Against Profane Dealing with Holy Matrimony: In Regard of a Man and His Wife's Sister

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The Church of England in all times has received this for one of her laws concerning Marriage, That a man may not marry his wife's sister. It has been the law of this Church and Realm ever since Christianity came here in the Saxon times. That no one may be ignorant of it, it is appointed to be set up conspicuously in every Church.

Whoever have been married among us, have declared, solemnly in the Church, “as they will answer at the dreadful Day of Judgment, when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed,” that they know neither of this nor of any other “impediment, why they may not be lawfully joined together in Matrimony:” and have been warned before God, by His Priests in His Name, that if they “are coupled together otherwise than God's word doth allow, their Matrimony is not lawful.” Whatever man has been married by licence, has moreover taken an express oath that he “knows of no let or impediment of kindred or alliance, to bar his proceeding in that marriage.” So that it has been at all times impossible for any marriage to take place in our Church between a man and his wife's sister, without two false oaths at the least. If they knew what they were doing, both parties must have been perjured; and if the Clergyman knew, he was openly conniving at perjury, and that in a Church, and under most awful circumstances.

This notwithstanding, a few persons, some rich, and some in middle station, have made bold to contract such unions, deceiving the Clergy, though they could not deceive God: and some others who wish to do so, are only kept back by fear of certain worldly inconveniences. They do not like their children to be reckoned base-born, nor themselves to be looked on strangely by some of their acquaintance. They want the law of the land to be changed for their convenience. And some of them being rich, have employed some lawyers to search the country round, and rake together all the instances they can find, in which there is any appearance of hardship or inconvenience caused by this law. And when they have made a case, as clever lawyers can easily do, they will come to Parliament, and ask for an Act to be passed, altering this old rule; allowing widowers, whenever they please, to marry those who are now called their sisters-in-law; and of course inflicting penalties on Clergymen who refuse to marry them, or to treat them as married.

Now, we are most of us quiet people, and would gladly leave matters of law entirely to our governors: but it does so happen now and then, that a few people make a great noise, and the Parliament thinks it is all the nation, and so changes get made in a hurry, to be repented of at leisure: and surely in so precious and sacred a concern as the law of holy Matrimony, this would be especially sad and grievous. Will you then calmly consider, whether the reasons which you will find here set down are not sufficient to make us all most earnestly wish and pray, that no such alteration may take place as these persons are asking for?

First, When people have broken the law, they are not exactly the persons to come and ask to have the law altered in their favour. Thieves, smugglers, poachers, slave-dealers, evil doers of various sorts, no doubt would be very glad to have their respective penalties taken off, and their proceedings made legal: but their petitions to that effect would have no great weight, and most persons would account it a bad precedent, if enactments were made in deference to them.

Then with regard to this law in particular: it is recognised in England more distinctly than in most other countries, and some, on that very account, cry out for its repeal: but before we listen to them, ought we not to consider, that the whole of married and domestic life in England is commonly thought to be more happily circumstanced than elsewhere? and how can we tell but that this inestimable advantage may be mainly attributable to our keeping up the old land-marks, which others have allowed to be cast down? In France, we are told, and in other Roman Catholic countries, the law is evaded by dispensation: in Protestant Germany, Sweden, and Denmark, it is either dispensed with, or has been repealed, as some would have it here: is wedlock so much happier and more respectable in France or Germany than in England, that we need go out of our way to fetch over their marriage laws hither?

