Wedding Rings

 All things are lawful for me…  Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.”

1 Cor. 10:23, 31

For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.”

1 Tim. 4:4-5

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Order of Contents

Introduction
Lecture & Handouts
Sermon
History
.     General Surveys
.     Negative
.     Positive  

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Introduction

Some of the early puritans refused to wear wedding rings as the Roman religion in their day made an idolatrous ceremony out of them in weddings.  To wear them in that context, when they commonly bore a superstitious meaning, was a scandal.  During the mid-1600’s, the directory for ‘The Solemnization of Marriage’ in the Westminster Directory of Public Worship ommitted all mention of wedding rings and included the clause that the wedding service was to be done ‘without any further ceremony’.  Today, there are some that teach it is wrong to wear wedding rings.

However, wedding rings have no distinctly religious significance today in American culture and many other cultures.  As most people today don’t even know that wedding rings were ever a superstitious ceremony at any time, by definition wedding rings are not a monument of idolatry which ought to be removed and destroyed (see Westminster Larger Catechism #108 and George Gillespie, ‘Monuments of Idolatry’).

To treat wedding rings as a superstitious item, or as a known relic of superstition, when they are not, is to give them a significance they don’t have and is to resurrect the knowledge of idolatry, which is contrary to the more fundamental teaching and purpose of Scripture to abolish idolatry and let it fall away into silent oblivion to be remembered no more.

The origin of wedding rings is found in the ancient world, they being found in the ancient societies of Egypt, Greece and Rome (see Wikipedia, ‘Wedding Ring’).  Betrothal rings were used in the early Church during Tertullian’s time (c. 155–c. 240 AD, who makes frequent reference to them).  The modern custom of exchanging rings during the wedding service itself can be traced back to the 10th century.  Numerous reformers and puritans during the 1500’s and 1600’s make frequent positive references to the use of wedding rings despite the looming shadow of Rome in their day. 

While the Scottish Westminster divine, Samuel Rutherford, does not seem to make reference to a wedding ring given in a marriage ceremony, yet he makes frequent references to gold ring(s) being given at betrothal, or engagement, or during that time leading up to marriage, which were seals of the suitor’s love and purpose to marry the person, and consequently, after the wedding itself, must have symbolized and sealed their marriage itself.  It is likely these ring(s) were not easily distinguished of themselves from a ‘wedding ring’.†  It appears that some persons were not opposed to wearing rings which sealed their betrothal and marriage in front of society, but only against such a ceremony being used in the wedding itself.  This proclivity may have been heightened from the fact that weddings were often performed in that age, even in Scotland, as part of worship services.‡

† Writers often refer to both betrothal and wedding rings as simply a golden ring.  Sometimes they had stones set in them with inscriptions on the inside, as is a common modern practice.  If there was a noticeable difference, it may have been what finger the ring was worn on: at least since the The Second Prayer Book of King Edward the Sixth (1552), the traditional place for the wedding ring was the modern custom of the 4th finger on the left hand.  Only a ring was given to the bride; men wearing wedding rings did not come about till the 1900’s.

‡ See the 1562/64 Book of Common Order below, which likewise omits any giving of a ring.  This order of service held sway till the Westminster documents superseded it in the mid-1600’s.

The term ‘ceremony’ during the age of the Westminster Directory for Public Worship was highly defined in that era, and did not designate something simply indifferent, but something that had a religious significance.  While wedding rings bear a natural, civil and societal significance today in sealing marital vows in a couple’s wedding (which are often now not considered worship services) and life, they do not bear a specifically religious or ecclesiastical meaning,º and hence are not prohibited by the Westminster Directory for Public Worship today (on the lawfulness of civil and indifferent matters, see Westminster Confession 1.6).  As the Westminster Directory for Public Worship is only a directory (which was a known and defined genre of documents) or guide, it is not binding in every detail on churches that have adopted it.

º “[David] Calderwood [an early 1600’s Scottish, presbyterian historian], however, intimates that as a social usage with no ecclesiastical authority or ritual significance attached to it, it would have been unopposed.”  C.G. M’Crie, ‘Ritual of the Church’, p. 352

The resources below will be helpful in understanding the historical and theological principles that apply to this ethical question, and will further help you understand more broadly our responsibility to remove idolatry and monuments of idolatry, while not resurrecting the remembrance of it.

We do not believe that it is wrong to forego wearing a wedding ring, as they are not of the essence of marriage, though common societal norms ought in general to be respected so as not to give undue impressions or offence to our neighbors.  We do also believe that the natural and societal meaning of wedding rings, sealing our marital vows, is good and beautiful thing.

