Civil Marriage Ceremony Officiant (Historical Overview)

I actually wrote this tiny article for the Humanist Ethical Society of Spirituality’s main site a few months ago.  It’s based on accumulated knowledge gained by reading random bits of the web , articles, and such books as Public Vows, It’s Our Day, and Here Comes the Bride. But I thought my new couples might find it intriguing too……

Five hundred years ago in the West, most couples simply married by exchanging some form of intent with or without witnesses. More wealthy couples married with larger celebrations and legal contracts protecting and/or distributing property rights. On occasion, clergy would “bless” a new marriage just outside the door before the couple entered to participate in their first religious service together. Over time, religious ceremonies became more prominent for the growing middle class, although such members who could afford more elaborate celebrations still comprised a minority of the population.

In the formational period of the United States, governmental jurisdictions generally required a religious ceremony, namely the ceremony found in the Book of the Common Prayer for Anglicans or Episcoplians, which dates back to the 1500s (the promise by the bride to “obey” was removed in 1928 and around the same time a double-ring ceremony gained some ground). However, those with less wealth often simply cohabitated and self-identified as married.

By the 1800s, some states adapted or enforced laws barring couples from cohabitating without a state sanctified wedding ceremony. As you can imagine, this was quite an incentive to marry legally. In fact, one couple faced criminal charges because they, especially the Bride, conscientiously choose to eschew a legal license in the late-ish 1800s. At the same time, particularly after the Civil War and with industrialization flourishing (for good and/or ill), such bureaucracies as the educational, juridical, and governmental branches strengthened. States and counties distributed the “justice of the peace” position with easy, and getting married likewise became relatively easy.

A Justice of the Peace had the authority to collect information for the marriage license (i.e. names, ages, places of residence, and any information the JP thought relevant), perform the act of solemnization, and record the date and place of the ceremony in a book. Some states, such as Maryland, required the JP send the information to the Secretary of State and/or Clerk’s office within ten days. Other states, such as California, required the JP do so within three months. Those from the Quaker tradition did not need to obtain a formal marriage license, and some states permitted the publishing of “banns” for three weeks prior to the ceremony in lieu of applying for the license. By the way, some territories in Canada still require couples to publish “banns” in the newspaper! Unfortunately, none of these options are widely available in contemporary times: getting the license from the Clerk’s office is mandatory prerequisite to securing a public record of the marriage, even for Quaker couples.

Marriages by a JP were quite commonplace until the late 1940s. In fact, ordained ministers often married couples in “JP style” — with just a few witnesses and simple, traditional vows. One JP, Squire Brooks of Tennessee, recorded 7,183 marriage ceremonies over his fourteen years and six month tenure as a JP in the 1920s to 1930s. JPs typically charged about $5 to $25 dollars for a ceremony in his home or office in the 1930s-early 1950s period. Adjusted for inflation, this means that a couple would pay about $70 to $200 for a simple ceremony less than five minutes long performed in the JP’s home. On occasion, the JP traveled to a private residence for a ceremony. Not surprisingly, elopements in the 1920s to mid 1940s were common.

Below is a typical text for a truly traditional, old-fashioned JP ceremony; the NYC Clerk’s office uses a similar version with slightly more updated language nowadays, but without any ring exchange vow. In the past, a justice of the peace often incorporated nondenominational references to God and even a brief description of marital responsibilities as well, although the ceremonies nonetheless tended to last for less than five minutes.
Groom on right; Bride on left. (Reverse for Jewish couples.) They should join their right hands.

Dearly beloved, we gather here in the face of this company to join together this man and this woman in matrimony.

X, wilt thou have this woman as your lawfully wedded wife?

Y, wilt thou have this man as your lawfully wedded husband?

Old Ring Vow: “With this ring, I thee wed.”

Insomuch as X and Y have consented together in wedlock and have witnessed the same before this company, with the authority conferred upon me, I pronounce them husband and wife.

Out of need (paperwork issue), my New York native maternal grandparents eloped to Maryland, where a Methodist Minister married them in the late 1940s. They exchanged a simple “I do” using traditional Methodist vows, which included my grandmother’s pledge to “obey” her husband. “Remember,” my mother reports from the conversation, “this was a Methodist Minister.”

