Courtship among us plain folk
"Whoso findeth a wife findeth a good thing, and obtaineth favour of the LORD."
~ Proverbs 18:22
Courtship among us plain folk
Good morning, friends,
Thank you for being free with your questions. They are great! This morning we have four, all from one reader, and they all relate to one subject, courtship, so we'll take them together.
My family and I appreciate seeing the practical, Biblical, God-honoring ways your faith community addresses life. We learn so much! So, here are my questions:
How old are Mennonites typically when they get married? Are there arranged marriages? Dowries? If not arranged, what is the courtship process like?"
Legitimate questions, all of them, so let’s take them in order.
NOTE: I know this post is longer than some, but it just didn't feel right dividing these questions. I felt like it would leave too much in limbo. So, I'm doing them together, but as a reward, I do have something special for those who make it to the end. :)
But let's start at the beginning...
How old are Mennonites typically when they get married?
Wow, this one might be tough!... and it might get me in trouble with some people :) But let me do my best.
I don’t have official statistics on this, but our team here at the farm did a quick tabulation of the couples we know best, including our own families. According to these less-than-official results, the average age of marriage among our plain people is around 22. It may be 23 if we account for the occasional couple who marry in their 40 or 50’s. Dawn and I were both 20 when we married so we were on the younger end but most of our youth do marry somewhere between 20 and 24 with a few being older, of course.
I think it is fair to say that our people marry younger than the average in U.S. This is likely because we place a high value on family, community and children. We generally have happy memories of our own parental homes and look forward to establishing our own homes. From personal experience, Dawn and I can say that when the examples of marriages that surround a person in their formative years are positive and upbuilding, it makes the future hopeful, marriage inviting and godly homebuilding attractive.
Are there arranged marriages?
No… our marriages are not arranged. At least not the 'arranged-by-the-parents' type of arrangement. We do sometimes say that our marriages are arranged by God, because we do believe that God knows all things about our lives and personalities and does orchestrate events to bring people together. We place a strong emphasis on finding God’s will in courtship. But no, even though the community may give advice and counsel, it is the couple themselves who make the actual choice.
Are there dowries?
This is a fair-enough question, and I can see why it was asked. It’s like, “You plain people have so many other strange, counter-cultural practices, how would we know?” :)
But the answer is no. In fact, most plain parents would be a little upset by the idea that anyone would even think to put a price on their daughter! They will give her freely to a worthy, godly, faithful young man who they trust, to love and to cherish her and protect her and provide for her… but they would not take a dowery. And most brides would be likewise horrified at the suggestion. I’m not downing the cultures that use doweries… I’m just making it clear that’s not our cultural practice and would feel very foreign to us.
If not arranged, what is the courtship process like?
I’m glad this person specified ‘courtship’ because that is the correct term for it. We have borrowed from the culture around us, I guess, and we sometimes use the term dating. But what we really do is courting. When a young man in our plain communities asks for the friendship of a young lady, it is understood that it’s with the serious intention of seeking a suitable marriage partner. It is not simply that he wants to have a girl to casually go out with on this date or occasion… which is what ‘dating’ implies.
So, what is the process like? This is a difficult one! … especially to put into a few words and to be fair to the full spectrum of plain people. Please understand that the process is not always the same in every community nor is it cookie-cutter same for each couple. Some variations depend on the home requirements, the community expectations, and the individuals themselves. But I’ll try to tell you some general principles that pretty much apply across the board.
Our youth are taught to be open and surrendered to the will and plan of God. They are encouraged to focus first on developing the kind of character and being the kind of person God wants them to be. Respectful, grateful, giving, unselfish, compassionate, obedient to God and his Word, to biblical church direction and to their parents and of course, to be born again and growing spiritually.