Thirdly, The discomfort connected with this matter will be found, if fairly examined, to arise entirely from the law not being thoroughly kept: and that again arises entirely from want of faith. If people would really and entirely receive these plain words of both Testaments, ‘The man and his wife are one flesh,’ then their wives' sisters would be to them as sisters: they would no more think of marrying the one than the other: they might have the full benefit of the sisterly relation for themselves, their houses, and their children, without temptation, scruple, uneasiness, or evil report. As it is now, these evils are excluded, just in proportion as the Divine saying is believed, and the law regarding it recognised: and therefore, notwithstanding the unbelief and laxity of such people as those who are now agitating, English families do in very many instances receive the full benefit of that endearing relation,—the very name of which will become an absurdity if once this change is made,—the relation, I mean, of sister-in-law. Persons who are determined, come what will, to believe the Bible and obey the Church, and who know each other to be so determined, are freed from all anxiety about this matter: the wife in such case feels nothing but relief and comfort in having her sister with her in time of confinement or other sickness: and if God take her, she leaves her children cheerfully to her sister's experienced care, knowing that she will be a good aunt to them and a good sister to their father, and never can be any thing more: but what would become of all this, if the law were altered as some now desire? Why even the very tampering with it, the suggestion of ways of evading it, the notion of repealing it, has already done irreparable mischief. Widowers now feel themselves precluded from providing that sisterly help for their children, which is only second to a mother's care: this cruel agitation has effectually prevented them. The evidence itself, which has been alleged in behalf of the change, is full of facts which unquestionably indicate what discomfort the change would produce. For instance, one person[1] states, that “from the frequent confidential intercourse which is permitted by the present state of the law, an attachment has sprung up between himself and the sister of his deceased wife:” which of course implies, that if the proposed change took place, confidential intercourse between the husband and the wife's sister would be at an end. As has been truly observed, she would be no more to him than any other unmarried woman.

Another, who strongly advocates the change, allows that “it might in some cases deprive the widower of the company of the sister on the death of a wife. Opinion and public feeling might require that she should no longer occupy the same house, though his children might then be deprived of the only female guardian and guide they had[2].” Surely the statement might have been stronger. As a general rule among decent persons of all ranks, a law which would place the wife's sister in the same relation to the husband as any other unmarried woman, not only might, but must, in all cases, separate the wife's sister from the family; not only after the wife's death, but in her lifetime also, during any long illness or absence. That is, she will require the same kind of protection as another young woman would in the like circumstances. If she is to be of use to her sister's children, the widower must marry her: there is no other alternative.

This, we know, is exactly what some would desire. But are they the majority? are they the kind of persons most to be considered? The law, so far as it respects persons at all, should take most care of those who can least take care of themselves. Suppose then two widowed husbands: call the one Viduus, the other Polygamus. Polygamus wants to marry his wife's sister, Viduus feels that he never can marry again, but looks to be helped and comforted by his sister-in-law's care of his children. If the law is changed, Polygamus will be favoured, greatly to the detriment of Viduus. Why should it be so? Who can prove that there are more of the first sort than of the second? And if there were, why should they be more considered? It is no disrespect to Polygamus to conjecture, that he may and would overcome his attachment, if all law were clearly against it, and would soon make himself very happy with some other person. But to Viduus and his children the loss is, humanly speaking, irreparable.

If you say that even as things are, Viduus will find it a difficult and delicate matter to obtain the help which he desires; I answer, This is entirely owing to the evasion of the law, and agitation of the question. Once set it at rest,—as it would be set at rest, if the great body of English Churchmen and Churchwomen were to declare themselves, on principle, against this change,—and then bereaved families will taste again the balm and comfort of sisterly affection, already impaired in no slight degree by the bare supposition that such a thing is possible.

Of course I take here into consideration the effect of the law while the first wife is living. It will be, ordinarily speaking, neither more nor less than the loss of all her sisters, as sisters, out of the family. Estimate, if you can, the amount of such a loss, throughout all the decent households of the realm; and see if the hardships alleged against the present state of the law, were they multiplied a thousand fold, could at all be compared with that loss.

I come now to the great question of all. Is it, as the Church of England has always held, contrary to the law of God, for a man to marry his wife's sister? I have not the smallest doubt that it is so, and I believe that the great majority of the Clergy of England, so far as they have considered the matter, think the same. I will try to set forth the grounds of this opinion, as plainly and as concisely as I can.

