The Ideology of Underage Marriages in Conservative Christianity

CC image courtesy of Flickr, Andrew Malone.

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Laura Lawrence’s blog The Rambling Soapbox. It was originally published on September 8, 2015.

A Teen by Definition is Not “Mature”

*Little disclaimer: By “mature” I mean as physically developed and/or experienced in life as adults. I am not referring to responsibility, which many teens are better at than some adults. 

I was just 16 but I knew it was love, and my boyfriend, also 16, and I secretly but seriously discussed our future. It was my 18th birthday when my new boyfriend and Sr. year highschool sweetheart proposed to me at our favorite park. I was 18 still when we married and my 19th birthday came one week later. My husband was barely 20.

Over the past 13 years of marriage, we have occasionally reflected on the past. On this issue, we both have come to the conclusion that marrying so young is not something we would now recommend to others. We were in love, but we were not prepared. We were not prepared financially, reproductive-wise, and he was not prepared mentally. Until my new husband kindly walked me through the steps, I had never paid a bill before. I didn’t know how to cook beyond pasta salad and boxed mac and cheese. We had no long-term plans, no goals other than my determination to get my Bachelor’s (it took 7 years, but I finally did).

We were strongly encouraged to marry fast in order to avoid living or falling into sin (sex), and we happily and naively agreed for the sake of our spiritual health and physical desires. It never occurred to our superiors/supporters that if we couldn’t be mature and responsible sexually before marriage, we weren’t mature enough for marriage. Our best friends and family were devastated and deeply concerned. They thought we were being way too hasty.

We struggled much for the first few years, forced to grow up very quickly and alone, for our friends were still in college when we began having babies. Not knowing how to budget, how to pay bills, or how to plan for long-term savings, and neither of us having a college degree, we suffered financially. Some decisions we made so long ago still haunt us today. We were encouraged not to take birth control since they were “full of toxins” and “not natural”, but to try the spit and microscope method of birth control instead. Wouldn’t you know it? Within 7 months I was pregnant.

Underage Marriage in the United States?

I was skeptical when a spiritual abuse blog I follow, posted an article on their FB page about child marriages in certain fundamental, homeschool, patriarchal, Christian circles. I knew it happened in many developing countries. I knew about the practice in fundamental Mormon (FLDS) churches out West. I knew it was a growing issue in the US due to the influx of immigrant cultures, but surely this article was grossly exaggerating the occurrence of underage marriages in these Protestant Christian groups. The article only highlighted two instances of child marriage, and both happened in the same family with a mother (married at 15) and her daughter (married at 16).

I asked for more information, and the moderator of the Spiritual Sounding Board Facebook page generously provided me with 3 more articles. While none of them could make a convincing case for the actual practice of child marriages, the positive mindset among several general commenters, the remarks of Kevin Swanson and Dave Bruehner-two big names in the conservative Christian homeschooling movement, and even Phil Robertson of “Duck Dynasty”-fame, began to show a disturbing trend.

There is a legal, and for some, ethical, difference between underage child marriages which occur between 12-17 (more typically, 15-17) years of age, and young or early marriage, which happens between 18-22 years of age, generally speaking. While the latter has been increasingly pushed by some in Evangelical circles to prevent or reduce sin, when the former does occur or is promoted, many times it is for very similar reasons.

Early/Young Marriage, 18-22

Today there is “a sort of attitude … magical thinking, that if we get you married, then you’ll be fine and we don’t have to worry about anti-poverty programs… we don’t have to worry about child care.” Scholars, pundits and other policy elites need to end their magical thinking about marriage and acknowledge the widespread nature of marital poverty and economic hardship. Married Without Means, p. 3

Statistics have told those with “ears to hear” for years that the rate of divorce decreases, the older a couple is when married. Couples between the ages of 18-24 (or younger) have the highest rates of divorce among married couples. This age group of married couples also tend to suffer significantly lower incomes, many times at or even below poverty level. Poverty’s fallout among young people and society includes poor education, single parenting (related both to the high divorce rate and young, unmarried mothers), severe stress, poor mental and physical health, drug abuse, child abuse, abortion, and the ignominious welfare state-all issues that conservative Christians are deeply worried about.

