A blog about (ir)religion, ritual and so on …

A Second Civil Marriage to Please an Atheist Parent?

Most people reading this blog probably know of someone who is ostensibly nonreligious who either had a religious wedding, or included religious elements in their wedding mostly to please family members. At times, and perhaps more often in other parts of the anglophone world, it also happens that some couples have a civil wedding and then proceed to have a second religious ceremony or marriage blessing for the sake of their families. But have you ever heard of a religious couple having a fully legal church wedding and then having a second civil ceremony to please a nonreligious parent? Here’s a story from Sacramento CA:

{Special Dispatch to The Call]

SACRAMENTO, Dec. 17.—T0 please his father, Harold Clark Powell and his wife of Omaha were married here today on the second anniversary of their wedding. They were married in Salt Lake City two years ago today by an Episcopal minister. According to Powell, his father is an atheist and was opposed to the marriage. To please the parent the two were married today by Township Justice Clarken, and plan to surprise the elder Powell when they return to Omaha.

This seems like an extremely odd situation. I can understand how a Christian, for example, might think that two people who have a civil marriage only are not married, in the eyes of God. It is almost as if the atheist father in this story doesn’t believe that a marriage solemnized by the Episcopalian minster is a true marriage, in the eyes of…in the eyes of what exactly? Surely it was a legal marriage so the eyes of the law were satisfied. So why is this going to be such a pleasant surprise to the father? The second marriage doesn’t erase the first, and it’s unclear what it might add to it. I have to admit I’m stumped. But what if I contacted the father or the couple, what might they say? Well here’s the thing, I can’t, because this wedding didn’t take place a couple of years ago or even in the 1990s. It took place in 1911. Any ideas?

The San Francisco Call, December 18, 1911, Page 7

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7 thoughts on “A Second Civil Marriage to Please an Atheist Parent?

  1. Brilliant :) I guess, perhaps, the father might not have attended the religious ceremony? For whatever reason…

  2. It seems like he didn’t attend either ceremony, but the implication was that while he was out on the first he’d be pleasantly surprised to hear of the second. I wondered if the take-away here was that the journalist (in 1911) thought that atheists felt deeply about civil ceremonies in a way similar to how someone with religious convictions may feel about a religious ceremony, but note that they at least imply that the groom shares this idea as well. There really isn’t any good social history of atheism in the United States, if you ask me, so it’s hard to parse these kinds of attitudes. Maybe I just don’t know of a literature that might help with this. Anyone?

  3. What a strange thing. At least it seems to have been the couple’s idea, and not a parent meddling and making demands. Wonder how the father felt about it, maybe “it’s the thought that counts”?

  4. One hopes the father was happy with his surprise.

    I could almost imagine that the whole thing was a misunderstanding. Like the son just really understood the father’s opposition to the wedding as “an atheism thing.”

    Ditto the wish for a good social history of atheism in America.

  5. If things work out with the new program unit pitch to the AAR, the general topic of the social history of unbelief/nonreligion in America might make a great one for a session the following year. It could be done in conjunction with the American Religions group. Just a thought.

  6. Peregrinus on said:

    It’s a weird story.

    Sideline: What was the township justice thinking? If this couple was already married, surely he had no business celebrating a wedding between them? At best, this could only give rise to confusion about the date they were married, putting into circulation an official document indicating that there had been married in December 1911, with the false implication that they weren’t married before that date. In general, one of the legal requirements for getting married is that you can’t be already married (to anyone).

    OK, park that. The best narrative I can construct to make sense of this is that the son’s original decision to marry in a church rather than a courthouse was understood by the father (and perhaps also by the son) as a sign of the son’s rejection of the atheist, materialist, rationalist [insert adjective of choice here] values, attitudes and practices which the father had sought to inculcate in him. The newspaper report says the father objected to the marriage, but perhaps it was the wedding that he objected to (or perhaps his objection to the marriage was his perception that this superstitious priest-ridden woman had influenced his son away from the true rationalist faith).

    So, two years down the road and after a couple of distinctly frosty Thanksgiving dinners the son now wishes to signal to his father that he, the son, is not rejecting, or is embracing again, the rationalism offered by his father, and he attempts to do this by having the wedding ceremony that his father wished him to have in the first place.

    I’ve no idea how the son got around the legal problem. He could have just lied about his existing marital status, but if so how would the story have ended up in the newspapers? Perhaps he found a township justice who was willing to preside over a non-religious ceremony akin to the renewals of wedding vows sometimes celebrated in churches, which would have no legal significance and would not involve a marriage licence. And perhaps that was a subtlety which escaped the journalist.

  7. Pingback: Marriage in America: From “Civil” to “Secular?” | irritually

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