Very little can be found in church records concerning American Mennonite wedding practices before the 20th century. An account in Pennsylvania Dutch and Other Essays, written by Phebe Earle Gibbons in 1882, describes a Reformed Mennonite wedding in the meetinghouse on a December Sunday morning. The preacher spoke about divorce, the duties of husbands and wives, adultery, and Paul's references to marriage. Having ended his sermon, he called upon the pair desiring to be married to come forward. The man rose from the men's side of the church and the woman from the opposite side. They joined in the center aisle and walked forward to the preacher who asked three questions of them. After the questions had been answered, the preacher directed them to join hands, pronounced them husband and wife, and invoked a blessing upon them. This was followed by a short prayer, after which the wedded pair took their separate seats among the congregation. The audience then knelt in prayer and the service was closed with a hymn. Afterwards a few friends gathered at the bride's home.
Amish weddings followed a pattern in the 1950s similar to those of the previous century. The "go-between" (Stecklimann), who is the deacon, asked the woman's hand from her parents in behalf of the suitor whom he represented, as well as obtaining the consent of the young woman. This was a mere formality, as the couple had previously made their own arrangements. At least two weeks preceding the wedding, the intention of the couple to marry was announced in a Sunday morning worship service. The bride-to-be was customarily absent from this service, but the groom-to-be was expected to attend, although he was privileged to leave before the announcement was made. Autumn was the usual season for Amish weddings, Tuesday or Thursday practically always being chosen and the month of November being preferred. Statistics showed that in the late 19th century December had been the preferred month. The marriage ceremony generally took place in a neighbor's house as the bride's home had been made ready for the wedding meal. In Lancaster County, PA, the marriage ceremony and the wedding meal were in the same house. At the proper moment in the service the couple and their attendants appeared before the ministers. Following a sermon the bishop asked them the usual questions and then united them in marriage as he placed their clasped hands between his. Following the closing song the bride and groom with their attendants left for her home, soon to be followed by the wedding guests. Following the sumptuous wedding meal, the afternoon was spent in visiting and singing hymns. Later the young people played games, and after the evening meal, the guests sang hymns until the hour of departure. Wedding days were joyous occasions in the Amish social calendar and the feasting and hilarity often tended to become objects of criticism by the church leaders. An old Amish church discipline named as undesirable "the imposing weddings with immoderate preparations." Bishop Jacob Swartzendruber in Civil War days had warned the brotherhood of the inconsistency of feasting when their neighbors were sad because of their losses in the war and many people were without necessary food.
During the 19th century Mennonite Church (MC) weddings had some similarities to Amish weddings, generally taking place in the homes. Marriage notices in the Herald of Truth during 1870-1900 indicated that weddings, were nearly always held in the bride's home or in the home of the officiating minister. In frontier communities where there were no Mennonite clergy to perform marriage ceremonies, civil instead of church weddings were sometimes used. During the period when in certain Mennonite communities it was customary not to receive baptism and become members of the church until after marriage the practice of having a civil ceremony was sometimes resorted to since Mennonite bishops were not permitted to marry couples unless both parties were communicant members of the Mennonite church. According to historian Ira D. Landis, from 1729 and into the 1880's Lancaster conference young people were nearly always married by Lutheran and Reformed preachers. In the late 1880's Lancaster Mennonite ministers, both preachers and bishops, again performed marriage ceremonies, but by a decade later this function was reserved exclusively for the bishops. Before church weddings were sanctioned in the Lancaster conference the marriage ceremony was nearly always performed in the bride's home.
