MAY A MAN MARRY
DECEASED WIFE'S SISTER?
MRS. COLIN MACKENZIE,
AUTHOR OP " SIX YEARS IN INDIA , "
&C., &C., &C.
WITH PREFACE BY
THE VERY REV. A. PAYNE SMITH, D.D.,
Dean of Canterbury.
HATCHARDS, 187, PICCADILY.
M. WALBROOK, 180, BEOMPTON ROAD, S.W.
MARRIAGE WITH A DECEASED WIFE'S SISTER.
The repeated attempts made in every session of Parliament to pass a
Bill which shall enable a widower to marry the sister of his deceased
wife, and the very considerable sympathy which exists in the public
mind in favour of those who are working for a relaxation of the
existing laws, make it very important to state clearly and briefly the
grounds on which the prohibition ought still to be maintained. The
sympathy of the public, as far as it exists, rests upon a very narrow
basis. People imagine that the best guardian for a widower's children
would be found in the sister of his deceased wife, and they think it
hard that the widower may not marry her. They forget that the
widower can have this aid and solace immediately under the protection
of the existing law ; and that if such marriages were lawful, a widower
could no more have a sister-in-law to dwell with him and keep his house
than he could any other woman of equal social position ; and that in
fact the possibility of such a marriage would probably render both the
widower and the sister-in-law unwilling to enter upon relations, which,
confessedly might terminate in the sister taking the deceased wife's
place., A man would thus be debarred from having this most natural
aid and solace, in the hour of his first distress, and when he saw his
children in need of a mother's care, if he had no sister of his own, and
wished for his wife's sister as guardian for them, he must face the dis-
agreeable question whether he was prepared finally to marry her. But
very frequently the wife's death is preceded by illness, during which, at
present she looks to her sisters for relief in the cares of housekeeping
and the management of her children. They come as being equally the
husband's sisters, and the drooping wife is not distressed at the thought
that one of them is to take her place in his affections, and be her
successor. Finally, the relaxation of the law would destroy those happy
relations which now exist between families united by marriage, and which
add so much to the purity and enjoyment of domestic life.
But, with many, these considerations would weigh but little against
their own selfish interests, or against that indolent good nature of the
public, which would let everybody do as they like. It is necessary
therefore to shew that this prohibition rests upon higher authority, and
those who might not care much for considerations respecting the general
good and happiness would not willingly do anything contrary to Holy
Scripture. They feel that they have in the Bible the only sufficient
code of morals. Once depart from it, we know not whither our route
may take us. Especially women feel truly that they owe to Christianity
the equal position which they now hold towards men, and they would
not wish the authority of the Bible tampered with. The object of this
little pamphlet written by a woman, is to state the scriptural argument
clearly and sufficiently, and there are, I am persuaded few, who when they
have read it, will not feel that there are strong reasons for regarding the
prohibition as resting upon the authority of the Bible. Most indubi-
tably the Bible puts relationships by affinity upon the same footing as
relationships by blood. It takes, no doubt, a high view of marriage, but
are not such views the very palladium of the sanctity of the home, and
the safeguard of all that is best in society ! And all such as are unwilling
to have marriage degraded to a mere matter of convenience, and would
wish it still to hold the high position given to it in Holy Scripture will
do well carefully to consider the arguments here stated, and weigh both
them and the possible consequences that may follow from our setting
aside any portion of the moral law, enacted for us, as all believers in the
Inspiration of the Bible firmly hold, by God himself.
R. PAYNE SMITH.
MAY A MAN MARRY HIS
DECEASED WIFE'S SISTER?
It is a question with some persons, whether it is lawful for
a widower to marry the sister of his deceased wife. The
Presbyterian Church has long ago given her judgment on
this question, in her Confession of faith, which, at the time it
was drawn up, was acknowledged as the standard of the
united kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland, and is still
maintained by all English-speaking Presbyterian congrega-
tions and churches throughout the world ; while in Scotland
it is to this day, I am thankful to say, the law of the land as
well as the law of the church. In the twenty-fourth chapter it
declares, " Marriage ought not to be within the degrees of
consanguinity or afBnity forbidden in the word, nor can such
incestuous marriages ever be made lawful by any law of man
or consent of parties, so as those persons may live together as
man and wife. The man may not marry any of his wife's
kindred nearer in blood than he may of his own; nor the
woman of her husband's kindred nearer in Mood than of her
That this simple intelligible principle is a Scriptural one,
and therefore binding upon all Christians, is evident from the
eighteenth chapter of Leviticus, 6th verse, where the reason
given for prohibiting marriage with an uncle's wife is because
" she is thine aunt." This proves that consanguinity and
affinity, that is relationship by blood, and relationship by
marriage, are reckoned as the same in the sight of God. It is
He who said " she is thine aunt." Xow if your aunt-in-law
be your aunt, your sister-in-law is your sister.
