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Promising words

BOOKS | A modern author’s flawed look at ancient vows

Promising words
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Traditional wedding vows deserve the same respect and protection as do thousand-year-old works of literature, art, and architecture. That’s the esteem Cheryl Mendelson brings to the book Vows: The Modern Genius of an Ancient Rite. Mendelson, a Harvard Law graduate, is a passionate, if unconventional, advocate for ancient wedding vows—but her lack of understanding about marriage’s divine origin weakens her message.

Her book provides an engaging survey of the historical development of the words and promises behind phrases like “to have and to hold,” “for better or worse,” and even the less common “with my body I thee worship.” For couples wanting to write their own vows, and those seeking to discard wedding vows for alternatives such as cohabitation or polyamorous relationships, Mendelson commends “an inheritance that has survived a millennium of changes and ties us to values that are fundamentally and universally human.”

Mendelson does valuable work excavating the origins of wedding vows and commends the wisdom and beauty of their enduring words. Yet she focuses on aspects of the old vows in a way that accommodates the modern moment. She specifically focuses on the convergence of secular Western thought and the vows that emerged in the Book of Common Prayer in the 1600s. “Marriage by vow, egalitarian and democratic ideals, and marriage for love all grew up together, as mutually reinforcing ideals,” she writes. From this standpoint, Mendelson believes traditional wedding vows that were meant for heterosexual unions “easily embrace gay marriage without a single altered word.”

The book is limited in its reference to the Creator of marriage—which is the root of the problem. Mendelson includes a handful of references to God, such as an earlier form of the wedding vows that read, “[Do you] want to keep her/him, in God’s faith and your own, in health and sickness, as a Christian man/woman should keep his wife/her husband?” Otherwise, there’s not much consideration for God, the origin of covenant-keeping love.

As a result, readers get valuable context for the significance of wedding vows, but none for the One who endows those vows with what makes them potent; the only one who can help husbands and wives fulfill the promises they make before Him.

Steve Watters

Steve Watters is the director of communications for Truth78 and he blogs at


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