THOUGHTS ON MARRIAGE
1761 & 1803
The motivation for this counsel on marriage appears to be a request from Newton’s friend Joseph Woolmer (1716-1782), to whom Newton replied in installments.
The progress can be traced through extracts from Newton’s diary:
Monday 11 October 1756: “…forenoon at the Watch House some time and employing in drawing up some reflections on the marriage state, at the request of my friend Mr Woolmer.”
Monday 17 January 1757: “… employed mostly in writing and copying for Mr Woolmer.”
Friday 22 June 1759: “When I was at Millbridge Mr W [Thomas Waldegrave (1732-1812)] communicated to me a plan for compiling a Religious Magazine to be published monthly. I had some desire to contribute my mite towards so useful a design and was engaged for near a week in preparing him a pacquet in which besides a very long letter, I sent an essay on Marriage taken from letters formerly wrote to Mr W [Woolmer].”
Monday 23 February 1761: “At the Watchhouse employed when leisure in transcribing a paper on marriage which has been long by me, I intend to send it with some other things to the publishers of the Christian Magazine.”
In his first presentation of these “Thoughts on Marriage” in 1761 to The Christian’s Magazine, Newton (under the pseudonym “Minor”) introduced them with this quote:
Arbiter Æithereus, tibi fit mellita voluptas;
Et desideriis annuet illa tuis.
Hoc duce, carpe viam, mediis in fluctibus, unum
Hunc specta, portum, quem petis, ille dabit.
[a poetical translation of Psalm 37:4,5 by Arthur Johnston:1
Delight thyself also in the Lord: and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.
Commit thy way unto the Lord; trust also in him; and he shall bring it to pass.]
In 1803 Newton came across his article in “two printed leaves” from the above Magazine and offered it (under the pseudonym “Omicron”), with a few additions and deletions, to The Orthodox Churchman’s Magazine, quipping, as he used the Latin quote below: “The sense of them was not so difficult to be arranged as the Sybilline leaves, for by the addition of a few lines it seems to be complete”:
ne turbata volent rapidis ludibria ventis
[In Virgil’s Aeneid Book 6, Aeneas begs the Sybil, or priestess, to sing rather than to entrust her songs to the insecurity of being written on loose leaves, as was her custom, “lest they fly about in disorder, the sport of the rapid winds”]
The article below includes most of the revisions of the 1803 version, with minimal updates to the meaning of archaic words.
THOUGHTS ON MARRIAGE
In the beginning, God saw it was not good for man to be alone. Man was then in a perfect state, created in the image of his maker.
The moment he fell, this happy order was interrupted, and a far different scene succeeded. Man himself, and all the creation around him, for his sake, became subject to vanity. His creature-comforts no longer remained in subordination to his real good, but usurping the supreme place in his affections, became snares to entangle him in the path of his duty; and seemed to intercept the Divine presence and favour from him.
Thus in Adam we lost all: and every attempt in the natural state, to obtain peace and satisfaction in a world upon which our sins have entailed a curse, is but renewing the rash and unsuccessful design of the builders of Babel. However great our diligence, however promising our prospects, God from on high beholds and mocks our empty toil, he breaks our well-contrived bubbles, and leaves us under the perpetual shame and reproach of having begun that which we are unable to finish.
These are mournful truths, confirmed by the repeated disappointments of every day. However, we are not left to sink under their weight: the Gospel teaches us, that through our Saviour Jesus Christ, all his faithful followers have a renewed title to the good things of both worlds — 1 Timothy 4:3 [“… to marry, …which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth”], every creature of God is again sanctified to our use, and all things are made clean to us. Yet so — that though the curse be wholly taken off, the vanity in some measure continues. And this is a wise appointment, equally necessary to exercise and strengthen our faith, and to quicken our desires after a better and more enduring inheritance.