In Leviticus, chap. 18, certain marriages are forbidden, as specially offensive to God. Some people say, that the prohibition belongs to the civil law only of the ancient Jews, and that, so far as it is concerned, persons of other nations may contract such marriages without sinning. But this must be a mistake, for it appears from the end of the chapter, that such marriages were among the crimes which drew down God's heavy anger upon the Canaanites. “Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things, for in all these the nations are defiled which I cast out before you: and the land is defiled: therefore I do visit the iniquity thereof upon it, and the land vomiteth out her inhabitants. Ye shall therefore keep My statutes and My judgments, and shall not commit any of these abominations; neither any of your own nation, nor any stranger that sojourneth among you: (for all these abominations have the men of the land done, which were before you, and the land is defiled:) that the land spue not you out also, when ye defile it, as it spued out the nations that were before you. For whosoever shall commit any of these abominations, even the souls that commit them shall be cut off from among their people. Therefore shall ye keep Mine ordinance, that ye commit not any one of these abominable customs, which were committed before you, and that ye defile not yourselves therein: I am the Lord your God.”

Clearly, if the Canaanites, who had never heard of Moses and his law, were offending God so grievously by doing these things, the offence cannot be against the Levitical law only. If I may without presumption, I would earnestly intreat all serious persons, clergy and laity, who for whatever reason have been induced to take part in this movement:—I would earnestly intreat them well to consider this:—lest they find by and by that they have been instrumental in bringing the curse of Canaan on themselves, on our Church and country, while they thought they were only pleading for Christian liberty, and doing away with the remnant of an obsolete foreign code.

Now, what are the customs which were so abominable in the old inhabitants of God's Holy Land, and caused the land itself to vomit them out? (the customs, I mean, in respect of marriage: for of the other horrors mentioned in this chapter we are not now compelled to speak.) They are all forbidden in one general principle: “None of you shall approach to any that is near of kin to him, to uncover their nakedness: I am the Lord.” This being laid down in the 6th verse, the following verses allege so many instances, whereby God's people might understand what “near of kin” means. And it is remarkable, that in this enunciation the law makes no distinction between those who are akin by marriage and those who are akin by blood, but mentions them indiscriminately, as if the one sort were precluded from marrying under the same penalties as the other.

For these are the degrees expressly forbidden, in their order. First, a natural mother, in v. 7. Next, a father's wife, or step-mother, in v. 8: which is the case mentioned in 1 Cor. v. 1. Next, a sister, v. 9. Next, a granddaughter, v. 10. Next, a half-sister, v. 11. Next, an aunt by the father's side, v. 12. Next, an aunt by the mother's side, v. 13. Next, an aunt by marriage with an uncle, v. 14. Next, a son's wife, v. 15. Next, a brother's wife, v. 16. Next, a wife's daughter, mother, or grand-daughter, v. 17.

Here are thirteen cases in all: six of kindred by blood, and seven of kindred by marriage: and neither by the order in which they follow one another, nor by any difference of expression regarding them, is any hint given, that the one sort of profanation is less heinous in God's sight than the other. The world may have come to think there is a difference, because the world will not believe that man and wife are really one flesh. But the written law of God apparently deals with both alike.

The next remark I have to make on this, which is God's own table of prohibited marriages, is one which it seems to me that no fair mind can deny. Indeed, one is half ashamed to enounce it, it is so obvious: yet the reasoning on the other side appears to be mainly based on the denial of it. It is simply this: that nearness of kin not being affected by sex, what is forbidden to a man is forbidden to a woman in the same degree of kindred or affinity, though it be not set down in words. For instance, in v. 7, a man is forbidden to marry his mother: then, by the same rule, a woman is forbidden to marry her father, though the prohibition is not expressed. Surely it would be fearful paltering with God's law, not to accept and obey such a plain rule as this. And it is to be observed, that these Canons are all addressed to men only: the woman's duty and the woman's sin are left to be inferred in each case: but what should we think of the woman who should therefore account herself left at liberty, so far as the Levitical laws are concerned?

