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Leapfrogging "Courtship V1.0"

By Walter Lindsay
May 31, 1998

Emily Post's 1922 book on etiquette included the chapter "Chaperons and Other Conventions." The 1937 edition renamed the chapter "The Vanished Chaperon and Other Lost Conventions." With the advent of dating, chaperonage passed away, fathers lost their role in selecting suitors and establishing the new family, and sons and daughters determined for themselves their degree of sexuality.1 The dreadful results are apparent. Yet this situation is merely the bearer of bad news — through it, God faithfully showed us we have a larger problem than dating.

Sometimes software metaphors describe life well. With software products, the product team must correctly identify the problem it hopes to solve; identify the relevant business and technical constraints and requirements; find good metaphors; and design, build and test. After all that, surprisingly many products miss the mark, adding credence to the oft-repeated phrase "Never buy version 1 of anything." Regarding courtship, the problem is more than not-dating and emotional purity. We cannot blindly adopt the strange-sounding metaphors of another age. Our circumstances and challenges have changed since chaperons and other pre-dating practices were part of life. We can, however, better look to the future by applying the hard-earned lessons of the past. God has shown us that we have a large cultural problem. He has also given us a rich written heritage that lets us address the larger problem and leapfrog "Courtship V1.0."

War and Peace: A Culture for Courtship

Sometimes the apostate preserve a godly heritage for later generations. Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace tells a story of Russian aristocratic society challenged by Napoleon's military might between 1805 and 1812. War and Peace is not about courtship; it is about a society in which courtship naturally occurs. It shows us the results of courting ways and choices. It gives us hints about solving the larger problem and thereby addressing our courtship concerns.

Tolstoy portrays a society that gives people the chance to build up a wide network of friendships under family-oriented circumstances. For example, Prince Andrei encountered a young woman acquaintance at a social function, enjoyed her company, was invited to call on the family, and began to spend increasing amounts of time with them. Soon "Everyone in the house realized on whose account Prince Andrei came. . . ."2 After seeking advice from Pierre, a mutual friend, he traveled to his father's estate because he "required his father's sanction for his marriage." Prince Andrei's father replied ". . . I beg of you to put it off a year. . . and then if your love or passion or obstinacy—whatever you chose—is still as great, marry!"3

Compare Prince Andrei's behavior with modern dating. Pastor Jim West tells how dating diverges from previous courtship practices:

(1) The introduction of the man to the woman by a member of the family is not considered necessary.(2) There is no chaperon.(3) There is no commitment on the part of the male or female to continue the relationship beyond the date itself.(4) The date is planned by the adolescents themselves, and not by their elders.(5) Physical intimacies such as hand-holding, petting, kissing, and sexuality are expected rather than forbidden.4

Andrei exemplified the older practices, with the addition that property and financial prospects were also important considerations. Andrei's courtship was no version 1.0.

Tolstoy also shows us Hélène, a strikingly beautiful woman, "whom one is never tired of feasting one's eyes upon."5 In today's terms, she could have been a supermodel. She surrounded herself with men and went to the opera "half-naked." The narrative frequently mentions her exposed "beautiful bosom."6 On any Friday night, women all across America try to imitate her. She and her father, a prince, lured a wealthy husband by her beauty so that he married her without wise counsel.7 She became a brilliant social success and wholly ignored her husband. And God brought judgment. In Tolstoy's hands, judgment and blessing are linked to wise and godly choices.

In War and Peace adults living on their own court adults, adults court young adults who live with parents, and young adults living with parents court. The surrounding circumstances shaped the pattern of the courtship. In one case, children had long promised to marry, and dealt with the consequences. Prince Andrei called on a young woman's family so he could get to know her. In a third case, old friends realize they are in love. While there is no model of courtship we can draw from the book, it does clearly show courtship ways. Courtship in War and Peace involves family authority and hard-nosed looks at financial prospects. Families had continuity into generations past and into the future. People came to love one another. A mainstay of social life was gathering for discussion in the parlors of homes, a safe place for men and women to build friendships.

