Project Canterbury







Published at the Request of the Vestry


EDWIN S. GORHAM, Publisher
Church Missions House

A. D. 1902

Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2012

Divorce and Re-Marriage

SERMON—ST. MATT. xix, 6:
"What therefore God hath joined together let not man put asunder."

IN the shadowed days of Lent, when men are face to face with their sins, and much in thought of the Passion of Christ, it is but natural for the mind to revert to dark and painful subjects which bode ill to us and to the world in which we are sojourning for a while. Of such are two which lead to frequent and depressing reflection: the breaking up of the Family and the Home, the lessening respect and reverence for the Lord's day. On each of these sad themes, I wish to speak to you; and to-day, of the former; of the way in which Home Life, and home ideals, are menaced by an evil practice, which grows and gains ground faster and faster from day to day, from year to year. There is in this country an association known as the "National League for the Protection of the Family." It used to be called, "The National Divorce Reform League." Why the name was changed, I do not know; but it was easy to do so because of the close relations between the family and its deadliest foe. Protection of the family and discouragement of divorce go together; [3/4] divorce breaks up the home, and so reverence for the home demands steady war on divorce. If ever an organization were needed, such as this so-called "National League," it is needed now and here; if ever one invited the sympathy and help of good and true men and women, it is this, which stands to defend the most precious thing that we possess, and to arrest the progress of a mortal disease.

The Home is the unit of society: the Christian home the unit of Christian civilization. Consider that vast and complex fabric, the Social Order; reduce it to its elements, and you come to the family and the home. There are the germ of the state, the fountain of order and law, the seat of rule and government, the bond of mutual affection, interest, and duty. The earthly state is but the expansion of a family; nay to the heavenly state in which we hope through God's mercy and love to have our part the same sweet descriptive title is applied: "the whole family in heaven and earth." (Ephes. 3:15). This is the most sacred thing below the stars, next to the Church of God, whether we consider the blessings received there or the benefits flowing thence. The family is constituted by the Lord. There are the rulers and the subjects; the two heads, equal in honour, dignity, rights and responsibility, yet having different functions and powers; there is the precious trust of children to be guarded, led up to youth and full age, and trained for their own place and work in life. And when, to the natural gifts is added the sacramental sign, with the benediction of the [4/5] Holy Trinity, all has been done that could be done, to secure a solid foundation for the social fabric, and the peace of the world. Society is constituted, not by lonely and solitary individuals, but by families. Will you save society from destruction? See that you guard and protect the home.

But here, godless philosophy and human selfishness and passion interfere to frustrate the purpose of the Lord. Against this institution war is made, and has been made from the beginning. Discontent with things as they are in an imperfect world prompts to incessant schemes of change; whereof the most advanced and dangerous are those of the communist and the anarchist. Back of these stands Socialism, the inspiration of its horrid sequels. In the systems of communism and anarchy, the home and the family have no place; they are held in disfavour; to destroy them is the object; and this is to be effected by abolishing marriage, leaving all free to mate at will and part when they choose, and relieving parents of the care of their offspring.

[That the schemes of the communist and the anarchist are the outcome of that system of economic reform known under the general name of socialism, must be evident to the dispassionate student. Let me refer the reader to a pamphlet entitled, "The Position of Women in the Socialistic Utopia,'' by Ms. Caroline Fairfield Corbin, published in Chicago, December, 1901, of which my copy is one of the tenth thousand. The writer shows, that "a hundred years of experience has confirmed the view, that family life and communal life are wholly incompatible. Family life involves authority over children and responsibility for their welfare, but communism proposes to abolish all authority and to supersede parental control by making children the wards of the state. Besides this, communism abolishes in toto the right of inheritance, along with that of private property; but when parents have brought up their children in separate homes and have formed their ties of self-sacrificing love which nature weaves with incalculable strength about the parental heart, the laws of private possession and inheritance will maintain themselves with an authority against which the social reformer may rail in vain." The whole tract is well worth reading, as a demonstration that anarchy is the final term of the modern socialistic movement, and that the effect of loosening the bonds of authority between parents and children, masters and servants, pupils and teachers, is to [5/6] lower the state of national morality. The founder of the Oneida Community in Western New York, John Humphrey Noyes, laid it down as a principle, that "there is no intrinsic difference between property in persons and property in things, and that the same spirit which abolishes exclusiveness in regard to money, would abolish, if circumstances allowed full scope to it, exclusiveness in women and children."]