Now look at v. 16; which being expressed in such English as we now commonly talk, would run, I suppose, as follows: “Thou shalt not marry thy brother's widow: she is one flesh with thy brother, and is therefore thine own sister.” Can any other interpretation be put upon it? and if this be the right interpretation, are not marriages with a brother's widow plainly forbidden among the Canaanitish abominations?

Yet one has known persons, generally decent and respectable, who have contracted such marriages; and not a few were found to sympathize with them. And all that is said in the way of worldly reasons,—comfort, care of children, and the like,—is surely as strong when it is pleaded for them, as in the argument which we are now more immediately considering. Besides that they are expressly dispensed with, and even commanded, in the well-known case of raising up seed to a brother.

But none of these pleas, were they multiplied a thousand fold, would argue the prohibition out of the law of God. There it still stands, with the curse of the Canaanites for its sanction: “Thou shalt not marry thy brother's wife, she is thy sister.”

Now I call upon all serious people,—all who in their hearts believe the Bible to be the Word of God,—to reflect on what follows from this verse. (I mean, from this verse alone: for we shall come presently to the question, Whether there is any other Scripture which tells the contrary way.) I say, considering that verse alone, could any true-hearted woman possibly help receiving it, as an undoubted rule of God's law, that “Thou shalt not marry thy sister's husband, he is thy brother?” Must she not receive it as enforced by the same penalty with the other grievous sins there mentioned? To me, I must say, there is scarce any thing plainer in the Bible.

But it will be said, The law of God has not left the matter so, but has virtually permitted marriage with a wife's sister, by the 18th verse of the same chapter. “Neither shalt thou take a wife to her sister to vex her, to uncover her nakedness, beside the other in her lifetime.” Now we are not quite sure that this verse is rightly translated: but for the present let us suppose it to be so. Because it is said, “In her lifetime,” people seem to think that the marriage might of course be contracted after the first wife's death. But does this follow? Might not the Holy Ghost intend to put a special case, of a sin which had been virtually forbidden before, committed under circumstances of especial aggravation? As if He should say, “Thou shalt not marry thy brother's widow, nor, by parity of reasoning, thy wife's sister: and I warn thee especially against the cruelty of doing this latter in the first wife's lifetime.”

If a reason be asked, Why this case should be specified, Saint Basil has pointed out one: the possible abuse of the precedent set by Jacob, which the licentious might plead in vindication of such marriages, as others are supposed to have pleaded the command given to Abraham for their cruel sacrifices of their own children to their gods. The enactment, so understood, would seem to be more completely accounted for, than by those who maintain the opposite construction. For the only reason which they suppose to be assigned, why a man may not be the husband of two sisters at the same time, is the danger of vexation from jealousy. But supposing the thing otherwise allowable, why should two sisters under such circumstances be more jealous of each other than two other women? One would think the same natural kindness, which is alleged as rendering the sister fittest to be the stepmother of her sister's children, would equally tend towards making the two, peaceful inmates of the harem together. But if the second marriage be altogether odious and profane, then indeed it is a very shocking additional circumstance for one to venture on it in the first wife's lifetime, and we may well conceive it stigmatized as it is, by special mention on closing the list of those unions, which God Almighty calls abomination and confusion.

If this interpretation have the least shadow of probability: if its correctness be only just possible: that were enough, surely, to deter a religious heart from venturing so much as the advocates of this change do, on the ordinary construction of the verse. It is too slight a thread to sustain so great a weight. The dispensation ought to be as distinct as the prohibition, if it is to be acted on in faith: and in such matters, “whatsoever is not of faith, is sin.”

The correctness of our present translation has been here assumed: nor do I believe that Oriental scholars in general see good reason to doubt it. The variations, as far as I know, which have ever been proposed in the rendering, would make the law rather more strict. The one is that of the Karaites, or opponents of tradition among the ancient Hebrews. They considered the verse, as we may see in the margin of our Bibles, to interdict Polygamy altogether: “Thou shalt not take one wife to another, to vex her…beside the other in her lifetime.”