Again, marriage with a wife's daughter or granddaughter is
forbidden because " they are " thy near kinswomen, verse 17.
What makes them " thy near kinswomen " ? They are no
blood relations. It is the oneness of husband and wife.
" They shall be one flesh'' (Gen. ii. 24). These words are repeated
emphatically by our Blessed Lord (Matt. xix. 2) who added "so
then they are no more twain hut one flesh " (Mark x. 8.) This
absolute unity and identity of man and wife is used as the
type of the perfect union between Christ and His Church.
He is our Head (Eph. v. 23,) " and we are members of His
body," and after His example " so ought men to love their
wives as (being) their own bodies." He that loveth his wife
loveth himself, for no man ever yet hated his own flesh, &c., see
(1 Cor. xi. 2.)
Husband and wife being one, the wife's kindred are the
husband's kindred, and stand in exactly the same relation-
ship to him as to her. And that this is not merely a deduc-
tion of right reason, but a Scriptural principle, is proved by the
Divine assertion that the wife of an uncle '' is thine aunt " the
daughter or granddaughter of a wife is* " thy near kins-
woman," and the wife of a father or a brother is spoken of as
identical with her husband.
This is sufficient to settle the whole question for those who
take the word of God as the infallible Eule of Eighteousness,
but there are many other considerations which must lead to
the same conclusion.
* This is the translation of one of the best of modern versions, the French
by Professor Segond. But if " her near kinswoman" is right, it follows that
nearness of kin to the wife prevents marriage with the husband,
Certain connections are forbidden in tlie eighteenth and
twentieth ot Leviticus. Those which are expressly named
are as follows : —
Father's Wife, or Stepmother.
Granddaughter, by either Son or Daughter.
Aunt, by either Father or Mother.
Uncle's Wife, or Aunt-in-law.
Son's Wife, or Daughter-in-law.
Brother's Wife, or Sister-in-law.
Wife's Mother, or Mother-in-law.
Wife's Daughter, or Daughter-in-law, Stepdaughter,
s. Wife's Granddaughter, or Granddaughter-in-law.
Here there are just as many relationships by affinity as by
blood — the most distant being the aunt. No sort of Mother
(or grandmother), of aunt, of sister or of daughter is allowed.
Now it may be laid down as an acknowledged principle,
that no part of the Law given to Moses either has passed, or
ever shall pass away (Matt. v. 17-19). It either has been
fulfilled, or, it is still binding. The whole of our Eedeemer's
Mission was a proof of the unchangeableness of the Law;
which, being an expression of the will of its Divine Author,
is as immutable as Himself The Lord Jesus left the throne
of His Glory to magnify the Law and to make it honourable
by fulfilling every title of its demands ; He suffered and died
to atone for its violated majesty ; and the new covenant in
Christ Jesus is comprised in these two promises, that "sin
should be forgiven and forgotten," and " that the Law should be
written in our hearts and minds " (Heb. x. 16 18, viii. 10 12.)
Thus the moral law can never change. All the ceremonial
observances, all the rules relating to inheritances, (types and
signs whereby a stupid and stiff-necked people were trained
to look forward to eternal realities) and among these rules
the injunction to the brother, or next kinsman of a childless
husband, to marry his widow, and to heiresses to marry within
their father's family, have fulfilled their purpose. The earthly
Israel and their earthly inheritance have given way to spiritual
and heavenly realities.