How do we apply this to our lives? Gary North speaks of "transmission belts" that preserve the fruits of Christian culture through times of apostasy and judgment.8War and Peace is a magnificent big transmission belt of societal patterns that naturally hosted multiple types of courtships. Its length lets us immerse ourselves in the lives of the characters and see the consequences of actions naturally develop. It lets us step outside a dating-influenced culture and absorb the assumptions of another time. It preserves for us an understanding that the form of the courtship depended strongly on the circumstances of the couple and the families. It shows us that we should expect to develop a spectrum of courtship models. And it illustrates that courtship is not a parenthetical activity cut off from the rest of life; it is a very special activity that flows and merges into the rest of life.

The Silicon Valley is not just home to multitudes of software developers. We have salesmen, product managers, marketers, venture capitalists, test engineers, systems administrators, and a host of people with other complementary skills. We go to talks at the Computer Literacy Bookstore. We get briefings under non-disclosure agreements so we know what Intel, Microsoft, Sun, IBM, and the rest of the companies with presence in the Valley are preparing. We have to go through the rituals of product launches, presentations to industry analysts, and press tours. We have a whole culture that fosters new product creation in its various forms of startups, spin-off subsidiaries and divisions, innovations from within big companies, and so forth. We get product out the door. We tailor a wide variety of organizations and associations in order to get the job done. And we often fail. Silicon Valley culture has its own versions 1.0, and we have veterans who remember the lessons learned from long experience.

American Christian culture has relatively few of those veterans. One hopes we won't have to repeat all the mistakes our forbears made.

St. Elmo: Godly Individual Character

As one newspaper columnist recently noted, "Any serious person who studies works of what's called 'historical fiction' must realize — plot aside — that the reader is acquiring more of the attitudes of the period in which the book was written than of the period in which the book's story takes place."9 By that advice, recently-written stories about "courtship" probably describe version 1.0, 1.2, or at best, version 2.0. By that advice, we should look for people and ages whose habits we can admire. Augusta Jane Evans, author of St. Elmo, formed her opinions about gentility in the ante-bellum South, a time that understood courtship better than we. As her biographer notes about her approach to her first novel, Inez, she "was well aware of the moral stigma often attached to novels in that day, but she planned to give her own composition such religious fervor that any opposition to the form would quickly disappear among her readers."

St. Elmo has that same fervor. It was also one of the great American publishing successes of the 19th century. That is an amazing combination. Not only does the book communicate well, it communicates something worthwhile. In the words of one critic, St. Elmo Murray, the mesmeric title character, "bowled over an entire generation of romantic schoolgirls." St. Elmo was a rake and a scoundrel, yet the predestinating hand of God was upon him, so even at his worst he had a social grace that made me feel like a boor.

St. Elmo illustrates godly adult friendships that allowed unmarried people to get to know each other well enough for the man to propose. In part, this was due to the structure of social life, but in St. Elmo the importance of high standards of personal conduct is obvious. In particular, respect was a crucial part of those friendships. How some of the characters lived out that respect is a revelation. Respect is not like clothes worn on Sunday, but must become part of a man or woman's character. St. Elmo illustrates how to live with respect, and that provided the bedrock for several friendships that led to marriage proposals. It also offers a long look at the nature of love.

Most contemporary discussion about courtship targets teenagers living at home. Many today do not fit that pattern. St. Elmo illustrates how adults can have the types of friendships that lead to godly courtships. As with War and Peace, a mainstay of social life was conversation in peoples' parlors.

When a recent college graduate joins a software company, the old hands may refer to him as a "college newhire." The veneer most college newhires have wears off in a few months, and his character will begin to show the results of the disciplines of working life soon after. Individuals go through their own version 1.0 stages too. Fortunately, God has provided us resources that let us absorb patterns of godly character without having to make all of the mistakes ourselves. St. Elmo and similar books illustrate that godly character paves the way for courtship.