Upon another construction, the verse might run thus: “And a woman to her sister thou shalt not take, vexatiously…as long as she” (i.e. the woman first mentioned) “liveth:” the phrase in the original being the same which is used in the 4th verse of the 63d Psalm: “As long as I live will I magnify Thee.” Thus it would amount to an emphatic warning against the very thing which it is supposed indirectly to sanction.

I do not say that either of these versions is free from difficulty: but their difficulties are not to be compared with that of supposing a connexion indirectly licensed in the 18th verse, which in the 16th had been virtually condemned under such very heavy penalties.

We may speak on this head with all confidence, seeing that in such interpretation we are but echoing the voice of our own Church, and of the whole uncorrupt, undivided Church of God. For as to the Jewish commentators, both before and after our Lord's time, we are told indeed that the prevailing sect, the Talmudists, take altogether the laxer side in this question: but what Christian would follow them in such matters, they being the very interpreters, of whom our Lord said, “Except your righteousness exceed theirs, ye shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven:”—the blind guides, who taught men that they were not answerable for evil thoughts; that they should love their neighbour but might hate their enemy; that if they said Corban, it would excuse them from helping their parents?

Putting these aside then, and coming to the true Church and Gospel, I cannot see the shadow of a doubt that the same “Mind of Christ,” which from the beginning put an end to Polygamy, licensed as it was by the Jewish system, did à fortiori express and make itself felt against those unions which were forbidden to Jews as having been intolerable even in Canaanites. We are sure, from our Lord's own saying about divorce, that as in respect of the Law generally, so especially in respect of the Law of Marriage, He came “not to destroy, but to fulfil;” i.e. to perfect and make it stricter. This would be enough, if we knew no more, to shew us that it is safer and more loving towards Him to retain the Levitical restrictions, than to annul them; and if either of them be doubtful, to accept the severer alternative.

Moreover, there is no small reason to believe, that the Levitical restrictions were in a manner re-enacted, and proclaimed as binding upon all Christians, in that first Council of Jerusalem[3], when “it seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to the Apostles to lay upon” the Gentile converts, whom they were exempting generally from the positive part of the Mosaic Law, the burthen of abstaining (among other things) from “fornication.” There is high authority for believing, that “fornication” in this place means marriage within the Levitical degrees[4]. Till that is disproved, or some decree produced of equal authority, annulling this Canon of the Apostles, had we not better keep our law as it is?

I have before noticed, that St. Paul called it by this same title, fornication, only of a singularly heinous kind, when a man had married his step-mother[5]. This confirms the explanation given of the same word in Acts xv; and it is also proof, if any were wanted, how sacred in God's sight are the near degrees of affinity. Transgressions against them are sometimes made light of in comparison, because people do not seem to themselves to feel the same natural horror of them as when there is blood-relationship. As if on purpose to caution us on this head, the only two cases specified in the New Testament are sins against affinity, not consanguinity: the case of Herod, and that of this incestuous Corinthian.

Certain it is, that for many ages the Church so understood the mind of the Lord. There are certain Canons called Apostolical, concerning which Bishop Beveridge gave this opinion, that they are a genuine “Code of Canons of the Primitive Church, whereby, at least in the greater number of places, discipline was administered before the time of the Nicene Council.” The 15th of these Canons is, “He that hath married two sisters, or his niece,” (i.e. before he was converted,) “cannot be a Bishop or Clergyman.” It is the same evil mark which in the 13th and 14th Canons of the same series is set upon bigamy, and upon other discreditable marriages, and in the 53d upon all kinds of unchastity; which were besides punishable by direct censure and excommunication.