Still, there are many examples of conservative celebrity Christians, politicians, and leaders who strongly promote the idea of early marriage as a panacea for society’s ills. The often-cited op-ed article from Christianity Today called, The Case for Early Marriage (July 2009), by Mark Regnerus, a sociologist with much to say on the topic of young marriages in the church-see also Regnerus’s similar article titled, Freedom to Marry Young (April 2009), from the Washington Post-seems to be mostly concerned with abstinence (rather a lack thereof), baby-making, the “decreasing market value of women” as they age, and economics; it is cheaper to live together with someone, pooling resources, than living alone, he insists. Continuing in the CT article, Regnerus appears to idolize marriage as a “formative institution” and elevates it to the status of duty, meanwhile stigmatizing singles (especially women) as if they are forced to settle into their singleness. Regnerus is a real romantic.

The Duggar Family’s long-running reality TV show has garnered them much influence. The Duggars, of “19 Kids and Counting” fame, do not self-identify as a Quiverfull family, but they do maintain similar strict beliefs concerning children, homeschooling, marriage, modesty, patriarchy, and courtship. “Jim Bob and Michelle were married on July 21, 1984, just after Michelle’s high school graduation. She was 17 and he was 19 when they married; neither went to college” 19_Kids_and_Counting.

It would seem that oldest son Josh Duggar and his wife, Anna, were married when they were both 20. Anna says on their webpage, she first saw Josh via the TV show when they were both 13. They met at a homeschooling conference in 2006, when they would have both been 18. After a carefully cultivated courtship, they were married in 2008 and now have 4 children.

Josh was recently found to have cheated on his wife with a prostitute (at least once), engaging in rough, unprotected sex and potentially exposing both his wife and unborn child to venereal disease. Of Josh’s two married sisters, one was married at 20, the other waited until the ripe old age of 24. Both young women became pregnant immediately, none of the Duggars have gone to or have been encouraged to attend college. Although the Duggars’ lifestyle has worked for them financially because of their celebrity status, the average couple who marries early becomes just another statistic.

Child Marriage: A Rose by Any Other Name

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy. Proverbs 31:8-10

Rather than at least remaining neutral on the subject or better yet, speaking up for voiceless girls and young women like the Bible adjures Christians to do, certain teachers, preachers, and celebrities like Swanson, Bruehner, Robertson, the Duggar family, and others, actively encourage early marriage, even child marriage, although most Evangelicals draw the line at age 18-20 (*Disclaimer: I do not know that the Duggars advocate for child marriage, but the others in this list have, as has already been discussed in this article).

“At a Sportsmen’s Ministry talk in 2009, [Phil] Robertson had some advice for a young man. “Make sure that she can cook a meal, you need to eat some meals that she cooks, check that out,” he said. “Make sure she carries her Bible. That’ll save you a lot of trouble down the road. And if she picks your ducks, now, that’s a woman.”

“They got to where they’re getting hard to find,” Robertson remarked. “Mainly because these boys are waiting until they get to be about 20 years old before they marry ’em. Look, you wait until they get to be 20 years old, the only picking that’s going to take place is your pocket.” The Duck Commander company founder added: “You got to marry these girls when they are about 15 or 16, they’ll pick your ducks. You need to check with mom and dad about that of course.” “

And Robertson practices what he preaches. He began dating his wife, Kay, when she was only 14 and he was 18. They waited until Kay was 16 to get married. Duck Dynasty Star: Girls Should Carry a Bible Cook and Marry When They are 15-RawStory

In a radio broadcast defending Phil Robertson’s comments above, former Executive Director of Christian Home Educators of Colorado, and current head of Generations with Vision, Kevin Swanson stated: “Remember that one concern people had over Duck Dynasty, when the guy came out and said the girls, 15 or 16 years of age, she’s able to get married, they got all mad. Because boy, you get a girl married at 15 or 16 years of age, that’s a sin! Dave Bruehner: Well it is because she doesn’t have a whole life of fornication ahead of her anymore. Later on, the men remarked, “I mean, think about what the president of the Girl Scouts would say about this, Dave, if we said, “Hey, these 15 year old girls, 16 year old girls, they may be ready to get married. They don’t have to live these, you know, independent lifestyles.””

The story of Matthew Chapman is famous/infamous depending on your perspective. He is well-known in conservative homeschooling groups for courting a young teen named Maranatha while she was 13 and he 25, eventually marrying her with her father’s permission and approval when she was 15 and Matthew was 27.

