Practical Christian Theology
Guest Writer Thomas DeWitt Talmage

“Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant. But he knows not that the dead are there” (Proverbs 9:17, 18).

The Garden of Eden was a great orchard of fruit-bearing trees, yielding bushels and bushels of round, ripe, glorious fruit; but the horticulturist and his wife, in charge, hankered for one special tree, simply because it was forbidden—starting a bad streak in human nature, so now children sometimes do things simply because they are forbidden. This kink in the human race is not easily unsnarled.

Tell a company that they may look into any twenty rooms of a large house except one, and their chief desire is to see that one, though all the others were picture galleries and that a garret. If there were in a region of mineral springs yielding twenty fountains, but the proprietor had fenced in one well against the public, the one fenced in would be the chief temptation to the visitors, and they would rather taste of that than of the other nineteen. Solomon recognized this principle in the text, and also the disaster that follows forbidden conduct, when he said: “Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant. But he knows not that the dead are there.”

In this series of discourses on “The Wedding Ring,” this morning I aim, point-blank, at clandestine [secret] marriage.

Yonder comes up through the narrows of New York harbor a ship having all the evidence of tempestuous passage: salt watermark reaching to the top of the smokestack; mainmast, foremast, mizzenmast twisted off; bulwarks knocked in; lifeboats off the davit; jib-sheets and lee-bowlines missing; captain’s bridge demolished; main shaft broken; all the pumps working to keep from sinking before they can get to the wharf.

That ship is the institution of Christian marriage, launched by the Lord grandly from the banks of the Euphrates, and floating out on the seas for the admiration and happiness of all nations. Free Love struck it from one side, and Mormonism struck it from the other. Hurricanes of libertinism have struck it on all sides, until the old ship needs repairs in every plank, beam, sail, bolt, clamp, transom, and stanchion.

In other words, the notions of modern society must be reconstructed on the subject of the marriage institution. And when we have gotten it back somewhere near what it was when God created it in Paradise, the earth will be far on toward resumption of Edenic conditions.


Do you ask what is the need of a course of sermons on this subject? The man or woman who asks this question is either ignorant or guilty. In New England, which has been considered by many the most moral part of the United States, there are 2,000 divorces a year [c 1890]. In Massachusetts, the headquarters of steady habits, there is one divorce to every fourteen marriages. The State of Maine, considered by many almost frigid in proprieties, has in one year 478 divorces. In Vermont swapping wives is not a rare transaction. In Connecticut there are women who boast that they have four or five times been divorced.

Moreover, our boasted Protestantism is, on this subject, more lax than Roman Catholicism. Roman Catholicism admits of no divorce except for the reason that Christ admitted as a lawful reason. But Protestantism is admitting anything and everything, and the larger the proportion of Protestants in any part of the country, the larger the ratio of divorce. Do you not then think that Protestantism needs some toning up on this subject?


When you realize that the sacred and divine institution is being caricatured and defamed by clandestine marriage all over the land, does there not seem a call for such discussion? Hardly a morning or evening paper comes into your possession without reporting them, and there are fifty of these occurrences where one is reported, because it is the interest of all parties to hush them up. The victims are, all hours of the night, climbing down ladders or crossing over from state to state, that they may reach laws of greater laxity, holding reception six months after marriage to let the public know for the first time that a half-year before they were united in wedlock.

Ministers, justices of the peace, and mayors willingly joining in marriage runaways from other states and neighborhoods; the coach box and the back seat of the princely landau [carriage] in flirtation; telegrams flashing across the country for the arrest of absconded school misses, who started off with armful of books, and taking rail trains to meet their affianced—in the snowdrifts of the great storm that has recently passed over the country some of them, I read, have perished—thousands of people in a marriage whose banns have never been published; precipitated conjugality; bigamy triumphant; marriage a joke; society blotched all over with a putrefaction [rotting decay] on this subject that no one but the Almighty God can arrest!

We admit that clandestinity [secrecy] is sometimes precipitated by parental tyranny or domestic serfdom. There have been exceptional cases where parents have had a monomania in regard to their sons and daughters, demanding their celibacy or forbidding relations every way right. Through absurd family ambition parents have sometimes demanded qualifications and equipment of fortune unreasonable to expect or simply impossible.

Children marry not to please their parents, but to please themselves. Given good morals, means of a livelihood, appropriate age and quality of social position, no parent has a right to prohibit a union that seems deliberate and a matter of the heart. Rev Philip Henry, eminent for piety and good sense, used to say to his children: “Please God and please yourselves, and you shall never displease me.”


