Practical Christian Theology
Guest Writer Thomas DeWitt Talmage
“What God has joined together let not man put asunder” (Matthew 19:6).
That there are hundreds and thousands of unhappy homes in America no one will doubt. If there were only one skeleton in the closet, that might be locked up and abandoned; but in many a home there is a skeleton in the hallway and a skeleton in all the apartments.
“Unhappily married” are two words descriptive of many a homestead. It needs no orthodox minister to prove to a badly-mated pair that there is a hell; they are there now. Sometimes a grand and gracious woman will be thus incarcerated, and her life will be a crucifixion, as was the case with Lydia Sigourney, the great poetess and the great soul.
Sometimes a consecrated man will be united to a fury, as was John Wesley, or united to a vixen, as was John Milton. Sometimes, and generally, both parties are to blame. Thomas Carlyle was an intolerable scold, and his wife smoked and swore; and James Anthony Froude, Carlyle’s biographer, was mean [honest] enough to pull aside the curtain from the lifelong squabble at Craigenputtock and Five, Cheyne Row. [Actually Carlyle had selected Froude as his biographer and given him the materials; Froude felt it was his duty, as a conscientious man, to tell the whole truth.]
Some say that for the alleviation of all these domestic disorders of which we hear, easy divorce is a good prescription. God sometimes authorizes divorce as certainly as He authorizes marriage. I have as much regard for one lawfully divorced as I have for one lawfully married. But you know and I know that wholesale divorce is one of our national scourges.
I am not surprised at this when I think of the influences working against the marriage relation.
WHAT IS INFLUENCING DIVORCE?
For many years the platforms of the country rang with talk about a Free Love Movement. There were meetings of this kind held in the Academy of Music, Brooklyn; Cooper Institute, New York; Tremont Temple, Boston; and all over the land. Some of the women who were most prominent in that movement have since been distinguished for great promiscuity.
Popular themes for such occasions were the tyranny of man, the oppression of the marriage relation, women’s rights, and such [feminism, eugenics]. Prominent speakers were women with short curls, short dress, and very long tongue, everlastingly at war with God because they were created women; while on the platform sat meek men with soft accent and cowed demeanor, apologetic for being masculine, and holding the parasols while the harsh-tempered, overbearing orators went on preaching the gospel of Free Love.
That campaign of about twenty years set more devils in the marriage relation than will be exorcised in the next fifty. Men and women went home from such meetings so permanently confused as to who were their wife or husband that they never got out of the perplexity.
And the criminal and the civil courts tried to disentangle the Iliad of woes. This one got alimony; that one got a limited divorce. This mother kept the children on condition that the father could sometimes come and look at them. These went into the poorhouse; those went into an insane asylum; those went into dissolute public life; and all went to destruction. The mightiest war ever made against the marriage institution was that Free Love campaign, sometimes under one name and sometimes under another [cf Feminism].
Another influence that has warred against the marriage relation has been polygamy in the Territory of Utah [Utah became a territory in 1850; a state, in 1896]. That is a stereotyped caricature of the marriage relation, and has poisoned the whole land. You might as well think that you can have an arm in a state of mortification and yet the whole body not be sickened, as to have those territories polygamized and yet the body of the nation not feel the putrefaction!
Hear it, good men and women of America. As long ago as 1862 a law was passed by Congress forbidding polygamy in the territories and in all the places where the Federal government had jurisdiction. Twenty-two years have passed [here 1884] and five Presidential administrations, armed with all the power of the US government, having an army at their disposal, and yet the first brick has not been knocked from that fortress of libertinism.
Every new US President in his inaugural has tickled that monster with the straw of condemnation, and every US Congress has stolen its enthusiasm by proposing some plan that would not work. Polygamy stands in Utah and other US territories today bolder, more entrenched, more brazen, more boastful, more powerful, and more infernal than at any time in its history. President James Buchanan, a much-abused man of his day, did more for the destruction of this villainy than all the subsequent administrations have dared to do. He sent out an army [Utah War (1857)], and though it was halted in its work, still he accomplished more than the subsequent administrations, which have done nothing but talk, talk, talk!