That is the end at which our revolutionists aim; and though there be no danger of the early adoption of their tenets, many influences are working, silently and without observation, in that direction. The home rests only on the sanctity and indissolubility of Marriage; and, therefore, whatever works against the permanence of the domestic bond, is working towards the destruction of home life. Low views of the matrimonial estate; defective ideas of its obligations and duties; the wish to make it easy to separate whenever either party inclines to separation; infidelity to plighted troth, promise and vows; the entrance on marriage for low base motives or without affection, under the influence of passion; divorce followed at the earliest practicable moment by re-marriage; practical polygamy, as men take wife after wife, and women husband after husband, all the former partners surviving: practices, and notions such as these lead right on towards the platform of communism and anarchy. If the family is the unit of the state, assault on the family is assault on civilization and revolt from the laws on which the order of the world depends. This is the sequence, which the unwise and thoughtless, blind to fact have failed to observe; which makes the question the most urgent of the hour. It should be discussed, not in anger, but with a gravity appropriate to its dread significance; with a settled, growing, deadly fear, for which, as loose views on the marriage relations spread, there is more cause from day to day.

[7] I repeat it: whatever tends to lower the ideal of marriage, impair its obligation, and make the dissolution and repetition easy, threatens civilization and jeopards the cause of law and righteousness throughout the world. On no subject do Christians feel more concern; and rightly, for He whose name we bear was particularly emphatic on this subject, while the Church has guarded her children carefully on the point. Clear outlines were drawn for our instruction and warning, by the Master's hand; at one point, perhaps, there is room for honest difference of opinion as to His teaching, but in general the meaning is as plain as the day. According to Christ, marriage, as first instituted, was the union of one man and one woman for life by a bond dissoluble only by death. That bond cannot be broken, and another formed in its place, unless, perhaps, in the case of adultery, and then the right to marry belongs only to the party innocent of the cause of separation. I admit, that there is a shadow of a doubt as to what our Lord said about this; but one of two things is certain; either that He countenanced divorce with re-marriage in no case whatever, or else that He allowed re-marriage after divorce for one, and only one cause. There seems to be no escape from this conclusion. If in the eyes of the Judge above there is ever cause for absolute divorce, the cause is the failure of one of the parties to keep faith to the other so long as they both shall live. No other cause of final and completed separation is valid, if we are to hear Christ; not cruelty, nor desertion, nor incompatibility of temper, nor dissolute habits: these are not admitted at the bar [7/8] overhead, whatever may be done in courts here on earth. Legal separation is not forbidden; circumstances may justify, or make it imperative. But re-marriage is either absolutely prohibited by the Law of Christ, or permitted only in the case of an innocent and pure person linked to an adulterous companion. That is the rule in our Christian code; let the lax, the unbelieving, the sentimental, the sympathetic, the maudlin say what they please.

[* The places in Holy Scripture in which the law of Christ on the subjects of marriage, divorce, and re-marriage is announced, are the following: St. Matt. 5: 31, 32; 19: 8, 9; St. Mark 10: 11, 12; St. Luke 16: 18; St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans 7: 2, 3. We have the statements of three evangelists and the apostle to the Gentiles to guide us on this point; and as to St. Paul, if he received directly from the Lord information about the Holy Communion, it can hardly be considered that he was left in error as to the mind of the Lord about Holy Matrimony. Of the four authorities, three are in accord; no re-marriage after divorce, for any cause, in any case. As to the other Witness, there is indeed a reservation, making it appear as if he did not concur: but note this, first that the word used to carry his exception is of doubtful meaning,—for no one can be sure whether it denotes ante-nuptial unchastity or post-nuptial infidelity,—and secondly, that there is strong reason to believe that the passage is not as St. Matthew wrote it originally, but has been tampered with by some transcriber in sympathy with the Hebrew line of thought and practice. Why any one should venture to set aside three of the witnesses, all speaking to the same effect and without any shadow of variation, and insist on following the fourth with all existing uncertainties about the accuracy of the report of his words, is hard to explain. This much is clear, that seventy-five per cent of the authority is in favour of the rigorous view of this subject. And the Church, from the day of Pentecost to long time afterward, was a unit on the side presented by St. Mark, St. Luke and St. Paul, as they understood the Lord. We want nothing clearer or plainer than this statement which covers the whole case: "And He saith, whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery." Let churches and States govern themselves accordingly to that simple statute, and society shall be the better for the treatment of one of its most dangerous diseases.]

