The Elements of Moral Science (1835, 1856 ed.)

Francis Wayland


The Law of Marriage

It has been already remarked, in the preceding section, that the law of chastity forbids all sexual intercourse between persons who have not been exclusively united for life. In the act of marriage, two persons, under the most solemn circumstances, are thus united; and they enter into a mutual contract thus to live in respect to each other. This relation having been established by God, the contract thus entered into has all the solemnity of an oath. Hence he who violates it is guilty of a two-fold crime: first, the violation of the law of chastity; and, secondly, of the law of veracity; — a veracity pledged under the most solemn circumstances.

But this is by no means all that is intended by the institution of marriage. By the contract thus entered into, a society is formed, of a most interesting and important character, which is the origin of all civil society; and in which, children are prepared to become members of that great community. As our principal knowledge of the nature and obligations of this institution is derived from the sacred Scriptures, I shall endeavor briefly to explain the manner in which they treat of it, without adding any thing to what I have already said, in regard to the teaching of natural religion.

I shall consider, first, the nature of this contract, and, secondly, the duties which it enjoins, and the crimes which it forbids.

First. The nature of the contract.

1. The contract is for life, and is dissoluble for one cause only — the cause of whoredom:

Matthew 19:3-6,9. “Then came some of the Pharisees to him, and, tempting him asked, Can a man, upon every pretense, divorce his wife? He answered, “Have ye not read, that at the beginning, when the Creator made man, he formed a male and female; and said, for this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and adhere to his wife; and they two shall be one flesh. Wherefore, they are no longer two, but one flesh. What then God hath conjoined, let not man separate. Wherefore, I say unto you, whosoever divorceth his wife, except for whoredom, and marrieth another, committeth adultery.” I use here the translation of Dr. Campbell, which, I think, conveys more exactly than the common version the meaning of the original.

2. We are here taught that marriage, being an institution of God, is subject to his laws alone, and not to the laws of man. Hence the civil law is binding upon the conscience only in so far as it corresponds to the law of God.

3. This contract is essentially mutual. By entering into it, the members form a society, that is, they have something in common. Whatever is thus in common, belongs equally to both. And, on the contrary, what is not thus surrendered, remains as before in the power of the individual.

4. The basis of this union is affection. Individuals thus contract themselves to each other, on the ground not merely of mutual regard, but also of a regard stronger than that which they entertain for any other persons else. If such be not the condition of the parties, they cannot be united with any fair prospect of happiness. Now, such is the nature of the human affections, that we derive a higher and purer pleasure from rendering happy those whom we love than from self-gratification. Thus, a parent prefers self denial for the sake of a child, to self-indulgence. The same principle is illustrated in every case of pure and disinterested benevolence. This is the essential element, on which depends the happiness of the married state. To be in the highest degree, happy, we must each prefer the happiness of another to our own.

5. I have mentioned above, that, this being a voluntary compact, and forming a peculiar society, there are some things which, by this compact, each surrenders to the other, and also other things which are not surrendered. It is important that these be distinguished from each other.

I remark then, —

    a. Neither party surrenders to the other any control over any thing appertaining to the conscience. From the nature of our moral constitution, nothing of this sort can be surrendered to any created being. For either party to interfere with the discharge of those duties, which the other party really supposes itself to owe to God, is therefore wicked and oppressive.

    b. Neither party surrenders to the other any thing which would violate prior and lawful obligations. Thus, a husband does not promise to subject his professional pursuits to the will of his wife. He has chosen his profession, and, if he pursue it lawfully, it does not interfere with the contract. So, also, his duties as a citizen, are of prior obligation; and, if they really interfere with any others, those subsequently formed must be construed in subjection to them. Thus, also, the final duties of both parties remain, in some respects, unchanged after marriage, and the marriage contract should not be so interpreted as to violate them.

    c. On the other hand, I suppose that the marriage contract binds each party, whenever individual gratification is concerned, to prefer the happiness of the other party to its own. If pleasure can be enjoyed by both, the happiness of both is increased by enjoying it in common. If it can be enjoyed but by one, each should prefer that it be enjoyed by the other. And if there be sorrow to be endured, or inconvenience to be suffered, each should desire, if possible, to bear the infliction for the sake of shielding the other from pain.

    d. And as I have remarked before, the disposition to do this arises from the very nature of the principles on which the compact is formed, from unreserved affection. This is the very manner in which affection always displays itself. This is the very means by which affection is created. “She love me for the dangers I had seen, and I loved her that she did pay them.” — Shakespeare. And this is the only course of conduct by which affection can be retained. And the manifestation of this temper is, under all circumstances, obligatory upon both parties.

