Frequently Asked Symbolics Questions: Divorce

The careful reader will notice that 2LCF chapter 25 differs from WCF 24 (remembering that after chapter 20 the numbers differ between the two confessions) in that it does not contain the paragraphs on divorce. The Baptists follow the Savoy Declaration in making this change. First, we may notice the change in title between the Savoy/LCF and the WCF.  The former drop ‘and Divorce.’  The reason for this is found in the preface to the Savoy Declaration in which the Independents state that they omitted ‘a great part of the 24th cap. of Marriage and Divorce. These were such doubtful assertions, and so unsutable to a Confession of faith.’ It is not certain why they thought that these matters were apparently controversial and so unsuitable for the Confession of Faith.  Of course the question refers first to the Independents, but it also refers to the Baptists.  At several places they were quite willing to restore the WCF language, but they chose not to do so here.

One factor to consider is this: while it is not commonly remembered, there were actually two different versions of the Westminster Confession published in the late 1640s. The one we commonly know was a private printing, done for the members of the Assembly and Parliament. It was taken to Scotland and published there without the authorization of the English Parliament. It has become the definitive version for English-speaking Presbyterianism, and incorporates the paragraphs about divorce in chapter 24. But there was another edition published, by Parliament, which included several significant changes, including the excision of the paragraphs on divorce in chapter 24. Parliament probably believed that divorce was a civil matter, and thus not appropriate for a strictly religious Confession of Faith. When the Independents published the Savoy Declaration, they were following the text printed by Parliament a decade earlier.

This may perhaps be illustrated by a couple of comments from a recognized authority on the social history of the era. It may be that the answer lies in the fact that ‘divorces were very rare, since they required a private act of Parliament.’ (Ray Porter, English Society in the Eighteenth Century, 25).  [A few pages later, Porter says] ‘Once married, women might easily be reduced to the status of drudges and chattels.  Indeed, highly ritualized wife sales were sometimes set up by working men—occasionally with the wife’s consent—seeking to escape the ‘wed-lock’.  A wife would fetch a few guineas, or might be traded in for an ox.  These sales were the only practical—though not legally binding—form of divorce available to any but the very rich.’ (Porter, 31). Here, Porter confirms Parliament’s interest in the legal granting of divorces. Without its approval, none could be obtained.

It could be that Parliament, as well as the Independents and the Baptists following them had been influenced by Luther’s view that marriage was more of a civil than religious matter.  It was not within the province of the church to grant divorces–this was up to the magistrate.  For a brief comment on this see the Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology, s.v. “Marriage.”

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