I want the people of America to know that for twenty-two years we have had a positive law prohibiting polygamy in the territories [now 1884]. People are crying for some new law, as though we had not an old law already with which that infamy could be swept into the perdition from which it smoked up! Polygamy in Utah has warred against the marriage relation throughout the land. It is impossible to have such an awful sewer of iniquity sending up its miasma, which is wafted by the winds north, south, east, and west, without the whole land being affected by it.
Another influence that has warred against the marriage relation in this country has been cheap novels, with their millions of sheets every week choked with stories of domestic wrongs, infidelities, massacres, and outrages until it is a wonder to me that there is any decency or common sense left on the subject of marriage. One-half of the news stands of Brooklyn, New York, and all our cities are reeking with the filth.
“Now,” say some, “we admit all these evils, and the only way to clear them out or correct them is by easy divorce.”
Well, before we yield to that cry, let us find out how easy it is now.
HOW EASY IS DIVORCE?
I have looked over the laws of all the states, and I find that while in some states it is easier than in others, in every state it is easy. The State of Illinois through its legislature recites a long list of proper causes for divorce, and then closes up by giving to the courts the right to make a decree of divorce in any case where they deem it expedient. After that you are not surprised at the announcement that in one county of the State of Illinois, in one year, there were 833 divorces. If you want to know how easy it is, you have only to look over state records. In one year in Massachusetts, 600 divorces; in Maine, 478; in Connecticut, 401 divorces; in the city of San Francisco, 333 divorces (1880); in New England, 2113 divorces; in New England, in twenty years, 20,000. Is that not easy enough?
If the same ratio continue, the ratio of multiplied divorce and multiplied causes of divorce, we are not far from the time when our courts will have to set apart whole days for application. All you will have to prove against a man will be that he left his slippers in the middle of the floor. All you will have to prove against a woman will be that her husband’s overcoat was buttonless.
Causes of divorce doubled in a few years: doubled in France, doubled in England, and doubled in the United States. To show how very easy it is, I have to tell you that in Western Reserve, Ohio, the proportion of divorces to marriages celebrated is one to eleven; in Rhode Island, one to thirteen; in Vermont, one to fourteen. Is not that easy enough?
Frequency of divorce always goes along with the dissoluteness of society. For 500 years Rome had not one case of divorce. Those were her days of glory and virtue. Then the reign of vice began, and divorce became epidemic. If you want to know how rapidly the Empire went down, ask Edward Gibbon. Do you know how the Reign of Terror (1793) was introduced in France? By 20,000 cases of divorce in one year in Paris.
What we want in this country and in all lands is that divorce be made more and more difficult. Then people, before they enter marriage, will be persuaded that there will probably be no escape from it except through the door of the sepulcher. Then they will pause on the verge of that relation until they are fully satisfied that it is best, that it is right, and that it is happiest.
Then we shall have no more marriage in fun. Then men and women will not enter the relation with the idea it is only a trial trip; if they do not like it, they can get out at the first landing [or off at the first exit]. Then this whole question will be taken out of the frivolous into the tremendous, and there will be no more joking about the blossoms in a bride’s hair than about the cypress on a coffin!
What we want is that the US Congress move for the amending the US Constitution so that a uniform law will be applicable all over the country, and what is right in one state will be right in all the states, and what is wrong in one state will be wrong in all the states.
HOW IS DIVORCE NOW?
Laws Varying Between States
If a party in the marriage relation gets dissatisfied, it is only necessary to move to another state to achieve liberation from the domestic tie, and divorce is effected so easy that the first one party knows of it is by seeing it in the newspaper that Rev Dr Somebody, on 14 April 1884, introduced into a new marriage relation a member of the household who went off on a pleasure excursion to Newport or a business excursion to Chicago. Married at the bride’s house. No cards. There are states of the Union that practically put a premium on the disintegration of the marriage relation, while there are other states, like our own State of New York, that has the preeminent idiocy of making marriage lawful at twelve and fourteen years of age.
The US Congress needs to move at the present session for a Constitutional amendment, and then to appoint a committee—made up of not bachelors, but married men—who will prepare a good, honest, righteous, comprehensive, uniform law that will control everything from Sandy Hook [New Jersey] to Golden Horn [Istanbul, Turkey]. That will put an end to brokerages in marriage. That will send divorce lawyers into a decent business. That will set people agitated for many years on the question of how will they get away from each other to planning how they can adjust themselves to the more or less unfavorable circumstances.
