Mark A. Peterson: The Puritans and Gay Marriage
Mark A. Peterson, in Common-Place.org (April 2004):
...The outcry against gay marriage rests on the assumption that marriage is a"natural" institution rooted in timeless religious and cultural practices. But President Bush and his supporters have got their history wrong, at least with respect to religion, government, and marriage in Massachusetts. The Puritan colonists who founded Massachusetts might not have welcomed same-sex households, but they were not afraid to use the power of government to redefine marriage. And they surely would have agreed with today's gay-marriage advocates that the state and its concern for fairness, not the church and its concern for sanctity, should govern the social rules for joining two people in perpetual union.
The English Puritans who founded Massachusetts in 1630 formed a society as committed to religion as any in history. But for them, marriage was a civil union, a contract, not a sacred rite. In early Massachusetts, weddings were performed by civil magistrates rather than clergymen. They took place in private homes, not in church buildings. No one wore white or walked down the aisle. Even later, when it became customary for ministers to preside at weddings (still held in private homes), the clergy's authority was granted by the state, not the church.
Massachusetts' founders insisted on civil unions, not as a reluctant compromise with the state, but as a direct outgrowth of their religious beliefs. Puritans were dissenters from the Church of England, which like the Catholic Church treated marriage as a sacrament. In England, the king was"defender of the faith," bishops sat in the House of Lords, and the Church of England had legal authority over all religious matters, including marriage. Puritans strongly opposed this system. They wanted to adhere strictly to the Bible in shaping their forms of worship, but as they read it, the New Testament offered no precedent for bishops, ecclesiastical courts, and royal control over religion. What's more, they held that the Bible sanctioned only baptism and communion as sacraments, since these were the only sacraments that Jesus took part in himself.
Marriage remained important to Puritans (it was often used as a metaphor for the divine love between believers and God), but they wanted to remove it from the realm of sacred authority, leaving only the sacraments under church control. This radical change was impossible to achieve in England, where the unified church and state used its power to persecute dissenters. But when they migrated to Massachusetts, the Puritan founders were free to shape their new society according to their beliefs. As a result, Massachusetts had no bishops, no ecclesiastical courts. The state regulated all aspects of the marriage process, from"publishing the banns"–an announcement of the intent to marry that was an early predecessor to the marriage license–to the marriage ceremony, the giving of dowries, property and inheritance rights, and in rare cases, divorce....
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Dawson Huss - 4/7/2005
The first sentence of this entire article is wrong. The opposition to gay marriage may be SAID to rest on marriage as a natural institution, but by and large that is a mis-representation of at least the religious opposition. It rests on the belief of marriage not as a natural institution, but a supernatural institution. They believe the institution came from God, and was ingrained into nature, not coming from nature itself. Nature simply provides the evidence for it.
Jerry Lee Bowyer - 4/10/2004
Just because the Puritans saw marriage in largely non-ecclesiastical terms does not mean that they saw it in non-religous terms. The Puritans established a Biblical commonwealth, one in which special revelation governed both Church and State. The author confuses the point creating the impression that the Puritan experiment gives some aid and confort to the attempt to move civil marriage away from religous standards. I can find no such Puritan impulse. BTW, I am an opponent of the President's ban on gay marriage.
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