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An Audio Lecture & Handouts 

Moeck, Gregory – ‘Westminster Directory Of Public Worship – The Solemnization of Marriage, Part 10’  

Elder Gregory Moeck of 1st OPC San Francisco historically surveys the wedding ring issue, examines the Westminster documents, and demonstrates from Scriptural principles the lawfulness of using wedding rings today.  Here are the three handouts to this lecture:

‘The Duty of Removing Monuments of Idolatry’

‘Comparison of the Catholic Liturgy, the 1549 English Book of Common Prayer & the Westminster Directory of Public Worship’

‘Quotations For The Duty Of Removing Monuments Of Idolatry’

Unfortunately the second lecture on this topic is not available, but here are its handouts:

‘How Can We Know If Something Remains A Monument Of Idolatry Today?’

‘Quotations For How Can We Know If Something Remains A Monument Of Idolatry Today?’

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Sermon

Secker, William – ‘A Wedding Ring fit for the Finger: Laid Openly in a Sermon, Preached at a Wedding’  1658  24 pp.

Secker (d. 1681?) was a conformist English divine.  He does not mention wedding rings in the sermon itself.

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History

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General Surveys

C.G. M’Crie, ‘Ritual of the Church’, p. 352 in ed. R.H. Story, The Church of Scotland, Past & Present

Sprott, G.W. – ‘Use of the Ring’ in ‘The Solemnization of Matrimony’ in The Worship and Offices of the Church of Scotland (1882), pp. 155-156

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Negative Historical Quotes & Omissions of the Ring Largely due to Romanism

John Knox & the Frankfort, Germany Liturgy, 1555

‘6. Matrimony’  in Notes to Frankfort Liturgy, p. 258 in ed. Wotherspoon & Sprott, The Second Prayer Book of King Edward the Sixth (1552) and the Liturgy of Compromise Used in the English Congregation at Frankfort (1905)

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Knox, the English Congregation in Geneva & the Church of Scotland, 1556/1562/1564 ff.

‘The Forme of Marriage’, pp. 54-55 in The Service, Discipline and Forme of Common Prayers and Administration of the Sacraments Used in the English Church of Geneva, as it was Approved by that most Reverend Divine, Mr. John Calvin and the Church of Scotland (1641)  Notice the omission of the ring.

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Whitgift, John

pp. 193-196  of An Answer to a Certain Libel Entitled, An Admonition to the Parliament (1572)

Many of the puritans, at the lead of Thomas Cartwright (c. 1535–1603) , put in an admonition to the English Parliament to reform the English Book of Common Prayer along puritan lines.  Amidst its petitions, the ‘Admonition’, which is quoted on the topic in full, called for a disuse of wedding rings in marriage ceremonies. 

John Whitgift (c. 1530–1604), the Archbishop of Canterbury, in his ‘Answer’, defended the Anglican establishment and the use of wedding rings, while quoting Henry Bullinger at length on the topic in so doing.  Both Cartwright and Whitgift agreed that Rome had unduly put a superstitious meaning on their use of wedding rings.

Ch. 4, the First Division in The Defense of the Answer to the Admonition against the Reply of T.C. By John Whitgift (1574), p. 725-727

Cartwright had made a reply to Whitgift’s 1572 work above.  Here is Whitgift’s reply to that reply of Cartwright.

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Fenner, Dudley

A Brief Treatise upon the First Table of the Law Orderly Disposing the Principles of Religion (1588), 2nd Commandment, no page number.  Dudley was an English puritan.

“Forbidden in the 2nd part, to worship images, to set them up, to gild them, or any manner of way to serve them, Mt. 4:10; Apoc. 19:20.  Also here is forbidden all additions of sacraments, as the papists made matrimony, and so gave it a sign of the wedding ring, all additions unto them, 1 Cor. 11:13.  All addition of ministries in the
service of the Lord, as the papists added priests to sacrifice, exorcists to conjure, etc., Lk. 20:6; Jn. 1:21-23.”

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The ‘Genevan Faction’, the English Presbyterians, 1603

pp. 66-67 of Shields, Charles W. – Liturgia Expurgata, or the Prayer-Book Amended According to the Presbyterian [and Independent] Revision of 1661, and Historically and Critically Reviewed  in ed. Shields, The Book of Common Prayer as Amended by the Westminster Divines, A.D. 1661 

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Independents & Presbyterians Together  1661

‘Of the Form of Solemnization of Matrimony’, p. 172 in  ‘Appendix II: The Presbyterian Exceptions Against the Book of Common Prayer, Presented at the Savoy Conference, A.D. 1661’  in ed. Shields, The Book of Common Prayer as Amended by the Westminster Divines, A.D. 1661

Note that the exception to the Prayer-Book by the Independents and Presbyterians leaves the use of the ring indifferent, that it may be used or not.  This was a development that came later in the timeline of things.