6. As, however, in all societies, there may be differences of opinion, even where the harmony of feeling remains unimpaired, so there may be differences here. Where such differences of opinion exist, there must be some ultimate appeal. In ordinary societies, such questions are settled by a numerical majority. But as, in this case, such a decision is impossible, some other principle must be adopted. The right of deciding must rest with either the one or the other. As the husband is the individual who is responsible to civil society, as his intercourse with the world is of necessity greater, the voice of nature and of revelation unite in conferring the right of ultimate authority upon him. By this arrangement the happiness of the wife is increased no less than that of the husband. Her power is always greatest in concession. She is graceful and attractive while meek and gentle; but when angered and turbulent, she loses the fascination of her own sex, without attaining to the dignity of the other.
      “A woman moved is like a fountain troubled,
      Muddy, ill-seeming, and bereft of beauty.” Shaks.

Secondly. I come now to speak of the duties imposed by the marriage relation.

I. The marriage relation imposes upon both parties, equally, the duty of chastity.

1. Hence, it forbids adultery, or intercourse with any other person than that one to whom the individual is united in marriage.

2. And, hence, it forbids all conduct in married persons, or with married persons, of which the tendency would be to diminish their affection for those to whom they are united in marriage, or of which the tendency would be to give pain to the other party. This is evident from what we have before said. For, if the contract itself proceed upon the principle of entire and exclusive affection, any thing must be a violation of it, which destroys or lessens that affection; and that which causes this affection to be doubted, produces to the party in which the doubt exists, the same misery that would ensue from actual injury.

The crime of adultery is of an exceedingly aggravated nature. As has been before, remarked, aside from being a violation of the law of chastity, it is also a violation of a most solemn contract. The misery which it inflicts upon parents and children, relatives and friends, the total annihilation of domestic happiness, and the total disruption of parental and filial ties which it necessarily produces, mark it for one of the basest forms of human atrocity. Hence, as might be expected, it is spoken of in the Scriptures as one of those crimes on which God has set the seal of his peculiar displeasure. In addition to the passages already quoted on this subject, I barely mention the following:

Matthew 5:28. “Whosoever looketh on a woman to cherish impure desire, hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” Hebrews 13:4. “Marriage is honorable in all, and the bed undefiled; but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge.” Revelation 21:8. “Murderers and the lascivious shall have their part in the lake that burneth with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” Throughout the writings of the prophets, in numberless instances, this crime is singled out, as one for which God visits with the most awful judgments, both nations and individuals. And, if any one will reflect that the happiness and prosperity of a country must depend on the virtue of the domestic society more than on any thing else, we cannot fail to perceive that a crime, which, by a single act, sunders the conjugal tie, and leaves children worse than parentless, must be attended with more abundant and remediless evils, than almost any other that can be named. The taking of human life can be attended with no consequences more dreadful. In the one case, the parental tie is broken, but the victim is innocent; in the other, the tie is broken with the additional aggravation of an irretrievable moral stain, and a wide-spreading dishonor that cannot be washed away.

II. The law of marriage enforces the duty of mutual affection.

Affection towards another is the result of his or her actions and temper towards us. Admiration and respect may be the result of other manifestations of character, but nothing is so likely, as evidence of affection towards ourselves, to produce in us affection towards others.

Hence the duty of cultivating affection, imposes upon each party the obligation to act in such manner as to excite affection in the bosom of the other. The rule is, “As ye would that others should do unto (or be affected towards) you, do ye even so unto (or be ye so affected towards) them.” And the other gospel rule is here also verified: “Give, and it shall be given unto you, good measure, pressed down, and heaped together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom.” To cultivate affection, then, is not to strive to excite it by any direct effort of abstract thinking, but to show by the whole tenor of a life of disinterested goodness, that our happiness is really promoted by seeking the happiness of another. It consists in restraining our passions, in subduing our selfishness, in quieting our irritability, in eradicating from our minds everything which could give pain to an ingenuous spirit, and in cherishing a spirit of meekness, forbearance, forgiveness, and of active, cheerful, and incessant desire for the happiness of those whom we love. At no less price than this can affection be purchased; and those who are willing to purchase it at this price, will rarely have reason to complain of the want of it.

