American Genesis: Marriage & Slavery

             In the Supreme Court case, Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, both pro–abortion, and pro–life advocates came away from the Court’s ruling with mixed emotions. Pro–lifers missed an important precedent set by the Court. In Casey, the Court upheld that a married woman does not have to inform her husband if she wants an abortion. As a result, the legal status of “husband” was diminished. 

             It is often said that the family is the first, most important facet of any society. If families are staying together and communicating well then chances are the society as a whole will also be stable. However, if families are breaking up then chances are the society will also break apart. Where values are eroded in families, values in society are also diminished. 

             Among all modern trends that may mark what kind of society we live in, none may be more important than marriage and divorce. Whereas, in times past divorce was only sought as a last resort, some now rely on it as a means of escape, going so far as to file for “no fault” divorces. Divorce in America has increased to alarming proportions.

             In 1920 there were 1,274,000 marriages in the U.S., and there were 171,000 divorces. Approximately 13 percent of all marriages ended in divorce. While there were minor fluctuations in that rate, the numbers began increasing during World War II, then again in 1970, and 1975. The rate of increase has since stabilized. However, compared to 1920, things are quite different. 

             In 1990 there were 2,448,000 marriages in the U.S. That same year, there were 1,175,000 divorces—48% divorces compared to marriages. (World Almanac 1992.) What’s to fault for so high a rate of marital failure: sloppy commitments, adultery, modern century stress, abuse, culture chaos? These obviously contribute in one way or another to divorce but the decline in moral values and religious commitment, coupled with the ease in which both marriage and divorce may be attained also contribute to the problem.

             Early in the 20th century, if you wanted to get married, you had to have a blood test, and in some states, a full medical examination for both parties. Following the examinations, some states had a mandatory waiting period. Whether intentional or not, waiting, and going through, what for some couples in love seemed like an unnecessary process, was actually a safeguard. How committed are you to the covenant you’re about to enter? Nowadays, you can decide to marry on Monday and consummate that night. If you want a divorce, you can purchase a “no fault” kit in a store the next morning. Today’s legal system encourages no commitment to build a good marriage, no commitment to maintain a good marriage, and no commitment to even see it end in a responsible manner. This is one reason why many churches now have a new approach towards weddings. 

             Many churches have a policy that if you want to marry in their sanctuary, you must attend biblical counseling on marriage and have a waiting period in which you guarantee to your partner and others that you will maintain sexual purity—and be accountable to maintain your commitment. The policies are meant to test the resolve of those seeking matrimony. If you aren’t willing to wait for your spouse for six months to a year, how can there be assurance you’ll be around for the next five, or ten years, or longer? 

             In all of the constitutions we’ve examined so far, we’ve seen that the early Framers had a high regard for moral values and religious roles. Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Ohio, and Mississippi all advocated moral training in schools and society. Some also felt marital preservation so important; they made getting a divorce the ultimate embarrassment. Old Testament Law allowed a private, written certificate of divorce in Deuteronomy 24. But, Alabama’s 1819 constitution stated in Article VI, Section 13: 

             “Divorces from the bonds of matrimony shall not be granted but in cases provided for by law, by suit in chancery: and no decree for such divorce shall have effect until the same be [ratified] by two–thirds of both houses of the general assembly.” 

             Talk about making divorce tough, the legislature had to vote to make it final! Georgia, Tennessee, and Mississippi had similar, though less severe provisions. 

            Divorce is always tough for any couple whether biblically justified or not. But it is often avoidable. Tragically, laws now on the books in all 50 states do not encourage marital faithfulness or perseverance—they do just the opposite. If Alabama’s old divorce law were in effect today, how many more marriages might be worked out to avoid an even bigger embarrassment? 


             Among all the eloquent words upholding Christian values, there were also principles embodied in these early documents that are offensive. The greatest offense was the legal approval of slavery, and the devaluing of the black family. Many states upheld slavery in their constitutions. Others tried to regulate it to a more “humane” practice. 

We might view the Old Testament position on slavery as similar to that of divorce. Jesus said Moses allowed divorce because of hardness of heart. Just like divorce, slavery was permitted under restrictive conditions. 

But not everyone, from the earliest colonies to the revolutionary period had respect for the slave trade. One school textbook published in 1847 notes:

“The importation of African slaves to Massachusetts was early regarded as an offense against God and man, and the slave trade was at length forbidden under penalty of death.”

             President Abraham Lincoln making remarks during his July 17th, 1858 Springfield speech, on the admonition in the Declaration of Independence that “All men are created equal” and the, as of yet, unresolved issue of slavery: 

             “I have said that I do not understand the Declaration to mean that all men are created equal in all respects…The Framers of the Constitution found the institution of slavery amongst their other institutions at the time. They found that by an effort to eradicate it, they might lose much of what they already gained. They were obliged to bow to the necessity.”

             Lincoln’s understanding was a correct one. During the Federal Convention Debates on August 22, 1787, Roger Sherman argued the point made by Lincoln sixty-one years later. His position as recorded by James Madison: 

             “He disapproved of the slave trade, yet as the States were now possessed of the right to import slaves, and as the public good did not require it to be taken from them (that is, the need to establish a federal government), and as it was expedient to have as few objections as possible to the proposed scheme of government, he thought it best to leave the matter as we find it. He observed that the abolition of slavery seemed to be going on in the United States…” 

Tomorrow: Fundamental Principles Revisited

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