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  • Hopes for Better Spouses: Protestant Marriage and Church Renewal in Early Modern Europe, India, and North America by A. G. Roeber
  • Joel F. Harrington
Hopes for Better Spouses: Protestant Marriage and Church Renewal in Early Modern Europe, India, and North America. By A. G. Roeber. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing. 2013. Pp. xxviii, 289. $29.00 paperback. ISBN 978-0-8028-6861-9.)

The focus of this book is the development, attempted implementation, and failed legacy of a Pietist concept of companionate marriage. As is well known, the Reformation simultaneously descramentalized matrimony and elevated it to the ideal state for all Christians. Roeber devotes the first third of the book to describing the gradual and controversial emergence of a new (modern) notion of marriage as a spiritual partnership, despite the lingering reservations of Martin Luther and other Protestant theologians about the carnal aspect of the union, itself still often conceived as a remedy to lustful urges. The most innovative aspect of this brisk survey is a suggested influence of German mysticism on the thinking of early Lutherans in this respect—an interesting thesis that remains largely undeveloped. Roeber then moves to Philipp Jakob Spener, August Hermann Francke, and the other early Pietists of the late-seventeenth century, for whom the orderly and social disciplinary aspects of marriage remained foremost (despite Francke’s own apparently [End Page 166] warm and companionate union). The greatest theological barrier to full endorsement of a quasi-sacramental status for marriage was less patriarchy per se (which undoubtedly played a role) than mainstream Pietists’ unwillingness to acknowledge sufficient divine grace after the Fall as the basis for a divine union. Some outliers, such as the admittedly obscure Christian Thomasius, argued that the divine spark in fact drove all humans to seek out marriage, but this remained a minority position until Nikolaus Ludwig Zinzendorf and the Moravians. After a chapter on the encounters of some Pietist missionaries with Tamil polygamy, Roeber returns to Europe to discuss a genuinely radical departure from Lutheran tradition. For the Unitas Fratrum—a relatively small group of at most 10,000—not only marriage but human coitus itself was considered sacramental. Although acknowledging the importance of communal concerns (and thus arranged marriages), Moravian Pietists celebrated the divine friendship of a man and a woman, with sexual consummation considered the anointment of the Holy Spirit. Not fulfilling one’s sexual obligations was treated as desertion (and thus grounds for divorce) and not just Christ’s naked body but his circumcised penis were ritually venerated. The final third of the book then travels to North America, where the Pietist ideal of a companionate marriage (still far from established) confronts interracial, cross-confessional, and common-law marriages. Here, too, the text moves quickly, explaining that the language of partnership fared better in the long run than the notion of grace in the marital union. In an epilogue Roeber concludes with the “foundering of hopes for better spouses” (p. 241) during the modern era, a tepid coda for an ideal that rarely took root to begin with.

Roeber is at his best in his lucid and empathetic portraits of Pietist missionaries, displaying both his archival prowess and obviously deep erudition. He is also particularly illuminating in his detailed descriptions of intra-Pietist controversies, again drawing on both correspondence and theological sources. The central frustration of the book is its lack of focus. This might perhaps have been expected, given the sprawling (and not particularly useful) title itself. The book’s overall narrative and structure—as suggested above—also lack the coherence necessary for any compelling thesis to stand out. Even within chapters the author’s attention frequently meanders, such as the chapter on North America, which begins with the experiences of some Pietist missionaries, then discusses the theology of grace, German immigrants and colonial litigation, marriage patterns among these individuals, the sermons of one pastor, and finally family registers and illustrated broadsheets. A reader attracted to this kind of scrapbook approach will certainly find several fascinating vignettes and information, but a reader seeking a deeper, broader, and sustained discussion of the ideal of companionate marriage among early-modern Protestants must look elsewhere...


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pp. 166-167
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