It seems that Matthew Chapman is going to be a keynote speaker at Christian Home Educators of Ohio’s annual homeschool convention this summer. This is a major convention…In addition to Matthew serving as keynote speaker, his wife Maranatha is slated as a featured speaker. Matthew runs Kindling Publications, and both Maranatha and Lauren is featured heavily on organization’s website. Matthew Chapman and Why I Included Lauren’s Picture-Love, Joy, Feminism

Attorneys claim Phillips, a close friend to the Duggar family and an associate of actor Kirk Cameron, “methodically groomed” Lourdes Torres since she was 15 years old and led her to believe they would be married. Phillips told the girl this was possible because his wife, Beall Phillips, “was going to die soon.” Lawsuit Reveals Teen was Groomed as Personal Sex Slave in the Duggar Family’s Movement-RawStory

Child marriages heralded by the above-mentioned men, seem genuinely logical in their anachronistic culture which sometimes encompasses such names as Quiverfull, Patriarchy, and Evangelical Homeschool Movement (*there is much overlap here; not all families that adhere to these labels believe all the same things, perhaps especially on the issue of underage marriages). These movements, along with some Fundamental Evangelical Christians and churches, strive to bring back a romanticized 1950s, in some cases 1850s, believing those times to be Christianity’s heyday in America. Interestingly, or perhaps not surprisingly, those eras in history saw higher rates of underage marriages and sexual abuse, wife submission, and patriarchy-centered households -all hallmarks of the above-mentioned movements. It wasn’t until women’s groups moved strongly to shed light on the issues and promote change, that child marriage began to become a thing of the past.

While many might consider child marriages to be a form of pedophilia, medically and legally speaking, pedophilia is limited to sexual attraction to prepubescent children and child molestation is limited to the sexual touching of children 14 and younger. Sexual abuse, then is the term to be used concerning the topic of child marriages.

UNICEF has stated that child marriage “represents perhaps the most prevalent form of sexual abuse and exploitation of girls”.[5] The effects of child sexual abuse can include depression,[6] post-traumatic stress disorder,[7] anxiety,[8] complex post-traumatic stress disorder,[9] propensity to further victimization in adulthood,[10] and physical injury to the child, among other problems.[11]  End Child Marriage PDF-UNICEF, p. 8

The main debate points against pedophilia concern:


  • The lack of true consent on the part of the child
  • The manipulation and power plays on the part of adult authority figures/taking advantage of a child’s innocence, naivete, and inability to say “no”
  • The safety and health of a child which includes the possibility of pregnancy, STDs, and/or physical damage
  • Using a child for the gratification of an adult
While the legal definitions exclude underage, child marriages from being classified as pedophilia or child molestation, there are still strong similarities because of the unique, fundamental culture of the groups that propose it:


  • The young girls in such families are not able to give their own consent, because the consent is settled between the father-patriarch and the bridegroom.
  • There are significant power plays on the part of older adults as they take advantage of such a sheltered girl’s innocence, naivete, and inability to say “no”.
  • The safety and health of the young lady is not taken into consideration, since medicine has shown how dangerous pregnancy can be for teens and their babies, yet in many of these families, contraception is considered a terrible sin against God. As was seen in the Josh Duggar-Ashely Madison case (see link above), these innocent teen girls may still be at risk of STDs as well.
  • Finally, these young marriages are pushed or arranged purely for the gratification of the adults involved and not the benefit of the girl.


  • Young/Early marriages occur between at least one party who is between 18-24 years old. In most cases, the couple are peers in age.
  • Young/Early marriages are often encouraged among traditionally-minded churches and religious groups as a way to reduce sexual sin and single parenthood.
  • Young/Early marriages and child marriages have the highest rates of divorce among married couples. Many times, young couples are uneducated, leading to poverty, which in turn leads to a variety of personal, familial, and social problems.
  • Child marriages are marriages that occur between at least one party who is between 12-17 years old. In many cases, the minor is a female and the bridegroom is in his mid-20s or older.
  • Child marriages are happening in the United States due to the culture of immigrants coming in and religious fundamental cults throughout the states.
  • Child marriages are a form of sexual abuse, no matter how prettily packaged it may seem.

