Roeber Finds “Hopes for Better Spouses” in Historical Religious Texts

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By Kyle Cristofalo

With the U.S. Supreme Court expected to release its decision on two monumental same-sex marriage cases in the next few weeks, the implications of the Court’s decision for American Christianity is at the fore of many conversations. Diverging understandings of the purpose of marriage threaten to divide Christians across the globe as groups from both sides look to scripture and tradition to buttress their claims. Debates concerning God’s original intent for marriage are nothing new, according to the latest book project sponsored by Emory University Studies in Law and Religion. In Hopes for Better Spouses: Protestant Marriage and Church Renewal in Early Modern Europe, India, and North America, A.G. Roeber, locates modern Protestant debates over marriage in disagreements between early Pietiest and other Protestant reformers.

Roeber, professor of early modern history and religious studies and co-director of the Max Kade German-American Research Institute at Penn State University, claims that official stances regarding marriage were often contradicted by local practices, writing “Despite what both princes and pastors may have taught under these official norms, unofficial views differed considerably, over time, depending very much upon local and regional traditions and circumstances.”  As Protestant Christianity spread to lands outside Europe, various regional practices and understandings of marriage made elucidating the distinct aspects of a Christian marriage complicated. The ways in which marriage mirrored human relationships with Christ and the church, the role of gender and female submission in marriage, and the possibility of marriage as a romantic union in which together spouses pursued holiness were positions held by some Lutherans and Pietists.

These lively disputes leave Roeber to point out that “The quarrel over marriage that continues today finds expression among European and non-European descendants of the pietists.” Through an analysis of “hymns, broadsides, court cases, letters, and traces of iconography” Roeber demonstrates “how academic, judicial, and clerical concern connected with the lived experience of marriage and pushed the controversy about the relationship of husbands and wives to each other, and to the broader public realm, to crisis levels”. With chapters focusing on Pietism and marriage in Europe, India, and North America, and an emphasis on the views of “everyday people,” Roeber provides a fresh exploration of the origins of modern Protestant debates concerning the purpose of marriage. As conversations regarding marriage are certain to persist well after the Supreme Court renders its decision, the historical context provided by Hopes for Better Spouses is a valuable resource for understanding the early relationship between Christianity and marriage.

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