A Review Of A. G. Roeber, “Hopes For Better Spouses: Protestant Marriage And Church Renewal In Early Modern Europe, India, And North America,” Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013. 317 Pp. $29.00. -- By: Matthew D. Haste

Journal: Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood
Volume: JBMW 19:1 (Spring 2014)
Article: A Review Of A. G. Roeber, “Hopes For Better Spouses: Protestant Marriage And Church Renewal In Early Modern Europe, India, And North America,” Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013. 317 Pp. $29.00.
Author: Matthew D. Haste


A Review Of A. G. Roeber, “Hopes For Better Spouses: Protestant Marriage And Church Renewal In Early Modern Europe, India, And North America,” Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013. 317 Pp. $29.00.

Matthew Haste

PhD candidate in Biblical Spirituality
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

Although many credit the Protestant Reformers for restoring the church to a biblical view of marriage, one prominent historian has recently suggested that their work was left unfinished. In Hopes for Better Spouses: Protestant Marriage and Church Renewal in Early Modern Europe, India, and North America, A. G. Roeber, a professor of history at Penn State University, argues that Martin Luther’s writings on marriage led to centuries of confusion and conflict on the subject.

In Luther’s day, skepticism regarding marriage was rampant in both the church and the state. According to Roeber’s reading of Luther, the German Reformer struggled to articulate the goodness of marriage in this context because he wanted to avoid labeling marriage a sacrament, as the Roman Catholics argued. Furthermore, Luther was ambiguous about who exactly had the final word in defining marriage, at times calling it a “worldly” affair under the control of the state and at other times referring to it as a “godly estate” that answered to the church (24). This tension in Luther’s definition of marriage set the stage for the controversies that followed.

When his successors such as Philip Melanchthon and Philipp Jakob Spener failed to bring clarity to the subject, subsequent generations of Lutherans became embroiled in conflicts related to marriage. From arguments over polygamy to disputes about the regulations for wedding celebrations, Roeber traces how “the ambivalent standing of marriage . . . spread like a cancer” throughout Lutheranism, but especially within pietist circles (95).

This ambiguity eventually plagued the mission efforts abroad as Protestant missionaries began to advance in the early eighteenth century. Roeber argues that the specific issues in India, which included the question of whether missionaries could marry local converts and what to do with converted males who had multiple wives, pushed the issue “toward the official legal and theological teaching that marriage was solely a civil matter” (126).

In North America a similar shift occurred. Roeber notes that the conversations on marriage “largely succumbed to pragmatic concerns for property succession, the legal dimension of the relationship between spouses, and a reaffirmation of the husband’s authority” (238).

In the end, Roeber argues that marriage became firmly situated under state c...

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