Albion's Seed

We are not the first people needing to rethink courtship. In some areas and times in Christendom, a girl had to prove she could conceive prior to marriage since the man needed children to help on the farm. Young people with some interest in each other slept together in a process called "bundling" from the early Middle Ages until as late as 1830. Many couples, once engaged, had children prior to formal marriage. Medieval European custom allowed unmarried men to have a concubine or keep a mistress. Many medieval theologians saw all sex, even between husband and wife, as shameful. In Scotland, Ireland and the English border areas, men often abducted their brides. This practice continued in some parts of the American South (e.g., Andrew Jackson abducted his wife with her acquiescence).10

Albion's Seed:Four British Folkways in America by David Hackett Fischer is a cultural history of early America. "Folkways . . . exist in advanced civilizations as well as in primitive societies. They are functioning systems of high complexity which have actually grown stronger rather than weaker in the modern world. In any given culture, they always include the following things . . . ," one of which is "Marriage ways, ideas of the marriage-bond, and cultural processes of courtship, marriage and divorce."11

Fischer contends that "ways are communicated from one generation to the next by many interlocking mechanisms — child-rearing processes, institutional structures, cultural ethics, and codes of law — which create ethical imperatives of great power. . . ." 12 Fischer compares four distinct British folkways introduced to early America by immigrants. Not only are the descriptions eye opening, but having four different folkways described makes clear the impact of doctrine on the shape of society.

The Puritans believed in "covenanted family":

The builders of the Bay Colony cast their idea of the family in terms of the covenant theology which was so central to their faith. They believed that God's covenant with each individual Christian was enlarged into another sort of contract which they called the family covenant. John Cotton explained, "God hath made a covenant with parents and householders," which bound them not only on their own account, but also in regard to "wives, and children, and servants, and kindred, and acquaintances, and all that are under our reach, either by way of subordination, or coordination."
Thus, the covenanted family became a complex web of mutual obligations between husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and servants. The clarity of this contractual idea, the rigor of its enforcement and especially the urgency of its spiritual purpose, set New England Puritans apart from other people — even from other Calvinists — in the Western world.13

The Puritans built their family and courtship practices around the idea of covenant. For example, single men and women were not allowed to live at home, but had to reside with a family. 14

How did the web of obligations of covenant family direct the shape of courtship? Puritan courtship practices were "designed to reconcile two requirements of New England courtship — the free consent of the young, and strict supervision by their elders. Both of these elements were thought necessary to a covenanted marriage." 15

One way they carried this out was through a modified form of bundling:

Customs of courtship in New England were carefully designed to allow young people privacy enough to discover if they loved one another, at the same time that parents maintained close supervision. This was the purpose of "bundling," a European custom which became widespread in New England. The courting couple were put to bed together, "tarrying" all night with a "bundling board" between them. Sometimes the young woman's legs were bound together in a "bundling stocking" which fitted her body like a glove.16

Commonly that's all she wore. A New England ballad from the era reads,

But she is modest, also chaste While only bare from neck to waist, And he of boasted freedom sings, Of all above her apron strings.17

One wonders how much he wore, and whether the room was dark. Seventeenth century New England had one of the lowest prenuptial pregnancy rates in the world, 18 suggesting that other peoples that practiced bundling lacked bundling boards and bundling stockings. This custom would offend most Christians today. It is the author's suspicion that it is God's mercy that this custom died.

Another custom was the "courting stick, a tube six or eight feet long with an open bell at each end. A New England antiquarian wrote more than a century ago, 'in the presence of the entire family, lovers seated formally on either side of the great fireplace carried on this chilly telephonic love-making.'"19 The couple whispered back and forth to each other while the family remained nearby. Unlike bundling, God improved on the technology of courting sticks by providing the telephone. Surely the Puritans would have developed ways that let a courting couple use telephones for private conversation in supervised public settings.

The Puritans required that both parents and children give their free consent before marriage. When parents refused to let their children marry at all, children sued and won. But "the process of a covenanted marriage began with complex rituals of courtship that were strictly regulated by law and custom. . . . By and large, Puritan parents did not arrange the marriages of their children. Suitors carefully sought the consent of parents before beginning a courtship, and sent small presents to ease the way. . . . [T]he Puritans cherished true love, and insisted that it was a prerequisite of a happy marriage. The Puritans used the expression 'falling in love.' They believed that love should normally precede marriage." 20

Puritan brides-to-be chose the texts of sermons preached to announce engagement with as much care as modern brides choose their wedding dresses. 21 Yet these people were not other-worldly. They realized that if a man and a women were alone together adultery could result, and set up conventions against it,22 but at the same time reveled in marital sex.23

A limited goal such as "purity until marriage" will produce a model of courtship aimed at preserving virginity. That is a laudable. A much larger goal such as "covenanted family" will produce something very different. "Purity until marriage" brackets out a time in life. "Covenanted family" incorporates a newborn in its warmth from birth, and does not cease even for the elderly. From a "covenanted family" perspective, disciplines and patterns relating to courtship are lifelong, and the ways of courtship are part of a much larger whole.