Let me now set this matter in another light. Look at our beautiful marriage service in the Prayer Book. What does it mean? On what theory was it composed? What does it express, and what imply? "The Form of Solemnization of Matrimony." It is [8/9] drawn up on the lines of pure and high Christian doctrine: it sets forth what the Church teaches concerning Holy Matrimony or Christian Marriage. First, it relates the divine institution of that union, and its sacredness; next, with a correct appreciation of the chief cause of unhappy unions, it warns against entering that holy estate unadvisedly or lightly. It exacts a mutual promise to forsake all others and live together till death do part. To those whom it may concern, it delivers a warning in terms almost of a threat: "those whom God hath joined together let no man put asunder." And then follows the benediction of the Holy Trinity on the pair thus linked together in sacramental union. This is not a mere civil contract; it is a sacred ordinance through which works the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. The heart sometimes sinks, in saying that service or hearing it said: it sinks on reflecting how often every word spoken by the man or the woman is taken back, every promise and pledge broken, in how many cases a parting asunder occurs, not brought about by death, but by a change of mind, or indifference or caprice, or frivolity, or the desire for variety, or by a new passion supplementing the old; [In a recent notorious divorce case it appeared in evidence that the man, a year after his marriage, coolly begged his wife to release him in order that he might marry another woman with whom, as he informed her he had fallen deeply in love, during his wife's temporary absence!] how often man does put asunder those once joined by God, and how fast they rush into new alliances, without scruple and with indecent haste. When such persons, false to plighted faith and to each other, seek a priest of the Church, and request him to countenance, effect, and [9/10] bless a new connexion, is it not almost too much to endure? How can he without a shudder, say the words of the office again, and dictate their repetition? To some of us it seems very much like sacrilege. When the lie has been given to what was spoken by the lips; when, with a divorced husband or a wife living, it is proposed to go through that sacred and solemn rite once more, in favour of a new pretender, how can the Minister of Christ lend a hand to such playing at fast and loose with the most stringent of personal obligations and one of the most sacred ordinances of religion? There are some of us who say that they never will.

Prevention is better than cure; and so let me next refer to one cause, a very common cause, of unhappiness in marriage. The people are distinctly told that marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God. In how many instances is that direction thrown to the winds! I repeat the words, "Reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God." With reverence for a holy institution which must not be profaned; with that discretion which carefully discerns between lower and higher motive, between good intention and evil; under advice from conscience, and the rules of the Church and the spiritual or secular guides who have a right to counsel soberly, without blind passion or intemperate desire, or base aim; and, lastly, in the fear of God and His righteous law and judgment. These are the rules which to break is to invite disappointment and disaster. What bitter mockery of the words, where people marry [10/11] with no consideration, with no serious thought, for simply selfish ends; sometimes for a joke, or in bravado! Women give themselves away to men for whom they can have no respect, aware through general rumour or by personal knowledge, of their low moral tone and unsavoury reputation; men marry women notorious for frivolity, luxuriousness and selfishness of soul; each knows what is likely to follow; and when it follows, we hear the plea of "innocence" of the consequences. Sometimes I wonder why those wretched beings who approach the Altar unadvisedly and lightly with no reverence for Christ, no soberness of thought, no fear of God, are not blasted by the words addressed to them ere they have sealed their condemnation. If error so grave as this is committed at the start, there is no right to complain when judgment follows.

The subject on which I am speaking to you is of such delicacy and difficulty, that we of the Clergy must be pardoned for reluctance to bring it before the people, the more so because we cannot put the case so strongly as we might and should like to do; the worst cannot be told. But certain it is, to put it in the strong words of the Right Reverend Bishop Doane, that "The Church and the world to-day are face to face, not so much with the question of scriptural exegesis, or ecclesiastical questions of interpretation, as with a condition so horrible that it must be dealt with by heroic measures." [* Annual Convention Address of the Bishop of Albany, 1901.] We have a charge to speak; and speak we must, fearing the Master's [11/12] sentence on servants derelict to duty. That duty could hardly be plainer; and, casting about for allies and helpers, we often think of those who most strongly influence the acts of society, as it is called, and have the issues in their own hands. There are women among us, who stand in the foremost ranks in the social order if fortune and eminent position may be taken as criteria of power over others; are not they responsible to God and man for their attitude toward the fatal drift of the age? what might they not do, if they would, to check this growing corruption in modern manners and life! It has been well said, by a thoughtful writer, that the chief secret of unhappy marriages is the blinding of souls and consciences by that unenlightened public opinion, so prevalent, which regards marriage as a contract to be dissolved at will. [Divorce and Re-Marriage. By the Rev. Frederick J. Bassett D. D. The Church Eclectic.] What are our society leaders doing to counteract that notion by example, by precept, and, above all, by rigid discrimination against offenders who, having forfeited the right to recognition, demand and obtain it, after their escapades, as though their acts had no bearing on their social relations and position? Unquestionably, women of rank should be able to protect their own houses and homes: if they do not, so much the worse for us all; the imitative public will follow suit, and the evil will deepen down. The scandal grows; the malady spreads; new instances shock us day after day; the divorce mills work faster; the dark wings of evil flap over the land, above and around our homes. After all there is the [12/13] greatest trouble; there are the consequences worst. Only then do we appreciate the danger, when we see the breaking up of the family life. Each new case hastens forward a catastrophe, familiarizing the public with sin and promoting the extension of moral decay. Some of us have tried to awaken a conscience on this subject, in souls in which it seems to be dead. We have worked hard, and long in our General Convention, to obtain a law forbidding the clergy to give the blessing of the Church on any marriage not distinctly sanctioned by Christ; we have not succeeded; but we shall fight it out on that line as long as we live. We have done this under conviction of duty, and as men who hear the groaning of an imperilled society and the cry of the children robbed of parent and home.

