Divorce and Remarriage in American Methodism: The evolution of church positions from 1884 to 2012


By Dr. Rex D. Matthews

I am currently engaged in research project that intends to trace the broad contours of the evolutionary change of American Methodist positions concerning divorce and remarriage and to set the story of that change in the larger context of changing attitudes toward divorce and remarriage in American culture and society. The resulting account will seek to show how American Methodism gradually moved from strict prohibition of divorce and subsequent remarriage save for the “one scriptural cause” to an acceptance of the reality of divorce as “a regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness” in the lives of ordinary American Methodist people, and pastors, and an embrace of subsequent remarriage, notwithstanding the scriptural passages that were once interpreted as forbidding both except in cases of adultery. The parallels between this development and contemporary struggles in the UMC and in American society and culture over matters related to homosexuality should prove to be illuminating.

Prior to 1884, none of the main branches of American Methodism had ever taken an official position of any sort on the issues of divorce or the remarriage of divorced persons. In that year the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) approved a lengthy statement on the sanctity of marriage, declaring adultery to be the only justification and legal basis for divorce and prohibiting ministers from remarrying divorced persons, incorporating this position into the Discipline: “No divorce, except for adultery, shall be regarded by the Church as lawful; and no minister shall solemnize marriage in any case where there is a divorced wife or husband living: but this rule shall not be applied to the innocent party to a divorce for the cause of adultery, nor to divorced parties seeking to be reunited in marriage” (MEC Discipline 1884, ¶46, p. 33).

Four years later, in 1888, the MEC declined to prevent persons found to be in violation of its newly-adopted ¶46 from holding membership in our Church, but also declined to amend ¶46 to read “No divorce, except for adultery or causeless and continued abandonment, shall be regarded by the Church as lawful” (MEC GC Journal 1888, pp. 231, 279; italics added), thereby leaving adultery as the only cause for divorce recognized by the MEC as legitimate.

The Methodist Protestant Church (MPC) enacted a similar policy in 1888, writing into its Discipline a provision stating that its ministers “shall not celebrate the marriage of divorced persons who have violated their marriage vows” (MPC Discipline 1888, section “Annual Conference,” §14, p. 71). In 1890 the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (MECS) followed the lead of the MEC and the MPC: “The ministers of our Church shall be prohibited from solemnizing the rites of matrimony between divorced persons, except in case of innocent parties who have been divorced for the one scriptural cause” (MECS Discipline 1890, ¶136, p. 87).

The “one scriptural cause” was of course adultery, with reference primarily to the words of Jesus as reported in Matt. 5:31-32, Matt. 19:3-9, Mark 10:2-12, and Luke 16:18, and secondarily to the teaching of St. Paul in 1 Cor. 7:8-16. However, the position of The United Methodist Church and its predecessor denominations on issues related to divorce and remarriage shifted dramatically over the years after 1884, as is shown by the following series of snapshots of General Conference debates and actions:

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Daniel Davison

If this were addressing sexual orientation, the comments would be flooded with stern rejoinders that scripture is unequivocal in condemnation, and that should be the end of it. How curious that, although Jesus spoke extremely strongly against divorce, no one seems too troubled when our society has changed in ways that make it reasonable to abandon scriptural obedience for a more tolerant stance.

Christy Thomas

Eye-opening and utterly fascinating. Thank you for putting all this together.

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