Some few things were permitted to the Jews, " because of
the hardness of their hearts," which were expressly forbidden
by our blessed Lord (Matt. v. 31-32, xix. 4 ; Mark x. 6), such
as divorce, but no part of the moral law was ever relaxed,
or made less stringent. Look at the manner in which our
Lord opens out the requirements of that law as a sufficient
proof that He established instead of overthrowing it, as a rule
of life (see Matt. v). Now a prohibition of marriage is clearly
a moral, and not a ceremonial prohibition, and as such it is
equally binding on the Christian as on the Jew. Therefore
these prohibitions are binding on Christians.
The manner in which these law 3 are introduced and the
reasons given for them, show that the forbidden acts are gross
sins, hateful in the sight of God.
Nothing can be more solemn than the preface, I am the
Lord your God, after the doings of the land of Egypt . . .
and after the doings of the land of Canaan . . . shall ye
not do, neither shall ye walk in their ordinances. Ye shall do
My Judgments and keep Mine ordinances. I am the Lord
your God. Then follow these prohibitions — which conclude
with the awful warning, " Defile not ye yourselves with any
*' of these things, for in all these the nations are defiled which I
" cast out before you, and the land is defiled, therefore do I visit
" the iniquity thereof upon it. Ye shall not commit any of
'* these abominations." " I am the Lord your God, ye shall be
" holy for I the Lord your God am holy, (xix. 2, xx. 7.)"
It is by an error in the heading of the chapter that these
prohibited connections are styled "unlawful marriages."
They are not marriages at all. The expression in verse 6,
" to uncover," &c., is shown by Gesenius never to be applied to
marriage, but always to denote something abominable and vile.
The Vulgate translates it ut revelat turpitudinem ejus, and
Selden defines it : id est incestus. The laws themselves style
these sins indiscriminately " wickedness," — " defilement," —
" abomination." This alone is sufficient to make them hateful
to all who fear God.
The reason given is nearness of kin. No one is to ally
himself with any that is near of kin to him, verse 6, and then
follow the degrees specified. The case of Abraham and that
of Amram and Jochebed are probably the reason why so
many kinds of sisters and aunts are named, but it is evident
that all forbidden degrees are not expressly named in this
list : a man is not expressly forbidden to marry his grand-
mother, his daughter, or his niece, therefore the omission of
an express prohibition against marrying his wife's sister goes
If these laws are not binding, there is no other Scriptural
ground for prohibiting marriage with an aunt or daughter-
in-law, step-daughter or granddaughter, or even the nearest
relations ; for a sense of propriety, or inward sense of right is
no proof to another person who may choose to deny it.
We should thus be cast adrift without chart or compass on
the " troubled sea " of human passion, with no law whatever
to guide us on the most important point of domestic life,
except the reference in Corinthians to the sin of taking a
father's wife — a case of affinity — " no blood relationship "
yet so heinous a sin that it was "not so much as named among
the Gentiles : " 1 Cor. v. 1.
It is incredible that the Church should be left wholly
without guidance on such a subject, which she has been,
unless the law in Leviticus is a law for all ages.
The Law is clearly stated. All unions are forbidden with
those that are near of hin (Lev. xviii. 6), and the degrees
subsequently specified seem intended to define what degrees
are intended by this expression.
If these rules are binding, the converse of them is true,
that is to say they are equally binding upon man and woman.
Now the relationship between a man and his wife's sister is
exactly the same as that between a woman and her husband's
brother. If the prohibition of a man's marriage with his
brother's wife does not equally forbid the marriage of a
woman with her sister's husband, the two relationships
being identical, then a woman may marry her grandson, or
her uncle, or her aunt's husband, or her niece's husband,
though a man may not marry his granddaughter, his aunt,
or his uncle's wife.
Some objections remain to be noticed. Their fewness is
of itself a strong argument in favour of the doctrine we
1. The verse, " Thou shalt not take a wife to her sister to
vex her, beside the other, in her lifetime " (Lev. xxviii. 18.)
is said to give a tacit permission to take a wife's sister after
the death of the first wife : but it by no means follows that
because an act is prohibited at one time it is therefore lawful
at another. It is most illogical to say he may not do so
during her lifetime therefore he may after her death. If the
above is the true rendering of the verse, it would appear to
be an allusion to Jacob having married two sisters, which
no man henceforward was to do. But as this kind of
marriage is already forbidden by implication in the 16th
verse, where the marriage of a woman with two brothers,
and therefore that of a man with two sisters, is prohibited,
the marginal reading, " Thou shalt not take one wife to
another," appears preferable. At any rate, it prevents any
doctrine being built on a verse of doubtful interpretation.
