Many conservatives think, “back in the day, people were more holy.” But the Scriptures paint a different story. Solomon tells us, “History merely repeats itself. It has all been done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). According to Paul, “The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience” (1 Cor 10:13a).
The good news about this is that history is a lot more valuable than you might think. The generations that have come before us faced the same temptations and challenges we face today.
People assume that by adopting courtship, they are adopting a traditional value system, and, in doing so, they are getting back to the “good old days.” Is Modern Courtship really a traditional system? Or is it something that cherry-picks customs from the past, the way someone would select food at a buffet? If you look at the history of dating, marriage, and courtship, a very interesting story emerges.
The original outline for Courtship in Crisis called for a chapter on the history of courtship. We have since decided to cut that chapter from the book. Our concern is that the typical reader would find history boring. I don’t want readers to give up on the book because of too much history. We will have some history in the book here and there, but not a whole chapter’s worth.
Some of you find history as fascinating as I do, so I want to share the whole history in one place. I am also wanting to put this history up for public fact-checking and cross-examination. I am writing this in good faith and hope it is taken that way. This is my first time to write a history. I am a big believer that all of us are smarter than one of us. So, if you have evidence that something here is incomplete or incorrect, please kindly share it with me so I can improve this history.
If you think this history should be included in the book, please let us know in the comments below.
Ancient Courtship: Bride Prices and Arranged Marriages
In biblical times, most women were given in marriage by the father, either in exchange for a bride price paid or for a service delivered.
- Caleb gave his daughter to Othniel (Joshua 15), as a reward for capturing a city.
- David’s first wife came in exchange for killing a certain number of Philistines (1 Samuel 18).
- Abraham sent his servant with ten camels worth of treasure to seek a wife from Laban and Bethuel (Genesis 24).
- Jacob also bought his wife from the same Laban in exchange for seven years of work (Genesis 29). It seems that Laban was the “wife mart” of the ancient world.
In those days, a covenant was not considered binding without the shedding of blood. For most covenants, animal blood would be used. You see the shedding of blood in each of the covenants that God makes throughout the Old Testament. There is a remnant of this kind of covenant still around today when people cut their thumbs to become “blood brothers.”
The covenant of marriage was sealed in blood as well. What made someone married was not a legal contract or a ceremony with a priest, but rather the shedding of virginal blood. The virgin’s blood sealed the covenant. The legal proof of a marriage was blood on the bedspread. There are examples in the Old Testament where the bloody bedsheets were admissible in court as evidence of the marriage’s validity (Deuteronomy 22:13-20).
This helps explain some of the curious practices in the Old Testament.
For example, the punishment for the a man who slept with an unbetrothed woman was marriage without the possibility of divorce and the payment of a large bride price (Deuteronomy 22:28-29), because the only person who could legally marry the woman was the man who shed her blood. This also explains why women like Tamar, who were raped and didn’t marry the rapist, didn’t get remarried to anyone (2 Samuel 13).
There are other interesting implications of this type of contract.
A childless widow couldn’t remarry just anyone. She was supposed to marry a close relative of her first husband. Her second marriage did not have the same legal weight as the first marriage. Her first son was legally the son of her first husband, the one with whom she shed blood, and not the second husband, the biological father (Deuteronomy 25). This explains why Ruth was an unattractive prospect. Ruth’s first son would legally belong to her first husband’s bloodline. If she had only one son, all her second husband’s assets would go to another man’s “son.”
This also explains why Abigail’s son Daniel was not considered to be in line for the throne despite being one of David’s oldest sons. No one wanted the legal son of Nabal on the throne.
There are a few instances in the Bible of women choosing their husbands and not being given or sold in marriage. For example, the daughters of Zelophehad came to Moses to ask if they could marry into another tribe. Moses ultimately answered that they could marry whoever they wanted within their tribe (Numbers 36:6).
Before you freak out, I don’t think these examples from Scripture were prescriptive.
Just because the Bible describes something does not mean we should do the same. Many of the stories in the Old Testament are of what not to do. God uses broken people and the people in the Old Testament were very broken.
