In conformity with general medieval practice Anabaptists expected to supervise and direct the marriage arrangements for their young people. To a medieval European parent the marriage of a son or daughter without his consent was unthinkable. It was not only a piece of folly but in bad taste or even sinful. This view prevailed in many circles till late in the 19th century.
To the Anabaptists, however, marriage like all other human decisions and behavior must conform to the express teachings of the Holy Scriptures. And because no New Testament instance furnished a pattern for the wooing of a wife, some Anabaptist groups accepted the Old Testament example of Abraham's selection of a wife for Isaac to show what is the duty of the parent to his son. Tobit of the Apocrypha still serves the Amish as a model of betrothal and marriage.
The rules of the Frisian Mennonites prescribed that young men and women should not associate too freely. Among the Swiss Anabaptists in the Vosges mountain region of Alsace the wooing of the bride was carried on according to the most literal interpretation of Gen. 24. The deacon known as the Schteecklimann" took the place of the servant who was sent out to win a wife for Isaac. In carrying out his mission the "Schteecklimann" mounted a horse even though the prospective bride lived near at hand. Then on his arrival at the home, the details of the Biblical story were followed punctiliously even to offering a drink, presenting gifts, and so on. This procedure with minor variations was still the rule among the Old Order Amish in America until the 1950s. The deacon usually served as the "Schteecklimann." His ordination charge included the words, "and if there are brethren and sisters who wish to marry, you are to serve them uprightly." One manuscript adds the words, "according to the Christian regulation."
Among all Anabaptist-Mennonite groups it was once customary for the preachers or elders to make the marriage proposals. The principal reason for this rule was to insure a "marriage in the Lord," that is, the union of two young people who were members of the church. Anyone who disregarded the rule was subject to church censure. Even such groups as permitted the young people to make their own promise of marriage required them to obtain the consent of their parents. Such practices have now almost universally disappeared in America in favor of the personal proposal by the young man to the chosen one. The change has been due to the general adoption of the American concept of romantic love as the basis for marriage. Among certain of the more conservative groups in Europe, however, the parents still in fact have a large share in selecting a marriage partner.
Among the Mennonites of Prussia it was customary into the 19th century for the young man to approach the Umbitter, a sort of deacon, who would consult with the parents and the daughter of the house making known the young man's desire. After they had consented the young man would come to the home of the girl and the engagement took place. (Daniel Chodowiecki's painting "Mennonite Proposal for Marriage" illustrates this.) After some visiting among relatives the wedding would take place, usually in two weeks after the engagement. This practice must have been of Dutch Mennonite background and was transplanted from Prussia to Russia and America. The conservative groups in Mexico and Paraguay still adhere to it in some modified form.
With the exception of several conservative groups, in the 1990s courtship customs among Mennonites reflect the prevailing customs in the national societies of which they are a part. This appears to be true in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, as well as in Europe and North America. In traditional rural societies in India and Africa, mate selection has been almost totally negotiated and controlled by the parents of the marrying couple, and "courtship" did not really exist. The impact of Christianity has been to shift some of the parental control over mate selection to the church and to the young couple themselves.
Under the aegis of Western missions, Western ideas of mate selection by the marrying individuals, preferably with parental approval and sponsorship, have come to prevail among the more educated members of new churches in India and Africa, among Mennonites as well as others. Urbanization and education in non-Western countries have precipitated major changes in the mate selection process, since many youth have gone to towns and cities for employment or to study in boarding schools (Kauffman, 1976). These youth, living many miles from their parents in the agricultural villages, meet informally, develop a rudimentary "dating" system, and eventually fall in love and marry, with or without parental consent, and sometimes avoiding the traditional customs of bride price, betrothal rituals, and family-oriented wedding celebrations in the villages. As a result, major tensions and disaffection develop sometimes between traditional parents and their modernized offspring.
In the European context, Mennonites historically have been accustomed to considerable control by parents over the choice of spouse and marriage arrangements for a son or daughter (betrothal). Recently European youth have more freedom in the choice of a spouse, and customs of dating have developed, although more slowly than in the United States. European youth tend to go out in groups, and pair dating is not likely to begin until the late teens, or until there is serious intent to find a spouse.
The older European customs are reflected still today among the Old Order Amish, Old Order Mennonites, Old Colony Mennonites, Hutterites, and the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite (CGC). Among these groups, dating and boy-girl contacts, prior to engagement, have been restricted, and there is considerable distrust of a young couple out somewhere on a date by themselves. Persons wishing to marry must have the approval of the parents and the church officials.
Until recently, among the Old Order Amish "courtship was secretive, and the community at large was not informed of an intended wedding until the couple was 'published' in church, from one to four weeks before the wedding" (Hostetler, 1980, p. 191). Although free to choose whom they wish to marry, Amish youth had to submit to the formality of having a "Schteeklimann" (a go-between, often a deacon) go secretly to the girl's house to obtain her consent and the consent of her parents. While secretly courting, the Amish couple would have opportunities to meet and talk at weddings, funerals, and other gatherings. Although the boy would not take his girl to an evening youth gathering, he could take her home in his buggy afterwards when it was dark. He would also visit her at her home, but only after her parents had gone to bed. in recent decades, however, these traditional strictures have been gradually loosened, and are still found only in the most conservative Amish districts. Elsewhere there is much more openness in dating and courting, and the "Schteeklimann" function is no longer employed. The couple, having decided on marriage, and without any formal engagement, simply go to the minister and ask to initiate the marriage process in the church.
"Hutterite preachers assert that courtship and dating are not allowed on the colony. These terms connote for them romance and carnal pleasure." When boys and girls from one colony visit another, they meet in groups, but a boy can arrange to talk privately with a girl if he wishes and she is willing. Although Hutterite youth "find their marriage partners voluntarily, parents have almost complete veto power over a child's choice." Since spouses usually come from different colonies, their contacts prior to marriage are very infrequent (Hostetler, 1974, p. 223).
