It's October 1896. A nervous young man arrives at the door of a majestic brownstone townhouse. He carries a small wood box containing a silver bracelet and ring, and a bouquet of resplendent burgundy tulips. He raps on the door, squares his shoulders and runs through the words of his speech. The door opens and he is ushered into a large, well-furnished room. Growing more nervous as the minutes pass, he sets his items on the table and tries to adjust his tie.
Suddenly, two doors open. A lovely young woman wearing a long, elegant dress gracefully enters and stops a few feet from the young man, directing him to a chair. In the other doorway stands the young woman's mother and father. They cordially greet the young man then retreat through the door, leaving it slightly ajar.
The young lady seats herself and the young man picks up the bouquet, clears his throat and . . . drops the box. As he reaches to pick up the box, he remembers that his tie is still askew and he tries to fix it, dropping the bouquet in the process. Tie adjusted, box and bouquet retrieved, he clears his throat again. The young lady smiles at his nervous display and finally he begins his monologue . . .
Dating or courting?
What is he doing? Reciting Shakespeare? Testing his slapstick comedy act for the local drama club? No, he's getting ready for the culmination of months of planning, supervised outings, amiable family dinners, walks in the park with the young lady, conversation in a parlor warmed by an autumn fire and, lastly, a brief, but serious chat with the young woman's father. In short, he's courting.
Within the confines of courting, appropriate one-on-one dating played an important role; two people of marriageable age got to know one another better, their personalities, interests and so forth, before they made a more serious decision regarding marriage.
Recently courting has been getting a second look by some who sese pitfalls in today's dating scene. Steady one-on-one dating at too young an age with no goal of marriage in sight can lead to problems and temptations. (Of course, courting isn't the starting place for those not of marriageable age. The natural alternative today is a group outing with less stress, less emotional attachment and still enough time to chat and compare personalities.) A date, if approached with the wrong attitude, is reckless frivolity, while courting aims at marriage.
A date with history
The history of dating is based on old-fashioned courtship, which itself developed in a variety of ways from the traditional arranged marriages of much of human history. To court means to woo and to woo means to seek the love of another with marriage in mind. Imagine a 13-year-old girl and a 15-year-old boy sitting down to discuss their marriage plans. Laughable perhaps, but several hundred years ago that was a common reality. The dating process of today is different in structure and purpose than it was in the era when "courting" was the operative word.
Courting wasn't something young people did merely for a good time; it was a serious family business proposition. Surprisingly, the main players in the marriage process often weren't just the bride and groom; they were the parents of the bride and groom.
Courting was rooted in the era of arranged marriages, though the couple and their feelings often played an important role. Still, families often met to discuss how this marriage would benefit not only the bride and groom, but the respective clans. The point is, a marriage is a joining of two families as well as two young people.
Few choices and no time to date
People may assume that arranged marriages were loveless matches, with frightened young people forced into lives of emotional pain and forbidding loneliness, but such was not always the case. In Northern European Jewish culture from the Middle Ages until even the 20th century, families arranged marriages where the love of the two young people was a prominent factor.
However, not every couple was so lucky, and this may be one reason courtship developed. How else would a young man and a young woman, meeting perhaps for the first time at the betrothal ceremony, get to know each other? The betrothal could consist of a simple announcement, much like an engagement party, or something more complex like a partial marriage ceremony with the exchange of rings, a ceremonial kiss and a meal.
Often following the betrothal were a few weeks to a few years of courting or dating. In some cases, however, the first meeting of the couple might be the very day of the wedding. The courting then took up the first month of marriage. Through courting, the couple became acquaintances, then friends, gained mutual respect and hopefully the love that would sustain them through married life.
This is quite different from the freedoms experienced by young people today. We have more options now; "love" is almost always the universal premise for marriage, particularly in Western cultures. There are, however, still many parts of the world where arranged marriages are the rule.
In French Canada during the era of settlement in the 17th century, the luxury of free time to spend on courting didn't exist. Male settlers came by themselves and when they needed wives, the French crown sent over women by the shipload. When the ship arrived at the port, men would meet their brides and become engaged, if not married on the spot.
The colonial government penalized those who did not marry with prohibitions on hunting, fishing and trading–the very livelihoods of these settlers. There was no time for frivolity–practicality was of the essence. Similar circumstances occurred in the United States as the West was being settled and many adventuresome young women made the journey as "mail-order brides."
A new era and a new business
During the Victorian era, spanning nearly 70 years of cultural prominence from the 1830s into the early 1900s, dating and courting as we know them found their roots. Blossoming wealth in Britain and the United States caused by the Industrial Revolution provided the upper and middle classes with such luxuries as spare time for leisure activities like courting.
More men and women devoted more time and money to dating, and wily businesspeople learned to cash in on this trend. In the Victorian era a plethora of books were offered to the public covering every element of courtship. A young man could even buy a book full of "sweet phrases" to whisper to his girl, if he wasn't poetically inclined.
In our era the business of dating has accelerated into a lucrative enterprise that can prey on young people. There are thousands of books on the dating process, but are they all full of beneficial advice? With excess spare time and increased knowledge comes the unfortunate but predictable twisting of the truth, and the results of misdirected dating can be devastating.
Our early 21st century life is defined by luxury and the time to make choices or to waste time by making bad choices. Young men and women have the opportunity to make large amounts of money before marriage. Houses and especially kitchens are full of labor-saving devices that translate into extra time on our hands. We have cars that hurry us to our destinations at speeds Roman chariot drivers could only dream of. The common lifestyle has changed greatly over the centuries and it affects the dating/courting process.
Clearly we enjoy much more freedom to pursue romance. The Bible reminds us, "For everyone to whom much is given, from him [or her] much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more" (Luke 12:48). Young people have the freedom to court, develop friendships and, hopefully, focus on the one person who will become their mate for life. Arranged marriages are no longer the custom in Western society.
However, with this freedom have come dangers. A lack of self-control, surging hormones and the effects of a society with declining moral values threaten to ruin the positive future of true love. Wrong choices by many today have, all too often, led to devastating emotional scars. Children born out of wedlock without the loving surrounding of a happy family are but one example of what a lack of self-control and a lack of understanding of God's Word and way of life can bring.
This is where much is expected. God made something that is so beautiful that we often compare it to a jewel—a loving marriage relationship that results in the growth of two people together to support future generations of their family and God's family. Honestly, how many people want to wear a jewel that has been dipped in acid, eating away at the beauty and resulting in an ugly, tortured mess? Clearly there are some important choices to be made.
For the best historical understanding of how God intended love to grow and young people to act, consult His textbook on life and eternity, the Bible. The lessons of how humans have tried to go about the dating/courting process are useful as examples. There they are—the good and the bad, various methods and attempts. And the results are there as well. When God's way was applied, success and happiness abounded; without Him it did not.
So what choices have our friends in 1896 made?
. . . After hobbling to one knee and taking a deep breath, the young man presents his proposal of marriage to the seated lady. Taking both bracelet and ring, and with eyes streaming happy tears, she accepts. The door bursts open and in rush her parents ready to congratulate the couple and begin planning for the ceremony that will launch them into married life. VT