Men Marrying for Money
More difficult divorce will put an end to marriage as a financial speculation. There are men who go into the relation just as they go into Wall Street: to purchase shares. The female to be invited into the partnership of wedlock is utterly unattractive, and in disposition a suppressed Vesuvius. Everybody knows it, but this masculine candidate for matrimonial orders, through the commercial agency or through the county records, finds out how much estate is to be inherited, and he calculates it.
He reckons how long it will be before the old man will die, whether he can stand the refractory temper until he does die, and then he enters the relation. He thinks, “If I cannot stand it, then through the divorce law I’ll back out.” That process is going on all the time, and men enter the relation without any moral principle, without any affection, and it is as much a matter of stock speculation as anything that transpired yesterday in Union Pacific, Wabash, and Delaware and Lackawanna!
Now, suppose a man understood, as he ought to understand, that if he goes into that relation there is no possibility of his getting out, or no probability, he would be slower to put his neck in the yoke. He would say to himself, “Rather than a Caribbean whirlwind with a whole fleet of shipping in its arms, give me a zephyr off fields of sunshine and gardens of peace.”
Women Marrying to Reform a Man
Rigorous divorce law will also hinder women from the fatal mistake of marrying men to reform them. If a young man by twenty-five years of age or thirty years of age has the habit of strong drink fixed on him, he is as certainly bound for a drunkard’s grave as that a train starting out from Grand Central Depot at 8 o’clock tomorrow morning is bound for Albany. The train may not reach Albany, for it may be thrown from the track. The young man may not reach a drunkard’s grave, for something may throw him off the iron track of evil habit; but the probability is that the train that starts tomorrow morning at 8 o’clock for Albany will get there and the probability is that the young man who has the habit of strong drink fixed on him before twenty-five or thirty years of age will arrive at a drunkard’s grave. She knows he drinks, though he tries to hide it by chewing cloves. Everybody knows he drinks. Parents warn, neighbors and friends warn. She will marry him, she will reform him.
If she is unsuccessful in the experiment, why then the divorce law will emancipate her, because habitual drunkenness is a cause for divorce in Indiana, Kentucky, Florida, Connecticut, and nearly all the states. So the poor thing goes to the altar of sacrifice. If you will show me the poverty-stricken streets in any city, I will show you the homes of the women who married men to reform them. In one case out of 10,000 it may be a successful experiment. I never saw the successful experiment. But have a rigorous divorce law, and that woman will say, “If I am affianced to that man, it is for life; and if now in the ardor of his young love, and I am the prize to be won, he will not give up his cups, when he has won the prize, surely he will not give up his cups.” And so that woman will say to the man, “No, sir, you are already married to the club, and you are married to that evil habit. You are married twice, and you are a bigamist. Go!”
Marrying in Haste
A rigorous divorce law will also do much to hinder hasty and inconsiderate marriages.
Under the impression that one can be easily released, parties enter the relation without inquiry and without reflection. Romance and impulse rule the day. Perhaps the only ground for the marriage compact is that she likes his looks and he admires the graceful way she passes around the ice cream at the picnic! It is all they know about each other. It is all the preparation for life.
A man not able to pay his own board bill, with not a dollar in his possession, will stand at the altar and take the loving hand, and say, “With all my worldly goods I thee endow!” A woman that could not make a loaf of bread to save her life will swear to cherish and obey. A Christian will marry an atheist, and that always makes conjoined wretchedness; for if a man does not believe there is a God, he is neither to be trusted with a dollar nor with your lifelong happiness.
Having read much about love in a cottage, people brought up in ease will go and starve in a hovel. Runaway matches and elopements, 999 out of 1,000 of which mean death and hell, multiplying on all hands. You see them in every day’s newspapers. Our ministers in this region have no defense such as they have in other cities where the banns must be previously published and an officer of the law must give a certificate that all is right; so clergymen are left defenseless, and unite those who ought never to be united. Perhaps they are too young or perhaps they are standing already in some domestic compact.