This vanity which is so apparent in the painful pursuit, and the uncertain, unsatisfying possession of all temporal goods, might be more easily borne were our judgement of them according to truth, and if we knew how to value things in proportion to their real importance, and their subserviency to our best interest. But alas! sin blinds our eyes, inflames our passions, and, like a poisoned arrow, too often renders those wounds fatal, which would otherwise have been only painful. In vain do we resolve against the breach of any positive Divine precept, while an undue solicitude and affection, for things lawful in themselves, and only evil to us in the abuse, are no less contrary to our Christian profession, no less destructive to our true peace, than a course of outward wickedness. For as the first and greatest of the commandments is, to love the Lord our God with all our mind, and soul, and strength, so undoubtedly the first and greatest of sins, is to set up idols in our hearts against him, and to love, trust, and rejoice in any inferior object, while we live insensible of our obligations to the author of our being, the fountain of happiness; who formed us for himself, and has therefore endowed us with capacities and desires which nothing short of himself can satisfy.
From hence it appears, that there is not the least repugnancy between the declaration of God “It is not good for man to be alone”, and the judgement of the apostle, 1 Corinthians 7:8 [“I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, it is good for them if they abide even as I”]. The one that was spoken of man, when his most common blessings inspired him with gratitude; the other of man in his present state, so fatally perverted, that his most peculiar and endearing possessions prove the occasion of alienating his heart from their gracious donor. Yet, since marriage was not designed for the state of innocence only, since it is instituted by God himself, since it is the way appointed by Divine Providence successively to keep up the human race, since it is a state eminently liable to the dangers I have mentioned, and when these are happily obviated, is productive of the most generous and heartfelt pleasures we are capable of as social creatures; it is a point of no small weight duly to consider how this important engagement may be entered upon and conducted, so as most to promote our present satisfaction and future peace.
We may often observe, that many amiable qualities, and a sincere mutual affection at the beginning, are not sufficient to secure a continuance of happiness between persons joined by the most solemn ties, and cemented by an interchange of the most interesting obligations:
How oft when time that medium renders clear,
Which makes a pale clay a Deity appear,
How oft succeed, in matrimonial life,
To love, disgust[loathing] – to mutual concord, strife.2
Numbers who set out with mutual affection, insensibly decline into indifference and disgust[loathing]. And this, not from the want of amiable qualities on either side, nor through any imprudence which their most intimate friends can observe; but from an error in the foundation of their plan — that being too much elated in their prospects, fondly terminating their hopes in each other, and forgetting their immediate dependence on the Almighty, he has refused them that blessing without which no union can subsist.
Mr Addison, and some other writers, have occasionally treated of many little improprieties, which persons in the marriage state are apt, through inadvertency, to give into. Their instructions upon these heads are worthy of notice in their proper place, but none of them (that I have seen) go to the bottom of this subject. The great impropriety, and the first cause of every other miscarriage, is our unhappy propensity to propose a rest and satisfaction merely in the creature. So far as we attempt this, the Lord, either in mercy or judgement, will assuredly disappoint us and multiply the sorrows of those who in so notorious a manner presume to seek after another God; for he is jealous of his glory, and will not give it to our idols.
It is the Holy Scripture alone which furnishes us with rules or motives sufficient to direct and animate us in the various relations of life; especially in this which is of all others the most honourable, the most intimate, and the most important:
It is the most honourable, as instituted by God himself, and appointed as an emblem of the love and indissoluble union between Christ and his Church; in which respect the apostle scruples not to call it a great mystery.
It is likewise the most intimate because it is expressly ordained to supersede all other relations and connections; “for this cause shall a man leave his father and his mother and cleave to his wife, and they two shall be one flesh”.
And it is by far the most important, as having a necessary influence either good or bad upon every future action and circumstance of our lives, which cannot be said of any other of our engagements.3
To treat the subject I am upon in its full extent, would lead me beyond the limits assigned me; it would take up a considerable space to point out and illustrate the nature, rise, and improvement of that peculiar sympathy of soul, which takes place in those whose hearts as well as hands are joined in marriage; which so far resembles the joy of a good conscience, that it is hard to represent it to those who have not felt it, and next to impossible to describe it but from experience.4 Conjugal affection, wherever it appears, exhibits the fairest prospect of human happiness; though too often, like a beautiful edifice, raised upon an insufficient foundation, it gives us a mournful occasion to apply that passage in the poet:
_ et celsae graviore casu decidunt turres.5
the tower that highest rears its head, with heaviest ruin falls.
