The Evolution of the Institution of Marriage

Groucho Marx once said, “Marriage is a wonderful institution.  But who wants to live in an institution.”

For some reason, I’ve been thinking about that quote a lot during these past couple of weeks hearing arguments about Proposition 8.  Proposition 8 is in the California ballot that will ban gay marriages in the state and overturn a California State Supreme Court ruling earlier this year.   Right now conservative Christians in the Mormon, Catholic, and Evangelical churches are leading the fight to support Proposition 8 and their main argument is that this goes against the institution of marriage as it has been defined for several centuries as being between a man and a woman.  This got me thinking about history of the institution of marriage.  Has the institution of marriage always been the same over the course of human history and the course of Christian history?  Or has it been an institution that has evolved over time, as the understanding of human relations evolved?

First let’s how marriage is defined from the traditions of the main supporters of Proposition 8.  A detailed description of marriage from the points of view of the Mormon, Catholic and Evangelical churches can be found in these websites:,, and   In the understanding of marriage from these three Christian denominations, marriage is an instititute ordained by God and is found in the Bible in Genesis 2:22-24, Matthew 19:4-6, and Ephesians 5:22-33.   In this belief, marriage is more than just a human institution, but is the center of Christian and human community and is a reflection of God’s relationship with human beings.    The Christian view of marriage is more than just a partnership;  it emphasizes the ability of a heterosexual couple to procreate.  The Catholic Bishops of California and the National Association of Evangelicals offers more detailed arguments in these sites: and

Not all Christians hold this view.  Steve Young, the former San Francisco 49er quarterback and prominent Mormon, is against Propostion 8 for its discrimination against gays and lesbians.  Father Geoffrey Farrow recently went out of the closet and took a stand against the measure.  St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church and St. Francis Lutheran Church in San Francisco have lead efforts to oppose Proposition 8.  Prominent Seventh Day Adventists like Julius Nam (Associate Professor of Religion Loma Linda University),  Lawrence T. Geraty (President Emeritus, La Sierra University), and Gary Chartier (Associate Professor of Law and Business Ethics, La Sierra University) have gone against their Seventh-day Adventist Church State Council’s public support of California Proposition 8.  The Episcopal Bishops of California issued a statement in opposition of Proposition 8 (

I checked out two books for this weekend to read about the history of marriage.  Stephanie Coontz, the Director of Research and Public Education at the Council on Contemporary Families, wrote the book Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Marriage or How Love Conquered Marriage.  Marilyn Yalom, a senior scholar at the Institute for Women and Gender at Stanford University, wrote the book A History of the Wife.   Both books agree that for many centuries, the primary role of marriage was not for the fulfillment of a loving relationship, but to secure a dowry and cement political alliances with prominent families, to increase one’s family labor force through the producing of children, and even to secure peace treaties.   Marriage since the times of Rome and Greece was primarily an economic and political institution and for any commoner who was not a slave, marriage was essential for the individual’s survival within that society.  In ancient societies, women needed men for the plowing;  men needed women to preserve food, spin wool, grind grain and provide children to work in the fields.   When choosing a mate, the individual was looking for a strong worker than a mate that one had love for.  Proverbs 31:10-20 and 24-27 gives a description of what a man looked for in a wife in ancient society:

Who can find a virtuous woman?  For her price is far above rubies.
The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil.
She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life.
She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands.
She is like the merchants’ ships;  she bringeth her food from afar.
She riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens.
She considereth a field, and buyeth it:  with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard.
She girdeth her lins with strength, and strengthen her arms.
She perceiveth that her merchandise is good:  her candle goeth not out by night.
She layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff.
She stetcheth out her hand to the poor;  yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy…
She maketh fine linen, and selleth it;  and delivereth girdles unto the merchant.
Strength and honour are her clothing:  and she shall rejoice in time to come.
She openeth her mouth with wisdom;  and in her tongue is the law of kindness
She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness

It is true that through most of history, a primary role of marriage was to produce children.  That tradition, however, was very cruel to women who were barren.  Marilyn Yalom wrote, “Throughout the ancient world, the primary obligation of the wife was to produce offspring.  Woe to the barren wife of biblical times- not only would she be enveloped in shame, but often replaced by a second (or third) wife.  Well into modern times, wives could be disposed of for not producing children- especially among royalty and the aristocracy, where the necessity for a male heir placed even greater pressure on the wife.”   There was much physical abuse in these marriages, as women often had few legal rights and were dependent on their husbands for economic security.   Battering was an accepted practice that was sanctioned by law amd custom as a way to allow husbands to enforce authority over their wives.