[A writer under the name of "Laica," in the Outlook, Saturday, Feb. 22d, 1902, had an article entitled "The Children's Side of Divorce." She calls attention to the growing indifference to the evil, in what sets up for being polite society. "Twelve years ago a young friend of mine in New York, just married, called my attention to one name on her visiting list as that of a woman who had been divorced and married again within a short time. It was the only name of the kind on the list. Last summer, the same woman, a fashionable young matron, told me that her list now had thirty-two such cases. In my own town, smaller than New York, I have counted up the divorced people I personally know. There are twenty-three cases. Of these, at least one out of each couple has married again, except in two instances, and of these two, one died and the others are Roman Catholics. Ten years ago I knew one case, and it was socially ostracized. Ask yourself how many married divorcés you were likely to meet at dinner in one season fifteen years ago, and how many you meet now? The writer of this article says many things of the unhappy children, the helpless victims of desolated homes, whose cry goes up to God. Weather casts like these are the sure sign of worse to come, if the evolution be not speedily and vigorously checked. But what are our society leaders doing to help for God and righteousness and reform?]

After all, there is no sadder feature in the case than that of the innocent victims of the follies and sins of their natural guardians and protectors. What must it be to a child, to lose faith in the purity of a mother or the honour of a father; to miss the training of a well-ordered home; [13/14] to find out that the mother is not its own mother, or the father its own father; that a blot is on the family name, and a stain on the opening pages of life; to be confronted with problems of divided loyalty and uncertain duty; to have lost the lights which should have shown the way through childhood's years, and that just pride of ancestry, where no shades of dishonor or disgrace can fall upon the record? Where, for such as these are the delightful memories of the past, the sweet associations with the dearest of all names, the best of all friends, the guides of our youth, the lovers true as steel, to those nearest to their hearts? What if the annals of the first year are a closed book, not to be opened without a pang, nor perused without lamentation over a blighted past? Of sorrow such as this have we thought in the battle against the enemies of our peace; and though the hour of victory has not yet arrived, we still call to God, and implore Him to send out His light, and turn men and women to righteousness and sober, godly living, and defend His ordinances, and save the things which seem ready to die.

[* There is a hopeful side to this matter. To refer once more to Dr. Bassett's article, he says:—The tide of public sentiment in these matters, which had receded from the high-water mark to about its lowest possible ebb, will soon come flooding in again, and indeed it has already begun to turn. A writer in the Westminster Review, discussing our subject from the standpoint of the impassionate student of social phenomena, cannot refrain from expressing the thought that, after all scientific sociology only arrives at the old conclusions which have so long been defended on grounds of authority and tradition. These are the writer's words, and with them I conclude:

"This is the question which urgently presses for solution—what if, after all, the old religious view should turn out to be the sound view? What if the Churches, pledged to support indissoluble marriage and to oppose divorce, should prove to be in the right? On the whole, a religious manner of regarding marriage must continue to be the main factor in its future development, if social order and progress—not disintegration and anarchy,—be in store for us. To suppose that the sacramental view of marriage is confined to theologians is to greatly err. For all the elect, for all chosen souls, for all the pure in heart, for all men and women of fine understanding, marriage is still a sacrament—the life-tie between husband and wife, between father and mother, is still supremely awful, supremely reverend, supremely holy."]

