Marriage in the Eyes of the Clergy

Draft posted 20210417

The long historiography on slavery in the Americans includes a persistent claim that the institution as enacted and enforced in Catholic cultures was a softened more elastic version of slavery than that which developed in British North America. Frank Tannenbaum's classic 1946 comparative work, Slave and Citizen makes the argument that Catholicism softened the edges of slavery in Spanish and Portuguese Central and South America.1 In that rendering, Catholic teaching about the equality of human beings in the eyes of God, and about the sacramental nature of marriage helped to create a culture that slavery that was less oppressive than that of the British West Indies and North America. Since Tannenbaum published Slave and Citizen, an abundance of work has been done documenting the horrors of slavery regardless of locale. Slavery under Catholic masters was still enslavement, regardless of whether those owners showed more respect for marriage and family than others might have. Nonetheless, we can still inquire into the ways that the experience of slavery in a Catholic environment might be different than other situations.

While marriage was always an important institution for laypeople of the Roman Catholic faith, the marriage bond officially took its place as one of the seven sacraments during the Council of Trent. Responding to the challenges of the Protestant Reformation, in 1547 members of the Catholic hierarchy came together in Trent to lay out a clear articulation of doctrine that would serve as the basis for a Counter-Reformation. In these pronouncements affirming Catholic teaching that began developing in the 12th Century, marriage went from being a regular, if highly valued, step in adult life to being one of the key landmarks of lay Catholicism, along with Baptism, Eucharist, Confession, Confirmation, and Last Rites.2 For a marriage to be recognized as a Catholic marriage, the parties needed to enter into it freely and make a binding lifelong commitment to fidelity and that commitment had to be witnessed by a priest. For the Jesuits who ministered to the Catholic residents of Maryland, the sacramental nature of marriage was a primary point of interaction with the community.

Despite the substantial evidence of many couples present on the Jesuit plantations, the sources only include 13 documented marriage ceremonies, clustered between 1813 and 1835 (with one in 1770). In comparison to the number of individuals I have identified, the documentation of the conferral of the sacraments is comparatively slim. Of course, that does not necessarily mean that those sacraments were not conferred; they easily could have happened elsewhere, or just not been documented.

Even with these few sacramental marriages, it is clear from the individual correspondence that the marriage bond and the family unit attracted more attention from the Jesuits than other issues related to the enslaved community. While the Jesuits had lots of conversation about their own economic situation and their inability to manage their farms and their enslaved property profitably, they do not speak about the enslaved people in personal terms in these exchanges. In fact, the main issue that provokes the Jesuits to discuss individual enslaved people and their fate almost always involved questions of marriage and family. The Jesuits and their ecclesiastical leadership articulated stances that make clear that they viewed marriages involving enslaved people as valid sacramental bonds that needed to be respected (“as much as possible”). These conversations often involve the application of a set of principles about who should be allowed to contract a marriage, based on the freedom status of the parties involved and the likelihood that that couple would remain intact.

The complexity and far-reaching implications of these stances had a way of playing out in the internecine political battles among Jesuits. For example, in 1814, an elder statesman of the order, Francis Neale, SJ, found himself at odds with St. Inigoe's Manor's new manager, Fr. Rantzou about the rules surrounding the marriage of enslaved people. Neale in his various leadership positions in the order and at both St. Inigoe's and St. Thomas Manor had prohibited Jesuit-owned enslaved people from marrying free Black people, ostensibly due to the complications that might ensue based on the different freedom statuses. This pronouncement from Neale was just one example of the ways that his ideas about slavery heavily shaped the experiences of the enslaved from the 1790s until his death in 1837. Raised as part of a large, powerful Catholic slaveholding family, Neale served as President of Georgetown from 1808 to 1812, when he was succeeded by Grassi. Fr. Rantzou apparently saw no reason for the prohibition, and in fact, though it was actively counter to the priest's duty to regularize marriages. Neale was must have had some inkling that his rules were an exercise of power beyond that which he could rightfully exercise because, in hopes of participating in other elements of church life, he made a proforma confession. And then, Fr. Rantzou refused him absolution. Neale was deeply disturbed by this turn of events and appeal to Giovanni Grassi, SJ, who was the President of Georgetown College at the time, pleading his case and his reasons for refusing several marriages.

