or “Random Thoughts Following Pre-marital Counseling Sessions via Zoom”
by Chris Ritter
For advice on marriage, John Wesley may not be the best source. For all this world-changing accomplishments in ministry (or maybe because of them), he failed to achieve a happy union. Wesley’s marriage to Mary Vazielle (“Molly”) lasted less than a decade and was marked by near total disharmony. While the marital disaster was publicized widely by his detractors, Wesley only mentions it once in his journal… at its end: ” ‘I did not forsake her, I did not dismiss her, I will not recall her.”
John seems to have been in agreement with St. Paul that the married state is only a distantly second best option for Christian discipleship. In his journals from 1738-1791, he only records officiating at four weddings as a clergyman. During the time time he officiated over a hundred funerals (Haykin, 152). As biographer Henry Abalove noted, “Funerals, Wesley believed, might edify; marriages were best avoided.”
If you want a positive Methodist view of marriage, you need to look to Charles. The younger Wesley brother had a long and happy marriage to Sarah “Sally” Gwynne. Haykin notes the contrast between the brothers that can been seen in their journal entries on the day of Charles’ wedding.
John wrote: “I married my brother and Sarah Gwynne. It was a solemn day, such as became the dignity of a Christian marriage.”
Charles wrote: ‘Sweet day! so cool, so calm, so bright, The bridal of the earth and sky.’ Not a cloud was to be seen from morning till night. I rose at four, spent three hours and a half in prayer, or singing, with my brother, with Sally… Her father, sisters, [he mentions by name five others]… were all the persons present… Mr. Gwynne gave her to me (under God): my brother joined our hands. It was a most solemn season of love! Never had I more of the divine presence at the sacrament.”
DId you catch that last line? His wedding communicated God’s presence to him more intensely than Holy Communion. That is quite a statement from an Anglican clergyman. Charles continued to rejoice in the blessings matrimony and was known to write verses for the anniversary celebration of his friends. He clearly saw marriage as a positive force in the Christian life… and life in general.
Charles’s gift for weaving complex theology into singable hymns set a gold standard for later generations to follow. One way to explore the theology of Christian marriage is to grab a hymnal and read our Christian wedding songs. I ran across “The Voice that Breathed O’er Eden” by Anglican John Keble (1857) in an old Methodist hymnal. It serves as a rich example:
Like Jesus, Keble found the essence of marriage in the Creation Story of Genesis 2. God’s “primal blessing” was given to the first couple and they serve as a pattern for marriage generally. Marriage is the first human institution and was established by God. The original, joyful, two-becoming-one pattern was often violated in the Old Testament through polygamy and other deviations. In his Explanatory Notes on the Old Testament, John Wesley commented on Abraham’s polygamous marriage to Hagar (Gen. 16) was perhaps excusable given the time, but no longer. Based on Jesus’ words in Matthew 19 and Mark 10, Wesley offers: “Christ has reduced this matter to the first institution, and makes the marriage union to be between one man and one woman only.”
2. Still in the pure espousal, Of Christian man and maid, The Holy Three are with us, The threefold grace is said,
Marriage is a cord of three strands with husband and wife each and both entwined together in covenant with God. Christians are to marry in the faith, an equal yoking, and will experience the blessing of the Holy Three. The Anglican wedding rite to which the Wesley’s and Keble were accustomed was rich in Trinitarian language. A groom presented the bride with her wedding ring with the words, “With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with my worldly goods I thee endow: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.” The priest likewise sealed the marriage with a Trinitarian blessing. (Keble offers his own Trinitarian blessing in vs. 4-6.)
3. For dower of blessed children, For love and faith’s sweet sake, For high mysterious union, Which nought on earth may break.
The third stanza ventures into the purposes of marriage. The Anglican Service in the Book of Common Prayer declares three practical reasons for matrimony. The first in the procreation and nurture of children. This purpose is not exclusive and adaptations of the prayers are offered for couples beyond the years of producing children. The second purpose recited is a remedy against sin. At the wedding, the officiant says, “to avoid fornication, that such persons as have not the gift of continency, might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body.” The third purpose stated is that marriage is “ordained for the mutual society, help, and the comfort for the one ought to have for the other, both in prosperity and adversity.” Keble puts his own poetic spin on these three purposes, downplaying sin and playing up the sweetness of marital love.
The third stanza also highlights the permanency of the marriage bond and echoes Jesus’ words, “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Matthew 19:6)
4. Be present, awesome Father, To give away this bride, As Eve thou gav’st to Adam Out of his own pierced side.
A set of verses invoking the blessing of the Trinity begins. Keble uses the first to highlight the Fatherhood of God. The earthly father of the bride becomes a reminder of God presenting Eve to Adam. The connection between the First Adam and the Second Adam is made with the common feature of a pierced side. Just as Adam “gave birth” to his bride from a wound in his side, Jesus gave birth to his church through the crucifixion and the piercing of his side on Good Friday.
5. Be present, gracious Saviour, To join their loving hands, As thou didst bind two natures In thine eternal bands.
More rich Christology is offered here as the blessing of the Son is invoked. The definition of Chalcedon is recalled in which both the human and divine natures find perfect harmony in the person of Christ. May the bride and groom find that same sort of oneness. Genesis 2 and Mark 10 are recalled, “The two shall become one.”
6. Be present, Holiest Spirit, To bless them as they kneel, As thou for Christ the Bridegroom The heavenly spouse dost seal. 7. O spread thy pure wings o’er them! Let no ill power find place, When onward to thine altar The hallowed path they trace, 8. To cast their crowns before thee, In perfect sacrifice, Till to the home of gladness With Christ’s own bride they rise!
The Trinitarian blessing concludes with an invocation of the Holy Spirit to seal the covenant bond and shelter the husband and wife from harm until their marriage is subsumed into the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. Earthly weddings point forward to the great Day when Christ’s bride shall be fully his.
Like Holy Communion, marriage looks both backwards and forwards as it is experienced in the present. We are anchored in God’s creative love shown in Eden as we anticipate a cosmic consummation at the return of Christ. Charles Wesley’s marriage verses consistently have this same eschatological flavor.
Christian marriage is, well… Christological. And it is worth singing about in all its glory.