But when the plan is laid, and the building conducted by the rules of true religion, it rests upon an immovable basis, and stands superior to the assaults of time and change. This is a theme not easily exhausted; but at present I chiefly write for those whose temper or circumstances inclining them to a married life, have yet their choice to make. Few persons warm in the pursuit of their own inclinations, and who relying on the sufficiency of their own judgement, will be either pleased or profited by anything I can offer; but those who are truly serious, will see the expediency of the following rules: I recommend them as preliminaries, which, if duly attended to, will make the pursuit easy, and the profession safe; but if neglected, it is hardly possible but the best laid designs must end in disappointment and disgust[loathing].
Whoever therefore would hope for comfort upon good ground in the marriage relation, must in the first place humbly submit himself and his designs entirely to the disposal of the Almighty, and earnestly seek the direction of his Wisdom and Providence. We have a promise, that if we acknowledge God in all our ways, he will direct our paths; but if we reject his offer, and will choose for ourselves, what can we expect but to be filled with our corrupt desires, and where we have sown the wind, to reap the whirlwind?
And as it is necessary to begin this great design in submission to the will of God, so it must with respect to the End be conducted in subordination to his glory. Thus far the heathens attained in theory; however they fell short in practice. Both these rules are comprised in one line of Horace:
Huic omne principium, huic refer exitum.6
To him your first designs commend, to him refer your purposed end.
And he deduces all the calamities of the state, as well as the disorders in private life, from the neglect of them. Surely then it must be highly unsuitable for Christians to propose their own convenience or satisfaction as their relief, much more their only view in any undertaking. We cannot, consistently with our profession, either entreat or expect a blessing upon such of our designs as terminate in ourselves. So far as we can upon the closest consideration foresee the circumstances and engagements which our new relation may bring us into, it behoves us to resolve (by Divine assistance) that we will act in them all as those who are bought with a price, and are therefore no longer their own.
The due observance of these two points, will necessarily lead to a third, which can only be neglected so far as these are not attended to: that is to say, to make choice of such a partner for life, as we have good reason to believe is under the influence of the same principles, and not to be misled by the most plausible appearances, to unite with any person in whom those principles have not, in some measure, taken place. A want of care in this matter has filled many a pious heart with anguish through all the remaining years of life. For a truly religious person to marry one who has no relish for spiritual things, is taking up a heavy burden which can never be laid aside.
How greatly must the worship of God in private, and in the family, be interrupted or distracted in such a case?
How must the improvement of children and domestics be hindered, and the force of good example lessened?
How must the real Christian be wounded in his soul, when, deeply impressed with the love of God shed abroad in his heart, he would fain apply to the person dearest to him, to share and improve his joys; or when, under distress or temptation, he needs, or earnestly desires the assistance of her counsel and prayers, but in either case can meet with no return but coldness, surprise, and misapprehension!7
How must it add to his grief in a time of trouble, and damp his pleasures in his brightest hours, to reflect on the dangerous situation of one whose interest is dearer to him than his own life!
If Divine Providence takes her from him in such estate, how deep and bitter must his mourning be!
How hard will he find it to silence the bodings of his heart, and to resign her into the hands of that God to whom he fears she lived and died, a stranger!
If he should be called first from her, with what anguish must it probably fill his dying hours, to think that their present parting must perhaps be an eternal separation; and that he leaves her in the midst of the snares and calamities of an evil world, without an interest in those precious promises, which he knows are alone able to support her! A union of affection which either obviates or softens all other trials, will in this case greatly heighten and aggravate the distress. The more tenderly they love, the more sensibly they must grieve each other while together, and the more awful and overwhelming their separation/situation8 will prove.