Many of the families we see in the Bible are unhappy or dysfunctional. Sarah demands that her husband have sex with her servant (Genesis 16). Both Leah and Rachel do the same (Genesis 30). In Judges, we see a man throw his concubine out to a crowd to be gang raped to death (Judges 19). Afterward, he chops her body into pieces and sends them around Israel (Judges 19).
In first Samuel, we see Elkanah’s wife, Peninnah, making life miserable for his other wife Hannah (1 Samuel 1). Hannah struggles for years and the family is never truly able to get past this rivalry. It is in this story that we get perhaps the most delicious line of masculine egotism and cluelessness in the Bible. Hannah’s husband asks her, “‘Why aren’t you eating? Why be downhearted just because you have no children? You have me—isn’t that better than having ten sons?’” (1 Samuel 1:8). These stories are not in the Bible for us to copy their mistakes. They are there for us to learn from and avoid their mistakes.
The laws regarding bride prices, and the importance of virginal blood, were intended to govern the cultural practices of the time. It is God’s heart that every tribe and tongue worship Him (Revelation 7:9). This vision could not be achieved if every culture adopted the language and cultural practices of the ancient Hebrews.
The Old Testament laws give us a glimpse into God’s heart, but we must be careful to interpret them correctly. Just because a law forbids the mistreatment of slaves, it does not mean God approves of slavery. God met the children of Israel where they were and adapted laws to their culture and condition. Jesus even makes a specific point to clarify that the Old Testament marriage laws were not God’s ideal but instead were instituted due to the hardness of the people’s hearts (Matthew 19).
Classical Roman Courtship
The Romans had a different view of marriage from the Hebrews. Unlike the Israelites, the Romans were monogamous. A man could be married to only one woman at a time and vice versa.
While in biblical times the groom paid the father a bride price, in Classical Roman times the father paid the groom a dowry. Roman women had their own separate property and were often entitled to keep their dowries in the case of a divorce. Roman men would sometimes need to borrow money from their wives.
For the Romans, it was not the shedding of blood that consummated a marriage, but rather a contract and/or ceremony. The early Romans had such a high view of marriage that they killed their king and created a republic because the king’s son Sextus forced Lucrecia to commit adultery. Early Romans valued the sanctity of marriage during the early republic. Later, during the decadence of the late republic and empire, the Roman view of marriage fell. After a while, the Romans swapped spouses like geeks swap comic books. Interestingly, it was about this same time that Rome began its long, slow decline.
For example, Octavian forced Scribonia, the wife of Scipio, to get a divorce and to marry him, before changing his own name to Caesar Augustus. The purpose of the marriage was to cement a political alliance. He later divorced her when the alliance was no longer needed.
Many of our marriage practices and terms come from the Romans. The words “matrimony,” “nuptials,” and “divorce” all have Latin roots.
The early church rejected the Romans’ low view of marriage. The New Testament spoke highly of sexual purity and the sanctity of marriage (1 Corinthians 7, 1 Thessalonians 4). Early Christians saw marriage as a lifelong commitment and even as a holy sacrament. They saw marriage as a picture of the mystery that is Christ and the church (Ephesians 5). So, priests, rather than civil officials, began performing wedding ceremonies.
The early church also shifted away from the emphasis on blood as what consummated the marriage. Instead, they believed that the covenant of marriage was consummated through sexual relations between the bride and groom.
This led to some awkward situations when the marriage was politically important. For example, when the marriage would seal a treaty between kingdoms, there would sometimes be a bedroom audience when the marriage was consummated to confirm that the marriage was legally binding. Marrying Prince Charming had its drawbacks back in the day.
Since a contract or a ceremony wasn’t what made the marriage binding, if the couple did not sexually consummate the marriage, it could be annulled. So, while the medieval church did not allow divorce, it did allow annulment, which said “the marriage never actually began.”
