To Betroth or Not to Betroth: When Courtship Took the Homeschool World by Storm

To Betroth or Not to Betroth: When Courtship Took the Homeschool World by Storm July 30, 2018

In looking for a specific article on the No Greater Joy website, I stumbled upon an article from 2000 titled “To Betroth or Not to Betroth? That is the Question.” In it, Michael Pearl, a fundamentalist Christian homeschool speaker and guru, made a case against betrothal. Here is what I find fascinating: by 2000, betrothal had become a common enough idea in his circles that Pearl felt the need to write against it.

Several years ago I attended a lecture on betrothal. Since then I have heard quite a few testimonies from those involved in it. Many of you have sent me your favorite book or tape on “betrothal.” I have read or listened to all of them and studied the Scripture carefully. We asked for testimonies concerning betrothal, whether good or bad. We received quite a few letters from people that had sour experiences through betrothal, some of them now married. As of the writing of this article, two months after publishing the request, we have not received a single testimony from anyone that practiced it and would recommend it. The short answer is, “No, we do not practice betrothal.” Though I agree with all the assessments as to the problems, and though I agree with much of what is put forward as a solution, we do not practice betrothal as it is defined in the things I have read and heard.” We have not adopted a rigid system with superfluous rules, time-frames, pre-defined conditions, and protracted parental meddling. We want the will of God, and it doesn’t always come packaged the way we think it should.

It is with great caution and reluctance that I go on record as disagreeing with many of you on this issue. Your cures, in most cases, are far better than the disease, but I am convinced that there are too many side effects from the medicine that is being prescribed. Your cures are overkills.

That is how common betrothal–-actual betrothal-–had become in fundamentalist homeschool circles by 2000. It wasn’t an unknown quantity. Within the Pearls’ circles, it wasn’t even fringe. It was normative enough that even Michael Pearl himself was extremely cautious in how he came out against it.

Of course, Michael does not object to the entire package of betrothal—in fact, he agrees with most of it. He only objects just to certain pieces of it. For instance, take note of this statement:

There are variations in the views, but basically, betrothal is the idea of arranged marriages. The young people are prevented from having any kind of romantic or emotional relationship with each other until they enter a binding marriage agreement. With this part I fully agree.

Michael agrees with betrothal advocates that a couple should be “prevented from having any kind of romantic or emotional relationship with each other” before marriage. Where he disagrees appears to be in the heavy involvement of the father in the betrothal process. He writes that:

I am for anything that maintains the purity of the couple leading up to marriage, but a system that centers around the father of the bride is strange indeed. Real men are not interested in becoming intimate with a girl’s father. They are reserving their emotions for more judicious use—something a little closer to nature.

And if you’re picking up on some weird undertones, you’re not alone. Michael’s combination of “real men” with his reference to being “intimate” with a girl’s father seems grounded in concerns about masculinity, male friendship, and intimacy. Michael is not alone in this critique of betrothal, of course; every scheme I have ever heard of involves a young man spending great deal of time forging a relationship with a girl’s father, being mentored by him, and so forth, before ever approaching the girl.

Michael has this to say of that point in the process:

“She [the daughter] is allowed to say no, in which case the father tells the young man something to the effect that he just wasted one or more years courting a man twice his age.”

Michael is not off base here—in a betrothal framework, the father is expected to be so involved in the life of any potential husband that referring to the young man as “courting” the girl’s father is apt.

As Michael notes, some betrothal advocates took the father’s involvement even further, suggesting that the father should have the couple legally married and afterward have the young woman continue to live in her parents’ home, until such time as he (the father) might decided to tell the young man he could come and claim his bride. (I have written about this before; you can read about it here.)

Michael finds this horrifying.

“The creation of a system that seems more designed to indulge parents in a vicarious romance than it is to assure that their children are properly matched is embarrassing at the least.”

All of this does raise a question. Just what does Michael think the father’s role is? We’ve already established that he doesn’t think a couple should have a “romantic or emotional relationship” before they marry. How are they to meet? Does a father play a role in this process? As it happens, yes.

Michael spends a decent amount of time talking about his oldest daughter Rebekah’s marriage. For instance, he praises the fact that she married the first guy she was ever involved in, and didn’t have an “emotional” relationship with him before the wedding (I realize that praising all of this will sound very odd to a secular audience; it should, because it is).

Rebekah was twenty-six when she married, and she never had a “boy friend”—never shared any kind of emotional or physical relationship with anyone. Her husband need not be concerned that someday a man may walk up to him and say, “Your wife and I used to be very special to one another.” He is her first and only.

Here’s the funny thing—this is identical to the goal for betrothal. The goal here is to get a daughter to the altar without her having previously had a relationship—physical or emotional—with anyone—including the man she is marrying. That’s what “purity” means to individuals in these circles.

How did Michael obtain this ideal?

As Rebekah’s father, I turned away five or six men before they ever got close to her. She turned down at least a dozen others. In addition, there were three young men, that I would have been proud to have had as son-in-laws, that approached me, asking for Rebekah’s hand in marriage. I said to them, “Hey, it is fine with me, but it is her you must convince.” But Rebekah never gave any of them the time of day.

Like betrothal, the young men approached Michael before initiating anything—any relationship at all—with Rebekah. Note that Rebekah “never gave the time of day” to the three Michael says he let through. That means they definitely didn’t talk to her first, before approaching her father. Note, too, that Michael turned some men away without ever giving them access to Rebekah. He denied her those options entirely.