An old man by the name of Enoch, Black Smith, well known to Mr. Bernard Spalding, George Town, he demanded permission to marry a woman living on the opposite side to us of St. Mary's River. My answer was that I had no objection provided the woman could be with him or could live on this side of the river. From the danger of passing the River & the many deaths thereby occasioned; it has been a regular rule with us (this is well known to Bsp Neale) never to admit of such marriages. However, I did my best to purchase the woman either by exchange of otherwise. Her mistress would by no means consent & her master, whom I invited several times to our house in order to bring it about, informed me that he had forbid Enoch to put his foot in the house.
The 2d is the case of an Old Negro man called Charles. He got engaged by some wicked means to an Old noted strumpet mother of 14 children & who had never been married; _she_being_free_ expected a livelyhood from Charles in case she could be married to him, with all her spurious offspring. With what conscience could I bring such a burden upon our Family? or expose Charles with my permission to such dangers?
The 3d & last case is one of our slave girls, called Nelly. She expressed a desire of marrying a man named Harry, belonging to Colonel Fenwick, living on the opposite side of St. Mary's River. Br. Mobberly then living here, as well as the overserr begged of me not to permit this Harry of a scandalous character to visit & much less to settle in our Family. However I gave Nelly in private good advice, mention'd to her the public character of the man & finally concluded that if she should remain obstinate in her desires to marry the man, she must live in some other family & on the other side of the river. I offered her in sale to Colonel Fenwick, telling him the desire of his man Harry to marry her. Mr. Fenwick would not purchase her. Before last Harvest she had quitted him, made at that time to me a general confession & after sufficient time given for preparation she was admitted to holy communion. I have enquired of several, since my present return, to know if Harry visits the farm, they all assure me that he does not & that Nelly has no intercourse with him. Fr. Rantzou has taken up a notion & has mentioned the same to Brother Fenwick that Nelly has been married to one Michael belonging to Colonel Fenwick by a Protestant minister. This Michael has been married many years past on the opposite side of St. Mary's River. I know not by whom he was married.3

These three instances demonstrate the degree of paternalism that the Neale, and those who adhered to his guidance, took with respect to the wishes of the enslaved people. Enoch, the blacksmith, was judged not capable of exercising care over his own wellbeing in the course of making the journey to and from visiting his beloved. The older man, Charlie, was not allowed to marry because he appeared to be entering into a union with someone who did not live up to Neale's moral standards, and perhaps more importantly, might expose the Jesuits to the financial burden of taking on the care of his prospective step-children. Nelly too risked contracting a marriage with a man not deemed morally upright. In most of these cases, Neale purported to make some attempt at a transaction that would bring the lovers under the same ownership, expressing a strong preference for coresidential marriages.

Neale's stance certainly was not isolated. His brother, Leonard Archbishop Neale, also maintained firm standards about slave marriages. In 1816, the Archbishop instructed a priest overseeing a new mission in Norfolk, VA, that "enslaved people “are to be taught to live continently & in the honorable state of marriage. You cannot marry slaves belonging to different masters without first obtaining leave from both & a promise not to separate man & wife afterwards.”4 Ambrose Archbishop Marechal, who succeeded Leonard Neale, took the supportive stance toward marriage for the enslaved one step further. In a letter to Jerome Mudd, SJ in 1827, he counseled in favor of secretly performing marriages in cases when enslavers would not grant permission: "There are masters so lost to every soule of Religion & humanity, as to refuse obstinately to grant leave to their slaves to get married. In these distressing circumstances, it is the general opinion of Divines that a missionary can lawfully marry them in private & without witnesses. It has been in this country the practise of very pious & well informed clergymen; nor do I think they are to be blamed for it."5

A generous reading of this position would say that it demonstrates the degree to which the Catholic clergymen in Maryland (Leonard Neale and Ambrose Marechal were not Jesuits) recognized the humanity of the enslaved people in their jurisdiction, and fear for their souls favored the sacramental regulation of their unions. There is nothing to suggest that this was not the case. Nonetheless, as white men fully enmeshed in a slave society, they also had clear coordinating motives. Francis Neale openly blended his ministerial concerns with the financial concerns of an organization that depended on the enslaved labor of hundreds of Black people. Tera Hunter has argued, "an approximation of marriage was tolerable to masters because it helped to augment their productive and reproductive power while it marked African Americans as inferior. Marriage was a tool for soothing the souls of human property and keeping them complacent and stable. It provided masters with a veneer of humane paternalism. They could permit and even encourage their slaves to marry to satisfy certain Christian dictums and to bear more fruits of capital from the babies born of those unions."6 This dual motive of pacification and reproductive labor also had to be a part of the calculus of the priests when they considered presiding over marriages among the enslaved.

  1. Frank Tannenbaum, Slave and Citizen [1946], (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992).
  2. John W. O’Malley, Trent : What Happened at the Council (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2013) pp. 224-229. See also, Philip L. Reynolds, How Marriage Became One of the Sacraments (Cambridge University Press, 2016).
  3. Francis Neale, SJ, letter to Giovanni Grassi, SJ, (1814-07-08) MPA, Box 58, Folder 11. Neale had a great influence on the thought and work of Br. Joseph Mobberly, who wrote to Grassi in December 1814 to echo Neale's complaints about Rantzou. 1814-MPA-58-9-Mobberly-Grassi-powers-1814-12-04.json
  4. Leonard Neale letter to Lucas, (1816-04-19), MPA, Box 59, Folder 17.
  5. Ambrose Marechal letter to Jerome Mudd, SJ, MPA, Box 62, Folder 13.
  6. Hunter, 30.