May 12 was the first marriage in this place which, according to the laudable custom of the Low Countries, in which they had lived, was thought most requisite to be performed by a magistrate, as being a civil thing, upon which many questions about inheritances do depend, with other things most proper to their cognizance and most consonant to the Scriptures (Ruth iv) and nowhere found in the Gospel to be laid on the ministers as a part of their office. This decree or law about marriage was published by the States of the Low Countries Anno 1590. That those of any religion (after lawful and open publication) coming before the magistrates in the Town, or State House, were to be orderly (by them) married one to another…And this practice hath continued amongst not only them, but hath been followed by all the famous churches of Christ in these parts to this time…
-William Bradford, Of Plimoth Plantation
First things first: technically, I’m a minister. I’m an ordained member of the Universal Life Church, a church which had the supreme honor of being first on my list of results when I Googled “How do I get ordained online?” a few months ago. I had earlier joked with my two recently engaged friends Sara and Jason, who had wanted to forgo a more traditional church-based wedding, that someone they knew should officiate their wedding, and they returned the favor by later asking if I could be just that person. Ironically, I soon discovered that the easiest way to give my friends the secular ceremony they wanted was to get ordained online, as becoming a real life civil official involved annoying stuff like actually getting elected mayor or going to law school and becoming a judge.
So for all intents and purposes I had to become a minister to act as a magistrate – a dilemma which, like a lot of things do in my life nowadays, reminded me of William Bradford. The May 12, 1621 wedding Bradford writes of is the marriage of Edward Winslow and Susanna White, two Mayflower passengers who each lost their respective spouses during the first winter in New England (The fact that I’m playing Susanna this year? Coincidence!). Like Bradford, Winslow had been living in Leiden, Holland (That’s the “Low Countries!”) as part of a reformed church led by pastor John Robinson, a church which according to Bradford “laboured to have the right worship of God and discipline of Christ established in the church, according to the simplicity of the gospel, without the mixture of men’s inventions.” Therefore, “all those courts, cannons and ceremonies” like a wedding performed by a minister were thought to be “after the popish manner” and against “the purity of the gospel.”
And while today yes, a civil official might be a mayor, judge or justice of the peace, what constituted a magistrate in New Plimoth? According to Edward Winslow in Mourt’s Relation, during the signing of what is now called the Mayflower Compact, “it was thought good there should be an association and agreement, that we should combine together in one body, and to submit to such government and governors, as we should by common consent agree to make and choose.” While there was a royally appointed governor for the whole of New England, New Plimoth also had its own governor for the day to day running of local affairs, as well as assistants to help share the burden – first just one, and starting in 1624 as the town grew, five assistants (it would eventually become seven). The governor and his assistants were elected every year (That’s the non-fancy way of saying “by common consent agree to make and choose”), and according to Bradford, the purpose of these assistants was to share the burden of town governance with “help and counsel, and the better carrying on of affairs.” The governor or any of these assistants could have performed a marriage then in New Plimoth – probably quite a change for other New Plimoth residents more accustomed to marriage solemnized by a minister of the Church of England.
So because I am a professional Pilgrim, on my long train ride back to Massachusetts after Sara and Jason’s wedding I of course got to thinking about the differences between magistrate-ing (Or I guess technically minister-ing? Ministrate-ing?) a wedding in the 17th century and one in the 21st century. For starters, the actual ceremony of a wedding in 17th century New Plimoth would be a far cry from the modern one I officiated, as I am pretty certain Governor Bradford or one of his assistants didn’t make last minute tweaks to the vows in a hair salon the morning of the wedding:
Rather, one of New Plimoth’s magistrates would have begun by reminding those gathered that this was the third “lawful and open publication” of the marriage banns (the other two times would have been on the two weeks leading up to the wedding), giving a last chance for anyone who opposed the marriage to voice their reasons. I began Sara and Jason’s ceremony just you know, a little differently:
And what about that important little thing, called the vows? The passage of four hundred years means that the vows I asked Sara to repeat didn’t have her acknowledge Jason as her “lord and lawful husband”:
But still the more I thought about it, the more I realized that maybe a 17th century wedding and 21st century one weren’t all that different. After all, the true job of any good wedding officiant is just to get the bride and groom to repeat a bunch of stuff:
And no matter the century the bride still needs to be fussed over:
What’s a wedding except an excuse for a good time to be had by all?:
And the best part? Seeing two awesome people decide to be awesome together for life:
Oh and hey – consider this your Save-The-Date: Jane Cooke and Experience Mitchell are getting married in the 1627 English Village on September 21 and you’re invited. I can guarantee I won’t be the magistrate (Alas!) but I can also guarantee a good time! Hope to see you there!