Even today, a civil servant – Clerk’s office, JP, deputy marriage commissioner – presides over at least as many marriage ceremonies as clergy. In NYC, tens of thousands of couples marry at the Clerk’s office, although many also plan a celebration later (just over 130,000 couples marry in the Metro Region each year). It was not until more recent decades that a JP or the equivalent could not legally marry a couple without a marriage license. Currently, to the best of my knowledge, Los Angeles County is the only jurisdiction in which officiants may register to be empowered to distribute a “private” or “confidential” marriage license. In Australia, celebrants undergo state training to be able to distribute the marriage license and certificate themselves.

Starting in 1920s and 1930s, the media began to make popular the concept of the “white wedding.” Post World War II prosperity paved the way for mass consumption. The norm for a post-ceremony celebration in the 1800s-1940s included a wedding breakfast or dinner with 30-50 guests; afterwards, most couples “motored” to their new home or for a brief weekend honeymoon. Even in the 1950s, many private homes held wedding receptions. Yet, more middle class folks came to view with ardent desire a church ceremony followed by a catering hall reception. Meanwhile, a double-ring ceremony became common as well (jewelers first advertised engagement rings for men in the 1920s, but the idea never took fully). The wedding industry was born.

Into this mix came the rise of professional celebrants and officiants and the emergence of such “traditions” as the unity candle in the 1960s and 1970s. Many states, such as New York, no longer distribute the “Justice of the Peace” title, although the City does require official registration for all officiants to adhere to a state law that only allows real judges and clergy to officiate. New York State Domestic Law requires officiants to collect, complete, and return the license; if they do not do so, officiants may be charged with a misdemeanor and fined. Technically, then, a marriage is legal once an officiant presides at a ceremony. However, the public record does not exist yet; the burden of proof and responsibility for that part rests with the officiant, which is why we are so rigid about making sure we have the license prior to the ceremony.

Celebrants, officiants, “wedding ministers,” and clergy from respective faiths today come in myriad forms. Some require counseling; some will only use a standard ceremony; and some will custom tailor the entire ceremony to the couple. My style is a mixture of these. Hopefully, the new waive of civil celebrants and officiants will be able to legally marry (v. presiding over a “commitment ceremony”) same-sex couples in New York and everywhere else some day soon!

If vintage etiquette interests you, click here.


*Couples married at earlier ages in the past. Truth: Working and middle class couples in the West typically married in their early to late twenties until the 1950s, when the average

of age of marriage dropped – possibly due to cultural trends and relative economic prosperity.

*Eloping is new. Truth:

*A ceremony lasting over 20 minutes long is normal. Truth: JP ceremonies and “hand-fastings” (sealing the “I take you in marriage” with a handshake) have always been common and take a few minutes.

*Rings are universal and necessary. Truth: They were once usually part of the betrothal period only, and until the 1950s, only the woman generally received a ring as part of the ceremony itself. The ancient Egyptians, however, did in fact exchange rings often, but they were made from reeds for the masses. Today, different cultures use different fingers (right and left hands), so no “right way” to wear a ring exists.

*It’s “traditional” for the women to change her surname. Truth: Only in parts of the West. Certainly not in every part of the world. In some cultures, the Bride’s family would be significantly affronted if she altered her family name. (At least half of my Brides hold onto their family name without hyphenation.)

*The Unity Candle is a Christian custom. Truth: Some Catholic churches prohibit unity candles! The Unity Candle became popular in the 1970s. No one really knows why, but I did read something about a Soap Opera wedding featuring a candle in an episode back then….

*The U.S. divorce rate is 50%. Truth: Momentarily, at its highest in the eighties/nineties, yes. But not anymore. Divorce rates began to climb in the 1950s, as “love” based marriages became fully adapted as the norm and it became easier to obtain a divorce. Previously, due to myriad factors, folks would simply separate or become widow(er)s. In fact, at one point, the average length of marriages in the early 1900s and late 1900s was the same. Such control variables as level of education, age at marriage, having stable social networks, and income offer more explanatory power than general figures.

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