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The New Zealand Evangelist

Sydney. The Presbyterian Marriage Question

Sydney. The Presbyterian Marriage Question.

Judicial persecution, like judicial murder, is the most cruel and tantalizing of all persecution; although happily it is the only form that is available in present times. Persecution is not now carried on, as of old, by such rude weapons as the sword, the fire, and the gibbet. The troopers of Claverhouse are disbanded. The fires of Smithfield are extinguished. The Star Chamber and the High Commission Courts are abolished. The storming Lauderdale and the brow-beating Jeffries have no successors, because their “occupation is gone.” Men are not now shot for reading their Bible, singing Psalms, or attending a Conventicle: but under the embodiment of legal forms the spirit of persecution exhibits nearly as much vitality as in the times of the martyrs. Acts of Parliament that have slumberred on the statute-book for centuries, are dragged eagerly forth to light, and made vital with the spirit of high churchism. Judges “dressed in a little brief authority,” parade these statutes as the very essence of the Constitution, and profess that they are obliged, in obedience to the dictates of their conscience, and under the awful obligation of their official oaths, to give decisions in conformity to the very letter of these laws. Within the last few years, in England, Scotland, and Ireland, abundant examples have been furnished of this legal persecution. With the Shore and Gorham cases our readers are all more or less familiar. Many will also remember the famous Irish Presbyterian Marriage question, and the excitement that was occasioned some ten or twelve years ago, by decisions in the Irish Courts, based upon statutes enacted nearly as far back as the days of William the Conqueror.

A case similar to the Irish-Presbyterian Marriage Question has been tried just now in Sydney. A page 352 full report of the trial has been given, and some forcible strictures have been made upon it, by our able, evangelical contemporary, “The Voice in the Wilderness.

The facts are simply these. In a trial for bigamy, it appeared that the defendant had been first married by an Episcopalian Minister; this marriage was admitted on all sides to be legal. Some years after, while his wife was still alive, he was married a second time, by the Rev. Dr. M'Garvie, of the Established Church of Scotland. It is this marriage that is sought to be set aside, on the ground that Dr. M'Garvie omitted an unimportant legal formality, —the signing of a declaration that one of the parties was a Paesbyterian. Had the pending decision affected only this solitary case, it would have been a matter only of individual interest; but it is raising a question likely to affect the whole Presbyterian Marriages in the Colony. The law of the case is this:—

In 1834, an Act was passed by the Legislative Council of New South Wales, to remove all doubts as to the validity of certain marriages; and to regulate such marriages in time to come. By this Act the following among other conditions are required in all Presbyterian Marriages.

1st. That one or both of the parties must, in point of fact, “be members of, or hold communion with, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.”

2nd. That one or both of the parties must make a declaration in writing to that effect.

3rd. That the Minister officiating must be “an ordained Minister of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.”

The first thing that strikes us in this Act; is the vagueness of the language employed. It is imposisible to say whether it is all the five, or only one of the five Presbyterian Churches that is included in the words “Presbyterian Church of Scotland,” or whether it is to apply to English and American Presbyterians. Equally vague is the description of page 353 persons, being members of, or holding communion with this Church. The glorious uncertainty of the law had never choicer elements on which to work. The partial character of this Act is equally striking. Episcopalian Ministers may evidently marry any parties, and their marriages will be held valid under any circumstances; but Presbyterian Ministers can marry only in those cases where both or one of the parties are bona fide Presbyterians, and if any formality is omitted, the marriage can be called in question. We say nothing at present on the invidious elevation of one class of Ministers above another, who are equally well educated, equally orthodox, equal in character, set apart to the office of the ministry with equal publicity and solemnity, and who are equally recognised as Ministers by their Congregations, by the public, and by the law of the land,—our own New Zealand Marriage Ordinance is not, even yet, altogether free from this exclusive spirit,—for this, though a grave, is but a secondary matter. But we caunot reprobate in language too strong, that enacting and expounding of statutes, in such a way as to throw doubts, not on a single marriage, but on a whole class of marriages. No question that can be raised involves such important points, affecting morals, character, and property, as the question of the validity of marriages. Persecution could not invent a more cruel engine of torture, than by getting a court of law to throw doubts upon the validity of the marriages of any religious denomination. It is injecting poison at the very fountain head of domestic happiness.

If this marriage be declared void, as there is reason to believe it will, an element of insecurity will be introduced into every Presbyterian Marriage solemnised in New South Wales. We shall look with much interest for the decision. But, however this case may be decided, we fondly hope that our Presbyterian friends, and every lover of truth and justice in that colony, will spare no exertion until this question, affecting so intimately, not only our page 354 common Christianity, but even the interests of our common humanity,—be placed upon a basis of perfect equality, and thorough security.