Marriage as an institution has been around since the Garden of Eden. It didn’t take very long for it to be regarded as a strategic alliance between families.
Alliances within families were also important. In the Hebrew Bible (Christian Old Testament) Isaac and Jacob each married their cousins and Abraham married his half-sister. Cousin marriages still remain quite common throughout the world today, especially in the Middle East. The current law in Australia is that it is only illegal to marry your 1st Cousin.
Polygamy has been very common throughout history. Kings David and Solomon had multiple wives. In some cultures one woman might have many husbands. Polygamy is still practiced in some African nations. Polygamy became illegal in the USA in 1862 but President Lincoln said the Law would not apply to the Mormons. However they reluctantly agreed to ban the practice in 1890 in order for Utah to be admitted to the Union.
In many cultures a man could dissolve his marriage or take another wife if the woman was infertile. It was the early Christian Church that argued marriage was not contingent on producing offspring. It would annul marriages if a man could not have sex with his wife but not if she could not conceive – hence the problems with Henry VIII.
In the New Testament many of the references to “husband and wife” or “man and wife” are in the context of teaching about divorce (e.g. St Matthew’s Gospel Ch.19 and St Paul in 1 Corinthians Ch.7). Same-sex marriage is never discussed.
Monogamy only became the accepted practice in the 9th Century but up until the 18th Century, blind eyes were turned to extra-marital affairs and they were not seen as immoral or improper (even if they were accepted as grounds for divorce). Women of course did NOT enjoy this “freedom”.
Marriages were seen as contracts between 2 families with neither Church nor State being involved. In 1215 the Church decreed that partners publicly post Banns or notices of impending marriage in an attempt to reduce the high number of invalid unions. Until the 1500s the Church accepted a couple’s word they had exchanged vows.
By the 19th Century, the State began issuing marriages licences. These became very common in the US because the opening up of the West meant people suddenly became much more mobile.
Love wasn’t regarded as an important consideration in a marriage until the 18th Century. From this time marriages began to be based on love and even sexual desire rather than economic or familial ties. With the domination of a market economy previous alliances between families were not nearly as necessary.
Marriage wasn’t about equality until about 50 years ago. Rape within marriage wasn’t made a criminal offence until quite recently. In 1976 South Australia became the first jurisdiction in the world to introduce such legislation. A partnership of equals has now become the desired norm.
One of the most common objections against Marriage Equality offered in the current debate is that children are better off with both a mother and a father. The great majority of studies undertaken so far have shown this not to be the case. Indeed some have shown that children with parents of the same gender perform better academically and are better adjusted socially and psychologically.
If one looks at the flow of history and sees how marriage has changed so radically to the point that now marriage is not primarily reliant on alliances or gender-based roles but based on love, mutual attraction, permanence, equality and a flexible division of labour. It is understandable that the movement towards marriage equality has gained such momentum.
Rev. Neil Ericksson