History of Church Weddings

January 24, 2020

One of the most classic wedding images is the idea of a wedding ceremony in a church, chapel or cathedral.  As soon as 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 very little to do with romance.  In fact, 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 then marriage of the 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 family of the bride 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 useful member of the family. Over time the mohar custom changed into the idea of a gift given 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 that were 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 still remained in her father’s house. She could not belong to another man unless she was 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 and angel to convince Joseph to continue his marriage with Mary. To read the account, click here.

But within all of this, marriage remained a family endeavor.  Marriages we held at the groom’s home or the bride’s home, depending on who could host the celebration. The chuppah that we see at modern Jewish ceremonies is symbolic of the bride’s home 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 wasto avoid the potential awkwardness of a home not being able to host a ceremony.

Christian church involvement inmarriage 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 writes speak about marriage and instruct husbands and wives on how to conduct themselves in marriage, there is no biblical tradition that ties weddings to a church ceremony. 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 both urged a blessing from both parents and clergy over a pending marriage. This is the first sign of any church ceremonial influence. But there is 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 it’s influence in all aspects of life.  Finances, Politics, and Family eventually were influenced by the church.  There was eventual involvement by the state and the church in the area of relationships, and eventually 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 clergy mushroomed.  It was 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 important.  

Once the wedding was seen as asacrament, the process of the ceremony moving into the church had begun.  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 home. 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 in 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 expected place for weddings in Europe and North America.  The movement away from the houses of worship is coupled with the slow movement away from religion. But perhaps it is a movement back as well to the roots of wedding ceremonies being about the couple and their families. For us, it is more important that we guide you through a meanigful process. Whether it is at a church, a barn, a sports arena, a beach, doesn't matter to us. It is making sure a couple is ready and prepared for marriage.

Interested in hearing more?

Contact Us