The Puritans fundamentally changed the Western ideals of love and sex. "The Puritan doctrine of sex was a watershed in the cultural history of the West. The Puritans devalued celibacy, glorified companionate marriage, affirmed married sex as both necessary and pure, established the ideal of wedded romantic love, and exalted the role of the wife."24 Would that we could do the same!

The Art of Choosing Your Love

What is a big enough vision that we can develop godly courtship ways today? Let's begin by counting the cost. First, regarding wedding customs:

Betrothal and wedding, private in the sense of not involving officialdom, were public in the sense of overt. It was important for the community at large to be informed. Besides the exchange of pledges (dos and donation) the betrothal ceremony involved the exchange of promises between groom-to-be and father of the bride-to-be: "Do you promise to give your daughter to me to be my wedded wife?" "The gods bring luck! I betroth her." The couple kissed and the young man placed an iron ring on the third finger of his fiancee's left hand. A Roman conviction that a vein ran from this finger straight to the heart was passed on by Macrobius (c. A. D. 400) to the Middle Ages, whose bridal couples transmitted the tradition of ring and ring finger to modern times. The wedding ceremony a few days later was also marked by long-lasting symbols: white bridal gown and veil, a best man (auspex) who pronounced a legal formula, a shower from the wedding guests not of rice but walnuts, a wedding feast, and carriage of the bride over the threshold of the bridal chamber.25

This is a description of Roman marriage customs. Second, in the 12th century Pope Alexander reconciled two positions on how to determine when a couple was actually married:

First, reaffirming indissolubility, he accepted Peter Lombard's "words of the present" [i.e. "words stated explicitly that they took each other, starting at this moment, as man and wife"] as the essential of marriage, given the minimum ages of fourteen for the bridegroom, twelve for the bride. But a little later he in effect accepted most of Gratian's view by declaring that "words of the future," given as early as age seven, also created a valid marriage bond when they were followed by physical consummation.26

No white veil? Letting twelve-year-olds marry? This author is not suggesting either. I only suggest that though our perspectives on veils and twelve-year-olds have worked well, they are cultural, not Scriptural. If circumstances push us, we abandon what is cultural, but we cling to what is Scriptural.

Therein is the brilliance of Jim West's The Art of Choosing Your Love and its companion Christian Courtship vs. The Dating Game. Both are purely Scriptural but filled with shrewd examples apparently culled from West's experience as a pastor.

Gies notes that "Of the marriage doctrines adopted by Gratian, Peter Lombard, and the papacy, Michael M. Sheehan says: 'It is unlikely that all the consequences of those twelfth-century decisions have yet been realized [in the twentieth].'" 27 If we set for courtship the goal of "purity until marriage" we will likely set up models that create problems that last a long time. If we set for our courtship ways the goal of fulfilling God's creation mandate, we get a different picture. Pastor West writes,

The art of choosing your love begins with creation. When God made man, He did not place him into a house or into a bed. God placed the man into a garden to till the ground and to dress (beautify) the earth . . . . God did this because there was work to be done. Man was made a working man (Gen. 1:18-29) . . . by and large, God's criteria for making the woman related to man's need to have a loving companion for the work of the kingdom. The Holy Spirit noted that Adam needed a working counterpart to work joyously in God's vineyard.
In our previous study, Christian Courtship vs. The Dating Game,we learned that marriage is a "covenant of loving companionship." We could improve that definition by also saying that "marriage is a covenant of working companionship" too. It was not good that the man should work alone. 28

This is a big topic. It has enormous implications. And it is intimately intertwined with godly courtship.