Because of the paucity of the records no thorough study has been made on the change from marriages performed in the homes to church weddings. A Virginia Mennonite Conference resolution of 1900 stated that church weddings were not permitted. By 1914, however, the regulation was changed to read that weddings would be permitted in churches only at the time of regular services. After 1920 in the Mennonite Church (MC) there was a gradual growth in church weddings held during the week in special services. The Gospel Herald reported 421 weddings in the period of January-August 1957. Of these, 329, or 78 per cent, were church weddings. The wedding veil was now used in a few areas of the church as well as the practice of the father giving the bride away in the ceremony. The wedding ring ceremony was not used in the Mennonite (MC) and the more conservative churches in the 1950s. In church weddings traditional wedding music was seldom used but instead appropriate hymns were presented by choral groups. The married couple kneeling for the final prayer, the bride and groom kissing each other immediately after the ceremony, church receptions after the ceremony, lengthy descriptions of the wedding in the local papers, were new practices in Mennonite (MC) circles reflecting the gradual adoption of common Protestant traditions.
Changes such as the above occurred earlier in some General Conference Mennonite and Mennonite Brethren circles where the usual Protestant forms, including the use of the single and double ring ceremony, were being followed in the 1950s. On the other hand, practices within the General Conference churches varied considerably. Rural church weddings among those of Russian background tended to be simpler than among those of a Pennsylvania-German background, including certain sections of the Mennonite Church (MC). In some of their churches it was customary to invite the entire congregation to the wedding, while only those receiving special invitations went to the reception following the ceremony. In South Dakota it was customary to have full wedding dinners for all of the invited guests, who might number several hundred. It was also customary to have a program of music at these wedding feasts. In these church weddings among the Mennonites of Russian background it was customary to have a sermon with the couple seated, either before or after the marriage ceremony. Sometimes a second sermon was given by another minister at the reception. In some of their churches,the use of wedding rings in the ceremony and the public exchange of kisses by the couple were still disapproved. It was therefore difficult to generalize on wedding practices within the General Conference churches in the 1950s.
In all of the branches there was a tendency for weddings to become more elaborate and costly during the mid-twentieth century, reflecting perhaps America's unprecedented material prosperity. Mennonites, however, were deploring these trends and leaders of the various groups called for simplicity and for a renewed emphasis upon the distinctively Christian aspects of the wedding occasion.
A practice common only among Mennonites of the Russian-Prussian background was the holding of religious services in the church at the time of the twenty-fifth and fiftieth wedding anniversary. The observance of "open house" at the home of the couple on these two anniversaries was becoming common in many Mennonite communities. The Herald of Truth, Gospel Witness, Gospel Herald, and Herold der Wahrheit have printed short notices of marriages from their beginning issues. The Mennonite discontinued the practice in mid-20th century. The Christian Witness, Der Bote, and Die Mennonitische Rundschau did carry marriage news. The Mennonite Weekly Review and The Canadian Mennonite presented more detailed wedding announcements than did other Mennonite papers, thus presenting materials for the study of recent Mennonite wedding practices.
Since the religious ceremony was considered a legal marriage in the United States and Canada, no civil ceremony being necessary, in many states clergymen must have a license to officiate. In all cases the couple wishing to marry must secure a license to do so. In earlier days in many areas before the license was introduced the publishing of the bans in church (usually twice) was required. -- MG
Among the Mennonites of Russia weddings contained elements which were transplanted from Prussia. Whether an Umbitter, as used by the Mennonites of Prussia and their descendants in Nebraska and Kansas to the end of the 19th century, was also used in Russia is not established. The fact that Johann Cornies broke the Hutterite tradition of having parents decide on spouses for their children seems to indicate that traditions along these lines relaxed among the Mennonites of Prussia, possibly before their migrating to Russia. During the beginning of the 20th century a proposal of marriage had become an elaborate occasion. Horses and buggy had to be in prime condition. The suitor possibly even had a coachman take him to the home of the girl of his choice. He would be ushered into the parlor (grosse Stube), visit with the parents, and ask the father whether they would give him their daughter as wife. The Polish artist Chodowiecky, in a series of "Marriage Proposals," featured a Mennonite proposal in the presence of the mother. To what extent this was characteristic or perpetuated is not known.
