19th Century Marriage Customs

02 May

wedding ringsWhile gathering info for our Polygamy and Mormon Church Leaders series I kept noticing a common occurrence in the lives of these men. The issue for this article isn’t about polygamy (that’s for another day), rather my focus is on the age of the girls these men married.  I refer to them as girls because quite frankly that’s what they were; little girls, aka, children.

The last submission for our series included a young girl who was 13 years old when she married Perrigrine Sessions and each time I thought of that scenario I felt physically ill.  Sadly, many of the genealogy sites I referenced contained comments from his descendants who remarked they were surprised that ‘girls were married so young back then’.

Underage Brides

This topic has always been debated within the world of ex-Mormons and Mormons alike. Most current members of the Church have finally accepted there weren’t more women than men in those days to justify polygamy as they used to fallaciously report and hold dear.  Unfortunately, they’re still ignoring the other misconception that marrying young in the nineteenth century was the norm.

By and large marriage customs and the reason for marriage remained unchanged from the medieval age until the early nineteenth century.  The advent of machinery being invented gave birth to the industrial revolution and people began looking at marriage not as a means of financial security for both families, but love.

Before that time people married to ensure that family farms and wealth would continue into the next generation and for the female it ensured her financial security by being taken care of via means of her husband’s financial status. The main occupation for females up until the nineteenth century was giving birth.

Ironically, nobility in European countries and elsewhere experienced a younger median age of marriage as they were many times betrothed as young as 1-2 yrs of age to other nobilities roughly the same age to ensure a good political standing with neighboring countries.

In America from 1800-1880 the average marrying age for males and females was 27 and 24 respectively. The nuclear family produced by the Great Depression and WW2 when young people were married in their teens and early  twenties was a phenomena that history hadn’t seen since medieval times.

In the nineteenth century the average marrying age for both sexes was even higher in Western Europe than their counterparts in the States.

I’ve collected numerous references from a broad spectrum of resources documenting everything from the history of sex, marriage patterns in the US, to the history of nutrition and expected lifespan for Northern Europeans which was helpful in providing info on when people married and why. You can find all references at end of article.

The bottom line in all this is that people didn’t typically marry in their teens. When and if someone did marry that young it was looked upon as being an unusual event.  The NIH (National Institute of Health) reported the mean age of first marriages never fell below 20 years which falls in line with other studies showing the same age of 22-24 years for females’ first marriage from 1850-1880.

1850 – Men 26.8 – Women 23.1

1860 – Men 26.9 – Women 22.8

1870 – Men 26.8 – Women 23.2

1880 – Men 27.1 – Women 23.4

1890 – Men 26.1 – Women 22.0
1900 – Men 25.9 – Women 21.9
1910 – Men 25.1 – Women 21.6

Justifying Immoral Behavior

Couched in the endless excuses justifying polygamy many in the Church thought nothing of marrying children. LDS apologists have stated ‘no one would blink an eye’ when a 16 year old girl was married, but the problem in this statement is that there weren’t any non-Mormons around to blink an eye – marriages or no marriages.

They moved to the Rockies to isolate themselves from outsiders to do what they wanted, legal and otherwise; and so they wouldn’t have to answer to anyone. One of the resources I use for the Polygamy and Mormon Church Leaders series is based off George D. Smith’s work ‘Nauvoo Roots of Mormon Polygamy, 1841-1846: A Preliminary Demographic Report’.

His report candidly exposes what was going on in Nauvoo during the Joseph Smith era. He studied 153 polygamists, how many wives and kids each man had and their ages. He also summarized their ages, polyandrous marriages and divorces.

As I began looking at his report and those I’ve written, the number of young girls who were pressured into childhood marriages just can’t be ignored as it stands out like a sore thumb.  A good example of the pressure they were faced with was provided by a family genealogy site for Reuben Miller.

Their site posted a letter from one of their relatives (Reuben Miller) that he wrote to a ‘prospective wife’. He told her to seriously consider her life circumstances now, but more importantly the dangers she would face if she refused his generous offer of marriage.  When they were married he was 55 and she was 17. The letter was written two years after they were married so we’re not getting the whole story on that one.

The total of teen and underage brides I’ve come up with are preliminary at this stage, so as time permits we’ll add more and those will obviously change.

In Mr. Smith’s report I counted 289 girls from the ages of 13-19 that were married to 113 men.  The Nauvoo Report contained 153 men so obviously not everyone was marrying teen or underage girls, but it’s safe to say the majority of them participated in this nefarious deed.

I’ve not listed all the wives of each man. This chart shows only the teenagers they were married to.