During our Civil War (April 1864) a marriage was about to be celebrated at Charleston, South Carolina, between Lt Andrew de Rochelle and Miss Anna, the daughter of ex-Gov Francis W Pickens. As the ceremony was about to be solemnized, a shell broke through the roof and wounded nine of the guests. The bride fell dying; and, wrapped in her white wedding robe, her betrothed kneeling at her side, in two hours she expired. There has been many as bright a union of hearts as that proposed that the bombshell of outrageous parental indignation has wounded, scattered, and slain.

If the hand offered in marriage be blotched of intemperance [drunkenness, addiction]; if the life of the marital candidate has been debauched [immoral]; if he has no visible means of support, and poverty and abandonment seem only a little way ahead; if the twain seem entirely unmatched in disposition, protest and forbid, reinforce your opinion by that of others, and put all lawful obstacles in the way; but do not join that company of parents who have ruined their children by a plutocracy [rule] of domestic crankiness that has caused more than one elopement. I know of a few cases where marriage has been under the red-hot anathema of parents and all the neighbors, but God approved, and the homes established have been beautiful and positively Edenic.

While we admit there are cases of justifiable rebellion, in 99 cases out of 100—yea, in 999 cases out of 1,000—these unlicensed departures and decampments by moonlight are ruin, temporal and eternal. It is safer for a woman to jump off the docks of the East River and depend on being able to swim to the other shore or to be picked up by a ferry. The possibilities are that she may be rescued, but the probability is that she will not.

Read the story of the escapades [elopements] in the newspapers for the last ten years, and find me a half-dozen that do not mean poverty, disgrace, abandonment, police court, divorce, death, and hell. “Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant. But he knows not that the dead are there.” Satan presides over the daring adventure. He introduces the two parties to each other. He gets them to pledge their troth. He appoints where they will meet. He shows them where they can find officiating minister or squire. He points out to them the ticket office for the railroad train. He puts them aboard; and when they are going 40 mph, he jumps off and leaves them in the lurch.

While Satan has a genius for getting people into trouble, he has no genius for getting people out. He induced Jonah to take ship for Tarshish when God told him to go to Nineveh, but provided for the recreant [cowardly] prophet no better landing place than the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.


The modern novel is responsible for many of these abscondings [getaways]. Do you think that young women would sit up half a night reading a novel in which the hero and heroine get acquainted in the usual way, and carry on their increased friendliness until, with the consent of parents, the day of marriage is appointed, and, surrounded by friends and family, bride and groom take their vows? There’s no story in that! There must be flight, pursuit, narrow escape, and drawn dagger, all ending in sunshine, parental forgiveness, and unalloyed bliss. In many cases of elopement the idea was implanted in the hot brain of the woman by a cheap novel, 10¢ worth of unadulterated perdition!


These evasions of the ordinary modes of marriage are to be deplored for the reason that nearly all of them are proposed by bad men. If the man behaves well, he has references. He can say, “If you want to inquire about me, here is a list of names of people in the town or neighborhood where I live.”

No. The heroes of elopements are nearly all bigamists, libertines, drunkards, defrauders, or first-class scoundrels. They have no character to lose. They may be dressed in the height of fashion, cologned, pomatumed [scented], padded, diamond-ringed, and flamboyant-cravated, until they bewitch the eye and intoxicate the olfactories; but they are double-distilled extracts of villainy, moral dirt, and blasphemy! Beware of them! “Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant. But he knows not that the dead are there.”


Fugitive marriage is to be deplored because it almost always implies woman’s descent from a higher social plane to a lower. If the man was not of a higher plane, or the marriage on an equality, there would be no objection and, hence, no inducement to clandestinity [secrecy]. In almost all cases it means the lowering of womanhood. Observe this law: a man marrying a woman beneath him in society may raise her to any eminence that he himself may reach; but if a woman marry a man beneath her in society, she always goes down to his level. That is a law inexorable, and there is no exception.

Is any woman so high up that she can afford to plot for her own debasement? There is not a state in the American Union that has not for the last twenty years furnished an instance of the sudden departure of some intelligent woman from an affluent home to spend her life with someone who can make $5 a day, provided he keeps busy. Well, many a man has lived on $5 a day and been happy, but he undertakes a big contract when with $5 a day he attempts to support someone who has lived in a home that cost $20,000 per annum.

The history of most such conjunctions of simplicity and extravagance—the marriage of ox and eagle—is this. The first year they get on tolerably well, for it is odd and romantic, and assisted by applause of people who admire outlawry [social deviance]. The second year the couple settle down into complete dislike of each other. The third year they separate and seek for divorce, or, as is more probable, the man becomes a drunkard, and the woman a blackened waif of the street. “Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant. But he knows not that the dead are there.”