How different is the experience of those who are united in grace as well as in affection! How are their pleasures heightened, and their necessary trials alleviated by the sense of their Redeemer's love, while their prayers are enlivened, and their praises multiplied upon each other's account! Whoever departs first, can with faith and comfort, commit the survivor to the gracious protection of their Heavenly Father. Whoever remains longest here, has the unspeakable satisfaction to know, that their dearest companion is safely arrived at the haven of eternal rest; and that a few revolving years will reunite them in a state of unchangeable happiness, beyond the power of death, sin, or sorrow, to interrupt their harmony for ever.9
1. The Christian's Magazine, or a Treasury of Divine Knowledge, volume 2, London, 1761: pages 306 – 311, Supplement to The Christians Magazine, from January to June, 1761.
2. The Orthodox Churchman’s Magazine and Review, or a Treasury of Divine and Useful Knowledge, Vol 4, London, 1803, pp228 – 232
1. Arthur Johnston [c.1579-1641], Psalmorum Davidis paraphrasis poetica et canticorum evangelicorum, London, 1637
Newton probably read this version: Arturi Jonstoni, Psalmi Davidici, Interpretatione, argumentis, notisqu, Illustrati:
In Usum Serenissimi Principis, Londoni, 1741 [return]
2. This may be Newton’s own translation? [return]
3. Newton to Thomas Charles, 21 November 1780
“I understand you have marriage in view. The Lord I trust has shown you the right person. May he bring you happily together and bless the connection. It is a weighty business but when put under the management of faith, prayer and prudence, it is a happy business. A day which will have a powerful influence upon every future day and circumstance of your life, may be truly deemed important – such is the Wedding day. However I shall be glad to hear you are enrolled in the honourable rank of husbands. It always pleases me to hear that a minister is well married. There is a something in domestic life that seems suited to improve our meetness for speaking to our people.
The growing soul, as Dr Watts speaks, when doubled in wedlock, multiplied in children, acquires a thousand new feelings and sensibilities of which the solitary bachelor is incapable, and these teach us and dispose us to feel for others and give us an interest both in their pleasures and their pains. And this sympathizing turn, is a happy talent for a minister to possess – it will give him a deeper place in the hearts of his people, than some more shining accomplishments.” [return]
4. Newton to Wilberforce, 3 January 1792, accompanied by his “first anniversary” hymn on his own wife’s death:
“There are sensibilities belonging to a happy marriage union, which can no more be communicated by description, than the taste of a pine-apple. They are only to be acquired by experience.” [return]
5. Horace, Odes, Book 2.10 [return]
6. Horace, Odes, 6 [return]
7. An illustration of how Newton’s valued his wife’s counsel and prayers from his diary, 4 August 1760, as he needed to take a decision on whether or not to accept a call from Cow Lane Independent Church in Warwick, but his wife was away: “I am indeed a good deal disconcerted and unsettled in my mind. I am shortly to give a positive answer to a point on which I cannot determine – and being deprived of my dear – [Polly's] company, at [a] time I seem most to want some endearing and enlivening converse appears an inconvenience. It is true the Lord is near me, and there is liberty of access to a throne of grace, but alas my infirmities prevail, and I cannot improve my privileges as I ought. Blessed be God in the midst of all this confusion there is peace at the bottom – my soul looks to the Cross of my Saviour and there I desire to rest. [return]
8. Newton’s 1763 article used “separation” and his 1803 one “situation”. It looks more appropriate here to stick with his first suggestion. [return]
9. Written on an anniversary of their marriage, 12 February 1795, a few years after his wife’s death: “Great was thy goodness in continuing her to me so long, wonderful the support thou gavest me in her last illness and removal, and by which I am still upheld. For even now I still feel my loss, and my weakness, and might sink unless sustained by Thee. But I trust all is well - that Thou wilt guide me by thine eye, and guard me by thine arm, thro' the uncertain remainder of this life and that then I shall meet her in thy presence, and join with her, and with the many before thy throne, in songs of endless praise, for thy great Salvation!” [return]
This presentation © The John Newton Project 2012