By the wreck of 10,000 homes, by the holocaust of 10,000 sacrificed men and women, by the hearthstone of the family which is the cornerstone of the state, and in the name of that God who has created the family institution and who has made the breaking of the marital oath the most appalling of all perjuries, I implore the US Congress to make some righteous, uniform law for all the states, and from ocean to ocean, on this subject of marriage and divorce!
WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
Let me say to the hundreds of young people in this house this morning, before you give your heart and hand in holy alliance, use all caution; inquire outside as to habits, explore the disposition, scrutinize the taste, question the ancestry, and find out the ambitions. Do not take the heroes and the heroines of cheap novels for a model. Do not put your lifetime happiness in the keeping of a man who has a reputation for being a little loose in morals or in the keeping of a woman who dresses fast. While good looks are a kindly gift of God, wrinkles or accident may despoil them. Byron was no more celebrated for his beauty than for his depravity. Absalom’s hair was not more splendid than his habits were despicable. Hear it, hear it! The only foundation for happy marriage that ever has been or ever will be is good character!
Consult Your Parents
Ask your parents’ counsel in this most important step of your life. They are good advisers. They are the best friends you ever had. They made more sacrifices for you than anyone else ever did, or ever will do, and they will do more today for your happiness than any other people. Ask them.
Above all, ask God.
I used to smile at John Brown of Haddington, author of the “Self-Interpreting Bible,” because when he was about to offer his hand and heart in marriage to one who became his lifelong companion, he opened the conversation by saying, “Let us pray.” But I have seen so many shipwrecks on the sea of matrimony, I have made up my mind that John Brown of Haddington was right.
A union formed in prayer will be a happy union, though sickness pale the cheek, though poverty empty the bread tray, though death open the small graves, and though all the path of life be strewn with thorns, from the marriage altar with its wedding march and orange blossoms clear on down to the last farewell at that gate where Isaac and Rebekah, Abraham and Sarah, Adam and Eve, parted.
Appreciate Each Other
Let me say to you who are in this relation, if you make one man or woman happy, you have not lived in vain. What Christ is to the Church, you ought to be to each other. If sometime, through difference of opinion or difference of disposition, you make up your mind that your marriage was a mistake, patiently bear and forbear. Life at its longest is short. To those who have been badly mated in this world, Death will give quick and immediate bill of divorcement written in letters of green grass on quiet graves. And perhaps, my brother, my sister, perhaps you may appreciate each other better in heaven than you have appreciated each other on earth.
Guard Your Tongue
Let me say to those of you who are in happy married union, avoid quarrels. Have no unexplained correspondence with former admirers. Cultivate no suspicion. In a moment of bad temper do not rush out and tell the neighbors. Do not let any of those gadabouts of society unload in your house their baggage of gab and tittle-tattle. Do not stand on your rights. Learn how to apologize. Do not be so proud, or so stubborn, or so devilish that you will not make up.
The worst domestic misfortunes and most scandalous divorce cases started from little innocent remarks. The whole piled-up train wreck, of ten rail cars telescoped and smashed at the foot of an embankment one hundred feet down, came to that catastrophe by getting two or three inches off the track. Some of the greatest domestic misfortunes and the widest resounding divorce cases have started from little misunderstandings that were allowed to go on and go on until home, respectability, Faith, and immortal soul went down in the crash!
Be a Team
Let us have a divine rage against anything that wars against the marriage state. Blessed institution! Instead of two arms to fight the battle of life, four. Instead of two eyes to scrutinize the path of life, four. Instead of two shoulders to lift the burden of life, four. Twice the energy, twice the courage, twice the holy ambition, twice the probability of worldly success, twice the prospects of heaven.
Into that matrimonial bower God fetches two souls. Outside the bower room for all contention, all bickering, and all controversy; but inside that bower room for only one guest—Love. Let Love stand at the floral doorway of this Edenic bower with drawn sword to hew down the worst foe of that bower—easy divorce. And for every Paradise Lost may there be a Paradise Regained. And after we quit our home here, may we have a brighter home in heaven at the windows of which this moment are familiar faces watching for our arrival and wondering why we tarry so long.
“Let not the sun go down on your wrath. Neither give place to the devil …. Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. Be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving each other, even as God, for Christ’s sake, has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:26-32).
Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee
Photo Credit: Wedding Rings
*Adapted from “Easy Divorce,” 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.