The History of Marriage Licenses

the marriage image by Warren Millar from

Marriage licenses were unheard of prior to the Middle Ages. In England, marriage licenses in one form or another are more than four hundred years old, with the practice brought to America in colonial times. Today, applying for a marriage license has become an accepted practice and is often perceived as necessary for legalizing a marriage. However, in the United States, the state-issued marriage license is a subject of intense controversy for some individuals.

Early Marriage Contracts

For centuries, marriages were private contracts between two families that may or may not have had the bridegroom or bride's consent. Marriage was not only for procreation, but for also building financial, social and, in some cases, political alliances. When the state-run Church of England decided it wanted to have a say in approving marriage partnerships, laws regarding marriage licensing were established to ensure a level of control and source for revenues.

Publication of Banns

The Church of England exercised power throughout England and in the American Colonies, with the colonies later adopting many of the same laws when they became states. Both Church and states allowed marriage by publication of banns, instead of the more expensive marriage license. The Library of Virginia describes banns as a public notice that was written, published or orally announced "for three consecutive meetings at the churches of the bride and groom."

Racist Reasoning

According to the North Carolina History project, in 1741, the state increased control over marriages, primarily to prohibit interracial marriages by issuing marriage licenses. By the 1920s, some 38 other states had issued similar laws in an effort to keep the white race "pure." Virginia's Racial Integrity Act (RIA) of 1924 made it illegal for mixed-race couples to marry. The RIA remained law until 1967 when the U.S. Supreme Court declared Virginia's ban on interracial marriage unconstitutional.

State Authoritarianism

In the United States prior to the 1700s, marriages were primarily a responsibility of local churches with marriages registered only with the state. By the latter part of the 19th century, states began to "nullify common-law marriages and exert more control over who was allowed to marry," says Stephanie Coontz in a 2007 "New York Times" article. The primary reason for government control of marriage licenses remains for vital statistics recording and continues as a source of revenue for local and state governments.

Homosexual Marriages

In February 2004, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom authorized city officials to issue gender-neutral marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The following August, the marriages of nearly 4,000 same-sex couples were voided by the California State Supreme Court on the basis that Newsom had overstepped his authority. In the meantime, on May 17, 2004, Massachusetts had legalized same-sex marriage.

License Rebellion

During the 1960s, couples rebelled against government authority by rejecting the marriage license and choosing cohabitation because they believed "a piece of paper" could not define their relationships. Today, some fundamentalist Christians choose to marry without a state-issued marriage license. Pastor Matt Trewhella of Mercy Seat Christian Church in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, one of the most outspoken pastors on the subject, refuses to marry anyone with a state-issued license. "When you marry with a marriage license, you place yourself under a body of law which is immoral," he says. Marriages without state licenses are still legal and hold up in the courts of every state. Two witnesses must sign the marriage certificate issued by clergy, and if desired, it can be filed in the county courthouse.