History of Church Weddings

January 24, 2020

Weddings historically have been a combination of tradition, faith and the values of two families coming together.

One of the most classic wedding images is the idea of a wedding ceremony in a church, chapel, or cathedral.  When someone gets engaged or talks of marriage, people start singing “Going to the Chapel of Love” by the Dixie Cups.  But where, when, and how did this idea catch on? Have weddings always been a church thing? A religious thing? Is the choice to have your ceremony outside of the church just a recent or modern trend?

Judeo-Christian traditions trace the idea of marriage back to Genesis, the first book of the Bible. Marriage in ancient times had little to do with romance.  It was more of a family arrangement or an agreement. There were stipulations, conditions, and a bridal price. Couples were arranged to be married in early youth. Most marriages were agreements within the tribe or village or, at most, close neighboring clans. For Hebrews, marrying Gentile (non-Jewish) people was frowned upon.

The parents (mostly the father) arranged the marriage. The bride offered her opinion, but it did not carry much weight. The marriage of a son was a higher priority than the marriage of a daughter. Receiving the dowry or “mohar” (the price paid by the father of the groom to the father of the bride) was the focus.

The new couple usually did not start a new home or build a house for themselves but occupied a space in the groom’s family house. While we say this today in terms of families being joined together, the family of the groom literally "gained a daughter."  The bride's family lost a valuable person who helped with household tasks. It was expected, therefore, that the father of the groom should pay the father of the bride the equivalent of her value as a valuable member of the family. Over time, the mohar custom changed into the idea of a gift from the father to his daughter. A father who kept the mohar for himself was considered greedy.

Until the Middle Ages, a Jewish marriage consisted of two ceremonies marked by two separate celebrations, with an interval between. First, the betrothal, and later, the wedding. At the betrothal, the couple was legally married, although the bride remained in her father’s house. She could not belong to another man unless divorced from her betrothed. The wedding meant only that the betrothed woman, accompanied by a festive procession, was escorted from her parent’s house to the house of her groom, and the relationship was consummated.

When we look at the Christmas story of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, this was the cultural situation being described. Joseph and Mary were betrothed or legally married. But they had not yet had their wedding. Mary was found to be pregnant with Jesus. Joseph’s initial thought was that Mary had been unfaithful, and he sought to divorce her (or put her away quietly). Meaning Joseph wanted to end the betrothal. It took an angel to convince Joseph to continue his marriage with Mary.

But within all of this, marriage remained a family endeavor. Weddings were held at the groom’s home or the bride’s home, depending on who was capable of hosting the celebration. The chuppah that we see at modern Jewish ceremonies is symbolic of the bride’s house or quarters. It would still be many centuries before we begin seeing ceremonies in synagogues. The eventual move towards having the ceremony in the synagogue was to avoid the potential awkwardness of a home not being able to host a ceremony.

Christian church involvement in marriage also developed over time. Christianity was birthed and formed (30 AD-200 AD) in the context of the Roman Empire and with Judaism in its roots. Marriage continued to have little to do with religion. While Jesus, Paul, and other New Testament writers speak about marriage and instruct husbands and wives on how to conduct themselves inmarriage, there is no biblical tradition that ties weddings to church ceremonies. Marriage was still a family issue, not an institution. It was private and communal.

At the Council of Carthage in 398 A.D., there was an assumption of a priestly prayer or benediction of the wedding ceremony. Early Church Fathers Ignatius and Polycarp urged a blessing from parents and clergy over a pending marriage. This is the first sign of any church ceremonial influence. But there was little else for many centuries. In fact, the early church was mostly negative on marriage—celibacy was preferred, even praised. Marriage was seen as something outside of the church for the first millennium.

In the Middle Ages, the only thing that held more power than the parents were the feudal lords in Europe.  The parents would have to ask a lord for permission for their children to marry.  Click here for more.

As Western Europe and the Roman Empire continued being Christianized, the church began to reach its influence in all aspects of life. The church eventually influenced everything from finances to politics to family. There was eventual involvement by the state and the church in relationships, and, marriage became a combination of family traditions, church and state.

In the year 1164, the church established marriage as a sacrament. Once this happened, the involvement of the clergy mushroomed. At this point, the relationship and communication moved from the parents to the couple themselves. The Church taught extensively on sacraments such as baptism and communion before partaking, and this now evolved into weddings as well. Marriage became a cultural and religious initiation rite. The emphasis was on the nature and meaning of the rite of the wedding ceremony, but little was said of the relationship itself. The idea of a Christian marriage was important, that faith should be practiced in the home. And the acting out of the religious ceremony was seen, as necessary.  

Once the wedding was seen as a sacrament, the process of the ceremony moving into the church began. At first, a priest would preside over the ceremony at the home with witnesses looking on. Then, the ceremony would be held near a church building away from the house. Eventually, the ceremony would include the wedding party coming to the steps and door of the church, and the clergy would come out and pronounce a blessing. Finally, the ceremony was performed in the sanctuary of the church. This slow progression culminated in the ceremony taking place within the church building. By the twelfth century, the church wedding was fully established inside the church, with the priest pronouncing blessings.

From the Middle Ages until the 20th Century, the Church or Synagogue was the primary place for weddings in Europe and North America. One exception is that there is a strong tradition in the United States about not having a church wedding. Some can point this back to the Pilgrims, Thanksgiving, and Plymouth Rock. The Pilgrims believed that weddings were personal and civic and should have nothing to do with a church. You could hold your faith and have a wedding wherever you want. So whether you have your ceremony in a church or outdoors or anywhere in between, you stand on a strong tradition.

The modern movement away from the houses of worship can be coupled with the slow cultural movement away from religion. But perhaps it is a movement back to the roots of wedding ceremonies being about the couple and their families and the founding ideas in the United States. Personally, it has always been more important to me that I guide couples through a meaningful process. Whether itis at a church, a barn, a sports arena, or a beach does not matter to me. Being ready for marriage far outweighs where the ceremony is held.

Click here to get a copy of my book: Before God and These Witnesses. I go into a much longer discussion of the history of weddings.
Click Here to Listen to the Podcast Episode on the History of Weddings

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