Immediately after the engagement the relatives were invited to the wedding, usually by circulating from neighbor to neighbor a letter containing the invitation and the list of those invited. The wedding took place two or three weeks after the official engagement, usually in the home of the bride; it was possibly held in the barn, which was especially prepared for this occasion. Weddings were rarely solemnized in the churches, probably because guests were entertained with regular meals, and the churches were not equipped for this purpose.
The preparation for the wedding was a significant task. The "hope chest" was a large trunk (still found in museums and some homes of America), into which the bride placed her gradually accumulating household linens and other items. The house and yard had to be spotless. Since the number of invited guests was always large, much baking and cooking had to be done. Immigrants from Russia after World War I brought some of these practices with them. These, like other traditions, were still largely preserved in the 1950s among the Old Colony Mennonites and related groups in Manitoba, Mexico, and Menno, Paraguay. (Arnold Dyck, Dee Fria, Steinbach, 1947; Kay Woelk, "Courtship and Marriage of the Russian Mennonites," term paper in Mennonite Library and Archives, Bethel College (North Newton, Kansas, USA) ) -- CK
In the 1950s weddings of Mennonites in the Netherlands did not differ from weddings among non-Mennonites. Until 1795 Mennonite marriages were performed either by the magistrate officials or by the ministers of the congregations, in the latter case with a report to the officials (see Marriage). After 1795 marriages, were to be performed by the magistrates; if the newly wedded couple wished it so, the marriage was solemnized afterward (ingezegend, gewijd) in a church meeting. From 1795 until about 1925 such consecration or religious blessing of marriages was rather seldom; in the mid-20th century newly married couples more and more after the performing of the marriage at the town hall come to the church for a religious consecration. The trip to the town hall was customarily made in a hired horse-drawn open coach. -- vdZ.
Weddings are related to marriage as an initiatory ceremony is related to an ongoing reality. The belated inclusion of an article on weddings in the supplement section of the print version of Mennonite encyclopedia and the complete absence of such in the still earlier Mennonite cyclopedic dictionary illustrate the much greater attention which Mennonites have given marriage as compared to the wedding. This initiatory rite has received little studied attention to date and the present article will center primarily upon the North American Mennonite experience. Amish and Hutterite practices are described in two books by John A. Hostetler.
Virtually no light is thrown by the Scriptures upon the wedding service itself. Anabaptists shared with the Reformers a rejection of the sacramental concept of marriage (ordinances), though Anabaptists lifted the consecrated view of marriage to a considerable height in contrast to the Reformers. Concern for the wedding apparently expressed itself in the assumption that the ceremony would be consistent with the general teachings of the New Testament concerning the appropriate words, attitudes, and actions of a disciple of Christ.
There is a diversity of practice among the various Mennonite branches, conferences, and communities in North America on the several aspects of the wedding. The specifics included in the present entry simply signal the need to examine more closely the understanding and practices of each particular branch, conference, and community.
The strong sense of commitment to Christ and to one's fellow believers that characterizes Mennonites means that wedding practices are a matter of concern to the congregation and the wider Mennonite fellowship.
Historically, weddings involving Mennonites had to be between members of the Mennonite church in order to have the approval of the congregation(s) involved. Until early in the 20th century, weddings were generally performed by a bishop or elder, or rarely, by a minister with the bishop's (elder's) permission.
In those congregations where people did not become members of the Mennonite church until after marriage, it was customary for the couple to be married by a non-Mennonite minister or by a civil servant. A marriage between a Mennonite and a non-Mennonite was for centuries a matter calling for congregational discipline.
Within the consensus that weddings are an expression of congregational life and should reflect the beliefs and practices of the Body of Christ, Mennonite attitudes vary with regard to whether a wedding is primarily a congregational event or a private and a more personal affair. This difference has grown since the removing of the ban against marriage between persons of different Christian traditions. Most Mennonite ministers refuse to marry non-Christians or couples where only one is a Christian though this attitude may be fading.