Among the "Holdeman" Mennonites (Church of God in Christ, Mennonite), changing courtship customs are evident. Until recent decades, courtship was restricted by limitations on boy-girl contacts and by rigorous parental and church control of choice of spouse. Currently, however, the young people are adopting the courtship and dating patterns of other Mennonites and the general public, but with strong parental and churchly expectations that all behavior be in line with strict moral codes and that the chosen spouse be of the same denomination (Hiebert, 1973, p. 461).
Among the larger and less-conservative Mennonite bodies in North America, the youth tend to follow the prevailing dating and courtship customs of the general society. Dating is a 20th-century development, particularly enhanced by the emergence of the automobile and the mushrooming of places to go -- restaurants, movies, theatre, school functions, athletic events, concerts, fairs, etc. Dating has been defined as an American invention that emerged after World War I among college students and other young adults (Eshleman, 308). Eshleman describes dating as a form of recreation, a form of socialization, a means of status grading and status achievement, and a form of courtship. The custom of dating has considerably lengthened the courtship period, which may begin as casual dating as early as the age of 14 or 15, and permits "shopping around" until settling on a chosen spouse a number of years later. This modern form of mate selection should result in more compatible marriages, but currently high divorce rates raise serious question as to whether the romantic idealism and emotionalism associated with the courtship period is an adequate basis for successful mate selection.
In earlier times a date was almost always initiated by the boy, with the girl having the option of accepting or refusing. More recently, with the emphasis on gender equality, the girl may sometimes take the initiative in asking, although it appears that many are reluctant to do so. In recent decades dating has become more informal, especially on college campuses, and many youth prefer to think of themselves as merely "going out together," without all the formalities of prior arrangements, dress-up, and other niceties associated with dating.
Americans have gone farther than others in promoting individual choice of spouses based on the concepts of romantic love, and parental influence on the choice of spouse has all but disappeared. Thus dating, as a means of compatibility testing, has become all the more important. Whereas in Europe and America pre-20th-century customs discouraged boy-girl contacts before marriage, and in Latin America chaperonage is still insisted upon, current American and Canadian youth are free to associate unchaperoned over a period of many years before marriage, strongly increasing the possibilities of sexual involvement and premarital pregnancies. Although cultural mores developed to discourage sexual involvement of unchaperoned dating partners, these unfortunately have been breaking down in recent decades. As as result, rates of premarital sexual intercourse and premarital pregnancies have greatly increased, reflecting the "sexual revolution" of the last 40 years. Recent surveys indicate that the proportion of American men and women having intercourse before marriage, some only with their fiancés is around 75 percent (Kephart, 288-89). Two studies of Mennonite college students estimate the rates at under 20 percent in the 1960s and under 30 percent in the 1970s, indicating that Mennonite youth tend to follow stricter mores opposing sexual intercourse before marriage. Some youth tend to postpone dating until they are serious about finding a spouse, thus avoiding temptations to physical intimacies as well as the requirements of time and money which dating entails.
Survey data on Mennonite courtship customs is extremely limited. One study of 149 Midwest Mennonite (MC) teenagers indicate that dating began, on the average, at age 16 for boys and 15 for girls, about one and one-half years later than indicated by comparable data for American college students at a similar time period. This may simply reflect a greater rurality of Mennonite youth at the time, since dating tended to begin earlier among urban residents. In the same study (Kauffman, 1960), 149 married couples, parents of the above teenagers, indicated that they bad been acquainted with each other an average of 4.2 years before marriage, their courtship periods averaged 28 months, and their engagement periods averaged 8 months.
Following general custom, Mennonite couples tend to announce their engagements some months prior to the wedding, often in the local newspaper or occasionally at a party for female friends arranged by the bride-to-be. Typically, the newspaper item specifies that the engagement is announced by the parents of the bride-to-be, although it is often the young couple itself that prepares the notice. Except when required by law in some Canadian provinces, "publishing the banns" in churches (or elsewhere) is not practiced by Mennonites in North America, but it is a regular practice among the Old Order Amish.
See also Folklore
Eshleman, J. Ross. The Family: An Introduction. 3rd ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 1981: 308-14.
Hiebert, Clarence. The Holdeman People. South Pasadena, Cal.: The William Carey Library, 1973: 459-61.
Hostetler, John A. Amish Society. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980: 147-52, 191-92.
Hostetler, John A. Hutterite Society. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974: 223, 237-38.
Arnold, Johann Christoph and Merrill Mow in The Plough, no. 18 (Jan.-Feb. 1988): 12-16; and no. 14 (Feb.-Mar. 1986): 2-4.
Kauffman, J. Howard. " Sexual Attitudes and Behavior of Mennonite College Youth." Unpubl. paper.
Kauffman, J. Howard. "A Comparative Study of Traditional and Emergent Family Types Among Midwest Mennonites." PhD diss., U. of Chicago, 1960.
Kephart, William M. The Family, Society, and the Individual. 5th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1981: 287-90.
Kauffman, J. Howard. "An Introduction to African Courtship and Marriage." Unpublished paper, 1976, copy at Mennonite Historical Library (Goshen).
Hicks, Jean Huntington Phillips. "Premarital Sexual Intimacy: a Mennonite College Sample." MS thesis, Purdue U., 1972.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 318-319; v. 5, pp. 207-209. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Umble, John S. and J. Howard Kauffman. "Courtship Customs." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 25 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/C6885ME.html.
APA style: Umble, John S. and J. Howard Kauffman. (1989). Courtship Customs. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 25 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/C6885ME.html.