But some reply, that had polygamy been forbidden in this
verse, it would not have been so generally practised. But
neither does this follow. David, Solomon, and their de-
scendants knew perfectly well the command (Deut. xvii.
17), not to multiply wives to themselves, yet they openly
2. Secondly, it is urged that the marriage of a woman
with two brothers cannot be wrong, or it would not have
been sanctioned in a particular case ; and hence it is rather
illogically argued that the marriage of a man with two sisters
is lawful. Now as we see by the history of Judah's sons,
marriage with the widow of a childless brother was a Hebrew
custom before the law was given, but this no more sanctions
it now, than divorce and polygamy are sanctioned by their
having been permitted to the Jews. The express command
of the law-giver makes any act lawful in that particular
instance, just as the Israelites were justified in slaying the
Canaanites. Cain and Abel married their sisters, Jacob his
sister-in-law ; Amram married Jochebed, his aunt ; in this
special instance, wliere a Jew was allowed to marry his
sister-in-law, the exception proves the rule. In all but that
one case, oj a Jew dyinxg childless, a specified case among a
specified people, the prohibition was explicit. The marriage
of a woman with two brothers was pronounced " an unclean
thing," Lev. xx. 20, 21, and the curse of dying childless
was denounced upon it. Some may require proof of the
fulfilment of the curse in these days, as a proof of the con-
tinuance of the law : but we are no longer under a system
of visible earthly rewards and punishments, as the Jews
were ; yet blasphemy, adultery, and Sabbath- breaking, are
not less sinful now, because the offenders are not punished
with death. And it most probably means that they should
be childless in the sense Jehoichin was — with no heirs, their
children being illegitimate.
Again, the reason for this permission does not exist now,
neither could it apply to marrying two sisters. It was per-
mitted in order to prevent the fusion of too many inheritances
into one, and to keep up the name of the deceased, an object
inexpressibly dear to the heart of a Jew.
Moreover, those who take permission from this passage,
should remember the conditions. It was only permitted to
the Jews, and the deceased must have been childless. This
wholly excludes the favourite argument, that a wife's sister
is the most proper person to have charge of her children
which in many cases might be urged with superior force
in regard to her Mother. Such opinions of man's corrupt
heart and reason prove nothing as to the rightness of any
step; were they to be met on their own ground, it might
easily be proved that the permission which would be a con-
venience in one case would carry disunion into a thousand
families where no advantage could ever be derived from it,
and instead of the perfectly brotherly and sisterly terms on
which such relations (confident in the sanctity of the barrier
between them), now live, the distant friendliness of compara-
tive strangers must be substituted.
Surely no Christian could enter on a marriage, (a step in
which he is so peculiarly bound to the greatest purity and
holiness) against the lawfulness of which, even in the eyes of
its advocates, the presumptions are so strong, and the argu-
ments in favour of which rest on one verse of doubtful inter-
pretation, and one specific case, which does not ap]ply. And
I hardly think any Christian can examine the question iw>-
partially without coming to the conclusion that such a
marriage is directly contrary to the revealed Law of God,
and therefore no marriage at all. To sum up the question —
I. — Man and wife are one.
Gen. ii. 26 ; Matt. xix. 4 ; Mark x. 7 ; Eph.
1 Cor. xi. 3 ; Lev. xviii. 8, 14.
This identity is the reason assigned against marry-
ing a father's, brother's, or uncle's wife.
IT. — The kindred of the one are therefore equally the kindred
of the other. Lev. xviii. 14.
A man is forbidden to marry his uncle's wife, "for
she is thine aunt." This proves that relationship by
blood and relationship by marriage are reckoned as
the same by the Lord.
If your aunt-in-law is your aunt, your sister-in-law
must be your sister.
No man may ally himself with any " that is near
of kin to him."
A sister is a near kinswoman v. 12, 13.
Near kinswomen of the wife are expressly pro-
hibited V. 17.
The reason against marrying a wife's daughter or
granddaughter is, that they are her " near kinswomen."
So is her sister. Marriage with a brother's wife or
an uncle's wife is pronounced "an unclean thing."
How then can marriage with a sister's husband be
clean? How can you prove any dijEference between
the relationships ?
