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

Marriage in America: From “Civil” to “Secular?”

As I’ve pointed out in the past, marriage historians are quick to note that the American wedding was an ostensibly “civil” affair until well into the Victorian era. It is perhaps not surprising that the Puritans, who were strict Reformation anti-ritualists left wedding ceremonies to civil authorities. Protestants also did not believe that marriage was a sacrament; though of course that did not preclude the religious importance they placed on family arrangements formed around a legally married couple. As wedding historian Elizabeth Pleck points out even Catholics, for whom marriage was still a sacrament, usually had a civil ceremony to satisfy state authorities as well as a private religious ceremony in front of a priest. But why did Catholics need to perform both ceremonies?

It is my understanding that religious officials have had the power to solemnize marriages for quite some time. In fact the British Crown opened the field up to religious officials even prior to the Revolution. So why not just go to the priest? Perhaps because of what I quoted Tracy Fessenden about yesterday–the pervasiveness of an “unmarked Christianity” in American civil life. As we know it was de rigueur for the Protestant establishment to favor civil weddings, but to favor them for religious reasons. The civil wedding, in other words, was not “secular” in any contemporary sense of the term, but instead an extension of (and later survival of) the Puritan religious ethos that in Fessenden’s words not only required that the “difference of the religious per se be dissolved in the conduct of day to day life, but also that religious difference itself be constituted as a threat to that life.” The Catholic marriage rite would have been just such a threat and I suspect that this is why it was sectioned off from appropriate American civil life.

This means, I believe, that wedding historians are doing their readers a disservice by simply harping on the “civil” nature of early American marriage, as if those marriages stand in contrast to religious ones the way that civil marriages often do today. I would propose instead that the meaningful distinction between religious and “secular” weddings does not happen until the 19th century and even so does not come into wide application until the last few decades. Last year I found a news clipping from 1911 that ties the nonreligious values expressed by a civil wedding to secular identities, and as I’ve written elsewhere organized irreligious communities, like Secular Culture were practicing secular ceremonies, expressing nontheistic values, since their inception in the late 19th century. But these communities were small and rare, and for a vast majority of the nation the culturally normative practice of lavish church weddings took over the civil ceremony as consumerism motored on in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Flash forward to the last few decades and the notion of secular ceremonies being expressively and self-consciously nonreligious appears to be in full bloom. Today’s secular and religious marriage ceremonies are of course not usually very different in form and in fact they often express many of the same values about love, individuality, commitment, etc. Despite these similarities the self-conscious expression of difference in terms of religious content and nonreligious identity maintenance make today’s secular ceremonies starkly different from the “civil” ceremonies of pre-Victorian America.


Of course Fessenden would most likely put yesteryear’s civil and today’s secular ceremonies on the same trajectory since she sees our very version of “secularism” as an extension of American Protestantism. I want to be clear that I don’t disagree with this general assessment but I also think we can’t leave the story there. Contemporary nonreligious identities, and the practices that constitute and rejuvenate them, are more than just the inevitable telos of American Protestantism. Yes, these practices are heavily indebted to the trajectory Fessenden maps out, but they are also working against and/or away from it. In fact my dissertation navigates one of the many ways in which that very tension is playing out among disaffiliated Americans. Stay tuned to find out!

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2 thoughts on “Marriage in America: From “Civil” to “Secular?”

  1. Did you read the Prop 8 Trial testimony of Dr. Nancy Cott? Historian Harvard University who researched the States Interest in Marriage for 10 years before writing the definitive peer reviewed book on it?

  2. It seems Fessenden focuses more on literary theory and analysis, which I am sure is fascinating, but is a poor way of doing history. I am particularly skeptical of the claims she makes regarding the “social construction” of not only gender but also SEX. Call me old fashioned but these radical claims made by critical theorists are based on questionable evidence and even more dubious theoretical assumptions about human nature, reality and epistemology.

    It seems she is basing her conclusion on “…new readings of Emerson, Whitman, Melville, Stowe, Twain, Gilman, Fitzgerald, and others who address themselves to these dynamics in intricate and often unexpected ways advance a major reinterpretation of American writing.” From those sources she somehow makes definitive conclusions involving the following: “practices of often-violent exclusion that go to the making of national culture: Indian removals, forced acculturations of religious and other minorities, internal and external colonizations, and exacting constructions of sex and gender.”

    Not to sound to crabby but I have a particular interest in history – it was my undergraduate major – and I don’t think historians has been as receptive to critical theory and literary analysis as some other disciplines. But I am fairly conservative when it comes to historiography and skeptical about making strong causal claims in general, especially without sufficient documentary evidence. So my bias may be preventing me from appreciating her conclusions.

    PS – I too would also defer to Cott, an actual social historian, when it comes the history of marriage in america. As far as I know, she is the preeminent expert in the field.


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