This Is Why We Say "Until Death Do Us Part" In Wedding Vows
Today, personalized wedding vows are becoming more and more popular, with couples wanting to pay tribute to their unique relationship using their own words instead of something that's been said before (and maybe impress their guests in the process). But plenty of people still use traditional vows - either in whole, in part, or adapting some portion of them. Standard wedding vows have also given us some of our most memorable pop culture moments, like the immortal "I, Ross, Take Thee, Rachel" Friends scene.
In the United States, the traditional Catholic wedding ceremony finds many couples (regardless of how religious they really are in their day-to-day lives) reciting the time-honored spiel up at the altar. Though there are several variations, a standard version goes like this: "To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part." The whole beginning "I'll love you despite what crap life might throw our way" bit all sounds well and good, but the last "until death" portion understandably gives people some pause - especially since divorce is a perfectly acceptable thing that ends plenty of modern marriages, to the tune of 16.9 divorces per 1,000 married women per year in the U.S (according to the latest figures compiled in 2015).
So, what's up with this "until death do us part" business? It probably won't surprise you that that part of the traditional vows finds its origin in the bible.
The oldest standard wedding vows can be traced back to the Book of Common Prayer, by Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury: "I, _____, take thee, _____, to be my wedded Husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, cherish, and to obey, till death us do part, according to God's holy ordinance." The vows included in that book are derived from the Sarum rite of medieval England, which was originally translated in the earliest versions of the Book of Common Prayer as "to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death us depart." The earlier 1549 version of the Book of Common Prayer retained the "till death us depart" ("depart" here meaning "separate"), changing over as of the 1662 version to read "till death us do part." Eventually, the "us" and "do" were swapped, giving us the modern version: "till death do us part." Remarkably, they've remained much the same ever since.
The Quakers were once even more explicit, with their earliest standard vows directly addressing God's hand in ending a marriage: "Friends, in the fear of the Lord, and before this assembly, I take my friend AB to be my wife, promising, through divine assistance, to be unto her a loving and faithful husband, until it shall please the Lord by death to separate us."
To this day, the Catholic Church doesn't recognize divorce, citing Jesus in Matthew 19 saying that having other relationships after a divorce (except in the case of "sexual immorality") is always adultery: "'Haven't you read,' [Jesus] replied, 'that at the beginning the Creator "made them male and female," and said, "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh"? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.'" In this sense, God is basically the third "person" in the marriage, and the only person authorized to undo it. Unless you're Henry VIII, in which case you just create a whole religion to allow yourself to divorce and remarry (several times, if necessary).
There's no denying that the "till death do us part" aspect of the traditional wedding vow is restrictive (to put it mildly), at least when it's taken as literally as the religious text on which it's based.
Ironically, matrimony, at first, wasn't religious or legal - the earliest marriages were essentially casual agreements between families or clans, to establish "peaceful relationships, trading relationships, [and] mutual obligations." Marriage wasn't even officially one of the seven sacraments until 1563. Oh, how times have changed.