And they are encouraged to also look for those Chistian character traits in those who they may consider for potential marriage. They are taught to look for inner spirit and soul and character strength not just physical beauty and attractiveness. Of course, if they find all of those qualities in a physically attractive package too… well, that’s just icing on the cake! :)
If a young man feels drawn to a young lady, he will likely confide in his parents and maybe some close friends about his interests. If they agree that the young lady who has caught his attention may be a good fit character and personality-wise, they will encourage him to pray about it and give it a few weeks or months to see if he still feels the same.
Asking the Dad first?
If after this period of reflection, it still seems to the young man that she may be ‘the one’, or at least he wants to learn to know her better to be able to tell if she’s ‘the one’, the young man will likely talk to the girl’s father to ask for permission to ask for his daughter’s friendship in courtship.
If her dad does not know the fellow, some dads will have a visit or so phone call with the young man, just the two of them, man to man, before he gives his blessing. Other dads may know the young fellow well enough already that they just give permission over the phone. And sometimes a fellow will just ask a girl without going through the dad. It all depends on the situation and the community norms and sometimes the gallantry of the young fellow.
Most dads that I know will admire a young fellow who has the character strength and manliness to have a man-to-man talk with her dad first. It speaks well for him.
It's expected that the young man does the asking.
If all has gone well, the fellow then must get up the courage to ask the girl. He may talk to her in person if he knows her well and tell her that he has 'special interest' in a 'special friendship' with her, or he may write and mail her a letter. He may text her or maybe just call her on the phone. Again, it all depends on the community and situation and how well they already know each other. In some traditional communities, the boy may even send the question through a friend or his sister or a cousin.
However it is done, the girl, after receiving the question, has the total right to say yes or no to the fellow’s courtship offer. Even if her parents are impressed with the young man and encourage her to accept, she may still say no if she just does not have interest. And she does not need to give a reason. She may not be ready to take that step of life yet, she might have reason to believe that another fellow she likes better is planning to ask her, or any other number of reasons. She will not say no lightly and without prayer because she knows that her ‘no’ will likely hurt him… but at the same time, she is under no obligation just because he asked.
But let's assume she says yes, which of course a lot of girls do because they may also have noticed this particular young man. Even if they had no idea that he has taken notice of them, if they are a normal girl, they know which fellows are of noble character and may have admired him and had him on a mental short list. So, if she says yes, then the couple will plan their first courtship visit together.
First Date (First Courtship Visit)
On the first visit, the young man will normally come to the girl’s house where he will meet her dad and mom and the rest of the family. The couple may go to church together, or they may just spend time talking and getting to know each other… comparing likes, dislikes and values, etc.
If the fellow feels the visit went well and that he’s still impressed with his ‘special friend,’ he’ll ask if he may come again…maybe in two weeks. If she gives an affirmative, it’s a go! And word will soon get out that there is a new courting couple in the community.
A lot of couples start out courting every two weeks. After a few months they will likely decide to start seeing each other every week. Phone calls and letters and other communication may be a part of this too, but there is usually parental guidance and direction given so that the relationship does not turn into an overly fast, unhealthy, all-consuming infatuation.
Social activities during their courtship
Their time together usually will be a mix of group social activity centered around family, church and friends. They will likely go on walks, maybe go boating, play games with the family, maybe visit each other at their respective workplaces, travel to friends' weddings together, go to family gatherings to learn to know the broader family connections, go to church together and just over all take an interest in each other’s lives.
They may do fun things with other courting couples too, but very high on their agenda is private special time just between the two of them. This time alone is where their relationship is truly built.
During this private time the couple will spend some time reading the Bible together discussing their ideals, goals and dreams in life and maybe share about other books they’re reading. Since they both know upfront that this relationship is geared toward a potential marriage, they may compare their values in child training and discipline or other things relating to the potential future like jobs and area where they may live.
Most plain church groups put a strong emphasis on purity during courtship. The churches that our family are a part of and are most familiar with teach and expect a hands-off-relationship. Sometimes this is more correctly expressed as a no-touch-courtship. Even though this is difficult, and I’m not going to pretend it isn't, (we are just as human as anyone else!) it is still a very valuable part of our faith and practice.
