A Celebration of Women Writers

A Dream Within A Dream
First published in The Independent, Vol. 26, No. 1, February 19, 1874.
Reprinted in Elizabeth Stuart Phelps: Selected Tales, Essays and Poems,
Elizabeth Duquette and Cheryl Tevlin, Editors. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2014.

A Dream Within A Dream.

It is a little singular to reflect upon that there should not be in existence a fully appropriate marriage service for the uses of either the church or the world.

The Episcopal service – that most hallowed by churchly associations and most full of excellences – has yet egregious faults. Bad taste, bad grammar and perjury may have their places; but a marriage service would not seem to be the place for them.

"I take thee to my wedded wife [or husband] ... to have and to hold" is an awkwardness for which only long-inculcated reverence could feel so much rhetorical respect as not to mar a matrimonial ecstasy. "Till Death do us part" is a dislocation in which the most devout Church-woman must feel a pang. The inquiry "Who giveth this woman to be married to this man?" is, to say the least of it, an anachronism. "I pronounce you man and wife" flavors some what of the tenement-house patois, as of a couple henceforth to say "My man is abroad to-day," or "My woman is getting dinner."

"With all my worldly goods I thee endow" is a fiction so stupendous as to be more amusing than impressive.

"Do you promise to obey him and serve him? The woman shall say, I will." Herein we have the spectacle of a priest at the alter offering the most solemn and binding of vows to a woman who has not the least intention of keeping it; who will not keep it, if she has; and who ought not to keep it, whether she has or not.

The Church service was written in a bygone age, for a bygone type of society. Its real beauties cannot save it intact to the future. The Marriage To-be will demand a pledge for which this is neither speech nor language.

Outside of the apostolic succession we fare scarcely better. Most of the forms of marriage ceremony current among our pastors are mere abridgements and modifications of the old Church service. One of great beauty has, indeed, been written and circulated in private ministerial circles, with much acceptance. But even this, inimitable as a literary master-piece, must something fail of reaching the temper in which many men and women nowadays find themselves moved to exchange the marriage vows. Nor does the short, slippery formula of the civil justice help the matter much.

Musing thus the other evening, Mr. Editor, I fell into a dream.

Epictetus advised his students never to tell their dreams. As a general thing, nothing could induce me to depart from the advice of Epictetus; but I am convinced that Epictetus himself, had he been a contributor to the columns of THE INDEPENDENT, and had he dreamed the dream, would have straightway converted it into "copy" and sent it INDEPENDENT-ward by the earliest possible post.

For I dreamed that behold! I was invited to succeed the Rev. Mr. Murray as pastor of Park-street church; and that, having accepted the call, upon conditions not to the purpose to specify; and that, having been duly (I doubled the l in that word; but discovered the superfluity just in time)–duly ordained, settled, discussed, made in every respect as self-conscious and wretched as it is quite proper to make a somewhat bashful new pastor in a perfectly self-possessed old church; having delivered my inaugural, and received my first pair of worked slippers, and declined my first donation party, and denied my first ten or fifteen engagements, and quite become used to selecting housekeepers and conducting funerals, it fell to my lot, on a New Year's Eve, to marry my first couple.

Now, fifteen engagements is a small matter, and it is pure enjoyment to murder a donation party, and funerals and housekeepers have no effect upon my peace of mind, and it has been the one ungratified wish of my life that a young lady should work me a pair of slippers; but when it came to the wedding, I saw in my dream that my heart within me was troubled, for I doubted of the manner of the language in which I should perform this most difficult and delicate of duties satisfactorily to the young people and honorably to myself and my profession.

But I saw in my dream, and behold! when the youth and the maiden came before me, there were given unto me the words which I should speak, and that I married them according to the meaning of the words.

When I awoke, all particulars of that wedding had vanished from me. Whether there were cake and cards I know not; what the bride wore I cannot say; if there were bridesmaids or favors ask me not; but the words which I spoke remained unto me.

So, while they were yet fresh in my remembrance, I transcribed them, and, if you will have them, Mr. Editor, here they are. I will not stipulate that they shall be immediately adopted as the marriage formula of the Orthodox Congregational Church. I am only inclined to claim (on the privilege of the dreamer) that they will be found not without interest as a psychological study to a certain class of minds.