These truant marriages are also to be deplored because in most instances they are executed in defiance of parental wisdom and kindness. Most parents are anxious for the best welfare of a child. If they make vehement and determined opposition, it is largely because it is a match unfit to be made, and they can see for their daughter nothing but wretchedness in that direction. They have keener and wiser appreciation, for instance, of the certain domestic demolition that comes from alcoholism in a young man.

They realize what an idiot a woman is who marries a man who has not brains or industry enough to earn a livelihood for a family. No bureau of statistics can tell us the number of women who, after marriage, have to support themselves and their husband. If the husband becomes invalid, it is a beautiful thing to see a wife uncomplainingly—by needle, pen, yardstick, washing machine, or iron—support the home. But these great, lazy masculine louts that stand around with hands in their pockets, allowing the wife with her weak arm to fight the battle of bread, need to be regurgitated from society!


There are innumerable instances in these cities where the wife pays the rent, meets all the family expenses, and furnishes the tobacco and the beer for “the lord of the household.” No wonder parents put on all the brakes to stop such a train of disaster. They have too often seen the gold ring put on the finger at the altar turning out to be the iron link of a chain of domestic servitude. What a farce it is for a man who cannot support himself, and not worth a cent in the world, to take a ring he purchased by money stolen from his grandmother’s cupboard, and put it on the finger of the bride, saying, “With this ring I thee wed, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.”

It is amazing to see how some women will marry men knowing nothing about them. No merchant would sell a $100 worth of goods on credit without knowing whether the customer was worthy of being trusted. No man or woman would buy a house with encumbrances of mortgages, liens, and judgements against it uncanceled. Yet there is not an hour of the day or night for the last ten years there have not been women by hasty marriage entrusting their earthly happiness to men about whose honesty they know nothing, or who are encumbered with liens, judgements, first mortgages, second mortgages, and third mortgages of evil habits.

No wonder that in such circumstances parents in conjugating the verb in question pass from the subjunctive mood to the indicative, and from the indicative to the imperative. In nearly all the cases of elopement that you will hear of the rest of your lives there will be a headlong leap over the barriers of parental common sense and forethought. “Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant. But he knows not that the dead are there.”


We also deplore these fraudulent espousals and this sneaking exchange of single life for married life because it is deception and vice. You must deceive your kindred, you must deceive society, you must deceive all but God, and Him you cannot deceive. Deception does not injure others so much as it injures ourselves. Marriage is too important a crisis in one’s life to be decided by sleight of hand, or a sort of jugglery that says, “Presto, change! Now you see her, and now you don’t.”

Better to wait for years for circumstances to improve. Time may remove all obstacles. The candidate for marital preferences may change his habits, he may get into some trade or business that will support a home, or the inexorable [impossible to convince] father and mother may be promoted to celestial citizenship. At the right time have the day appointed. Stand at the end of the best room in the house with joined hands, the minister before you, to challenge the world that “if you know of any reason why these two persons shall not be united, state it now or forever hold your peace.” Then start out with the good wishes of all the neighbors and the halo of the divine sanction. When you can go out of harbor at noon with all flags flying, do not try to run a blockade at midnight!

In view of all this, I charge you to break up clandestine [secret] correspondence if you are engaged in it, and have no more clandestine meetings, either at the ferry, on the street, at the house of mutual friends, or at the corner of the woods. Do not have letters come for you to the post office under assumed address. Have no correspondence that makes you uneasy lest someone by mistake open your letters. Do not employ terms of endearment at the beginning and close of letters unless you have a right to use them. That young lady is on the edge of danger who dares not allow her mother to see her letters.


If you have sensible parents, take them into your confidence in all affairs of the heart. They will give you more good advice in one hour than you can get from all the world beside in five years. They have toiled for you so long, and prayed for you so much, that they have your best interests at heart. At the same time let parents review their opposition to a proposed marital alliance, and see if their opposition is founded on a genuine wish for the child’s welfare, on some whim, notion, prejudice, or selfishness, fighting a natural law and trying to make Niagara run upstream.

William Pitt, the Prime Minister of England in the reign of George III, was known for saying wise things. One day Sir Walter Farquhar called on him in great perturbation. Mr Pitt inquired what was the matter, and Sir Walter told him that his daughter was about to be married to one not worthy of her rank.

Mr Pitt said: “Is the young man of respectable family?”


“Is he respectable in himself?”


“Has he an estimable character?”


“Why, then, my dear Sir Walter, make no opposition.”