Marriages were often arranged among the aristocracy. In fact, for royalty, marriage was sometimes forced. A prince whose family stood to gain from an alliance would likely force him to marry whichever bride could bring the kingdom the most power. So, being Prince Charming had drawbacks too.
Forced Marriage was somewhat uncommon outside of the highest levels of society. In most arranged marriages both the bride and groom had some choice. There is a precedent of this choice going back to biblical times (Genesis 24:57).
The poor had more choice. These marriages were typically a matter of convenience, as it took a family to fully work a farm. The husband provided protection, the wife provided children, and together with the children they worked to provide for the family.
While the wealthy sometimes needed permission from the king to marry, all the poor had to do was to live together, sleep together, and refer to each other as husband and wife. Sometimes a priest would perform the wedding ceremony years later. This ancient practice actually still exists in the Common Law. It is the root of what we call a “common law marriage.”
During the Enlightenment, thinkers like John Locke started shifting the landscape for courtship, marriage, and family. In Locke’s essay “The First Treatise on Government,’’ he redefines family government, demolishing many of the theological underpinnings for patriarchy, and makes a case for individual liberty under God.
America was founded on the principles of individual liberty inspired by Enlightenment thinkers. The concepts of individual liberty and freedom of conscience go back to the Pilgrims. Because of this, America is somewhat unique in the world in that it has no clear tradition of Arranged Marriage.
Despite the tradition of individual liberty, marriage was still seen as more of a contract than a love story until the late 1700s. Men and women chose each other as a means to get something they needed, such as wealth or support.
But in the late 1700s, we start to see rumblings of concepts like “marital partnership.” These rumblings actually began in the medical community. Doctors began to tout the benefits of healthy relationships on one’s physical health. The medical thinking held that it was bad for a man’s health for his wife to hate him.
As medical professionals began to advise their patients to invest in marriage, these people in turn began to advise their children of the same. Mothers began to teach their daughters relationship skills, and these daughters learned what it meant to have a loving relationship in addition to a practical marriage.
It is not that married couples did not love each other before this time. But love was seen as something that would grow out of the marriage, rather than the marriage growing out of love. Arranged Marriage teaches that we did not choose our siblings or parents, and yet we learn to love them. Therefore, the same must hold true for marriage. Just because a man does not choose his wife does not mean that he cannot learn to love her in time.
The old playground singsong “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby carriage” would have been considered a revolutionary battle cry in the days of Arranged Marriage.
Enlightened Courtship taught that that you would have a happier marriage if love came first. So, to help love come first, people slowly began to spend more time getting to know each other before marriage.
The early Americans started experimenting with new courtship practices like bundling. Bundling was when two single people would sleep together in the same bed. One or both of them would be sewn up in separate “bundling bags” and sometimes also separated by a “bundling board.”
You can see this portrayed in the movie The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson:
One has to wonder how effective those bundling bags were, since as many as 1 out of 3 of brides were pregnant at their wedding in the late 1700s.
In the early 1800s, people began to seek out relationships passionately and emotionally instead of analytically. The tension between these two contrasting views of romance is captured well in some of Jane Austen’s books.
By the 1830s, both men and women began to view the marriage bed as sacred in a way to be passionately embraced. Because of this, they began to look at physical attraction as a more important requirement in a spouse. We also see a steady increase in fertility rates throughout the 1800s.
While the Victorian era saw a high-water mark for outward displays of chastity, parents were not as involved then as they are today. The rates of premarital pregnancy dropped during the Victorian era. Parents in those days had a more hands-off approach to parenting. The fictional account in the book Tom Sawyer does a good job of capturing a glimpse into nineteenth-century small town culture. The book contains a story in which school-aged children couple up and go into a cave unsupervised with nothing but candles. Could you imagine parents allowing their children to do something like that today?
Other contemporary novels that capture this hands-off approach are Little Women and the Little House on the Prairie books.
By the early twentieth century, more marriages were for love than for mutual material benefit. There were still pockets of aristocratic culture that practiced arranged marriage (think Downton Abbey). But most of the western world, and, specifically, American culture, began to marry for love.