As Michael outlines it here, the only difference between his system and betrothal is that, first, Michael didn’t spend months courting  each of these young men before approving them—except that, as we’ll see in a moment, this is not strictly true—and, second, he let the young men in question ask Rebekah if she was interested, rather than being the one to present them to her (this part does appear to be the case).

As Michael explains it:

I am sure that if I had been of the modern persuasion and had started proceedings with the young men, eventually presenting her with my choice, being a dutiful daughter, she would have worked hard to surrender to my choice. But I did not speak to her on behalf of these young men, for I would never disrespect my daughter by commencing an arrangement without her knowledge.

He then offers this:

If my kids come on hard times in their marriages, I want them to know that it is they who chose their life’s partner, not me.

I had something similar said to me as well, and it struck me as odd even then. The entire thought process is messed up, but I can’t quite put my finger on what’s wrong with it. Don’t get me wrong—I like the sentiment that people should be able to choose their own life partner! It’s just that they should be able to do so because they’re the one who will be living with them, and not as some sort of indemnity clause for the parent.

But despite all of Michael’s verbiage, he did start the proceedings with the young men. Not only that, but in some cases he spent months getting to know them, before Rebekah ever laid eyes on them.

The man Rebekah married, Gabriel Anast, came to me, wanting to get acquainted with Rebekah. She was overseas at the time, and, without making promises, I invited him to come and work for us in the office—which he did for several months. We got to know him and his family well. I told him that he passed muster as far as I was concerned, but that it was his job to win my daughter’s favor.

In order to get to know Gabriel, Michael had Gabriel work for him for several months. Michael may object to the terminology, but this is classic betrothal policy—it’s right out of the book. Having a young man work for you so that you can analyze his spiritual state, work ethic, and interactions with others, all before he ever is allowed access to your daughter, is every betrothal advocate’s dream.

After about six months he moved back to New Mexico without ever meeting Rebekah. Rebekah returned, then left again, and still they did not meet. I thought maybe he had lost interest. After being home for several months, she went to Israel for one year, and it was several months after she returned that they finally met. I had never spoken to Rebekah about his possible interest.

Can we be clear about the fact that as of when Gabriel came to Michael, and when Michael had Gabriel work in his office for months so that he could get to know him, Gabriel had not even met Rebekah?

After they met, he began to communicate with her regularly by email and telephone. After several weeks, one night he called to speak to me. By the way he was stuttering and “beating around the bush” I knew it was “another one of those” phone calls. After about two minutes of garbled, random irrelevancy, I was certain of his intentions and began to laugh at his stress. He had always been so intellectual and logical. During a break in my laughter, I was able to utter, “Just say it.” He said the stupidest thing, “I want to date your daughter.” He was 1300 miles away, so I said, “What do you mean?” He answered, “I want to consider her for marriage; Ugh…I mean…I…Ah…do consider her. I mean…Ah, if it is OK with you. What I mean is…Ugh…,” and from there it went downhill. I am thankful now that I didn’t subscribe to one of those complicated, multi-layered betrothal schemes. He would never have gotten past the first step. He had several friends who have been burnt by the betrothal systems, and he was not willing to go that route.

But he did get past the first step. Michael had Gabriel work in his office for several months so that he could get to know him! That is the first step.

I finally said, “Look, the two of you are old enough and mature enough to determine the will of God and make up your own minds. If you can get her to agree, you have my blessing.” They communicated on the telephone and by email, and warmed a plane seat a couple times between Nashville and Albuquerque. In a few weeks Rebekah approached me, seeking my permission for her to accept his proposal of marriage. Deb and I consented, and they announced their agreement to marry. They were married four months later, which I considered a rather long engagement.

They made an agreement between themselves to abstain from kissing until after they were married. It didn’t seem to have set them back any. As part of the wedding event, I told them that I expected to have a grandkid nine months and one week after the wedding. They didn’t disappoint me. They tell me it is due nine months and two or three days after she threw the bouquet. I always taught my children that if it needs doing, don’t fool around; get it done—pun intended.

Gabriel was, and remains, her first and only boy friend and lover. That is as it should be. They did all things in truth and honor to God, their families, and each other. We are proud of them and delighted in every way—looking forward to being grandparents.

The only difference between what Michael describes and courtship is that Michael let Gabriel approach Rebekah himself, rather than presenting Gabriel to Rebekah. This is not, of course, a distinction completely without a difference—if Michael had introduced Gabriel to Rebekah, she would have felt more pressure to accept him—and less room to turn him down—than she did having Gabriel approach her himself.

Still, this is where the fundamentalist Christian homeschool world was circa 2000—debating such minutia in a n increasingly detailed embrace of courtship and betrothal. It’s as though these individuals raised their children, homeschooled then, and then realized that if they were going to determine where their children turned out—on the straight and narrow, of course—they had to carefully and systematically control who they married, too, so they set about doing that as well.

Perhaps the strangest part of all of this is that Michael thinks he isn’t controlling—unlike all those ridiculous betrothal advocates, of course. Michael spends months vetting young men who are interested in his twenty-something daughter—months before giving them permission to approach her.

That, apparently, is what “not controlling” looked like in this world.

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