Lastly ; Kemember that neither Church nor State are in-
fallible guides in this matter. Take Scripture as your only
rule. The case of the Corinthian Church should be re-
membered as a warning to us. The Apostle reproaches
them with having permitted a connexion which was "not
so much as named among the Gentiles, — that one should
have his father's wife" (1 Cor. v. 1). This shows us that
even a Christian Church may sanction gross sin, and should
warn us not to think the approbation of any Community
sufficient to make that excusable which the laws of God,
natural or revealed, disallow.
It is remarkable that hardly any one advocates the mar-
riage of a woman with two brothers. Why? Because men
make the laws ; and what man can endure the idea of his
wife marrying his brother ? The feeling is, however, equally
strong in the other sex. What woman can endure the idea
of her sister marrying her husband ? And yet this is advo-
cated, though no example of its being allowed can be brought
forward from Scripture. These two facts show us that no
body of men are secure from error in this or any other matter.
It is not therefore superfluous, again to direct the reader's
attention to the consequences of permitting marriage with
The marriage of uncle and niece may be vindicated on pre-
cisely the same grounds as that of a brother and sister-in-law.
It is no where expressly forbidden. Some, who boldly main-
tain that the Old Testament is not a rale for Christians in
these matters, would throw open the door to the marriage of
still closer connexions. Nowhere but in the Old Testament
is the marriage of a man with his wife's mother or daughter
forbidden ; or with his son's, uncle's, or brother's wife. Allow
the marriage of a man with his wife's sister, and you cannot
forbid his marriage with his niece. Deny the authority of the
Old Testament, and Christians may marry those who stand iii
the nearest degrees of affinity, a father's wife being the only
exception expressly made in the New Testament.
Deny that men and women stand on precisely the same
ground, and a woman may marry her grandson or her uncle.
There is, however, no fear of such results among Christians,
until the reasons against the lawfulness of such a connexion
are fairly met and answered, which I venture to say they
never can be.
Lord Selbourne the present Lord Chancellor, in his speech
opposing the Bill for Legalizing Marriage with a Deceased Wife's
Sister uttered these weighty words.
" You must consider how far your principle ought to go, and I am
" sure you can never stop short of the abolition of all marriages of
"If we are to prohibit only such marriages as are prohibited hy the
" letter of the Old Testament, we must repeal the prohibition in the case
"of 13 degrees prohibited by our law and not prohibited by the letter
" of Leviticus ; if on the other hand you endeavour to arrive at the
"principle contained in that chapter in Leviticus and to lay down a
" marriage law within the range and limit of the degrees which are pro-
" hibited there, you will arrive at our present marriage law."
Lord O'Hagan the Lord Chancellor of Ireland on the same
occasion truly stated that the Bill was opposed
"To the harmonious teaching of the Christian Church and the un-
" broken tradition of the Christian people since Christianity first rose
*' into existence. The vital principle of Christian marriage is 'that husband
" and wife are one flesh,' and from this has always been deduced the in-
*' ference that the kinship of the wife should be held to be the kinship
" of the husband."
This became the law of the empire when the empire became Christian.
The Theodosian code declared marriage with a deceased wife's sister
unlawful. An Address from the Presbyterian Ministers of Scotland
to the Non-Conformist Ministers of England in 1S71, published by
Hamilton and Adams, after an able summary of Scripture doctrine
shows that it was universally received by the Christian Church of the
East and West from the time of Basil the Great in the middle of
the 4th century, was first infringed by a dispensation of Pope Alexander
VI. (the infamous Borgia) in 1550, and unanimously upheld by the
Reformers, who rejected the authority of the Canon Law.
Dr. Cunninghams says "There was never any doubt among interpreters
*' untill early in the last century, when some Jews in Holland desired
" to form such connections and the three Universities of Holland
" unanimously affirmed that no Christian Government should tolerate
" such among their subjects. There was no difference of opinion among
" the Reformers, they believed the prohibition to be part of the universal
" law of God for men," and there was no difference of opinion in the
Church on this subject till the 17th century, when some petty German
princes wished to marry their wives' sisters and asked some professors
to undertake the defence of these connections.
Compare Leviticus xviii. 14, ivith Matthew v. 17, 18, 19.
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