Since the mid-1900s most Mennonite pastors insist on counseling sessions before the wedding takes place. Many congregations have either formal or in formal guidelines regarding weddings. These may address such details as use of the meetinghouse, choice of a date, what music is to be used, the nature of the service, the number of attendants, the use of symbols such as rings and candies, the dress of the wedding party, decoration of the meetinghouse, the reception following the wedding, and the manner of reporting the event in the local newspapers. In earlier decades weddings were held either in the home of the bishop or the bride or in the meetinghouse at the close of a regular worship service. In the late 1980s they are held at a separate hour and day in the meetinghouse. The entire congregation is generally invited to the wedding, but only a smaller number of friends and family are invited to the reception, which may be held either in the meetinghouse or in a community facility.
There is a growing concern among Mennonite leaders over many new practices that are being introduced into Mennonite weddings as a result of generally increasing acculturation, inter-marriage with people of other Christian traditions, and affluence (wealth). The former full-length sermon is now replaced with a brief meditation given while the wedding party remains standing before the congregation. Some practices characteristic of the wider culture, e.g., the "giving away of the bride" and the custom of the congregation rising while the bride enters, are being questioned as to whether they are congruent with Christian faith. The rising number of divorces in Western society is generating a more serious look at both premarital and postmarital counseling.
Attempts are being made to bring the wedding into the mainstream of the congregation's life along with baptism and parent-child dedications. Church periodicals are addressing this matter in articles and editorials. Some conferences are appointing committees for the specific purpose of examining wedding practices with the intent of developing a greater consistency among the congregations. Mennonite secondary schools are giving instruction regarding the planning of Christian weddings as a part of courses on family life. Special retreats for those engaged to be married are held by some conferences and church retreat centers. -- GCS
Bittinger, E. F. "Wedding Customs." Brethren Encyclopedia. 1983: 1324-26.
Church Polity Committee, John L. Horst, Secretary. Mennonite Church Polity. Scottdale, PA, 1944: 130-33.
Clemens, Lois G. "15. Marriage as Community Concern." Issues to Discuss. 1973: 92-97.
Coffman, John S. and John F. Funk. Confession of Faith and Ministers' Manual. Scottdale, PA, 1952: 91-95.
Erb, Paul. "Christian Weddings." Gospel Herald (21 July 1959): 643.
Harder, Gary and Lydia. Celebrating Christian Marriage. Newton, KS 1980; Scottdale, PA: MPH, 1980: 1-48.
Hiebert, Waldo. "Wanted -- a Christian Philosophy of Weddings." Gospel Herald (23 September 1958): 902, 911.
Hostetler, John A. Amish Society. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1980: 191-98.
Hostetler, John A. Hutterite Society. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1974: 239-40, 339-41.
Janzen, Heinz and Dorothea. Minister's Manual. Newton, KS, 1983; Scottdale, PA: MPH, 1983: 81-93.
Mennonite Life 28 (September 1973): 72-75, on Old Colony Mennonites.
Minister's Manual. Steinbach. MB: The Evangelical Mennonite Conference, 1983: 25-31.
Redekop, John H. "What Makes a Wedding Christian?" Mennonite Brethren Herald 25, no. 16 (5 September 1986): 12.
Scott, Stephen. The Amish Wedding and Other Special Occasions of the Old Order Communities. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 1988.
Studer, Gerald C. "34. A Look at Weddings." 1966 Program Guide for Sunday Evening Services. Scottdale, PA: MPH: 131-33, 37.
Studer, Gerald C. "Weddings, a Significant Aspect of Community." Christian Living 34 no 6 (June 1987): 24-28.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 1134-1136. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
©1996-2013 by the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. All rights reserved.
MLA style: Gingerich, Melvin, Cornelius Krahn, Nanne van der Zijpp and Gerald C. Studer. "Weddings." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 19 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/W4348ME.html.
APA style: Gingerich, Melvin, Cornelius Krahn, Nanne van der Zijpp and Gerald C. Studer. (1989). Weddings. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 19 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/W4348ME.html.