In the 2d Canon of Neocæsarea, A.D. 315, it is enacted, “If a woman marry two brothers successively, let her be excommunicated till her death.” In a Canon of the Council of Elvira, A.D. 325, “If any man after the death of his wife have married her sister, she being also a communicant; let them be suspended from Communion for five years; except there be need through sickness of a more speedy reconciliation." Elvira is in Spain, Neocæsarea in Pontus; these marriages were therefore condemned at that time from one end to the other of the Christian world.

St. Basil in the Eastern Church, about A.D. 373, laid it down, (Can. 23.) “That a man ought not to marry two sisters, nor a woman two brothers: that he who marries his brother's wife be not admitted to Communion till he dismiss her.” And again, (Canon 78.) “He who successively marries two sisters, must do the penance of one who divorces his wife and marries another:” which latter by our Lord's own judgment is an adulterer.

The same St. Basil, in a well-known letter to Diodorus, a Priest of Antioch, who was by some thought to be afterwards Bishop of Tarsus, argues the point at large from the chapter in Leviticus. And these Canons of his have been ever since received as the regular law of the Eastern Church, nor are they ever in any case there dispensed with[6].

Lastly; in the General Council of Chalcedon, A.D. 451,—one of those Councils which our Church especially receives,—the first Canon pronounces it “fit and just, that the Canons of the holy Fathers made in every Synod to this present time be in full force:” thus adopting among others the censures which had been previously enacted against marrying two sisters. St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, in the fourth century, distinctly recognise the Levitical degrees, as binding on all Christians: not only those which are expressed, but those which are implied by parity of reasoning.

There is no need to go farther down in proof that the Church has always prohibited these marriages. It is acknowledged on all hands. Only, because the Church of Rome often dispenses with the prohibition, men infer that she cannot account it any more than a human law. Yet St. Gregory the Great, writing to St. Augustine of Canterbury, who had enquired of him what should be the limits of the prohibition among the newly-converted English, distinctly refers to Leviticus, as containing the present law of God on that subject: “The Holy Law prohibits intercourse with one near of kin.”…“With a step-mother, it is a grievous crime: since it is also written in the law. Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy father.”…“For, it being also written in the Law, ‘They two shall be one flesh,’ the step-mother's shame (who was one flesh with the father) was of course the father's shame. Again, connection with one near of kin is forbidden,—with her who by previous union was made one flesh with a man's brother. For which thing also St. John Baptist was beheaded, and crowned with holy martyrdom”. We, who are not modern Roman Catholics, may be contented with this distinct testimony to the view of the Roman Church in the time of St. Gregory. It need not much concern us, if there be any one of high authority in that Church now, who maintains, contrary to St. Gregory, that such marriages are not held by the Roman Church to be prohibited by Scripture[7].

The truth would seem to be, that according to the Roman theory, a marriage prohibited by Scripture may yet be licensed by the Pope: because, according to the tenet of infallibility, it is only God Himself dispensing with His own positive law[8]: as in the allowance of polygamy to the Patriarchs, in the sacrifice of Isaac, and in the direction given to marry the widow of a brother who had died childless.

Therefore, notwithstanding the practice of the modern Roman Church, and the opinion of some of its divines, we may not be far wrong in asserting, that the whole Church from the beginning, and certainly the whole undivided Church, is with us in both parts of our argument. It has considered the Levitical prohibitions as binding upon Christians, except so far as they are dispensed with by a sufficient (i.e. a Divine) authority: and it has considered the wife's sister as coming within those prohibitions.

Are we prepared, in the face of all this, to alter our Table of prohibited degrees? At least, let us distinctly understand what sort of course we are committing ourselves to. We cannot, I apprehend, make this, or any similar change, without virtually accepting the principle, that the Gospel precepts in such matters are less strict than those of the Law: although our Divine Master has distinctly and repeatedly intimated, in the kindred matter of divorce, that concessions were made to the Jews, “because of the hardness of their hearts,” which could in no wise be allowed to us Christians: although St. Paul, in the other kindred matter of polygamy, has once for all told us the mind of Christ, saying, “Let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband:” (1 Cor. vii. 2.) and although the whole spirit and tendency of the Christian Dispensation is to require more of man, in proportion as it gives him immeasurably more grace.