I can list numbers and averages all day, every day, but that really isn’t the point of all this. The focus is what was going on at that time and how their lifestyle bled down into the next generation and the next and the next…

In reality the mindset hasn’t changed at all in Utah today. The only difference is that polygamy is barely illegal, meaning that it’s a long shot anyone would actually be prosecuted for it. Warren Jeffs was the exception to the rule.

Mormonism built on 2 principles; sex and godhood status

Women still ‘need their man’ to get into heaven in Mormonism and until they change their sacred canon the only true salvation in Mormonism is godhood status.  Men can’t become gods if they’re not polygamists so this way of thought is set in hard cement.

Because WordPress changed its operating procedures for tables recently I’m left to just posting the link for a PDF I made listing the overall view of the men and the number of kids each was married to.  I’ve dubbed it the ‘Hall of Shame’ and posted each man’s picture alongside the ages of each teen and/or underage bride they were married to. Be sure to check it out here.

As always my focus is to expose the truth and plead for Christians to pray for the salvation of my people! If you’re LDS I’m begging you to think about what was going on in the Church ‘back then’ and ask yourself if polygamy isn’t happening today then what does the word ‘everlasting’ mean to you?  D&C 132 says plural marriage is an everlasting covenant. If you’re not living polygamous lifestyles how can it be everlasting and what does the Mormon heavenly father think of that?

With Love in Christ;


1 Cor 1:18



National Institute of Health

Nuptiality Measures for the White Population of the United States, 1850–1880

National Bureau of Economic Research

NBER Historical Working Paper No. 80
“Long Term Marriage Patterns in the United States from Colonial Times to the Present”

Michael R. Haines

Issued in March 1996
NBER Program(s):   DAE

men – 28.5 – 27.7
women – 26.6 – 24.4

Also see:

Modeling American Marriage Patterns

David E. BloomNeil G. Bennett

NBER Working Paper No. 3425
Issued in August 1990


Erwin J. Haeberle, Ph.D., Ed.D.

1983, The Continuum Publishing Company, 575 Lexington Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10022

See article:

Archive for Sexology

History of Marriage in Western Civilization 

NY Times

Jon Grinspan

January 1, 2014

‘Anxious Youth, Then and Now’

These Americans were born into an earthquake. During the 1800s America’s population exploded from 5 million to 75 million. By 1900 nearly as many people lived in New York City as had lived in the entire country during the Revolution. The nation went from a rural backwater to an industrial behemoth — producing more than Britain, Germany and France combined — but every decade the economy crashed. America saw the kind of wild change we see today in China, and in a new society with little to stabilize it.

For rootless 20-somethings, each national shock felt intimate, rattling their love lives and careers. Many young adults could not accept that their personal struggles were just ripples of a large-scale social dislocation. So each New Year’s, they blamed themselves. In a Jan. 1, 1859, entry in her journal, 19-year-old Mollie Dorsey, stuck on a Nebraska homestead in the middle of a recession, castigated herself for not being “any better than I was one year ago.”

Romance worried them above all. Today some fret about the changing institution of marriage, but we are used to such adjustments; 19th-century Americans were blindsided when the average age of marriage rose precipitously, to 26 — a level America didn’t return to until 1990. In a world where life expectancy hovered below age 50, delaying marriage until 26 was revolutionary.

Cities brimmed with bachelors and unmarried ladies in their mid-20s, once a rare sight. In their New Year’s reflections, men and women noted that their parents had had children by their age. One typical Union Army soldier wrote home wondering, “Do you think I will be married before I am thirty?”

This social change brought personal turmoil, especially for young women. Marriage meant love and family, but in a society that discouraged ladies from working, young women were dependent on their husbands. Remaining single meant economic and legal instability, and the perception of childishness. When the mother of one diarist, Emily Gillespie, scolded the Midwestern farm girl by saying, “you are twenty years old and not married yet,” it hardly mattered that Emily was in line with her generation.”

Old Age, Height and Nutrition

Common Misconceptions About Medieval England

Research Paper, Caidan Pentathlon, March 2003

“The average marriage age of a medieval woman occurred in her early 20’s ensuring that reproductive age typically began about 20.”

“A medieval woman of the landholding class in 1300 married at an average age of 24” p 8


5 Things Victorian Women Didn’t Do (Much)

By Beth Dunn

“At the end of the 18th century, the average age of first marriage was 28 years old for men and 26 years old for women. During the 19th century, the average age fell for English women, but it didn’t drop any lower than 22. Patterns varied depending on social and economic class, of course, with working-class women tending to marry slightly older than their aristocratic counterparts. But the prevailing modern idea that all English ladies wed before leaving their teenage years is well off the mark.”

Marriage Laws and Customs – Isle of Man

Tags: , , , , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply