A Historical Overview on Divorce & What the Free Methodist Church Believes

Since I’ve discovered that both Ida Gage and Clara Wetherald were divorced, I’ve been trying to better understand the Free Methodist Church’s position on divorce in the early twentieth century. Today I often hear people refer to the “good old days” when divorce was never an option. What both these women’s stories illustrate is that divorce is not something recent. It’s been a social problem for quite sometime. However, before the twentieth century women had few legal rights and could be trapped in abusive marriages without options. While, I’m not promoting divorce; I also don’t want to endorse people staying in abusive relationships or having no legal rights.

Until the late nineteenth century a woman’s property went to her husband upon marriage and in the case of divorce it was often only the husband who had the right to initiate divorce. Essentially, the divorced woman would be left penniless, homeless if she had no other family, and often without her own children since the court would grant the husband custody over the wife. Laws varied state by state and the lack of legal rights for women was one of the reasons the women’s rights movement started. The famous 1848 Seneca Falls Convention notes the legal disparity between sexes in its Declaration of Sentiments, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Modeled after the Declaration of Independence these early women’s rights pioneers, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, made sure to include the legal barriers women faced in the declaration, “He has so framed the laws of divorce, as to what shall be the proper causes, and in case of separation, to whom the guardianship of the children shall be given, as to be wholly regardless of the happiness of women–the law, in all cases, going upon a false supposition of the supremacy of man, and giving all power into his hands.” The “he” in the document is referring to men, which at this time controlled all branches of government, the home and often controlled the church. While Clara and Ida divorced at least forty years after the Declaration of Sentiments, little had changed.

Perhaps, the only thing that had changed was women’s ability to file for divorce was becoming more widely available. Thus, as divorce laws loosened The Free Methodist Magazine began to take note of rising divorce rates in the early twentieth century. In each issue of The Free Methodist in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century there was always a section called “Reforms.” I’ve found numerous articles favoring women’s suffrage, temperance, anti-secret society columns and columns about divorce in the United States. (As an interesting side note from about 1900-1910 I’ve found a substantial number of articles published that favor suffrage and only a few that oppose it. It’s clear that early Free Methodists saw the social justice issues in American society and how giving women the vote and more legal rights could help solve those issues.)

Returning to the topic of divorce in The Free Methodist, a May 17, 1904, article was republished from the Philadelphia Ledger outlining divorce rates. The article notes that in 1870 3.5 percent of marriages ended in divorce and by 1890 it had risen to 6.2 percent. Although, I’m not sure I really trust statistics published in newspaper from the time period. I’ve had a very difficult time tracking down scholarly sources of divorce from during this time. So, the Philadelphia Ledger article and statistics should be viewed more as an example of moral concern for rising divorce rates in the country, and not as solid statistical analysis.

A November 15, 1904, article actually addresses how the Free Methodist Church should view divorce. It’s an unsigned article, but is clearly written by a Free Methodist who outlines the Protestant Episcopal Church’s stance on divorce and how that should apply to the Free Methodists. The first quote is reprinted from the Record-Herald in The Free Methodist.

“The compromise canon on remarriage of divorced persons which has been adopted by the Protestant Episcopal Church should have important results within the church membership. The innocent party to a divorce for infidelity may hereafter be remarried by a clergyman of the church 1) only if a year has elapsed from the date of divorce, 2) if evidence of the facts of the divorce from the court records are submitted to the bishop and found satisfactory by him and 3) if the minister has no conscientious or other scruple against solemnizing the marriage.” The Free Methodist author goes on to explain that, “For a pure, innocent, deeply sinned-against woman, yea, a woman deserted by an impure, unfaithful husband to be compelled to remain single and provide for her own needs perhaps during two score of years, and in addition thereto bear the toll, care and responsibility of rearing a number of children of whom her miscreant husband is the father, and all of this simply because she was so unfortunate as to unite herself to such an unclean and unprincipled scamp, is on the very face of it so utterly out of harmony with the justice and love of God as to, in our opinion, forever brand it as unreasonable and unjust.”

Clearly there was support in the denomination for the wronged party in a divorce. Thus, we need to begin rethinking our views that divorce, in any matter, is unbiblical. Today, the Free Methodist Discipline allows divorce for desertion, sexual infidelity, and for “hardness of heart.”

As the 2007 Discipline notes, “When marriages break down completely, we recognize that, in the words of Jesus, “hardness of heart” is implicit on one or both sides of the union (Matthew 19:3-8; Mark 10:5-9).” (p.71) It’s also noted that some divorces will fall outside these parameters, but might still be merited. In which case the conference superintendent and church leadership will be consulted. However, it’s encouraging to note that there is acknowledgement that the situation can vary by couple.

Divorce is never the desired outcome and the Free Methodist Church has always encouraged reconciliation whenever possible. But as the cases of both Ida and Clara illustrate that is not always possible. Ida was separated for years before finally filing for divorce in the early twentieth century. She clearly didn’t run out and look for an easy way out of the marriage, and Clara as well does not appear from her writings and testimony of others to have sought this out. The exact details of their situations will probably never be known. However, it does teach us that we should not be so hasty to judge the divorcee. Life goes on after divorce and in the case of both women they continued to serve the Lord as they did before they divorced.

 For further reading:

Seneca Falls Convention

FM Discipline 2007

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