Ed Harrell on Divorce and Remarriage

By Ed Harrell

“What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” Matthew 19:6.

Although divorce was uncommon, such sins as “adultery,” “desertion, ” and common law marriage, caused frontier church leaders considerable concern. Most ante-bellum Christian churches were cautious and circumspect in inspecting the marital status of their members and rigorously disciplined offenders. Some preachers, especially during the early years of the movement, believed that it was sinful for Christians to marry “infidels or unbelievers,” a ban which included everyone outside the Disciples of Christ, and it was not unusual for a church member to be unchurched for such a violation. James S. Lamar vividly described the policy of the congregation in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania:

If a man married a woman who was not a member of the church, however moral and upright, and however respectful in her bearing towards Christianity and its ordinances, he was called to account for marrying contrary to the word of the Lord, and he must say – perhaps in the presence of his wife – that he was sorry for it; and moreover – though this probably gave the poor woman some comfort – he must promise that he would not do so any more!

Most church leaders agree, however, even during the 1830’s, that while the brother who married an “unbeliever” was “to be pitied,” he was not to be “put out.” Alexander Campbell wrote: “Certainly no Christian can . . . exclude a person simply for marrying any person not forbidden by the laws of the land.”

If most Disciples leaders believed that compliance with the “laws of the land” was all that was demanded for a scriptural marriage, they were not so liberal on the question of divorce. The generally accepted standard was: “There is no release then to husband or wife from the marriage contract unless the other party has been guilty of fornication.” A few church leaders were liberal enough to concede that “desertion,” a practice not uncommon on the frontier, was a just cause for divorce and remarriage, but they were the exceptions.

In general, the churches were probably more diligent in enforcing their code of morality in this area than in any other. Cases abound in the early church records of members being excluded for “bigamy,” “having two husbands living,” and “marrying a man who has a living wife,” as well as such sins as “adultery” and “fornication.” John Dexter was arraigned before the Wellsburg, Ohio, church for having taken a second wife after their first one had “repudiated” him. Dexter, who had not gone through the formality of getting a divorce after his first unfortunate marriage, was instructed by the church to return to his first wife. Dexter traced his first spouse down only to find that she had secured a divorce and remarried. The church then ruled that the jilted husband was free to marry so he returned home for a belated wedding ceremony with the second Mrs. Dexter. Unfortunately, “some informality in the late marriage was discovered” but the determined Dexter, according to the church record, “was again married to his last wife” (Quest For a Christian America, pp. 196-198).

Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 8, p. 227
April 19, 1990