Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Civil and Religious Marriage

          I recommend the Wikipedia article on Civil Marriage for a review of the history of civil marriage and its relationship to religious marriage, and I offer these comments based on my work on the Church of England clergy who served in British America before 1785.

          In England from about 1215 to 1837 marriages were normally celebrated in the parish church after the banns had been read on three Sundays and were registered in the parish register. Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act 1753 made publishing banns a legal requirement.  Couples who wished to avoid marriage by banns could pay the bishop’s office for a common license to be married at a particular church or pay the archbishop for a special license to be married in any church.  England’s registry office marriages begin in 1837.

          Lord Hardwicke’s Act did not apply in Scotland and I find no record of its being enforced in any of the North American colonies. And there were no bishops in America until 1785.

          Remember that the ecclesiastical courts of the Church of England had jurisdiction over marriage and probate cases until 1858. They acted under the royal ecclesiastical prerogative of the supreme governor of the church.

          In the American colonies the royal governors exercised the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the crown. They issued the marriage licenses and dealt with probate and collected the fees. The fear of losing these fees helped cool the enthusiasm of governors and the legal establishment in the colonies for the efforts by some Church of England clergy to establish an American episcopate.

Each colony established its own laws on marriage. So far as I can tell all the colonies authorized clergy to officiate, and many also allowed local justices to witness marriages. , and in New Jersey, for example, the Anglican clergy objected to local justices conducting marriages. In Virginia in the mid-18th century Presbyterian ministers could officiate at marriages, but the marriage had to be entered in the register of the Church of England.

At the Revolution the new state governments continued the marriage license system and expanded it to require licenses for all marriages. The state continues to authorize clergy to certify that the marriage has taken place and also authorizes a number of other people to do so.

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