Bundling was mostly abandoned (though some Amish communities still practice it today) as culture started to use more modern ways to help young people get to know each other. Community dances were a key part of the courtship process in the late 19th and 20th centuries. The community dance allowed young singles to interact with many other singles in one night. In some ways the community dance has a lot in common with the modern practice of speed dating, with a five-minute song keeping time rather than a facilitator. Young men who came to a dance alone would often offer to walk one of the women home from the dance (think It’s a Wonderful Life). This would sometimes result in a long moonlit chat on the front porch.
Both men and women began to look at dating as an essential step towards their future happiness. They went on dates to intentionally get to know each other and to have fun. They went on these dates with the expectation of finding the perfect match for marriage.
By the mid-1950s, the cultural standard was that men “earned the right” to go steady by going on dates with lots of different women in order to find true love. Both men and women begin intentionally pursuing each other romantically.
Here is a video that captures the 1950s view on dating:
What those dates looked like varied from community to community and from couple to couple. There were no hard and fast rules about the number of dates, the time spent on dates, where they went, or what they did. They may have gone out to somewhere in the town, and they could have even stayed home with their families. But even at home, they were afforded some measure of privacy so they could really get to know each other.
There was a distinction between “dating” and “going steady.” Young people in junior high were encouraged to “date” but were discouraged from “going steady.” These non-exclusive platonic dates gave young people a chance to get comfortable with being one-on-one with the opposite sex. They also gave them a good understanding of what they were looking for in a spouse.
There is a modern assumption that parents in this time period were very involved in their kids’ dating and courtship. I can’t find much evidence of this in the literature of the time. I asked my grandmother about a dozen different times what her parents told her about dating. From what I can tell, they hardly ever talked about it. The only thing they said was, “don’t have sex, and be home by ten.” They also wanted to know if the young man came from a “good family,” but that was the limit of their involvement.
This hands-off style of parenting may sound crazy in a day where helicopter parenting is the norm. But the shift to micromanaged parenting is so modern that it has happened in my own lifetime. I remember being young and playing around in the street with the other children from the neighborhood. As I grew up, more and more parents moved childhood play from the neighborhood to the backyard. Childhood play has since moved from the backyard to the chaperoned play group or living room PlayStation.
Traditionally, parents allowed their children to roam freely for large periods of time and over large areas of town. This expanded as children learned to ride a bicycle. Children could make their own decisions and mistakes. You can even find vestiges of this “bicycle freedom” in old episodes of Adventures in Odyssey.
The reason given by parents for the shift to close supervision is a rise in crime. But in reality, the crime rates have been dropping to historic lows. What is rising is our fear.
What people feared in the 1950s were the consequences of physical relationships. They wanted that sexual relationship, but they also wanted to wait and “do it right.” No one wanted a premarital pregnancy. First came love, then marriage, then the baby.
There was a cultural standard for purity, but this standard was often enforced by each individual’s moral compass instead of by a strict set of rules laid down by parents. The one punishment for mistakes was what was called a “Shotgun Wedding,” where the man was forced to marry the woman he had impregnated.
If we had been able to freeze time here in the mid-20th century, our modern perspective on dating and courtship would be different. Young people would frequently go on dates, not because they were being promiscuous, but because they valued marriage. And they would know that in order to find the right person, they would have to intentionally pursue not only relationships, but an understanding of their own personalities.
But time didn’t freeze. And instead, our culture shifted once again.
The Sexual Revolution
Society tended to look the other way if the couple had sex before marriage, as long as they got married afterward.
Then came the pill.
Effective birth control masked the evidence of fornication. The baby boomers rejected the “because I said so” values of their parents and started sleeping around. This sexual revolution started in the 1960s and brought forth several new societal ideas in regard to sex and marriage.
As baby boomers introduced sex into dating relationships, those relationships started to change. Sex brought with it emotional bonds, intensity, and drama. Couples started expecting greater commitment from the person they were sleeping with.
