I’ve always known that John Wesley and (some) Methodists were progressive-thinking folks, but did you know that Wesley’s revision of the marriage rite helped advance the state of women?
I recently reviewed The Cambridge Companion to American Methodism (ed. Jason E. Vickers, 2013) for The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, so I thought I’d share a gem I couldn’t include from Karen Westerfield Tucker’s excellent essay on “Sacraments and Life-Cycle Rituals.” Here’s an excerpt on “giving away the bride” from her discussion of Wesley’s marriage rite:
Notable changes in the rite from 1784 onward occurred as the result of cultural pressures. Although Wesley had excluded the giving away of the bride and the use of a bridal ring (historically part of the dowry), both returned to revised wedding texts likely after the practices had already been widely taken up. (149)
Wow. This is just the kind of thing I like to point out to people when they suggest that concern for women is a recent trend in the “liberalization of America” or the machinations of political correctness. I guess Wesley was responsible for it . . . way back in 1784.
Or maybe not. As Westerfield Tucker also explains, cultural trends reversed Wesley’s decision, but the Methodists pressed forward with efforts to see men and women as equals:
Not without controversy, the MEC [Methodist Episcopal Church] in 1864 deleted “obey” from the woman’s vow (“Wilt thou obey him, serve him, love, honor and keep him . . .”), and other denominations that had inherited the word, after debate, followed suit in their own time. Further concern that the equality of the couple be expressed ritually resulted in double ring ceremonies and, in some denominational texts, the elimination of the “giving away” or the reappropriation of that action as a presentation or blessing of each individual by the respective family. (149)
Before we get ahead of ourselves, we should keep in mind that full clergy rights for women were still nearly a century away in the Methodist Church (1956). Still, the theological framework for social change was already present in the writings and guidance of John Wesley more than two centuries ago.