Conclusion

Scripture includes many courtships. In times when believers were surrounded by apostates, they traveled to find a mate. Rebekah chose to travel to Isaac, after Abraham's servant had traveled to find a suitable, godly mate for his master's son (Gen. 24:58). Isaac instructed his sons not to marry women from the surrounding peoples (Gen. 28). When living in captivity, Israelites at times were given to pagans. Both Esther and Joseph were given to pagans but saved their people. Othniel won Caleb's daughter Achsah by overthrowing a Canaanite city (Jos. 15:16, 17). Israelite men were allowed to capture heathen women during a war (Num. 31:18), and in one case the Hebrews decided to let the men of Benjamin take wives by kidnapping maidens from Shiloh (Jud. 21:21). David and Abigail married because she kept him from killing Nabal, her husband (1 Sam. 25). Samson “saw” a Philistine woman and told his parents to arrange for a marriage, and “it was of the Lord” (Jud. 14:1-4). Michal, Saul's daughter, fell in love with David, and Saul's requirement was that David kill 100 Philistines and bring back their foreskins; David decided to become the king's son-in-law, and with flourish brought back 200 Philistine foreskins (1 Sam. 18). Masters could give their slaves a type of marriage (Ex. 21:1-4). Ruth slept at Boaz's feet and invoked the levitate (Ruth 3; Dt. 25:5-10).

The Scriptural examples do not illustrate any single model of courtship. At the same time, family or church authorities can righteously set up models of courtship for those under their authority. Models may include various stages and rituals, and venture into areas that Scripture has not proscribed. Models are excellent starting points.

Courtship challenges the worldview of many parents. The stakes are obvious. It is a great breeder of uncertainty, and makes parents and families hungry to learn more. Answers to the fears and hungers take the discussion far beyond the boundaries of courtship models into the broad ways of life in Christ. Jesus Christ is Lord of all of life, and courtship is a topic that creates opportunities for discussion and learning across much of life. The Puritans revolutionized the ideals of love and sex for Western society. The American colonials came to create a new society and way of life. Leapfrogging “courtship vl.0” is more learning how to live a godly life than learning a model and set of rules, and opens the door for sharing future-oriented faith for those around you. The Puritans and American colonials fundamentally changed Western society; courtship, both by building godly families and by creating opportunities to share a full-orbed faith, is a key for changing the world in our time. And Christ promised,

By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another. (Jn. 13:35)

The witness of godly courtships is a great challenge and witness to the world. May God grant us the grace to succeed.

  1. Jim West, Christian Courtship vs. the Dating Game, (Palo Cedro, CA, 1993), 11.
  2. Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, trans. Rosemary Edmunds, (Penguin, 1982), 555, Bk. 2 Pt. #22. Citations for War and Peace will include book, part and section numbers for the convenience of people with other editions.
  3. ibid, 559, Bk. 2, Pt. 3, #23.
  4. West, 10.
  5. Tolstoy, 235, Bk. 1, Pt. 3, #1.
  6. ibid, 665, Bk. 2, Pt. 5, #9; 246, Bk. 1, Pt. 3, #2.
  7. ibid, 246, Bk. 1, Pt. 3, #2; 370, 371, Bk. 2 Pt. 1, #370.
  8. Gary North, Dominion and Common Grace: The Biblical Basis of Progress (Tyler, TX, 1987), 232.
  9. Richard Grenier, “Cold Mountain: Cool but not Real,” The Washington Times National Weekly Edition, Jan. 18, 1998, 29.
  10. For example, see Paul Johnson, The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830 (New York, 1991), 498; Francis and Joseph Gies, Marriage and Family in the Middle Ages (New York, 1987), 139,154, 155, 242, 243; Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were (Grand Rapids, M I , 1990), 41; David Hackett Fischer, Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America (New York, 1989), 669.
  11. Fischer, 8.
  12. ibid, 10.
  13. ibid, 69, 70.
  14. ibid, 73.
  15. ibid, 81.
  16. ibid, 79.
  17. ibid, 80.
  18. ibid, 89, 90.
  19. ibid., 79, 80.
  20. ibid., 78, 79.
  21. ibid., 81.
  22. ibid, 91.
  23. Ryken, 44-51.
  24. ibid, 53.
  25. Gies, 23.
  26. ibid 139, 140.
  27. ibid 140.
  28. Jim West, The Art of Choosing Your Love (Palo Cedro, CA, 1994), 7, 9.

Topics: Family & Marriage, Puritanism

Walter Lindsay

In addition to Walter's software engineering career and Megan's housewifing career, the Lindsays are assistant editors for the Chalcedon Report. They recently moved to Phoenix, Arizona, and are members of Emmanuel Covenant Church. They so far have been blessed with one daughter, Maggie, and another due to come in May.

More by Walter Lindsay