ireland.The Irish Parliament did not enact a similar act to Lord Hardwicke’s and the problem was to continue in Ireland for nearly another 100 years.At the end of the 18th Century some Friends protested against the increasing formalism of the Society in Ireland as evidenced in the numerous and unnecessary formalities associated with dress, language and Quaker marriage.They also disagreed with the reverential attitude to the Bible.In 1801 this led John Rogers and Elizabeth Doyle to publish their intention of marriage in the town of Lisburn and one month later, in the presence of 16 well concerned Friends at the school house on Prospect Hill, they took each other in marriage.For this rebellion against authority the two Rogers and most of the witnesses were disowned.The spread of the New Light opinions resulted in many resignations and disownments. All those holding the office of Elder in Ulster Quarterly Meeting resigned.The result for the Society was tragic: many able and thoughtful persons were lost to Friends and the effects were to be felt in the Society in Ireland well into the next century.

It was not until 1844 that an Act established the registration districts in Ireland, similar to those in England and Wales, and made Quaker marriages solemnised after 1st April 1845 ‘good in law’.The 1847 Act provided that Quaker and Jewish marriages solemnised before the Acts of 1836 and 1844 were to be ‘good in law’ provided that both parties were Quakers or Jews. The 1860 Act provided recognition for Quaker marriages solemnised in England, Wales and Ireland in accordance with Friends usages where only one of the parties is in membership provided that the other is ‘professing with Friends’.In 1872 the ‘professing with Friends’ clause was removed and replaced by a certificate of permission to marry from the Quaker Registering Officer involved.

The disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1869 had interesting repercussions.The Archbishop of Armagh, like the Archbishop of Canterbury, could issue Special Licences for a marriage at any time and place on behalf of the established church. The Act of 1870 extended this privilege to the heads of most of the other churches, including ‘The Clerk to the Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends in Ireland’.Irish Friends were seriously exercised by this development and the Yearly Meeting of 1873 ‘whilst gratefully acknowledging the kindly feeling manifested by the Legislature towards our Society’ minuted two pages of regulation to safeguard the privilege from possible abuse!The privilege applied only to marriage of member to member.

The setting up of the two jurisdictions in Ireland in 1922 did not affect marriage legislation and they both continued to use the 19th Century Westminster legislation.The Special Licence provision was modified in 1954 by Northern Ireland Parliament and in 1972 by Dáil Eireann so that it applied to marriages where only one of the parties was in membership.When the Clerk of the Yearly Meeting resided in the Republic of Ireland the NI regulations required that the Clerk appoint a deputy, living in Northern Ireland, to act in his/her place.

Irish Quaker marriage regulations have long been a source of wonder and concern to the Monthly Meeting Registering Officers, each revision becoming more complex than the one it replaced, and taking up one third of the content of the 1929 Christian Experience book. This growing complexity was in response to the changing legislation. Initially they were only for Quaker marrying Quaker, then Quaker to non Quaker was added, then neither party being in membership was allowed, then marriage by Special Licence had to go through the same procedure. Each revision of the regulations had to leave earlier clauses in place because the Act they referred to had not been withdrawn and thus new sections had to be added.

Traditionally Canon Law has prohibited the marriage of a man with his deceased wife’s sister although this was allowed by civil law. Ironically the 1836 Marriage Act, that gave recognition to Quaker marriages, referred to the Canon law prohibitions of affinity and consanguinity, thus suddenly making marriage with two sisters illegal.Amongst Friends opinion was divided on the issue.Some Monthly Meetings went as far as disownment, whilst others, reluctantly, accepted it as fait accompli.Jonathan Pim (1806‑1885) of Dublin published, anonymously, in 1860 Is it right for a Christian to marry two sisters? This was then countered by another Quaker leaflet, also anonymous,An examination into the scriptural lawfulness of marriage with a deceased wife’s sister and the principles and enactments of English law respecting such marriages. Repeated attempts to change the law were always defeated in the House of Lords and it was not until 1907 that the Deceased Wife’s Sister Marriage Act made all such marriages legal.Quaker Books of Discipline have always required Quaker marriage to comply with the law of the land but have not included a list of prohibited relationships.The Civil Registration Act, 2004, in the Republic of Ireland and the Marriage (Northern Ireland) Order, 2003, both set out in detail the allowable degrees of affinity and consanguinity which now govern all marriages on the island of Ireland.

As the Clerk of the Committee that drafted the marriage regulations in Organisation and Christian Discipline I am delighted that the complicated 31 pages of Chapter 14 have now been superseded and can be relegated to the Society’s Archives in the Historical Library. The new regulations are more easily understood and hopefully Friends and their families will find them less irksome than they have been in the past.I am indebted to Ted Milligan’s booklet, Quaker Marriage* and Irish Quaker Books of Discipline of the 19th and 20th centuries in the preparation of this article.

*Quaker Marriage by Edward H Milligan published 1994 by Quaker Tapestry Booklets, c/o Friends Meeting House, New Road, Kendal, CumbriaLA9 4AY

This article was first published in The Friendly Word: Ireland’s Quaker Journal
Jan-Feb 2009 Vol 26, No. 1, pp 13-15