Another Reflection on Marriage among Friends

Two Friends Journal articles reflecting on marriage—renewing vows and speaking plainly to those divorcing—appeared just as my husband and I were getting ready to celebrate 50 years since we were married under the care of Friends. [The articles were "On Marriage and Divorce—with a Proposition Bound to Be Controversial" by Anne E. Barschall (June 2004) and "Saying ‘I Do’ Anew" by Nancy Wick (Sept. 2004). —Eds.] In planning our meeting for worship we consulted not only with our meeting’s Ministry and Worship Committee, but with four other couples who had recently marked their 50th, two of which had done so in the meeting. One couple had chosen to use Friends vows, as they had not been married in a meeting originally; while the others chose a celebratory meeting for worship. We chose to have our original certificate read in the meeting by our son.

To have five couples married for 50 years, plus two others in the past, make it seem that we have a meeting with great marriage stability. However, accounts of the struggle and controversy over divorce and remarriages of beloved members of our meeting, and the unsuccessful marriages of many of our children who were married under the care of the meeting, tell another story. For 48 years of our marriage, we have been part of Mt. Toby Meeting, seeing new patterns of divorce and remarriage, and the care of same-sex marriages. Last year we celebrated the fact that seven couples in our meeting, two whose marriages we have taken under our care since 1992, can now be legally married in Massachusetts. Yet still we are forced to ponder what is the best way to bring under our care couples who divorce after coming from another meeting, the single parents, and the custodial parents who seek support in the meeting.

"Love makes a family," we say, as we look at the First-day school children sitting on the rug in the middle of meeting when they join us for the last ten minutes of worship. They are a rainbow of adopted children from China and Vietnam; one child whose parents are from Latin America and Asia; one whose parents are of the same sex; some who have interracial, interfaith parents; children who are with one custodial parent. The stories of our marriage and of our meeting’s experience of living through a period of great change in the Religious Society of Friends and the surrounding culture in relation to marriage is a story of continuing revelation.

I first read of the way Friends marry from a book by William Wistar Comfort, Just among Friends (1941 edition), which I borrowed from the Calcutta, India, Friends Centre in 1952, which stated that Friends believe that "marriage is too serious an undertaking to be solemnized by the hands and the words of any man. God alone can bless such a union, but the meeting is duty-bound to exhaust every effort to provide for the happiness and welfare of the parties."

We used this quotation, and more from the book, to open the meeting for worship for our anniversary.

I borrowed this book about Quakers from the Centre to learn about the religion of the man I had met two months before at a Himalayan resort, during a folk dance at a missionary school. And this John Foster, while visiting Calcutta, had borrowed a bicycle from the Centre and rode to visit me at my missionary bungalow. We went on a date, going by tram to the botanical gardens. We call it luck that we met just as John had been in India a few months, with AFSC, and I was ready to depart after three years. (What we were doing in India we now call "early Peace Corps," and both of us had a strong religious motivation to do this—but that is a another story.)

A visit I made to the Friends Centre at Rasulia to see John before I left India marked the first instance of Friends helping us toward a deeper intimacy when they gave us time to spend exploring the village and the temples, feeding the sacred fish in the Narmada, and sitting in the moonlight in the quietness of evenings with no electricity. They also showed me a group of British Friends’ families living according to the principles of Mahatma Gandhi, whose nonviolent way of getting independence they had supported, and who were vegetarian, homespun-wearing, "universalist" Quakers.

On the foundation of these three days, we built a relationship with 200 letters exchanged over two-and-a-half years. John posed queries—how do you spend money, what do like to do for fun, what is your job, what is your family like? So that in spite of being together for only about eight days in India, we confirmed our decision to get married two days after I met John at his parents home on his return. And although I had been a Methodist missionary, thanks to William Wistar Comfort’s description, I knew I wanted to be married in the manner of Friends.

The logical place was Providence (R.I.) Meeting, an independent meeting formed less than 20 years before, which united the Wilburite/Gurneyite yearly meetings in New England a decade before. We would be the first to be married in their new meetinghouse.

We applied to the meeting to be married under their care, submitted letters of permission from our parents (another custom no longer followed), and the committee embarked on approving the marriage of a son of a Wilburite family, who had married only within Friends for seven generations, with a Methodist from Iowa.

The committee, following Friends procedures, wrote to Conservative Friends in Iowa asking to visit me to ascertain that I was clear for marriage, i.e. that I had no other engagements. I had attended my first meeting for worship among them, heard plain language in their homes, and found that they remembered the family of John’s mother who had been born there (my first inkling of the tight-knit Quaker community). One Friend came to visit me, and standing beside his school bus in front of my apartment house, he interviewed me.

I knew our wedding should be very properly Quaker. John’s family had followed John Wilbur out of New England Yearly Meeting when he was put out by the Gurneynites in 1845, and for more than 60 years they were the Foster Family Meeting of the Wilburite New England Yearly Meeting, worshiping each First Day in their own front parlor only with Fosters. The older generation wore plain clothes until 1936 and used the plain language. Two brides came into the family from the proper caste of Wilburite Friends in Ohio. College-educated and with a strong sense of how women’s speaking was "justified by the Scriptures," they moved the parochial Fosters into an independent meeting in Providence. Now a generation of Fosters could marry "out of meeting" without being disowned.

I knew that a Friends wedding did not include music, but suggested that the hymn "Oh, Perfect Love" could be sung. The committee told me they tried hard to find a soloist, and they felt, since Friends did not know the hymn, that if they tried to sing it, "the result would not be fondly remembered." So we had the hymn read as a poem.

A certificate with the form described by Comfort was handwritten on parchment, in the style of certificates from many generations of Fosters. John’s mother arranged for the reception with exquisite letters to bridge the gap between the practices of New England Quakers and Iowa Methodists. I bought a short yellow dress with lacy gloves and cap.

