Christian Marriage: The Engagement/Betrothal

The Betrothal, Alfred Thomas Derby (1821-1873)
The betrothal, or engagement, is a promise of future marriage. It is a true promise, and not merely an intention, a desire, or a resolution, even though these may be expressed in words. It must also be a mutual promise, made and received by both parties. It is a promise of future marriage, because the promise of marriage at the present moment, or expressed in words that refer to the present time, would constitute the contract of marriage, and not merely the betrothal. It was the tradition of the church for a very long time that the engagement was made in writing, signed by both the parties, and by the parish minister and at least by two witnesses.

Engagement may be absolute or conditional. If the condition is met and verified, the promise is valid, provided neither party has withdrawn their consent before its fulfillment. The most common promise is to maintain fidelity to each other throughout the duration of the engagement as a proof of intention to remain in fidelity throughout marriage. A promise obtained through fear or the promise of personal gain wouldn't constitute a valid betrothal. 

Effects of Engagement
Its results or effects are both spiritual and temporal. By the law of God the promise made isn't simply to the other party, but is also made to God as part of the pre-marriage covenant. Therefore it should only be withdrawn under the most serious of conditions. By the law of nature it imposes a serious obligation of justice, of contracting marriage with the person to whom the promise has been made. And there is a grave prohibition and obligation against indulging in a relationship with, or marrying anyone else as long as the former engagement lasts. And if money has been spent on marriage arrangements, a just compensation may be exacted from the party who, without a just cause, breaks off the engagement against the will of the other party.

Dissolving an Engagement
This may be done:
  1. by mutual consent, according to the rule of human laws, which generally state that everything may be dissolved by the same cause that brought it into existence.
  2. By an impediment invalidating the marriage, such as the case of illicit intercourse of the bridegroom, or vice versa.
  3. By the subsequent marriage with another person. 
  4. Fornication subsequent to the engagement is considered sufficient reason for the innocent party to break off the engagement. If committed before the engagement and discovered afterwards, a man may certainly break off the engagement entered into through ignorance with a guilty woman; and likewise the woman may rescind the engagement with a guilty man, especially if deceived at the time of the engagement by being persuaded of his being free from such sins.
  5. By any notable change either in soul or body or character, or by some defect kept concealed, which, had it been known, the innocent party wouldn't have promised marriage. For example, if it was found that one of the parties had a sexually transmitted disease which was concealed from the other party, the innocent party could rescind the engagement.
  6. Engagement may also be dissolved by long absence, or by too long a delay.
While it has become the custom in modern society to enter into long engagements, such isn't really advisable, and they're not necessary. It doesn't take many months to understand one another's character and disposition, and to see whether it would suit them to spend their lives together as man and wife, which is the object of engagement. Long courtships, living together, etc., are calculated to do more harm than good, and often are the occasions of sin to young people who are often easily led to do things they otherwise wouldn't by reason of their being engaged to marry.

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