The advice was taken, and a happy married life ensued.

Let ministers and officers of the law decline officiating at clandestine marriages. When they are asked to backdate a marriage certificate, as we all are asked, let them peremptorily decline to say that the ceremony was in November instead of January, or decline to leave the date blank, lest others fill out the record erroneously. Let a law be passed in all our states, as it has already been in some of the states, making a license from officers of the law necessary before we can unite couples, and then make it necessary to publish beforehand in the newspapers, as it used to be published in the New England churches, so that if there be lawful objection it may be presented, not swinging the buoy on the rocks after the ship has struck and gone to pieces.

And here it might be well for me to take all the romance out of an elopement by quoting a dozen lines of Robert Pollok, the Scotch poet, where he describes the crazed victim of one of these elopements:

… Yet had she many days
Of sorrow in the world, but never wept.
She lived on alms, and carried in her hand
Some withered stalks she gathered in the spring.
When any asked the cause, she smiled, and said
They were her sisters, and would come and watch
Her grave when she was dead. She never spoke
Of her deceiver, father, mother, home,
Or child, or heaven, or hell, or God; but still
In lonely places walked, and ever gazed
Upon the withered stalks, and talked to them;
Till wasted to the shadow of her youth,
With woe too wide to see beyond, she died—
Not unatoned for by imputed blood,
Nor by the Spirit, that mysterious works,
~Robert Pollok (The Course of Time)


But now I turn on this subject an intenser light. We have 1,500 lights in this church; and when by electric touch they are kindled in the evening service, it is almost startling. But this whole subject of clandestine marriage I put under a more intense light than that. The headlight of a locomotive is terrible if you stand near enough to catch the full glare of it. As it sweeps around the Horseshoe Curve of the Alleghenies or along the edges of the Sierra Nevadas, how far ahead, how deep down, and how high up it flashes. There is instantaneous revelation of mountain peak and wild beasts hieing themselves to their caverns and cascades 1,000 feet tall, or clinging in white terror to the precipices!

But more intense, more far-reaching, more sudden, swifter, and more tremendous is the headlight of an advancing Judgement Day, under which all the most hidden affairs of life will come to discovery and arraignment. I quote an overwhelming passage of Scripture, in which I put the whole emphasis on the word secret. “God shall bring every work into Judgement, with every secret thing, whether it be good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:14). “Nothing is secret that will not be made manifest; neither anything hid that will not be known” (Luke 8:17).

What a time that will be when the cover will be lifted from every home and every heart. The iniquity may have been so sly that it escaped all human detection, but it will be as well known on that day as the crimes of Sodom and Gomorrah, unless for Christ’s sake it has been forgiven. All the fingers of universal condemnation will be pointed at it. The archangel of wrath will stand there with uplifted thunderbolt ready to strike it. The squeamishness and prudery of earthly society, which hardly allowed some sins to be mentioned on earth, will be past, and the man who was unclean and the woman who was impure will, under a light brighter than 1,000 noonday suns, stand with the whole story written on scalp, forehead, cheek, hands, and feet, the whole resurrection body aflame and dripping with fiery disclosures, 10,000 sepulchral, celestial, and infernal voices crying, “Unclean! Unclean! Unclean!”

All marital intrigues and all secret iniquities will be published, as though all the trumpets spoke them, all the lightnings capitalized them, and all the earthquakes rumbled them. O man, recreant [unfaithful] to your marriage vow! O woman, in sinful collusion! What, then, will become of your poor soul? The tumbling Alps, Pyrenees, Himalayas, Adirondacks, Alleghenies, Appalachians, Rockies, Sierras, and Cascades cannot shelter you from the consequences of your secret sins. Better repent of them now, so that they cannot be brought against you.

For the chief of sinners there is pardon, if you ask it in time. But I leave you to guess what chance there will be for those who on earth lived in clandestine relations, when on that day the very Christ who had such high appreciation of the marriage relation that He compared it to His own relation with the Church, will appear at the door of the great hall of the Last Assize [Judgement Day], and all the multitudes of earth, hell, and heaven will rise up and cry out from the three galleries: “Behold, the Bridegroom comes” (Matthew 25:6)!

“Love is one long sweet dream, and marriage is the alarm clock.” ~Anonymous

Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit: Wedding Rings

*Adapted from “Clandestine Marriage,” Thomas DeWitt Talmage [1832-1902], The Wedding Ring: A Series of Discourses for Husbands and Wives and Those Contemplating Matrimony (New York: Louis Klopsch, 1896). Quotes, scriptural locations, photos, links, emendations added.