Thyra Jane Foster was to become my mother-in-the-spirit and my model of a Quaker woman. And in marrying her son, I learned how naturally the attitude of partnership for women in marriage comes to a young man raised in a Quaker home and monthly meeting where women had equal education and took equal roles in ministry and leadership.

In August we drove from Iowa, a three-day trip scheduled to get us there just in time to fulfill the legal requirements to marry. We had not figured correctly and had to get a waiver. The next day a large, disastrous hurricane hit Rhode Island as I lay in bed sick with an allergic reaction to eating Rhode Island clam chowder for the first time.

I tell these stories to illustrate how hard Friends worked to care for our wedding; they cut up a fallen tree on the walk to the meetinghouse, and prepared the reception as planned, without electricity in the meetinghouse. And as I entered on John’s arm on the sunny post-hurricane day, there were all the thunderous organ marches I had once dreamed of for my wedding, playing in my head.

I signed the certificate as it states—"she according to the custom of marriage, taking the name of her husband," a phrase which, being only custom, has since been easily removed from Friends practice. (John’s mother, at her wedding, had firmly signed her own name, then, remembering she was supposed to change, added "Foster" in the margins.)

On the matter of exchanging rings, I found that John’s parents, faithful to Quaker testimonies, had never worn them; but, in accommodating what his non-Quaker bride might expect, John bought me an engagement ring with his AFSC severance pay. We exchanged our rings privately after the ceremony, as John’s sister told us she had done. When John lost his ring while picking apples, paraphrasing Penn, we called it a "wear thy ring as long as thee can" situation.

After a frugal but blissful honeymoon in a rustic cabin rented from Foster cousins in the New Hampshire mountains (John paid for it by working in corn fields and at an Iowa fair), we were off to Cornell University for John to be in a PhD program. We went to Ithaca (N.Y.) Meeting at once, where we were welcomed by another couple who had been told to look for us. I became a member of the meeting. We joined with seven other couples who attended the meeting in a fun social group. Our friendships have lasted for 50 years, and six of us have had our 50th wedding anniversaries. One of those couples was a pioneering interracial couple, who after being expelled from a Quaker college for dating in a state where interracial marriage was not legal in 1950, came to Ithaca Meeting to be married, as their marriage would be legal in New York State (a historical point to keep in mind in regard to same-sex marriage).

But our longest home among Friends was in Middle Connecticut Valley Meeting (now Mt. Toby), founded as an independent meeting in 1939 and now in the united New England Yearly Meeting. The four preparative meetings met only once a month, and the group of young families, most of whom had come to the fast-growing University of Massachusetts, felt they must unite the meetings and build a meetinghouse in 1964 for our children to meet every First Day.

In our new meetinghouse, we gloried in our community of families with an average of three to four children each. But we almost immediately were faced with opposing the Vietnam War. Many men among Friends had been conscientious objectors in Civilian Public Service Camps while their wives supported them. At the same time we began to live with the societal change called the sexual revolution and a strong movement of communes in our area.

The divorce of a family that was central to our meeting brought the sobering realization that our meeting, too, was being torn apart by the decision of which partner to support. Some of our members joined with those in other Massachusetts meetings who were faced with the same situation to discuss this issue, and then write Living with Ourselves and Others, a book of queries for marriage, divorce, and remarriage. First published by NEYM Ministry and Counsel in 1979, the book is in its fourth printing, with many chapters added. I think that the use of this book illustrates one answer to Anne Barschall’s claim in her June 2004 article that Friends say nothing to couples who are divorcing. Using this book of queries, our meeting asked hard questions of those who were marrying and remarrying.

In March 2005, my husband was on a marriage committee in our meeting, for which the reading list for the committee and the couple was a page long—which caused my husband to comment that the couple might feel like not getting married after reading it! Although I am saddened that so many in a new group in our meeting are young divorcees, I believe our meeting has grown by welcoming this new group of people to whom we may be able to to offer a spiritual community and fellowship, which may help their healing. Most of them have come to us from other meetings, and we do not know the histories of their marriages. We are also able to encourage couples who have been living together to apply to marry under the care of the meeting.

I cannot agree with Anne Barschall that there is almost no kind of suffering that couples (usually just one of them) should endure in order to not divorce. I think that Friends have had enough disownment for not marrying the "right person." As to her favorable comments about arranged marriage, I am very familiar with this kind of marriage as it is done in India, and I know it is mainly for caste purity—as, indeed, it was among Friends, who not only had to marry only Friends, but ones of the correct subcaste in theology.

Arranged marriage is accepted as a good way to marry even by modern Indians, but the epidemic of "dowry deaths" of burned brides is also a contemporary fact. And I believe the concept of "enduring suffering" in marriage, which was done mainly by women, is one that Quaker women such as Susan B. Anthony worked hard to eliminate. For as well as working for the vote for women, she and her colleagues worked for the rights of women not to stay with abusive, alcoholic husbands, to keep their children, and to own property.

When we marked our 25th anniversary in the meeting in the 1970s, I felt defensive in the face of a younger generation who seemed to be saying that staying married was a silly thing to do if you wanted to be happy.

But on the celebration of our 50th, I felt eager to share the story of how we had met and were married among Friends, and how our marriage had lasted for 50 years. When our committee reported to the monthly meeting, they said, "This is a good example of how we tend to marriages under our care. In this case, we care for them by letting them care for us."

Georgana Foster

Georgana Foster has been a member of Mt. Toby Meeting in Leverett, Mass., for 48 years and is the meeting historian. She has a degree in South Asian Studies, focusing on the worship and folk art of female deities in India, earned when she was 60. She has researched New England Quaker women, and taught a workshop on Quaker women at the Friends General Conference Gathering.