About this time, the language about relationships started to shift. “Dating” came to mean “going steady” and what was once called “dating” was called “dating around” and “playing the field.” Both are pejorative terms. So, instead of going out with multiple different people on platonic, low-commitment dates, young people skipped Traditional Dating altogether and began going steady right away.
Traditional Dating, something that was once fun, safe, and effective, transformed into a series of exclusive, intense, and heartbreaking relationships. Each decade following the sexual revolution intensified the sexual element of dating. What started off as just a “hippie thing” became a mainstream thing in the the 1970s and 1980s.
Interestingly, the “together today, broken up tomorrow” nature of these Modern Dating relationships is not very unlike the Roman marriages of ancient times. There is nothing new under the sun.
Typically, two people may go on one or two dates and then they are expected to “go steady.” By the 2000s, group dating grew in popularity, allowing singles to jump right into “going steady” from the very first date. The idea of dating many different people in order to find the right one has almost disappeared from culture.
The sexual revolution created something that no one wanted.
Modern dating was broken because adding sex to the relationship made it more exclusive, committed, and intense. The intensity kept young people from being able to go out with many other singles and getting to know what they were looking for without suffering heartbreak after heartbreak.
Modern Courtship: The Counter-Revolution
By the 1990s, baby boomer conservatives were frustrated with the promiscuous nature of Modern Dating. They did not want their children to experience what many of them did during the sexual revolution. They decided they needed a new set of rules to combat the promiscuous culture. Parents became more involved in their children’s love lives, and in some cases took it over entirely.
Leaders like Bill Gothard, Douglas Wilson, and Jonathan Lindvall started to formulize a new set of rules that they called “courtship.” These rules were a hybrid of the values of arranged marriage, some practices of Modern Dating, and some practices of Victorian Courtship (but without the bundling bags).
Before this time, “courtship” meant any process of getting married. Scientists even used it to describe the practices of some animal species. The Star Wars book The Courtship of Princess Leia hit the bestseller list in 1995, just two years before the 1997 book Her Hand in Marriage: Biblical Courtship in the Modern World. I like to think Star Wars helped popularize the word “courtship” before conservatives started using it but that is likely wishful thinking.
This “Modern Courtship” came to the mainstream with Joshua Harris’ book Boy Meets Girl: Say Hello to Courtship. By the late 90s, even people in the secular world were disillusioned with how broken Modern Dating had become.
Modern Courtship addressed the problem of sex in Modern Dating, but instead of arguing that we go back to the less committed relationships of 1950s style Traditional Dating, it argued that relationships should be even more committed.
In this way, Modern Courtship exacerbated one of the problems that started during the sexual revolution. The promise of less heartbreak in courtship is sadly unfulfillable unless you marry the very first person you court. Otherwise, Modern Courtship can be just as heartbreaking as Modern Dating.
The result of Modern Courtship has been a dramatic drop in the marriage rates among Christian young people from generations before. Fewer and fewer young people are getting married each year. When my grandmother got married there were 16.4 weddings per thousand people. That number is now down to just 6.8 weddings per thousand people and many of those weddings are second marriages.
There is nothing “traditional” about Modern Courtship. It is an entirely modern hybrid of Arranged Marriage and Modern Dating.
The following people never practiced Modern Courtship:
- Our grandparents.
- Their grandparents before them.
- The men and women of early America.
- The men and women in the Bible.
But there are things we can learn from the traditions of the past. And, after many conversations with my grandparents, I believe that Traditional Dating, while not perfect, is the best option for our generation. Traditional Dating is a time-tested practice in which affection is fostered in an environment where singles are allowed the time and space to get to know each other in a meaningful way.
What do you think?
Research for this post came from the following books:
- Bailey, Beth. From Front Porch to Back Seat. by Beth L. Bailey. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.
- The Bible.
- Harris, Robert. Conspirata and Imperium. by Robert Harris
- Livy, Titus. The History of Rome.
- Locke, John. Two Treatises on Government.
- Rothman, Ellen. A History of Courtship in America. Harvard University Press, 1987.