Marriage Service

Which beginneth with the words "Let us pray."

(At the close of a brief prayer the minister shall say):

"In the presence of God and of these witnesses, we are now come to solemnize the covenant of this man and woman in marriage. Are you, Charles True, prepared, of your own free will's inclining and whole heart's desire, to take upon yourself the vows which shall make and keep you the husband of this woman as long as Death shall spare you one to the other?"

(He shall say): "I am."

"Are you, Charlotte Tender, prepared, of your own free will's inclining and whole heart's desire, to take upon yourself the vows which shall make and keep you the wife of this man as long as Death shall spare you one to the other?"

(She shall say): "I am."

"Is there to your inmost consciousness any hidden reason why you should not charge your lips with the utterance of these vows? Does the voice of your secret soul cry to you–by any reproach of memory, by any uncertainty of hope–to forbid these banns? If there be such a reason, if there be such a voice, in the presence of God and of these witnesses, regard it, before it be too late."

(Both): "There is none such."

(Unto the man he shall say): "If you feel within your honest heart that any other woman ought to hold–or, in the sweet mood of your affection, that any other could hold–the place which this woman occupies to-day, for your soul's sake and for her soul's sake, acknowledge it before it be too late."

(Unto the woman he shall say): "If you feel within your honest heart that any other man ought to hold–or, in the sweet mood of your affections, that any other could hold–the place which this man occupies to-day, for your soul's sake and for his soul's sake, acknowledge it before it be too late."

(Receiving no responses, the minister shall proceed).

"Then, reverently do I offer you and loyally may you take upon yourselves the covenant of true marriage.

"Do you, Charles True, take this woman whose hand you hold to be your lawfully wedded wife?"

(He shall say): "I do."

"Do you, Charlotte Tender, take this man whose hand you hold to be your lawfully wedded husband?"

(She shall say): "I do."

"You promise to cleave unto each other in sickness and in health, in prosperity and in adversity, through trial and triumph, in temptation, peril, joy, sorrow, through life, unto death. You promise to be faithful each to the other in deed, word, and truth. You promise to be considerate each of the other's happiness, above all other earthly claims. You promise to assist each other in your mutual and individual life's work, rendering each to each such tender thoughtfulness and such large estimate of the other's nature that neither shall absorb in petty exactions or in selfish blindness the other's subject life. You recognize it to be the duty of every man and of every woman to live a life of individual service to an individual God, and you hold it to be the especial aim of marriage to assist men and women in the pursuance of such a service, by a union which brings mutual responsibility, mutual forbearance, and mutual comfort to replace solitary labors and lonely failures and unshared successes. You, therefore, promise to regard each the other's preference in all your plans of life, and to consider any claim of one to legislate for the other, as foreign to the spirit of a righteous marriage and to the letter of your vows. You believe that the sweet restraints and large liberty of mutual love shall serve you in the settlement of all difference of opinion, and that your happiness will be increased by your recognition each of the other's freedom of personal judgment and action. You promise to reverence in each other all that is essentially different in your natures, and to meet generously upon all that is common, and to elevate, each for the other and each in the other, your ideals of manhood, of womanhood, and of marriage. Do you thus believe and promise?"

(Both shall say): "I do."

"Then do I pronounce you to be husband and wife. The great necessity of love is laid upon you. Love is no longer its own, but another's. You are not any more your own, but each others. You have set yourselves to learn the longest lessons of human experience. You have entered upon a condition of the highest duties, as well as of the deepest joys. As earnestly as you have come to it may it come to you. As solemnly as you have chosen each other may God's blessing choose out you. Even as tenderly as you are drawn to each other may his heart be drawn unto you. As sacredly as you cherish each other may his protection cherish you.

"'Love," we read, 'is stronger than Death.' Of whatever there shall be in a human love which outlives human life, may the love of this man and woman be found worthy to partake!

"For all that the love of man and woman may mean, in a world where they neither marry nor are given in marriage, God grant that this earthly marriage may fit these two Heaven-born souls!