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Positive Historical Quotes

Bullinger, Henry

Fifty Godly and Learned Sermons Divided into Five Decades (1577), ‘Of Signs and the Manner of Signs, of Sacramental Signs’, the Sixth Sermon, p. 990

“We also seeing the standards of kings, princes and cities, we call the signs by the names of the kings, princes, and cities: for we say, ‘This is the king of France,’ ‘This is the prince of Germany, this is Tigure, this is Berne.’ So if we see the marriage ring, or the image of any prince, we call it the faith and trothe of wedlock, or man and wife, yea, and we say by the image, ‘This is the prince.’  For matrons showing their wedding ring, say, ‘this is my husband.‘”

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Smith, Henry

A Preparative to Marriage (1591)

pp. 30-31

“Secondly, the mate [spouse] must be fit…  diverse men have many virtues, and yet do not fit to some women: and therefore we see many times, even the godly couples to jar when they are married, because there is some unfitness between them which makes odds.  What is odds but the contrary to even?…  From hence came the first use of the ring in weddings, to represent this evenness: for if it be straighter than the finger it will pinch, and if it be wider than the finger it will fall off; but if it be fit, it neither pinches nor slips: So they which are like strive not…”

pp. 97-98

“In Latin children are called pignora, that is pledges, as if I should say, a pledge of the husbands love to the wife, and a pledge of the wife’s love toward the husband: for there is nothing which does so knit love between the man and the wife, as the fruit of the womb…  If a woman have many defects (as Leah had) yet this is the mends which she makes her husband to bring him children, which is the right wedding ring that seals and makes up as it were the marriage.”

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Coverdale, Miles

Fruitful Lessons, upon the Passion, Burial, Resurrection, Ascension, and of the Sending of the Holy Ghost (1593), ‘The Sending of the Holy Ghost’, Doctrine & Fruit, no page number.  Coverdale was a an English puritan.

“…how the same holy Ghost, who is the teacher of the truth, the earnest penny of salvation, the wedding ring of grace, and joy of the mind was given.”

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Gataker, Thomas

A Good Wife, God’s Gift and a Wife Indeed. Two Marriage Sermons (1623), p. 12.  Gataker was a Westminster divine.

“For, though you were contracted before a thousand witnesses and married publicly in the frequentest and most solemn assembly, not by the hand of an ordinary minister, but of a bishop or an archbishop, no rite or ceremony omitted, either the wedding ring, (that Tertullian [c. 155–c. 240 AD] more than once mentions,ª and frees from taint of superstition) or any other: Yet are you no wife, if you do not the duty of a wife;

ª Annulus pronubus, Tertull. de Idololatr, & in Apolog. Etiam nunc sponsae annul’ ferreus mittitur, id{que} sine gemmâ, Plin. hist. nat. l. 33. c. 1. Atqui aureus is Tertulliani tempore; prout & nobis nunc dierum.”

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Rogers, Daniel

Matrimonial Honour (1642)

pp. 24-25

“Faith then is the hand and wheel which must frame a vessel
for honour, prepared, as for all other, so for this work of marriage.  And in truth, as it is all religion (upon point) so it is
the marriage ring, which makes the soul one with the Lord; and this ring is beset with many rich jewels, all of them serving for the honour, that is, the well carrying and discharge
of marriage duties.”

pp. 322-323

He marries her to Himself in righteousness, compassion, faithfulness and love: He puts a robe about her and a ring upon her hand, a tyre upon her head, shoes upon her feet: furnishes her with all his treasure: kills the fat calf, makes her a royal feast…”

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The Westminster Minutes

Gillespie, George – p. 43, ‘March 19, Of Ordination Sine Titulo’ in Notes of Proceedings of the Assembly of Divines at Westminster

The English Edmund Calamy, Sr. (1600-1666) cites the Scottish Samuel Rutherford in debates on ecclesiastical polity, positively referring to an analogy with a ring in close proximity with marriage.

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Rutherford, Samuel

A Peaceable and Temperate Plea (1642), ch. 17, p. 267

“That power is given by the Presbyteries’ act of ordination, by order of nature, before the people’s formal act of election: As the husband who in a lapidaries shop chooses a gold ring for his wife, and puts it on her finger, presupposes it was a gold ring before his choosing thereof, neither does his choosing thereof make it a gold ring, but only makes it his wife’s gold ring by application to her:

Just so, peoples election appropriates such a man who is already a pastor to such a charge, but does not make the pastor a pastor, but chooses him only to be their pastor.”

