Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Disownment for exogamy (Marrying contrary to discipline)

An emerging theme in this blog is Quakers and gender politics.  In that respect, an important issue, and one that is neglected in the literature as far as I can tell, is that of disownment for exogamy. 

Endogamy is when one marries someone within one's own group. Exogamy is when one marries someone outside one's own group. Apparently beginning with George Fox and certainly from the time of Penn, Robert Barclay and the second generation of Quakers until the mid-nineteenth century,  marrying contrary to discipline, which meant marrying other than with the consent of the local elders and within the Quaker community, was one of a variety of infringements of discipline which could bring with it excommunication from Meeting. The practice of disownment for exogamy was not uniform and varied from meeting to meeting and seems to have been particularly strictly enforced amongst Quakers in America, but it was evidently divisive and engendered hurt and bitterness.   I will give two examples.

John Stout had given long years of service to the Society of Friends but had been excommunicated having re-married late in life after the death of his first wife.  He petitioned Britain Yearly Meeting in 1729 and 1732 against the injustice.  He explained he had married a second time to support a large number of dependents, for he also seems to have had a financial dispute with Quakers or been aggrieved that they had not given credit to him for his philanthropy.  He was angry that he had been condemned unheard and thereby denied elementary justice, saying that a ‘religion that does not do justice is in an infirm state’.  The following century,  in 1804, the architectural antiquary Thomas Rickman, who had been born in 1776 to a large Quaker family, married his first cousin Lucy Rickman, a marriage that estranged him from the Quakers.  He promptly wrote a pamphlet denouncing the injustice of disownment as “the offspring of your modern bigoted, superstitious and overbearing disciplinarians.”  The doctrine of being led by the spirit is not infallible for, when it usurps the throne of reason merely serves “the base purposes of interested men.”    

Disownment for exogamy was denounced by the Quaker statesman John Bright (1811-1889) as a mistaken notion of duty.  In his prize essay of 1859, Joseph Rowntree identified it as the main cause of the decline in Quaker numbers.  This led to a change in the marriage regulations and in a matter of a few years the practice had ceased. Yet it had persisted for the first two hundred years of Quakers' existence and was dropped not out of a sense of how it infringed the rights and dignity of the individual in the sensitive sphere of sexual relations but, qua Rickard, for reasons of corporate self-interest. 

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