See then what will in all probability ensue. It being once admitted that the Levitical prohibitions are not to be considered as the law of God, persons in other degrees of affinity, no nearer than that now in question, will have a door opened for them, first to indulge irregular desires, and then (if they be numerous and important enough) to scheme and agitate in their turn for a further change in the law. The marriage of a widow with two brothers can hardly be refused: there will be fewer indeed to agitate for it, because there are more who would wish to marry a wife's sister than a brother's widow: but the claim by parity of reasoning will be felt to be so strong, especially by a particular set of “doctrinaire” legislators, that it will be practically impossible to refuse it.

The wife's niece of course will be included, as being a more remote degree, in the measure now proposed: and a fearful addition it will be to the amount of temptation and discomfort which will invade our families.

And how long will it be, ere some plausible case is made, for that which St. Paul says was “not so much as named among the Gentiles”—for a man to have his mother-in-law? Already the opinion has been broadly uttered before the late commission, and printed after revision, “I do not see any objection to marriages where there is no consanguinity[9].” And some ingenious critic may find out, that for any thing in the Greek of 1 Cor. v. 1. it may allude to intercourse not calling itself marriage. And so that which the Holy Ghost taught the Prophet to speak of with such deep horror, (Amos ii. 8.) may be regarded among us as a part of Christian liberty.

And will the matter stop there? If the Levitical degrees of affinity are no impediment, why should those of consanguinity be so? It seems that in the greater part of Protestant Germany, dispensations may be had for an uncle to marry his niece, or for an aunt to marry her nephew. Why should it not be so, if people feel no horror of it, and if the prohibition in Leviticus is but for the Jews? And so by no very violent steps we shall have reduced our prohibition to the first degree only of consanguinity. All but brothers and sisters will be allowed to marry: that will be true Christian liberty: and we must trust to natural horror only—for we shall have done away with the Scriptural warning—to prevent what we now shrink from imagining. But, alas! what answer will the Clergy of poor crowded districts be compelled to give, if they should be called before some future commission, and asked how far natural horror could be depended on, as a safeguard, in ignorant abandoned families?

As to Polygamy and Divorce, when the Spirit of Scripture and the Voice of the Church are disregarded, we shall be free to receive the views of so great a writer as Milton, and to follow the precedent of so enlightened a land as Germany.

Moreover, it has been well argued, and surely no serious person will refuse to consider the argument, that every plea which has been alleged for setting aside the Levitical degrees in this instance, is at least equally applicable to the case of the weekly day of rest. Religious persons who would tolerate the one change, as not contrary to the law of God, ought in consistency, so far, to be prepared to admit the other[10].

The truth is, no thoughtful heart can regard this matter of the marriage laws as a thing standing apart by itself. It belongs rather to a much greater and deeper movement, shewing itself now nearly all over Christendom, by tokens very various, yet all most curiously tending the same way, i.e. toward Lawlessness, the predicted forerunner of Antichrist.

But come what may, we of the Church of England, more especially if we belong to her Clergy, must neither ourselves yield to such profane changes, nor by our silent indifference give others reason to think that we are prepared to yield to them. I hope we shall in good time speak out, and tell our statesmen and lawyers, that no Act of Parliament, nor provincial Canon, nor any thing short of a true Œcumenical Council, can possibly set us free from the obligation we feel, to regard the marriage of a man with his wife's sister, and all others like unto it, as prohibited by Scripture under the penalties of incest. So that for no religious purpose—communion, burial, or the like—can we ever recognise such a connexion as a marriage. By God's help, “we will not defile ourselves in any of these things: for in all these things the heathen were defiled. We will keep God's ordinance, that we commit not any one of these abominable customs that were committed before us, and that we defile not ourselves therein: He is the Lord our God.” (Levit. xviii. 24, 25, 30.)