References and Research:

Orthodox Pedophile: I Married My Child Victim So There was No Sexual Abuse

Early Marriage Survives in the US-Chicago Tribune

Child Marriage in the United States and its Association with Mental Health in Women-Pediatrics Journal

Child Marriage and Christian Fundamentalists-Republic of Gilead Blog

On Child Marriage: Kevin Swanson and Dave Bruehner Defend Phil Robertson-Homeschoolers Anonymous

Red Sex, Blue Sex-The New Yorker

Wait for Sex and Marriage? Evangelicals Convicted

Unsatisfied With Pushing Abstinence Alone, Evangelicals Begin Pushing Early Marriages As Well-Jezebel

Teenage Brides and Titus 2 Women of the Homeschool Apostates-Becoming Worldly

Robert Van Handel: A Disturbing Look into the Mind of a Pedophile Priest


  • I find it interesting and enlightening that Josh Duggar stated on that cheating site that he wanted a girl who could speak her mind and wear jeans…something 100% opposite of his wife and is considered taboo among his family for women to do. I think that alone shows how women under patriarchy or legalist christianity are being misled as to what the Bible really says about God’s will for women. The Duggars ascribe to the teachings of Bill Gothard, privately but not publically since their guru is up on charges of sexual molestation.
    p.s. I got married at age 22 and my husband was 25 and we went through all sorts of struggles, mainly due to legalist christianity trying to tell us how to live our lives about what we wanted to do and did not want to do. As a result my husband has many many illnesses and i have had to carry the burden of being a wayward wife because i have independent thoughts of my own and have many decisions apart from him.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy

      I find it interesting and enlightening that Josh Duggar stated on that cheating site that he wanted a girl who could speak her mind and wear jeans…something 100% opposite of his wife and is considered taboo among his family for women to do.

      I find it interesting that his ideal Jezebel Harlot sounds a lot like what my generation would call “the girl next door”. Shows just how out-of-it his Perfect Christian Family Upbringing was.

      (And then there was the OTHER Josh Duggar Scandal — where he felt up and groped his underage sisters. And the hot-and-heavy “Hand Sex” whenever him and Anna held hands on the show during Courtship(TM)…)

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    ◾The young girls in such families are not able to give their own consent, because the consent is settled between the father-patriarch and the bridegroom.

    Sometimes including a Bride Price — bridegroom pays cash up front to get father-patriarch’s consent, to the tune of anywhere between $2000 and $20,000. You pay your money, you get your merchandise.

    ◾Young/Early marriages and child marriages have the highest rates of divorce among married couples. Many times, young couples are uneducated, leading to poverty, which in turn leads to a variety of personal, familial, and social problems.

    Making them even more dependent on Patriarch/Paterfamilias/Daddy.
    Feature, not Bug.

    And don’t forget the 200-Year Plans for the Patriarch’s Dynasty (including estates and house servants). In the words of (Patriarch) Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones:

    • Loura Shares A Story

      “Making them even more dependent on Patriarch/Paterfamilias/Daddy.
      Feature, not Bug.” Yes! Very much so. Do you have any reference points for the Bride Price? I would be interested in looking into that.

      • “Bride Prices” (aka dowries) are still very common in very poor, rural areas of China and India, despite governmental attempts to quash the practice because it is so detrimental to women and the poor (I heard a story on NPR about this some years ago.) Dowries were quite common in the western world up until Victorian times as well, and to some degree, the “Bride Price” lives on in the form of the conventional wisdom/tradition that it is the responsibility of the bride’s father/parents to pay for their daughter’s wedding. Which was one of the main reasons my husband and I said “f*** tradition” and eloped to Las Vegas, taking not a dime from my parents (who didn’t approve of my husband anyhow.)

        Also worth noting: my husband and I were 27 and 28, respectively, with degrees and careers established, when we wed. We are still very happily married 20 years later. We both came from families where early marriage was the norm, between ages 18 and 22, generally. The only underage marriage I know of was a cousin who deliberately knocked up his 16-year-old girlfriend when he was 17 so he could marry her, because he believed that was the only way he could get her out of a really bad home situation. Needless to say, that marriage did not end well…and neither have many of the other early marriages in my family. Poverty, divorce, remarriage (sometimes multiple times) and misery are the norm, not the exception. Those in our families who waited until they were older to wed are happier, period, than those who wed early.

