For those who think that modern weddings have become too much about the spectacle and not enough about the meaning of marriage, you maybe pleased to learn that it is not always the case. The Quakers, members of the Religious Society of Friends, have a very different tradition when it comes to weddings. If you have never attended a Quaker wedding, this is what you can expect…
One of the main principles of the Quaker religion is simplicity. Right off the bat, you can see why this would place them at odds with the extravaganzas that many couples find necessary to celebrate their union. The point of a marriage between two friends is the religious and spiritual, not the legal implications of becoming husband and wife. In fact, in a Quaker ceremony, there is no officiant, because it is believed that only God can marry a man and a woman (or two men or two women, for that matter; some same-sex couples have Quaker marriage ceremonies).
The first step when a Quaker couple decides to be married is that they declare their intentions to their Meeting. They will then meet with a committee that will help to determine that they are indeed ready to be married, and may also assist them with making the arrangements. This is in a way similar to the pre-nuptial counseling required of Catholics, and is certainly something that all couples could benefit from.
A Quaker marriage ceremony is very, very different than most American weddings. There is no fanfare, and in fact, the ceremony is similar to a regular Meeting of the Friends. One of the things that will seem very unfamiliar to a non-Quaker guest is the amount of silence that is part of the Meeting. The bride and groom will sit at the front of the Meeting house until they feel moved to stand and exchange their promises to one another. The length of the silent period can be as long as one hour, which is intended to be a time for quiet reflection and prayer. This is quite typical for a Quaker service, but might be very awkward for anyone used to the music, readings, and rituals that are part of most other religious ceremonies.
Following the exchange of “promises” or “declarations” (the Quakers do not call them “vows”), the bride and groom will sign the Quaker Wedding Certificate, which is one of the most important parts of the ceremony. The Wedding Certificate is usually very beautifully made, with calligraphy and elaborate illustrations. At the end of the Meeting, all of the assembled guests will sign the Certificate, and the newlyweds will hang it in their home as a reminder of the declarations that they made. In California and Pennsylvania, the Quaker Wedding Certificate has been considered to be an acceptable substitute for a state-issued marriage license, but in most places the official document is also required for the marriage to be legal.
Following the wedding, there is generally some sort of reception, sometimes with music and alcohol, but not always (most Quakers are teetotalers). It is interesting to note that although still known for their beautiful simplicity, some Quaker couples are including some elements of the standard American wedding in their marriage ceremony. Though it is not part of the Quaker tradition, some brides today are choosing to wear a white dress and wedding jewelry, and to walk down the aisle to meet her groom. In addition, some Quaker brides and grooms now exchange wedding bands, although a piece of jewelry was not part of the Quaker service in the past.
Even with the addition of some of the mainstream American wedding customs, Quaker weddings are still singular for their simplicity and their silence. It is a beautiful tradition that is intended to highlight what is truly significant about a marriage, rather than allowing the emphasis to shift to the external trappings of a wedding.