[15] To return to the point of departure; the urgent duty to protect the family and the home. True, healthy earnest home life is what we need. Let nothing steal into that peaceful place to disturb, derange, imperil. Within those precincts are the high ideals; the earthly reflections of heavenly things. The Home is the school in which the young should be trained to fulfil the design of the God who gave them their being; young men and women taught by precept and example, should know how to play their part in this world; how to value, and some day to form, alliances on which the blessing of the Father may rest; how to build up homes of their own, in which virtue, loyalty, and truth shall be foundation and capstone. Many are the reformers about us, each engaged, and all absorbed, in their several specialties; but nothing is more needed than reformation in the general mind concerning the edifying and preservation of holy homes. How can such homes exist, unless constituted in the fear of the Lord? How can such be hallowed, save by the word of the Lord and prayer? How can the homes of the people be what the social order needs, if religion has no share in their management; if the standard of motive and action is set by the vanity, the low appetency, the coward desire of a materialistic money-worshipping age? What home is that, where no high principle appears to influence either of its heads; in which the ideas of self-denial and affectionate mutual consideration get little or no recognition; where one traces, all through, the signs of want of sympathy, discordant views, indifference, and stubborn [15/16] or sullen independence? What home is that, where the father is all day at his business and all the evening at his club; and the mother is on her society treadmill morning, afternoon and night; and the children are thrown over to tutors and servants, with no care for their companionship and no heed to their moral training or spiritual needs? How can a home exist, in safety and peace, whose heads deem themselves free to form new interests, to live their lives apart, to meditate of separation, to plan how to gratify new-born passion, and how to free themselves from obligations deliberately incurred before the Church and the people? O! for a rectified public opinion! O! for a moral uprising, a stern loud protest against the toleration of offences which endanger the safety of the state and war upon the common peace! O! for the sound of the voices of wise and honourable women, of conspicuous station and large influence, to rebuke those who flaunt before the public the disgusting details of their discontents, inconstancies and infelicities! O! for an alliance of the leading religious bodies of this nation, for uniform action on the subject of marriage and divorce! Let us hope, and pray, for an uprising of the people, in favour of the sacramental view of marriage, as a holy estate, indissoluble save by death, and in reprobation of the mockery of vows repeated as soon as the former promises have been broken, and new contracts signed almost before the old had been torn up. God, send the dawn of a better day, when His children shall no longer despise His law, but hold it in due reverence, and shall rise in thought and life to a higher plane, and [16/17] the bat's wings shall cease to flap through darkening skies, and the lights along our avenues shall be clearer than they seem to be to-day. "What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder."

In the Midsummer Number of Harper's Magazine, there is a story by Edith Wharton, entitled "The Reckoning," which is helpful to us who are contending against the advanced views of the day, and for which we are grateful to the accomplished authoress. "The marriage law of the new dispensation," as it is styled, contains as many falsehoods as sentences; it may be classed, to use St. Peter's vigourous language, among the "damnable heresies" that bring "swift destruction," on those misled by them. Marriage is a crime against human nature; a relic of an old-world conspiracy to force men and women into the narrowest of personal relations and keep them there till the end, whatever changes of mind and heart may have occurred. The personal relations contracted in marriage should be considered as necessarily transitive; absolute freedom ought to be the law; and the parties to the contract should regard it as a right and a duty to keep faith with themselves separately and not to live together for a moment after complete accord had ceased to exist between them. In "The Reckoning," we see how this philosophy works. A man and a woman marry. By and by the woman finds herself unable to live with the man, and so she leaves him, and, aided by the laws of Dakota or some western state, gets her divorce, and is free to start again.

[18] Her second marriage now occurs with a man who holds her own advanced ideas on the conditions of the marriage tie. By and by he gets tired of her, and, meeting with a fascinating young woman, also of the "advanced " school, takes leave of his companion, with the caustic observation. "I thought it was a fundamental article of our creed, that the special circumstances produced by marriage were not to interfere with the full assertion of individual liberty." To this, the unfortunate woman has no reply to make, so he goes off briskly with the new girl, and leaves the other to do what she likes, having, as the saying is, "no further use for her." The story goes on to show the results in these two cases, of a husband thrown over by his wife, and a woman thrown over by her husband. The man goes on fairly enough, soured, hard, broken up, but living comfortably and callously, by himself. The woman, whose existence is in the affections, who walks in that higher sphere where they need and depend on constancy and love, is left in her agony, sick at heart, helpless, with nothing but a vague sense that the end is come, in the outside darkness. To the novelist, who has thus shown the hideousness of the "marriage law of the new dispensation," the preacher returns thanks, for having done it better than he could, or at all events, for placing it in a light by which many can and will read, who could not be enlightened by him.

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