III. The law of marriage imposes the duty of mutual assistance.

In the domestic society, as in every other, there are special duties devolving upon each member; this is no more than to say that it is not the duty of every member of a society to do every thing. So here, there are duties devolving of right upon the husband, and other duties devolving of right upon the wife. Thus, it is the duty, in the first instance, of the husband, to provide for the wants of the family; and of the wife to assume the charge of the affairs of the household. His sphere of duty is without, her sphere of duty is within. Both are under obligation to discharge these duties, specially because they are parties to this particular compact. The Apostle Paul affirms, that he who does not provide for his own, specially for those of his own house, hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel. That man is worthily despised, who does not qualify himself to support that family, of which he has voluntarily assumed the office of protector. Nor surely is that woman less deserving of contempt, who, having consumed the period of youth in frivolous reading, dissipating amusement, and in the acquisition of accomplishments, which are to be consigned, immediately after marriage, to entire forgetfulness, enters upon the duties of a wife, with no other expectation, than that of being a useless and prodigal appendage to a household, ignorant of her duties, and of the manner of discharging them; and with no other conceptions of the responsibilities which she has assumed, than such as have been acquired from a life of childish caprice, luxurious self-indulgence, and sensitive, feminine, yet thoroughly finished selfishness. And yet I fear that the system of female education, at present in vogue, is, in many respects, liable to the accusation of producing precisely this tendency.

I have remarked, that the duties of the husband and wife are thus, in the first instance, apportioned. Yet, if one be disabled, all that portion of the duty of the disabled party, which the other can discharge, falls upon that other. If the husband cannot alone support the family, it is the duty of the wife to assist him. If the wife is, through sickness, unable to direct her household, the husband is bound, insofar as it is possible, to assume her care. In case of the death of either, the whole care of the children devolves upon the survivor; nor has the survivor a right to devolve it upon another person, if he or she can discharge it alone.

IV. The law of marriage, both from Scripture and from reason, makes the husband the head of the domestic society.

Hence, when difference of opinion exists (except as stated above, where a paramount obligation binds), the decision of the husband is ultimate. Hence, the duty of the wife is submission and obedience. The husband, however, has no more right than the wife to act unjustly, oppressively, or unkindly; nor is the fact of his possessing authority in the least an excuse for so acting. But as differences of opinion are always liable to exist, and as, in such case, one or the other party must yield, to avoid the greatest of all evils in such a society, — continual dissension, — the duty of yielding devolves upon the wife. And it is to be remembered, that the act of submission is, in every respect, as dignified and as lovely as the act of authority; nay, more, it involves an element of virtue which does not belong to the other. It supposes neither superior excellence nor superior mind in the party which governs; but merely an official relation, held for the mutual good of both parties and of their children. The teaching of scripture on this subject is explicit; see 1 Peter 3:1-7: “Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands, that if any obey not the word, they also may, without the word, be won by the conversation of the wives; while they behold your chaste conversation united with respect. Whose adorning, let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing gold, and of putting on of apparel; but let it be the inward disposition of the mind, which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is, in the sight of God, of great price. Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with your wives according to knowledge, as with the weaker party; rendering respect to them, as heirs with you of the grace of life.” That is, if I understand the passage, conduct towards them, as knowing that they are weak; that is, needing support and protection; and, at the same time, rendering them all that respect which is due to those who are, as much as yourselves, heirs to a blessed immortality. A more beautiful exhibition of the duties of the marriage relation cannot be imagined.

I shall close this chapter with the following well know extract from a poet, whose purity of character and exquisite sensibility have done more than any other in our language, to clothe virtue in her own native attractiveness:
      Domestic happiness, thou only bliss
      Of Paradise, that has survived the fall!
      Though a few now taste thee unimpaired and pure,
      Or, fasting, long enjoy thee! too infirm,
      Or too incautious, to preserve thy sweets
      Unmixed with drops of bitter, which neglect
      Or temper sheds into thy crystal cup
      Thou art the nurse of virtue; in thine arms
      She smiles, appearing, as in truth she is,
      Heaven-born, and destined to the skies again.
      Thou art not known where pleasure is adored, —
      That reeling goddess, with her zoneless waist
      And wandering eyes, still leaning on the arm
      Of novelty, her fickle, frail support;
      For thou art meek and constant, hating, change,
      And finding in the calm of truth-tried love,
      Joys which her stormy rapture never yields.
      Forsaking thee, what shipwreck have we seen,
      Of honor, dignity, and fair renown!
      ‘Till prostitution elbows us aside
      In all our crowded street.