A Survey of Spiritual Antichrist (1648), ch. 55, p. 89-90

“as it is the same love sealed to the Spouse from the Bridegroom’s own word and seal, and hand-writing, and confirmed to her by his bracelets, rings, jewels, and love-tokens that He sends to her, nor are there for that two loves, two love-tokens, two Bridegrooms.  For say that the love-tokens are true, not counterfeit, and that they carry with them the warm and lovely characters, and undeniable expressions of the true Bridegroom’s soul-love…”

The Trial and Triumph of Faith (1652)

Sermon 7, p. 75

Christ-God is more than grace, pardon, holiness, than created glory, as the Husband is excellenter then his marriage robe, bracelets, rings; and we are to lay our love and faith principally upon the Father and the Son, more than all created graces;”

Sermon 16, p. 184

“But when we refuse Christ’s comforts, we refuse Himself; she who refuses to accept of a bracelet, or of a gold-ring from him who suits her in marriage, she refuses both his love, and himself, in that she refuses his love-token.”

Christ Dying and Drawing All Men to Himself ()

p. 98-99

“So the love-tokens and testimonial rings and bracelets of the Husband, my love to the saints, my keeping of his word, my holy walking in Christ, being the works of his Spirit, which dwelt in Jesus Christ, are actu primo [the first act], in themselves, as infallible signs of the Bridegroom’s love to me; as the Beloved’s word who spake and said, ‘Arise, my love’: And if the spirations and breathings of the Spirit go not along, both the voice and the love-bracelets (for Christ is no more counterfeit in his love-tokens than in his word when He speaks as a Husband) are alike ineffectual to persuade the soul.”

p. 155

“O but we are covetous and soul-thirsty after our own will in the matter of soul-manifestations; either I see little here, or we idol comforts, and would gladly have a Christ of created grace, rather than Christ, or his grace; and when we are thirsting for Christ, it is his comforts, the rings, jewels, bracelets of the Bridegroom, we sick after, rather than Himself; its not an unmixed, nor a poor marriage-love, to marry the riches and possessions, and not the person,”

Joshua Redivivus, or Mr. Rutherford’s Letters  (1664)

To his Parishoners (2), p. 6

“…if I drew not up a fair contract of marriage betwixt you and Christ, if I went not with offers betwixt the bridegroom and you, and your conscience did bear you witness, your mouths confessed that there were many fair trysts and meetings drawn on betwixt Christ and you at communion-feasts and other occasions; there were bracelets, jewels, rings, and love-letters sent to you by the Bridegroom, it was told you what a fair dowry you should have and what a house your husband and ye should dwell in, and what was the bridegroom’s excellency, sweetness, might, power. The eternity, and glory of his Kingdom, the exceeding deepness of his love, who sought his black wife through pain, fires, shame, death and the grave; and swimmed the salt sea for her, undergoing the curse of the law, and then was made a curse for you, and you then consented and said,Even so I take Him’.”

To Mr. Thomas Garven (117), p. 224

“We have gotten the new heavens and as a pledge of that the bridegroom’s love-ring: The children of the wedding chamber have cause to skip and leap for joy, for the marriage supper is drawing nigh and we find the fours-hours sweet & comfortable. O time be not slow! O sun move speedily, & hasten our banquet? O bridegroom be like a roe, or a young hart upon the mountains!”

To Mr. David Dickson (197), pp. 381-2

“His comforts to me are not dealt with a niggard’s hand, but I would fain learn not to idolize comfort, sense, joy, and sweet felt-presence: All these are but creatures, and nothing but the kingly robe, the gold-ring and the bracelets of the Bridegroom: The Bridegroom Himself is better then all the ornaments that are about Him.”

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Ness, Christopher

A Complete History and Mystery of the Old and New Testament (1696), p. 142

“3dly. The posy that was engraven in this ring [in the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Lk. 15:22] may easily be supposed to be some significant short sentence, such as all rings are adorned with by some inward inscription; but more especially wedding rings: Such as ‘I love, and like my choice,’ and ‘as God decreed, so we agreed,’ and such like: Now may it not be said without absurdity, that here was a kind of wedding here, to wit, of a lost son, to a loving father, and the posy of this ring may well be supposed to be one of those sentences or characters, that the Father gave of his son, ‘My Son was dead, but is alive,’ or ‘He was lost, but is found.’ Lk. 15:24, and 32″

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Related Pages

Reformation & Puritan History

Religious Images in Worship

Ethics

Marriage