HC Deb 16 June 1819 vol 40 cc1200-1
Mr. W. Smith

observed, that in bringing forward the motion of which he had given notice, he found himself fortified by the contents of several petitions which had been presented. The prayer of those petitions was for some alteration in the marriage service, as it respected a particular class of individuals. The grievance complained of was described in as brief terms as possible in the petitions themselves, which stated that the marriage service, as prescribed by law, was, in some of its parts, inconsistent with the principles of their religious belief. Prior to the act of the 26th Geo. 2nd marriage was considered in this country merely as a civil contract. To the ceremonial appointed by that act the dissenters generally entertained some objection; but what was complained of by his clients on this occasion was, the various expressions relative to the doctrine of the Trinity which occurred in it. By a recent statute they had been relieved from the penalties and disabilities imposed by laws which had become almost obsolete, but it was still unpleasant to their consciences that this doctrine should be introduced in a manner that implied a recognition of it on their part. As this introduction of it was perfectly useless, the petitioners hoped that in their case it might be dispensed with. Before the act of Geo. 2nd, marriage was held to be essentially a civil contract. For this proposition he had the authority of Mr. Justice Blackstone. It was not then requisite to its validity, that it should be connected with a religious ceremony. From the operation of that act, however, Jews and Quakers were exempted; and he believed that the petitions which they addressed at the time of its passing, had led to their exemption. The petitioners did not complain of the general tenour of the marriage service, but of a distinct part of it, the omission of which, in certain cases, was the object of the measure it was his intention to propose. If it were important that the marriage contract should be sanctioned by a religious ceremony, it ought to be congenial to the religious principles conscientiously entertained by the parties. He knew that many persons regarded marriage as the most solemn engagement which could be contracted, and that it was highly advantageous that it should be clothed with the sanctions of religion. In taking oaths, the religious creed of the person sworn was always made the test and security of his evidence the Jew was sworn upon the Old Testament, and the Mahometan upon the Koran. The analogy appeared to him to be extremely strong. He feared, however, that the association of a religious ceremony with the marriage contract had not always the good effect that was ascribed to it. If they looked to those countries where marriage was a sacrament, it would appear that its vows were much more frequently broken than in the northern part of this kingdom, where no religious ceremony was essential to its validity. Under all these considerations, he should now move for leave to bring in a bill to alter and amend the Marriage act, so far as relates to the ceremony in the case of Protestant Dissenters from the church of England.

Lord Castlereagh

did not object to the introduction of the bill, but as he was not aware of the provisions it might contain, he must reserve his opinion till the measure should be before the House.

Mr. Wilberforce

acquiesced in the propriety of allowing the bill to be brought in. He could not help feeling some apprehension lest the general terms in which his hon. friend had spoken of marriage as a civil contract might be misunderstood. There could be he doubt that, so far as evidence was concerned, it might be so denominated, but the institution was itself of divine ordinance.

Leave was given to bring in the bill.