Many early Christians had ambivalent feelings about marriage, believing as St. Paul did in 1 Conrinthians 7:32-34 that marriage undermined the self control needed to achieve spiritual salvation.   They thought of marriage as being the best alternative to satiating the temptation of lust.  This attitude changed over time as Christians grew in number and as the Roman Empire gradually accepted Christianity under the reigns of Constantine and Theodosius. 

As the Roman Empire fell, the Catholic Church slowly began to take over the institution of marriage.  In the sixth and seventh centuries, the Church began to define laws of incest as they began to preside over marriages of the aristocracy.  They condemned the Old Testament practice of marrying a brother’s widow, and then they condemned the marriage of first and second cousins, stepmothers or stepdaughters, and the widows of uncles.  Since many kings and nobles used marriage to consolidate wealth and social status, this gave the church much power if it chose to enforce these rules.   In the twelfth century, the church pressured individuals to marry in the presence of a priest and to marry inside a church.  It downplayed the need for parental consent, and made marriage the mututal will of the intended spouses a criterion.  Marriage became a sacrament of the church, meaning that God’s grace was received during the ceremony, and this made divorce unacceptable.   Women gradually lost the right to inherit and own property as the idea of primogeniture, of the right of the firstborn son to inherit the family wealth, began taking root.

One of the great influences of marriage was from Martin Luther, the famous Protestant dissident.  He opposed the Catholic Church’s opposition to priestly celibacy by marrying the former nun Katherina von Bora in 1525.  He had found no tenet in the Bible specifically stating that priests shouldn’t marry, and believed that the apostles and Jesus himself might have been married at some point in their lives.  Since many priests had concubines anyways, Luther felt that it was better for priests to get married rather than to live in sin.

In the 16th and 17th century, the growth of a market economy and the ideas of the Enlightenment changed attitudes towards marriage.  Personal choice of spouses replaced arranged marriages as a social ideal and individuals were encouraged to marry for love.  Stephanie Coontz explains the cause of the changes:

“Two seismic social changes spurred these changes in marriage norms.  First, the spread of wage labor made young people less dependent on their parents for a start in life.  A man didn’t have to delay marriage until he inherited land or took over a busines from his father.  A woman could more readily earn her won dowry…  They could marry as soon as they were able to earn sufficient funds.
Second, the freedoms afforde by the market economy had their parallel in new political and philosophical ideas.  Starting in the mid-seventeenth century, some political theorists began to challenge the ideas of absolutism.  Such ideas gained more adherents durig the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, when influential thinkers across Europe championed individual rights and insisted that social relationships, including those between men and women, be organized on the basis of reason and justice rather than force.  Believing the pursuit of happiness to be a legitimate goal, they advocated marrying for love rather than wealth or status

These ideas uprooted centuries of belief about marriage and caused much worry.  Critics claimed that marrying for love would undermine the social and moral order of society.    Among the criticisms that Coontz found were these:  “If wives and husbands were intimates, wouldn’t women demand to share decisions equally?  If women possessed the same faculties of reason as men, shy would they confine themselves to domesticity?  Would men still financially support women and children if they lost control over their wives’ and childrens’ labor and could not even discipline them properly?  If parents, church, and state no longer dictated people’s private lives, how could society make sure the right people married and had children or stop the wrong ones from doing so?”

Anthony Giddens had called a marriage based on love “the intrinsically subversive character of the romantic love complex” and he was right.    As husbands and wives began to see each other as equals in intimacy, it was the start of a long fight to gain women more equal rights in the marital sphere and the outside society.   Women had a long road to fight.   Women were once considered inferior beings, whose main purpose was to serve their men and be their helpers.  Once they were married women lost the rights of their property and were subject to their husbands’ authority.  Often they suffered abuse, and they had no means of recourse in the courts system.  Society made it difficult to divorce and most women felt trapped.  Records of the early seventeenth century physician Robert Napier showed that more than a thousand female patients treated for mental illness concluded that they were especially troubled by oppression they experienced as daughters and wives.  British writer Mary Wollstonecraft in her 1792 treatise Vindication of the Rights of Women saw the existing intitution of marriage as being similar to the institution of slavery.  

Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte were inspired by the idea of love in marriage to create headstrong and intelligent women characters in their books that went against social norms.  Their writings inspired Sarah Grimke, who wrote Letters on the Equability of the Sexes in 1837 about the need to educate both the husbands and the wives see themselves as equals.    Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony fought for women’s equality and were proud of the passage in 1860 of the Married Women’s Property Act in New York, which gave wives the right to own their own property and earnings. 

Along with the fight for gender equality was the fight for racial equality.  Laws against interracial marriage were in place in America to seperate whites from blacks and other races that were deemed inferior to the majority race.  In an internet post (, Peggy Pascoe, an Associate Professor and Beekman Chair of Northwest and Pacific History at the University of Oregon, found four reason often given to support a ban on interracial marriage: first, judges claimed that marriage belonged under the control of the states rather than the federal government; second, they began to define and label all interracial relationships (even longstanding, deeply committed ones) as illicit sex rather than marriage; third, they insisted that interracial marriage was contrary to God’s will; fourth, they declared that interracial marriage was somehow “unnatural.” In the 1883 Supreme Court case Pace versus Alabama, the Court ruled that the Alabama miscegenation laws did not violate the fourteenth amendment because both parties suffered under interracial marriages and interracial sex.  it wasn’t until 1967 and the Loving versus Virginia case when the Supreme Court made laws against interracial marriage unconstitutional.

As the twentieth century dawned, more attitudes changes about the institution of marriage.   The early twentieth century was a time of great turmoil for married couples going through two world wars, a great depression, and new ideas of sexuality coming from Freud and the roaring 1920s.  In the 1950s, the view that many people see as traditional marriage became common, as the two parent family with the single male wage earner took hold in most of America.  But that time hid many stresses on that model of marriage.   Many men felt that being the sole breadwinner was a burden and they were often tired and stressed.  Women felt isolated at home while trying to rear their children.  The coming of the Women’s Liberation movement and the economic realities that brought on the two income marriage brought more changes to the way marriage is viewed. 

When I look at the history of marriage, I do not see an institution that has been unchanging over time.  Marriage as an institution that has constantly evolved to the changing economic, political and social changes that have affected people.   The Enlightenment ideas of equality, the fight for women’s rights, the fight for civil rights, and now the fight for gay rights have changed our views on the roles that men and women play.  I respect the rights of conservative Christians to hold a different view from mine.  I do not think churches should be forced by the government to perform same sex marriages if it goes against their creeds.  But I also think it is wrong for those churches to ban gay marriages for people who do not share their beliefs or who do not belong to their churches.   I am against Proposition 8 for this reason.

About angelolopez

I’ve wanted to be an artist all my life. Since I was a child I’ve drawn on any scrap of paper I could get a hold of. When I went to San Jose State University, I became more exposed to the works of the great fine artists and illustrators. My college paintings were heavily influenced by the humorous illustrations of Peter De Seve, an illustrator for the New Yorker magazine. I also fell under the spell of the great muralists of the 1930s, especially Thomas Hart Benton and Diego Rivera. I graduated with a degree in Illustration. Angelo Lopez has had illustrations published in Tikkun Magazine, the Palo Alto Daily News and Z Magazine. From April 2008 to May 2011, Angelo's cartoons were regularly published in the Tri-City Voice, a weekly newspaper that covers the Fremont, Hayward, Milpitas, Neward, Sunol and Union City areas in California. He did a political webcomic starring his cartoon character Jasper for the progressive blogsite Everyday Citizen. Since December 2011, Angelo does a regular weekly political cartoon for the Philippine News Today, a Filipino American newspaper based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Angelo is a member of the Sunnyvale Art Club, and the Northern California chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. During the 1990s, he was a member of the part-timer workers SEIU unit in the city of Sunnyvale. Angelo won the 2013, 2015 and 2016 and 2018 Sigma Delta Chi award for editorial cartooning for newspapers with a circulation under 100,000. He has also won the 2016 RFK Book and Journalism Award for Editorial Cartoons. Angelo won first prize for the Best of the West contest in 2016 and third prize in 2017. Angelo is married to Lisa Reeber. They enjoy taking walks, watching movies and hanging out with their nieces.
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