The English poet and freedom fighter, John Milton, had much to say about marriage, love and divorce. His comments throw light on present day notions that, like Milton’s, are also out of step with God’s wisdom. So, allow me to share with you some lines from Milton as discussion points on the important subjects of marriage and love.
John Milton stands tall in English history. He lived from 1608 to 1674 and was a staunch advocate for civil and religious liberty. He was a successful advocate for the “unshackled press”. He stood before the English Parliament and won the day on several key issues. He worked with Oliver Cromwell and supported the cause of Parliament while opposing the rule of church leaders.
A Church History post on John Milton, summarising his life, can be found at: http://chrisfieldblog.com/ministry/church-history/john-milton
John Milton and Marriage
It seems that Milton’s support of personal freedoms lent toward freedom from responsibility. It seems he was really seeking ‘licence’ rather than ‘liberty’.
He took a young bride, Mary Powell, who at 17 was half his age. Milton’s biographer points out that he had a low regard for his own commitment to the marriage and to the wedding vows he gave to this young lass. Milton treated Mary more like a household slave than a bride. He did not see himself as “one” with her, but as one competing with her, to dominate her.
After just a few weeks of marriage Mary abandoned Milton, and returned to her family home. Milton wrote several letters to her which she refused to answer. He then sent his servant to bring her back but she refused to go. Milton was infuriated, believing that his honour and repose had been violated.
John Milton and Divorce
In the face of Mary’s refusal to perform as his wife, Milton appealed to the English Parliament for a divorce. He sought “domestic liberty“, but those who considered his situation saw that he was really seeking “license”, meaning that he sought to go outside of God’s laws and get his own way.
Milton’s predicament was saved by his wife, who humbled herself and fell at his feet, pleading his forgiveness with tears. It seems she was forced to this by the fear that he would gain a divorce and she would lose her place as his wife, unworthy though that place had become.
In order to please Milton, Mary accepted what the biographer calls a “servitude at home below the dignity of a woman!”
Milton’s Appeal for Divorce
Milton had no moral ground for his appeal for divorce from Mary. When he addressed the Parliament he tried to substitute cultural values in the place of the Bible and the Law of Christ, upon which England was built. He tried to suggest that marriage laws and the rules against divorce were a matter of “custom“, not moral imperative.
He also appealed to a sentimental notion, by suggesting that marriage could only be what God created it to be if “charity” prevailed. His own words mocked his personal actions, where he demeaned his wife and accused her of not being loving toward him.
Milton laments on behalf of those “who have, unwarily, and in a thing which they have never practiced before (meaning marriage), made themselves the bondmen of a luckless and helpless matrimony”.
Milton sought the right to divorce a wife if the man had made an unwise or non-beneficial union. If a wife did not prove to be all that God would have intended in creating a helper for him, then the woman was deficient and should not be allowed to stand in the way of the happiness God clearly created woman to bring to the man.
Love in Marriage
The following statement about love in marriage has been widely quoted. It has been seen as a worthy summary, even though it came as part of his selfish entreaty to be allowed to divorce the wife he scorned. In this quote we see something of the misconception of marriage that obstructs people, even today.
“Love in marriage cannot live nor subsist unless it be mutual; and, where love cannot be, there can be left of wedlock nothing but the empty husk of an outside matrimony, as undelightful and unpleasing to God as any other kind of hypocrisy.” John Milton.
Milton errs on several accounts. His comments show that his insights are not divine but are “earthly” and “sensual” (James 3:15). Milton looked at marriage as a human relationship. He sought to abandon it based on his own feelings and he appealed to have new laws for divorce, so that man’s enjoyment could be elevated over God’s institution.
Milton elevates what I refer to as “sentiment”. Human senses are his primary concern. The way a man feels and the emotional benefits provided to a man are concerns which he argues should be given sway when marriage is being considered.
In the process, Milton cheapened marriage. He brought it down from a divine privilege to a tool for human pleasure. Rather than being a unique union conferred by God, Milton wanted it to be a convenient relationship with a guarantee of human happiness attached. Rather than being a relationship which God requires husbands and wives to work on, by His processes, Milton wanted it to be a throw-away connection, which delivered what he wanted, whether he deserved that output or not.
In his appeals Milton also reduced love from being a divinely selfless commitment to being a conditional act, demanding a return on investment through “mutual” response.
True Love in Marriage
Since “love seeks not her own” (1Corinthians 13:5) and husbands are commanded to love (Ephesians 5:25) while the wife is not, true love in marriage is seen in the very opposite of what Milton did and argued for.
True love in marriage, gives of itself, selflessly, for the good of the wife, wanting what is best for her, despite the personal cost. Marriage joins a man and woman as one moral body, so their sexual intimacy is holy and legitimate. It also brings the couple together in a covenant, which is a bond between them which God watches over.
The husband’s love and the wife’s devotion are acts of worship to God, not acts of selfish investment, for a self-indulgent return. If the love is not reciprocated or the devotion not valued, both the husband and wife have no alternative but to live in the fear of God and seek the favour of God to bring blessing in what would otherwise be an unhappy state.
Human happiness is not a core issue. Milton’s happiness is a much lesser consideration than his character. His character was out of order and so his happiness suffered. Giving him the right to abandon his wife would not have made him happy, since his own failings were his real problem.
Applying that to Today
Sentimental notions about marriage are out of place. Selfish demands in marriage are out of place. They were not appropriate in Milton’s life and Milton’s day and they are no more worthy today.
Those who will enjoy a long and happy marriage are those who make their vows to God and who then rely on God, in the fear of God and with faith in God, to see them through the various challenges.