        The only people who seem to benefit from early marriage are divorce lawyers, therapists, and Patriarch types who aren’t happy unless everyone else around them is miserable.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy

        All I can remember is some anecdote on one of the Spiritual Abuse blogs when the subject was Christianese Courtship. Woman commenter said she broke the Courtship engagement Patriarch Daddy had set up with a guy seriously older than her and Daddy had to return the $20,000 the guy had paid him for the arrangement. Apparently took place in THIS country.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy

        Not sure, but there are similarities.
        As I said above, my source was an anecdote in the comment thread of a spiritual abuse blog.

  • I know of some child marriages due to my work in the public school system.

    I had one student who dropped out of school at age 18 when she was very close to graduating. I called her house to see what was going on. She told me that her husband was concerned that she was flirting with boys during school. I hadn’t realized that she was married and asked some follow-up questions. They had married when she was 16 and he was 22 because her parents were being deported and wanted to be sure that she had someone to look after her while she was alone in the US. (My student was a US citizen and had never lived in Mexico.) She wasn’t interested in leaving him until she finished schooling and he wasn’t abusive (although I consider making your wife drop out of school to be abusive). The student was highly motivated to finish school.

    So…I improvised and threw a Hail Mary pass.

    I asked her if he would be willing to come to school so we could all work out a plan together. He was. I swallowed my pride and offered to act as a chaperone….implied that the female student had never even looked at another boy…..mentioned increased earning power for people with HS diplomas and how much more she could make with the CNA she was planning to get. He decided to let her finish school.

    She finished school four months later. I wrote a letter of recommendation for her CNA program. She got through it with flying colors. She filed divorce papers within the year.

    Her story worked out as well as it could – but she was never systematically denied an education like most of the previously homeschooled kids I had in class. If she had been 2 years away from graduating rather than a few months, I doubt it would have worked out.

    • Loura Shares A Story

      Wow, what a story and insight! Thank you so much for being a great advocate for that student. You really went the extra mile!

  • AnnoyedwithConservativeValues

    OMG Would you please tell this girl off for me? (Or set her straight). She thinks that getting married underage is a good idea /SIGHS LOUDLY. Here’s the link to her video:

    • Loura Shares A Story

      Just watched it. I might have said the same thing when I was 19-20 (I was married 2 weeks after I turned 19). I will definitely leave a reply and link to this article. Thanks for sharing!

  • AnnoyedwithConservativeValues

    Thank you Loura! I hope this girl learns something. I really enjoyed your article, there’s no way I want to get married young but I’ve heard young marriage being spoken of as a good thing an annoyingly high amount of times (it almost starts to seem like it wouldn’t be so bad) so it’s great to read your article and be reminded again of why it’s not.

    PS. If I have to hear another person say that two people should get married young to avoid sexual ‘sin’ I’m going to scream!

    • Loura Shares A Story

      Thank you for the kind words, AWCV! “…Two people should get married young to avoid sexual ‘sin’” This was pretty much the reason my husband and I married when we did. So much grief could have been spared us, and continual setbacks from choices we made in our late teens…but it is only one part of a larger, religious cultural mindset.

      I was taught to trust, respect, and obey my elders, but my parents were shocked at the elders who ended up roping me in!

      • Headless Unicorn Guy

        “…Two people should get married young to avoid sexual ‘sin’”

        The formal name for this is a “Marriage of Continence”, i.e. a marriage entered into purely to legalize the sex. It generally does not end well.

      • Loura Shares A Story

        Thanks, HUG, this is the first I’ve heard of that term. Back to Google! 🙂

  • Pingback: Get Them Married: Selling Virgin Daughters | Homeschoolers Anonymous

  • nathanlarson3141

    What are the statistics on divorce rates when the bride is young (e.g. 18-22) and the husband is significantly older (e.g. 30-45) and financially stable?

    • Loura Shares A Story

      That’s a good question, but I do not have the answer. One reason some leaders push for such matches, is to prevent divorce. When a young woman has no education and no career experience, it is very hard for her to make an independent stand, particularly if her family will not even emotionally support her.

      If the woman is pregnant or has children at a young age and has no job prospects or experience being independent, those circumstances often force such women into staying in bad or unhealthy situations. Couple that with leaders and parents who have stricter views on divorce than God himself, who spiritually and emotionally manipulate these women into staying married.

  • There are so many similarities between Christian patriarchy and Islam that it’s shocking, and child marriage is one of the most disturbing similarities of all.

    • Loura Shares A Story

      I have begun to notice strong similarities like these between very conservative groups, also. Thank you for reading and responding!

  • I believe it will not be long and they will be endorsing polygamy too.

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