  1. Report of the Commission on the Marriage Laws, qu.915.
  2. Report, 995.
  3. Acts xv. 20, 29.
  4. See Hooker, E. P. iv. xi. 7; Hammond on Acts xv.
  5. 1 Cor. v. 1.
  6. There has of late (see the Report above quoted, qu. 1015…1018.) been an ingenious attempt to invalidate this testimony of St. Basil, by representing it as his own private opinion, and the custom of his own diocese, not an indication of the mind of the whole Church. But his words will not bear this out. He says, “First, what in all such things is most important, is the custom received among us, which we are able to allege, equivalent to a law, since our rules were delivered to us by holy men. And it is as follows: if haply one overcome by unclean desire, fall into lawless intercourse with two sisters, neither to account it marriage, nor at all to receive such an one into the great body of the Church, until they have separated.” Comparing this with St. Basil's usual way of speaking of Church traditions, and also with the instances of previous Church enactment above alleged, there can be no reasonable doubt, that by the “we,” and “us,” and “our rules,” St. Basil is designating the whole Church of Christ, not the province of Cappadocia or diocese of Cæsarea only. The ingenious expounder above referred to has indeed tried to make out from the letter that it was an open question in the Church, one rule prevailing, through St. Basil's influence, in the diocese of Cæsarea, the other in that of Tarsus, under Diodorus. But Diodorus was not at that time Bishop of Tarsus, but only a Priest in Antioch: [St. Basil, Ep. 99. §.3.] and St. Basil speaks of it as quite a new “importation of mischief into our practice.” He implies that he was speaking not of an opposite custom, but of a single instance ventured on in defiance of all caution: for he says, “I pray that either our advice may prove stronger than the passion, or that this impiety may not come to sojourn in our country, but in what places it may have been ventured on, there it may remain.” [Ep. 160.] Again, whereas it is subtilely conjectured, that the Church had borrowed this piece of discipline from the State of Rome, Dr. Pusey's evidence clearly proves, that the State rather borrowed it from the Church: for it was not civil law till the time of Constantius and Constans, A.D. 355. (Report, qu. 445.)
  7. See Bishop Wiseman's Evidence in the Report, &c. qu. 1161.
  8. For proof that the degrees of marriage are part of God's positive Law, see Dr. Hammond's Tract on Marrying with a Wife's Sister.
  9. Report &c. qu. 849.
  10. See the “Guardian,” Jan, 3, 1849. Supplement, p. 14. “All the points which the Committee are desirous to establish might be urged with far greater force against the observance of the Lord's Day.

    “First, (and above all,) That it is violated in so many instances as to require legislative sanction.

    “Secondly, That it is very doubtful whether it is expressly enjoined by the letter of Holy Scripture.

    “Thirdly, That the Jews do not observe this day, and that their scruples ought to be considered.

    “Fourthly, Many witnesses might be produced to testify to the great pecuniary advantages which would accrue to them from the abrogation of this observance.

    “Fifthly, Others might declare that they have long violated it without suffering in the eyes of society.

    “Sixthly, One high in station in a neighbouring Church might be appealed to as holding very lax opinions concerning this obligation.

    “In the next place, The example of other countries in this respect renders us almost singular in our strictness.

    “And lastly, That, although it might appear that there existed among the members of the Scotch Kirk a very strong feeling in favour of this observance, yet, if it was carefully instilled into their minds that there is no such command in Scripture, these feelings might give way.

    “I believe I have fairly stated every argument adduced in favour of this change in the Marriage Laws. Now, there are some among the advocates for this change who would be sorry to see every point on which they rely adduced as an argument brought forward against keeping holy the Lord's Day. Surely it would be well for such persons to reflect that, in both cases alike, the great body of the nation who would suffer from such a relaxation ought to be considered as well as the few who would profit by it."