There is a lot of wisdom here. “The wisdom that is from above is first pure” James 3:17 says. If the couple were to allow physical touch and passions to reign, the physical would soon be the main connection. And that would not make a strong relationship. Flash-in-the-pan excitement and infatuation and passion, yes, absolutely, but it would leave the most important elements of a lasting relationship weak.
Instead of a physical relationship, the courting couple is encouraged to build a deep, emotional relationship. They need to learn to communicate intellectually and spiritually. Even though meaningful communication may come hard at first (maybe especially for the young man), they both need to learn to share their thoughts, feelings and experiences openly.
This in turn seeds and feeds a deeper understanding of each other's true heart and true mind and true soul which is really the true person. The resulting deep emotional intimacy and true love and admiration for the mind and soul of the other will translate into a lasting bond of true friendship that supports the future marriage far more than a physical, saturated relationship would.
This intentional physical restraint during courtship is truly 'wisdom that cometh from above.' We are thankful for it and embrace it!
Can they break up?
If at any time during their courtship, if either of them feels that this person is not who they thought they were, if their value systems and ideals just do not mesh, if they do not seem compatible, if their love and admiration for each other just is not there nor growing…they are free to break off the courtship. Since marriage is a commitment for life, (and it really is in plain circles since we have no divorce and remarriage) it’s important to go slow and careful in the decision-making process rather than being hasty and careless and having regrets later.
Proposing and wedding preparation
If the relationship goes well for 8-12 months or more, the young man usually gets up the courage to propose marriage. Some fellows may go down on one knee… but most will likely be less dramatic. :)
The girl is usually not surprised and likely has a ready yes! If she’s like my wife, Dawn, she’s expecting the question and maybe has a premonition that this may be the moment because 'he’s acting kind of flustered'!
I like to tease Dawn that I was having trouble getting it all said the way I wanted, and she went ahead and said yes even before I got the question out! She insists I exaggerate! Maybe that is true too. LOL! Happy Memories...
Since we plain folks do not wear jewelry, (1 Tim2:9 and 1Peter 3:3-4) there is no diamond or engagement ring. But no one misses it or feels deprived. It’s simply not part of our faith culture and the engagement time is no less special without it.
So now the couple is ‘engaged’ or ‘promised’ as some say it, and they can more delightedly and freely plan their future together since they no longer need to put everything into the context of as-long-as-this-all-works-out. They are busy with wedding plans, finding a place to live, planning the wedding trip, and just all other things that go with wedding preparations.
Mennonite Wedding questions will have to wait for another time.
Folks have also sent questions about how we plain people conduct our weddings. And I will answer them, Lord willing. (I might even provide you with an audio of a real Mennonite wedding sermon) ... But that will have to wait for a later time. This post is long enough, Rodrick will say. :/
Just one special thing yet...
I could explain all day, but, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. So, to give you a better 'picture' of a Mennonite courtship, Dawn and I decided to share a Photo Story that we put together over our daughter, Gwendolyn and now son-in-law, Laverne's courtship. This is the reward at the end of which I spoke:) Enjoy!
Disclaimer: This photo journal of Gwendolyn and Laverne is only one example of one couple's courtship. We share this with you because their courtship is very typical of the practices and experiences of courting couples across the spectrum of plain churches. We want to make it clear that, even though their courtship was naturally a special time for our family, and that comes through in the story, Dawn and I are not in any way implying that they are better or more noteworthy or more ideal than other couples. We only use their story and photos as a visual, typical, real-life example of a Mennonite courtship. If there be any glory, direct it to our Father in Heaven. He wrote the operators manual with the principles outlined for Christian courtships and homes.
Oh, and in case any of you are wondering... Yes, Laverne did call and have a talk with me and get my approval before he wrote to Gwendolyn to ask for her friendship in courtship. I was impressed by his honorability then and almost ten years later, I still am!
Blessings until next time,
Your Mennonite Christian Friend
~ Edwin Shank
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